Wendy's life

This blog has been created as a celebration of the life of Wendy Margaret Cronin (born 16 October 1944 and died 10 October 2007). The blog owner (me) is Steve McRobb (aka Macro) - I was Wendy's partner and then husband for almost 30 years. To add comments or a post, you must be an invited friend or family member - email me if you knew Wendy and would like to join.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Losses and additions

There's a basic arithmetic in human affairs, which—in the very long run—will probably prove to be a zero-sum exercise. A Japanese Zen story I read long ago suggests that, for us ordinary folk, happiness consists of "father dies, son dies, grandson dies." Because that's the natural succession of the generations. Of course, it doesn't mean that there is normally anything happy about death. But, given that death awaits us all, what can be worse than death? Undoubtedly the loss to death of a child or a grandchild. By "long run," of course, I mean "very long run." Our species has the stewardship of this planet, at best, for a few billion years, after which it will be destroyed by the expansion of our sun as it turns into a red giant. Ultimately we came from nothing and return to nothing (another Zen reference). I suppose that means that all our hopes for children, grandchildren, etc, etc, may ultimately come to nothing. Quite likely if the history of life and extinctions on earth is anything to go by. That could be a sad thought if it wasn't so impossibly, inconceivably far away in the future. But it is impossibly, inconceivably far away in the future. So, plenty of time for evolution and star travel to take good care of our distant descendants...

Another perspective on this comes in the form of an old wish or prayer that I heard on the radio. A contributor to some program or other said that it was a family ritual for someone to say each Christmas: "this time next year, if there be not more of us, may there be not fewer." I liked that, and so did Wendy when I told her about it. So for a few years we adopted it as a family ritual for our Christmases. After Wendy died, I lost interest in saying it for a while, but recently I've resurrected it. The trigger for the resurrection was when our grandson Sam and his partner Milly joined me and Angela for Christmas 2017, with their little boy Dexter, then almost 2 years old, and baby Wynter, coming up to her first birthday. Once more, the wish seemed appropriate. Even more so, as Wynter is Wendy's first great-grandchild by bloodline, and a source of both great joy (she is a lovely little girl - there's proof on my photo website) and also an inner sadness (Wendy would have so loved to meet her if time had been more kind).

This basic arithmetic is also expressed in something Wendy once wrote in her diary, many years ago when she was freshly divorced and we were first living together. She wrote something like this: "We're not like other families; you can join, but only if you are accepted by everyone else. And you can leave." That made perfect sense for us at the time. We were a family of four: one of the children was adopted (Tim), the other (Duncan) was a natural child of Wendy and a man who had now left the family, and I was a newcomer unrelated to anyone else (Wendy and I didn't marry for another 19 years). My parents never really accepted the situation. Both grew very fond of Wendy, but the fact that we didn't marry remained a sticking point in their acceptance. And even if we had, I'm not sure they would ever have completely accepted our kids as "real" grandchildren, much as Tim and Duncan would have loved a granny and grandpa when all their predecessors were already gone. But no matter, we were a family on our own terms.

That definition of our family continues today. Angela and I are both widows of our former loves, but we love each other and will continue to do so as long as we can. Together we have children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren who are related to us and to each other in various complicated ways involving adoption, step-parenting, re-marriage and so on. None of that matters if by mutual agreement you are accepted in. Or if you want to be out (unilaterally, if that's how it is).

And the losses and additions continue. Sadly, Sam and Milly have now parted and by mutual agreement share the care of Dexter and Wynnie. So, more additions (Dexter and Wynnie), and more loss (Milly). But the family, as Wendy defined it almost 40 years ago, endures. Not only endures, it grows at one end of the generational gradient, even as it shrinks (slowly I hope!) at the other. I think on the whole Wendy would approve.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

New/old addition to "Golden Days, Dark Nights"

A few months after Wendy died, I wrote a long prose piece that I eventually titled The Crossing of Borders. At the time, I needed to write it as a sort of catharsis. So one level, it's a long howl of anguish and grief. But it's also an in memoriam: a reflection on some aspects of my life with Wendy, a description of some of the details and stages of her dying, and at times a wider reflection on life and death. It contains quite a lot about mountains, both as metaphor and as memories of a favourite shared activity.
The piece has sat in my files now for about 9 years, and in all that time the only people to have seen it are the handful of friends who helped with feedback on the many drafts (thanks to Ray, Jane and Gary for their helpful and supportive comments).  Following the tenth anniversary of Wendy's death earlier this autumn, I decided the time had come to release this piece into the wild, by adding it to the other poems and music in my Golden Days, Dark Nights collection.
I still can't re-read it without tears brimming up, just as they did when I was writing it. That's why I've placed it in the first, Rage, Rage..., section. But it's a distinct moment in the journey through grief. That journey never ends while we still draw breath, but it also continues to throw up new experiences and insights along the way. In the end, it's just another part of life, like any other experience. So it seemed fit to place it where it leads on to the poems of renewal that follow, in the third section Another Day on Earth....
So here it is, finally, contextualised. I hope it can be seen now as more than just a howl of grief.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Newish poem, new addition to the collection

About a year ago, I wrote a long poem about Wendy and my relationship with her since she died. Since it was partly prompted by thinking about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, I called it Unbirthday Letter (also since it was not her birthday when I wrote it). I've finally got round to making an html version of it, and added it to Golden Days, Dark Nights. It's here if you'd like to read it. Be warned that it's quite long...

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The art of grief: ten years of memorial walks

I suppose all bloggers must wonder who, if anyone, is reading their output. I wonder sometimes if I am writing this blog just for myself, as a tribute to a woman I loved, or perhaps mainly for Wendy's inner circle, who must already know pretty much everything I think to write. If that's the case, the blog is really here just to act as a record and a reminder. Necessarily selective and incomplete, but I hope I capture some essence of events you may recall with different detail and emphasis.  If I am reaching a wider circle who knew Wendy, but maybe not well, then I hope this adds to your understanding of the woman you remember. If I am also writing for an audience of strangers, who never knew Wendy, then perhaps I can hope to portray some of the character of a woman that, if you had known her, you might have liked and admired, as so many of her friends and colleagues did. And, incidentally, share with you a story of love, loss and survival.
This year was the 10th anniversary of Wendy's death. Once again, the date has made me reflect on the non-existent future that we imagined we had, right up until that fateful diagnosis in July 2007. What would Wendy and I be doing today, if she had lived? Actually, I think my life would probably not be that different on the surface. We'd both be retired (I was still working when she died), spending our time on hobbies and family and travel. She would have welcomed Sam's growing little family, and most especially her great-granddaughter Wynter. She'd have loved to see that new little life emerge and grow. She'd have really enjoyed visiting Celia, the granddaughter with whom she always had such a close bond, now grown up and at University. 
It's not difficult to believe that she might have shared the interest in bird watching that I only began to develop in earnest after she died (when she was no longer there to tell me what I'd seen, I had to learn to identify the birds myself). We might have moved house, and might as a result now be making a new garden - she'd have loved that, too. I'm sure we'd be travelling whenever we could, and she'd be as keen as ever to see more of the world, to meet new people in foreign cultures, and to make her characteristically faltering attempts to communicate with them in their own language. We would probably have added a few more mountains and long distance footpaths to our tally. She might still be working on her piano playing - I wonder if by now she would have mastered the tricky bit in Für Elise? And I wonder if by now she would have finally learned to swim, properly, with confidence and out of her depth? She'd certainly still be complaining to me about the time I spend in my study, typing away at my computer, or editing my photos, or recording my songs.
But this was always an imaginary future, and it was simply not to be. Instead, my life in this alternate reality, this afterlife, continues along roughly the same course as before. Except that I now pass my life with Angela, my new love. And without Wendy, my dead love. When someone leaves the world, the world continues along its path with the same thundering momentum. We might pause and turn aside for a time while we come to terms with our personal loss and learn to manage the pain, but the pace of events beyond our inner lives never slows. And, though we never realise it at the time - maybe we cannot realise it for the sake of our sanity - all our futures are imaginary. A future only becomes real at the instant that it transmutes into the present, and then just as swiftly it recedes into the past.
One completely new aspect of my life is that I mark - we mark, Wendy's family and friends - each anniversary of her death with a pair of memorial walks. The inspiration for this was the mountain walk I took by myself just after Wendy had died, on what would otherwise have been her birthday weekend, during which we would have climbed her birthday mountain together. So these memorial walks are an echo in this reality of the birthday walks we might have taken together in that imaginary future, had her death not made this present my reality instead of that one. 
(By the way, I said in an earlier post that Wendy had begun to call these annual mountains her MOT; she insisted that if a year came when she failed, I'd trade her in for a newer model. Ten years on, I'm beginning to wonder if they have become my annual MOT.)
Anyway, during that first walk, in between tears and pangs of grief, I decided to make this a regular annual event - really a continuation of the walks Wendy and I had done together for so many years - and that I would invite friends and family to join me on the future walks. 
The 'mountains' (not all really deserve to be called mountains) we've climbed on these memorial walks is now quite extensive. Each has its Wendy link:
  • Hellvellyn (my first solo memorial walk). Wendy and I attempted this once in about 1982 on a walking holiday in the Lakes. We tried to go up Striding Edge in thick mist, and returned to Patterdale defeated. On this first memorial walk I toasted her with malt whisky, and left her photo in the summit cairn.
  • Scafell Pike. Wendy never climbed this, though we set off to attempt it once in 1989. She blamed me for putting "an unnecessary mountain" (Glaramara) in the way en route. Out of about 10 of us, only Gary and I made the final summit. Later I learned that Wendy particularly wanted this one, because it would have given her Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike all within 12 months. On this first anniversary walk, I made that up to her as far as I could. And also left a little bit of her on the mountain: I carried her ashes with me on the ascent and we scattered them over the summit cairn before we left.
  • Snowdon. We climbed Snowdon a number of times, but our first attempt, with the kids in about 1980, was a wipe out after I led us into a slate quarry soon after the Gladstone monument - trying and failing to follow the Watkin path. My map reading has improved a bit since then. On the memorial walk, Ben and I took the 'interesting' route up Crib Goch and met the main party on the summit.
  • Ingleborough Hill. Another summit we climbed a number of times, starting with Leicester University Expedition Club outings in the late 1970s, and continuing into the 1980s with camping trips with the kids. One night, we were camped in the Hill Inn field and there was a dreadful storm. Down the slope from us, a young couple from Lancashire had a huge argument when she learned he'd only brought one sleeping bag and expected her to share it with him. She said that wasn't how her mum had brought her up, and stormed off (appropriately) to get a single room in the pub, while he went off to the bar to drown his disappointment. Later he came back drunk and still angry, and tried to leave but got his car stuck in the mud: we could hear him revving the engine and spinning the wheels to no effect. Finally he gave up and slept alone in his tent. Later in the night, one of our tent poles buckled and the rain got into the lower end of the tent. Duncan (aged about 9 or 10) complained his sleeping bag was in a puddle, and Wendy said "well, crawl uphill until you're on a dry bit." We really didn't want to go out in the night to sort the tent out, and there wasn't much else we could do anyway.
  • Kinder Scout. Another peak Wendy and I climbed many times, starting when the kids were little. With Edale just a day out from Melton, this was our closest real mountain. Usually we went up Grindsbrook and came down Jacob's Ladder, with its famous, and very pushy, sandwich-eating sheep.
  • Beacon Hill. Not really a mountain, but Leicestershire's highest. A popular walk for us on autumn and winter Sunday mornings, alternating over many years with Bradgate Park and Swithland Woods.
  • Burrough Hill. Another non-mountain, but our local hill and the default choice for a summer's day family walk, especially when Tim and Anita came to visit with the grandkids, or when the wind was up and Duncan fancied flying his kites. 
  • Pen y Fan. The last mountain Wendy and I climbed together, on her last birthday weekend in 2006.
  • Worcestershire Beacon. The last hill Wendy climbed, in April 2007. She'd been immobilised by back pain since February (actually her fatal cancer, though we didn't know it then) and was going "stir crazy." We went to Malvern because it was the furthest, prettiest place she thought she could reach by train. We arrived on Friday afternoon, and by the time we got to our B&B Wendy was exhausted and went straight to bed. On Saturday morning she struggled slowly up the Beacon (it took her hours) and was so pleased and proud of herself at the top. I took a selfie of the two of us on my phone, and later found she'd captioned it "Mr and Mrs Smug go to Malvern."
  • Arthur's Seat. I don't have a clear memory of climbing Arthur's Seat with Wendy, but we used to go to Edinburgh at festival time, starting when Tim and Duncan were in Melton Youth Theatre and had shows on at the fringe. She said it was her favourite city anywhere, and we went for many more years. At first we camped in the Municipal campsite at Cramond (since gone), then in various  B&Bs around the city. Once we stayed in the North Queensferry Hotel right by the far end of the Forth rail bridge. Always we ate in good restaurants - Mexican, Lebanese or Scottish seafood as it might be. The memorial walk this year was the best attended since Scafell Pike 8 years earlier, maybe a confirmation of her judgement on Edinburgh.
  • Hatterall Hill. Wendy and I crossed this ridge in (I think) 1988 on our first section of the Offa's Dyke path. We had set off with the aim of completing the whole 167 miles, but got so wet coming off this ridge, over Hay Bluff and down to Hay on Wye, that we gave up the walk for that year. We picked the path up again the following summer and made it all the way to Prestatyn that year. For various reasons (see below), this was the first memorial mountain walk I did solo since the very first one, 10 years earlier.
The first year I organised a mountain memorial walk (Scafell Pike), I realised that some of Wendy's friends might want to take part but not be interested in a real mountain, especially if this involved travelling somewhere remote for the weekend. So the 'softies' or Hambleton walk was born. This also continues every year, usually one weekend before or after the mountain version.
Every year there are memorable details to savour afterwards. This year, the mountain party was small - only seven of us were able to make it. But five, in two separate cars, got stuck the wrong side of roadworks and had to find a hotel in Hereford for the night, while Angela and I, in our capacious camping barn in Llanthony, wondered where they had got to and what had happened to them. We finally all met in Hay on Wye on Saturday morning, but it was such a wet, blustery day there was no appetite for a mountain. Instead, we browsed the bookshops and teashops of Hay. Afterwards we went to the Llanthony Priory Hotel for a meal and plenty of drinks, and all agreed this was a thoroughly Wendy way to spend the weekend. Not just "bugger the view" but "bugger the mountain." I climbed the mountain on my own on Sunday after everyone but Angela had gone home.
This year's Hambleton walk was equally memorable in a very different way. For the first time in ages, all of Wendy's nuclear family was together, and Sam also brought his little family including Dexter and little Wynnie. Four generations of Wendy's family celebrating her memory and Wynnie not a year old, but already taking part in her great-grandmother's memorial walk - not bad for a little 'un! 
One final thought, and the reason for the first part of the title of this post. A couple of years ago, while visiting Tim and Anita in Whitstable, I happened on a Hamish Fulton exhibition at the Turner Gallery in Margate. What a pleasure to discover that in choosing an activity to memorialise Wendy's life, I'd inadvertantly hit on an art form whose existence I'd not even noticed before. I like that these annual events are in some sense a work of art, and I think Wendy would have liked that, too. Or maybe she'd have seen it as just a little bit pretentious...

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Is time really the great healer?

This post is a reflection on the nature of loss, the effects of grief and the passage of time.
People who have never suffered what someone (meaning to be kind) once called a "major bereavement" (way back when Wendy was ill, and we knew she would die) often think that grief naturally lessens over time. Maybe this is sometimes true. For those who have lost a parent, for example, especially if that happened a long time ago. I certainly don't grieve any more for my father, who died more than 20 years ago. Nor do I feel frequent or sharp pangs of grief for my mother, who died 10 years ago just yesterday. I often think with fondness, and sometimes with sadness, about memories of their lives, but that's all. However, I can't easily believe that time heals all losses.
For Wendy, I can still feel a grief that is so sharp, so immediate, so real, that she might have just died. When this happens it is hard to believe that it will soon be six years since her last breath. These episodes of vivid grief are certainly not as frequent as they were in the early days after her death. But I don't think they're any less shattering.
One happened just yesterday. Maybe I should explain that we're in the process of moving me and all my stuff to Angela's house (life to live!). Together, we had gone to my house to mow the lawn, collect post and pick up some more of my stuff. We sat on the swing seat in the garden eating a sandwich lunch. I was enjoying the maturity of Wendy's memorial garden - all the hollyhocks in full flower and the little fountain bubbling away in the sunshine, when the phone rang. I went into the kitchen to answer it. A cheerful woman's voice asked "Is Wendy there?" Sudden shock! For a moment, it was as if I was right back in the days when that was a normal event in any day: phone ringing, I'd answer, someone would ask for Wendy, I'd pass her the phone. Or say "I'm sorry, she's not here, can I take a message?" I fumbled, asked who was calling. She explained that she had run a Tai Chi class at Melton College that Wendy attended for a while. She was restarting the class, and calling up former students to see if they were interested. I remember Wendy and Duncan standing in the kitchen talking about Tai Chi, probably about 7 years ago. Not that long before she died. On the phone, I was matter-of-fact about what had happened. But after the call ended I just fell apart in tears for a while.
I know this is not unusual behaviour. It happens to both Angela and me from time to time. She can be overwhelmed by fresh grief for Mike, often triggered by piano music. Six years on, she still cannot bear to listen to some of his favourite pieces, because they unlock memories of him playing that are just too painful.
I don't want to over-dramatise this experience. Neither of us, Angela or me, is entrenched in our grief. We are happy together, most of the time. We are active in a variety of ways, physically and intellectually. We live our lives to the full, as best we can, and we accept the passing of time and the changes that brings to families and to the people within a family. But at the same time, neither of us believes that we will ever really "recover" - whatever that means - from our bereavement.
I think that what people really mean when they talk about time healing a loss is that emotions associated with a painful event are expected to become weakened over time, so that the loss no longer hurts. But wouldn't that mean that our attachment to someone we love is also steadily undone? Pain of loss is just one side of a coin. The other side of the coin is the love for the person. Without the love, there would be little or no pain. So, if grief lessened to the point where it no longer hurt at all, wouldn't that be as if we had never loved the person? Perhaps I'm exaggerating a little: losing my parents no longer hurts. But they were always so much older than me, and I think most of us expect from quite a young age that our parents will die before us. So to some extent we are mentally prepared. However, I think, in our more important relationships, and especially the ones we have chosen (partners, good friends) or have ourselves created the preconditions for (our children), we lay down such deep roots of affection that there is not enough time left in our lives for them to be undone to any degree.
Maybe this works for hatred, too. That would help to explain how ethnic, religious and political tensions are so able to destroy the peace of the world in so many places.
Immediately after Wendy died, I began to keep a diary, originally as a kind of continuation of her diary that she kept for years. A few weeks later I wrote in it: "Bereavement has wounded me deep inside in the place from which everything else springs. If I were ever to cease to miss Wendy in any aspect of my life, if I were ever to cease to honour her memory, then I would have ceased to be true to myself and what I became through our life together."
How would time heal that? And why should it?

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Food, weight and greed

The gaps between my posts here are quite long - more than a year since my last. I suppose that's a sign that life does move on in new directions. But it doesn't mean that I have forgotten anything (I was once quite scared that I would) or that a day passes without me thinking about my life with Wendy. There is still quite a lot more I want to add to this blog.

I notice that the content has broadened, so that it seems to have become more than simply a catalogue of her wit and wisdom. More a memoir of her life, maybe. One aspect I've been thinking about is Wendy's relationship with food. All her friends and family will have memories to do with food or meals, because eating together was important for her. Meals at Christmas or family occasions (this photo was taken at Tim's 18th birthday meal), and social meals in each others' houses or restaurants were all important to Wendy.

But this post will focus mainly on her self-confessed greed and ongoing weight problems. Wendy struggled with her weight off and on throughout the years we were together. In good times she was size 12 or even 10. When she reached size 14 she knew there was a problem and she switched to her personal version of the weightwatcher plan. One year, she kept a photo of herself (taken on holiday, in France, as usual, this time standing above the Gorges d’Ardeche) on the fridge door as a constant and powerful motivational tool in her fight to lose weight. In my memory, and usually in reality (e.g. here on a Cornish beach, or here in Venice with Sam) Wendy was slender. But in that fridge-door photo (I can't find it right now, but when it turns up I'll add a link) she was decidedly stout. The difficulty was that she loved her food to the point of greed. Bread was a great weakness, but she especially liked “food you can get your hands in” – so lobster, crab and seafood like shrimps and mussels were also favourites. Once, in a restaurant by Collioure harbour flanked by Moorish hillforts at either end of the little bay, as she tucked into a starter of baby octopus in garlic, she said: “Pinch me so I know I haven’t died and gone to heaven!” Sometimes after a heavy meal she’d promise never to eat again. Certainly greed was in play in a restaurant in St Malo when she overate the night before our ferry home from a holiday in Brittany. When we went back to our hotel she lay on the bed and cried: “Don’t touch me, I’ll explode! I’m like a snake that’s swallowed a buffalo!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Wendy’s take on life, people and cats

This post represents another episode in my continuing reflection on Wendy's life. In particular, how she saw and treated people. Her friends and relations know that generally she was really easy to get on with, and her good humour was a factor in this. Also, that she didn't set herself above anyone, even people she didn't like. She said: “you can get on with everybody on some level, even if it’s just hello when you meet in the street.

At one of the ceremonies after she died, I said that she was a natural teacher. This appears throughout her life as a mum and gran, too. When her boys were small, she told them that she had been an angel when she was little herself. But she knew her Dad would contradict this, and that her boys loved to ask: “Grandpa, what was mummy like when she was a little girl?” A pause, then: “She were a little bugger!” Followed by squeals of laughter. When Wendy was a granny herself, she taught our grandson Sam to use a bread knife. Once he was able to cut a reasonably straight slice of bread, she "awarded" him an NVQ level 0 in bread slicing.

I think she was good at all that partly because she instinctively treated everyone on their own level, from little children to old ladies. She didn’t try to force understanding when it didn’t come naturally. With little children, she stuck to simple words and sentences that they could understand. In France, where her own knowledge of the language was weak, she said that it was a good idea to practice her French on little children, because they were accustomed to not understanding everything a grownup said to them, and also to not being understood all the time. The limitations of Wendy’s French were obvious when we camped on the Île de Ré and our airbed sprang a leak. I coached her in some words we thought she’d need: matelas pneumatique for air mattress, dégonflé for deflated. Wendy went off to the hardware shop in St Martin de Ré to try to get a repair kit. She got some very amused looks when she explained to the man that her matelôt pneumatique – her inflatable sailor!est dégonflé and needed repair. Tim still remembers his Mum waving her hands about to make herself understood in French – trying to substitute gestures for the missing vocabulary, usually without any success. Tim, by the way, had a narrow escape with his own name. When Wendy was little she had a dog called Timmy; so she told her son he was named after that dog – and that he was lucky he wasn’t called Fluffy!

Wendy observed that every old lady she knew (in turn she helped look after her Aunt Milly, Aunt Edith and my Mum) had to suffer a serious fall before she could accept that it was time to make some arrangements for more support, whether that was a residential home or just aids like a bath lift. So she knew not be too pushy about encouraging them to move in this direction. When her own kids were adults, if she thought one of them was making a big mistake about something, she’d say so – just once, quite quietly, then leave it alone. She expected that in a few months or a year, when experience had taught the lesson more forcefully than she could, they’d come to her and say: “you were right, Mum, that was a mistake.” It didn’t always happen, but there was really nothing to be gained by arguing. On the other hand, when her kids were little she knew they’d ignore her until the third time she called. That didn’t make her angry, it was just how little boys’ minds worked so that’s how she had to work too.

When people crossed or hurt her, Wendy would say: “I forgive but I don’t forget.” But actually, she could sometimes bear a grudge for a long time. She never really forgave Maggie Thatcher for what she did to the miners, to our kids employment prospects and to the country at large. It was Wendy's ambition to dance on Maggie's grave (though she knew the security would make it impossible, even if she lived long enough). Her boycotts also illustrate how long she could hold a grudge, with varying degrees of severity.

One of the first boycotts I remember began when we stopped at a Little Chef on the A1 near Wanstead. I think we were rushing home from my parents’ on a Sunday evening. The kids had been at their father’s for the weekend and it always meant trouble if Wendy was late collecting them. She wanted to phone to try to forestall this. But the manager wouldn’t allow us to use the phone because it was “for customers’ use only.” Although we used Little Chefs regularly on long journeys, she wouldn’t listen to our appeals. If we weren’t using the restaurant this time, we weren’t customers. So we hurried on, and decided we would never again be customers at that particular Little Chef. We’d show that manager! For years we laughed as we passed – at how ridiculous her attitude was, at how ineffectual was our attempt to shut it down in retaliation, at how probable it was she had moved on years before. Eventually the place did close and was replaced by another roadside eatery and garage. We joked that our boycott had finally succeeded, it just needed patience. I last passed it a couple of days ago, and the site is now completely derelict. Once a smart 1960s deco-style building with clean geometric lines made of flat roofs, curved white walls and steel windows, and cheerful red signs and poster displays, it now looks thoroughly sad and grubby. The white paint of the walls is peeling, the render is cracked through to grey concrete and the windows are boarded up. Rubbish blows around the deserted car park and forecourt where the petrol pumps stood. It made me think that all quarrels, however principled they might seem at the time, can ultimately look just pointless and tawdry. Easy enough to say in hindsight, though…

For a while we tried to boycott Tesco’s in protest at Dame Shirley Porter’s part in the Westminster vote-rigging scandal. But that proved more difficult because the supermarket’s rivals in Melton just didn’t have as good a range of products. Another quarrel, this one really just a bit of fun, was occasioned by Wendy’s maiden name: Starbuck. When she learned that the Starbucks coffee chain was named after the mate of the Pequod in Moby Dick, and no real Starbuck was connected with the company, she decided they’d stolen her name and had no right to use it. In retaliation she began a long-running boycott that I continue to this day in her memory.

A rather more serious boycott began when she took the car to a local parts shop to replace its failing battery. The manager called his mechanic friend and they tried to fit a new battery. But it was the wrong type and wouldn’t fit so they took it out again. Wendy drove off to look somewhere else, but when she tried to slow down for a traffic light the engine kept racing. She had to knock it out of gear to stop at all, and couldn’t get it to idle. By slipping the clutch she managed to park the car and fetched me from home on foot. I found the “mechanic” had pulled the accelerator cable out of his way and tucked it behind something while he worked on the battery. When he gave up, he left the cable stretched taut so that it couldn’t relax with the accelerator pedal. Furious at this incompetence and frightened at how dangerous it could have been, we went back to the shop. The manager shrugged off our complaint and denied any responsibility. We never went to that shop again.

For most of our life together we kept cats: first Shakti, killed by a car while trying to find her way back to a new and unfamiliar home, then Fritz (named by Tim "after your favourite author, Mummy - F Scott Fritzgerald") and Titty (named by Duncan after the Swallows and Amazons character). Titty also ran away and was never found. Then I brought Tensing into the house and for many years Fritz and Tensing lived together. Wendy treated her cats as people: friends and members of the family, though she never exaggerated either their capabilities or understanding. Both Fritz and Tensing were food thieves, given half a chance. Fritz also liked sleeping on the kitchen table near the boiler. Wendy noted that you can’t train a cat not to get on the kitchen table, you can only train it not to be on the table when a human’s in the room. Apart from that, Fritz was a gentle, neutered ginger tom, affectionate and very tolerant of little children when they pulled his tail or stroked his fur the wrong way. Maybe that’s why he often had an air of wounded dignity. Wendy concluded that in a previous life he had been an over-pompous retired Colonel, and had been reborn as our cat in order to learn humility. Leaving for work in the morning, she looked at the cats settling down for a good day’s sleep and said: “I know which of us has got the best deal.” Notwithstanding the lessons in humility that it might entail, she said when she died she wanted to come back as our cat. However, one of her plans for Fritz when he died was to have him skinned and made into a furry pyjama case. She thought it would be like still having him around.

In a similar vein when the boys were pre-teens she talked about having them made into rugs with their heads and paws still on, like tiger-skin rugs. These could be laid on the living room carpet gazing at the telly and you’d never know the difference. As I write this, the boys are still alive (and now have their own children) but Fritz and Tensing were buried years ago in the garden at their favourite snoozing spots.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Third Time Lucky?

It's taken a year—I didn't expect it to be that long when I wrote the post below, just before Christmas last year—but Wendy's new tree is finally planted by her bench. A lot of the delay was waiting for the lab report on the last tree. When we finally got this, there was no obvious reason for the tree's death, certainly no identifiable oak pathogens. But, while that meant it should be safe to replant on the same spot, it still seemed prudent to try a different species.

So, yesterday (by chance our wedding anniversary) most of the family joined me and with David Penney's help we planted a small-leaved lime, tilia henryana. It's a sturdy specimen with lots of healthy-looking buds, and David assures me that it will have beautiful autumn foliage and in time will grow into a large tree. Big enough to fulfil Wendy's wish that people should be able to sit on her bench beneath her tree.

Later, as it grew dark, we returned to the site and attempted to launch two sky lanterns. But it was too windy to get them lit, so we had to abandon that plan. But we did manage to set off a couple of rockets left over from bonfire night. Wendy would have liked that; she always loved pretty fireworks. She might not have approved quite so much of the way the rockets frightened the dogs, who were tied to her bench, and began barking and howling as the rockets flared. She might also have been a bit concerned that the second rocket startled a flock of geese, that chose exactly the wrong moment to fly across from the woods behind. We saw them too late to abort the launch but as far as I could tell it didn't hit any, and they just honked a bit and landed safely on the twilit water.  Just a bit nearer to Normanton than they had originally planned...

This seems an appropriate time to launch a revised 'edition' of my poetry collection Golden Days, Dark Nights. All the original poems and songs are there, with a bit of reformatting. New material includes a full band version of the song Miss You, recorded with Jewellers Eye last March. Health Warning: the recording features Wendy's voice, taken from her last voicemail message to me shortly before she went into hospital for the last time. Perhaps best not to listen when you are feeling fragile. There are also several new poems, one a memory of Wendy called Your Special Talent For Sleeping. The other new poems are various reflections on life and love since her death. I hope you like them – click here for the contents page. Or follow the link at the top of the list on the right.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

More trouble at t' tree

My earlier optimism was sadly misplaced.  The second tree has died, presumably from the same cause as the first.  I've known this for a while, but only just got round to writing this post.

If you visit after New Year 2011, you may find that there is no tree there at all.  That will be because it has been removed for tests and analysis.  Once we know what killed it (currently the leading explanation is honey fungus) we can decide what to do next. The obvious choices are:
  1. a different spot a few metres away; 
  2. a different kind of tree that is immune to the illness.  
I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The memories keep coming

Here are some more that show Wendy's particular genius for life:
  • Everyone in the family laughed at Wendy's car parking; the word "parallel" just didn't come into it.  But she did invent a really useful technique which I still use when the need arises: audio parking.  It's dead easy to learn - move your car ever so gently till you hear a collision with the car in front (or behind).  Then you know you can't go any further.  Simple!
  • Wendy invented the concept of house deterioration.  This was based on her observations from the Leicester outer circle route through New Parks and Braunstone.  (You used to have to go that way to get to the M1 before the new Western Bypass opened).  She noticed that you could tell at a glance which council houses had been sold to their former tenants.  Most new owners immediately got a builder in to make their house worse, e.g. cladding it with bradstone, or putting in fake leaded windows.  It does sound a bit snobbish, but Wendy always hated houses made to look like what they weren't.  She wondered if there were companies that specialised in this kind of work, and how they advertised.  "New Right-To-Buy owner? Give us a call now!  We can deteriorate your house for you!"
  • Wendy did a bit of deteriorating herself, I discovered years later.  We finally refitted the bathroom at Craven Street around 2001, at last getting rid of the 1960s avocado bath suite.  After the work was done, she told me she had been carefully deteriorating the bathroom for years in the hope I would notice it needed renewing.  I can't honestly say I ever noticed she was doing it deliberately.
  • Wendy liked to mark occasions in family life with a proper ceremony.  The opening of the new bathroom was no exception.  When everything was ready she cut the green ribbon she'd tied over the toilet seat and we both toasted the new bathroom and all who... well, bathed in it.  You can see the photos in my Pictures of Wendy gallery here and here.
  • When we moved to our new house in 2005, we suddenly had four toilets after managing with just the one for all those years.  Wendy insisted on a ceremonial four-way flush of all four at once.  She, Duncan, Sam and I all went to wee in a different toilet and on her word of command we flushed together.
  • Just another of Wendy's more prosaic observations, but one I've found to be true many times: "Almost everyone you meet on a mountain or a long-distance footpath is nice."
  • In our garden at Craven Street was a mature holly tree.  Wendy didn't want it to get too big, so every year she got me to climb up on a step ladder and clip it to a roughly globular shape.  She called it the hollypop tree.
I'm sure that's not the end of my remembering.  But that will have to do for now.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Still more wit and wisdom

Even after nearly three years without Wendy, still every now and then I think of more nuggets of her very particular take on life.  I've mentioned in previous posts some of her thoughts about wildlife, but here are a few more.
  • She had various issues with the wildlife about who owned our garden. When the blackbirds and bluetits scolded her for working in the garden while they were trying to feed, she'd say crossly "this is my garden too!" 
  • She complained that you had "to be careful not to get a bluetit in your ear" as you passed their nesting box, when the chicks were getting big and the parents were constantly darting in and out of the box all day long. 
  • She wrote in her diary rather indignantly about "being told off by a thrush for sitting in my own living room" (the thrush was at the water feature just outside the patio doors). 
  • It wasn't only the birds that wouldn't behave. Some plants just wouldn't stay where she put them from one year to the next, they just kept "marching around the garden."
But Wendy could also sympathise with the birds.
  • She said once: "it must be really annoying for pigeons, having to move their heads back and forth like that when they walk."  
  • Watching a nature programme once on TV, there was some footage of a new emperor penguin chick emerging into the depths of the Antartic winter.  Wendy said you could see exactly what it was thinking from the expression on its little face when it first poked out of the broken egg and realised where it had been born. "It's thinking 'Oh no, I'm a penguin! I'm a bloody penguin!' - that's clear proof of reincarnation", she said...
On the other hand, she had no illusions about what life was really like for wild animals.
  • Most nature programmes were just "bonking and biting." 
  • And those beautiful songs of the robins and blackbirds? They could all be rendered simply in English as "I'll pull your feathers out!"   
Following the model of perma-frost, Wendy coined a number of useful terms.
  • Perma-fat describes those deep layers that can never be shifted by dieting or exercise. One reason that perma-fat is so persistent is that in restaurants, as Wendy said, "it's funny how you open your mouth to say 'salad' and the word 'chips' comes out." 
  • Perma-grot refers to all that stuff that stays at the bottom of a woman's handbag and is never used.  
  • Anyone with a desk job probably has perma-work: those bits of paper that represent tasks you never get round to doing. If you have an in-tray, it's probably full of perma-work.  So is your email in-box.
Wendy had some quite unique perceptions about lots of things. A few weeks before she died, she wondered aloud if she would make it to Christmas. Steven the gardener heard this and planted a shrub in the front garden. He said it was a Christmas box, and he hoped she might see it flower. Wendy told me that if she wasn't still around at Christmas, I should cut it to a square box shape and tie it up with red ribbons like a present. I'm still waiting for it to get big enough, but one day I mean to carry out her wish.

On holiday in Corsica one year, we drove over a high pass into a vast deep valley.  Far off on the slopes of the various mountains were little towns and villages wherever there was enough flat ground to build and to farm, some of them quite high above the valley floor.  Wendy said: "I like the way they put their towns on shelves here." Just like ornaments on the mantelpiece...

For 10 years or more after we moved to Craven St, we kept the old, rather ugly, brown carpet the previous owners left in our bedroom.  Eventually we decorated the room and a new carpet was planned.  We decided on a pale off-white.  For weeks before it came, Wendy insisted that all drinks going up to the bedroom had to be carried on a tray to avoid drips on the new carpet.  "Carpet training," she called this.

When we put the Craven St house on the market, Wendy thought little details would help sell it, like fresh flowers in the living room or the smell of fresh coffee or newly baked bread.  She decided to brighten up the rather dark hall with the white durry rug from the bathroom, and bought another identical rug so we could wash them in turn and one would always be clean.  Whenever a prospective buyer was due to view the house, she put the clean rug in the hall.  She called it "the show mat."

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Wendy's second tree: finally bursting with leaves

I had a replacement tree planted - another oak - last winter after it became clear the first tree had died.  I went to visit the tree today, and there is some good news.  It is finally beginning to burst, with new leaves sprouting from many branches. Wendy's wishes are finally beginning to come true: one day we will be able to sit on her bench in the shelter of her tree. 

Wendy and her snail re-homing scheme

I was listening to the radio last week - Material World on Radio 4, 13 May - and heard an item that was right up Wendy's street.  The programme has been running a contest for BBC Amateur Scientist of the Year, and one of the finalists is Ruth Brooks, a retired Special Needs Tutor.  That's already a coincidence, but there's loads more to come.  Ruth's proposed experiment is to find the homing distance of the snails that decimate her plants: "How far away do I have to dump them before they can't find their way back to my garden?"
Many years ago, I helped Wendy with some related research, although it was not conducted on a proper scientific basis. Snails and slugs used to devastate our Craven St garden, especially the hostas by the pond. Wendy tried several ways of getting rid of them. Being a good vegetarian, sympathetic to organic principles, and also just plain kind, she didn't want to kill them. She didn't mind frogs (we had plenty of them, thanks to our wildlife pond) or thrushes eating them, because that was natural. But they just weren't doing enough of a job. So Wendy started teaching snails to fly - over the back wall into the allotments.  One day a snail surprised her by flying straight back. On reflection, she realised other gardeners didn't want her snail flying students. So instead we began re-homing them. This involved first gathering all the snails (and slugs) we could find, usually going into the garden after dark with a torch and searching among the hostas near the pond. We collected them in a half-kilo margarine tub with holes punched in the lid so they could breathe, and usually a few half-eaten hosta leaves for food. For some reason, although this was all Wendy's idea, I seemed to wind up doing most of the night-time gathering. Then, the next time we had to go somewhere that meant driving out of town, we took the box of molluscs and 'liberated' them somewhere we thought they would like to live.  Preferably a long way from our garden.
In the early 90s, the term 're-homing' dropped out of use and we began to call it ethnic cleansing. This became a familiar term as the Bosnian war began to dominate the headlines, but I think the 'ethnic' concept first occurred to us when we noticed slugs and snails don't like to share a tub.  Snails like to clump together, but snails and slugs keep to separate sides of a tub.  After that discovery, we kept two tubs, one per species.
We did this for many years. The furthest I remember taking any was Derby. I had a gig there one night, and I was concerned that some snails had been waiting in their tub for several days. I released them under a hedge near the city centre. It didn't seem like a particularly good place at the time, but then central Derby doesn't have that many snail-friendly locations, and I didn't want to bring them all the way back to Melton.
We often speculated about how far a snail needed to travel before it could not find its way home, but we never did the research to find out. I was pretty sure the Derby ones never got back, but how about the Kirby Lane drops?  That's only about half a mile, and who knows? Maybe now we are finally going to find out, thanks to Ruth Brook's experiment. Wendy would have loved to know.
Latterly I've reverted to teaching snails to fly. Just over my back garden fence is the King Edward wildlife garden.  I don't reckon it will annoy anyone if a few more snails land in the undergrowth.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

A perfect Spring evening at Wendy's tree

Last Monday evening, I walked round Hambleton peninsula with Angela.  Towards the end of the walk, we sat for a long while on Wendy's bench.  It was dark by then.  So many things about the evening were perfect, that it made me feel Wendy could not have chosen a better spot.  And it happens that it's a special place for Angela too, because by chance she and her husband Mike used regularly to walk to the place where Wendy's tree is now.

It was a beautiful sunset, with a blood-orange sky to the West and the light of a near-full moon reflecting pale silver off the lake to the East.  There are primroses here and there by the track, and wide swathes of bluebells on the southern side of the peninsula.  One or two early pink campions are out too, and at one spot there is a little colony of wood sorrel showing their delicate little white flowers.

Best of all, the nightingales were singing.  We paused a long time listening to one in the woods near the biggest patch of bluebells.  I tried to spot the bird by silhouetting it against the moon, but without success.  It's the first time I ever have been completely sure I was listening to a nightingale.  There was no doubt at all: so varied, so tuneful, so inventive.  At times a bit like a thrush, other notes reminiscent of a robin, still others like a blackbird, but some phrases and lilting notes that could have been no other bird. By then, the bats were hunting silently through the shadows above our heads.  As we sat on Wendy's bench, another nightingale sang from the trees close behind the bench and the evening star shone over the lake.

Sheep or rabbits are still nibbling the flowers we planted around the tree: two little narcissi were out a couple of weeks ago, but these are gone now.  Wendy's new tree has not yet burst into leaf, but it can't be long.  The buds are swelling, so all seems well with it.  Life to live!