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Out of the mouths of babes …


One of the best pieces of advice ever given to me in all of my life came when I was 5 years old, in the first class of the Infants’ School. A big girl – probably about 7 or 8 – told me that if I was playing in the school yard and someone came up to me and said, “SHIFT!” I should reply stoutly “SHOR!” and stand my ground.

I was fairly ignorant of the Black Country dialect spoken by most of my schoolmates, so I understood neither of these words, but I found that whenever an older child told me to shift, and I retorted “Shor!” it worked. I would smile cheerily, knowing I had used the magic password, the intimidator would look me up and down then either retreat disconsolately or invite me to play. Win-win!

Positive reinforcement worked so well that after a couple of weeks, I was no longer being told to shift or subjected to any other kind of aggression, and was friends with most of the other kids. It took me a long time to discover that “shift!” meant “move!” and “shor!” was Black Country language for “shan’t!” so that in my innocence, my unruffled defiance had been interpreted as assertiveness: “Don’t mess with me!” Whereas I thought I was just giving the correct response to a secret school code.

I don’t know who that big girl was, but her advice has served me well and I’m eternally grateful. First of all, it kept me intact in my earliest school life, where I retained my claim on the square metre or so of playground where I was bouncing my ball, skipping, standing on my head or digging in the mud, and also later in adult life where I was able to avoid being pushed and shoved around by colleagues and superiors. My response then was a more diplomatic form of “shor!” but it still worked.

I think the cheery smile probably also played its part in averting a violent reaction. Had I snorted my “SHOR!” with a frown or a glare it would probably have elicited a thump on the nose. Most of those ordering me to “Shift!” were bigger, older and stronger than me. But my honest body language seems to have defused the situation, and disconcerted my potential aggressors. Maybe now and then I did have to hit back – I don’t remember. The main lesson I learnt was that friendly resistance (and persistence) gets you further than belligerence.



The Pigeon-Loft

This ought to be on my Black Country Page, but that is getting rather unwieldy, so I’m posting it here.

Pigeon fancying was one of the most popular pastimes among working-class men in the Black Country when I was growing up. Many a terraced house had a pigeon-loft in the backyard, and on Saturdays the men would wait eagerly for their prize homing pigeons to return from some far away place, grunting and grumbling under their breath as the pigeon landed, dawdled, and finally stepped into the loft – because only then could it count as having arrived. As council estates sprang up, with clean, modern houses, neighbours started to complain that the pigeons were unhygienic and the lofts an eyesore, so many pigeon-fanciers were obliged to give up their hobby. 

‘Ere, gimme a pint o’ bitter, Joe!
Cuz it’s bitter I’m feeling at the mo’
They say I’ve gorra, but I wo’
            Move me pigeon-loft.

Them faithful bairds ‘ave allus cum
Back to the plairce they know as wum
An’ it’s mekkin me feel bloody glum
              To move me pigeon-loft.

W’eer’ll they goo if the loft ay theer?
Yo cor tell a pigeon it’s gorra steer
A different course as it’s took all year
             Cuz they’ve moved me pigeon-loft.

This tale of woe cast a pall of gloom
On all the blokes in the pub’s back room
For Bob’s prize pigeons met their doom
             When they moved ‘is pigeon-loft.


Yes, Lady No!

Corollary to my last post

D has been at the top of my prayer list for some time now, especially during the past few months. There’s no way I can provide or organise help for her, so I put it all confidently into the hands of the Big Guy Upstairs. Of course, any Christian knows that God can use anyone and anything for his purposes – and non-Christians will maintain that things tend to work out anyway. I know where I stand on this. I’ve seen him work in VERY mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

However, I had to laugh out loud when D phoned me today to tell me that she had followed up on one of Lady No’s leaflets, a service offering help to elderly people stuck in their homes. And she was quite penitent about the threats she was breathing the other day, acknowledging that this was indeed a very good idea. As a result, she now has a friendly person who will do her weekly grocery shopping and might even do some light housework, which will be a great boon.

The range of services offered also includes “sitting having a chat with you over a cuppa” and “taking you to appointments or on short outings”. Now that is simply brilliant. Of course, it isn’t free, but for the first time in months I actually heard my friend sounding genuinely upbeat and cheerful. Lady No has, at last, done something right! God bless her!

And my word, does D appreciate the irony!

Where Angels Fear To Tread

“HELP! I’m about to commit murder!”

Luckily, I recognise hyperbole, and was able to talk my friend down from her frenzy. Or rather, she talked herself down once she was assured I was listening. Blame the COVID-19 lockdown.

D has been my friend for many decades. She was my colleague when we both worked for the International Baccalaureate, and that’s how we became friends. She was a dynamo there for 25 years, and an important cog in the wheels during the time it was being developed. So what if she has been retired for 20 years? The IB was a very significant part of her life, professionally, emotionally and socially. Despite various trials and tribulations, she made many friends there and was highly respected.

Over the last few years I have watched helplessly as what used to be a solid bulwark of support has eroded, crumbled and been dismantled as friends and people around her have died, moved away to be near their children and grandchildren or into homes, or retreated into their own solitary senescence. Those she used to meet for coffee or a meal, to play mah-jong in each other’s homes, sit in one another’s gardens or share leisure activities such as swimming, art classes, visits to the cinema or theatre, or even Women’s Guild – all have melted away.

Now she’s 80, visually impaired, very deaf with an aggressive form of tinnitus and frequent bouts of labyrinthitis, and rather unsteady on her feet. Despite all that, she has managed so far to remain in her own home, and retain her independence and sense of humour. Although she used a computer for her work until she retired twenty years ago, unfortunately since then she has steadfastly refused to have anything to do with any electronic device (apart from her TV and hearing aids), and thus has no idea of anything that requires a mobile or smart phone, tablet or laptop. Completely innocent of the Internet (“What do you mean, she sent you a link?”) and thus totally out of the loop and a luddite to boot.

No remaining relatives, and the few friends – like me – who are still in touch mostly live far away. Communication is difficult, even by phone (she does have a landline) because of her poor hearing, but even letters are very few and far between nowadays: who picks up a pen, writes on paper, addresses an envelope, affixes a stamp and walks to the letterbox today, when e-mail and other forms of messaging are so much simpler? She is very, very isolated, especially during the lockdown.

But this cri de coeur couldn’t be ignored. I knew exactly who the proposed victim was. I half guessed the motive, and I knew that she would be the last to suspect that she had incurred D’s wrath. Poor Lady No!

Lady No moved into a house just down the road from D about 5 years ago. She has grandchildren who attend the International School of Geneva and since the IB Headquarters are still in that city, D shared some information about her own career and experiences of Geneva, thinking they might find something in common. However, it seems that as far as Lady No is concerned, D is just a poor old woman who needs a helping hand now and then, and has no idea of the force of nature that D was in her prime.

Lady No is a self-proclaimed benefactress to the world. Her first act upon moving into the vicinity was to organise a petition against the local Chinese restaurant, and she has followed this up with innumerable letters to the Council and local lobbying for various causes. I suppose it’s one way to meet the neighbours.

Although none of Lady No’s causes has met with D’s approval, D is polite and Lady No is impervious.  She clearly sees D as a needy recipient of her services, and so when the lockdown began, she posted a note through D’s door announcing that D should let her have her shopping list and she would get whatever groceries etc. were required. The tone was peremptory, which instantly rubbed D the wrong way, but she graciously acknowledged the offer of help and handed over her list.

Next day, Lady No left a shopping bag on D’s doorstep, containing about half of the things that had been on the list and a whole lot of other items as replacements for those she hadn’t found. I thought this was kind and thoughtful, until I heard what the “substitutes” were: mostly luxury items, hence expensive, and many of them things that D either didn’t like or really didn’t need. She thanked Lady No, and pointed out that if any item was unavailable, she should please just forget it and only bring the things actually listed. But Lady No is Lady NO. She ignored this. She also gave D lots of instructions about what to do in order to improve her circumstances.

D is an alpha girl who doesn’t take kindly to being patronised, but she bit her tongue thinking that, alas, she was to some extent dependent on Lady No for fetching her food so didn’t want to alienate her. And so the situation has escalated. And Lady No is no doubt convinced that she is being a wonderful neighbour, kind and helpful in another’s distress, totally oblivious to the rage and frustration mounting in D’s breast.

Lady No is avoiding any direct contact. She puts notes through the letter box (which D doesn’t usually find until the following day) and leaves bags of groceries on the doorstep without verifying that hard-of-hearing D has actually heard the doorbell. She tells D that she has to do this or that as if she were a child – and that is for D as a red rag to a bull. D will respond to “Have you thought of doing x …” or “Have you considered y …” but not to “You should …” or “You must …” Lady No has told her that she must see the doctor for this or that, and the optician for a problem that D knows is a matter for the ophthalmologist. D replied that at present, she can’t get any medical appointments and is self-isolating anyway. Lady No is putting visiting cards through D’s doors with the addresses of mobile podiatrists and hairdressers, cleaning services and gardeners with notes saying: “I spoke to so-and-so and (s)he can come to you next Wednesday”. D has told her politely that she doesn’t need these services. Luckily, she can vent to me.

“I shall murder her!”

I asked what Lady No’s latest misdemeanour was. Well, for the first time in its 50-year history, the IB exams were cancelled owing to COVID-19, a fact of which both D and I are naturally very well aware. We take an interest in our former employer. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was Lady No standing, socially distancing, at D’s garden gate and explaining to her, loudly, condescendingly, and in great detail, all about the International Baccalaureate, prefaced by the question:

“Have you ever heard of the IB?”

If only she knew! Fools rush in …

Ivory Tower


You see me sitting in my chair
And think I’ve always been like that,
Weak and wrinkled, thin grey hair,
Deaf, dim-eyed, and run to fat.

When you see me close my eyes
And think I’m falling fast asleep
Or preparing for my demise,
I’m often in my castle’s keep.

We build our days up like a house
With rooms we furnish through our life,
With places where we can carouse,
Or suffer, grieve, know joy and strife.

Oh yes, my life was rich and long:
My days have built a mighty fort
With turrets, towers, tall and strong,
With chambers, halls, a busy court.

Now, in days of enforced leisure
I can roam through rooms at will
Recalling moments that I treasure
Reliving times of good and ill.

Within these rooms I meet old friends
Long dead and gone, but in my mind
The happy hours we used to spend
I conjure up as I feel inclined.

Once again I dance and sing,
Love, live and laugh as in my prime.
Don’t pity me for anything:
I’ve built a palace with my time.

How is the Covid-19 Pandemic changing the way people relate?

A young Hong Kong Chinese friend of mine recently published this article on the Cross-Current website  

I find her insights interesting, and hope you will, too. 

Time and Space

In this time of global pandemic, time and space are being handled differently. Because there is no commuting, there is a sudden credit in our time deposit…but our space is also sharply constrained. On one hand, with the “extra time” we have been granted, most of us are spending more time (voluntarily and also involuntarily) with family  both near and far; family is essential to us. On the other hand, because our space is being limited, the intense shared space can cause conflicts.

The limitations on space have also confused the boundaries between work and leisure time, when everything happens in the same house. We commonly experience working even longer hours, when “home is at work” or “work is at home”. The borderline between home and work has become blurred.

In a conference scenario, the “same time, same place” changes in pandemic time from common time and place to one’s own same place and time…the only same thing we all share, is indeed the Zoom screen.

Technologies of Communication

Technology has jumped in as a “saviour” for everyone; without it, we would not know how to stay in contact with those who are not living with us, how to maintain community like church, or how to maintain work efficiency at home. Technologies give a glimpse of hope to those who live alone and those who have never used technology before to stay in touch with others. I truly admire the elderly in my church, who obviously have not used social technology before and do not feel comfortable using it, but still step out of their comfort zone to try the strange technology and remain in good contact with the church community virtually. The generation gap is suddenly pulled closer.

Technology also creates opportunities for those who normally cannot physically join the gathering, but can now join virtually from the other side of the globe.

Expression of Affections

The affection we used to show towards each other was mostly through touching – like a handshake, hugs, slapped shoulders and kisses. In pandemic time, we need to use our body differently to express affection in an alternative way, like waving a “hi”, blowing our kisses or showing a hug gesture from a distance…because we still want to show our affections towards those we love.

This pandemic time has suddenly taken away what we have taken for granted. We used to work in the same office, but because of our lack of willingness to perhaps talk to and care for others – though we were in the same space – we were all alone at our desks. When we are now forced to work separately at home, some of us have realised that cooperation and communication with others is essential and require everyone’s effort and willingness.

Shared Meal

No matter whether it’s in a business or casual context, previously we often shared meals together and considered this time one of fellowship with one another. This is strictly suspended in pandemic time. And we shall all reflect, why has sharing a meal always been such a core part of our social life? How does a shared meal open us up to each other?

Religious Rituals

Christians practise communion together to remember the sacrifice of Jesus and we sing worship songs together; these are our shared embodied experiences. In pandemic time, we do these rituals virtually together, though the communion is not served by others but by oneself; and we cannot hear the others’ singing. The feeling of togetherness is definitely missing. But our shared experiences remind us how it was, and while in the meantime we do it virtually together but alone at home, in our mind, we remember how it should be. Our shared memories bind us as a community and with a hope that we will resume that traditional practice again soon.

Collective Memories

Our collective memories as a nation are getting stronger as we all pay attention to the same news – COVID-19. The government also acts – at least in Western Europe – in a more integrated way. The feeling of unity is suddenly felt much more strongly, as we have a common problem to solve. Though some governments might fail to react to the crisis with integrity, people in our society are helping each other, finding resources and supporting one another to get through the crisis together. COVID-19 is a crisis one cannot solve or fight alone; it is a common battle for us humans to fight against.

By Shuk Ling Chan from the Cultural Influencers Group, May 2020

May 29, 2020



There is only one human race

No man is an island, entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main:
If a clod be washed away by the sea
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as any manor of thy friends,
or of thine own were;
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

John Donne, Meditation XViII 1624

John Donne

Quoted so often, people nod sagely and agree, then forget.

But right now, these words should be engraved on everyone’s brain, their sense and meaning hammered into us. They are as true, even truer in our globalising world, than they were 400 years ago when Donne wrote them on his sickbed.

Whether we are referring to Brexit or ISIS (remember those?), the Corona virus and various forms of lockdown, or the recent inexpressible events that have lit the powder keg of protests, violence and horror in the USA and Hong Kong, these words apply.

The funeral bell tolls. Every time a person dies, each one of us is something less than we were because we are all part of a whole. Selfishness, arrogance, hatred, violence can only lead to the destruction of us all, body, soul and spirit. The bell tolls. Heed it.

Domestic Goddess

No-one who knows me would ever accuse me of being a “domestic goddess” – in fact, the mere idea would probably reduce my nearest and dearest to paroxysms of giggles – but I do have “moments” where the spirit of Vesta (Roman goddess of hearth and home) is prominent. I enjoy good food and wine, so I do try to produce edible meals for myself (and others on occasion) but though I can cook if I have to, I regard cooking and baking as a necessity rather than a hobby.

It’s only fair to admit that I also sometimes fail miserably, presumably in those moments when Vesta has wandered off to investigate what’s happening in the kitchen next door. The Vestal Virgins guarded her sacred flame, so I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised at burnt offerings. My granddaughters are convinced that I can only cook fish fingers – a prejudice left over from their childhood. Certainly no hankering for Granny’s cooking and baking there!

Today was one of my good days, and I’m rather sad that I had nobody here to share my delicious meal and allow me to show off my prowess.  Will I be able to reproduce it? Who knows! It was a very simple recipe. I had some fat and juices left over from a roast chicken last Thursday, that had been stuffed with butter, onion and a whole clove of garlic, so this was already a very tasty base for my gravy. This time, I just had some chicken breasts to cook.

I seasoned them with herbes de Provence, paprika and salt, seared them in the fat, added the juices and some red wine, covered the pan and left it to simmer for half an hour or so – it might have been 40 minutes, since a friend called me in the middle of the cooking. Time isn’t so important with this kind of coq au vin. Then, just before serving I added a good dollop of crème fraiche to the jus. It was accompanied by a mixture of courgette, sweet red pepper and tomato sautéed in olive oil, also seasoned with herbes de Provence, and I had just one glass of the red wine left (a merlot from Ticino) to wash it all down.

I did invite the friend who called to come over and share it with me, as there would have been plenty for two, but she had already had her lunch. I confess not only to licking the spoon, but also the plate in the confines of my kitchen: none of that delicious gravy was going to waste today! The rest is in the freezer.

I’m not quite sure what has happened to me over the last seven or eight days: Vesta must have moved in, I think! I started last Monday by daring to go out shopping for the first time, clad in mask and gloves, and bought groceries to last me for the week. So domesticity was on my mind. Maybe Vesta slipped in then? Or do I have an orderly guardian angel?

On Tuesday, my apartment struck me as being messy so I tidied up and moved a cupboard from my living room into the hall, replacing it with a small round table that had been standing in the corner. That freed up a mirror that had been hidden behind it. It isn’t a large cupboard but the living room suddenly looked quite a lot bigger without it.


Once it was in the hall, however, I needed to change some pictures and ornaments around … and so it went on. The cupboard displaced a set of leather suitcases containing hats, scarves, gloves etc. and these went into my bedroom. Moving furniture disturbed the spiders and revealed dusty cobwebs, so of course that meant vacuuming and dusting, so the whole living room got spring cleaned and I collapsed exhausted.


On Wednesday, I did a thorough job on kitchen and bathroom, did three lots of washing and cleaned all the windows.

Thursday saw me busy with the hall, and thence to the bedroom, with a little more furniture changing places and more cobwebs leaping forth. Two easels and several blank canvases emerged from behind the curtains, so another incentive to get my paints out. The most time-consuming task was really to sort and tidy up all the stuff that just gets put down temporarily and becomes piles.

One wall is bookshelves, which were also crammed with stuff that had no business there, including 5 decades of correspondence and even some exercise books from my schooldays.


These have now been archived in the basement (that’s another story!) but of course I was side tracked into reading some of the old letters and seeing myself as a thirteen-year-old reflected in the school books. Yuck!

This explains why I never really knew much about Magellan’s voyages of discovery …

By Friday, the bedroom was finished and I rewarded myself with a nice salmon steak and spinach for lunch – in spite of another friend informing me that “you’ll never find a good restaurant putting spinach with salmon”. Really? I think they go well together.

On Saturday, I tackled the last chore, which was sorting my jewellery out. I don’t have anything of great value, but it was mostly in little boxes so I just forget what’s where and end up wearing the same all the time. I also need a good place to keep it. Now it’s neatly arranged in “caskets” where I can see everything at a glance and my necklaces are visible, strung up on my bedside lamp. Pieces I’ll never wear again are ready to be handed over to the charity shop or to my great-granddaughters to dress up in.


After my efforts I felt justified in relaxing on Sunday, feeling very happy and comfortable in my neat-as-a-pin home, and grateful to the Lord for motivating me and giving me all the energy I needed. Perhaps I should also add: thank you, Vesta, for helping me become a real Swiss housewife!


The Day I Touched Heaven

“Hi, Jack!” said Bill the mechanic as he crawled out from under the car. Then, with a wave in my direction, “Is this your latest little grease monkey?”

I wasn’t sure about being called a monkey and hid behind my Grandad Jack’s trousers, watching Bill warily. When my mother called me a monkey, it didn’t bode well.

“He’ll do,” replied Grandad, patting my shoulder. “My best little helper. Thought I’d give him a taste of real garage life and show him where I used to spend my time. How’re you getting on without me?”

“Better than ever,” came the ironic reply. “Get things done quicker without you messing ‘em up!”

I was indignant on Grandad’s behalf, but he just laughed and punched Bill lightly in the chest.

“I have to see a man about a dog,” Bill said. “Can you keep an eye on things for a few minutes?”

When Bill had left, Grandad and I looked around the workshop, which had been his livelihood until his retirement. Suddenly, we heard the roar of a car engine outside and then it stopped. We stepped outside and I saw the most wonderful sight in the whole of my five years of existence: I discovered later it was called an “E-type” but in that moment it was like standing next to a dark green space rocket.

A young man climbed out, handed the keys to Grandad and said, “I’ll be back tomorrow. There’s a knocking I don’t like, hope you can fix it.” Then he turned and walked off.

Grandad looked at me, and I at Grandad.

“Well now,” said Grandad. “He gave me the job, didn’t he? Get in, lad! Let’s see what’s wrong with this little monster.”

I was a little doubtful. After all, Grandad had retired. But he was right, wasn’t he? The young man had asked him to fix it. So I did as I was told and scrambled into the passenger seat. I couldn’t see through the windscreen, but that didn’t matter. The car felt and smelt like heaven. Grandad got in next to me, turned the key in the ignition, and off we went. I thought the engine sounded like the greatest orchestra in the universe as we drove down the road and then – onto the motorway! Oh joy, oh bliss! Grandad put his foot down and invisible hands pushed me hard back in my seat as we whooshed along at the speed of light barely touching the tarmac. Then he braked hard, we left the northbound carriageway and turned back, southbound. The motor roared, the world zoomed past and I was in paradise.

Finally, Grandad drove us back to the garage and stopped the car outside the workshop. Bill was waiting for us.

“You should have a look at the carburettor,” Grandad said. Bill nodded.

“I might have known!” he grinned.

I looked around, a little less shy than before.

“Is the dog OK?” I asked. For a moment Bill looked puzzled, then he grinned again.

“Oh yes, sonny. The dog’s fine.”

“Come on,” said Grandad. “Let’s get some fish and chips on the way home.”

That was the best day of my life.