Mr and Mrs Pepperpot Revisited

June 25, 2020

Of the many things I never imagine I’d end up doing until this crisis (ringing people up randomly for a chat, voluntarily making a video call, not riding my bike for a week) we can add another: driving out 100 miles in one direction just to have a picnic in someone’s garden, and then driving home again the same day.

But it’s different when the garden in question is your parents’, and you’ve been unable to visit them for over three months.

Since last week, we’ve finally been able to leave our local* area, as long as it’s to visit family and friends, and as long as you all eat your own food and don’t go into their house except to use the loo. We would have headed off earlier, but I had missed the import of the latest announcement, and then we had to find a date when we were free, combined with a forecast for suitable weather for sitting in a garden with two octogenarians. The weather immediately turned dreich for the first two days of this week, but today looked just right and despite various cautionary texts from my father about it being to cold, too hot, too windy, too sunny or too perfect, we took our lives into our hands and headed across to Duns with a packed lunch, a wide brimmed hat and a bag of salad from the garden (pandemic or no, we’ve reached the stage of the salad growing cycle where nobody escapes being given a bag of salad unless they actively fight it off).

selfie with parents

Oh yeah and you can add ‘posting a selfie’ to the list of things I never thought I’d willingly do …

It was just over two hours to get there (not helped by the coonsil deciding to close half the roads in the county for roadworks, just as the traffic was getting back to normal) and the same to get back, and it was very strange to be in the same garden but not to have a hug, or even go into the kitchen to help Mum with the lunch – but it was entirely worth it.

We’re so fortunate to have have been able to reach this milestone at all; so many thousands of families have not. The news as we drove back was full of stories of lockdown easing but I’m not champing at the bit to get to a pub, or eat a meal in a restaurant, or even go anywhere else but to my parents’ any time soon. I can only hope that things continue to ease enough that the next time we go, we can give each other a hug – and then that the other half can get to see his dad again, over in the US.


That doesn’t seem too much to ask, does it?

* defined as about 5 miles, but that doesn’t even get us to the nearest shop here, so a bit of creative accounting has been applied.

Black Lives Matter

June 7, 2020

It’s fair to say, I wasn’t expecting the people of Bigtown to hold a Black Lives Matter demonstration. It was something of a culture shock when we moved up here from London to be in a place where there were so few people who weren’t white. Since then, it’s got a little more diverse – helped by the council agreeing to take in a couple of dozen Syrian refugee families, as well as the increasingly multicultural staff of the hospital – but it’s still by a long way the whitest place I’ve ever lived apart from the even smaller rural Scottish town where I went to boarding school back in the 80s.

Levantine restaurant

So, I was surprised, pleased, and a little conflicted when I saw the event announced on Facebook a few days ago. I wanted to do more than donate some cash to the cause and retweet a few stories – I felt that this was an occasion to stand up and be counted. But it was also an occasion to be standing in one place with more people than I have interacted with for the entire period of lockdown and even outside and with social distancing measures in place, it felt like a risk in the middle of a pandemic. But then again, I had merrily cycled off to the garden centre last weekend – for a far less pressing cause – without really feeling it was too risky a venture. If I could do it for a new blueberry bush, then I could do it to show solidarity with those suffering from systemic racism even here in the UK – even in Bigtown, indeed.

Even so, I have spent an anxious few days monitoring the Facebook event page (full of reassuring information about distancing measures) and the Bigtownshire Coronavirus numbers (thankfully very low), and hoping that the scenes I was seeing in London and elsewhere weren’t repeated here. And today with face coverings sorted, and emergency hand sanitiser in our pannier bags, we pedalled down into town to take part with some trepidation (at least on my part) at the risks we were possibly taking.

socially distanced protest

Thankfully, it was all very well organised and it felt like the potential dangers were well managed. We stood on our little tape crosses, 2 metres away from everyone else, and everyone was wearing a mask (which cannot be said for pretty much anyone else in the town). The only person who didn’t socially distance was the (sole) counter protester who took it upon himself to wade into the crowd complaining about people spreading the virus and – after a tricky moment or two when it looked like everyone was going to move forward to remonstrate with him and prove his point – he was somehow socially distantly ushered away and the demonstration continued. We heard from some impressive young Black people who had grown up in Dumfries about what that was like and then we all knelt, painfully, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, which I can tell you is a very long time.

crowd taking the knee

We also supplemented our symbolic efforts by spreading a little financial love towards minority-owned businesses in the town, although this was absolutely no sacrifice on our part. Our favourite lunch spot – owned, indeed, by one of those refugee families – has reopened its doors to takeaway customers. This was the last restaurant we visited before lockdown began – and we were so happy and relieved to see it had weathered the storm so far, especially as our stockpiled baklava had run out many moons ago…

The truth is, Bigtown is a richer place for  its increasing diversity (even those who don’t come bearing pastries). I just hope that this continues to be recognised by everyone in the town – us included – and not just for today.


June 6, 2020

Back when lockdown started, and we all thought we would have loads of time on our hands, I idly wondered on Twitter what the last thing people would resort to doing

At the time, I had no thought of organising my own books having lived quite happily for most of my life with my books randomly crammed into all the available shelf space and overflowing into a number of piles in various parts of the house. This is fine when mostly what your bookcase is for is storing books you have read (the ones I haven’t read wait enticingly beside my bed) and occasionally ransacking them for something to re-read. It works less when when you wish to track down a particular book that your lockdown bookclub has decided to read and end up in this situation:

Two copies of Transcription

I’m sure there’s some sort of metafictional joke I could make here about having two copies of a book about making a copy of something

(I had thought the original would show up as soon as I ordered a second copy, but in fact it bided its time until the new copy had arrived, and been re-read, and then appeared in a pile I could have sworn I had searched already the morning after our bookclub session)

So as the bookcase needed moving today, I took advantage of the fact to impose a little order on the bookcase in my study, if only in the hopes that one day I will be in a position to attract the gimlet eye of Bookcase Credibility, and pass muster

In the end, I didn’t alphabetise them – that would have involved getting all the other books in the house out of where they’ve been breeding and rearranging everything, which might have been quite satisfying but would probably have taken a week and involved all sorts of complicated decisions about what books to keep and what to pass on, and frankly, lockdown or no lockdown, I just don’t have that sort of time. But I did impose some sort of order that made sense to me and had a lovely afternoon reminding myself about books I had forgotten I owned, and recalling happy times spent with others I remembered very well.

(This book suffered from my habit at the time of stuffing it in the waistband of my trousers to leave both hands free for holding my binoculars. I did see a German birder who had made a handy little carrier for his field guide – a cloth cover that came with two integral handles so he could dangle it from his wrist leaving his hands free. Unfortunately by that time our field guide was well on the way to disintegration but it has our list in it from two years spent in Swaziland and I could never throw it away).

Anyway, I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoys the odd judgemental truffle through someone else’s bookcases, so here is the end result (bear in mind that you’re only seeing the front layer of books – most of the shelves are stacked two deep).

restacked bookcase

Next step: tackling the recipe folder. Or maybe I’ll save that one for when the second wave hits.

* Title courtesy of @MatthewSndeker on Twitter.

Some days …

June 2, 2020


… you’ve just gotta do what you gotta do

This was due to a confluence of events: the imminent end of the glorious weather we have been enjoying, a momentary let up in my work deadlines, and the sense that the world is hurtling ever faster into the abyss, and scrolling endlessly through social media isn’t going to help.

The world feels very far away from us here right now. Yesterday evening we sat in the garden and the loudest noise we could hear was the bees working their way around the flowers.

It’s a good thing, I suppose, but there’s something surreal about living in such a beautiful and peaceful spot while the news is so unrelentingly grim and the powers that be seem intent on making it grimmer.

In lieu of anything more useful to do, I have made some donations to organisations that seem to me to be trying to turn back the forces of chaos.

And then I got on my bike.

Ghost Town

May 1, 2020

So I finally made it into Bigtown proper this afternoon, having dropped off the Bigtownshire Cycle Campaign’s trailer for use in the volunteer effort. This was of more than idle interest – Bigtownshire Cycle Campaign have actually been invited by the Coonsil to discuss ideas for where temporary space could be made for safe walking and cycling. I know, I’m surprised too and am still slightly wondering if it’s some sort of a trap …

Having spent five weeks of lockdown on a hill overlooking Bigtown, I thought I had better see things a little closer up and so having delivered the trailer (and admired the street’s socially distanced Zumba class which was going on at the time – instructor on one side of the street, and what appeared to be the entire local nana population spread out across the other pavement) I ventured further into town for a quick tour.

I had already observed on Monday’s exciting visit that traffic wasn’t particularly different around Bigtown’s outskirts, but things really are strange in the town centre – the only time I’ve ever seen the carpark on the river this empty is when the river is actually in it (this hasn’t stopped your average Bigtown driver from just abandoning their vehicle wherever they fancy of course, including on our nominally pedestrianised high street).

empty car park

It was actually quite depressing and worrying to see the town so quiet. The traffic around the edges suggests that life, and commerce, continue – but it’s moved to the big supermarkets and the online retailers (and in our bid to limit our interaction with other people we’re no exception – if it can’t be bought during our weekly supermarket shop, or online, it doesn’t get bought at all). Bigtown actually had a reasonable town centre before this, with some nice independent small shops as well as the usual high street retailers, loads of cafes, and what must amount to approximately 60% of the pubs that Burns is known to have drunk in. It’s hard to see how much of that will survive the next few months.

So I was rather sobered by what had originally felt like a jaunt when I set out and was only really cheered as I approached home and realised that I had attracted something of a following. The cows in the field next to our B-road were chasing after me on the other side of the hedge. This never fails to amuse me when it happens, and I can only apologise to the cows for not after all having any tasty cow treats on me when they finally caught up with me at the top of the field.

crowd of cows

Or maybe they’re as bored with the whole lockdown experience as everyone else?

Buns in the Time of the Coronavirus

March 15, 2020

So this has been a strange week with gathering doom and gloom online and on the news, combined with largely business-as-usual so far in what passes for the real world (working from home in an isolated house up a hill it would actually be quite hard to tell if I was social distancing or not). I’m guessing this is the calm before the storm, and I have the same worries of older parents and friends with underlying health issues as many, but so far the main impact on us has been a couple of cancelled events, a shortage of pasta shells, and rather too much – possibly garbled – information about epidemiology and virus transmission than I really feel I can do anything sensible with other than take steps to clean my phone (a soapy damp cloth, apparently, for those of you still catching up).

A couple of weeks ago I was added to a Facebook group of people who bake to alleviate anxiety which mainly just added to my anxiety that I might not be making the most of my anxieties by doing anything as productive as baking. However, it did serve to nudge me into attempting sourdough cinnamon buns this weekend. Unfortunately our panic buying/sensible stocking up policy (delete as appropriate) had failed to include enough eggs to attempt this recipe from a friend’s blog, but I did manage to adapt my usual Chelsea bun recipe using sourdough starter instead of commercial yeast, and with a butter and cinnamon filling instead of the normal currants.

I don’t know that it did anything to relieve my anxiety, but at least it gave me the excuse to post something on social media that wasn’t about coronavirus, hopefully leavening other people’s timelines briefly from a diet of drawn-out tweet threads from experts in something or other explaining at some length why, actually, we probably should consider panicking now.*

They were also rather delicious whether you’re in the throes of a gathering pandemic or not, if perhaps a little worthier than the non-sourdough version (mainly because my starter has a fair bit of wholemeal flour in it). We’re still working on the icing – these are glazed with lemon juice and icing sugar which was nice, but tended to just disappear when poured over the warm buns. Still, it looks like we might have time on our hands over the coming weeks to perfect the recipe.

Indeed I might even manage to catch up with myself in the garden … I wonder if there’s a Facebook group for that?

* Unless you only follow cyclists, in which case you may not be aware that there’s anything going on at all:

The Real Reason Why Pink Stinks

February 7, 2020

So a conversation about cycling gloves on Twitter made me realise that perhaps men hadn’t quite twigged why women get annoyed when companies ‘pink it and shrink it’

(I should add, I know nothing about the gloves in question, because we’re long past the point where you had to click on a link and read the attached article in order to have an opinion on it). As always when these things get posted, there were the usual replies from men saying that they’d love to wear more pink but they’re forced to wear boring colours because men don’t get nice bright things.

Just to be clear, I think it’s fab that there are men out there who are comfortable wearing pink – I’d love all of us to have a choice of colours in our clothes (says she of the seven grey jumpers). I genuinely think it’s a tragedy when men feel they have to act in narrowly defined masculine ways, even to the point of not saving the planet in case they look a bit gay and I love to see a chap rocking a colourful floral shirt or, yes, bright pink gloves. But that is to miss the problem of pinkification and women’s stuff.

The problem women have isn’t with things being pink. It is when companies take something, decide to market it specifically to women, hike up the price, and make it less functional than the male equivalent and THEN make it pink that’s the problem.

Or as I put it more swearily on Twitter

So chaps, next time you come into my mentions to tell me you wish you could wear pink like me, ask yourself do you really like it so much that you’re prepared to pay more for it and have it be lower quality? In which case, there’s probably an extra-large women’s version of something out there for you to try. Why not give it a go?

Just don’t expect it to have pockets.

There is a Light that will Never Go Out…

February 1, 2020

… unless it turns out your tealights are rather old and almost burnt down to the bottom.

snail tealights

Having waded through about 15 pages of ‘leaving the EU’ coverage in the Guardian this morning, I’m not sure what more there is I can add on the subject. I know not there are many reasons why the country voted for Brexit, but I still think we’ve signed up for a race to the bottom we can’t win, while bringing a lot of xenophobia out into the open from wherever it was festering before. So I marked the occasion last night by lighting a candle (once I’d found one that would stay lit*) in the spirit of ‘leaving a light on’ so that Scotland, at least, might be able to find its way back, even if the rest of the UK declines to.

candle flame

For those worrying, the flame wasn’t quite as near to the POP flag as it looks here. Although I did wonder how many remainers started house fires last night from leaving candles burning unattended …

It is especially galling to be leaving just as I discovered this afternoon that German women’s trousers – or one pair, at least – are actually designed so that they fit me (AND have pockets).

Depending on how the trade negotiations go, it seems I’ve got 11 months to get myself to Germany and stock up.

* Possibly it was unwise to use one of our emergency powercut candles for this purpose …


January 25, 2020

‘If you concentrate on your breathing,’ said a little voice at my elbow as I made my way round Bigtown’s parkrun this morning, ‘then you won’t feel like giving up.’

Looking down at the little girl who was about to overtake me, it occurred to me that, while up until then I had been feeling quite good about my run,  clearly I was giving off the air of someone who needed some encouragement and advice.

‘And as you go down hill, the important thing is to make sure your heel hits the ground first,’ she added.

‘I have to slow down on the downhill bits to protect my knees,’ I said, ‘so you’d probably better go on ahead.’

We wished each other luck for the rest of the run and she powered off to find another middle-aged adult to completely demoralise in the nicest possible way, and I mused that, while childsplaining can be annoying to the middle-aged runner, she’s probably got a good 80 years (if society doesn’t change) of mansplaining to look forward to so I was glad she was so confidently, if obliviously, sharing her knowledge while she could.

I was a terrible childsplainer myself, being a bookish child who took a while to grasp that adults don’t like being corrected by precocious brats (my housemistress at boarding school never forgave me for ruining her anecdote about her cat being called Diogenes because it had climbed into a biscuit barrel as a kitten by pointing out that actually Diogenes had never lived in a barrel, he had just said that one ought to be able to). I was full of the joys of learning and genuinely thought that sharing all my fascinating knowledge was a generous act. It took me into my early adult years to learn to gauge people’s reactions and start to check whether they in fact knew anything about the subject I’d just read an interesting article on before expounding on it at some length.

And this, indeed, is the real issue with those who never grow out of childsplaining, be they men or not. We’ve all mounted our hobby horses from time to time – it’s human nature to want to share the thing we find most compelling (never, but never, ask me about cycling policy if you’re in a rush to get away). On average, to generalise wildly, women get socialised to take up less air time, or at least check occasionally that the person they’re talking to is interested in what they’re saying (and indeed didn’t actually write the article that they’re banging on about). On average, to generalise even more wildly, men don’t. Sometimes men react to accusations of mansplaining as if we’re asking them not to explain anything, even if we ask, but it’s not sharing knowledge that’s the problem – it’s doing so, and continuing to do so, regardless of whether that explanation is wanted or not.*

Unless of course you’re ten, and you’re full of the joys of running, and you just want all the adults around you to share them too. In which case, carry on, little running girl, until you get it beaten out of you by the lesser joys of growing up.

* I will confess now that I’m still not perfect at this myself. But I do at least get embarrassed when I catch myself doing it.

Politics as Bloody Unusual

December 6, 2019

We’ve a new game in our household, whereby the other half shows me a headline and I have to guess if it’s from the Onion or not. This is getting harder and harder, to be honest, as reality appears to be playing catchup with satire; it’s getting to the point where reading the Onion just gives you a jump start on what will be happening down the line, only it’s a lot less funny when it’s for real. Despite us being in the middle of a general election, I’ve reached the point where I’m actually beginning to lose interest in politics, at least as it happens at Westminster, which for a lifelong politics geek (it was even my degree) is embarrassing. It’s almost as bad as when they decided to shake up the Archers by throwing Nigel off the roof of Lower Loxley – one minute you’re invested in these people and follow every twist and turn of the plot, and the next you’re lunging for the radio when the Today programme comes on. Which is sad, and a bit worrying, given that they’re actually running the country, not pretending to farm it.

Every so often, reality does break through and I remember why it’s so vitally important – like when someone at writers’ group was outraged because the council budget exercise is asking us to choose between homeless shelters and library opening hours, school music lessons and lollipop ladies. I pointed out that (much as I love to give the coonsil a kicking) it’s not their fault that they’re being asked to cut everything to the bone just in order to deliver the statutory services and suggested that as well as defending the homeless shelters we should be writing to MSPs to suggest they properly fund local authorities. ‘Well no doubt they’ll just blame Westminster,’ someone said. ‘Well, you know what to do about that on December 12th’ I said, to scepticism all round that voting for any one party over another might make a difference, which even in my disengaged state I found a bit shocking. Blame social media or our short attention spans, but we’re all so caught up in the minutiae of who made what fake video or ducked out of what debate, that the actual massive differences in actual policies has somehow managed to pass people by – even me.

So this week I did something distinctly analogue and attended a hustings event for our local constituency (it wasn’t a climate specific one, so all four candidates attended, even the Tory). It was recorded by Radio Scotland (so you can hear it in its entirety here for extra credit) and I didn’t get to ask my carefully worded question but I did get to clap, boo, and greet the Tory candidate’s weaker efforts at humour with a contemptuous silence (he did get the only genuine laugh of the event by promising to ‘deliver breakfast’ though – a policy would could have all properly got behind if he hadn’t meant to say ‘Brexit’). In our digital age it was a good opportunity to observe the politicians in person, and make them all at least a little more human. As always with politicians, their initial answers weren’t too bad – the test comes in the less scripted follow-ups* and I have to confess that I was surprised by which candidate impressed me most (it wasn’t the Conservative, though, that would be more than ‘surprised’, that would be ‘flabbergasted’).

None of which will alter how I vote, unfortunately – in a first-past-the-post system I have to vote tactically for the least worst option. In fact, this might be at the root of my disengagement. Over the past 10 years I’ve got used to voting in Scotland for the person I want to represent me, instead of having to settle for the person who will beat the bastard I don’t want.

I’ll still be voting, of course – I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. But I’ll be continuing to put the rest of my efforts into cycle campaigning in Scotland, where politics do remain a tiny bit saner than further south.

vote by bike

* Like when one candidate firmly promised to look at all policies ‘through a climate-related lens’ in response to a climate-related question, and then twenty minutes later was happily agreeing we should dual both major A-roads through the region without so much of a nod towards the climate emergency. If you listen carefully you might be able to hear my squeaks of frustration as I bit back a heckle…