Nikki’s swims

Nikki’s pool

I wanted to share with you today a personal story about my amazing, inspirational stepdaughter, Nikki. When she was just 19 she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer, and was given a ‘target of five years – get that far without a recurrence and she’d have done well’. She underwent the trauma of radiotherapy and chemo, and was told it was unlikely she’d be able to have children. Soon after this I met her mother, who subsequently became Mrs TD; Nikki became my lovely daughter.

She’s now 48, married, with a daughter and a son, aged twelve and fifteen.

That’s not all. Four years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Back to the horrors of chemo and a mastectomy. She now has an annual mammogram, followed by the agonising wait for the results letter a few weeks afterwards. She prays for a ‘thin letter’ – it’s the fat ones that bring bad news.

Nikki’s pool, swimmers, blue sky

In the recent past she’s become fond of water-based activities – kayaking, paddle-boarding. Since the summer she’s become addicted to wild swimming. She’s been going to a seawater pool on the coast near where she lives, accompanied by an equally crazy friend or two, sometimes her firefighter husband.

Most of her working life Nikki has worked in the National Health Service, most recently in cancer services. She’s a passionate advocate of ensuring the best support and care is available for those who are having treatment, or are survivors of cancer.

A friend of hers, also an NHS worker, was so impressed with Nikki’s courage and obvious pleasure in her cold-water swims that she created a link for herself and others to make donations to the charity Cancer Research UK for every swim Nikki completed this December. At the time of writing she’s raised over £800.

I was going to write here about Nikki’s swimming, but thought she expressed it far better than I could in her own personal blog. She’s given me permission to quote from it here, and to use some of her pictures.

Extract from her Shephards Way blog, 2 Nov: link HERE

Nikki and her pool (or lake)

I’ve been asked quite a lot recently A. Am I mad? B. How do I do it? Cold water swimming that is …. we can come back to other answers for A. another time.

Mr S [Nikki’s husband] had invited me cold water swimming a while back and I had politely declined – my reasons were mainly vanity and size based. Roll on 4 months and a good number of swims tucked under my swimsuit I am HOOKED. Vanity and size-based concerns have literally been washed away: I don’t care that I may look like a plonker in my pink hat, black costume and boots – I am as happy as happy can be! It is the most liberating feeling I have ever experienced, well apart from the big purposeful flash I did the other night just after a dusk swim, but we can save that for another time too.

Christmas Eve swim!

I would say I’m a fearful and anxious person by nature but I’m think my anxiety has also developed through my life experiences. I often think of myself as a not very brave person, definitely not someone who likes to step too far out of their comfort zone, although I am known for pushing my limits a little at times. BUT when I swim in cold water I feel the bravest person I know! Bonkers eh??

When I am driving to the lake, I get a little knot of anxiety in my tummy – I think it’s also mixed in with a little excitement. I get out of my warm gear and pop on my swimming hat and boots. As I walk to the steps into the lake the excitement builds a little. The first few steps are cold (obviously) but I take a big deep breath and as I exhale I swim off into the lake. With certain friends at this point there is a loud woo hoo. Initially there is some tingling pain mainly in my arms then as I swim I start to get used to the feeling and strangely my body sort of warms up! My mind during this point is doing what I think is most clever, it is overriding all my natural fears, it’s forcing me to think of the water, the feel of the fresh air on my face, to be aware of my oh so clever body. I look around at the sights, people watch, gaze over the sea to Wales, to the gorgeous iconic pier. I can hear the water lapping around me as I push on through, the sound of silence or the hum and chatter of friends or others. For a brief moment in time I am fearless, I am free and I am happy.

The return to shore is exciting too, the sense of having just done something mad makes me dizzy with excitement, wanting to take pictures and to share my euphoric state with everyone!! Then there is the getting dressed, the woolly hat, plenty of layers and the hot chocolate, before setting off back to life again!

My perfect moment in time, where for a short space in time I am brave, strong, invincible and cancer doesn’t exist.

An evening swim with head torch

In a recent Guardian article: ‘Nature has healing powers: Britain’s Covid heroes share their favourite outdoor spaces’, several people talk of the beaches, woods and other places in which they’ve felt connected with nature and its restorative, calming influences (link HERE).

Nikki is more of a heroine, to my mind, than any of these worthy individuals!

Camellias, pheasants and Tess of the D’Urbervilles

This was going to be a post about Salvation City, the second Sigrid Nunez novel I’ve read recently (I posted on The Friend in September, HERE). I find that my Covid-era lethargy persists, however, and its setting in a near-future flu pandemic also puts me off for now. I’ll return to it another time.

As I returned from my daily walk yesterday I was passing the house and garden at the bottom of my road. There’s a large camellia that forms part of the garden border, hanging over the footpath next to it. This camellia produces beautiful pink flowers every December, and this year is no exception.

As I paused to admire them, one of them dropped off and fell with a soft thud onto the damp pavement at my feet. It looked perfectly healthy: it hadn’t blown or turned brown. I suppose it just gave up on blooming.

What happened next quite disturbed me. I recalled vividly the troublesome scene with the dying pheasants in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

It takes place when Tess has fled from the sinister, unwanted sexual attentions of Alec, found love with Angel, and then disaster strikes again when, soon after marrying him, he learns about her…dalliance with Alec. In a fit of moral outrage he rejects her and takes off to sulk in Brazil, leaving her penniless and vulnerable to the renewed sexual predation of Alec.

As she wanders the country, trying to figure out how to subsist, she turns aside to spend the night in a tree plantation. She sleeps fitfully in her ‘nest’ of leaves, under the branches, and is often disturbed by ‘strange noises’. She feels ‘wretched’ and that she’s wasted her life: ‘All was, alas, worse than vanity–injustice, punishment, exaction, death.’ She wishes she were dead. (It’s not the most cheerful of novels…) Here’s what follows  – extract from Phase the Fifth: The Woman Pays, ch. 41 (available at The Literature Page website – this is described there as the 1891 text):

In the midst of these whimsical fancies she heard a new strange sound among the leaves. It might be the wind; yet there was scarcely any wind. Sometimes it was a palpitation, sometimes a flutter; sometimes it was a sort of gasp or gurgle. Soon she was certain that the noises came from wild creatures of some kind, the more so when, originating in the boughs overhead, they were followed by the fall of a heavy body upon the ground. Had she been ensconced here under other and more pleasant conditions she would have become alarmed; but, outside humanity, she had at present no fear.

Day at length broke in the sky. When it had been day aloft for some little while it became day in the wood.

Directly the assuring and prosaic light of the world’s active hours had grown strong she crept from under her hillock of leaves, and looked around boldly. Then she perceived what had been going on to disturb her. The plantation wherein she had taken shelter ran down at this spot into a peak, which ended it hitherward, outside the hedge being arable ground. Under the trees several pheasants lay about, their rich plumage dabbled with blood; some were dead, some feebly twitching a wing, some staring up at the sky, some pulsating quickly, some contorted, some stretched out–all of them writhing in agony, except the fortunate ones whose tortures had ended during the night by the inability of nature to bear more.

Tess guessed at once the meaning of this. The birds had been driven down into this corner the day before by some shooting-party; and while those that had dropped dead under the shot, or had died before nightfall, had been searched for and carried off, many badly wounded birds had escaped and hidden themselves away, or risen among the thick boughs, where they had maintained their position till they grew weaker with loss of blood in the night-time, when they had fallen one by one as she had heard them.

Tess in the plantation

Tess in the plantation

Her response to this gruesome experience is interesting. She pities the maimed and dying birds that survived being shot, and ‘tenderly’ wrings their necks to end their suffering, tears running down her cheeks. The plight of these unfortunate pheasants causes her to snap out of her self-pity: their misery was far more severe than her own:

‘”I be not mangled, and I be not bleeding, and I have two hands to feed and clothe me.”‘ She was ashamed of herself for her gloom of the night, based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature.

You can see, I hope, why the fall of the camellia and the flashing into my mind of this melodramatic scene in a novel not noted for its emotional restraint caused me such disturbance.

The camellia tree

I stopped to take these pictures of the lovely blooms that still flourish on the tree: maybe I should emulate Tess and refrain from gloomy thoughts.

Although Christmas for most of us this year will be different from what we might have hoped, Tess’s response reminds us that nature always has the capacity to restore and renew.

[Illustration of Tess in the plantation is by Joseph Syddall – plate 22 from the monthly serialisation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Originally published in monthly parts (with censored text) in the London Graphic magazine, 1891, in three volumes in book form the same year, and in one volume in 1892. Image from The Victorian Web site HERE]Camellia flower

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020. First published in Australia by Allen & Unwin, 2019

An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick… WB Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’

During this pandemic it’s become apparent that there aren’t many terms for people in the final years of their lives that don’t sound patronising or demeaning: the elderly (like the infirm: a category of useless outsiders, surplus to societal requirements). Older people. Older than normal people, is the implication.

Older women in fiction are even scarcer than the men. They often serve as slightly comical or absurd, often acidic commentators on the antics of the more interesting younger people around them – like the battleaxe in Downton Abbey whose name I forget, or the dowagers in Victorian novels who view the perceived shortcomings of the ‘girls’ of marriageable age in their social circles with disapproval.

Fiction writers tend to be more interested in younger people – those who are still useful to society, of breeding age or raising their young, holding down jobs and contributing to the economy – or, if they’re not, finding ways of dealing with this. They have agency.

There are notable exceptions to this tendency. Elizabeth Taylor, more recently, Elizabeth Strout. I’m sure you can think of many more. Devon-based blogger Caroline focuses (among other subjects) on older women in fiction in her Bookword blog (link HERE), and is doing her bit to shift the balance in our perception of this demographic.

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend front coverI was inspired to read Australian author Charlotte Wood’s recent novel The Weekend by a review at Lisa Hill’s ANZ Litlovers blog last December (link HERE) and a follow-up post in May 2020, about the Yarra Yarra writers festival (link HERE). Like a less sentimental Golden Girls, it deals with the bonds and tensions between three women in their early seventies. She does this with frankness, insight and quite a bit of humour. She doesn’t idealise these women: they’re all flawed in their own ways. But they’re all interesting, vulnerable and utterly convincing as characters.

Every Christmas they would gather at the beach house of Sylvie and her partner Gail. This year it’s different – Sylvie has died earlier that year, and Gail has cleared out their city house and gone to Ireland, and invited Jude, Adele and Wendy to do the same for the beach house, taking anything they want to keep for themselves. Sylvie’s death prompts intimations of mortality and decline in all of them.

Fissures in the three women’s friendship appear right from the start. Even though they’ve been close for decades and know each other better than their own siblings, ‘strange caverns of distance between them’ are revealed.

Jude, an elegant ex-restaurateur, is judgemental, bossy and spiky. She’s been conducting an affair with a married man for forty years, and there’s little sign he’ll ever commit to her.

Adele is an actor noted for her glamour rather than her talent, and the acting parts have dried up along with her looks. She’s become desperate to revive her career, and begins to humiliate herself as the weekend proceeds. Some of these scenes are almost painful to read.

Wendy is an intellectual, a published feminist. She’s also adrift, having lost her much-loved husband, and her direction and purpose in life. Much to the annoyance of Jude, she’s brought along her incontinent, bewildered old dog Finn, whose dementia foreshadows perhaps the fate of these women. Jude insists he stays outside the house, convinced he’ll soil the expensive white sofa she’d given to Sylvie, and is intolerant of his senility.

This hostility reflects the occasional attitude of much of wider society towards older people in the community. They’re an embarrassment, and best kept out of sight. The kindest thing, Jude believes, would be to put the old dog out of his misery. Why don’t we do this for people, is the inference she’d probably not acknowledge.

There’s not much in the way of plot, although it’s not surprising that startling secrets spill out that threaten the fragile equilibrium of this friendship. It’s unclear until the end whether life-affirming connections that hold the women together will prevail against the rifts that open up between them, or whether their weekend will end in acrimony and disaster.

I realise I may have made The Weekend sound a bit depressing – it isn’t. There’s some cracking dialogue and wit in the narrative, and the prose is unfussy and sprightly. Right at the start, when Jude is thinking about her lover’s unsuccessful attempt to elicit her sympathy for a relative of his who’s died (she feels more inclined to spit on the floor than to hug him), she admonishes herself not to be so ‘hard on people’. Then:

Jude hated other candles being lit next to the one she secretly thought of as Sylvie’s, in the cathedral she had stolen into once or twice. Sometimes she blew the other candles out.

I like the way Wood has Jude ‘steal’ into the cathedral, and vindictively blow out the other candles – she doesn’t even seem to have lit one for Sylvie herself! Her acerbity conceals an almost-lost capacity for affection.

Later, Adele reflects painfully on the way that Jude would never praise her acting performances or the plays she appeared in. Instead she ‘demolished the various elements’ of the production, because:

Jude was like a reverse Midas, walking through your life pointing at the things you cherished, one, two, three, and at her touch each one turned to shit.

It was said of Jude she ‘didn’t have friends, she had subordinates.’ But that was when she was younger, Jude has begun to realise. Now she has nothing except her part-time, absent lover.

None of this is spelt out; my extracts indicate how Wood carefully presents the minds of her characters in turn through free indirect thought, with all their evasions and elisions, as they contemplate the actions of others and their own inconsistencies.

Wood’s capacity to splice barbed revelation with humour is one of the highlights of this novel. Like the moment where Wendy looks at Sylvie’s (probably unread) copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. She recalls how they all liked talking about death when they were younger, especially Jude:

Back then Jude talked about her image of death; a white, curved place of stillness and a kind of holy silence. She made it sound like the damned Guggenheim.

Wendy goes on to think of her unsympathetic daughter’s friend, who’d set herself up as ‘an end-of-life doula’:

What’s that, Wendy had said, palliative care without the qualifications?

Hadn’t this woman heard of feminism, she wonders. She can be spiky too.  And of course she’s also pondering the way her own feminist career has run its course – she’s becoming another ‘paltry thing’. But all of these women are finding ways for their souls to ‘clap hands and sing’ – and refuse to slouch into senility.

 

 

Lockdown diary

I’m still finding it difficult to summon the energy to read much, let alone post, so today I thought I’d do another account of recent events.

My first cake

My first cake

Before lockdown ended last Wednesday I thought it was time I baked my first ever cake. With some supervision from Mrs TD – an excellent cook and baker – I produced this beauty: a Victoria sponge, with raspberry jam in the middle. It was delicious.

Next day the weather finally improved, so we went for a walk on the north Cornwall coast. The beach at Crantock was our dog’s favourite place, and is still one of ours.

Polly Joke

Polly Joke

We love the walk along the coastal path to the next bay: Polly Joke. I’ve posted here earlier this year with pictures of the beautiful display of poppies there in the summer. My picture shows the aftermath of the stormy weather during the preceding week.

When lockdown ended we found ourselves in Tier 1 – one of only a few areas in the country not to face tighter restrictions because of the recent surge in Covid cases here in the UK. On another fine sunny day we went to the south coast.

St Austell Bay

St Austell Bay

We took a picnic: Mrs TD’s home-made roast tomato and red pepper soup and a sandwich, which we ate on a bench overlooking St Austell Bay. My picture shows the sea as flat as a lake, gleaming like polished metal in the low winter sunshine.

On Monday I walked alone locally while Mrs TD had her Zoom yoga class at home. There were angry-looking dark clouds being buffeted across the sky by a blustery wind, but in between the sun was bright and the sky blue.

Pig lane view

This is the view from a lane that runs along the valley cut by the river Allen. There used to be a huge pig that wallowed in the mud beside the river below the farm, so we call this the Pig Lane – even though she’s long since gone for bacon.

Yesterday for another walk around Feock and the creekside paths (very muddy after all the recent rain) to Penpol and back.

I’ve posted before about the lovely little church in Feock, and the saint after whom the village is named. I finally traced the location of the holy well named after him: websites gave conflicting information.

Steps leading to St Feock's Well

Steps leading to St Feock’s Well

It’s a fairly modern-looking brick structure at the bottom of a slope, reached by a set of rough steps. Iron bars – like a prison cell’s – are the only way of seeing inside, so it’s very dark. Murky water the colour of milky tea looks uninviting. I can’t imagine this water having very curative powers – rather the contrary.St Feock's well

 

 

 

 

 

Since the lockdown ended the town has become very busy again. Everyone seems intent on making up for lost time, doing their Christmas shopping. I prefer to avoid the crowds and stick to my rural walks. As always we feel so fortunate to live in such a lovely place. The scenery always lifts our spirits.

So do the plants and wildlife. My bird feeder is regularly visited by a handsome nuthatch. The bullfinches that were regular visitors earlier in the year are also starting to return after the summer hiatus. Mrs TD insists that the birds fend for themselves during the summer. She says naturally foraged food is bountiful at that time, and they’ll become lazy and probably delinquent if we carry on feeding them through those months.

She’s not usually so tough.

Cairngorm pilgrim: Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

Nan Shepherd (1893-1981), The Living Mountain. Canongate, 2014 (The Canons series)

‘One never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it.’

Nan Shepherd wrote this homage to the Cairngorm mountains mostly towards the end of the second world war, but was advised by a well-meaning correspondent that it would never find a publisher. She put the MS in a drawer where it remained until it was published ‘quietly’ (as Robert Macfarlane puts it in his introduction to this edition) in 1977.

I find it as difficult to describe as he does:

A celebratory prose-poem? A geo-poetic quest? A place-paean? A philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge? A metaphysical mash-up of Presbyterianism and the Tao?

Mountains have long inspired powerful emotions in those who contemplate them. Edmund Burke, in his examination (1757) of all things ‘sublime’, such as mountain ranges, believed that ‘terror’ was its ‘ruling principle’. Until the time of the early Romantics, wild nature in all its forms, especially mountains, were viewed with similar misgivings, although there was always a concession that mighty vistas inspired feelings of awe. Rude nature was seen as something of an imperfection, a visual proof of the fall of humankind from grace. It was chaos – the antithesis of human reason and logic.

I came across a fine example of this wary attitude to nature’s wildness when listening to a podcast recently of the Radio 4 programme The Verb (dated 29.6.18), an episode called ‘Northern Rocks’ – about the craggy hills of the north of England. One contributor cited the English author and rent collector in Scotland, Edward Burt (died 1755; he was also a surveyor for the making of General Wade’s military roads there after the 1715 Jacobite rebellion). Burt wrote in 1727-28 about Scottish mountains in a grumpy letter to a friend (published 1754):

I shall soon conclude this description of the outward appearance of the mountains, which I am already tired of, as a disagreeable subject. . . . There is not much variety, but gloomy spaces, different rocks, heath, and high and low, . . . the whole of a dismal gloomy brown drawing upon a dirty purple; and most of all disagreeable when the heath is in bloom. But of all the views, I think the most horrid is, to look at the hills from east to west, or vice versa; for then the eye penetrates far among them, and sees more particularly their stupendous bulk, frightful irregularity, and horrid gloom, made yet more sombrous by the shades and faint reflections they communicate one to another.Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to his Friend in London. Fifth edit., vol. i. p. 285. (Link to this quotation online HERE).

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain front coverWordsworth was to use the term ‘sublime’ about his beloved Lakeland mountain region in a more transcendendent sense, and he was influential in changing the largely negative attitudes to wild nature prevalent until his time (though there was a fashion in the decades before him for admiring the ‘picturesque’ – sanitised tableaux of natural scenes to be admired in urban drawing-rooms). Shepherd favours this Wordsworthian attitude, with a dose of sensuality, metaphysics and Zen thrown in. She’s also a sort of rural psychogeographer or flâneuse, if it’s possible to be one outside of an urban setting:

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with them…

She has no truck with the (mostly male) climbers who seek simply to chalk up another peak to their tally of conquests. Mountains are not there to be vanquished. Her approach is more selfless, spiritual and poetic.

The dustjacket of this book carries a quotation from the Guardian newspaper: ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. I wasn’t convinced of this until the final three chapters. The poetic prose and lofty transcendentalism was a bit heady for my taste – though there were some lovely descriptions of the flora and fauna as well as the topography of the mountains. Then I must have become attuned to the style and approach.

There are some memorable moments, like the description of her waking from a sleep outside her tent (in the summer, of course) to find an owl perched on her tent-pole. She writes beautifully about the ‘swiftness’ of many of the creatures that live on the mountain: the eagle, peregrine falcon, red deer and mountain hare. But this isn’t sentiment or gush: as a sensible naturalist she recognises that being speedy is ‘severely practical’ –

…food is so scarce up there that only those who can move swiftly over vast stretches of ground may hope to survive. The speed, the whorls and torrents of movement, are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity. … Beauty is not adventitious but essential.

This represents the best and worst of Shepherd’s prose style. That second sentence is, well, sublime, but I omitted a long sentence in that extract, which would to my mind have benefitted from some editing.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Here’s the final paragraph, that conveys this book’s essence:

I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into a mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.