this too
Monday, February 28, 2005
  Which picture?

In the butterfly house ( yesterday, my friend hissed ‘take a photo of that!’, pointing out the iridescent blue beauty which had charmingly settled on the notice describing ‘the life cycle of the butterfly’ – a living illustration. So I did. But, with my cheap digital camera and lacking depth of field, the impact is rather lost; the ‘real’ butterfly looks like it was just part of the picture. It is now, anyway.

Hmm. Fragmenting, fusing, re-fragmenting levels of reality. Fragmented is how I feel today anyway, and I’ve just seen a fabulous picture of how it feels – thank you Natalie (h
ttp:// - 27.2.05) .

Overtired, overloaded, scattered. Just back from the first conference of the UK CoHousing Network ( The movement is nascent here, with only two communities built and occupied, and substantial barriers in the British planning, legal and financial systems. Planning groups all around the country. Considerable enthusiasm. Considerable knowledge to pool. Almost overwhelming difficulties. Do I really want to devote a substantial part of my time to this for the next few years, with no guarantee of a result? Not really. But I do want to live with more sense of community, mutual support and sharing of resources. A stunning proportion of British women over 55 live alone – I read that on present trends it will soon pass 40% . Where is this going? How can we not challenge it?

Fragmented, too, because the conference was in Lancaster – a lovely town in the North West where I spent many happy holidays with a friend more than 25 years ago when we were students. I hadn’t been back since, and wondered around feeling caught somewhere between this place now and that place then. Leslee has been musing on the lovely Spanish word desubicado(a), which captures it perfectly – displaced, misplaced, in every sense one might mean it… ( Very vague memories, sparked by the shadow of a building, the line of a crossroads, the colour of the local stone, the light. Strange trying to pull out memories of a place I used to visit without any of the frames of reference I now apply: architectural styles, traffic management, local politics, social and employment issues, would I like to live here?… 25 years ago I lived less widely, less subtly, but perhaps more firmly in the moment: what’s the weather? What shall we do now? is my friend in a good mood?

Layers of memory and perception. Which picture is the butterfly in? I don’t know. But it was certainly in that moment - and watching it, filling our senses with its trembling sparkle, freed from the weekend’s information overload, so were we.
Friday, February 25, 2005

Late for work because a group of tourists waylaid me in the snow and asked for directions. This happens constantly. I’m a middle-aged woman with a round pink face and mild blue eyes. I have ‘harmless’ written on my forehead. I can see them scan the crowd and decide I’m the least intimidating person in sight. It irks me, to tell the truth. What’s more, their instinct is unsound. I have no sense of direction and plot my paths around central London, even after 25 years, by trial and error. I probably sent them the wrong way.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
  Champagne in beer bottles

No more snow, but damp and witheringly cold. Still daydreaming on and off of Portugal, golden heat and the shade of the ancient cork forests (see 21 Feb). Makes you feel old when something was there, intact and beautiful and useful, and now it’s under threat, as these forests and the cork production industry are.

We all know the arguments for synthetic bottle-stoppers. Can’t risk our wine being ‘corked’, can we? Standardisation is all – just like the fruit in our supermarkets.

Nastiest innovation yet: I read the other day that champagne producers Moët Hennessey have just announced the launch of sparkling wine in bottles sealed with a metal beer-bottle cap. Ugh!

So many livelihoods depend on cork. Its production and the associated industries are 50 per cent of the economy in some parts of Portugal. And not just people. The stripping of bark from cork oaks is one of the most environmentally-friendly harvesting processes in the world, with not a single tree cut down, and the cork forests support a precious ecosystem:

Think, when you buy your next bottle.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
  Snowy mind

8 am: there’s a sprinkling of snow, already freezing over, and I’m catapulted forward into frail old age, taking tiny steps and afraid of falling. Tears of frustration. Ridiculous. It feels like so much of life: slow, effortful, frightened progress, while others seem to stride forward.

9 am: snow melted, along with self-pitying mood.

9.30 am: snow falling again.
Tuesday, February 22, 2005

While I'm agonising over what on earth I'm doing here and whether I have anything to say, others have no such luxury.

Details, from Reporters without Borders:

and here's what you can do to protest:

Monday, February 21, 2005

Le Monde had some interesting coverage of yesterday’s general election in Portugal, in which the centre-left Socialist Party took power from the centre-right Social Democrats. A reporter had been to the Alentejo, the flat southern agricultural province, land of cork oaks and rice fields, of vast rural estates, high unemployment and a massive exit of youth to the cities – and heartland of the peaceful revolution of 1974 which ousted the dictatorship and expropriated many of those feudal spreads.

Whilst Portugal has found its balance, veering back towards centrist politics and the European Union, and long since handed back the expropriated farms, it seems that many a town and village of the Alentejo still turns out a majority vote for the Communist-Green alliance and looks back with pride and nostalgia to 1974 as the end of a third world existence in Europe.

We went to the Alentejo in the summer of 1978, just out of college and idealistic supporters of the ‘Carnation Revolution’. We had the best and worst of times. My boyfriend had studied Portuguese at university and spoke it fluently. I did not, but understood a little since I spoke Spanish. H talked to a few people in the bars of the small town where we pitched up and we were soon trundling down rough tracks to a large farm, a cooperative run by its workers, the manor house lying empty while all preferred to stay in their closely grouped toy cottages – pleasant enough, at least in summer, but no electricity, water or sanitation.

This community of 40 or so people took us to its heart. We slept on a straw-stuffed mattress in the barn and a different family fed us every day. In fact they overfed us, in competition for the most lavish hospitality and, exhausted by field work and culture shock, we took it all in – food and much more.

Up every morning at 4, we climbed into the back of a large truck with about 20 women of all ages to ride to the fields of rice, chickpeas (garbanzos) and tomatoes, where we planted, weeded, gathered by hand until a late lunch – a big shared picnic of sardines and potatoes under the trees – before heading back.

Backbreaking work, bending over for hours and hours to hard ground or rice fields ankle-deep in water. Women’s work, while the men conducted business, drove tractors and - it must be said - swaggered a bit. Cooperation did not mean equality. One woman only, the elected manager’s wife, served on the farm's management committee. Shocking to learn that none of the women, not even the bright, confident girls my own age, could read or write.

For work, I was kitted out like the others, in layers – a short skirt over fitted cotton leggings, a long-sleeved shirt, a small trilby hat secured with elastic under the chin over a headscarf. H worked with the women too, since he couldn’t drive a tractor, but was allowed to come as he was.

Work was the only thing H and I did together. On the first day, a group of young men spirited him away on the back of motorbike and returned him with a manly haircut and a shocked expression (he’d had shoulder-length waves). As soon as work was over they took him off drinking, while I was inducted into milking goats (a pleasure) and washing our clothes in the communal wash house (not quite such a pleasure). Sucked utterly into the strongly shared assumptions of a cohesive community, neither of us demurred. We bathed in cheerful friendship and acceptance, grew brown, healthy and blistered. I learned to speak a lot of Portuguese. And alone at last at night in the barn, we exchanged hard looks by torchlight... each drawn back so easily into the separate tribe of our own sex.

Memories, as I read that French article, of dawn over a golden landscape, the feel of prickly chickpea plants in dusty soil and smooth rice shoots in cool soggy mud. Memories, too, of how afterwards, in Lisbon and most of the way home, H and I fought.
Saturday, February 19, 2005
  A passionate reader
Outside the Dulwich Village Bookshop this morning. She was 4 or 5, with long white-blond hair and a bright pink puffy jacket. Her face was bright pink and puffy too. She howled – no other word for it. Then she yelled: I want it! Now! She waved her arms, stamped first one foot and then the other and then, wonderfully, both feet at once, just catching her balance in time not to land on her bottom. Her mother, a slight young women, raised her eyebrows. Oh sweetie, she murmured wryly. She stroked the blond hair and very gently cupped the back of the little girl’s head in the palm of her hand.
Friday, February 18, 2005
  Displacement activity?

Hunting foxes with hounds becomes illegal in England and Wales today. Good. I take the stereotypical urban liberal view (but lots of country people also oppose fox-hunting) that it's nasty and aggressive and distressingly redolent of lingering feudal rural social structures.

But is everything else going so well that the long struggle to secure this legislation is really the best use of government resources, the most worthy subject for passionate public debate?

I think it’s displacement activity
Thursday, February 17, 2005

This week the pharmacist from whom I’ve long been picking up my repeat prescriptions for migraine medication suddenly, unprecedentedly, called me by my first name. I was affronted. Now, I’ve no time at all for formality and don’t equate it with respect. I’ve never, ever asked anyone to call me anything but Jean. I’m with Nelson Mandela, who came out of prison and scorned smart suits in favour of those bright, wild shirts. Life’s too short to stand on ceremony. But apparently I don’t want to be on familiar terms with the man who gives me drugs, who stands between me and pain. I wonder why.

The pharmacy is a beacon in a mass of urban symptoms. Despite rampant gentrification, my bit of South London has yet to attain - or perhaps I should say yet to recover - an ambiance of overall glossiness. Once a gracious area of Victorian red-brick suburbia, it's long been a disjointed place where commerce ranges from the shiny, transient emporium of the useless to the shabby, dispiriting excuse for a food or hardware store. But here is something else. A big, light, double shop-front, it was recently refurbished so a ring of comfy seats encircles the central pillar. The shelves and carousels are stacked with sumptuous toiletries, both conventional and organic. As well as all the usual over-the-counter drugs, there’s a large selection of simple herbal and homeopathic stuff. Helpful leaflets are spread out to take away and the noticeboard announces a cross-section of local complementary therapists. A quiet, serious man, Mr Patel is often to be seen dispensing kind advice. Polite, gentle young people serve behind the counter – not the norm around here.

I like the place. I like the pharmacist. So why don’t I want to be more friendly? I suppose it has to do with fear, vulnerability, being seen as a person in need. I suppose it is my problem. If he calls me Jean again, I probably should ask him what *his* first name is. But then he might think I’m flirting.
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
  Where I am
In my tiny office here at the university, a hodge-podge of disparate buildings cramped together in the middle of London. It overlooks a narrow alley and I can't see the sky unless I open the window and stick my head out. I did. The sky is grey. Lunchtime.

Having experienced open plan, I love my office: little and dark though it is, it's all mine. One wall is occupied by my desk, table and filing cabinet, with shelves full of files above. Nothing except some overflow boxes full of papers along the other wall behind me.

On top of my monitor are a tiny buddha which a student brought me back from Nepal and a chunk of rose quartz crystal. I'm not convinced the latter infuses my computer with positive vibes (the man who sold it to me assured me it would make my software work better), but you never know...

Plants crowd the windowsill – not too healthy, not much light. And some cut blue hyacinths in a glass jug.

On the wall behind me, an academic year planner, a notice-board crowded with internal memos and postcards of wild flowers and herbs, buddhist scenes and mottoes (eg “eighty percent is perfection”), photos of the French Jura where I spent a wonderful holiday.

On the desk and table, lots and lots of paper; piles of files weighted down with staplers, hole-punches, anything heavy; lists scribbled on sticky post-it notes. Running out of clear space to work on.

Boredom with the job accounts for lunchtimes and ‘little breaks’ on line, surfing the net, reading blogs. Look where that got me.

A phd student just came in to tell me she's finished the (hopefully) final draft of her thesis. She looks like she can't believe it and isn't quite sure how she feels.
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
  Where I'm From
I've been waiting for the right time to begin - the special, fateful, hopeful beginning time, the day when there's something worth writing about. But when's the right time? There's only ever here and now.
Today I was instantly absorbed by Fred's invitation ( ) to his readers to write something on the lines of George Ella Lyons' poem "Where I'm From". I couldn't bear not joining in, not having a place to post my contribution. So here we are. And here's where I'm from...
I am from white sticky Milk of Magnesia when your tummy hurts
and Mr Selwyn Lloyd on the radio
and nice manners and personalised wooden serviette rings
I am from a concrete flat with cliffs of steps that I’m afraid of falling down
and high metal windows
I am from blowing dandelion clocks
and peering at the reflected yellow of buttercups under your chin
I am from domestic service and poor proud respectability
from the Moorings - like where boats tie up
from playful Grandad Harry with a wart on his neck
and round Nanny Flo who cooks the best
I am from the Protestant work ethic - God helps those who help themselves
from never a borrower or a lender be
and righteous self-despisal and despising others even more
from those are crocodile tears and you’re an ‘ardened little bugger aren’t you
I’m from the heather-covered Clee hills
and the brown flooding River Severn
from Victoria sponge, corned beef and creamed potatoes
from Auntie Elsie who died when she was twelve and I look just like her
and Midge [the dog] would do the washing up for me if you could,
wouldn’t you, not like that selfish child of mine
and I should stay out of your parents’ rows, dear, if I was you
I am from people who are dead or whom I no longer see
from a home and family long gone
no photos except those in my head
from doors into dark rooms at the top of stairs
and the echo of my mother’s complaining
that grates like jagged metal
in my mouth
So far away, so close.

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Location: London, UK

Freelance copy-editor and translator. Keen on language, literature, photography, art, music, buddhist meditation and the countryside.

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