Small Things

Jo Aylward, East Kent


A few evenings ago my daughters and I were preparing to set off for a dog walk when Florence appeared at the bottom of the stairs on the phone to her boyfriend Mickél. I assumed she would not come with us but instead she announced gaily that Mickél was going to come with us. So that's what we did and it worked surprisingly well. 


Mickél has always lived in the city, in Paris and London, and has spent very little time in the countryside. Most of the things we showed him (it was a Skype call) we completely take for granted as part of our daily lives: hedgerow, blossom, two beautiful old oaks,  the changing sky as it move towards sunset. We stopped to show him the oversized and rather ugly new village hall that replaced the charming grade II listed one that we as a family were very fond of. I described the story of how our dog Biddy disgraced herself and me by running into a yoga class after a particularly wet walk one evening. I watched helpless as as she shed sticky mud down the corridor and then proceeded to greet every member of the class before running back triumphant with the furious teacher in pursuit. We both walked home in disgrace that night. 

The bats in the churchyard were too erratic in their movements for us to be able to show Mickél, but he was just able in the fading light to see the rows of ancient yew that line the entrance to the church. We were also fortunate enough to be in the village as the NHS clap happened and it felt wonderful to join in with this act of solidarity and thanks.  Mickél could hear it in his own street in Stratford as well as in our small Kentish village. 


I expect Florence and Mickél will go for another walk during their separation. FaceTime and skype will be bringing so many families and friends together but there must also be a great deal of loneliness at this time despite the very reassuring community spirit that seems to be arising in many communities. 


Home Thoughts

Hilary Q, North Norfolk

I have set a goal:  Reread three great series of books before I die!  I have just emerged, delighted by total immersion, from Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.  Such glorious characters and such intriguing titles: A Question Of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, The Acceptance World, At Lady Molly’s, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, The Kindly Ones, The Valley Of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, The Military Philosophers, Books Do Furnish A Room, Temporary Kings, Hearing Secret Harmonies, accompanied by Hilary Spurling’s handy handbook, Invitation to the Dance, and followed by her superb biography of Anthony Powell, Dancing to the Music of Time ... and then, for the first time, Mikhail Lermontov’s, A Hero Of Our Time ... the book Anthony Powell chose to take to his Desert Island.  Now, do I brace myself for Marcel Proust, last read twenty years ago because I thought I should, OR dive again into Patrick O’Brian because I adore Jack Aubrey’s brio?  As I make up my mind I am reading, for the first time, One Thing Leading to Another by the effortlessly fresh and alert Sylvia Townsend Warner ... the answer may be in the title!  Meanwhile, this morning I have kept bursting into song with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens ...


We got this! This could be cool!

t, Rural Norfolk


Yesterday I finally managed to get the teen outside to help in the garden for a good few hours. We have learned that our ways of working are poles apart, so I make sure he has his own projects. He likes to plan and construct and can be quite rigid in his approach. I just do the (random and chaotic) donkey work. Yesterday I got frustrated with trying to work out what was supposed to stay or go, so I decided to dig up everything in my path. I really have no clue what is plant and what is pernicious weed, I just know that the weeds have been winning. I’ve learned that bulbs are forgiving so I’ll plonk those in again when I’m done, that most big things respond kindly to a hard cut in the autumn, and that roses positively welcome being chopped almost to the ground at almost any time of year. Meanwhile the teen’s choices were to sand down furniture for painting, or to construct a bug motel. I wasn’t surprised by his choice, and I’m silly excited to see his construction taking shape from the piles of materials I’ve been hoarding. I've just stopped working for a late lunch... and to wake him to come and finish the job!! 


It has been noisy here. The productive noise of the English undertaking a collective Home and Garden DIY spree. Finally all those decades of TV makeover shows might serve some purpose! Tomorrow is a weekday, and I'm looking forward to heading to my shed with my audiobook and a clear conscience. A weekend of hard labour, and without webby tech stuff looming over me anymore, means that I can return to daily painting. I feel lucky that for now at least I can focus on that. It can't last, but we're also working hard at living in the moment here, one day at a time.


From the South Downs

Stephanie, Midhurst

I read in the paper that it’s a good idea to make weekend days different to weekdays during this lockdown. Therefore, I planned a not-so-much writing, more gardening and reading couple of days. As the weather is so beautiful, it wasn’t difficult to concentrate on the garden work, which seems to be the best therapy for anxiety and missing the children. I pricked out many cosmos Purity seedlings, sowed some dark red cosmos seed that I gathered myself last year, sowed some lettuce, summer savoury and rocket seed. Usually I don’t have much luck with seed as we suddenly go away and leave it all to die, but this year, the advantage will be sticking at all the stages and seeing a result. Some years I’ve bought nematodes to reduce slug damage, but I’ve discovered that they also reduce the buff-tailed bumble bee, probably the most prolific bee in our garden. So, it will be back to wool-pellets and slug picking, which don’t contribute to polluting the water supply like slug pellets.  


My daughter ordered me a poetry book, Flêche by Mary Jean Chan, as a late mother’s day present. Stephen wrapped it and hid it from me. She phoned me and we had a gift opening via WhatsApp video, which was a lovely surprise.  


Yesterday afternoon, we took our walk in the back fields and down to the river. Milkmaids were everywhere in the marshy grass. A creaking heron took off from the riverbed and flew across the moon hovering low in the bluest of skies. A haiku moment, for sure. We live about ninety minutes from Gatwick and the sky is usually criss-crossed by contrails. The blueness of the sky is one of the unexpected pleasures of the lockdown.  


Two swans were nesting on the island in the pond. I feel like I’m nesting with all my gardening plans – the only trouble is the children can’t come back to the nest. But the thought of them seeing the garden in the summer keeps me working on it. Last summer, I collected the seeds of white love-in-the-mist. The originals came from a bunch Vicki Feaver bought for my daughter on her thirteenth birthday. I’ve been resowing them for the last fifteen years, and they always make a distinctive clump. I’ll sow them this afternoon. Margaret sent me a gift of seeds, and when they’ve flowered, I’ll save some so that every year afterwards I’ll think of them as Margaret’s zinnias, nasturtiums and so on. I’m still resowing marigold seeds that my mother originally collected in Tuscany in 1992. The sentimental history of my plants offers a comforting sense of continuity right now.


Hello From the Hudson Valley 

Sue, Lower Hudson Valley, New York

Today I entered the Charlotte Moss @charmossny collage contest to benefit Feeding America. 

Here is my entry:


Merrywood Dispatches

Lily Wonham, Bristol


Here in Merrywood, my housemate and I have survived our first week on furlough. My routine is simple: in the mornings, I alternate between doing yoga or going for a run along the harbourside. I then spend a few hours studying for the various online courses I am enrolled in. Later, in the afternoons, there are other projects or activities - such as baking (pitta breads, granola, and lemon cake so far), reading, jigsaw puzzling, video calls with loved ones or crafts. Knowing what day of the week it is at any given time may seem arbitrary, but it is a shared fiction, one which provides meaning to the passage of time. We gather calendars and clocks around us.


Yesterday I ventured to Asda for the weekly grocery shop. On the warmest Saturday of the year, the streets are deserted. The sky is empty too: empty of clouds, and empty of aeroplane lines. I am early enough at the supermarket to avoid the queues, and the doorman activates his clicker on my way in - he is counting to ensure only 150 people are inside at any one time. Gaffa tape arrows on the floor indicate the direction we are supposed to be walking around, although most people seem to be ignoring them. Navigating the aisles we are magnets, repelled as soon as we reach the edges of someone's two-metre bubble of space. We do our best, although occasionally clumping forms. If that happens, an Asda staff member will bark social distancing please! A few people wear gloves, or face masks. There are no children in here today.  At the self-service checkouts, only every other till is open. 'Stay safe' has become the new 'have a good day' from shop assistants. We wish each other safety before happiness. How quickly we can come to accept this as our new normal. How strange it all is.


Arriving back home is a relief. Here is a place where we do not have to justify our presence as either grocery shopping or doing exercise. Here, we can ignore the news in a way we can't outside: there is nobody shouting at us to stay distanced, no signs or tape on our kitchen floor reminding us to stay two meters apart. Here we can simply curl up and enjoy a patch of sun - and feel free to expand and take up as much space as want to.


Dog Days

Clarissa Szirtes, Wymondham

Promise of ‘dog days’   


The weather is warming up. We have been warned, no, we have been instructed to stay at home! Bad news for leggy dogs. A swarm of people (with their dogs) descended on Brockley Park in London, we are told it is 3000 strong. We used to live near this park many moons ago. It is large but I doubt 3000 people could manage to keep 2 metres away from each other at all times.   


I can imagine that if you are cooped up in a small flat in a high rise with several kids then the temptation to go out and play ball would be extremely hard to resist. I sense Wiggins agrees with me on this as he is still cocking his head slightly in that knowing sort of way. When I was younger I found it very hard to be inside all day. I would be heading out either for a brisk walk or on my bike usually around 4 pm after working in my studio.  


The beginning of a poem called ‘Praise Song for Ballybeg Rosie’ by Christopher Reid sums up how hard it is for hounds to be indoors all day. I am no hound but I would have liked to run like one. The first 5 lines run like this:  


‘Oh great Greyhound, 

You’re no Stayhound 

Or Delayhound: 

Up flies the starting - gate 

And you’re an Offandawayhound!   


I’m offandawynow !


From Twickenham

David Horovitch, Twickenham

Larkin says- “Funny how hard it is to be alone.” Well, yes and no.


I have a pedometer app on my phone which sets me different goals every month. This month I'm to do 10,000 steps a day 21 times. It's become overwhelmingly important to me that I achieve this goal. Is this something that idleness and  isolation do to you, create this absurd sense of disproportion about goals that are of no  possible interest to anyone but oneself ? Or am I just weird? I'll learn three Shakespeare sonnets a week, write in this journal every two or three days, make sure I cook properly , prune the olive tree, share jokes with my friends, keep cheerful and emerge from this viral thicket a better, if not leaner person.  


A very nice friend of mine texted that he was keeping himself healthy  'merely to prevent being a concern for others and a burden on the NHS.'  Well, yes and no. 'Too decent .' Larkin again.' And again -'Oh hell.' 


All the time I'm thinking - “Well yes and no.'”  There's the darkness and the light, the selfishness and the altruism, the optimism  and the cynicism, the delight in the nuances of solitude and the sudden plunges into alienation.

' The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together.'

Shakespeare tossed that little aperçu to The First Lord in 'All's Well that Ends Well.' I suppose I'm talking in a rather fancy way about mood swings. Trying to be honest. So beautiful today in the sunshine on my little courtyard and I did three quarters of  The Observer crossword in fits and spurts, having struggled over the first answer  -  9 down, HENRI MATISSE for 20 minutes. Oh the almost despair of those 20 minutes and the extraordinary delight when I'd got started. Mood swings and roundabouts. To be alone is to feel things very sharply which is good and ill together. a mingled yin and yarn.


On my walk by the river this morning - I did 8,576 steps - I met a friend, Anna, on the towpath. We kept 2 metres between us of course. I couldn't see her face because the sun was in my eyes so she adjusted downriver a foot or two and it was only then that I was certain who it was. 'Oh I wish I could give you a hug, ' she said, which was a  lovely thing  -  then I realised this was the first face-to face conversation I'd had with anyone for 2 weeks. Another ten to go.


Rural Norfolk

Chris Gates, Norfolk UK


Another lovely day, clear blue sky and warm enough already at 8.30 that the bees are active on flowers and sucking the moisture from a dripping waterbutt - I let it drip onto a brick deliberately for them to drink from. 
This is crunch time for the ‘socialising policy’. There have been warnings over the past 24 hours from every source that if crowds descend on beaches and parks today, that Matt Hancock will snatch away the ‘exercise privilege’ and confine us all to our houses - “no walking at all, you just can’t be trusted!”  I can’t get out of my head the Terry Jones scene in Life of Brian. “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” Indeed some people having a bbq on a beach were arrested and will be brought to Court tomorrow, and the Scotch CMO, Dr Calderwood gets a police warning following her rather brazen family outing to her holiday home 50 miles away. It turns out she did the same last weekend too, but is considered so useful she’s kept her job. So far.

It’s been flagged up that the Queen, in her address tonight, will be encouraging us to to show “self-discipline and resolve” as we enter the third week of the new regime. By the time that goes out (8pm) the news will be back at Westminster just how much the public has taken notice, and whether we’ll wake tomorrow to the news we can’t now leave our houses for exercise.
Grimly, UK stats show deaths up 621 to 4934. A little less of an increase than yesterday, but no-one dares hope it’s a trend.

We get our first bags of shopping collected for us by Chloe, with the promise that she’ll carry on doing this for the foreseeable. We’re still uneasy that she’s risking taking a bullet for us, but her disarming logic is she’ll be going anyway, so it’s not much additional risk. Not much. Extraordinary generosity.

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