Monday, 29 June 2015

Scottish humour

I spotted the above framed print in a backstreet shop window in Huntly, an inland Aberdeenshire town halfway between Aberdeen and Inverness. I was staying there for four nights, and in all had three strolls around the little town. The print is a version of a cartoon frame of Wonder Woman, who, like all of these superheroes and superheroines normally goes around with a distinctive costume concealed under her outer clothing, ready for any emergency in which her special powers can save the day. Although in the case of the Wonder Woman I remember from 1980s TV, her best cards were actually just being very pretty and very American, winking, and sporting a natty stars-and-stripes tiara.

Be that as it may, the transformational costume is everything. In this case, it's in the washing basket at home, and because of that she can't intervene to save the world. But she can still titillate the public with her chest exposure (what, no blouse?) and wild hair (so why does she need that tiara when in costume?) Note the amazing hips and waist, but above all the industrial-strength bra to hold in those boobs. Superheroines always, but always, have shapely figures to die for, and no-visible-panty-line costumes - indeed, wearing a bra or panties would entirely ruin the effect. They always look ultra-sexy. So she simply can't save the world - or rescue that kitten - clad only in her brutal thick white underwear. Of course not. She'll have to pass it up. (Why isn't Superman around to help? That's men for you - never there when needed)

Thus far, this isn't a particularly Scottish image. But the artist has played around with the word bubbles, substituting different words with a special spelling that suggests a very broad Scots accent. Ah! That must be the real element of humour here.

And this is as far as I can analyse the thing with confidence, having neither massive boobs nor a massive understanding of comedy. But I can make conjectures and guesses.

For one thing, if it's possible to sell a print like this in a Scottish town that's not on the main tourist trail - and therefore it's a print that has to appeal to locals - then clearly some Scots people can laugh at their own accent. I dare say it's a subtle thing though. Huntly is on the edge of the Highlands. The accent given by the artist to Wonder Woman might well be a Lowland accent, and I'm thinking especially that it might be a Glasgow accent, or at least something you'd hear in any big Lowland town. And maybe that's why a Highland Scots person would find it amusing. Whereas in Glasgow (although it might be Ayr, or Perth, or Motherwell  - how would I possibly know?) it could provoke deep offence. Just as most Londoners do not have a Cockney accent, and don't find it amusing to be parodied and laughed at as if they all have; or just as most Northern English persons do not speak as if they'd just stepped off the set of Coronation Street, and will take just and frightful umbrage if thus mocked. Or the reaction you might get in Devon or Cornwall if you say 'Oo-arr, M'dear' too many times in the wrong place. Expect to be decked if a man, soaked in beer if a woman.

The artist also makes Wonder Woman swear freely. Well, perhaps that's spot on. I dare say I'd say 'Crap!' too, if I suddenly realised that my save-the-planet costume was in the wash. Or I might say even worse.

Let's move on to another print in that Huntly shop window.

Oh dear! Two very grim elderly Scotsmen. They are sitting in a city bar (note the skyscrapers in the background). Despite the gay colours of their traditional garb, their hearts are obviously bleak and stern, and they are all set to complain at length. I think the print was titled Twa Dour Scots. One has a pulpit face that would frighten any congregation into repentance. The other an apoplectic, implacable stare, the very picture of contention and dissatisfaction. These are insulted men with a bitter grievance they intend to make known to the staff of the establishment. There will be no escape. On the table before them is a wine list.

It's clearly a funny picture. It's a parody of the narrow-minded older Scot, prickly and uncomfortable for being out of his natural element. And in a city bar, and not the kirk. The facial expressions are very well drawn, and perfectly convey their dreadful displeasure.

I'm not sure why they are so put out, though. Do they simply hate everything to do with the big city? Have they taken the Pledge, and are teetotal, and think a wine bar is a sinful thing and a work of the Devil?

The clue must be the wine list in front of them. It's only a guess of mine, but I think they are connoisseur whisky drinkers, and there is not a single whisky on that list. So they are aggrieved by the prospect of ruining their palates on an inferior fluid. I must say, I would quail at the prospect of dealing with them, even if I owned the place and could throw them out. What did I say just now? That they were 'very grim'? I think that laughing at grimness must be part of the Scottish sense of humour. Just as swearing at a costume mess-up is.

If you are Scottish, please forgive me. I'm sure I have entirely missed something important here, and I'd appreciate knowing what is really the funny point in these two pictures. I hope you will at least acknowledge my bold spirit in having a go at trying to understand.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

The local pilates class

For nearly twenty years I've been curiously detached from the social life of the village. That's now beginning to change. But until quite recently, I knew very few people in the village, and my face was virtually unknown.

When I was working, I was a commuter, living in the village but absent from it during the day. But I never went to any of the village pubs in the evening or on weekends, unless it was to eat with M---, or Mum and Dad, something we did only now and then. I did of course regularly visit the doctor, the dentist, the post office, the local supermarket and so on, but not to linger and chat with anyone. So I remained a stranger.

M--- and I shared a relationship, but until 2005 we each lived in our own nearby houses. We were however friendly with the same set of immediate neighbours. But I was always second fiddle in our relationship. She took the lead, and I was never the one who saw the tradesmen, or did the talking, or arranged things. I allowed her to run most of my life.

I could easily have had an active, purposeful social life of my own. But I never was a person to join local clubs and societies. And the urge to play badminton regularly (for exercise mainly) had ebbed away, because of knee injuries. I had no interest whatever in DIY, nor gardening. I was the quiet, amiable, little-seen person who stayed indoors and pursued my own particular solo indoor interests. Or drove off somewhere to take photographs, or go for a stroll, or both, usually with M---. My life in fact mostly centred around M---, and whatever she wanted to do; or else whatever my parents suggested. I had only a tiny friend base, nobody that I'd see often. I didn't regard myself as a hermit, but I felt that, away from work, my social skills had fallen by the wayside. It seemed not to matter too much. Wrong. I had become socially isolated to a concerning degree.

This social isolation became worse after retiring in 2005. I had sold my own house, and was staying with M--- in hers, until I found something smaller. I was her paying guest. I always paid my way handsomely, never taking the slightest advantage. But it compromised and undermined our relationship a bit, making me her 'lodger' or 'tenant', and she the 'landlady'. Certainly it was always her house, carrying with it the notion that I was there by arrangement, ultimately by sufferance, that there were stipulations, and that I had to fall in with her ways and routines. I did so easily and willingly, but her house did not become 'our house'. Nor could it be, as 'living together' in any proper sense might put her pension entitlements in danger. It was always the case that one day, and not too far ahead, I would have to buy another place of my own and move out.

Hence my name (and only my name) going on the Piddinghoe cottage we purchased together in 2007. I had a decent sum to fling at this property purchase. But as house prices had surged ahead so much, my money would run only to a nice flat. M--- loaned me her entire pension fund so that I could buy Ouse Cottage, a large and attractive village property otherwise well beyond my reach. It was an investment, to be sold again at a good profit, and meanwhile lived in as much as feasible.

What a mistake we made! It truly seemed like a property investor's dream. But it was my awful financial downfall.

This wasn't however my own blinkered personal project. I would never have bought it on my own. I wouldn't even have considered buying it. M--- discovered the place, not me. M--- pushed for the immediate viewing, not me. M--- conducted the negotiations, not me. M--- called the tune on almost everything - including the new decor and who was going to be invited to the Cottage. This upset me a bit - wasn't I to have any input at all? No. I could help out with the gardening, and the furnishing, but otherwise this was all M---'s vision. The Cottage was a stepping-stone in her dream to own a lovely million-pound country retreat. She made the error of assuming that I shared that dream, and was content to tag along. My task was to sink £202,000 of my money into it, and although I'd have sole title, she was going to control the Cottage as her own.

I should never have allowed this. I should have made a stand. But by 2007, and practically a recluse, with no friends of my own to talk the project over with, I was too short on assertiveness to think of stopping the show. And I saw no danger in our rather one-sided loan agreement, which guaranteed that M--- could suffer no financial disadvantage if the project went wrong. I wince now at my misjudgement and lack of foresight. I should have seen the signs that the property market was running out of steam. I should have known that serious joint investments of money always put relationships at risk. Our relationship was attacked by another matter already mentioned in past posts, but the financial strains of owning (and trying to sell) Ouse Cottage soured our relationship like nothing else. Never again!

In fact, I want no loans of any kind ever again, no matter how small, no matter from whom. I have been stung too badly. The years of frightening indebtedness to M--- have scarred me. At the end, when we finally sold the place in 2011 after four nerve-racking years, I took a thumping personal loss of £200,000. But that wasn't the thing that left the scars. It was the harrowing fear of being in debt by so much, owing M--- an agreed £325,000 at the end (which is about £405,000 in 2015 values). And watching bankruptcy get closer and closer. From 2009 I'd owned two houses, because I'd inherited Mum and Dad's home when they died. But you can't run two houses on one so-so pension. M--- stopped me letting the Cottage as a solution. And my remaining capital was almost exhausted. By 2011 I was selling off camera equipment to fund the Council Tax and heating oil payments. The caravan might be next to go. Then what else? Fiona? Mum and Dad's house? I was starting to feel a bit desperate.

I absolutely floated on air when that dreadful weight of debt was removed in 2011. The utter relief to my spirits completely overwhelmed any regret at losing £200,000 forever. It wasn't a smooth sale. Reluctant to finally abandon her property dream, M--- almost vetoed the sale - as she was entitled to do under our agreement. But it went through. She got all her money back, plus interest, and so financially she was all right, her capital fully restored, the rest of her life fully-funded. She was now proof against any catastrophe that money could fix. I got back next to nothing, and had no such safety net. But that awful, hope-destroying debt had been lifted off my shoulders, and I felt free. I'd got my life back, and all the possibilities that fact could offer.

And in a funny way I got my soul back too. I was now my own woman. I finally had freedom to live my life on my own terms, without anyone else having a say.

I often declare my love of the Independent Life in this blog. But it's not just about having a relationship or not. It's also about holding all the cards, having total control of one's affairs, and not having anybody around who can say no. That's how it is for me. That's how it will now stay. Perhaps this does completely rule out any kind of future relationship, but it's a self-defence thing, a reaction to several years of crushing debt. And not because I don't like people.

2015 is turning out to be the Year For Making New Local Friends. I have turned a mental corner.

I'd been keeping out of village life in case I ran into M---, who still lives in the village. I hadn't seen her to speak to face-to-face since early 2011. Our last exchange over the phone, or by email, was in the autumn of 2012. My last communication to her (without response) was a letter in early 2014, some months before her 70th birthday, sending my greetings for the occasion, and explaining that they were made well in advance so that if they upset her, she would have time to recover her composure, and the day (presumably a family gathering) wouldn't be spoiled.

Thus my last act towards her had been entirely friendly.

Even so, I feared that a surprise meeting - or confrontation - would be painful for both of us. And as M--- was an emotional person, and also a person driven by her beliefs and personal sense of truthfulness, she might launch into an embarrassing denunciation of me. She wouldn't be able to help it. I cringed at the thought.

And yet, this was my village too. I lived here. I had lived here - except for six continuous months in 2009 - ever since 1996. Why shouldn't I go anywhere I wished to in the village, see whom I liked, do whatever I liked, and, in particular, join any local class or activity that appealed to me? Just as she was free to do?

It was time to get over this fear of encountering M---. In any case, surely by now she was several years into whatever new life she had built for herself, and though she might be equally apprehensive about meeting me, was nevertheless well in control of herself, and, who knows, even completely unconcerned about any encounter? Besides (as people pointed out to me), what might she really say? Surely I'd get nothing worse than a very wary and careful hello?

So it was that when Maddy (one of my new girl friends here) urged me to come with her to a pilates class, I felt spurred on to phoning Nancy (who runs the class) and arranging to be there with my mat, towel and bottle of water last Friday morning.

And I thoroughly enjoyed myself. From the moment Maddy picked me up I had no concerns about meeting M--- at the class. I forgot my fears. I met several very pleasant ladies. I got on well with Nancy, and managed most of the pilates exercises. Most, except those involving an element of balancing. I'm rubbish at balancing. But I didn't cheat, and I did everything properly, if I could manage it at all. It was the first pilates class I'd attended for six years, and even though - like everyone else - I felt very well exercised after one hour, I had no aches. And I haven't been aching since. Some say you haven't done it properly if you don't ache. Maybe! But perhaps I'm more lissom and bendy than I thought.

Afterwards, I gave tea and coffee back at my house to Maddy and another nice lady named Jo. In the evening, my neighbour Jackie came in and we spent a few hours sipping wine and nibbles while discussing many topics, including these local social events and their significance for me. (Jackie knows all about me, and tells me exactly what she thinks) I am sure that by the end of 2015 I will have a wide friend base in the village, and many allies.

When I think of how it was for me ten years ago, there is no comparison. True, I had M---. But it was a case of all my eggs in one basket. That wasn't M---'s fault. I should have made the effort to find friends and cultivate them. She wouldn't have stopped me. It's my fault for not doing so, and by not doing, not having anyone to discuss things with. You need to hear several different points of view, not just one person's, especially if - most of the time - you are in complete accord with that one person.

To her credit, M--- usually had great ideas, was a good planner and thought things through thoroughly. But she was also a strong personality, determined to have her way, and hard to resist. No wonder the Old Me, who was compliant and easy-going, let her have the overriding say most of the time. It made for a simple life, free of strife. The New Me is harder to deal with, and much less inclined to agree. If something won't do, I will now say so, and be unabashed about it. And - wonder of wonders - I now plan my life without consulting anyone, or explaining why. Why should I need to explain or justify? It's all down to seeing what other people do, and learning how to be more confident, and more honest about what one really wants.

I'm looking forward very much to next week's pilates class. No stopping me now.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Things I bought while on holiday

It's impossible for a woman go away and not return with some new clothes and accessories! Buying them is all part of the holiday. And it may even be driven by genuine need (well, sometimes!).

While in Scotland I bought a souvenir whisky glass, two pairs of leisure pants, some casual shoes, a Philips Ladyshave electric razor, one or two books, and a set of melamine dinner plates. And with money I had left over - because I was very good, and stayed within my holiday budget - I bought a new handbag yesterday, which I count as a 'holiday' purchase. And indeed it would have been very nice to have it while actually away.

So this post, the first in a little while, is mostly about what I brought back from what I consider to be the best holiday I've ever yet had on my own. But I promise to digress a bit too.

It's also the first of a series of posts about where I went, and the things I saw, or the things I experienced. But not necessarily in a straightforward, chronological sequence - which might get boring, no matter how attractive the accompanying photos might be. The aim will be to link the place or experience or happening with a wider, ongoing topic of more general interest. First, though, let's present my trophies!

I set off from Sussex, tucked away right down there in the south-east of England, on 27th May. By 1st June I'd reached southern Aberdeenshire - pitching the caravan at Stonehaven, a likeable town on the coast south of the big city of Aberdeen. Here's a view of Stonehaven from near its hilltop war memorial:

It's a holiday place in its own right, but just as much a commuter town for go-ahead, ever-expanding and ever-developing Aberdeen. To be honest, Stonehaven hasn't got the wonderful collection of local shops and services that any of the dozens of commuter towns around a typical big English city would have. And some of its local shops make dubious claims to fame - this fish-and-chip shop for instance, which says it's the birthplace of the Deep Fried Mars Bar:

That's not something I'd be especially proud of, and it's a delicacy I certainly wouldn't want to try. Still, on the whole Stonehaven presents a pleasant, honest, cheerful face to the world. I found a brilliant butchers shop (Charles McHardy Butchers) from where I bought half a dozen delicious sausages, and a sausagemeat-in-pastry roly-poly that baked up beautifully back at the caravan. Here's shots of both, which if nothing else demonstrate that I do make good use of both the caravan's freezer and the caravan's gas oven:

Stonehaven also had a good shoe shop, a branch of D E Shoes. I went in there looking for an inexpensive but comfortable pair of lightweight casual shoes suitable for wearing all day. In particular, they would have to be good for tramping the granite streets of the Granite City (i.e. Aberdeen) for hours on end, and yet still leave me begging for further walking in the evening. Thus I discovered the range of walking-shoes made by Skechers. I tried on this black pair, and was so wowed with how light and comfortable they were that I rejected all the others I'd considered, and bought them. Even though they cost a purse-busting £60.

When I was little, and at junior school, kids wore this kind of fabric-and-rubber shoe all the time. We called them 'daps'. This is the modern high-tech version for discerning (and aerobic) adults. I settled for black because it would go with everything, but they did the shoe in other colours like blue, pink, orange and lime green. I'll be on the lookout in Brighton for another pair in one of those colours. They are heavenly to wear.

I was at Stonehaven for three nights. The Caravan Club Site there was just off the road that ran behind the beach, and you could hardly have been closer to the sea. You were certainly within earshot. The Club had taken the site over from the local council and completely redeveloped it, so that nothing on it was more than three years old. It was state-of-the-art so far as Club sites went, the general standard being impeccable. I hadn't stayed on such a spanking-new site since pitching with M--- on the municipal site at Bluff at the southern end of South Island in New Zealand in 2007. Here's a shot showing Stonehaven's sand-and-rock beach generally, although the main subject in the foreground is an artwork, presumably official - a trawler welded together from bits of tinplate and odds and ends:

Fishing is a constant theme in these parts, although nowadays water-based leisure and (of course) oil predominate. Aberdeen is the premier (indeed world-class) oil-platform servicing port in Scotland, and it was there that my next purchases came from.

Aberdeen has three major shopping centres. The newest (Union Square) is next to the station. I first had a good look at the station. It had been modernised and was very bright and pleasant, although a bit over-large for the city's present needs, Aberdeen having lost most of the lines that fifty years ago radiated out into the hinterland, such as the Deeside line to Banchory and Ballater, and the lines to coastal towns like Peterhead and Fraserburgh. So fewer platforms and a smaller station could have been justified. But no doubt city pride and city money saved the station just as it was, and I have to admit it's an impressive place to be, even if most of the time it looks rather empty:

Anyway, those two pairs of leisure pants. In the Union Square Shopping Centre was a big branch of Fat Face, one of my favourite shops. I spent an hour there trying various things on. Three lovely young girls assisted me. One bore a striking resemblance to Jerry Hall, the famous Texan model who had a fling with Brian Ferry in the late 1970s, then married Mick Jagger (and stayed married to him for a long time until Mr Jagger did naughty things with a Brazilian nymphette). Here's a poster image of Jerry Hall in the late 1990s (advertising, as it happens, fabric softener tablets):

I told the girl who Jerry Hall was, and she could see that it was all a compliment, but unfortunately I did not have that picture on my phone to show her. (It's there now)

But the main lady acting as almost my personal shopper was from Knaresborough in Yorkshire and named Sarah. She gave me invaluable input on the pants. I hadn't bought this type of garment for some time, and I was doubtful about whether they really suited me. But she convinced me that they looked great, and weren't just an inadequate disguise for my midriff bloat. I asked her what she was doing so far north from Yorkshire. I should have easily guessed: her husband had a shore job in the oil industry, and they had come north into Scotland for the great money on offer. They lived in Stonehaven. She loved the life up in Aberdeenshire, and it wasn't simply the clean air, and having all the conveniences of a vigorous city on her doorstep. 

Both pants are navy blue. One has buff-coloured stars on it, the other a very colourful medley of tropical fruit and flowers. I wore the colourful one a few days later in Huntly, in another part of Aberdeenshire, and it must have seemed very exotic for that small town. In fact a girl on a bike called Shona skidded to a halt by me and told me how summery I looked. I explained to her that I was on holiday, and this was partly why I was dressed for the beach. She was amazed that I lived in Sussex, so many hundreds of miles away to the south. 

I am now of course a complete convert to slightly baggy leisure pants. They are so comfortable, and I don't know why I've stuck with leggings for so long. Leggings have their place of course; and three months from now I will be back in them. But just at the moment I want to wear colourful things that go with warm sunny days. 

And what better accessory could there be for summer days than a bright red handbag? Yesterday, after a fringe trim at Trevor Sorbie in Brighton, I saw such a bag in the window of Karen Millen nearby. They were having a sale. I didn't hesitate. I took an instant liking to the bag, and badly wanted to examine it. The sale price was a whopping £145. But it was reduced from an even more purse-exploding £230. That wasn't of course Mulberry money, which was a consolation. And it certainly wasn't Prada money (and I should know, having spent £910 on a Prada bag in early 2009). Still, even £145 was enough to make one hesitate. A girl named Danielle was serving me, and we talked about it. I was tempted, but I told her frankly that even though the bag appealed strongly to me, and was a quality creation, and was beautifully finished and stitched, and was well-designed, and above all a wonderful amazing red, I was sticking to my plan, and seeing first what Fat Face up the road had. She said they had just two examples of that bag left: the one in the window, and this one. She could put it by for the next hour...? Thus was the arrangement. I was free to walk away. 

But of course I was smitten, and came back after trying more stuff on at Fat Face, but not buying anything. This time, I examined the bag even more thoroughly, and the one from the window, before finally saying yes. 

Oh well! There went the money I'd not spent on holiday, that could have been saved instead... 

Once home, I unpacked the bag, and transferred purse, phone, camera, spare camera battery, cosmetic bag, tissues and comb to it. All the vital stuff.

As you can see, the bag has plenty of structure - three main compartments, the centre one being large enough for a cardigan or spare pair of shoes, a zip-up compartment (with a buttery-smooth zip) for things that need to be kept out of sight, and two pockets for little items like tickets or a folded-up shopping list. the black interior lining is stout and strong and high-quality. All compartment fastenings are magnetic. It has four metal studs on the bottom side. The leather feels soft and luxurious. 

The design is brilliantly simple: there is no bling whatever. Compare it, for instance with these red bags I saw in Florence in 2009:

I mean, these 2009 bags are gorgeous, almost viscerally red, and the finish is superb, but look at the bling! Not so good. Whereas my new Karen Millen is a study in clean design.

Two points must be addressed. 

First, the nature of handbags is that they don't like being filled up with heavy things. This bag can't carry the weight that my orange cross-body bag can, such as a bottle of wine. But that's no bad thing. It'll teach me to keep the contents few and lightweight. I can always switch to the orange cross-body bag if it's the more suitable bag for the occasion, or (as I did this morning) take along my Cath Kidston shopping bag to carry larger, awkward items in. 

Second, is red too bright a colour? And a rather orangey red at that? Do I want to stand out? Well, there will be outfits it won't look right with; and occasions when 'red' will not do. But then I have two nice black bags for that - the glitzy Prada (if the occasion is posh or important) or the plainer Osprey (for any other time). Or indeed the faithful, commodious and ever-versatile orange cross-body bag, which although now showing signs of wear, is nevertheless building up 'character' in the leather, which has become naturally creased, buffed and darkened through use. 

Enough of these possible cavils. I like this bag very much, and it will be invaluable for impersonations of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Budget Day. You know, when he holds up the red despatch box for the cameras. 

Very similar, really!

I'll cover the rest of my holiday purchases in other posts.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Not a victim

Last night's Moral Maze programme on BBC Radio 4 dealt with the modern rise of victimhood, and the moral questions arising. Whether, for instance, it was morally wrong to deliberately or heedlessly or even accidentally make some remark that caused offence to a member of any minority group that could feel victimised, such as women. The recent case of the scientist who made negative comments about female colleagues was referred to. He was immediately vilified, and fell from grace instantly. But in what way was he morally offensive, and if so, what exactly was the hurt done, and what would have been the absolutely right response? On analysis it wasn't really so very obvious. Perhaps this was just a stupid throwaway old-school chauvinist-male remark that put down women scientists in general, and which - unless this man was chairing a selection panel - damaged nobody in particular except the man himself, for revealing him to be out of touch, old-fashioned, and guilty of a condescending attitude shared by so many men from an older era. Such as one's own father. My Dad had many conservative views that I didn't go along with. But I easily put up with them. I felt he was a product of his upbringing and background, and that his notions would not outlive the passing of his generation. I think that is proving to be true.

What about racial and faith-based groups such as 'black people' and 'Muslims'? And gender-based minorities? The programme asked whether such groups had any moral right to curb remarks they felt were derogatory or prejudicial - to the extent, that is, of claiming that the uttering of certain words harmed not only actual individuals but some religious or cultural idea that they cherished - and thus justified a savage retaliation. Not just a Twitter war, not just calling for the sanctions already enshrined in race and equality protection laws, but to go further and extract a dire penalty, such as killing the offender on sight. All because words had been said, and hurt felt.

There are of course genuine victims of war, famine, natural disasters and entrenched prejudice. But the programme asked whether anyone had a moral right to be offended simply by words they had heard spoken, or had read, or had been told about; or by a picture they had seen, and - based on only that - somehow acquired a further moral right (possibly a 'moral duty') to seek redress or even revenge?

I have - in the past - taken the view that I must be, without question, a potential victim of hurtful attitudes and verbal put-downs. And that if ever slighted I would be entitled to protest and bite back. I was after all a 'detectable medical oddity', very much at risk of getting the sort of misunderstanding, impatience and condescension still shown to many kinds of disabled person.

But with time and experience my self-view has changed. I still feel 'detectable', but it seems not to matter. Despite remedial treatment, I can still never have everything I 'should' have, but many of the things denied to me are not things I want for myself. So I do not feel bitter. I don't feel I have 'lost out'. I do feel a bit different from most other people, but in a way that - to be honest - I feel rather proud of, being throughout my life an individualist and never wanting to be like the rest. And certainly, I have had experiences (awful or amazing) that few others can know about or share.

I feel special. I feel strong and assured. I feel know myself more completely than most people ever will. And I'm living a life that suits me perfectly. A life that is compromised only by what age imposes.

Above all I do not feel like a victim, and I don't want to claim victimhood of any sort. Life has not been 'very unfair', and I can't see any reason why everyone else should owe me automatic consideration and respect. I want to feel that - through my personal behaviour and attitude - I've earned every scrap of friendship and kindness that comes my way. I wouldn't like to think that it came only because people were morally compelled to be pleasant. That in fact they thought chiefly about the consequences of saying the wrong thing, and were driven mainly by fear of the law. And that I was no more than a 'protected person', secretly resented for having a special kind of legal advantage. I want no such crutch. All I want is a fair deal. And as I seem to be getting it, you won't catch me playing the victim card.

But what if I ever do, one day, encounter the prejudice and abuse that I've so far managed to avoid? What then? Will I change my tune - will I be jolted out of my smugness?

I can only declare my intentions. And they would be to hold my ground and assert myself just as any woman would, and face whatever stupidity it was without losing my temper or my personal dignity. A challenge dealt with as a personal issue, between me and my antagonist, the decisions mine. No party line. No standard speeches. No idealism. Just what I think appropriate, with no loss of control - and no surrender. If necessary, if a good outcome is clearly impossible, I'll just walk away. I can't change a stubborn mind, and I don't need to speak the last snarling word.

Moral rules don't count for much in real life: it's down to which person has the quicker mind and the surer survival instinct. So I think it's good policy to look relaxed, adult and unconcerned. And not react like a complaining tearful child who wants mummy.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Hay fever

I'm now at Chirk, between Wrexham and Oswestry on the Welsh Borders. It's been warm and sunny and windless for nine days now, ever since I left cool and breezy Aberdeenshire. Fife was markedly milder, lusher and greener. Here at Chirk, so much further south, and so much more sheltered, it's like high summer. I'm enjoying some of the best weather I've ever had on any caravan outing in the UK.

There is however a serious downside. It's June, the local pollen counts have been high or very high for days, and I'm suffering from a bout of hay fever.

I thought it was just another cold, although how one could develop while in super-healthy Aberdeenshire is a mystery. An ordinary mild cold could be picked up in any casual encounter with another humanoid. But it seems more likely that I've inhaled a dense soup of pollen, with uncomfortable results. I have irritated eyes, a sensitive and constantly-running nose, and I need to cough all the time. And these symptoms are not following a definite course, as they would with an ordinary cold. They show no signs of letting up. I'm presently a martyr to mucus and phlegm, and I've all but lost my voice - I'm reduced to a hoarse croak, as if I were a gigantic superannuated crow! And yet I don't feel ill at all, just tired from the disturbed nights and lack of quality sleep. In fact I want to get out and about, and explore the area in depth. I'm thinking that a few days of cooler, wetter, windier weather would do me a lot of good, rain and wind washing the pollen from the air. The next best thing is to head for the Welsh mountains, and get up high. That in fact is my plan for today and tomorrow.

First, however, some more hand-washing. A few tops and knickers, just enough to get me home. There's no escaping necessary chores! But my washing will dry quickly inside the caravan, even if it looks a bit like a Chinese laundry with everything pegged up. (I'm too thrifty with my pennies to use the Club washing machines and tumble driers)

Home itself is now just five days away. I'm looking forward to that, if only because my house in Sussex is much more pollen-proof than the caravan is. But I still want to make the most of the remaining days of my holiday, and not waste them by skulking inside the caravan in a vain effort to avoid floating pollen grains. In fact, I seem to have a more comfortable time when driving about in Fiona - which is not surprising, of course, given Fiona's Scandinavian-strength air filter and climate control. And so a mountain cruise for a few hours seems by far the most sensible plan, exactly what my doctor would have ordered.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Home begins to beckon

I'm now down at Garlieston, a little coastal place in Galloway, very nearly at the extreme southwest of the Scottish mainland. Today should be another sunny day - I'm enjoying a sudden spate of them - and I intend to visit the Mull of Galloway, from which, on a clear day, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man should be easily visible. I've never seen either before, so I'm looking forward to it. Another 'holiday first' to celebrate - rather like visiting John o'Groats up in the far north for the first time, with Orkney beckoning you just a bit further. And it never matters that millions have gazed at those places before you: the personal experience is what counts.

And the personal photographs. My goodness, I've taken a lot on this trip! In fact so many that they are queuing up on my laptop, the duff shots already deleted, the rest numbered and copyrighted and waiting to be corrected for tilt and exposure, cropped if necessary, then captioned, backed up to a hard drive, and stored until I get home and can file them away properly - but only after first selecting the ones suitable for Flickr and for blog posts to come, the shots to be emailed, and the shots to be added to the collection I install on my phone. I haven't been able to devote every holiday evening to them, and so the processing is now four days in arrear. Not good. I hate arrears building up.

But of course it's a labour of love. The photos are my trophies. They are also a reality check. They remind me that a place is visually attractive, and why in particular, but they also let me imagine what it might be like to actually live there. They spur me on to revisit, and go further next time, but at the same time reinforce the value and virtues of 'home'.

I have reached that point in the holiday when 'getting home again' suddenly has a definite appeal. This longing - not strong yet, but present and growing - wasn't there three days ago. Now it is, partly because a cold has hit me from nowhere, seemingly arriving with the warm and sunny weather, and there is nothing like a running nose, sneezing, coughing, disturbed nights, and a vague headache, to make you think of all the extra comforts of home. I am of course without question comfortable in the caravan; but caravanning requires physical efforts not necessary at home. Ah well, it's the 12th now: I'll be back on the 22nd; just ten days more, and all of them 'coasting downhill', as it will feel as I make my way ever southwards, drawn by gravity as it were. I will think very carefully about being away for as long as four weeks in the future. Three is quite enough. 'Home' means much to me. It's important psychologically that I'm not cut off from it for too long. I need my safe haven. And I want it especially when not feeling well.

All this said, this has been a very good holiday. It has gone to plan, and yet it's been full of unexpected delights. Once I've processed all those photographs - some 2,000 by the time I've been everywhere I intend to go - I will look back on one of the best trips I've so far attempted.

I'm sorry that blogging has taken a back seat. The trouble with blogging while on holiday is that if the subject is a place or an occasion, or indeed a meetup along the way with one or more friends, it begs a photo to illustrate what was so nice. But it's impractical to illustrate posts when away from home. You can't do it with the kind of Mobile Internet available in the places I've been pitched at, nearly all well away from big cities and a sizzling 4G signal. A 2G signal that comes and goes with the wind imposes severe limitations. Blogging then becomes a bulletin every few days, confined to the sort of topic that doesn't need pictures. There are many serious subjects that might be covered using words alone, but the point about being on holiday - something not to be lost sight of for a moment - is that serious subjects need to be put out of mind if at all possible. I would of course attack the keyboard if, for instance, I were the victim of some outrage. But outages never occur. Only an ever-increasing number of varied encounters that all help to bolster my self-confidence in public, but are not normally newsworthy, nor the stuff that a novel and interesting post can be built around, unless there had been something especially intriguing about the encounter.

Yes, I could describe my conversations yesterday evening with four residents of Garlieston (three men and one wise old lady), and a pub crowd, and a jocular shouted exchange on the pier with the rough crew of a fishing boat. But I've written about such things so many times before. And I can't go into the very personal and private things they sometimes tell me. I don't get stared at, pushed around, sneered at or spat on - just treated as what I seem to be. That's pleasant - wonderful even - but not especially bloggable. So I just hope my readership has the patience to await the slew of illustrated posts I will be able to publish once home!

Friday, 5 June 2015

They did it for love

I'm at Huntly, in the north-west part of Aberdeenshire, and within an easy drive of both the Moray Firth coastal towns and the Grampian Mountains. In fact today I embarked on what seemed to be a monumental nine-hour drive that included Lossiemouth (lunch stop), Duffus Castle, Burghead, Findhorn, Forres (afternoon tea), Tomintoul and Corgarff Castle, the last two high up in the mountains. In fact it wasn't that long a drive: about 140 miles only. But I had plenty of stops for photos. Anything that caught my attention. For instance, the 'air show' at RAF Lossiemouth - I was visiting Duffus Castle nearby (pretty well in line with the runway) and at five-minute intervals fighter jets roared into view, flew round the castle, and returned to their base. Practice flights, I suppose. I haven't got the right camera for shooting fast-moving aircraft, but I did my best.

Another instance. Not far from Duffus I spotted two male figures in check shirts and jeans stiffly pointing across the field they were standing in. And as I drove up, they kept pointing rigidly, as if frozen in that one position. Aha, I thought. These must be scarecrows - very life-like to be sure, but nobody holds their arms motionless like that for so long. They would make an interesting picture close up. I screeched to a halt, and was getting out, when both 'scarecrows' came to life, dropped their arms and looked at me. Oh dear! They were real men all along! I got moving, not wanting the embarrassment of having to explain.

I went to Forres for two reasons. First, someone had mentioned to me quite recently that a couple they knew had just moved there. So I was keen to check it out for pleasantness. Second, a secondhand book I'd bought in Huntly had a write-up on a very tall, carved Pictish standing stone called Sueno's Stone, which was on the edge of Forres, and I wanted to see it.

The actual highlight of my visit to Forres was however the conversations I had in Maclean's Bakery with two women in their early thirties. Their names were Karen and Sally. Karen was serving behind the counter when I came in looking for a refreshing pot if tea and something savoury to go with it - it was approaching 4.00pm and I was getting really peckish, and with a long detour through the high hills yet to come. Well, we must have been kindred spirits. A ten-minute chat ensued, curtailed only by a spate of customers coming in. Then her friend Sally arrived, a care assistant temporarily off work because of an injured foot. Finishing my snack, I came over, wanting to say to Karen how much I'd enjoyed the tea and steak pie, and then found myself discussing boyfriends for half an hour with Sally. It turned out that both girls had ended up in North-East Scotland because of a past attraction to a local man. Neither were native to the area. Sally herself was from Nottingham. Both had burned their boats by moving, but hadn't regretted it, Forres and the north of Scotland generally being so much away from the rat race of big cities. And both had found true love.

I said they weren't by any means the only persons I'd met who had moved north from far away down south. For example, the girl who had served me at Fat Face in Aberdeen two days before - Sarah - had moved up there from Knaresborough in Yorkshire. And she too had done so because of a man - in this case her husband, who had a shore job in the oil industry - and she too hadn't regretted the move.

It made me ponder how readily people will embrace an entirely different and unfamiliar location and lifestyle, when love draws them. And how it seems true that the average woman will follow her man to the ends of the earth if she believes that he loves her. Well, I'd met three women in the space of two days who really had uprooted themselves for the man they loved. This proved something about what a woman might do.

Was I capable of doing the same? I thought no, surely I was too old and independent to heed the call of love. But who is immune? Who is so very unusual that love cannot move them to do very strange things?

Monday, 1 June 2015

Miss or Mrs?

I'm beginning to wonder whether I chose the wrong title! I'm officially a 'Miss', meaning that this title is the one I invariably use for myself. I regard it as a reasonable default title for a single lady, if she doesn't want to be regarded as locked into a marriage, or in some way still in thrall to a past marriage. I am in fact perfectly entitled to style myself 'Mrs', having been married from 1983 until my eventual divorce in 1996. But I don't want to signal that I was once married and - fairly obviously - made a mess of it. I don't want to carry that baggage around. I want to make it clear and unambiguous that I am as free as any never-been-wed woman, and that (at least in theory) I am 'available' and legally competent to consider fresh offers of matrimony. The fact that I would refuse such offers point blank is not the issue. I just don't want the 'married' label, and the things it might imply.

And yet more often than not I am addressed as 'Mrs Melford'. Nobody ever calls me 'Miss Melford' unless I've managed to introduce myself as that before any conversation begins.

Now why is that, I wonder? Is 'Mrs' the socially appropriate title to employ when addressing a stranger who happens to be an older woman? It's certainly likely to be the correct title in many instances. And if not, it is surely still a respectful title to use, implying that at least one man, once upon a time, loved and cherished the lady in question above all others, and bestowed upon her his best worldly goods, yea, even unto half his kingdom. It might also imply the high-value status of motherhood. Whereas addressing an older woman as 'Miss' suggests that circumstances - or lack of attractiveness, or a quirky nature - prevented even one man from fancying her sufficiently to pop the question - and so, as a title, it's a potential put-down. I know there are very many excellent real-world reasons to stay single and be independent of men - I have my own, after all - but I'm talking here about what a man should do when he meets a woman of whom he knows nothing, and whose background and motivations are unguessable. What does he safely call her? If aiming for inoffensive politeness, 'Mrs' is definitely the best option.

I can see that a woman with experience of married life might be considered 'a more rounded person' or 'someone who has learned a few home truths' and 'knows what it's really all about'. At any rate, the man who called me 'Mrs Melford' this afternoon was clearly very comfortable with the lady before him, recognised her as a Married Adult, and was most helpful about recommending to her good restaurants and great things to see in the Stonehaven area (I've now reached Aberdeenshire). But would he have been so affable with 'Miss Melford'? I suspect that he would have worked from a different set of assumptions, and might possibly have written her off as a feisty but eccentric old spinster. Being a 'Miss' is exciting and sexy when young, but sad (and even alienating) when older.

Despite what I've just said, I do prefer 'Miss' and will assert that title if I need to, because it signifies that I am mistress of my own affairs, and not merely the compliant female half of a conventional twosome. 'Miss' says there is no husband in the offing who can speak for me; who may indeed be easier to deal with. They must all deal with me, and me alone, and not 'the man of the house'. I can insist on being listened to. Being a 'Miss' therefore gives me more personal power and control than being a 'Mrs' would, even though I might also be thought prickly and exacting, and best handled with some wariness.