From Sledding to Shedding

When I left Ontario in early May, the snow was gone but the temperature was not reliably warm! This was true of Norwich as well, although during the last week of May there were days when I was able to sit in my shed in the garden, wearing a short sleeved shirt, with the door open. It is actually surprisingly close and humid sometimes in this part of England. In a month the tennis at Wimbledon will begin. In order to meet traditions there should be strawberries available by then. The plants outside my door are in flower, so I will be able to watch the berries develop and ripen.

When I am here the dog comes and invites me to kick tennis balls across the lawn for her every few hours. This is a good way of giving her exercise. The other options are to drive to the forest, which takes time, or walk along hot and boring pavements. She is elderly now so she gives up the game before I do. Her sign that she has had enough is to go the side of the garden, have a drink, and then slink off behind the garage. She is getting deaf and a little short sighted. This means towards the end of the game, it is not so much ‘kicking balls for the dog’ but ‘kicking balls to the dog’.

The garden is a riot of colour. I don’t know very many of the plants, which is a pity, but the flowers are amazing and the plantings effective. The birds are singing their hearts out. When we first moved into the house the garden was quite barren, and there certainly was not the birdlife there is now. There are open containers of water placed strategically under various bushes for birds and insects. One was teeming with tadpoles. We have purposefully left ‘wild’ areas, and this is where the frogs hide out, so it is good to see the next generation in the making. A few evenings ago I went out after a heavy rain shower and saw two rather large frogs. Their visibility was due to a combination of the rain and the fact the light outside my office was on and attracting insects, a buffet.

It has been a fun couple of weeks. My daughter Rowan and I went to listen to Kathryn Tickell at the Norwich Playhouse (where Rowan works). Kathryn is a folk musician from Northumbria, near the Scottish border. The event could have been disastrous as the poor woman had lost her voice. Fortunately she was able to play the fiddle and Northumbrian pipes, and her band filled in, singing where necessary. I don’t know how much they adjusted the programme from what they had planned but one of the band members tap danced for two of the numbers, a skill I would have loved to have learnt. Some of their amazing music is available on her website.

I had a long tea – in the sense that it was leisurely – with a friend who lives in a farmhouse in the Norfolk countryside. We went to the Dial House, which is on the market square in Reepham (pronounced Reefham), a small town about 10 miles from the house. It is almost right in the centre of Norfolk. The red brick building dates from 1721 and was home to the Bircham family, wealthy landowners and brewers. It is an interesting use of space, there were not many people, but it has lots of room and the kitchen is in the centre of the building. The customers could see what was going on if they so wished. Had there not been a cool breeze we would have sat outside in the sunshine. Tea and scones, very nice, very British.

On the subject of very British, our neighbours, a delightful couple, are busy doing up their house and garden to make it into their ideal home. This involves a lot of manual labour, and as far as I can see they are doing all the work. I was most impressed as they had two skips delivered. These sat side by side on the drive, and were rapidly filled up with rubble and excess soil. The reason for ‘rapid’ is that the charge for skip hire is per day, so it makes sense to get them full as quickly as possible. One of the women was working away when I walked past. I could not resist saying: “Two! That is one-up-man-skip”. She found it amusing. And the reason for walking past is either to take the dog for a walk, which is not always successful, or to go to the post box.

She asked me about the history of our house, saying she had heard that something had happened to it during the Second World War. She is correct; it involved a bomber failing to get airborne from Norwich airport. We looked at the house from the road. I told her what had happened and my family’s connection to the events – which I only found out some years later. I have to find the newspaper clipping and then will post the story in a forthcoming blog. This may take a while as I am not sure where I put it.

When I sit down to write this blog at the end of every month, I don’t quite know what I am going to put in it. It is partly stream of consciousness, but I do go back, edit, and reread. I know exactly how long it is going to be though: two printed pages. The reason for this is that it gets printed out and posted to three of our relatives who do not look at things on computers. I admire that Luddite spirit. Since I enjoy the process of addressing envelopes, possibly using sealing wax, and then having the satisfying walk to the post-box and popping the letters in, it also fulfils one of my needs, clearly a ‘win-win’ situation. I am not certain though what this says about my psyche.

I had occasion to fly to Stockholm. The route is from Norwich on KLM to Amsterdam and then on to Arlanda airport. To get into the city there is fast train that takes only 20 minutes. The Arlanda Express is smooth, comfortable and goes right to the central train station. According to the on-board display, the top speed is 180 kph. It took me about five minutes to walk to the hotel, so was very convenient. The journey from door to door took six hours, including the 15 minute walk from the airport to the house! Everyone was away so I had to walk home.

The KLM crew have been given new scripts to read before take-off. It is the usual stuff about emergency exits, seat belts and so on. There is however an addition which I found amusing. Many of the newer aircraft have plugs for computers and other electronic equipment at every seat. The announcement was something like, “You are welcome to use the power points, but when your device starts smoking or gets hot, unplug it and tell the cabin crew”. I pointed out the pursers on both flights that when was the wrong word, it should be if. To illustrate this I said they would say “when the flight gets to Amsterdam” not “if the flight gets to Amsterdam”. I wonder how long it will take the word to get back and for KLM to change it. If I had thought of it, I should have taken a photograph of the script, and posted that as well.

Rowan has been the source of some excellent reading material recently, so good in fact that I am going to do a couple of book reviews. I sometimes make notes at the end of the posts on books or films that are worth reading or watching. These two books are really excellent, but very different. I do hope others will be motivated to read them, so let me review without giving away the stories.

Matthew Sullivan, ‘Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore’, Penguin, London, 2017, 328 pages. This book begins with a suicide and ends with a murder. It is set in a bookshop in Denver, Colorado. Lydia Smith has a dark story of survival and this is gradually told, partly through mysterious messages in the pages of books. There is a wonderful picture of the people who simply hang out in bookshops, mostly because they have nowhere else to go. Sullivan coined a name for them: ‘BookFrogs’. Of course, in order to be a BookFrog, you need a large bookshop with many floors, nooks and crannies, and a tolerant staff. One of the quotes on the cover is: ‘A smart, twisty crime novel’. I am not sure it is a crime novel although there are crimes in it.

Ian McGuire, ‘The North Water’, Scribner, London, 2016, 326 pages. This is the story of a whaling expedition in the north Atlantic around the coast of Greenland. It is set in about 1859 and tells, with ferocious intensity, of the expedition of the Volunteer, one of the last sailing whaling vessels. The main character is the ship’s surgeon and the story follows him as he battles for survival and sanity. The pictures of the inhospitable environment and the men who seek to make a living in it are vividly painted. The descriptions are so vibrant that one can almost feel the cold. It is hard to understand how these people survived without the clothing and equipment that we take for granted today.