Thursday, June 29, 2006

Money, my father and me

Strangford Harbour

My father worked as a poorly-paid local government officer for fifty years. He had two different jobs for two local authorities, one for twenty years, the second for thirty. Why local government work? It had a good guaranteed pension.

Every month on payday he would draw down the whole monthly salary in cash at the bank. When he got home that evening he unlocked the money drawer in the Victorian cabinet in my parents’ bedroom, and took out around twenty or so banker’s envelopes. Each of the envelopes was labelled: mortgage; housekeeping; clothes; holidays, and so on. He would divide the cash according to a pre-arranged budget and not a penny more would be spent over the coming month. I believe, though I can’t be sure, that he may have had a category for unexpected expenses, but this would not have been a large amount.

He never bought anything on hire purchase. If we wanted anything special, we saved up for it. Neither he nor my mother wanted her to work after their marriage – they were of that generation and background - so he had total control of the household’s finances.

His own father, a post office clerk, had developed TB when Dad was seven and died when he was nine. My grandmother was left with two boys to raise in pre-welfare state days. She came from a large family, fortunately, with a couple of sisters who had “married well” and who I suspect helped out. She also took in other people’s laundry. As a boy my father worked at weekends and evenings in order to boost the family income.

So financial security was a critical factor for him. He was deeply fearful of becoming destitute. I found out after his death that he once advised my sister never to take a job if it didn’t have a good pension scheme. He never had this conversation with me, and I have since wondered why. Was our relationship that distant? He never said anything critical because we were both wary of broaching sensitive subjects, but I suspect he disapproved of the wandering lifestyle that I adopted in my early years. Or did he perhaps think I was the type who would survive and didn’t need good financial advice?

Wrong. I was careless. I thought I would meet a man who would look after me financially. Or just that something would turn up. So I frittered money away, albeit in a low-key way. But then about twelve years ago, I hit a crossroads, my life changed and I gradually started taking better care of myself all round, including financially.

I’ve learned that I can’t budget in the rigid fashion that my father did, in the same way that I can’t diet. Tell me to spend £x on this and £y on that and balance my chequebook, and I will develop an irresistible craving to blow £300 on a Gucci handbag and throw away the receipt. Well maybe not exactly, but sooner or later I abandon the budget. I feel as if I am drowning when I am controlling my spending to such a degree, and going on a spending spree is the equivalent of kicking hard for the surface in order to be able to breathe.

After a period of burn-out a few years ago and on receipt of a (very) small windfall, I made the decision to switch from full-time executive assistant roles to temporary office work. I couldn’t take the pressure any longer, and I wanted finally to allow myself freedom and time to develop my other talents, the ones that I enjoy more.

By the standards of my peers I now live very simply, and to some extent I have become my father’s daughter. No banker’s envelopes for me, and I only do what I have to in the way of balancing cheque books and so on. But I have become one of life’s minimalists. There were no luxuries to speak of anyway when I was growing up, so it is no real hardship.

I question sometimes, with a good deal of self-recrimination, why I have never been able to settle as he did into a “safe” long-term conventional career. I tell myself at these times that by the standards of most of the world’s population I am wealthy, that I have always been able to get work, and that while money is definitely a necessity it is only useful for comfort, not happiness. I’ll be all right. Everything will be all right. And the risk will be worth it.

Magical thinking? Perhaps. But perhaps not.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Seeing: Self-portrait

Our stories inscribe their own heiroglyphics, like shorthand symbols, on our faces.

Vertical lines between the eyebrows. Horizontal ones on the forehead. Bundles of thin parallel lines at the outer corners of the eyes - crow's feet.

A curving vertical furrow on each side of the nose and mouth.

A true record.

This visual self-revelation really doesn't come naturally, but I'm encouraged by the creativity of Natalie (of course), Brenda, MB, Jean, Dave, and Felicity, who are all participating in the self portrait marathon, and also by Tamar and Leslee who aren’t taking part officially but have each put up photographs of themselves.

And a mention too for LJ, who has been posting inspiring self-portraits on her blog for a while now – well before the marathon began.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Drinking Water

Struell Wells is hidden away in a remote corner of County Down. It’s not that easy to get to. You need to take a very narrow country lane leading from the main Downpatrick road along a steep valley. Eventually you come to a walled greensward surrounded by fields and woods where the wells are situated. There is a rough parking area on the opposite side of the road, and that’s it. No houses, no ice cream kiosks, no souvenir shops.

The site is fed by an underground stream which surfaces in two separate stone-covered wells and a male and female bathhouse. It has been a centre for pilgrimage for many hundreds of years; the whole of this area has strong connections to St Patrick who, according to legend, used to come here to take the waters. There is conjecture that the wells date right back to pagan, pre-Christian times, and this wouldn’t surprise me. The place has a sense of timelessness, difficult to describe but practically tangible. It was almost disconcertingly peaceful and quiet with nothing to be heard but the sounds of birdsong and running water.

Drinking well

There were just two other visitors when we arrived, both of them women. My friend C sat on a stone bench absorbing the atmosphere while I wandered around, taking the occasional photograph, pleased to be there but restless, drifting from the ruined church to the drinking well and on to the eye well – for eye problems as the name suggests.

I went into the female bathhouse, now open to the sky, where the stream is channelled through an opening about one third of the way up one of the mossy stone walls, drops down to a stone gulley on the floor and exits under the opposite wall.

Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do. I placed the camera well to one side then leaned forward into the stream, cupped my hands and doused myself with the water several times from top to toe.

I needed to participate. When fate hands you a trip to a healing well, or anything else, it is gracious to accept with thanks what is on offer. And who doesn’t need healing to some degree? Goodness knows I take what I can get, particularly at the moment.

Accustomed to sanitised mineral-water-in-bottles-with-a-label but feeling it was important to honour the tradition, I looked around for some kind of notice indicating whether the water was safe to drink. Nothing. I scooped up some more water and took the risk. It tasted good. Clear and cold.

After a few minutes I went outside to rejoin C. The two women had gone and their place had been taken by four local teenagers who were kicking a red football around in a corner of the grassy area – there was no escaping World Cup fever even here….

I found out later that the water at the wells is very sadly no longer considered safe for human consumption. I had no ill effects but rather a sense of having received - irrespective of outcome - an unlooked-for gift, unexpectedly bestowed.

The Summer Solstice used to be the occasion for one of the main yearly festivals at the wells, when crowds would come on pilgrimage. We were there on 17th June, just three days early.

  1. Photos from the top: Water entering the female bathhouse: the stone cover of the drinking well: entrance to the male bathhouse.
  2. These sites provide further information on Struell Wells.
  3. Details of St Patrick's connection with County Down, including a paragraph on Struell Wells.
  4. Sites providing general information on holy wells in Ireland.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Being seen

There have been a lot of self-portraits around recently. And they’ve been making me very uneasy – not that I disapprove of them, on the contrary. It’s been the thought of posting my own that has made me nervous.

Enough of fear and shyness. Here it is. I suspect I may take the photo down before too long though .....

Is it possible
to stand in the light
to hold still
to be seen?

Shall I be here
for once
without flinching
or averting my eyes?

Looking back at
with the same
calm, even

Is it possible
to hold the tension?

Memories and comments

Strangford Lough from Nendrum Monastery, Co. Down.

That went quickly. In the blink of an eye almost. I have memories of greens and greys, of gentle rounded hills and low skies, of buttercups and crumbling ruins at sacred sites, of massed choirs of songbirds, of loughs and healing wells, mountains, rain and mist. It was only three days ago that I heard the haunting call of seals in the narrows where Strangford Lough meets the sea, and I remember the light effects of muted sunshine among the clouds.

I was in Northern Ireland for the whole time, so there is a jumble of memories too of the physical proofs of old enmities, of a sectarian parade and Union Jacks hanging from lampposts, of much warmth and friendliness, of that unique harsh-yet-tender accent, of busy town centres and chilling political murals and graffiti, of traffic jams and row upon row of red brick housing. Each time I visit I am always unsettled by these juxtapositions.

We had soft, warm Irish weather with the result that most of my photographs are studies in shades of grey, so there may be fewer on the blog than I had intended. There will be a post or two though once I get myself sorted, and I know I have a lot of blog reading to catch up on.


I want to say a particular thank you as well to everyone who commented on the previous post. At the airport on my return trip, on my own after four days of constant companionship, I had some time to kill after check-in and I suddenly started to feel lonely and overwhelmed at the prospect of the momentous (for me) decisions that are looming. So as a distraction I logged onto my emails at the internet café in the departure lounge. In amongst the usual correspondence and miscellaneous rubbish, up popped all the comments. They helped, they really did.

G wrote:

Comfort. Discomfort. I wonder where we get the idea that one is better than the other….

That stays with me as I unpack and tidy up in preparation for the estate agents’ visits.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I’m off to Ireland for a long weekend break with a friend, leaving very early tomorrow morning. It should be good. We’ll be out in the wilds - climbing hills, going for a boat trip on one of the local loughs and visiting a couple of archaeological sites. I plan to be back online again by the middle of next week. Expect pictures.

The day after my return a couple of estate agents are coming to inspect the flat and give a valuation on what sale price I can expect to get for it. They will also advise on any alteration/redecoration that I need to do to make it more marketable.

Then, by September at the latest I hope, possibly earlier, I will put it up for sale. I will be going back and forth to Hereford a lot from July onwards. Fortunately I have two friends nearby who have each offered to supply bed and breakfast facilities when I need them ….

It’s time. It really is.

I’m wary these days of falling into the trap of believing that a new house/job/town/relationship/drink/lipstick/chocolate bar will fix a discomfort that stems from something deeper. They are so tempting, these illusions, so very seductive, particularly if you are as fond of chocolate as I am. But this desire to push on with the move is much more than simple escapism.

Firstly, there are good practical reasons for relocating now and some of these are listed in the post I’ve linked to above. More important though than all of these is that I know I have to do it, and soon. No choice. It’s bigger than me. I can’t explain.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006



Herhimnbryn, who has been in the UK on a visit from Australia, recently posted an account and photographs of her trip to the National History Museum of Wales, at St Fagans near Cardiff. This brought back so many memories of my grandfather who lived a few miles away ....

Very Welsh and from a large working-class family, Granddad was a warm, gregarious, infuriating, charming, man with forthright views. His passions were rugby and classical music, and he possessed a resonant bass singing voice that he used whenever the opportunity presented itself. He was equally fervent, though not enthusiastic, about the composition and performance of the Welsh rugby team of the moment, politicians, and men with long hair (this was the 1960s).

He was outgoing and communicative almost to a fault. He would strike up conversations with complete strangers at sports events, on the train, in restaurants ... a trait my mother inherited but which, in the main, has not reached me. I still marvel at the ease with which he was able to do this.

When his three children were still young the family moved with him to London, following a work promotion, and he stayed there for thirty years before returning to South Wales in his retirement. My mother and her brothers remained in England and lost their Welsh accents. Granddad kept his.

My grandmother died during World War II and a couple of years after her death he married again, this time to a Londoner. They suited each other. She would tease him mercilessly, which was very good for him. He apparently softened around her, and mellowed.

I was his only grandchild for my first ten years, and thus the focus of much of his love and attention. As a little girl, I adored him and the feeling was mutual. As I grew older, and my head caught up with my heart, some of that bonding loosened, though it never completely vanished. I was a teenager in the 1960s and there was no way that he and I were going totally to escape our differences.

This photo recently came to light when my sister and I were going through some family papers. It is his warmth, together with his passion, decisiveness and zest that stay with me; he faced each day full-on and wrung out the last drop of experience and pleasure from everything he did. That kind of energy and enthusiasm, the relish of the essence of life, is something I seek to embrace more and more urgently as the years slip by.

I haven't really inherited these particular genes from him; self-doubt gets in the way so very easily and I still elect to hover nervously on the sidelines too much of the time.

On other days though it all falls into place, and I break through the invisible barriers and dance.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Circles and Wheels

Urban sculpture plus bicycle. Taken at Canary Wharf, London E14.

Summertime blues

Flowers and bee

Summertime blues. I've hit a painful bump in the road and they’ve been around recently. The French word for a bruise is un bleu, the same word as is used for the colour, and "bruised" pretty much sums it all up.

It has started me thinking though about blue, the word and the associated state of mind with its melancholy connotations.

And in contrast, I've been noticing the colour which from my perspective is soothing, cooling, receptive, healing …

Blues, seen and remembered:

  • my mother's two blue and white mugs which passed to me on her death - I wouldn't drink my morning coffee (black, no sugar, very hot) out of anything else;
  • delicate forget-me-not blue;
  • Philippe’s kind sky-blue eyes;
  • vibrant, iridescent electric blue;
  • the flash of kingfisher blue glimpsed as the little bird swoops across the stream;
  • sophisticated and grown-up navy blue;
  • a flotilla of blue-sailed yachts on the Thames passing under Vauxhall Bridge;
  • velvety midnight blue;
  • feathery, soft grey-blue;
  • the “wine-dark sea” - the deep, intense yet light-filled blue of the Mediterranean around the Greek islands.

An orchestra of different shades and tones, but all playing the same blue tune.

I may be a bit glum, but blue isn’t downbeat. On the contrary.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Time off

I've just taken several much-needed days away from the internet.

They have shown me that I need to spend more time offline. With others. Or working. Or walking. Or meditating. Or chilling out like these two in the photo.

I'm not going to stop blogging altogether - the creativity and the online friendships are just too precious - but I will be pulling back and aiming to have a few days a week as non-internet days. So I will probably be visiting my favourite blogs a little less frequently.

My creative juices seem to have dried up too so there may be longer gaps between posts anyway. Or not. I've said this before and immediately had ideas for half a dozen different topics to write about ....

Friday, June 02, 2006


It was a humid and sticky afternoon, but there were a good number of people strolling along the towpath of this part of the Regent's Canal last Sunday as I walked from Little Venice to Regent's Park.

The canal is a popular place at weekends. It was originally built as a commercial thoroughfare in the nineteenth century, linking the Grand Junction Canal with the Thames but, as has been the case elsewhere, the huge growth in lorry transport has meant that since the 1960s it has been used almost totally for leisure purposes.

In spite of the crowds, every so often I came upon an empty stretch where only the chatter of birds and the faint hum of traffic could be heard, punctuated by an aircraft heading towards Heathrow or a barking dog. Now and again a slight breeze ruffled the surface of the still, muddy water.

The occasional houseboat chugged past, captained by a weekend sailor with his family and friends on deck. Groups of mallards and moorhens swam over to the bank all along the way, sizeing up the passers-by: which one is most likely to produce food?

Getting to a destination via a waterway always seems like tiptoeing in through the back door, instead of taking the more habitual public route by road. There was a certain voyeuristic buzz to be had in catching a part of the city with its guard down - passing back gardens with families relaxing on the lawn, peeking through the open doors of the moored houseboats at the doll's house living spaces inside - as I headed towards the Regency villas and the leafy greenness of the park a mile or two away. It was glimpse of a seemingly gentler way of life to that lived on the dirty, often dangerous, London streets - an illusory glimpse no doubt, but seductive.

As I walked I tried to think through a difficult personal issue. Nothing was resolved and there were no quick fixes. Just questions reflected quietly back.

In hindsight I can see that I already knew the answers.

Photographs taken on the Regent's Canal between Little Venice and Regent's Park. Click on photos to enlarge.