The journey to the moon and other stories

August 1, 2012

As I was growing up, Mum told me her stories and as most children, I tried not to take them in – but of course something sunk in – except that the names did not always register. Mum worked for Chiver’s (her first job), then for Webster’s, a small engineering firm during the war and then she worked for Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) after the war. It was when Mum was working for STC that she met Dad, and eventually they married. The office manager had a secretary, a grey haired spinster, her name escapes me, who held the balance of power in an office where the majority were young men returning from the war and determined to find a wife. When Mum and Dad got married, she put in a word so Mum could keep her job. And the work – it was drawing up plans for radio communication stations – there were stories of building radio stations in India and the problems associated with this. Much to the secretary’s disappointment Mum left the job a few months later to have her first child.

And then the story changed. I have often wondered if my mother had watched the movie Monster Inc. For all of a sudden, the office secretary transmuted into Roz, the slug-like clerk. And like Roz, the office secretary had a secret mission. For Mum, the secret mission was “The journey to the moon” and Mum was working on this project. For someone who used to have an open distain for all things Science Fiction, it was quite something – the later stages of the story involved Mum training to be an astronaut – but she got pregnant and that was the end of her part in the project.

My family has learnt that dementia is a cruel and terrible disease that comes in different formats, that dementia steals the person you once knew, that Mum now has a different past, where she married as a teenager, got involved with a bank manager who stole her money, went to university, travelled the world, came from a family that mixed with royalty, and worked for august institutions such as the Royal Horticultural Society and the National Trust. It is like dealing with someone living in the world of Ashes to Ashes. The stories are coherent and facts are hammered into shape. Occasionally, as in Ashes to Ashes, real life breaks in – but is soon excluded.

We breathed a sigh of relief when Mum was no longer going to the moon, but this is a mixed blessing for now the stories are becoming thinner as the mind deteriorates. These stories , as fantastic and irritating as they are provide a fascinating glimpse of the woman that we really did not know. Today, Mum thinks of herself as a designer. A dress, and she will say she designed the fabric. A room – and she designed the building. I took her to a pub for lunch, and conspiratorially she says “I don’t supposed you will believe me when I say that I worked with two men to design this place – it was a nasty dirty place when we came here”. Some of claims of ownership and design have, I am sure, left here at odds with the other residents at the home who are a little more with it – old people, like small children can be very cruel.

The woman that I remember as Mum was competent. She was a brilliant mother and wonderful wife. When dad became a councillor, Mum was appointed a school governor a role which she kept well into her seventies. She belonged to the Townswomen’s Guild. As Dad’s work as a councillor grew in importance, Mum would often worry about clothes – what should she wear, could she be seen in the same outfit twice? These were questions that I could not comprehend – I never inhabited that world of status and appearance and convention.

Until she left school, she was an aspiring athlete. Wherever Mum was, she was popular. There had been an opportunity to go to art college, but my grandparents were living on my grandfather’s small pension, so Mum left school and started work in an office. Somewhere in these years, as the War loomed, the aspiring art and design student and athlete was replaced by Culture. Mum went to concerts with her friends, her love and patronage of classical music grew, she supported a theatre, working in backstage roles. Weekends were often spent walking in the countryside and she still swam – for fun. There were stories of swimming naked in the ladies pool at Hampstead Heath, often with illustrious personages such as Margaret Rutherford.

In all these years, we have missed the other woman that was Mum, the woman that she could have been. The creativity that was kept under control so she could fulfil the role of wife and mother, is now breaking free. The stories of “I designed this…” or even “I worked on the journey to the moon..” are the last cry of a creative, imaginative soul before the ravages of dementia claims its prize. A creative soul that we were unaware that it existed.

Tags: creativity, dementia, growing up, loss, mother, mum, my life

How do we treat the elderly?

July 26, 2012

I was listening to the Shadow of the Wind on my way to work this morning – the story had got to the point where Fermin and Daniel smuggle themselves into the Hospice of Santa Lucia run by an order of nuns. The aim was to talk to Jacinta, Penelope’s former nurse and guardian. The place is a hell hole – as Daniel describes “We entered a wide vault.. The darkness obscured what at first seemed like a collection of wax figures, sitting or abandoned in corners, with dead, glassy eyes that shone like tin coins in the candlelight.. Then I realized that they were moving slowly, even stealthily. It was impossible to tell their age or gender. The rags covering them were the colour of ash”. This was the last home of the old and destitute in Barcelona in the 1950′s. As Daniel says, proof of the moral bankruptcy of the universe. Daniel engages with an old man who seems a little saner and more coherent than the others, comments bitterly “My family were the ones who stuck me in this hole…” Homes for the elderly are something that touches a raw nerve for me.

In Twenties Girl, Lara pieces together the last years in the life of her Great Aunt Sadie spent in a care home. Thankfully much better than the home in Barcelona. There is a wonderful scene where Lara takes some CDs of dance music from the twenties and thirties for the residents of her late aunt’s home. The music is played to these old people, many scarcely able to move, collapsing into their aged bodies. And out of this Lara sees beyond all this, the grubby reality, for she sees the spirits of these elderly people leave the Zimmer frames and decrepit bodies behind as they dance. For a while, these people were once again young and alive. Sadie was dumped in this home when she had a stroke and was unable to look after herself, forgotten by her family. Even so, the conditions of the home are light-years away from the experience of Daniel and Fermin.

A few months ago, we had to place my aged mother in a home as we were unable to look after her. This was an incredibly difficult decision. The home we chose is, like the hospice in Barcelona, run by Spanish nuns. There are not many nuns running the home, at times you feel that there are more nuns as residents than as staff. The principle is that the residents of the home are looked after as the sisters would like their parents to be looked after. There are so many horror stories about the care of the elderly, the Hospice of Saint Lucia is never far away even in this day and age. Mum’s home, St Augustine’s, displays not the moral bankruptcy of the universe, but the goodness that is obtainable even in this life.


  •     Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella
  •     The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Updated: July 26, 2012 at 11:56 pm

Tags: Care for the Elderly, care homes, elderly, mother, old people, st augustines addlestone

Not for sale in your country..

July 24, 2012

So often, it seems I find a book that I wish to load onto my Sony Reader (in ePub format). And then I find, as I about to part with my hard-earned money, this book cannot be sold in the UK. The latest book was Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jen Vanier’s work, he is inspirational. Jean Vanier has spent his life working with people who have learning difficulties and has allowed his experiences to shape his spirituality and philosophy of life.

I wanted to read and reread some of his work – especially Becoming Human – and that is where I ran into problems. I found that I could buy the eBook from the Sony US readerstore for $10.95. But because I live in the UK, Sony would not sell me a copy. However Sony UK do not sell the book – the picture here shows what happened when I went to Books on Board.

I am at a loss to understand this – after all I will pay for the book, the author and the publisher will get my money. I could buy a hard copy and scan the whole book so I could read a pdf version on my eReader.

I had similar problems getting hold of Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth which was very puzzling for I had originally listened to the book as an audiobook. Much to my amazement, I found that I could buy the eBook in Germany or the Netherlands, but not in the UK. To get hold of this I had to pretend to be German. But why should I have to undergo such subterfuge? I do not want to have to steal, but the way the electronic book market is structured, good, honest, lawabiding citizens are being forced into piracy and deception. Is it not time the publishing industry got its act together?

The Thread by Victoria Hislop

July 19, 2012

Previously I had read Victoria Hislop’s book, The Island. Like The Island, this book spans several decades. Both books tell the lives and history to a listener, a young person from the modern day Greek Diaspora who has returned to Greece. Both books are riveting reading.

The Thread is the story of turbulent twentieth century Greece, centred on Thessaloniki and is told in the lives of several women, especially Katerina who by the time the book opens, is an elderly lady. It is a story of population movements, ethnic cleansing, famine, war, corruption, dictatorships and the lives of women in a very conservative society. It is also the slow burning love story of the relationship between Dimitri Komninos born in Thessaloniki in 1917 and Katerina Sarafoglous, a relationship that encompasses some of the most traumatic events in Greece of the 20th century.

  • Olga Komninos – a trophy wife of a very rich business man who has sacrificed his humanity for wealth creation. Olga’s lot is not always a happy one.
  • Eugenia – a refugee from Smyrna who adopts Katerina when Katerina is separated from her mother during the Greek evacuation of Smyrna in 1922. Eugenia is able to support herself, her twin daughters and Katerina by rug making.
  • Rosa Moreno – a talented seamstress working for the family business. Her family are shipped out of Thessaloniki with most of the Jewish population
  • Katerina – this is Katerina’s story, Katerina is a talented needlewoman and survives some of the most testing times in Greece because of this skill.

The terrible legacy of 20th century Greece emerges, a legacy that Greece has bought with it into the 21st century, and that is the legacy of greed and corruption. Katerina is tricked into marrying the repulsive Gregorias when she is led to believe that Dimitri, her true love, is dead. Gregorias has made his money from collaborating with the Nazi occupiers, his worst crime is to conspire to seize the Moreno factory after the family is deported to Poland. The other legacy is political fragmentation: the left and right are separated on the extremes and nothing can bring them together. And then one wonders, is the Greek legacy actually something that has been bequeathed to them by the Ottoman Empire? This legacy of corruption and greed, the military dictatorships and the failed state. If so, is this not also the legacy of other countries that have emerged from its shadow – Syria, Iraq, Albania, Serbia, Egypt, Libya, the Arab states, Morocco, Algeria. Maybe what we see in the Arab Spring is in fact the child of a collapsing and degenerate Ottoman Empire. The modern, democratic state asks that its citizens work together for the common good, the Ottoman Empire was a empire where its citizens were obliged to extract as much as they could for themselves for the State was not there for them.

Surprising facts:

  • Tobacco is grown in Greece
  • Greece (or Hellas) did not exist before the 1821 Revolution. Before then, what we know as Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire.
  • Greece has a silk industry
  • Women did not get the vote in Greece until 1952

Pretty Nostalgic at the Hampton Court Flower Show 2012

July 2012

On Friday I went to the Hampton Court Flower show with my friend Monica. It was one of those summer days that we seem to have seen so much of this year, it rained nearly all day. Now traipsing around a garden show in squelchy shoes is not really my idea of fun and we very nearly called it a day. But a quick trip to a local cafe seemed to have changed the weather. But by then I discovered that my car keys were not in my bag. I may be scatterbrained, but I do look after my keys. We reported them lost – everyone was very helpful but no keys. Lots of suggestions that I had left my keys in the car, which I discounted – the car was locked. I did find my keys – they had been locked in the car – my excuse is that it was pouring with rain when I returned to the car with my haul of plants (an agapanthus called Margaret, a helitrope (smells of cherry pie), a pear tree (small), and a lavender bush for lavender bags. My patio now smells of cherry pie even in the rain.

In the end I phoned my long suffering spouse, who agreed to drop my keys off at Hampton Court Railway Station – just up the road from home. Now reunited with my keys, Monica and I headed back to the show for a well deserved cup of tea and as it was not raining to visit some of the stalls and gardens that we had missed due the pouring rain. One of the gardens was this one – a fantasy community garden where all the materials (or most of the materials used) are second-hand. Quite a revelation in this materialistic age. And I bought the book – and got free copy of the magazine thrown in. I did have some strange idea that I would justify buying the book because it would be a present for someone but the way it is going I am keeping it for myself!

The book is a scrapbook of pictures and ideas – often harking back to a bygone age (hence the title Pretty Nostalgic). The philosophy is reuse (and upcycle!), buy British, make it yourself, grow it yourself… Maybe I am not that eccentric after all. The Pretty Nostalgic website:

Pretty Nostalgic Home by Nicole Burnett and Sarah Legg, published by Pretty Nostalgic Ltd, Wales.

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger

Audio book – February 2007.

One evening I was driving home from work listening to the book. The traffic was heavy. Henry was dying. In the end I had to pull off the road to listen and weep. Driving and high emotion do not go together I decided.

It is a love story based on a fantastic premise – Henry suffers from Chrono-Displacement disorder, a disorder that causes him to jump in time – one moment he is there and the next he is somewhere else. However, the clothes do not travel. The story is a love story between Clare and Henry, Clare is six and Henry is 41 when they first meet. But the book begins when Clare is 20 and Henry 28..

This is a book which examines the nature of love and touches on the question of free will and pre-destination. And what it is like to live with someone with a disability – in this case, Henry’s inability to stay in any one time zone. Did Clare ever have a choice about her relationship with Henry? She grew up knowing that one day Henry would be hers. But do any of us really have a choice?

Audrey Niffenegger is an artist – and so is Clare. She painstakingly describes Clare’s approach to creating works of art, and it was no surprise to read that Niffenegger used the same techniques to construct the book. The book opened the doors to another world, the world of the practising artist.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes. Would I recommend it to anyone else to read? Yes – but not everyone would enjoy the way the story is constructed and it is not for those who like realism. And the film? Not a patch on the book.

The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré

I have just finished listening to this. One of the things I enjoy about reading John le Carré is the wonderful way he describes people. The inclination of a head, the half closed eyes, the back held stiff, pudgy fingers pressed into the eyes. George Smiley is a masterpiece. There is a flatness in the description that draws you in, an economy of emotion that creates its own tension. Ned’s interrogation of Cyril Fruin for instance. Ned sits on a chair and smokes a pipe and all the while stringing Fruin along – keeping the momentum going. And Cyril talks. For spying is a game that involves people, individuals with needs and wants and hopes. Ned’s life walks alongside those he is called on to manage or to extract information. And in the end Ned retires to the seaside with Mabel, his long-suffering wife.

It is the final story when Ned is asked to confront Bradshaw, a boorish, nasty piece of work who will sell anything to anyone, guns, drugs, you name it for as he says, h=if he does not, someone else will. All his working life, Ned has been a spy, and the rules of engagement are clearly defined. The enemy is obvious and good and evil are minor players. But here in the last story, two days before Ned retires is the bridge between the cold war Smiley stories and the new geo-political stories, such as the Constant Gardner. Ned reflects on the nature of Bradshaw and the nature of evil. Here is the new enemy to be challenged, the power of the multi-national, of men seeking to dominate the world , men who lust for power without the responsibility of managing a state. The stage is set for the next act as Ned leaves and evil stalks the world. The cold war is over, but new challenges face all of us.

Published: July 3, 2012