Posted by: Linda Proud | February 27, 2012

NHS Reform?

I must be the only person who’s longing to be told she has a syndrome. Someone at the hospital spotted an anomaly on the adrenal gland and thinks it’s Cushing’s. If it is, it may be why I have diabetes and sarcoid. So a lot rests on the result of tests done last week.

Now my local surgery is famous and has even featured on Channel 4 Dispatches, with Jon Snow talking to camera outside my house without my knowledge (I pride myself on knowing everything that’s going on). Since the ignominious departure of the last incumbent, we’ve been under new management, a management known for its efficiency, but there are some spanners in the works.

Summertown Health Centre used to be just that; now it covers Wolvercote and Cutteslowe as well, so its doctors and nurses are circulating when they used to be static and the computer system has to show where everybody is at any time. Although used to travelling doctors and nurses, the Wolvercote and Cutteslowe receptionists seem unable to cope. After all, they’ve gone from one doctor and one nurse to about six of each. Twelve people all over the place.

I’ve been having to make lots of appointments and a couple of weeks ago they began to fail. I’d booked in to see the diabetes nurse at 8.30. After the third patient went in before me, I interrupted to see if I was expected. I wasn’t, the nurse said, but she’d see me anyway. How kind. When I got in and looked at the screen myself, I could see I was down for 10.45. She didn’t apologise, not even for not having the meter I’d come for – I had to go to Cutteslowe to see her again in the afternoon. A day lost, more or less. Just as well she didn’t want to take my blood pressure.

Other incidents began to occur which were beginning to make me nervous. I won’t go into all details, but when the registrar at Endrocrinology described the tests I was going to have to do I quailed, because I was going to need the surgery’s help. While I was talking to the registrar, her secretary was beetling about trying to find out how come I was registered with the NHS under two names. She came back to report that it had happened at my surgery.

The next day I phoned the surgery to see when my favourite receptionist (we’ll call her No. 1), was next at Wolvercote and found it was that very afternoon. I went to the surgery and was met by receptionist No. 2.

With No. 2 and my diary, we worked out the best day to do the fearsome 24 hour urine collection. For some reason the lab wants your ENTIRE production, so there was no going out that day. We decided on Monday, because there’d be a collection on Tuesday. I hope there was, and that my bottles were duly collected, because I really, really don’t want to be that conscious of my bladder again for awhile.

Then we worked out the next task, which was an appointment for a blood test at 9am precisely. I had to take a pill at midnight the day before which would stop all steroid production. 9am it had to be. She hummed and hawed in front of the computer. You can see it’s a problem by the rapid eye movement it entails on the user. Her orbs are all over the place. She finally decides that the only day it could be done was Friday, that the doctor would do it himself, but not until 9.10.

So eager am I to have Cushing’s, I didn’t want to leave it until another week. So nervous am I of mistakes by now that the next day, when I delivered the litre bottles, I got No. 2 to repeat back to me my appointment, which she did. By Thursday my fears had returned. I went to the surgery. Did I have an appointment at 9.10 with the doctor the following morning? It was No. 2, again. ‘No,’ she said. ‘We don’t open until the afternoons at Wolvercote.’

While I try not to sink to the floor in despair, her eyes keep travelling over the screen.  ‘Look,’ she said, ‘you’re down for 9.10 – at Cutteslowe.’

What’s the flaming point of having a local surgery? It didn’t have to be Friday. I could have come another day when they were open. Anyway. Stop moaning. Go back to Cutteslowe.

On Friday morning, DD came with me because I was still nervous. No 3 was at reception. Was the doctor in? Yes, yes, he’d arrived and was in. But I wasn’t down to see him. My softly-spoken husband can move mountains when he raises his voice. Now he is booming in the background, something about a formal complaint if someone doesn’t draw blood from his wife at 9.10 precisely.

I’d checked with a chemist that 9.10 would be alright; she said it would be, but no later. The hand on the surgery clock moved to 9.10 and, just as I’d feared,  I was sitting there without a steroid in me (actually, I was feeling better than I had done for a long time) and no prospect of a blood test.

Suddenly people are running, including one  nurse who I hadn’t met before, and at 9.11 she’s jabbing in a needle without waiting to find a vein and miraculously is drawing blood. At 9.20 I get to see the doctor, who I didn’t now need to see. I had nothing to say but a) complain and b) sing the praises of the NHS, for finding that little anomaly which might, just might, give me a new lease of life.

While writing this, I’m thinking of course of Lynne and Loo who lost their jobs blowing the whistle on the last doctor. I hope life has been kind and taken new, unexpected and rewarding turns for you. For you and your like are the blood in the veins of the NHS, what makes it work, the human spirit in the machine. And when we speak of ‘the NHS’ that’s who we’re speaking about: the people who make it work. It doesn’t need reform. It needs help.

Posted by: Linda Proud | January 26, 2012

Altered States

Sometime yesterday, I’m not sure when – perhaps in the middle of Oxford market – I entered the State of KY. After two days locked into re-building my website, two nasty days weather-wise, I’d ventured out to go and do some reading at the Sackler Library. I didn’t walk very far, just from the bus to the library; but afterwards, I did trudge round the weekly market. I’ve joined that band of humanity which is old-lady-with-bag-on-wheels, the kind which can be seen at any market, tripping people up. I’m not as big-bosomed as the stereotype but, boy, I have the hips. To complete the look I shall have to get myself a headscarf.

So I trudged and got some bargains. Indeed I filled my bag on wheels to groaning point for a mere ten pounds, plus three pounds for the very ripe brie I had to put in the front pocket.

Then off to the covered market to get organic meat from Feller and Daughter. There she stood, blood-soaked as usual, Feller’s daughter, trying to tell me that the scrawny chicken she was holding up was ‘one of the best’. I suppose I have been gulled by supermarkets into thinking that chickens should be plump and creamy-white. This one looks a complete joke: a dead chicken as created by Nick Parks in plasticine. ‘Tell me next week what you think!’ she called cheerily as I left. I’d also got some venison because it was Burn’s Night and I have Scottish blood. Long slow casserole with juniper berries, neeps and tatties… nice.

So it was a bit of a walk. Then, when I got home, I found a long overdue cheque had arrived, quite a big one, almost as big as the debt, so there was nothing for it but a walk to the post office to pay it in.

That used to be a long walk. When they closed our local post office I thought I’d never make it to the next one without gouging a great hole in the day. I was never going to drive there – not an option. I’m saving the planet and myself in one go.

Yesterday I noticed that I’ve got speedier. OK, there wasn’t a queue at the post office counter and I didn’t get distracted by the wools, but even so I got there and back in twenty minutes. Aware  that I was walking faster than usual, I checked the pedometer and found I’d clocked up quite a few aerobic steps. What I wasn’t aware of was that I had just entered Kentucky.

It was about a year ago I started walking across the USA, virtually. The idea is to walk in your own locality, record the miles and log in daily to the website where you are given your weekly total, your position on the map and a photo from Google Earth showing where you are. I started off with two others but early on they were abducted by aliens around Charlottesville and their sad blobs have remained static on the map ever since.

The only American I've met on route, and he half naked.

Logging in almost daily, I’ve only once, ONCE, seen a person in the picture; apart from that, America is deserted. I did see a map of the USA recently which had the eastern and western seaboards marked as ‘America’ and the rest as ‘Dumb****istan’.

I’d hoped Virginia would have been a little more interesting than it is. To be fair, the road I’m on sometimes bypasses towns. Even so, even so… It did get exciting when I got into the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I noticed with a sinking feeling last week that my road seemed to be going downhill now. And then, as I was logging in last night, I received an email saying that I’d walked 555 miles and ‘you have entered the State of KY’. As I understand it, KY is boring compared to VA – I don’t hold out much hope. From now on the trek will be rhythmic and trance-like as I enter the plains of middle America.

But wait a moment, a quick google reveals that this is the Bluegrass State, famous for its horse, deer, turkey and elk. The banner of the site for Kentucky tourism says ‘everything you need to know to enjoy Kentucky’s unbridled spirit’ – although I did notice that the largest entry in its tag cloud was BOURBON.

Five hundred and fifty five miles! The length of Great Britain is ‘just under six hundred miles’ (but Land’s End to John o’ Groats is over eight hundred). So that’s what I’ve walked in a year. So you will understand and forgive when I tell you that, while speaking to a friend and hearing his views on NHS reform, and how fat people should be made to pay for treatment because we’re self-indulgent and can’t control ourselves, I found that I could control myself – just – from an overwhelming desire to punch him on the nose. Hard. Because after all that mileage I have to report that I have not lost a single pound.

But man, I’m walking faster, breathing better, and waiting on a phone call from the doctor about a recent bloodtest which may reveal, may just reveal that the reason I have sarcoidosis is because I’m getting too much sun.

The link to the Lawrence Berkeley Lab site for the virtual walk is

Posted by: Linda Proud | December 31, 2011

A Window on 2011

This is personal. I’m quite tempted not to do it, but while every news stream in the world is re-running tsunamis, nuclear meltdown, bankrupt nations, the ignominious deaths of dictators and riots in the streets, just for my own pleasure I want to note this as the year we got new windows.

View uncluttered by window frames

Pshaw! What a petty detail in the flow of time and event, new windows at no. 60, but these new windows could only have appeared in 2011 and sometimes such detail is a portal on to the life of ordinary mortals.

As banks wobbled our savings were under threat. As the interest rates stagnate, our savings evaporate. I’d already lost my pension thanks to the fund being with that blue chip, gilt-edged company, Equitable Life. The demise of Equitable Life, brought down by greedy shareholders with no thought to the common good, was one of the first rumbles of the coming storm.  So all we have in the bank is the balance between the sale of the last house and this one.

We started to spend it this time last year, when VAT was set to go up to 20%, and we had quite a spree but it was on fripperies such as Apple Macs, although we also bought a new boiler. In the spring our neighbour across the street moved away. She told us her house was on the market for £465K. Now she had an extension which we do not, but the house was full of problems with electrics, unfinished tiling, a front door that doesn’t open, so all in all we reckoned our house is worth much the same. It was then that we decided to spend our savings on house improvements.

The idea is that we increase its value for that time in the future when we have to leave (the stairs are too step to imagine living here into a ripe old age). Meanwhile, we get to enjoy the improvements. That part of the equation has certainly been proved right.

Front of house suffers trauma, but not for long

In this year we’ve put in a new fence in the back garden, turned the living room window into french doors, put new windows in the bedroom and bought an Everhot cooker. OK, the latter isn’t an investment in the future, unless we eventually sell the cooker with the house, but it sure has improved the quality of our lives. And we’re still working on the new kitchen that Her Ladyship demands. It’s mostly a refurb, but we’re tiling the floor and the walls and putting in a ceramic sink, and we still have some money left.

Our domestic goddess, Hestia, the warm heart of the house.

So that’s been our year, a year of renewal after the spate of deaths in 2009, a year in which in our own quiet way we meet the horror of the times by being happy and hopeful. It sometimes seems a queer contrast, but it’s not an untrue one. If any micro-historian is trawling the Cloud fifty years hence and wants to know what life was like for the individual, I hope this helps. Are we average? I don’t know. We live frugally in that we don’t have holidays and hardly use the car, we grow a large proportion of our own food and our spending is more considered these days, but we live in luxury. I feel very conscious of our great good fortune, not only in comparison with the Third World or Middle East, but also compared with the likely future of our children. Without doubt, we were born at the right time, and we are benefiting from it.

Posted by: Linda Proud | October 4, 2011

Can you trust your PCT?

Everyone at Wolvercote and Kendall Crescent surgeries received a letter recently advising us that last night’s edition of Dispatches on Channel 4, Can you trust your doctor?, would feature our  ex-GP, Mark Huckstep. As ever with a letter from NHS Oxfordshire (Primary Care Trust), you have to interpret the meaning. It seemed that the programme was not going to show them in a good light, and it didn’t.

(last third of the programme).

Not that Mark Huckstep is innocent. Let’s get that one straight. When we joined Wolvercote surgery in 2001, we had to get used to this doctor who had the most disarming manner and smile; each time we met him, all our background grumbling dissolved. He was just so nice. OK, so you had to wait up to an hour in the surgery for him to actually arrive, let alone see the people in front of you (not that there were many: the practice was hemorrhaging patients). You had to accommodate administrative inefficiency and not lose your temper when your results never came back or the repeat prescription was not waiting for collection, or was but hadn’t been signed.

At that time, my mother was still living in her own home but things were beginning to deteriorate and soon she was ping-ponging in and out of hospital and in and out of recuperation (short stays in care homes while social services wade through their workload). It was in these care homes that we began to see the name ‘Mark Huckstep’ up on boards. We also spotted his name at Nuffield Physio Dept., and he was the GP at Witney Hospital; all this on top of running two surgeries alone apart from locums.

Why? Why did he take on so much? Was it simple greed? Academic pride? Christian principles? He’s certainly an overt Christian and an enthusiastic evangelical. He’s also a great reader and thinker, and too many times we forgot to discuss the reason for my visit when we got into a rap on current reading. Once, in one of these chats, he told me that ‘they’ were out to get him, that he wouldn’t be around for much longer. The reason? He didn’t believe in abortion and wouldn’t refer young single girls on.

So when he did leave suddenly in the summer of 2010, we presumed we knew why, whatever the PCT said (or didn’t say) about it. The PCT offered us no good reason for his suspension from their Performers List and gossip was rife in the village, for instance how he had told one terminally ill patient that all she could do was pray and other such stories to show what a cuckoo Huckstep was. I found it all intriguing that, at the time we were losing our MP, Dr Evan Harris, known as Doctor Death round Westminster for his support of very late termination in abortions, we were losing our GP who was anti-abortion. The only thing connecting these two, apart from losing their jobs, was that they believed in something.

A couple more words about Mark Huckstep. Yes, his treatment of my mother in her last months was awful. Each time we called him, he either took anything up to 7 hours to arrive, or sent an ambulance in his stead. If the latter, then we lost Mum into the machinery of the hospital, and believe me, the situation in hospitals is FAR WORSE than anything GPs dole out. At the end, when one of the carers saw me in a frozen state because we needed help but I didn’t dare call the doctor, she pointed out that it was after hours. Sure enough, we happened upon an agency doctor who could deal with the dying and who was a tremendous support to us during the last week.

And then there was Huckstep’s treatment of me. I knew what I had, recognised the symptoms, took to the surgery all that was required and, after ten minutes gently guiding him towards the right diagnosis, he pronounced me diabetic. I helped him do the blood glucose test, because ‘I am inept with these things and leave it to the nurse’, whereas I was well practised having tested Mum regularly. So there we were, late December and my blood count pushing 30. He jumped on the phone to a consultant at the Radcliffe and wanted to know what he could do to treat me at home so that I didn’t have to go into hospital over Christmas.

He really looked after me. He took radical decisions with the medication – which has horrible side effects – which worked. I was really, really impressed. Yes, he was butterfly-minded but had a good heart.

And so to the programme, and the truth. What really happened was that Nurse Blackburn started work at the surgery and was so appalled by what she found that she reported Huckstep to the PCT. She was told that Huckstep had been on their radar for ten years. A locum doctor, Dr Slova, seconded to surgery was asked to write a report. She found three hundred unactioned abnormal blood test results. She worried at the PCT, requesting permission to inform the patients, but was told she could not. These two women are referred to as ‘whistleblowers’. What they said was that Dr Huckstep had far too big a workload and spread himself too thinly.

And that was the truth as we knew it, not as we had speculated. Despite these complaints, the PCT did not act but were ‘secretive and non-co-operative’. The women persisted that all those patients who had not received the results of blood tests should be contacted. They were not. Instead, these two women, who put truth before their own good, are now out of work.

Why does this society put the tag ‘whistleblower’ on someone who speaks the truth? In all my years I have never understood that, and I still don’t. Is it the old boy mentality that says one is loyal to one’s own and to hell with the rest?

What the PCT did (wrong) was seek to avoid ‘unnecessary anxiety’. OK. Fair enough. With any luck they recognise their mistake. But what they should be doing now is lauding those two women as heroes and taking steps to end their persecution.

Today in our lovely village (Jon Snow was filmed in front of the view  opposite our house – he and the camera team must have come and gone while I was in the kitchen) we have a surgery run very efficiently by Summertown Health Centre. My new doctor is sane, sweet, competent. Waiting time is minimal. Prescriptions are always ready and waiting.

Truth is, if it were not for those two women, now jobless, we would not have this wonderful new arrangement where we can all breathe a bit easier, and the surgery is filling up with patients again. What a sacrifice they made on our behalf!

I know from some Facebook exchanges last night that I’m not the only one in the village who wants to thank them for what they’ve done for us. This blog is the only way I know how. Perhaps someone will think of a better way.

Please leave your views if you were personally affected.

Posted by: Linda Proud | September 1, 2011

Lewis through the Looking Glass

We were asked to stop strimming on the allotment yesterday evening by a man who came over to say, ‘We’re filming.’ You immediately presume an episode of Lewis is going on, although it could equally have been the zoology department doing a video on rare snails.

We staggered home later with yet another barrow-load of harvest and slumped in front of the TV and this week’s episode of Lewis which, oddly enough, mentioned our village and featured our meadow. We prefer Lewis to Morse. The stories are better (sorry, Colin), and the characters more interesting (sorry, Endeavour). Sergeant Hathaway is a gem and has a moral and intellectual depth so much greater than his boss’s (although last night he encouraged Lewis to dump a mattress on a skip, which gives him a shadow side and makes him even more interesting).

We love the hallucinatory effect of the locations. Last week the villains went through the door of the Sackler Classics Library and entered a nightclub! We’re used to them running down a street in the north of the city to enter the centre from the south. The murderous academics  almost always live in the houses of multi-millionaires and last night’s opened on to Radcliffe Square!

Last week’s episode, written by Dave Pirie, was a knickerbocker glory of Inkling references and even included mention of Perennialist Titus Burkhardt. But for all its literariness and intellectualism, Lewis, like Morse, like most crime fiction, remains completely implausible and no less lovable because of it.

Although Kevin Whately is a Geordie, Lewis himself must surely be Welsh, which gives me the weakest possible link through to another topic. I’ve just finished reading A Dreaming for the Witches by Stephen Yeates. Great title, great blurb, but really only a book on archaeology with useless maps. I say ‘only’ because archaeologists, even more than other sciences, I think, have reduced their subject to a dead rat pinned out in a dissection tray with what made the animal interesting long gone.

Somehow, through a text that carefully avoids incriminating him as a man of imagination, Yeates implies that Wales once extended as far east as Gloucester and the Cotswolds, that the Dobunni tribe of that area, which became the Hwicce people in Anglo Saxon times, gave rise to the name ‘witch’ and that the Vale of Gloucester is the source of the Grail legends.

So careful is he not to say what he means that it’s a difficult read, but I did enjoy catching up with current thinking on the source of the English. Genetics, apparently, show that all the incomers, whether migrants or invaders such as Vikings, Saxons, Romans, Normans, Celts etc., each contribute less than 5% to the gene pool while a whopping 45% is contributed by the first people to arrive after the ice withdrew. We are the Bronze Age folk who built Stonehenge, unless they too were later incomers, in which case we did the work shifting stones, or rested on our hoes moaning about the changes to the landscape and saying the project will never work. But we’ve been here since the year dot and I find that pretty exciting. It leads on to all manner of thoughts about Englishness – and Welshness – best saved for another time.

Yeates is a hard read because academic discipline won’t allow him to say what he can’t substantiate, but I would love to have him round for dinner and hear what he has to say after a few glasses of wine.

There is fog on the meadow this morning and ‘the Spanish wild horses’ are grazing peacefully as only English domesticated horses can.  While Lewis makes hay with the facts, archaeologists reduce them into bone and dust: there must be something in between, some form of literature that is both truthful and imaginative. And so there is… Back to work then, after a short session of strimming if filming will allow it.

English tame horses on Wolvercote Common, our house in the background.

Posted by: Linda Proud | August 8, 2011

Knitting for Grown Ups

I took up knitting about a year ago. It gives me something to do that’s useful while watching TV and I can make gifts for the ever-expanding brood of grandchildren. I get no feedback (thank you letters are so last century) so I’m free to think I’ve done well: the beret in red bamboo (yes, bamboo), the massive guernsey which I should never have attempted in double knitting – now David’s favourite jumper – the gillet I made for myself out of local fleece, the little cardigan in acrylic wool dyed so mysteriously that it comes out as patchwork. That one won the cup at the village show. But even though I was getting adventurous in sourcing patterns, it’s still all knitting-by-numbers and doing what you’re told if it’s not to end in tears. Knitting patterns create a dependency culture. I was starting to get restless.

Bamboo beret

Child's cardigan steals the cup at Wolvercote Village Show

At Art in Action a couple of weeks ago I found exactly what I was looking for, not in the main demonstration tents (Textiles disdains knitting, apparently – you can weave but mustn’t knit if you wish to be taken seriously) but in the Market. There, if you could find your way in through the throng, was a booth full of the gorgeous stuff of Alison Ellen. Great beanies and berets, drapey jumpers and waistcoats in zigzags, chevrons, diamonds and squares. It was a fantasia of subtle but striking colours and textures, and here was the best bit, it was hand knitting, not machine. (I found later that the colours come from hand dyeing).

I was drawn to the hats but couldn’t afford one, although it was worth every penny. ‘But I could do that,’ I thought, ‘I could make one, if only I knew how.’

I went back the next day as stealthy as an industrial spy, collar turned up, sunglasses on, intending to hang around until I got the trick of her shapes and textures, but there were so many of us doing the same thing that it became impossible to maintain my cover. ‘Aren’t they just beautiful?’ asked a Jamaican lady in her 60s. This was bee conversation over a patch of borage. She dived in to touch the drapey cardigan in indigo I was eyeing.

‘If only I knew how to do it.’

‘That? That’s domino squares. You look it up on YouTube.’

You mean I’m not the only one to knit in front of the computer, learning things from YouTube?

Having discovered to my joy that Alison does courses and writes books about her art, I finally managed to leave and went to the Materials tent, hoping to find some wool. I did! Another buzz of women over a patch of borage called ‘Oliver Twists’ attracted me, and there was exactly what I wanted, hanks of yarn in linen and silk of variegated colours.

‘What do you do with them?’ I asked one woman. ‘How do you know what 225 grams will make?’

‘I just buy them,’ she snapped, brushing me aside. You don’t interrupt a bee when it’s got its bottom full of pollen.

‘Experiment!’ said another. ‘Just try something. You can always unpick.’ That was inspiring, but still I asked the question of the owner of the stall. He shrugged. ‘This is our first year doing knitting yarns,’ he said. ‘We haven’t a clue.’

It’s a big thing, knitting, it really is. The Textiles tent should take note. We may admire embroidered landscapes but what we want is a hat, a hat like no one else’s in the world. I went back to the swarm, dived in and came out with two gorgeous hanks. I’ve stroked them once or twice since but otherwise they remain in their bag. No, I didn’t just buy them. I will use them. But first I had to learn domino squares.

This week I’ve made a pedestal mat for the bathroom. So, it’s not glamorous, but it has used up the last of the hanks of cotton I bought thirty years ago (only remnants – the bulk of it went on a crocheted bedspread I made at the time and still use). By the time I’d got to the penultimate square yesterday, I’d mastered the technique. It’s not complicated but it does need your attention, and there’s been a deal of unpicking. So with the last square, I experimented.

This summer has been blighted by sciatica and yesterday I decided to rest and give the allotment a miss. So I knitted a lot and I studied Alison Ellen’s first book which I’d bought on Amazon, especially the section on basic techniques. Now I thought I knew how to knit. When I was a child, I used to pick up the thread laboriously with my right hand, move the whole hand round the left needle and pull the thread through the loop, breathing hard with the effort, my tongue between my teeth. As I got older I got wiser and developed a pretty nifty snake’s tongue technique where a yarn-laden middle-finger shoots out to load the left needle. Well, that makes me an English knitter, apparently, and I’d get along faster and better if I adopted the Continental method.

‘Don’t hold the right needle like a pen,’ Alison says. ‘Hold the needles on top.’

I spent a whole day, more or less, on one square and have never felt so cack-handed. I was five again, confounded by my fingers and breathing hard, but finally the rhythm came and now I’m Continental, holding the yarn in the left hand, as I do in crochet. All day on one square, the last square, and the best I’ve done. What evenness! What tension!

And to finish off my self-designed masterpiece of a toilet mat, I made two corner-filling triangles, because that is what Alison does, teaches you to think for yourself on how to do things and not faint away, crying for a pattern.

I like to spend the last half hour of the day on YouTube, following up early music tracks or listening to a compilation of Penguin Cafe Orchestra (although that is guaranteed to prevent sleep). Last night I watched a dozen videos on Continental knitting because Alison didn’t say how to do purl. Obviously Continental purl is a big issue because there are so many videos showing different methods, all of them Continental, none of them the same. I watched German, Norwegian and Russian versions and liked Russian the best, not only for the novelty of being taught how to knit by a man, and a Russian man at that. His English is excellent, you can see clearly what he’s doing and the picture doesn’t go dead when the cat knocks the camera over (most knitters live alone with cats and video cameras on tripods, it would seem).

Knitting is first recorded in the 15th century. It obviously grew up independently, each community having its own dialect of techniques and stitches. Peruvians, apparently, knit with their thumbs. I wonder if I can find that on YouTube? – a Peruvian video of thumb knitting one of those Andean ear-flap hats to the music of panpipes with llamas and snow-capped mountains in the background. It’s there somewhere, I’ll bet. I did find Estonian wool-carding, but that’s for another post another time.

Posted by: Linda Proud | May 8, 2011

On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine

On my (virtual) walk across America I’ve covered 220 miles and landed today at Rockfish Gap, with a great view of what turns out to be, after consulting the map, the Blue Ridge Mountains; not just any Blue Ridge Mountains, but the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Well, given that I’ve been humming Tchaikovsky’s 1812 (closing bars with cannon) all morning, this’ll make a change.

For once YouTube, which I’ve come to rely on as a compendium of popular culture, has let me down. The Pinky and Perky version is not available (I wonder if P&P actually exist any more, except in the memories of those of a certain age) so I’ve had to settle for Laurel and Hardy.

The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I’ve learnt, embrace the Shenandoah National Park (and now I have another tune in my head, thanks to Tennessee Ernie Ford and the Irish who took O Danny Boy to America).

All of this is just a small part of the Appalachian chain, which stretches almost the entire length of eastern USA. I’m not sure where the hillbillies live, but it’s somewhere close, I can feel it in my bones.

If I were to live in America, it wouldn’t be New York or Hollywood or Washington or Seattle, but in the Appalachian mountains somewhere (Blue Ridge, Virginia, will do) making patchwork quilts and playing on my dulcimer. No doubt my log cabin of old will have given way to a trailer in a trailer park and my socio-economic status is White Trash. No matter, so long as I get to eat my own food, make my own clothes, play my own music and maybe deal in a little moonshine on the side.

The two others in my team ‘Walking America’ were abducted by aliens between Richmond and Charlottesville. I must go and get them because it’s getting really good now. I hope they are none the worse for their experiences other than a slight headache and a gap in the memory.

Posted by: Linda Proud | April 25, 2011

Bring on the Goslings

The weather is far too lovely to be writing blogs, or reading them, so words will be few here. For non-bloggers, there is apparatus behind this page, part of which shows the ‘stats’, i.e. how many people have visited the site. My other blog, on writing historical fiction, gets about one hundred hits a posting and its stats chart looks like Manhattan’s skyline. My stats on this one peaked suddenly on April 11th with a dramatic skyscraper, but when I looked at the figures on the left, I realised they go in ones, not tens, and the sudden rise was due to one new visitor making my total up to three: that’s David, Nicholas and One Other. Welcome, One Other.

So for you three rare goose-lovers, here is painting for Easter Monday.

Studies of greylags by Valerie Petts

And a video…

We look forward to seeing this years goslings, ducklings and cygnets before too long.

Posted by: Linda Proud | March 20, 2011

Green thoughts in a greening shade

This is the moment, the breath-held threshold moment between winter and summer, the moment of ‘greening’. Some leaves are unfurling, making an acid-green splatter on the dark stems, magnolias are oozing like wax from their mouse-skins, forsythia, which has to be different, is making a show in gardens of mustard yellow. Cherry trees and almond trees are coming into blossom and the showers of white in hedgerows is the blackthorn.

Yester eve I was standing on Peter and Stella’s balcony to see the rising full moon in perigree. There was a bush showing up like a ghost on the edge of the meadow and we decided it was more likely to be blackthorn than cherry. The moon seemed to be late coming up, and I worried that perhaps it was coming up more to the north, so I left their house to walk out on the meadow and see. ‘Come back! Look! Look!’ Even as Peter shouted, I saw its liquid orange rim quivering over the trees, further to the south than we’d expected. I ran back, hurtled up the stairs and on to the balcony. The radio was playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, perfect music for a rising moon. And then I noticed that it was coming up over the blackthorn as if in sacred alignment.

The blackthorn I’ve discovered today is a very witchy tree. Its Celtic name of straife gave us ‘strife’, and it is the preferred wood for the makers of the Irish shillelagh and for witch’s wands. You don’t want to go messing with the blackthorn, at least not until autumn when on the hunt for sloes for sloe gin. If I was looking it up on the internet  just now, it’s because Peter, a forester all his life, said that a blackthorn winter, which is what we’ve just had, i.e. harsh, leads to an early summer. I haven’t found corroboration of that, but I did find plenty of spells. I’m glad I didn’t know about the ominous nature of the pretty white bush as the moon rose, because I was busy seeing beauty at the time and trying not to think of the malefic nature of the moon in perigree, called ‘Dragon’s Tail’ in the East.

After a week like the one we’ve just survived, let the moon signify the end not the beginning of troubles. For today is the Vernal Equinox.

They say it is the beginning of spring. Pah! What do they know? This is the middle of spring, as every gardener will testify. We’ve been looking at nature waking up since January, although some say it is Candlemas in early February which is the true start of spring.

Hildegard of Bingen wasn’t the first to use the word ‘viriditas’, but she was the first to link it to the greening of the earth and the lushness of the season we are now about to enter. For Hildegard, and for Gregory the Great before her, the real meaning of viriditas is ‘spiritual health’.

And oh, dear God, don’t we need that right now, as we launch tomahawk missiles into Libya? Earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown, war. Quite a week.

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment.
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment.
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and checked even by the self-same sky:
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory.
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay,
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful time debateth with decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night,
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

[Shakespeare, Sonnet 15]

Two weeks ago, I made some sourdough starter, which I now call Wilf since, in stirring him every day, we’ve formed an early morning ritual if not relationship. I made my first loaf last weekend and, despite being burned black (I forgot to turn the oven down after 20 minutes), it tasted very good. But last night Wilf and I got together for a bit of late-night stirring, and this morning, having fed Wilf his reward of two cups of sticky dough which he can chew on in the fridge until next weekend, I gave the rest a knead and a rise, and here is the result. Proud? Well, of course. How can I be otherwise?


Posted by: Linda Proud | March 10, 2011

An Inconvenienced Public

I thought I would devote a post this week to the public convenience, if only because it is under threat. And because I’ve had an idea.

First, a few words on peeing al fresco and the magic of urine. On the allotments is the Bramble Patch, only someone has cut down one side to reveal the little cubby hole within the bush that has been so useful over the years (you should see the colour of the grass and the size of the blackberries – and no, there is no smell, not in nature). Loo Two on the allotments is one of our own compost bays where I squat down and pretend to be a pile of compost for a minute or so, less if I can.

We got quite excited about the idea of a compost toilet, a proper one, until the allotment secretary had a North Oxford fit – shrieks of horror rising to a loud bray that indicates the crossing of a boundary in decorum. So we – and by we I mean the men – piss on the straw only when she’s not around. Straw bales and male urine, you see, make the most perfect and quick compost. Apparently I could join in if I were to invest in a gadget called a ‘She-wee’ or ‘She-pee’, but I have a horrible feeling I’d just get my hands wet. So I go off looking for a bush, or I follow the secretary to her own convenience of choice which is at the meadow car park.

Public convenience at the meadow car park, Godstow.

Not pretty, is it? In fact, in the right mood I could shriek and bray about how ghastly it is. That metal toilet! That hole in the wall which sends down soap, water and hot air like you were a coffee cup in a vending machine. And look, there on the wall is one teensy-weensy little effort to brighten the place: a single decorative tile showing the spires of Oxford.

Presumably metal has advantages?

Now, believe it or not, there are times when I think this place is just heaven, but it all depends on the pressure on my bladder. Which just about brings me to my good idea, except that I’m going to veer off on a digression.

My bladder was oppressed today when I was three-quarters of the way to King’s Lock. When I got there, I found there was a loo, but it hasn’t been built yet. It is Phase Two of the delightful programme which so far has given us an eco visitor centre. This 4 x 6 shed made of straw bales is just fabulous when the wind is as cold and bitter as it was yesterday, and how cosy it will be when Bluetit TV is actually working. I shall come back soon, with a good book and a flask of tea, but only when Phase Two is operational.

I found a shady bush, and came out of it just seconds before a couple of students came pounding past on an afternoon run. That was a close one, because really it was more of an arbour than a bush.

Then, with my thoughts back in my brain, I made my journey home, wondering how many toilet opportunities there were on this 5km walk, and there were more than I might have supposed, including the Trout Inn (‘I’d like to book a table for next week, but before I do…’) and the meadow car park, but while I was thinking thus, my birdwatching life reached its apotheosis when I saw a peacock on the towpath just ahead. It came from the Trout Inn, of course, but for a moment I could dream…

Anyway, back to the Golden Compost Activator…  I was reading yesterday morning about leather tanning, as you do when you’re a historical novelist, and found that to make a hide into supple leather, it needs to be soaked in pee. I can’t remember now if that is just after or just before it is soaked in diluted pigeon droppings and then again in a vat of animal brains. Anyway, somewhere along the line, the hide has a long stint in a vat of pee. And I discovered that the tanners could not produce themselves all they needed (which surprises me, because my domestic producer of GCA seems quite capable of filling a vat) so they put out piss pots on street corners to collect donations from passers-by.

Now as I write the name Vespasian floats into my mind, given that, back at home, my mind is on things higher than where’s the next toilet, but my dictionary and Wikipedia and a general google shed no light. So I turned, as you do when you’re a historical novelist, to my Italian dictionary, and there it was: vespasiano – a street urinal.

So now that really does bring me back to my bright idea. You see, in the past public conveniences were beautiful – lovely Victorian architecture, a bit heavy perhaps, but solid, and the interior tiled, the toilet and basins of white ceramic, the chain of bright steel, the pull of turned wood. How do I know all this? Either it’s imagination or I’m older than even I think I am. But that’s how I see them, like London tube stations or public baths. And I rather think they were there through the benefaction of industrialists.

Because men in the past had consciences, and public spirit, and a touch of chauvanism about their city, and healthy competition with the next city. So Mr Big of Bradford wanted his city to outdo Leeds when it came to a vespasian. But where is that public spirit today? The filthy rich, when they don’t need any more houses or swimming pools, give their dosh to charity, a sexy charity that will impress their friends, not to the local community.

One tile, pathetic in its solitude

I stood in the meadow car park bunker, taking a photograph of the decorative tile, and called upon Richard Branson of Kidlington to start a new trend. Think what fun it could be! The people of North Oxford could have Virgin Vespasians.

As it is, our shameful 1960s bunkers are threatened with closure (although since our secretary had a word with the local councillor, it seems our privvy on the meadow car park has been saved from the axe. She could make the devil himself change his ways, she could.) Truth be told, they’ll be missed by the bladder but not by the aesthetic eye. Oxford public conveniences are the very pits, and a compost toilet seems a luxury in comparison, but just getting rid of them is hardly the answer. No, now is the time to get visionary and aspirational. So will all billionaires reading this please get inspired.

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