Special Birthdays In Lockdown

(**Update**. I am aware that so many people are spending birthdays alone today, or worse still, in hospital. This post is not meant to suggest that either Julie or I are badly off, in any way.)

Most of us feel something different about birthdays that announce a new decade. Whether it is 30, 40, 50, or even 80, there is undeniably something special about them. When you are 20, you are no longer a teenager, and if you see your 90th year, you are doing pretty well even in this day and age.

My wife Julie is 60 today. Bad enough having a January birthday in winter weather and so soon after Christmas in any year. But in one of the worst periods in living memory, a lockdown birthday when you have to go to work puts the tin hat on it.

When I was 50, Julie treated me to a long weekend in Rome. It was mid-March, and we enjoyed exceptionally warm weather. When she was 50, I took her to Prague to celebrate. Cold but dry, and very interesting. A couple of years ago, we started to plan where to go for Julie’s 60th. A few days in a place neither of us had ever been. Perhaps Valetta in Malta, or Gibraltar. Our neighbour kindly offered to take care of Ollie in our absence. Our plan was to book that holiday in January 2020, a year in advance.

Well, we all know what happened.

On the 26th of December, the second lockdown arrived. I couldn’t take her into Norwich to choose her special gift from the jeweller’s shop, as it is non-essential. And the restaurant where we had hoped to celebrate can only supply a takeaway meal. The one we had chosen doesn’t offer that option.

That leaves Julie celebrating her big Six-O with no gift from me, and an Indian takeaway that we could have any other night of the week. And she has had to go into work. As she works for the NHS in a local doctor’s, it would have seemed rather lame to request holiday leave because it is her birthday.

And just to remind us that we live in Beetley, and it is January, it has been raining solidly for 24 hours.

Happy Birthday, Julie.

Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

How Old?

I went to bed last night thinking about age. Not my own age, but the age of other people. Those who were stars in my youth, and are still alive today.

I know how old I am, and when I was a teenager, I knew those film stars and singers were older that me. But as I have grown older, they started to get old. Very old. They did this seemingly without me being aware that there was still the age gap that existed when I was watching them on screen or stage. Of course, many have died too, but it is the living ones who are in my thoughts today.

Twitter has many users who habitually congratulate celebrities on their birthdays. There are others who mark the birthdays of famous people who have been dead for perhaps fifty years. Occasionally, the great age of some living stars that I expected to not be much older than me comes over as startling.

Olivia De Havilland, famous for her roles in films as diverse as ‘Gone With The Wind’ and ‘The Snake Pit’ was 104 years old this week. Yes, 104! In my youth, I was greatly attracted to the stunning actress Gina Lollobrigida. Today, she was 93 years old. 93? How is that possible? Do you remember Eva Marie Saint, the American actress? She was 96 today and was born one week before my own mother!

Genvieve Bujold is an actress I used to watch in films like ‘Anne of The Thousand days’, and Coma. She was 78 today. 78! And the delightful Leslie Caron, star of ‘Gigi’, ‘Father Goose’, and ‘Chocolat’. Wait for it, she was 89 years old on the first of this month. 89!

There is something very wrong about all this, and has it dawned on me what it is.

I am a lot older than I ever imagined.

Favourite Presents Of My Childhood

Christmas is coming on fast. Too fast.
That got me thinking about Christmas presents of my youth, and the fond memories I still have of them.

I was luckier than most. As an only child I got more than my fair share, and on birthdays too.

Sometimes, I even got a present ‘just because’.
I might have won a prize at school, helped out at home, or recovered from an illness.

Thanks once again to the Internet, I can find images of the identical toys that I received.

Fuzzy Felt was a wonderful toy, if you had the imagination to make the best of it. Pre-cut felt shapes could be stuck to the base, creating anything from a flower, to a wild animal.

My Dad made me a wooden castle when I was very young. When it got broken, I got a new plastic one for Christmas.
The great thing about such toys was that you would get the ‘extras’ to use to play with them.
I accumulated a large collection of Knights in Armour, and weapons like medieval catapults that actually fired stones.
The drawbridge and portcullis both went up and down too!

Around the same time, I also got a Farm Set for my birthday.
Within a few months, I had farm animals, tractors, and even a combine harvester!
(The camels and elephant seem rather out of place in this set though)

Along the same lines, there was a Wild West Fort.
This became home to US Cavalry soldiers and cowboys.
They fought great battles against marauding tribes of Indians on horseback.

Being a boy in the late 1950s meant I was given guns as presents.
I loved my ‘Davy Crockett’ pistol.
This was given to me for being ‘brave at the dentist’!
As well as ‘defending The Alamo’, this was also used when I wanted to be a Pirate, or Highwayman.

I later ‘upgraded’, to a Colt 45 Peacemaker that fired caps.
This was give to me in a cowboy holster, and I used to practice my ‘fast draw’.

Summer holidays meant playing outside, and along came the ‘Spud Gun’
Push the end into an ordinary potato, and you could fire a small plug of the vegetable at anyone.
We had some legendary Spud Gun battles, using large baking potatoes ‘borrowed’ from home.
(This image is American, but my one was identical)

Electronics arrived in the form of a Train Set connected to a transformer.
This was my first set, which was added to over time.
I had more track, a turntable, signal box, and a small station too.
Trouble was, my Dad used to take it over, and I ended up watching him.

The racing-car game Scalextric was a real luxury. My set was like the one shown, with contemporary Vanwall cars.
Extras were numerous, including a Pit Lane with buildings, and a Grandstand full of miniature spectators.
Sadly, as with the train set, my Dad usually ended up commandeering both cars!

Over the years, I had hundreds of toy soldiers. But my favourites were the sets of tiny soldiers sold by Airfix.
They were cheap to buy, so I could even add to them with my pocket money.
I think I must have had every set they sold, including US Civil War, Romans and Greeks, and French Foreign Legion and Arabs.
But when I got the Desert Rats and Afrika Corps duo, I built a sandpit in my bedroom, to recreate the battles of the 1940s.

Let me now about your favourite toys, in the comments.

Getting old: Some more thoughts

In a few months, I will be 65 years old. According to most people, survey companies, and the UK government, that is officially old. Old enough to receive my Old Age Pension, and to qualify for Senior Citizen discounts wherever they are offered. My Mum once told me that she felt just the same, despite being old. Inside, she was the same woman she had always been; with the same thoughts, hopes, desires, and unfulfilled dreams. One day, she assured me, I would understand exactly what she meant.
However, as I approach the age she was when she imparted that knowledge, I find myself disagreeing with her. For I am not the same. Far from it.

Life has made me cynical and unimpressed. Along the way I have discovered that dreams are just that, and that belief in the innate goodness of mankind to rise above circumstances is only for films and TV shows. Most of the things I believed in when I was young did not endure a life of work and experiences; some good, many not so. On the plus side, I have started to feel more comfortable in my ever-slackening skin, and content with my lot. I am less concerned about what others think of me, and therefore more forthright in my opinions. I have (almost) reached a pivotal age, one where life turns from whatever it was before, into those later years, when everything naturally slows down.

So, as I often do, I have some advice for you.

Don’t get a tortoise as a pet.
Before too long, you will begin to recognise too many similarities between you and the reptile. The saggy neck, extending chin, a clumsier and much slower gait, and a propensity to withdraw inside a shell of your own making.

Be aware of your limitations.
That younger you inside (if it is still there) might be telling you that you can still do all the things you did ten years ago. Climb up there, lift that up, cut that, dig this, or shift those. As you do so, you might notice that they were not quite as easily done as you remembered. Two days later, and you will find it difficult to even get out of bed.

Beware of bumps, cuts, and jumps.
Things no longer seem to heal. The slightest cut on head or hand will take forever to close. A small bump against a fence or a wall will hurt much more than you ever imagined it could, and present you with a technicolour bruise, out of all proportion to the injury sustained. For the same reasons, avoid jumping off of or over anything too. You will find that your body’s natural shock absorption is all but gone.

Read things twice.
Your eyesight will no longer be what you imagine it is. Reading an important document, government letter, or even a blog post, you will unconsciously presume some of the words and phrases, even though you are unaware of doing so. This can lead to some unfortunate misunderstandings. So read them twice, and preferably in a good light too.

Allow more time.
You don’t drive as fast as you used to, and traffic seems to be worse than it was. You cannot walk as fast either, so don’t presume you will catch that bus, or make the train connection in ten minutes. Think of how much time you would have allowed ten years ago, then double it.

Avoid mirrors where possible.
Looking at yourself in a mirror is a sure path to depression. Even catching sight of yourself unexpectedly, perhaps in a shop window, or passing a mirror, can lead to that worrying “Is that me?” moment. Get dressed before looking at your body in a mirror, and if you are a man, shave quickly, then get out of the bathroom. Undue contemplation of your physical and facial decline will not help at all.

There are so many more, I could write all afternoon. But I will leave it at those five tips for now.
If you abide by them, you might just live happily for another ten years, until you are 75.

Then you will really be old.

Family time

On Sunday, we headed off to Essex to visit some of my relatives. It was a trip of about 90 miles, and as the weather was good, we looked forward to our day out. Ollie was delighted to be accompanying us, and jumped excitedly into his spot at the back of the car.

The specific reason for the trip was to attend a barbecue, arranged as a surprise for my cousin’s 58th birthday. Her family managed to get her out of the house to visit a garden centre, and she was blissfully unaware of the frantic preparations that went on in her absence. I was very happy to be going to see so many of my cousins all in one place, and as their children range in age from four years old, to twenty-six, it was also going to be good to catch up with them after a three-year gap. Many years ago, my mother’s side of the family all lived very near to each other. We could walk to each others houses, and regularly congregated at my grandmother’s house, for weekly catch-ups, or large family parties. Time has moved on, and the family is scattered around the London area, the county of Essex, and now as far away as Norfolk. The chance to all be in one place is a welcome treat.

On the way to my cousin’s house, I decided to stop off a few miles away, and visit my elderly aunt. She was 92 this year, and has survived the passing of all four of her younger siblings, and her husband. She manages well-enough, with help from my cousins, and a fiercely independent spirit. I had not seen her for two years, though we had spoken on the telephone. She doesn’t like to go out much these days, and rarely socialises with the other residents in the retirement community where she has a small flat. She welcomed our visit, and was pleased to see us. She made tea, and offered cakes and biscuits, fussing over Ollie, as she had not seen him since he was a pup. I was shocked to see how frail she had become. Despite the constant care and attention of her immediate family, she hardly eats anything, and although she has no major medical problems, she was certainly depressed.

Soon after we arrived, she told us that she had had enough of life, and could see little point in carrying on. The fact that many of her close family are nearby was of little interest to her, and she declined our invitation to accompany us to the birthday party. She was also obviously confused to some degree, asking the same questions over and over, and she rapidly became tired. When her daughter turned up at the flat, she saw this as a sign that we would soon be heading off, but we stayed on for a while. I was reluctant to leave. My aunt is only a year older than my Mum would have been, and she is very much like her in appearance and mannerisms. In many ways, it was reminiscent of visiting her, minus the illnesses. When someone has reached the grand old age of 92, it is also at the back of your mind how much longer they will go on, and whether or not this might be the last time you see them.
The pleasure of the meeting was tinged with the sadness of the realisation of this fact.

Farewells said, we made the short journey to the barbecue. It was in full swing, with only a few guests yet to arrive. In glorious weather, everyone was sitting in the garden, surrounded by the smoke from the coals. My cousin was delighted to see us, and loved her gift of Dahlias, as she is a keen gardener. We saw her father, who is now in his 80s, and still very active. Her children, both a credit to her, (and themselves) had worked so hard to get everything ready, and keep it hidden too. Her brother and his small son, playing happily with the older children, and news of another on the way, due in February. When it is a family occasion as this was, even with the presence of some local friends and their children, the atmosphere is always relaxed and enjoyable. Catching up on some snippets of news, talking about jobs, hobbies, and extended family members who couldn’t make it. Far too much food cooked, and everyone having to leave too early, as the next day means work or school for most of those attending.

When it was time to go, clutching cake pressed on me for ‘later’, we said our goodbyes to everyone, thanking them for the invitation, and their hard work getting everything just right. It was also time to feel a little sad that we no longer live so close to each other, and that daily familiarity is sadly only a fond memory.

Driving home into a blindingly bright sunset, I looked at the swirling cloud formations, the Norfolk skies providing their summer bounty; the scenery above, if not on the ground. The colours of sunset, always slightly different, never the same two days running. I thought of my aunt, tired of life, and welcoming release from this world. The circle of family life, almost full-turned.

A Birthday week

It was my habit, a few years back, to have a ‘birthday week’. This generally started on the night before my birthday, and continued for six days after the event. During this special time, I would do no housework, and complete no chores, of any kind. I revelled in the absence of responsibility, claiming that anything unacceptable was due to it being ‘birthday week’. I made arrangements to see friends, ate out a lot, and generally did whatever I wanted to.

I refused to cook or wash up, and any behaviour or silliness on my part was deemed to be acceptable. This once a year festival of my birth was taken extremely seriously, and no exceptions were considered to be allowable. They were good times indeed, and immensely enjoyed by me, if nobody else.

Unfortunately, age and responsibility have a way of creeping up on you, so my birthday week in 2015 just didn’t happen. Problems with the heating seem to have overtaken my justifiable celebrations. It is now working, but there is no hot water. So yet again, tomorrow I have to wait in for the engineer. I still have my normal dog-walking duties too. I cannot get out of those, or Ollie will suffer. Other things must be done of course, as Julie is at work all day. So, easy cooking has been the order, just stuff thrown into the oven. I have washed up too, and put out the bins, and most other things required of normal life.

The next few days do not have openings for further celebrations. The weather forecast is dire, for one thing, and I have no plans in place anyway. I am beginning to think that this ‘birthday week’ thing has had its day, and run its course. I’m going back to one day next year. It’s a lot easier to manage.

January Grey

Looking out of the window today, I was struck by the colour of the featureless sky. We have had a few days of biting cold, accompanied by sunshine and blue skies, so it was only to be expected that January would finally arrive wearing it’s real face. It seems that most of Norfolk, and the rest of Eastern England for all I know, is shrouded in something that resembles mist, but is not that at all.

When I look at paint charts, I am often amused by the names chosen by the companies to represent shades of colour. The paint in this office was called ‘Hessian’, but does not look like any Hessian material I have ever seen. Sometimes, they are fairly accurate. ‘Primrose’ for instance, is a light yellow in our kitchen that is just like the natural colour of that flower. Outside, the sky is somewhere between off-white, and a light grey. If it was a paint sold by Dulux, I am convinced that it should be called ‘January Grey’, then we would all know what to expect, when the tin was opened.

Some of you will be aware that I have recently published a series of posts relating the tale of my trip to Kenya, in 1983. It was a long but enjoyable process, involving many hours of typing, and a deep trawl of my memory. I am happy to report that it was very well-received, and attracted lots of views, as well as some nice comments. This makes it all feel worthwhile, even though I would have written it anyway. Looking at the figures today, I did notice something that, to me at least, seems unusual. There were six parts to that feature. Some were read more than others, and the two later entries more than the first two. This interests me a great deal, as it means that some readers have not bothered to either continue with the story, or to go back and read the beginning, after discovering the last part.
This is one aspect of blogging that always makes me wish that I knew who actually viewed each post. I could then ask them why they didn’t choose to read the whole thing. It is like reading the start of a book perhaps, deciding it’s not for you, and not completing it. Or reading the last chapter, to save wading through the rest. Sorry to waffle on, but I do find it intriguing.

As you can tell, if you are still reading this far down, this post isn’t about anything specific. I felt the need to mention the grey sky, and everything rambled on from there. We are taking down our sparse Christmas decorations later, making it the official end of the festive season. We have birthdays to look forward to though. Julie’s is next week, and I have already got her gifts, so feel well-organised. Mine is in March, and regular readers will know that I always anticipate it with excitement. In between the two, we have those grey days of January and February to endure. One thing about time flying as you get older, is that winter doesn’t seem to last as long as it used to.

In case anyone got missed out. I wish you a happy and healthy 2015. My best wishes to you all. Pete.

A Different Week

This was supposed to be a good week. Julie is off, and her twin girls are celebrating their 25th birthday.

Last weekend, I heard that my old friend, Bill Evans, had been found dead. I haven’t seen him for over 25 years, but absence did not diminish the fondness that I felt for him. Incredibly intelligent, a talented musician, a man with a biting wit. Not much older than me, he was found dead in his home in Wales. He died alone, unable to impart his dying words to another person, his last thoughts and pronouncements unknown to history. Despite suffering many medical problems over the years, and finally being free of the pain that plagued him, I am haunted by the fact that he died alone. Nobody should experience death alone. Human contact is all important, at the second most important time in a life. I will miss him, and I applaud his constructive life.

We still had bad weather on Monday, so did little.  On Tuesday, we entertained one of the twins to dinner, and she enjoyed her presents, and birthday cake. Today, Julie went to lunch with the other twin, and gave her her own presents and cake. The birthdays were justly celebrated, and were enjoyed, as such things should be

For me, the week was overshadowed by the death of my friend. As we all get older, we expect to lose parents, older relatives, and some of those around us. But little prepares you for the death of friends of the same, or similar age. The memories come flooding back, seeming like yesterday, though you know that they are a lifetime away. The sense of ones own mortality is heightened, and the mood becomes reflective, and a little pessimistic.

Tomorrow, we are planning a trip to the beach, at Overstrand. If the weather holds, we will go out again, then do some gardening. On Saturday, we will venture out for a restaurant meal, sealing the week off with an event to remember. For my old friend, now dead, none of this is possible. He can only live on in memory; his days out are no more, and his life is now consigned to history. At least he is well remembered, with love and humour. We should all hope for so much.

Favourite months

Tomorrow is the first of September, and I always look forward to its arrival. It heralds the end of the summer, and the start of autumn, and is one of my two favourite months, the other being March. This is mainly because March is the month of my birthday, and because it is the end of the winter. I have always enjoyed my birthday. It is personal, unlike Christmas, which is for everyone.

I have always felt that March was a good time to celebrate a birthday. The weather can be surprisingly good sometimes, so it is possible to plan a nice day out, to celebrate. It is far enough away from December, so not caught up in the festive hangover, and equally unaffected by the summer rush for outdoor activities. In England, most places of interest or traditional seaside tourist spots are still closed up, awaiting the season.

This means that trips in March have the feel of delicious isolation, making it all seem even more special. The countryside is just beginning to wake up, after the long winter sleep. Bulb flowers are peeking through the ground, and animals are getting restless, awaiting the time of new births. Birds start to arrive from countries still locked in the depths of winter, and as the month nears its end you feel the promise of spring in the air.

September is the complete opposite. The young animals and birds have long left the safety of their parents, and are making their way in life. The trees and plants stop growing, ready to shed leaves, petals, and seeds. There is also the prospect of a late summer, as if the sun has forgotten it should have left. Warm evenings before the dark returns, the last insects of the year making their final rounds. The children are going back to school, freeing the beaches and other nice places from their shrieking and crying. The tractors have finished on the farms, at least for a while, and the roads are no longer jammed with traffic heading for the coast, or beauty spots inland.

Everything is handed back to the mature and the contemplative. Restaurants and cafes that turned you away during the summer rush now crave your patronage. Shops are full with Christmas stock, so there is no reason to head for shopping centres as they no longer have anything you need. This is the time when I take my holiday, or as I am now retired, so arguably on permanent holiday, when Julie takes her annual holiday.

Starting tomorrow, we have two weeks together, with no foreign trips planned, a chance to explore Norfolk, and possibly other parts of the U.K. During weekdays at least, anywhere we want to go will be free from wandering packs of families, the ear-splitting cries of children, the bellowing of fed up parents, and the congestion of buggies. As an added bonus, it is also too soon for schools to have organised trips, so we will also avoid the chattering snakes of over-excited children, marshalled by earnest teachers.

It is a long time to wait for September. All your friends and colleagues have been away already; back with glowing tans, and tales of beaches and sambuca, or a hot Provencal summer. You don’t mind though, you know it will be worth it. The leaves will be changing colour on the trees, the fields cleared, neat and tidy as a freshly made bed. Time off in September feels stolen, as everyone else settles back into the drudgery after the long summer break.

Your time has just begun.