December Reflections 21: paper


“What people bring with them is treasure“.

I was tidying my desk, as one does on the last day in the office before Christmas, and turned up my coursebook from the autumn’s tutor training course, and remembered what I’d scrawled on the cover.

I’ve underlined ‘people bring with them’, so that must have been a quotation. And I’ve double-underlined ‘treasure’, so that must have been something important.

My recollection is that we were talking about the mental and emotional baggage that people bring with them to courses. They bring bad memories from school. They bring a grudge about having been made to attend the thing in the first place. They bring cynicism. They bring whatever’s going on in their life outside the classroom.

They bring knowledge. (Something that stuck with me from the first two days of the course was the estimate that, when dealing with adult learners, 85% of the knowledge already exists in the room, and the task of the tutor is to bring it out and then fill in the gaps.) They bring wisdom. They bring experience. Curiosity. Good ideas.

And perhaps that was what I meant by ‘treasure’.

But I think it must have been something more than that, to make me write it down there, on the cover, rather than next the activity that prompted it. And I think I meant something like: people bring with them is everything that’s gone to make them who they are; all their triumphs and their tragedies; everything they’ve ever learned and seen and been through, and everything that they’ve forgotten; all their fortunes and misfortunes; all the lies they’ve heard and all the truths; all their hopes and fears.

People bring their whole complicated selves.

A phrase that has come up a couple of times for me this year is this: Nothing is wasted. I’ve seen it on writing Twitter (nothing you write is wasted, even if it never sees the light of day). It’s been murmured to me in church (to which I brought things ill done and done to others’ harm – or, in this case, my own – /which once you took for exercise of virtue). I’ve reminded myself of it as I wonder what I’m meant to be doing next, and whether I’m in the right place now. Even if I end up on a different path, my experience on this path will come in useful. (Sometimes I think that I see them converging at the horizon, and sometimes I think that’s just the vanishing point…)

Nothing is wasted.

What people bring with them is themselves.

What people bring with them is treasure.

December Days 20: secret


I don’t think I have many secrets. I have some things that I don’t mention to some people, but I can’t think of anything that I’ve told to nobody at all.

My secrets tend to be the things I’m scared of looking at myself, in case I find out what a disaster I am. Once they’re cracked, once the light gets in, they don’t have to be secret any more.

I think that quite a lot of people probably have secrets like that.

December Days 19: tasty


Terrible photo; very tasty chocolates. It’s the time of year for very tasty chocolates.

I always find this time of year a little difficult: how to balance my need for sleep with my desire to get involved with things and have fun? How to avoid getting burned out and cynical about the whole Christmas thing before we’ve even got to December? How to honour my need for solitude without being a miserable cow? How to acknowledge the fact that the short days and the long to-do list make it very difficult to be cheerful? How to keep a holy Advent without becoming sanctimonious?

There are some things that I always do. I take the first week of Advent off work, to catch up on sleep. I do some kind of observance: I have an Advent calendar and I read an Advent book. And I don’t sing with any group that requires me to start rehearsing Christmas music before mid-November.

(I really do like Advent. It acknowledges the fear and despair that annoyingly seem to be longstanding guests in my head, while refusing to let me stop with them.)

There are some things that I experiment with. This year I’ve given up alcohol, except for a couple of glasses of prosecco before the work disco, because in that moment refusing it would have felt sanctimonious, and declined to participate in Secret Santa (too bloody awkward). But I’ve also sung carols at a Christmas lights switch-on and ridden on gallopers while the organ was playing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (in mid-November, at that), and danced until my knees hurt at the aforementioned disco.

I haven’t got it right yet. I was reluctant to get out of bed this morning. But I have had fun today. I drank lemonade and jumped around with a tambourine and sung along with Wombling Merry Christmas. And I ate a very tasty lunch.

December Reflections 18: I said hello to…


… this charming lizard in the botanical gardens at Innsbruck. Actually, I don’t remember what I said, but I do know that I was very pleased to see it. I am very fond of lizards; one sees them in Ventnor sometimes.

I met all sorts of people when I was InterRailing. I’m not massively outgoing, and I got half way through the trip without having a conversation (beyond the basics required for checking in/ordering food/buying tickets) with anybody I wasn’t married to. I had long ago come to the conclusion that I was not like Paul Theroux or a Buchan hero, and that I was  not likely to get talking with interesting people.

Then after a series of mishaps with trams I ended up having dinner with a coloratura soprano in Vienna, and the next day I met a Canadian couple on the train to Ljubljana. And in Innsbruck, the night before I met the lizard, I got adopted by a group of friendly Austrians who ordered schnitzel and fries for me when I was too tired and hungry to look after myself properly, and then we managed to have quite an extensive chat even in my limited German.

So maybe it’s just something that happens if you travel far enough, for long enough, on your own.

December Reflections 17: sparkle


One of my luxuries is beads. I pay LionessElise $10 every month, and twice a year she sends me a box of treasure. The three pieces of druzy came from her; the gold beads came from a shop in Palencia.

Sometimes I know what to do with the beads that arrive, and the beads that I find, and the beads that people give me because they know I like beads and they think that maybe I can find a use for this broken necklace. More often I don’t. More often they sit in their box, and sometimes I take them out, and look at them, and put them back again, until I know what I’m going to do with them.

December Reflections 15: yellow


My brother cut this Easter chick out from hardboard with a jigsaw sometime in the nineties, and painted it yellow. Originally it was attached to a cocoa tin with some masking tape, and the tin filled with chocolate eggs. Twenty years on, it does service as a coaster. I shouldn’t be surprised if it’s still somewhere around the house in another twenty years. It’s the sort of thing that sticks around. ‘Your uncle John made that, you know.’

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy this year. Sometimes it’s about physical things. Last year I read The Hare with Amber Eyes, which got me thinking about family history and the significance of objects. Things like what this yellow chick will be in fifty years, if nobody’s thrown it away by then, or the ivory crucifix that a first cousin twice removed left me, or my camp blanket. Things that are significant because who made them or bought them or gave them, or how long they’ve lasted.

Sometimes it’s about the various campaigns and organisations I’ve been involved with over the years, although I’ve managed to become reasonably good at moving on from them, and at letting them move on.

Sometimes it’s about the question of children, which could (still) go either way.

And sometimes it involves me giving myself a stern telling-off, because two books deposited at the British Library ought to be enough legacy for anyone. Oughtn’t it?

It occurred to me the other day that really legacy is about immortality, about retaining control. It is about trying to ensure that somebody else will care about the things I care about now, when I’m not there to care about them any longer. And whether that’s ‘there, at that particular university’, or ‘there, in that county’, or ‘there, on this earth’, I have no way of guaranteeing that. I could, through bribery or emotional blackmail, induce somebody to take care of them, but I cannot make somebody care about them.

I know that in the long run none of it is important at all. Things change, everything ends, and many of the things that are important to me now won’t matter at all in a hundred years’ time, and in a thousand none of them will matter.

So what do I do with that? I suppose I just have to let things be important to me, if that’s what they happen to be at the moment, and to accept that the things that are important to me may not be important to other people, and to trust that somebody will see their importance if they’re as important as all that.


December Reflections 14: 2018 taught me…


… that Stockholm is beautiful, but looks even better after a nap;

… that Bratislava is delightful, but not until you’ve had a shower;

… that carrying too heavy a bag detracts from one’s enjoyment of the great art in the Zwinger at Dresden;

… that nothing is fun if I’m hungry;

… to travel first class, check my suitcase into left luggage wherever possible, and wear comfortable knickers.

In short, to attend to my bodily needs in a timely fashion. And travelling alone meant that I had to take responsibility for all that myself. I had no companion to suggesting that we go to bed, or to decide which café we ate in or what sandwich I wanted. 2018 taught me to take care of myself.

December Reflections 13: comfort


‘Comfort’ is another of those concepts that has me going, ‘yeah, I wish’, before berating myself for being ungrateful. At the moment I’m sitting slightly skewed, and my hands are too high, and my thighs are up against the kneehole of my desk, which isn’t actually a desk, and there’s a draught around my ankles, and no, I’m not entirely comfortable. At the same time, I’ve got a cup of tea and have eaten a cheese omelette and am feeling generally well-disposed towards the world. And, thanks to my giant padded jacket (£6 from a charity shop, and worth every penny), most of me is deliciously warm.

But it feels appropriate that the image that’s expressing ‘comfort’ is this jacket. It feels appropriate that the image shows me wearing it. Portable comfort, comfort that I’ve organised for myself, comfort in response to a particular physical need, comfort that doesn’t address all of the discomfort.

I could get myself a new desk, one that really was a desk. That would solve a lot of the problems. And shut the door to keep the draught out. One’s a project for the new year. The other I could do right this minute.

December Reflections 12: best meal of 2018


The best meal of 2018 was undoubtedly breakfast in Bratislava. I quote from my diary:

… not overpriced at all, because there was a huge amount of it. If anything, the menu undersells it. Nicest breakfast I’ve had in ages. Orangey sausages – presumably with paprika – cherry tomatoes, red peppers, courgettes, squash, mangetout, French beans, various salad leaves; poached egg; toast.

In Slovak, assuming I copied it down correctly:

klobásky s. gril. zeleniou a pošírovaným vajcom

I ate an awful lot of bread and cheese when I was InterRailing, and by the half-way point a breakfast that consisted of bright colours and all the major food groups was very welcome. Dinner the previous night had been very good, and cheap (gnocchi with sheep’s cheese; white wine; Slovak whisky: just over €10), but even allowing for the stock of apples I’d been hauling round Europe I thought I was probably running a vitamin deficit. This was a delicious way to put that right. And the menu had some good advice, too.

December Reflections 11: blue


A rather trying morning. It began yesterday evening, when I forgot to buy milk, and continued when I remembered that one isn’t allowed to post things like power banks to France.

But then, cycling back from the post office and the supermarket, I happened to look up, and I was struck by the cool, clear, blueness of the winter sky.

I postponed my plans of ‘getting on with things’ and went for a walk alongside the river. Sometimes I find living in such a flat area uninspiring, but today, with a huge dome stretched from horizon to horizon above me, I hummed ‘The spacious firmament on high’ and had no complaints.