blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Forward looking

It's New Year's Eve and we're going to have our friends round this evening again. It's time to look forward, not back. Ralitsa has just posted a Happy New Year message on Facebook in Latin––amor vincit omnia!––and I have left the comment sic speremus, let's hope so. Chris has been working on this year's predictions quiz, of course including questions such as "Who'll be the Prime Minister of England this time next year?" and of Canada, of course.

My sister and I have been talking on Facetime about our mother's options for a happier future, and my daughter's thinking hard about happiness in general and how it might better distributed. While my children were growing up I used to encourage them to think of themselves as a stage beyond where they actually were. That thought still applies, to all of us.

Friday, December 26, 2014

At Christmas time

Glad tidying we bring 
To you and your kin ...

sang my oldest grandson at school. His mother liked that sentiment and made sure her oven was clean by Christmas Day.

It's a struggle to keep our homes tidy at this time of year, with all the people and things around. The best policy is to do what can be done and not fret about the imperfections, or so we keep telling ourselves.

Chris went down with a bad cold last week but feels better now that he's had the chance to relax. He kept a singing commitment last Monday, despite the remains of his cold, performing a little, unpublished carol my father composed in 1954, a setting of Winds Through The Olive Trees. We had managed to transpose it down a few tones so that it didn't sound quite as etherial as the original; I think my dad had my infant voice in mind when he wrote it. Chris is a bass. It didn't go too badly, though; the audience seemed to like it. The other carol Chris sang was the 15th century university song––The Boar's Head In Hand Bear I ––with its Latin chorus:
  Caput apri defero, redens laudes domino! 
Chris got everyone to join in with that, me at the piano. The other people at the party were his singing teacher's other pupils and their families. Madeleine, aged 9) played a wistful winter piece on the piano, that she had composed herself, rather in the style of a Russian folk song, although the child was puzzled when I told her that, and Chris too took her aside and whispered to her that she was more musical than everyone else in the room put together. Probably true!

Jonas, with some of Bob's trees!
I remember being one of four musical children at Christmas––the others were my sister, my friend and classmate Sarah and her sister Sue, the youngest of us. Sue was a 9-year-old composer too, in those days, and has since became Director of Music at the University of Kent.

At Christmas I always think of people from the past, and receive cards and letters which I can't bear to throw away.

The weekend before Christmas we'd driven across the snowy wastes east of Ottawa to Bourget to pick up some Christmas tree branches (I didn't want to come home with a whole tree––the branches serve the purpose well enough: see my photo above) and spent a few hours there with our friends, Tracey and Bob giving us their usual warm welcome. Young Jonas joined the party too, this year, and enjoyed his impromptu maths tutorial from Chris, it seems.

We had Carol, Elva, Laurie, Jill and John here on Christmas Eve and Barbara with us for the Christmas Day supper, which meant I spent lots of time in the kitchen betweenwhiles, preparing food. It was worth it for the sake of such good company. We're going to miss John and Jill during the next few months who are just about to set off in John's single-engine Piper Comanche (C-FOIB) from Ottawa to Victoria, BC, an adventure that should take about 20 hours of flying time, depending on the winds. To do this journey in summer would be exciting enough. To do it in winter in such style will be quite extraordinary. They're raring to go and when they do, I'll be following their progress avidly. Fortunately, John is a very experienced pilot.

The weather's remarkably mild at the moment, +5ºC today, all the snow and ice melting and the soil starting to thaw. Today, after a walk through woods and slushy fields above Wakefield with Elva, I came home and did half an hour's worth of gardening! Because of the date, December 26th, that fact did deserve the exclamation mark. Then this evening I did my 30 lengths at the Château Laurier (indoor) pool again. I want to keep in shape because we have now booked our next visit to Sydney, Australia, and I'll certainly want to go swimming while we're there.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Lessons and Carols again

The Christmas Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols I attended in December 2012 at Christ Church cathedral on Sparks Street was the subject of a blogpost I wrote shortly afterwards. I have no idea who reads my blogposts, hardly anyone, I suspect; even so, five of the criticisms I made then no longer apply––the event has improved immensely, so either a dignitary at the church did read what I thought, or someone else forcefully voiced the same opinions as mine, and was listened to!

Today I went (on foot, in the cold wind) to this year's Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the same church and came away delighted (buoyed up during my long walk home in the even colder wind, past all the coloured lights on Parliament Hill).

The service began with organ preludes, more suitable as a background accompaniment to people meeting one another and finding their seats in the nave than the vocal music had been, two years ago. This time, the girls' choir was waiting to sing, already assembled in the choir loft and the men and boys were standing at the back ready to move forward to their choir stalls. This year they did process to music, choirs and congregation all on their feet, singing Once In Royal David's City. Each of the hymns turned out to be one that people knew, often by heart––and I was lucky to be standing among good singers in my pew. The main lights were turned off during the choirs' anthems (including Herbert Howells' lovely A Spotless Rose), which helps the concentration, but came on again for the communal hymns so that anyone who needed to could read the words. The barrier of an unfamiliar language had been removed too, the church now having dispensed with its token Bible reading in French.

Here is the programme. (Click to see it.)

Parts of that programme more than delighted me; I found some of that music (William Mathias' Sir Christémas and the Louis Vierne organ Finale) shivers-up-the-spine thrilling. I must admit I have rather a weakness for Stanford Magnificats, too, for personal reasons. How evocative music is! Like Proust's madeleine.

Friday, December 19, 2014

You can't be too careful ... or can you?

I don't usually do this in my blog, but I'm starting this post with a quotation from the Bible (the King James version, because that's the one I know best):
And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.
I went for an "Interview" earlier this week, to be checked out as a potential volunteer who'd be spending time with young children. Not much time, actually, as the volunteering I'm applying for would only be for a few hours, once a month, in the company of other adults and the children's parents. Even so, the latest regulations oblige everyone to comply with the investigation system.

How far things have changed since I last volunteered to work with small children, some 15 years ago, was a revelation to me. Not only do I now have to be interviewed by the social services beforehand, I also have to hand in my CV and an application form, have to sign two statements regarding confidentiality and non-violence policies and undergo not one but two police (RCMP) record checks. The second of these, I was told, the Vulnerable Sector Check (i.e., to ascertain whether I am fit to be left in the company of young children) will probably take three months to be processed. I have to hand the forms in at the police station in person.

Generally speaking I don't know how effective this process is in finding potentially dangerous volunteers. I gather they only check police records as far back as the past five years, and only within this country.

At the interview, I talked about my teaching experience, my previous experience with children and as a volunteer, and found out what the applied-for work would entail. So far, so good. Then the interviewer asked if I understood what their no-violence policy meant.

I was puzzled by this question because "no violence" sounds fairly self-explicit to me; I couldn't think what I was expected to say, and I should probably have resisted the temptation to reply in a rather sarcastic tone, "I imagine it means I mustn't hit the children."

Oh dear, that was not the best possible answer. She gave me a sharp look and made a note on a form that she wasn't letting me see.

Next question: did I understand––and as a former teacher I should, she said, emphatically––what their policy of "confidentiality" entailed? Again, it seemed pretty obvious; I gave her some synonyms for confidentiality. You want to know whether or not I'm trustworthy, and that I won't pass on any private, family secrets revealed by the children concerned (especially not in my blog!), and so on. She was marginally happier with that answer, but still wasn't sure about me. She wanted me to appreciate that some of these families have had recent traumas and are only just recovering. Sometimes they come fresh from tore worn countries, she said. She used this malapropism three times in the course of our conversation. I thought it best not to correct her.

Third question, would I be happy to help with the less sensitive jobs such as greeting the parents or photocopying the information sheets?

No worries there.

Following her script, she then asked, do you have any questions?

Would you trust your child with this woman?
Supposing I'd be interacting with children during the volunteer days, would I be allowed to pick them up, sit them on my lap?

Oh no! was the immediate, shocked response. Of course not.

I pointed out that when I'd volunteered at a centre for children at risk in the 1980s, the professional social workers there had advised us volunteers to take the obstreperous children in our arms and hold them as tightly as we could. That was the policy in those days.

"But that's holding! You can't do that here until you've been on a training course. You can't sit them on your lap either. Why would you want to do that?"

"To keep them under control."

Again, the sharp look and the scribbled note. "What do you mean by control?"

"Well, to calm them down." The children felt safer if they were being held firmly and the method did usually seem to work. "How else should we have managed that sort of situation?" I genuinely wanted to know.

"We would get the parent to come over. Only the parents may hold their child. Or health workers who have been specially trained."

"Would I be allowed to stroke their heads?"

(That would be just about acceptable, it seems.)

"Or touch their hands?"

Long pause. She was not so sure about that. There is so much perversity out there that you can't be too careful. Volunteers, even though they've had their police records checked with such thoroughness, obviously can't be trusted to keep a respectable distance. She told me that baby sitting services were offered by the social services, but that these assigned baby sitters are not allowed to change the children's diapers (nappies) while alone with them. Presumably the poor little things have to wait screaming with misery until their mums get home while the babysitter tries in vain to comfort them with soft murmurs from the other side of the room.

By this stage of the interview I think I was in more of a state of shock than my interviewer, but I did sign the forms agreeing to the appropriate behaviour. After digesting what I have learned, I may think twice now before doing what I was intending to do, so those signatures may be redundant. I wonder how many potential well-meaning, useful volunteers they must lose by confronting them with such hoops and hurdles.

My husband, whom children generally love at first sight but who says he would never dream of undergoing such a demeaning volunteer selection process, reckons that officialdom cares more about itself than the people it is ostensibly trying to protect. "They are just covering their backsides," he says, "and if something goes wrong in spite of all these precautions, they can say, well look, we did follow the correct procedures."

Having brought up two children of my own to be loving and responsible adults and parents in their own right, having been a school teacher, having previously worked as a volunteer with refugee children who spoke no English, and with toddlers at risk, I too feel somewhat insulted by the implication that I still can't be trusted in the presence of a child. At least, not without a lengthy screening first. What upsets me above all is the presumption of guilt that this process implies. It is a sign of the times, like the obsessive security checks at our airports. I am an Englishwoman brought up to believe in what J. Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey refers to as "the golden thread that runs through British justice," that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Nowadays it seems to be the other way round, which has a Kafka-esque effect. After the cross questioning, I begin to wonder whether I may, in fact, have unconsciously done something criminal, of which I am not yet aware.

And yet, as Simmler says to himself at the end of Dr. Simmler's Planet (a great novel that I reread recently), we don't need to be told what's good and bad, what's right and what's wrong. "We know, we know!"

I am not a defender of pedophiles. As a matter of fact I believe that, although it isn't listed among the Seven Deadly Sins, cruelty, and especially cruelty towards the most vulnerable, is the deadliest of all sins. In hindsight, perhaps I should have said that at my interview.

It also seems to me that it is biologically natural for a children to snuggle up to any adult who is kindly disposed towards them. They can sense goodness and sincerity and kindheartedness––what else would explain the quotation from St. Matthew's gospel with which I started this blogpost?

Jesus, who never went on a course training him how to hold children in his arms, could be trusted, and furthermore, he didn't mince his words on the subject of offences against children:
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

More or less

I noticed this slogan, 
Crave more! Désirez plus!

on the wall of my local grocery store today (supermarkets in Canada are known as grocery stores). It seems to me to sum up all that's wrong with our lives, especially now, at Christmas time. Really, in order to be healthier, happier and finally at peace, shouldn't we be encouraging ourselves to want less

However, if we consumers did that––no longer kept wanting more and more––the whole capitalist system would collapse. Then where would we be?

To brighten the dark, winter days

Nebel hängt wie Rauch ums Haus, 
Drängt die Welt nach innen. 
Ohne Not geht niemand aus, 
Alles fällt in Sinnen. 
Leiser wird die Hand, der Mund, 
Stiller die Gebärde. 
Heimlich, wie auf Meeresgrund 
Träumen Mensch und Erde. 

Misty grey view from the train near Ulm
Christian Morgenstern entitled that poem of his Novembertag, but it could equally well describe the first week of December in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria this year. We were in thick, wet cloud from our landing to our take-off, never saw the sun once. Echtes November, said a lady sitting opposite me as we rode through the woods on the S-Bahn train from Sindelfingen to Stuttgart Stadtmitte on December 2nd. The following day Chris and I had the same ride in sleet. Then across the countryside, via Ulm and Augsburg, we sat on a train for two more hours, gazing dreamily at the greyness over the hills and valleys around the headwaters of the Danube.

In spite of that, both Stuttgart and München were ablaze with colour and light. Why? Because of their Christmas markets.


Having been here twice before I didn't need to refer to maps, this year. The market stalls were in familiar places too.  I knew where to go for the chocolate dipped fruit on skewers, and where the talking / singing moose's head would be. They refer to the moose as a norwegischer Elch, in Stuttgart. I bought some little decorations carved from southern German trees for Christmas presents. The childrens' skating rink was in operation, as before. DAS FINNISCHE WEIHNACHTSDORF was still there, beside Stuttgart's Altes Schloss, with strips of salmon being smoked on an open fire, and a very long-bearded Finnish Santa in person too, greeting the visiting children ... and me.

Because my deutschsprachige Konversationsgruppe at home in Ottawa had asked me to think of them while drinking Glühwein, I bought myself a mug of that drink and did so. After the Glühwein, for a sit-down and some spiritual refreshment, I went into the big church at the centre of the market and of Stuttgart, the Stiftskirche, to listen to a lunchtime organ recital. Orgelmusik zum Weihnachtsmarkt is played there every day till December 24th, good value at €2.50: on December 2nd, a female organist (Lara Schaffner) played a Bach prelude, a Pastorale by a composer I'd never heard of called Gerard Bunk, and some variations by Mendelssohn.

I found some lunch at the top of Karstadt, one of the big department stores, and carried on shopping. On my way back to the Sindelfingen train, I passed a lively group of five buskers singing in parts, maybe a Romani family, I'm not sure. They were certainly good musicians, attracting an appreciative crowd.


On December 4th while Chris was at his meetings in the northern suburbs, I had less than two hours to spare in Munich before my train was due to depart. Chris and I had been to explore and find (a gourmet vegetarian) supper downtown the night before, a thoroughly atmospheric scene, but I did want to see the city by daylight as well. It exudes prosperity, offering a wide variety of cultural experiences from opera or ballet to a modern German version of The Importance of Being Ernest, here entitled Bunbury.

Mini Frauenkirche above a market stall
I had a brisk and purposeful walk down the pedestrianised Kaufingerstraße,
turning left to visit the Frauenkirche, Munich's cathedral (one of its giant towers covered in wraps), doing a quick circuit of the Marienhof––more market stalls there!––and so back to Marienplatz where the 5 storey bookshop Hugendubel is. I didn't find what I was looking for there (the Heimat DVD) but did find it later that day in Stuttgart's branch of Hugendubel. Then back past the Munich skating rink, across (or under) Karlsplatz to the Hauptbahnhof; I'd left my suitcase in one of the Schließfächer there. My train to Stuttgart left at 11:30. I climbed on near the front.

Besides the millions of Christmas tree decorations, woolly scarves, Dirndls, Lederhosen and Bavarian felt hats complete with a feather in them are all for sale in the Christkindlmarkt, as are Pretzels, sausages, cheeses, Punsch, Bier and Glühwein, roast almonds, spicey heart-shaped Lebkuchen, chocolates, and roasted chestnuts. I saw a class of young children standing round a Punsch stall in a circle waiting for their glasses of hot Kinderpunsch to cool down.

I have more pictures and descriptions of Stuttgart and Munich in the albums on my Facebook page.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Denglisch everywhere!

We didn't spend long in Germany this month, only three days, but that was long enough for us to notice that the language has changed yet again. English has been creeping into it, ever since the 1940s; now it seems to be taking over, exactly as the Wise Guys show us, tongue-in-cheek and without the use of capital letters for their nouns:

How do the older generations cope? Do they just accept the fact that the language they grew up with is rapidly disappearing? Or do they rant and rail?

Most of German society doesn't seem to mind in the least. In München you only have to glance at the adverts around you in the stations, to see that English is altogether trendy:

Das Jobportal für die Metropole. Täglich neue Jobs. Jobs in der Region. Keine Registrierung nötig. Passende Jobs per E-Mail.

Personal Training.

Cross-Media. Bachelor und Masterabschlüsse [not even Meisterabschlüsse!]. SAE Institute München.

Mit der DB-Monatskarte im Abo clever am Stau vorbeipendeln! [clever used here in the German way, as an adverb, not an adjective]

Railteam Infopoint.

DB Lounge. Exklusiver Aufenthaltsbereich für bahn.bonus comfort-Kunden.

Kunden mit City-Ticket erhalten ...

Alle wollen Tech-nick [sic] smarter!

Smarter Tech-nick involves words like logged in, eingelogged [note the English -ed ending for the past participle instead of a -t!], and geliked, as on Facebook.

and in the newspapers:

Bitte Code scannen und Ihre Meinung abgeben.

Doppelseite –– Highlights der Woche.

Nobody would say einkaufengehen nowadays. Man geht shoppen. One German speaking (?) company was called Clean Up. In the coffee shops you ask for einen Kaffee to go.

Not that they get their English completely right, always. In the hotel we stayed at there was a notice in English by the lifts:  Do not use lift in case of fire.

Wanting to take home some real German culture with me, I bought a copy of the most recent film by Edgar Reitz, Die Andere Heimat. Even that ultra-German creation came in a packet of 2 DVDs mit 40-seitigem Booklet.  It's wonderful, by the way, and das Booklet, written by Mr. Reitz, makes for an absorbing read ... in real German.

What children say

One of the greatest pleasures as a grandparent is to hear your grandchildren chattering. I sit there taking notes. Children's talk doesn't pay attention to adult rules and conventions, which is why it's so entertaining. At the age of 3, like Thomas, they haven't quite mastered the rules of grammar yet, either. English verbs and pronouns are a particular challenge:

I don't brush my teeth now. I did it when Granddad was came to my home.

I played that game with Mummy and I beated him.

Thomas is still in awe of his elder brother:

I like all the things what Alex likes!

When I'm bigger than Alex, I'll go to school. (Touches the top of his head) ... I'm this big!

When Thomas plays, he makes up his own rules for board games. We don't want to read the dructions [instructions], he tells his dad, and he's very definite about where his toy cars should be placed on the road mat: This car goes at the really back!

Being boys, my grandsons and their friends play terribly warlike games, although, with a Quaker mum, and having heard at school about the 1st World War, Alexander is beginning to ask questions. On one of our bus rides he suddenly asked me, Do you wear a white poppy? I told him I liked to wear both red and a white poppies on remembrance days, and (briefly!) why. He then gave me his version of the story of his great grandmother's cousin, a pacifist who'd died on active service in the Friends' Ambulance Brigade of the 2nd World War. Alex had obviously been mulling it over in his mind. Emma told me that he had insisted on buying his own red poppy this year.

At his birthday party, with glowsticks as the weapons of choice, not much pacifism was in evidence. Alex ran around shouting Disintegrate, disintegrate! and, in the garden, I'm going to kill you with ultimate bombs! I noticed that his slightly younger friend Fares, from the Palestinian-Jordanian family next door, was concerned for little Thomas when he tried to join in the wild game: You can play in here but try not to get hurt by us. (Good advice, insultingly condescending to Thomas though, who always wants to be part of the fray.) Fares suggested that Thomas play the role of the medical corps––When you're not actually hurt, you just use a healing glowstick! Thomas comes and heals you. But Thomas objected to that, preferring to be part of the heap of bodies on the floor.

Emma points out that these war games always seem to be played in a spirit of fairness, and I myself heard one of the boys say, at one point, We've got to equal the stuff out. Interesting!

These are the baddies, says Thomas, reliving the excitement with his toy warriors afterwards. They hit people with the pokey things.

What are they? I ask.

They're the things what poke out! he answers, amazed by my stupidity. The battle ensues with many sound effects and fierce facial contortions from their régisseur. Them fighted and they all got dead! he concludes, with great satisfaction. Sometimes the children's lego warriors sustain serious injuries, but it's not the end of the world: He throwed his head off and Daddy puts it back on. 

Emma took us and her sons to the Kingston Quaker meeting on the last Sunday of our visit, but the children didn't discuss the pros and cons of war there. They made Christmas decorations for the rowan tree in the Meeting House courtyard and talked about which Christmas carols they liked best. Apparently their three top favourite carols were Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful and Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A month later

Glowing in the dark!
We're back in Ottawa, having been on our travels again, since November 21st in my case; Chris set off a week later and we reconnected in Heathrow on the 29th. Our grandson Alexander came with me to meet his granddad, chattering all the way about his chess club at school. Alex is now 8 and for once I was there for his Birthday, December 5th, a glow-in-the-dark after school party for five boys, with pizza, fruit and cake.

Opening the birthday presents from his friends
After my arrival weekend in London, thrilled to discover when we went to the pool in Teddington that both of my grandsons enjoy swimming nowadays (Thomas wearing a buoyancy vest, Alexander mainly underwater), I travelled by train on a misty, frosty morning to Cardiff to spend four days with Mum, helping her with the shopping and housework, playing Scrabble (I still can't beat her), and visiting a nearby home "for those who find it increasingly difficult to cope at home without assistance." The staff are friendly and the interior's bright enough to cheer up the residents, we hope. Mum's to have a trial stay there next year (she would be the oldest person there, they told us) while my sister's away on a long holiday. One of the rooms is a "cinema" with Odeon style red curtains and red armchairs facing a big screen on which they show the rugby or films like It's a Wonderful Life. Children's art from the local school decorates the walls as does a collection of film star photos from old films, many of them produced in my own childhood which makes me think I must be getting old myself. The dining room overlooks a playground for the great-grandchildren.

My mother at the Christmas market in Cardiff
I took Mum into Cardiff to see if I could find her a better magnifier from the RNIB headquarters, but it would require an eye test first, which she's recently had. While in Cardiff I was amused to see Germanic Christmas market stalls in and around the Hayes, some even selling Bratwurst and Currywurst. With Mel and Faith we also went to a place called Chapter, a "multi-artform cultural space" in Cardiff where we watched the very long film Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall. It was rather disturbing, and brilliantly made, the photography the best I've ever seen in a film. Mum said she had trouble following the dialogue, much of the lead character's articulation being curmudgeonly grunts.

Thames bridge at Teddington
Back in London that Friday evening, I met the younger generation of my family at the Christmas Parade down the Hampton Hill High Street, a chaotically British affair, though I found an African bean stew to kept me going. Next morning Alexander chatted away about his chess club on our bus ride to meet Granddad at Heathrow. We all had a walk in Bushy Park that sunny day and on the Sunday a stroll with Thomas down the towpath from the Teddington locks (the "tide's end") upstream to Kingston, while Peter took Alex to a party.

Pool at the Kingston Leisure Centre
The next week Chris and I were in Germany (see separate blogposts, yet to be written), and on my third weekend back in London we were visited by the other grandparents, with lunch for 8 at Red Peppers in Teddington, and went swimming again after a Sunday morning at the new Quaker premises in Kingston, where Emma helps look after the children. The Meeting House is next door to the Kingfisher Leisure Centre, where the pool is.