Saturday, 22 April 2017

100 Good Things About Growing Old (continued) - Numbers 21- 22 - Husbandry

It's a long time since I started my list of 100 Good Things About Growing Old.  Intervening events have somewhat shaken my notion that there could be so many.  However, now that the air is warmer, the soft spring rain is gently rejuvenating parched trees and shrubs, and we have successfully completed a week of holidaying together, I am able to look again. This time, specifically at my (nearly 40-year-old) relationship with my husband. 

21.  Mental compatibility

As we sat down to eat yesterday my husband looked up briefly from his plate to ask me if I understood the universe.  That's the kind of relationship we have. 

No, I replied, even though I do think it is made of dust and originated when bits of swirling dust collided and formed solid objects.

But where did the dust come from?  he asked.

I don't know, but one thing I am sure of and that is that God didn't have anything to do with it.

But I have a question for you, I went on.  Why is it that human beings have a moral dimension?  Even though many of them prefer not to use it.

He didn't have an answer to that, any more than either of us had an answer as to where the dust comes from.  So we lowered our heads, I to my book, he to his i-Pad, and continued to eat in silence.

22. Weirdness

Which of us is the more OCD?

Me - picking up the liquid soap bottle with rubber gloves, before using it to wash my hands.  (But only when very germy person last handled it).

Him - discussing the idea of buying a cyclist's face mask to wear to the office, when very germy people are about.

I think he is the more extreme, because people would see him!  (I haven't admitted to my own failing in public).  In fact, I told him his colleagues would have him certified!

Thus we tolerate each other's eccentricities, while aware that to other eyes we probably both come across as weird and unattractive oldies. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

Margaret Cole - a forgotten figure

Two weeks ago, I sprained my ankle.  The accident happened in part due to my haste in wishing to visit some new charity shops in a town I haven't visited before.  I've been sitting with my foot up and reading.

So here is a post in homage to my great affection for both books and charity shops.

"Growing Up Into Revolution" by Margaret Cole
This book is a first edition, but only because it was never popular enough to call for a second.  The book was marked by the charity shop as £1, then marked down to half price.  I would have bought it anyway.


Did Michael steal, buy or donate the book from/to the Library?
It was written in 1948, published in 1949, and owned by someone called Michael Graham in 1950.

I have touched on Margaret Cole in a post about detective stories, but my interest in her originated in two facts.  Firstly, she was an exact contemporary of Vera Brittain - both born in 1893. I have written several posts about Vera Brittain and her contemporaries. And even male contemporaries.

Secondly, Margaret was a pioneering female writer, socialist and feminist.  Of course, these are among the reasons why Vera interests me, but Margaret differs in one major respect.  She was less involved in World War One.  Margaret's husband, GDH Cole, was exempted on account of vital war work, and her brother, Raymond Postgate, was imprisoned as a conscientious objector.  (Vera is, of course, most famous for her War biography, "Testament of Youth").

Margaret, much less famous altogether, did not write anything so memorable.  Her autobiography is a fairly amateurish and intimate effort, and all the more charming and interesting for that. 

She is brazen about her middle-class upbringing - a family home in which two maids slept in the attic, a father who was an academic at Cambridge, and servants from the first day of her married life.  In this she is no different from Vera Brittain.  Both write without a trace of apology of having a live-in couple to "do" for them, and nursemaids for the children. 

It's hard for someone like me, and my contemporaries, to read this without fury and scorn.  Having had no such luxuries, we struggled to bring up our small families, of two children maximum, and achieve anything at all in professional working life.  A woman had to be truly exceptional in energy, ability, contacts, and confidence to do more than work part-time or anywhere other than a school.  This was in the 1970's before the Equal Pay Act, before free nursery provision and before extensive maternity pay and leave. 

However, we did have washing-machines and vacuum cleaners.  These are, in my view, the top two labour-saving devices.  Later, we had dishwashers, tumble-driers and microwaves.  Disposable nappies came along in time for the second child.  We had fridge-freezers, central heating, electric ovens, indoor plumbing. And our own car, and bank account. 

Without domestic help, (in pre-war days one servant of some kind per actual family member seemed the norm) Margaret and Vera (and all the others) would have had to spend their entire time scrubbing floors, operating mangles and dolly-tubs, boiling water on primitive gas stoves, washing up without rubber gloves, walking to local shops every day for perishable foods, and lighting fires on open hearths which then had to be cleared and emptied daily.

So really, for women without her "standard of living" (Margaret's own words) anything they wrote would be likely to be "Got up at six.  List of chores.  Put children to bed, went to bed, end." Every day for three decades.

Margaret writes about her relationship with Beatrice Webb, who was born a generation earlier.  For that generation, all the above applied, but it was also necessary to have NO children (Beatrice was childless), and ALSO to have a private income.  Because doing any kind of work at all would have been incompatible with achieving something in the realms of thought, social activism, and writing.  Virginia Woolf, born thirty years after Beatrice and ten years before Margaret, wrote about this memorably in her essay "A Room of One's Own".  Life was also tough for any man born without contacts or independent wealth, but it was not nearly as bad for a man.  They did not have to do any domestic work, or bear and nurture children.

So although one's first reaction is fury on learning that Margaret was educated privately at Roedean, (synonymous with "elitist" during my Sussex childhood), one has to accept that for women, certainly, conditions of life were such that nothing could be achieved at all without a certain level of advantage. It does not mean that Margaret was a hypocrite, or insincere in her devotion to liberal socialism.

The work of Beatrice Webb, founder member of the Fabian Society, co-founder of the London School of Economics, and of the New Statesman, provided a platform for efforts a generation later by those who fought for women's rights in the 1920's and 1930's.  People like Margaret Cole continued that work, and she and her Fabian contemporaries helped to build the platform which led to the first truly successful Labour government in 1945.

You have to read a book by Vera Brittain's daughter, Shirley Williams, called "Politics is for People" to realise just how integral the aims of Labour party pioneers have been to the society we take for granted today.  Here's a list of the objectives Baroness Williams noted down in the 1960's, which have since been enacted in law.
(Although such is the pace of change that some of them have been written out again, or they survive under different names).

The Freedom of Information Act
Educational Maintenance Allowances
Parent Governors and School Councils
Traning Allowances for Youth Unemployed
The Scottish Assembly
Devolution and Regional Government generally
Biotechnology and Renewable Fuels
Private Finance Initiatives (PFI)
Regional Small Business Agencies funded by central government
Breaking down social segregation in housing

In fact, the only idea Baroness (sic) Williams listed which has not been pursued to the Statute Book is the abolition of Private Education. 

Margaret Cole, her husband and her contemporaries worked tirelessly to pursue the fundamental aim of improving the lot of the large majority of people born without privilege or advantages.  The fact that all these people were privately educated, and owned homes which even Cabinet Ministers would today find beyond their reach, is not the point.  Although in truth it's taken me a while to get that point in perspective.  And, crucially, Margaret Cole was a mother of three, in a time when mothers were not expected to do anything at all outside the home.

She dedicates her book to her first-born, her elder daughter Jane.

Jane, born in 1921, went to America as a war bride in 1946.  Her mother writes movingly of the normal emotions and reactions of grandparents being strained to the utmost because of the 3,000 mile distance between them.

All in all, this book is a fascinating insight into a lost and forgotten age.  We should pay more attention to history, and facts. Young women today who revel in their freedoms, their careers and their more equal relationships, might be surprised to learn that less than 100 years ago their lot would have been entirely different, were it not for the work of people like Margaret Cole.  Of whom almost no one has ever heard. 


Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Reflections on the death of the Dowager Marchioness of Anglesey, died 21st Jan 2017

For four decades I have been a devoted follower of Vera Brittain, as earlier posts in this blog will testify. 

Yesterday, I happened upon the wonderful free archive called Soundcloud, on which is to be found a 90 minute discussion held at The London School of Economics.  The two guests were Vera Brittain's biographer, and her daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams.

Shirley Williams is now 86 years old, (born July 1930), and speaks as forcefully and lucidly as she ever did.  The discussion was wide-ranging, and, as might be expected in a lecture programme which is named after the controversial Marxist philosopher Ralph Miliband (father of David and Ed),  drew some biting questions, the most critical of which had nothing to do with Vera Brittain.  Shirley replied astutely, calmly, and politely to all questions asked of her.

Shirley, now a member of the House of Lords in her own right, was educated at St Paul's Girls' School, then, as now, an elite private institution, and at Oxford.  This was a privileged education, notwithstanding that her father, George Catlin, stood in the 1920's and 1930's again and again as a prospective Labour Member of Parliament, and is acknowledged by Shirley as a greater influence on her political thinking than was her mother.

I find it quite taxing to ponder this question of elites.  Another female who has served the public in many roles and would appear, on the face of it, to be a member of an elite, has died recently.

Today, in The Times, (which unfortunately is behind a paywall), I read the obituary of the Dowager Marchioness of Anglesey. 

Picture credit The Womens' Institute
There are many links between these two women. 

Both were christened Shirley.  Vera Brittain wrote that she called her daughter after Charlotte Bronte's "gallant little cavalier". Lady Anglesey was also, according to her obituary, named after CB's heroine.  Both were born to parents who had been deeply, and tragically, involved in the First World War.  Shirley Williams is daughter to the writer of the seminal "Testament of Youth".  Lady Anglesey was the daughter of the novelist Charles Morgan.

I have written extensively about Charles Morgan, and his links with Vera Brittain here.

Both Charles Morgan and Vera Brittain came from solidly middle-class backgrounds.  Charles's father was a President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vera's a successful manufacturer.  It was their middle-class success that paid for their children's educations, and the confidence of such a background led to first-generation success in letters and public life, and second-generation public honours.  Shirley Williams is a Baroness in her own right.   Lady Anglesey gained her title by marrying into the aristocracy, but was awarded CBE and DBE.  (Her Times obituary claims she was offered a peerage in her own right by all three political parties but turned it down).

So an elite education was a springboard to success.  And also, perhaps less controversially, it seems to have nurtured a devotion to duty, and to public service and to clarity of thinking.  These things are positive attributes which might be found in any member of the population, of course.

However, it is much harder to achieve a position where such attributes may be recognized if your parents and grandparents are from the lower levels of society. One of Baroness Williams' first points in the LSE lecture was about how the whole of the First World War, in the way it was staffed and the way officers and men were selected, was absolutely rigidly controlled by the class structure of the time.  She pointed out, this was far less so in the Second World War and subsequent wars. 

Aside from the Army,  it is still true that if your parents and grandparents were from the working classes, even today you have to really struggle to make a mark in the world.  And if you don't make your mark, your habits of thought will not develop robustly in public debate.  And your contributions will not be used in public debate.  And they need to be. The more people who are thinking clearly and debating rationally, the better.

Lady Anglesey's obituary remarks that her "characteristic acumen, backed by charm, curiosity and assertiveness" soon brought her a number of public appointments, where her devotion to duty and to serving the public eventually brought the honours referred to above.  That's good, and the nation has undoubtedly benefitted.  It could benefit  more. 

Others may have exactly the same personal qualities, but will never be heard of in public life. For example, my cleaning lady, who retired two years ago, held these same qualities but will never be asked to contribute to public debate. Nor would she ever have the confidence to embark on a career in local government, or volunteering, which are ways to start in public service.

There must have been, and still be, many hundreds of thousands of such people who are never heard.

This is why my thinking is conflicted on the subject of elites.  One can only regret the continued disproportionate influence of a privileged education. However, the existence of at least a few people possessed of robust common sense, a sense of right,  a concept of public duty, and an ability to make themselves heard, are better than none at all. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Delight of The Mundane

I recently read a biography of Ted Hughes by the magisterial Professor Sir Jonathan Bate (OBE), previously more famous for his work on William Shakespeare. 

The New Statesman review is an excellent and thoughtful one. 

My purpose is not to review the biography, or to talk of my views on the behaviour of Ted towards Sylvia.  Suffice it to say that she HAUNTS this biography, and comes out of the story in a much better light than she does in an older biography devoted to her alone, published in Ted's lifetime, called  "Bitter Fame" 

Aside ---  On this point, a good link is  The first reviewer here comments on the relentless criticism of Sylvia that permeates that book.

Another Aside ---  And a historic link  A unique exchange of letters between the author of "Bitter Fame" (Anne Stevenson), Ted's sister Olwyn, and the poet and erstwhile "friend" of Sylvia, Al Alvarez, who appears in both biographies.

No, I'm actually commenting on how good it probably is NOT to be a poet, or anyone else tortured by artistic struggle (think Van Gogh, for example).

It's the everyday that keeps you grounded.  Good to bear that in mind, in the dark, dismal days of January.

Monday, 2 January 2017

A Post Festive Analysis

Here are some things I DIDN'T say

  • That dog is completely untrained

  • You are a completely selfish  *****

  • Don't keep going on about how the beef is overcooked

  • I am never doing Christmas again

  • I want to spend Christmas alone next year

  • The dog is a nervous wreck because it gets no consistency in the reactions to its whining and pawing

  • I want a divorce

So that was quite an achievement.


I met a complete stranger out on a walk on Boxing Day, and she burst into tears following our ritual greeting "Did you have a nice Christmas?"

We hugged.

After New Year's Eve, I told my husband that I am never going to do a New Year's Eve dinner party with the neighbours again, neither at theirs, (the next two years) or at ours (which would next be in 2019). 

Hubby has just read his Ladybird book.  Last year I gave him the Ladybird Book of the Shed.  This year I gave him the Ladybird book of Boxing Day.  He grudgingly admitted that it had been slightly amusing in places. 

Fortunately there is football on almost all the time over the festive period.

Monday, 26 December 2016

And it's only Boxing Day Morning

I've already upset my younger daughter's partner,  my older daughter, my husband, and my brother.  Also I snapped at my sister-in-law.  Last year and the year before, my strategy of keeping off the alcohol worked very well.  This year even that is not enough.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Poem by Edward Thomas, "The Owl"

The warmth of the hearth - and anxiety for those who are outside at night in winter ....

Beautifully summed up in this poem, by Edward Thomas (1878 - 1917) 

The Owl

DOWNHILL I came, hungry, and yet not starved,
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the north wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl's cry, a most melancholy cry.

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered too, by the bird's voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice