Sat in the garden, coffee to hand, laptop open, snatches of sun sneaking through gaps in the clouds, and I can hear that familiar sound of summer: someone cutting their lawn. Ah! And here comes cake. This is a lazy, go-slow sort of holiday – just what we needed. This morning we collected daughter no. 1 from a single carriage train that dropped her off on a teeny-tiny archaic Victorian platform. It reminded me of my University days and my father collecting me from a request stop on the Tarka line. She’s been working and has come to join us for a few days. Now she sits playing Connect Four with daughter no. 2, coffee and cake beside her, while an ancient rusty tractor trundles past. Though there isn’t a lot to do around here, I am told we are booked to visit an observatory tomorrow to have a look at their big telescope. We will walk again this afternoon.
My husband plans to walk a long-distance path (135 miles) starting on Saturday. He has more time off than me and has chosen to spend it exploring the ups and downs of country lanes, fields and forest on foot. He will be crossing stunning countryside. No consideration forgotten as he plans the expedition, but I am feeling a little exhausted from listening to all the preparation talk; his need for this and need for that. It would seem that the preparation is as exciting as the walk itself. He has also been eating to gain weight so that he can take less food with him – at least that is the idea – but his habits are placing a lot of temptation on my table. I feel that all I have done this week is eat, sleep, read and rest.
In truth, I have indulged in a favourite past-time. I have been able to do some more research for my writing and have been rummaging through the big old kist that harbours my great-grandmother’s hoards: photographs, letters, postcards, journals, invitations, newspaper cuttings, magazines, all sorts.
She started a good thing and my grandparents continued it. I am so grateful to them. It has made for a fascinating holiday. I have found two letters from Lord Louis Mountbatten in the 1960s, one inviting my grandfather to join him for a drink. Someone has stuck a ‘post it’ note to them commenting on the colour of the ink. Apparently only the Admiralty write in green ink! I have found the negative for a magazine photo of four leading political figures in the establishment of the Union of South Africa. I cannot think why we have the negative, but I also can’t help feeling it is of some significant historical interest. It would seem to be from the early 1900s. I also found a postcard, which I think is in my great-grandfather’s handwriting (not 100% sure) sent from German East Africa during the First World War and written in German. German, why German? I encountered other letters from my great-grandfather written in later life to my grandfather. My own father always spoke so highly of my great-grandfather. He adored him. I have to say that reading these letters really touched my heart. My great-grandfather does indeed come across as such a lovely, lovely man with a strong faith. There is also a pamphlet written by him about the League of Nations’ Finances. I was most intrigued to see the list of countries that continued to pay their membership fees to the League throughout the war. The name that surprised me most was Afganistan.
There are so many letters to and from a variety of people. One I particularly enjoyed was from 1935 to my great-grandmother. I have no idea who the writer is other than her name is Geraldine and she lived in England. Her letter tells the story of her young daughter bouncing into her bed and bursting a hot water bottle. The poor ‘wee lass’, as the mother writes, was very badly scalded and needed the skill of a privately employed nurse to help her get better. With all the research I have been doing of medical practise at the time, this fits. The letter goes on to complain about the servants! The writer is in quite a dilemma about how to handle them and the temper of one in particular.
My great-grandmother appears to have been very sociable and a great letter writer herself, but why did she keep some letters and not others, I wonder?
My greatest pleasure was to discover some more letters and photos from the protagonist of my story. The two sweetest things are a summer holiday diary from when he was 13 and the log of a road trip he made with his mother across Europe when he was 21. Such beautiful fuel for my fire. I love this puzzling and piecing things together to build a story.
I think the kist could produce many more stories yet, but it will take some time and dedication to sort. In the meantime, we will enjoy this ‘nothing ever happens’ holiday place and relax with the slow tempo of life. Oh! What was that? I have just heard a scrap merchant disturb the peace with a call from his vehicle for “Any old Iron?”. Well, I never! Something does happen here after all.
One thing I love about swimmers is that they are like people, they come in all different shapes and sizes, and you cannot judge ability by a single glance at individual physique. It doesn’t work like that. I remember when I did my first-ever open water swimming event, my friend warned me of this fact. It was something she loved and it’s something I have come to love too. You cannot judge a swimmer’s ability by their physique and so a culture of ‘no judgement’ is part of the open water swimming community. This might be surprising in any sporty environment where competition is encouraged, but the water does strange things to us. Individual conquest in a community of like-minds is what open water swimming is all about; a group of people who champion success together and keep an eye out for each other’s safety and well-being.
For me, swimming has been a very personal journey of pleasure, perseverance, solace and discovery in helping me deal with, not just the symptoms before diagnosis, but the life changing experience of being diagnosed with a rare form of diabetes (now Type I). Swimming became an escape place where I could find my thoughts and sift through them while doing my body good. Some days, swimming would feel like a chore, until I was in the water and then it would unravel me into a better place and be an achievement that was nothing but good for me. I would always come out of the water feeling wonderful. The pleasure and sense of liberty the water gives is unique.
And so, this voyage of discovery began, whereby I felt a growing boldness to take on more and more adventure. Beginning with a wet suit, gloves and a neoprene hat in the coke-coloured water of Llyn Geirionydd, where the depth felt foreboding and the cold caught at my chest, I discovered it was possible to be an overcomer. Keeping good company and staying sensibly close to the shore my wet suit made me bold and buoyant. We didn’t swim for long, but it was enough to make us feel like winners, like we had achieved something. Another day took us there in the rain, wondering if we were crazy, but who minds rain when you are in the water? And then there was that time when it was so warm, we stripped from our wetsuits and enjoyed the mottled rays of sun breaking through the water onto our skin.
The Ladies of the Lake were formed, or so we called ourselves at first. We took it in turns to share lifts to the lake, met regularly, celebrated birthdays with swims and picnics, began to stretch our water wings a little wider and explore some other places to swim, including Llyn Padarn and the sea. But by this time a crazy seed had been sown. Why don’t we swim the English Channel as a relay team? How would we do that? Could we even do that? One of the Ladies of the Lake wasn’t keen on the idea of swimming in the sea, leaving four of us to ponder the possibility, and we thought we needed five for a team. Enquiries were made and we connected with Uswim Adventure in Manchester.
Here, there appeared to be a way to make a hare-brained idea a reality, only Uswim Adventure never saw it as a hare-brained idea. To them it was always a possibility and so we had to change our thinking and begin believing that we could do this. We found a fifth player and we became the Chicks of the Channel. The year for our challenge came into view. A date was set – two years to train. We even had a team name, Team India; as the ninth Uswim Adventure relay team to tackle the Channel, we were named after the ninth letter in the NATO phonetic alphabet.
We needed to ditch the wetsuits! The water was getting colder. It was October. While I was sweating between 40° and 50° heats in Zambia the rest of the team did their first polar dip in Salford Quays and it was funny how often from then on we only managed to gather together as four, never quite five. So, it began…training to swim the English Channel! Five months later we learnt a new vocabulary: pandemic, lockdown, social distancing, Covid-19. These words were more frequently on our tongues than ‘training’. Training became a byword and mere hope as pools and lakes closed. Did we need to postpone the Channel challenge?
Here, I have to stop and commend Uswim Adventure. Their ability to see possibility beyond the impossible and their flexibility to adapt was incredible. Just like the rest of us they could not see ahead or know what was around the next corner. They had never been through a situation like it. Yet, they never said ‘no’ to our hopes and plans and they let us decide as a team what risks we wanted to take. This meant, that come 2021, we did actually swim in the tide window we were first given. Like all good adventurers and explorers, Uswim Adventure adapted to what was in front of them took it one step at a time, a quality I now recognise as an essential part of preparing for a big challenge.
It fascinates me how much self-belief and simple decision dictate the end result. The point I decided I would do this swim was when I discovered that Karen, at Uswim Adventure, was a specialist diabetic nurse. It was she who was going to coach us and be with us on the boat (not so in the end because of Covid restrictions) across the Channel. The point I decided I could do this swim is not so clear because that was far more of a roller-coaster ride of doubt and self-belief. I wanted to swim breaststroke not front crawl. Is that possible? These are my current times in the pool, can I do it? I was never told ‘no’, no matter how many times I tried to talk myself out of it. Even the rest of the team supported me. And you know, the amazing thing about being a team, is that you all bring something unique to the table. You bring something only you can contribute, even if it is as the slowest in the team. We all need each other which means bringing more than the swim itself.
There is no way I would have been motivated to keep training without the camaraderie of the Chicks. They’re an amazing bunch! We had me as a diabetic, one with a hip replacement, one partially sighted, one cancer survivor (although we had to make a change here, closer to the day) and come the day itself, one in the raw throes of immediate grief having just lost a very dear aunt the week before. This is life! And together we took on a challenge and conquered it.
It is wonderful to have goals. Like team, we need those too; something to work towards. Another lesson I have learned through all this has been the importance of the little steps you take to reach that place. Our training plans, though having to rapidly adapt to external circumstances, were strangely doable, one step at a time. It was a layer upon layer approach to build our capacity. After each significant moment (from polar dipping, to stroke assessment, to two-hour qualifier, to triple dipping in 12° Salford Quays, to sea swimming, to amazing Windermere, to our all-night swim relay) we would look back a little shocked with the realisation that we did it. Here, that sense of possibility grew and our self-belief increased. It was a very necessary part of the mental training as well as the physical training.
I love how Uswim Adventure prepared us. Since completing the Channel Relay I have felt comparatively unprepared for everything else. I noticed this when packing my bag to go away and I felt a bit lost with what to put in it. However, when it came to packing for a swimming event or the Channel, I knew exactly what was needed! I didn’t hesitate – even down to the finite detail of my medication. Poor Karen had been very patient with our endless questions, but we were well informed, as proved true on the day itself.
And what an adventure that was – the day itself! I had to pinch myself. It felt so surreal. It was such a beautiful thing to be out at sea crossing the Channel one stroke at a time, one swimmer at a time, one hour at a time, supporting each other working as a team to achieve a dream for which one of the team members began as a child. For me it was just an incredible privilege that I still can’t get my head round the fact I was part of. I loved it! As number five in the rotation, we were a good way out before my first swim and had me feeling very jittery just beforehand. I looked at the waves and watched the swell and worried at how many breaths would be taken from me by a watery smack in the face. Once I was in, I discovered it was none, more often my kick would be powered through pure air and that would catch me out. But once I got used to that, it was great. Following the boat, feeling like the pilot was teasing, letting me get close and then powering off was a little disconcerting. Watching the team antics on the boat out of the corner of my eye was another amusement. After the initial catch at the chest when I abandoned myself to leap in, the water was glorious and the waves easier than anticipated to negotiate. An hour went slow, but it was swimming and swimming is always good.
By my second swim, wear and tear was beginning to show a little in the team and we were feeling in sympathy for each other’s personal battles, especially with one team member being so seasick. I leapt in and prayed I could power through for the sake of the team and be carried far by the tide to get us speedily on our way. The sea was silky smooth and full of warm patches. My faithful team members kept a beady eye on me and I later heard that one of the observers had asked how best to count my stroke. One of the other observers had flummoxed me just before I jumped in by saying, “I am surprised you don’t hyper-ventilate, breathing on every stroke.” I had an hour to contemplate why I don’t hyper-ventilate!
As France felt within touching distance, the tides got a little pushy and we discovered that this is the toughest part of the Channel. I am amazed at how perfect our swimmer’s rotation suddenly seemed to be as each swimmer had very clearly been the best one for the moment, although I was never expecting to do a third swim, far less be the one to finish with French sand under my feet. That last swim was my biggest mental challenge though I still had plenty of physical fuel in the tank. With land in sight, it was the feeling of going nowhere that played into my fears. I heard in my head the dreaded words “I can’t do this”. However, the weight of team expectation was heavy on my shoulders and pushed me in with no choice but to get to shore in good time. Also, a little ahead, a solo swimmer we had been alongside for much of the crossing completed his swim with a blast of his pilot boat’s horn and a mighty cheer. That beautiful moment boosted my determination. If he could do it so could we!
It wasn’t long before the observer told me to stand and I laughed because being such a shorty the water came up to my neck. It signalled the end of our Channel swim. I never heard the blast of our boat’s horn. I was too busy dancing a watery jig. I am so glad I got to do that final swim and what a privilege, like I said. As a team, we all swam three times each and I felt like I pulled my weight for the team a little more than if I hadn’t done that final stint. As we turned back for Blighty, we hit a mist that engulfed the majority of the journey home. It was miserable! Our swim could not have been better timed.
So, what’s next? No, that’s not the question to ask right now! I am still in the place of processing the whole experience and standing back to look at what has been learnt and achieved. I am still a bit in awe and wonder! I think the biggest lesson has been that of setting our minds to achieving together and then working at it step by step encouraging each other and laughing together along the way. Like I said, I have loved the way Uswim Adventure led us through this process. We had to learn to trust their judgement and listen to their instruction. I mentioned how they didn’t say ‘no’ but made possibilities become realities. However, we did have the sad and sorry experience of a ‘no’ when, during training, it became apparent that we needed to make a team decision to bring our reserve in to replace one of our team members. It was unexpected for us and not something we had anticipated or found easy to do. It went against the grain somehow. But with credit to Uswim Adventure, it made me realise (even more with hindsight) that they knew the territory and were realistic. Their expression of ‘all things are possible if you set your mind to it and work at it’ was also balanced with ‘if the bar is too high, don’t jump’. This reassured me and earned my respect.
Would I do it again? No! It was an incredible adventure that I loved and will savour the flavour of for a long time. The experience and memories are precious, and I will store them carefully. It was a very tangible achievement made possible by those along the way and those in the team. I would love to journey on another adventure with these wonderful people, but I don’t feel the need to do the Channel again – although us ladies likened that attitude to one who has just given birth! (I have four children!)
I am made bolder in my swimming, have been liberated by the things I never imagined possible and when I think of what I have learned along the way it’s been nothing but positive. I absolutely love that I had the privilege of participating in this relay and I delight in the people I have met along the way. Moving on, two things are certain: I will keep open water swimming and I won’t be going back to a wet suit!
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8
We never make anything of Valentine’s Day. I think Tim and I exchanged cards once 24 years ago when we didn’t know each other very well. But it is funny how this year, mid pandemic, I realise people want to mark these days with greater significance and add value to our expressions and relationships. They could be any days, but as a certain day passes we want to mark it. We have something to say and we want to say it well, with meaning.
We’re all feeling jaded by the abnormality that has shaped us into a new mould. We think a little harder how to make people feel valued. We miss them. We miss the interaction and feel distanced from the shoulder-to-shoulder walk of daily contact. And so I watch as friends and families formulate new traditions, this year.
“Let’s try to do something different, something that makes us stop and think!”
“What is Love?”
“What are we saying?” “
“What do we mean to say?”
“What matters most?”
“How can we add meaning and value to each other?”
And so we feed ourselves with the comfort food of making this moment important.
This passage from 1 Corinthians, quoted above, never fails to challenge me. Without love there would be no stretch of time to learn and understand, no kindness, no forgiveness, no pleasure in truth, no ability to consider others. And without that, without love, it would be very dark and bleak – angry, ugly, empty, unruly. I don’t like what I see, without love. We cannot be kind, trusting, or hopeful without love. We cannot be ‘true’ without love. And we cannot love without others. It is love that teaches us. We learn these qualities with love, through being loved, through the safe support of love, the simple acceptance of love, the shoulder-to-shoulder rub of love, the dissonance of selfish versus selflessness lessons of love. And so we learn to love, to be love, to give and to receive it for the very quality of what love is.
Without understanding what love is, we can feel hollow and disillusioned, lost without purpose. Our attempts at marking the passing days with significance fly back like an echo to our ears and we wonder at the futility of it all, feeling all alone. We cannot walk this path without the footsteps of others ahead, beside and behind us. Love is not a walk alone. Nor is it without pain.
I wonder when we’re gone what sort of hole we will leave behind us. Will we be missed? Will our loss create an ache in the lives of others? If yes, then we have loved well. But what about those bits in ourselves that feel unlovable – and we all have them – the bits we like least of all? What amazes me is ‘love’ still touches these and accepts them. Love does not dishonour, it keeps no record of wrongs! It’s not one to point out the faults and parade them to a critical audience who will laugh and never forget. Love doesn’t do that. Love protects.
So what am I saying?
Perhaps just this: Love gives meaning, value, significance and worth to our very being and every moment. Let’s embrace it, live it and be it to make today (and every day) a day that matters to those around us.
After a great big rat ran across my path this morning, I thought to myself I hope that is not a significant sign of anything 2021 promises to bring. I don’t like rats! Spiders have never bothered me, but rats…hmmm…not so pretty. However, I am not superstitious so it was a foolish thought – and yet it passed through my head!
I was on my way to do the morning chores for the horses. I went cautiously, but not cautiously enough. At Hunter Street I became prey to black ice. I thought my brakes had failed as I sailed down the incline and across a red light onto the busy main road. The timing was impeccable as no mishap occurred and I limped to a safe stop, still thinking it was the brakes. My bobble-hatted knight came to the rescue and informed me it was ice, not my brakes, as he had just watched another poor soul crash at the same junction. He checked on the poor soul before he drove me safely to the horses and made the council aware of the dangerously dicey road. You can’t beat a knight in a bobble hat!
Today was our first experience of snow in this pretty city, but sadly it didn’t stick. However, our well trained response to expect to be snowed in (as was frequently the case in our previous abode) did kick in and actions were accordingly taken. Learning to handle the ice, since living here is also a new experience as we live down an unadopted road that doesn’t get gritted. We’ve been enjoying watching the dance moves that walkers on the wall attempt, as they tentatively feel with their feet each step of the way around. Occasionally one of us will observe an ‘ooh’ little slip.
We were almost about to attempt to try the dance for ourselves on New Year’s Eve. My bobble-hatted knight insisted we were going to see 2021 in by walking the walls. With bemused compliance, we all agreed and sat up to wait until 11pm at which point we were told to prepare ourselves. We booted and scarfed up. Miss Puddleduck went one step further and filled a rucksack ready. Apart from the tin of travel sweets, that rattled when she ran to catch up and came out every now and again to be shared, I am not sure what else the rucksack contained. Her decision to bring it though touched and amused me. It was an act so much in keeping with her character.
Everyone dressed in character. Mine apparently was akin to the ‘bird woman’ in Home Alone II! I guess tracksuit bottoms and wellibobs with a smart jacket and bobble hat don’t really work well together. But I honestly didn’t think anyone would see us. I was almost right. The only people we initially encountered spoke another language and in general people were very scarce. Nonetheless, we approached the walls and the bobble-hatted knight, after one foot on the flags, deemed it an unsafe choice of passage. We took to the cobbles instead. Boffin had a quick quip to make regarding the change and had us all laughing with his genius humour.
The tone was jovial. We were out to see the New Year in but the mist was more unsettling! It was ethereal and mysterious, conjuring imaginings of a more dubious nature. We tried the wall again to bridge the road but, once again, it was deemed unsafe and as there was zero traffic, crossing the main road was by far the safest option. Down past the big private school and the Watergate we encountered surprising ‘ooh’ slips on disguised ice. At least the road was gritted and, with zero traffic, remained the safest path! Miss Friendship and Miss Puddleduck insisted on the high and dangerous route past the castle and the bobble-hatted knight went with them to guard them. They wanted to live on the edge of danger but Boffin and I, far too sensible, took the low road.
It was close to midnight when we reached the river and here more people began to appear. They were wanting to see the New Year in cosied up together on a bench or standing with a glass of bubbly in hand, by the water’s edge. The church clocks began to chime midnight and the air around began to explode with fireworks. We hurried up the hill in the hope that we might see some, not just hear them. It was surprisingly moving having the air filled with a din that seemed to speak of optimism and delight in seeing the old year out. We found an open fire instead, surrounded by inebriated revellers gleefully wishing us a happy new year. We cheered with them and hurried on to the clock to catch it as close to midnight as possible. Here we met more well wishes and greetings with a small number who shared our idea. There was one solo police presence in the centre of the city. How different to other years!
This was an unique moment in time. New Year won’t be seen in or the old year out in quite the same style again. I am so glad we celebrated it in this way.
These Christmas holidays have been lovely too. Sharing of our individual gifts on Christmas day was full of love and poignancy. As the children have got older and some become adults, this moment has been more precious for the time and thought put into the presents given. This year was no exception. It felt so special. Our dinners were full of attention to detail. Humour was high. Thought and intention went into our time together. That is something I love about Christmas. It makes us take time to be generous and intentional with our time and attention towards each other.
One of my best moments was when Longshanks pulled a cracker followed by a funny face. A mask fell out – yes, a covid face mask. He couldn’t believe it. It was a nice one, mind you! But he couldn’t believe that I had filled the crackers myself and put a mask in each one. That wasn’t all. There was another delight in the cracker and each discovered their individual gift as they pulled theirs. I would do it all again just to see that face of abhoration for a mask!
The game of the holiday – well, last year it was Azul – but this year the favourite has been Pandemic. Silver and Gold, Ticket to Ride Africa and Jibbergiggle have all played their part too however, Pandemic definitely piqued the most interest and was thought the best.
We have loved; we have laughed; we have revelled; we have relaxed; we have blanked out anything but the present; enjoyed the silence and lack of demands; we have been refreshed by our moments and memory making together and now we move on – back into the flow of routine life.
Thank you family for being true to all family means to be and thank you to Christmas for being the moment we stop and rest in that.
I, traditionally and most dutifully, have closed my eyes and thought of those who gave their lives for our freedom. Or so I thought, but more often I close my eyes and think how difficult it is to focus my thoughts for that full two minutes. Two minutes is a long time when you are silent and wondering what you are supposed to be thinking about. It’s strange to listen to the silence of those around you, wondering what they are thinking too.
As I grew older and my faith bolder, that two minutes silence became a prayerful moment of gratitude to God for those who have gone before me and trodden a very different path in life, leading to that sacrifice of their lives lost in war. It has also been a moment of thanks for those of my ancestors who survived. I was intrigued to recently learn of the origin of the two minute silence having been initiated in Cape Town during the First World War and subsequently suggested to King George V by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, leading to its instigation in Britain, in 1919 on Armistice Day.
Why deem it so important to remember? Until we have lost someone, it can be hard to understand that fierce desire not to forget, to keep the memory of them alive. But for those of us who have not personally known someone who has fallen in war, seeking to remember can feel a little hollow. It’s hard too to grasp the grief of those who have lost someone near and dear to them. We want to show the fallen our respect. We want to honor them for their sacrifice. But it can be difficult to understand just how enormous that sacrifice was. And so the memorial is made but we have nothing to hang our vaguely meandering thoughts on, where there is no personal connection.
Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day are sombre and sobering memorials. Sadly my most memorable moments of these occasions are not for the right reasons. Once when, at University, we were oblivious it was November 11th and our band was clattering its way through a gleeful and noisy rehearsal. Suddenly a cleaner burst into the room and indignantly told us to be quiet. It was 11 o’clock in the morning. We disrespectfully giggled at our irreverence and her dramatic entry and carried on rehearsing a few minutes later. On another occasion, Tim was mayor and we joined him for the Town procession and the Sunday church memorial service. I wore my hat pulled down as far as it would go to cover my face, barely able to see myself walk safely along the path. Earlier that week I had received an almighty clonk on the head from one of our horses. I had rainbow bruising seeping down my face and filling the skin around my eye socket making me look like I had been on the wrong end of a battering. I didn’t want anyone to think any suspicious thoughts of our town mayor and so I tried to hide in my hat while he laid a wreath and a CD player blasted out the last post!
This year will be different! For me, at least, it will be different. For this year, a journey began during my days off in the spring lockdown. A lady in Australia had contacted me right at the start, asking for some extra information on my father’s family. She was a professional genealogist. I dreaded unearthing my family history documents and in fact had no idea what I had done with them when we moved house. I have a tendency to get obsessed by the research and for anyone who knows me well, will probably have been bored by my ‘my great-great…etc.’ statements that tell of some illustrious relative who did something interesting. My dread in unearthing the papers was that I knew I would be tempted to more research and it is very time and ‘all-of-me’ consuming!
Anyhow, I found them, opened my folders to find the information requested and was inspired to do some fresh research. Lo and behold, I also found that rekindling my family history addiction was the perfect lockdown escape for my days off. I didn’t feel guilty for indulging myself and the time was perfect. I had not dwelt much on my father’s family history for many years and I randomly decided to explore a story I knew hints of but not the intricate ins and outs of. My father knew much and how obtuse of me to want to investigate it now he is no longer around to ask the facts from. I turned to that great fount of knowledge instead – the internet.
I had a scrap of paper on which I had scribbled (in the late ’90s) a copy of a newspaper cutting citing small details, the date and ship on which my great-uncle had died in the Second World War. Being the amateur historian and researcher that I am, I foolishly have not documented my sources, so where I got this from, I do not know! My scrap of paper, in my own handwriting, says,
‘Hero of the sinking was another doctor, a British Surgeon-Lieutenant, married in Durban just before the Empress sailed. He swam from raft to raft, with his doctors bag round his neck, tending victims of barracuda and shark. He was swimming…when he disappeared from sight.‘
‘Surgeon Lieutenant Ivan Seymour Jacklin of the R.N.V.R. He was lost at the age of 26 after the first Empress of Canada was torpedoed in the South Atlantic on March 13th, 1943.’
The name of the ship was all I wanted and I began to explore a story I had never thought much about, before. It unravelled and broke my heart. As I listened to and read first hand survivors’ accounts from those aboard the torpedoed ship, I was deeply affected. The Empress of Canada was a troop ship on her way to the UK, returning many troops who had not been home for years. An Italian submarine struck the blow that saw her go down and nearly 400 lives were lost while approximately 800 survived. I have read one description saying it was as close to an own goal for the Italians as could be possible. The boat was carrying about 400 Italian prisoners of war and hardly any of them survived. To discover too that the survivors were on the water waiting for rescue not far from the equator, in the South Atlantic, for approximately three days, bent my imagination into the test of resilience they would have endured. Some witnesses say they waited five days. However long, it was a challenge and many were understandably traumatised by the experience.
But what hit home and felt most unfair to me was that line about Ivan, ‘married in Durban just before the Empress sailed’. That felt like a great personal tragedy to me. The loss of his life not only affected those I already know of, in my family, but must have deeply affected his new wife. What was the story? I wanted to understand more. It seemed that no one in the family spoke of Ivan’s wife, his wife of three weeks. Who was she and how did they meet? All these questions stacked up in my mind. Even, what was Ivan like?
I really wanted to understand more and that ‘want’ sat heavy in me, almost like grief. Whenever anything is heavy, I turn it naturally over to prayer. It might seem odd to be praying about something that happened so long ago and why should it really matter? Was not my curiosity getting the better of me and making a mountain out of a mole hill? It’s very difficult to describe how intensely spiritual this whole process felt. It had occurred to me that God is beyond time and because He knew and saw what had happened, He could reveal to me the answers I sought. Now again I might ask, for what purpose? What is done, is done and what has been, has gone. What does it matter? But for some reason it did appear to matter and God did appear to answer!
A letter written in 1982, that has sat in our family archives for years in an old brown envelope untouched and unread since, most probably, 1982 itself, my mother had randomly loaned to Ivan’s old school. They had put it onto their digital retrieval system and it was, in my prayerful heaviness, that I found this letter again in its digitised form. It is a beautiful letter written by Ivan’s wife. I had never read it, before, but now have read it many times. It filled in the gaps with answers to my questions about Ivan and his wife. It painted a picture of real lives and living, breathing, deeply feeling, loving people but not only that, it began a whole new story of its own. This is not the time or place to share the work of that letter. But I came to see that the intensity and sense of this being a spiritual quest was no longer just about me and the queer querying was not just pointless curiosity. I began to feel that there was a more sovereign work at hand. My prayerfulness continues as I rest in that.
Since that letter, I have begun to feel like I have got to know Ivan a little, enough to know that this year I will remember him with a sense of personal connection. I have learnt bits about him that were written, not just posthumously but before he died too, to know that there was something very special about him. At some stage, I feel sure the ‘more’ of this story will need to be told, but so much is still unfolding. One day, I might write him to life.
But for now, and in honour of his memory, I share this so that I will remember. This was the obituary written for the St Mary’s Gazette at St Mary’s Hospital by the surgeon who trained him.
St Mary’s Hospital Gazette (date not given)
Obituary written by Arthur Dickson Wright
Surg.-Lieut. Ivan Seymour Jacklin, R.N.V.R.
It has now to be accepted that Ivan Jacklin lost his life at sea on March 13th, the day he was posted as missing on active service. He was on a large liner which was torpedoed by an Italian submarine with the usual and useless German brutality.
Many foreigners on board and not enough boats to go round were circumstances such that a man of Jacklin’s character was likely to lose his life, and from survivors’ stories it is plain that in his last hours he performed many incredibly brave and noble acts. One saw him going down below when the boat was settling down to bring up a sick steward; another saw him swim three times from the sinking ship to rafts carrying service women who had been left behind. Later when the ship had gone down, he was still seen rescuing people in distress and it was while doing this work of rescue he disappeared and was seen no more, all this in a sea alive with sharks and blue fish!
Jacklin came to us in 1934 from Cranleigh School, he was a South African, and had started his education at the Arcadia School in Pretoria. He came with one of the Dean’s nomination scholarships and he was just the type for whom these awards were designed. He had passed all his examinations at school, had been a Prefect, enjoying a popularity with school fellows and masters known to few and at sports he had excelled, playing not only for his school in all games, but also in representative School Rugby.
At St. Mary’s we all remember his charming manners and shy smile, they endeared him to all; he was straightforward and true in all his dealings, a demon for work and great sportsman in the Rugger field where he won many a match for St Mary’s. After qualification he was Casualty House Surgeon and the department ran smoothly under his care; no complaints were heard during his tenure of office and he was always quick to consult when he felt a case was getting beyond his powers. He was House Surgeon to a very strenuous firm, and it was obvious that he was full of surgical promise and destined for a great career. His management of patients and anxious relatives was perfect, and he took great trouble with his dressers and gave complete loyalty to his chiefs.
His training over he was quickly in the Navy; at Portsmouth he did some good work in air raids, losing all his belongings on one occasion. In H.M.S. Kent he chafed at inactivity and transferred to a destroyer, H.M.S. Griffin, and in this ship he had some stirring times with the inshore forces along the Libyan coast during the blackest days of that campaign. Later he transferred to H.M.S. Express on the South African Station, and while there he was married. Three weeks later he sailed for England for shore posting, and after two weeks at sea his ship went down and his bright, promising life came to a premature close.
When Jacklin came to us from school, aged 17, his headmaster wrote thus of him: “He is a gentleman by birth, breeding and instinct and his influence on all around him has always been for good.” To these words those of us who knew him at St Mary’s can only say Amen.
He was the most outstanding man St Mary’s had seen for many a long day and it will be long before we see his like again.
Someone selects a record and the needle falls into place. The sounds sing out. An atmosphere is established. At first I ridiculed the crooney tunes but after a few more charity shop finds, I am actually enjoying the variety.
Someone lights the candles, another puts the plates out. Steam from the kitchen comes with the food into the dining room. The other door opens. “Mmmm…smells good!” – it’s a mealtime statement that satisfies the cook. “Mmmm”, we all agree. The smells from the kitchen promise a comforting hunger quench.
The clocks have meanly changed back to Greenwich Mean Time so it’s dark outside now when we sit down to eat. Since our move to the city and no longer having an open fire to provide us with a living flame, we always light candles as a part of our evening meal. It’s all about making our mealtimes memorable and pleasant. When the darkness closes in, it feels more important than before.
As our family has grown up, mealtimes have become more than just a necessity of filling bellies and sustaining fractious, active youngsters. When they were small, they were eager to eat because they needed it, they were also always eager to “get down” and get on with day or avoid being unceremoniously thrown into a bath and prepared for bed. Remember: “Thank you for my food. Please may I get down?” When the children were very small mealtimes felt more of a chaotic chore to be endured especially with my culinary skills in the mix, that ended with a disastrous spread of edible debris everywhere that the dogs loved. But as the children have grown, and they now “get up” from the table, the table has become a place of stable routine around which comforting food is consumed and healthy conversation aired. “Thank you for my food!” is no longer accompanied by a hasty departure but more often the chairs are pushed back, the kettle put on and the conversation flickers and dances in the light of the candles while a pot of tea is prepared and shared. The desire to linger, be together and talk some more, sticks.
I treasure these moments! This is family to me, in all the beauty of what we have become. These moments are more poignant as the weird year of 2020 draws into its twilight and I am doing my best to stack these moments as memories on my shelves, reading their spines marked by titles of laughter, safety, acceptance, love and comfort. I feel that, for all its strange behaviour of a Coronovirus sabotage, 2020 has been a bit of a sabbath for enjoying my lovely gift of family but I am slowly being left behind with just memories.
Longshanks leaves home next month for the job he felt a whisper of promise he might one day be called upon to fulfil, when he was 14. In the interim, he has come and gone from the home, living and working away before returning, the fluctuation of which seems to have been preparing him for this moment. So it’s no wonder that, this time, I feel sure this is the last time he will return with the same status and need for us to provide him with a home.
Boffin, similarly, is working to earn his way into student life with a bank balance that might help set him up a little better to buffer the inevitable debt that comes with the territory. Knowing it will be his turn to fly next Autumn makes this year feel, like I said, full of treasured moments.
The girls are also taking bigger steps into independence. The latter part of 2020 and the commencement of an institutionalised school experience has stretched them out of their comfort zone and into new opportunities. For one it has been an emotional roller-coaster, with joy and terror in equal measures, wave after wave, and for the other it has brightened her eyes to new horizons. The comfort of home has anchored their journey through this sea of change.
Home has been casual and relaxed. We have found gentle affirmation in each other’s company, so naturally explored around the table, in the comfort of gathering together for a meal. We routinely come together, appreciate each other and from there move away and on to our other activities of the day. But central and consistent, it is the evening mealtimes that anchor us.
Yet, these moments soon become memories. The conversation and flavours may well be forgotten as quickly as the food is digested. However the feeling of being family remains. We belong to one another and no matter where we go from here that sense of belonging will cling to our DNA.
Let’s light the candles, put the retro records on, cook up comfort food, discuss the trivial and hefty matters of the day and make these treasured moments pass seamlessly into treasured memories as the rest of the year progresses to its final days of rest.
I honestly thought, when the requests came through that we were to stop teaching, I would have lots of time to write. How wrong! My time is spent in long and lovely conversations daily and it is surprising how much time that was once spent travelling from school to school is now spent keeping up with everyone in lockdown and just checking that everyone in our congregations is doing okay. Church work has expanded exponentially for me . I could not have imagined it.
No! None of us could have dreamt this stuff up. New rhythms rule, priorities shift, we get to know our neighbours and those who were just acquaintances now become friends. We get in contact with people we haven’t spoken to in years. We video call people we have never spoken to before and we share conversations with faces on a screen in ‘real time’. Our vision for the future is misty and we hang onto handrails that help us through crisis. When we find our footing, we start to settle into a steady pace and we begin to feel like we can go the extra mile, especially for others. More than that, we actually want to because we’re all in this together.
I thought I should record some thoughts, by making time to write. It’s a Saturday in the sun – a safely guarded day off. With my laptop in the garden, beside me there’s one daughter writing a story on her laptop and the other is talking to herself inside the kitchen with the door wide open (that isn’t lockdown speaking, it’s normal. Actually, I think she is reading aloud to herself). My wonderful husband is working behind me, earthing-up the potatoes and weeding the carrots. The dog basks on her pillow. The boys are in bed, I think. No that’s not true. I have seen one who appeared in his dressing gown to hang this laundry on the line and I have just heard him sneeze! But the other sleeps. He finished his shift close to midnight, last night. He won’t surface until lunchtime when he will appear and make himself a super-duper, whopper-zinger brunch thing with all his own ingredients he buys for himself and keeps in a claimed corner of the fridge.
Why should I write today, apart from circumstances being conducive? Well, last night as we went to bed my husband and I congratulated ourselves.
“Well done!” we said, “We have managed to get another child to adulthood!”
Yesterday, Boffin officially became an adult. I thought that was an event worth noting. There are now four in this household. One wonders when we should start behaving like it. Now adults outweigh children, are we not achieving what we set out to do when this great adventure of parenting began? It always amuses me that to be a parent requires no qualifications but 120% capacity to give love. This is the degree that qualifies us. I have been thinking a lot about it lately in an attempt to help support parents grappling with the challenges of having their children at home all the time and attempting to maintain some level of home learning in a context they have not chosen. I have always enjoyed the liberty of choosing to home educate but when it is thrust upon you, it is a different matter. Yet, parenting is forever. We will always be a parent whether our children are newborn or adult.
There will always be new challenges to adapt to and our ability to embrace the change sets the pace. Trying to think ahead a little I have found myself questioning the stubbornness of my nature. There is a difference between stubbornness and steadfastness and I have been questioning myself as to where my response comes from: stubbornness or steadfastness?
It’s funny the questions we ask when everything gets shaken.
In the bath this morning, again thinking ahead to some future challenges I found myself asking God,
“What do we do?”
And immediately the song ‘Stay Close To Me’, popped into my head. It’s not a song I know very well, but perhaps should be added to the 18 year old’s lockdown play list. It would be slightly more uplifting addition to his current list, which includes: The Sound of Silence, Pop Goes The World, Wake Me Up When Its All Over, It’s The End Of The World As We Know It, Another One Bites The Dust and The Final Countdown.
It was not just a song that popped into my head. I was reminded of a couple of verses from the Bible too. These are helpful for this time and shall conclude here.
“But the one who always listens to me will live undisturbed in a heavenly peace. Free from fear, confident and courageous, you will rest unafraid and sheltered from the storms of life.” Proverbs 1:33
“I leave the gift of peace with you – my peace. Not the kind of fragile peace given by the world, but my perfect peace. Don’t yield to fear or be troubled in your hearts – instead, be courageous!” John 14:27
I think I know what to do now! Stay close to Jesus, listen to him, receive his peace, without giving in to fear and to be courageous.
Like the dying sun in an old world, in The Magician’s Nephew, the decade of the 2010s sinks and I, as is the trend, have to look at it again and summarise all that has been. One single decade makes a big difference in our lives and much happens but when we look at time as a whole it’s a different perspective. In history, we notice only the big things and mark significant events for the year they occurred in, not the day and month. Time and tides stand still for no man – so true! For us as a family, the 2010s or 20-teens have merged children into teenagers and launched one into adulthood. I love the fact that I have kept a blog during these years. For me alone it makes treasured reading.
2019 proved such a significant change for us that it brought has us into a new era of lifestyle and made me wonder if those blogging years are now done. However, I am so pleased that I chose to write about our way of life before, what with the serious and nonsense mix of it all.
What significant things happened in each year, I wonder?
2010 – The first complete year of Tim’s solo piano album having been on sale and the year Boffin began wearing glasses.
2011 – Tim took on the leadership of the church in Towyn. It was also the year of Tim’s climbing accident, the launch of my blog and our visit to the Queen’s garden party.
2012 – Tim was mayor. The Queen’s Jubilee and Olympics took place. Tim and I travelled to Africa together for the first time. Carriage driving began.
2013 – Lots of horses, carriage driving lesson, mountains, outdoor exploring, home schooling and family fun. The children were all baptised in the sea.
2014 – Lots more carriage driving and meeting wonderful people, while Longshanks was awarded the BDS Junior Scholarship. We took on the leadership of Festival Church.
2015 – Longshanks drove in front of the Queen. Jackson did his first lot of driven shows. Miss Friendship also won the Junior Scholarship. Frodo arrived!
2016 – The refurbishment of the church building was completed and the coffee shop opened. Boffin started school. Longshanks left home to start an apprenticeship. My novel was published.
2017 – We had our first gathering of our Family of Churches, now Festival Churches. Miss Puddleduck scared us all with her hospital visit. Tim and I travelled to S.A., Zambia and Switzerland. Longshanks returned home to study agriculture.
2018 – Tim stopped working in politics and started working full time for church, now a necessity as a result of growth. I expanded to teaching as a peripatetic, did my first open water swim event and was later diagnosed with a rare form of diabetes. I also took our first missions team from all the churches out to Zambia. Longshanks became an adult and entered the workplace. Boffin began sixth form.
2019 – We sold our small holding, leaving Longshanks in his own home, moved to the city and had our first overseas holiday as a family – Venice!
Having last written with my heart in my boots and my feet dragging reluctantly on into a new season of change, I thought it was time to write an update. As much as we were confident our steps were steps of faith and that we were choosing to walk in the way that was right for us, there was still that awkward wrench and heart-ache at leaving all that had meant so much to us. Now, change has taken place and two months into this new way of life, how has it been? After only two months is it really fair to pass comment? It is still early days, but the most succinct word to summarise it is an unsurprising and uninspiring word: good. There is no more complex or flamboyant a description needed. However, if I were to elaborate, I would add the word wholesome. That is to say that this new way of life has benefitted the general health and well-being of our family (apart from the dalmatian, who nearly self-destructed after eating an indestructible toy. A very expensive operation saved him and has left Longshanks investigating pet insurance). The natural law of life dictates that where we prosper, so do the lives of those we connect with and so we are watching the capacity of our ministry expand and stretch healthily, just as we expected it to. To say nothing of the pleasure of being able to share our table with others!
I could celebrate big things but, as always, it is the little things that I rejoice in.
Some of the little things I am learning to love:
The rattle of the Mighty Micra across the cobbles as Boffin and I set out in the early hours of the morning. It’s not the rattle that I love (obviously) but the fact we live on a cobbled street (even more so as it has built-in, flagstone, carriage tracks).
The freedom to experience the Dean’s Field as our backyard, now the evenings are lighter.
Being able to entertain guests with ease. We are so much better positioned to put our pastor hats on and say ‘pop round’.
Evening walks around the city walls, with Tim.
Family badminton games.
Squash with my highly competitive husband – an hilarious highlight of my week. On average we get to play twice a week and if he’s losing the level of possible cheating rises but it’s so subtle that I can never quite figure it out. It’s very funny!
Despite being right in the city centre, we love the quietness of where we are situated and the fact that when we might hear a bit of late night disturbance on the walls it tends to be a happy sound of laughter or tipsy singing.
That said, the fortissimo volume of bird song is incredible! The birds are so loud here, in comparison to where we moved from, that we couldn’t quite believe it.
Kayaking on the canal – Tim’s latest outdoor pursuit – as the canal is within walking distance.
We overhear the choir practising regularly when we walk out from the house into the cloistered neighbourhood – angelic and somewhat bizarre!
The convenience of the shops (not sure it is convenient for our budget, however!).
The independence the children have as they grow up and gain opportunity to do different things.
Friday night date nights when the children are at Youth (they have their own key and can make their own way home when they are ready) and Tim and I explore the local eateries etc.
Driving home through a 14th Century archway with a 21st Century bollard that drops in recognition of our car number plate – the anachronistic contrast tickles me.
Culture on our door step that feels so luxurious. Recently, we had a lovely evening of roast duck at home followed by a wander across the cobbles to the theatre to watch some extremely arty contemporary dance, the like of which I have never seen live before.
The bells. I love the bells. My teen years were spent living in the shadow of a parish church and it means I feel at home when I hear the bells. They are not as loud as I expected them to be.
This morning on my way to work, I pulled my sunglasses from the glove compartment, popped them on and immediately I could not see clearly. They were so cold that the heat from my face steamed them up. What a paradox that I even need my sunglasses in winter. However, I do, as the winter sun is so low and today, there was a lot of glare off the snow. It got me thinking about those moments in life when things don’t make sense.
I am always trying to make sense of situations and things around me, but sometimes standing back and pausing is the best sense I can make. I haven’t been able to hide myself in any writing for so long and I feel like any time I do write a blog post, now, it is to comment that I have no time to write any more! Life is being lived at another pace, but writing, for me, has so often been my pause; my attempt to make sense. I am not able to make much at the moment. And so in an attempt to, I pause and write.
I find myself still struggling daily with the difficulties of a chronic condition that doesn’t make sense. I still struggle to accept that the diagnosis I was given in August is actually mine. I still hope to, one day, wake up and find that it is no longer a part of me. One of the nurses I spoke to recently reiterated how rare it is, while another commented, on a separate occasion, that it is so rare she had no tick box options for it amongst the other standard and rare types of the condition, on the form she was filling in. But it would seem that, as it is not common, there is less understanding or research about best practise and treatment. While I trust the consultant, it leaves me doing my own research and having unusual discussions with the nurses. They have said, “No I have not heard that before but it sounds plausible” or, “I think the dietician would be interested in this”. Also “What is the name of the nutritionist you have been reading, because the consultant would like to read up on it?” And so on. I don’t really understand the science of it all and find myself encouraged when my prayerful and instinctive perspective leads me to a place of sense, where I later learn that I have done the right thing. But then I think I have things figured and that’s when my body does crazy things that make no sense. It sends me into a downward spiral of negative thought and emotion but also back to the place of finding a prayerful perspective, a God directive. It is an emotional roller coaster.
On top of that, we prepare to move from our rural dwelling to a city abode. It is not a path I am finding very pleasant to tread. Yesterday, I went with a friend to measure up the dimensions of the property we are moving into. We are very privileged to be moving into this particular property and I don’t want to forget that. I was excited before we went, but came away feeling completely overwhelmed. The idea of fitting everything in daunts and depresses me. I have drawn up plans of each room and important pieces of furniture to scale, in an attempt to figure out where everything goes. I struggle to conceive where we store many things, like towels and sheets. The fact that we are downsizing so much makes it feel very hard. We have got rid of gargantuan amounts of stuff and yet I still feel that we are drowning in the surplus of possessions. “We can get rid of more”, Tim tells me, but a lot of the daunting feelings come, right now, from wondering how we simply store essentials. I wonder what we are being prepared for.
After a restless night, I sat down with my Bible and breakfast in an attempt to make sense and lift the overwhelming off my shoulders. This move has not been an easy change for me to get my head around. I have been relunctant and not really ready for the adventure, unusually so for me. We’re giving up a unique way of life to pursue a God-given purpose. Our unique way of life was God-given too, don’t get me wrong, but this is about a new season and way of life. Our life is not our own and I am learning to let go of the things we own, to good purpose. I am moving from the “all I have ever wanted” to turning my will into an “all God wants of me” shape.
This new season does not mean I cannot grieve the passing of the previous season. And grieve I do. My drive today across snow-clad valleys and hills was soul-salve. The magic of the Nant y Garth pass, where every finger and branch etched with snow glittered in the tunnel of trees, was hard to match. Followed by the majesty of the Horseshoe Pass under a four inch blanket of clean white, washed in bright sunlight left me feeling very unique and spoilt that I got to see such sights.
I am aware that I cannot fully know or understand all the fruit this next season will bear until I enter and pass through it. I feel very little excitement for what is to come. I do not know what is around the next corner. I do not know all the whys, what-fors, and what will-or-won’t make sense along this passageway. I am simply choosing to walk where I don’t want to, to live a life of obedience to the one who is certaintity in my life; the one who makes sense.
As I got in the car to leave for work the phrase “Unless a grain of wheat should fall upon the ground and die, it remains but a single grain with no life,” was playing in my mind. These were the words of a song we sang at school and are easy to recall when I attach the tune to them, but they originally come from the Bible verse, John 12:24. It struck me, then, that there are many seeds in me dying at the moment. I hope their death will grow into something beautiful that will wrap others in greater intimacy with their Creator. For there is hope in this phrase, and the way it came to mind helped me make a little better sense of the things I don’t understand. It’s not about me or my way of life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have reason to grieve or mourn the unfulfilled and incomplete, nor to feel daunted by the days ahead.
Over these next few weeks, I shall keep my eyes looking forward even when my vision mists and things don’t make sense. It is the best way I know of being “change-ready” whether I want to or don’t want to advance through such changes.