Thursday, June 26, 2014


I caught a snatch of a hockey game on telly recently. It was nothing like the game played heartily, lumberingly or miserably by girls at my old boarding school. Oh, how I hated hockey.

For a start we were always being beaten by other teams. No wonder, because it was a small school and you got into the team simply by being tall enough to wield a hockey stick. When we played each other it was blue against gold – and I bet it was the only gold any of us came near in the realm of sport.
Then there was the pitch. Instead of superturf we played on a patch of ground from which the cows had just been driven. Indeed, they were sometimes left in one corner of the paddock chewing crossly and glaring at the bunch of ninnies thwacking sticks about. The ground was covered in tussocks and cow pats and chopped into a muddy mess by countless hooves. I sprained my ankle several times on that pitch and made the most of it, wailing and hobbling, such was my misery.

The pitch was marked out with a series of drunken stakes by the school handyman. He had lost an eye in the war and wore a romantic if piratical eye patch, but he must have had something going for him because the school nurse got pregnant. They got married and lived happily ever after in the olde worlde cottage at the school gates.

The most notable difference between hockey yesterday and today is that in my day superglue hadn’t been invented. Today’s players can attach a hockey ball to the end of the stick in a way that seems miraculous. When they pass, the ball travels crisp and true and fast as a bullet towards the right player in the right place at the right time in the right uniform. That player immediately attaches the ball to the end of his or her stick until ready to pass it on.

The way I remember it is that somebody hit the ball and it leapt in the air sideways with a clunky sound. The sticks of two other people clashed in mid air while the ball rolled sullenly under a tussock. There would be a constant uproar from the crack of stick on stick, the thudding backwards and forwards of ungainly adolescents. Everyone on the field, and anyone watching from the sidelines, would go all “Angela of the Lower Fourth” shouting: Shoot! Pass! Tackle! Well done, old thing! Jolly good shot! Hard lines!  

So embarrassing - what were we thinking of?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Grump Day happened when everything in the garden seemed to have gone berserk – by growth, untidiness, weediness or expiration – and needed attention, urgently.

I am a random gardener. That is, I get a sudden desire to attack something that catches my eye and lay about me with tremendous enthusiasm until the job’s done and/or I run out of steam. The rest of the time weeds flourish in every crack and crevice, shrubs toss their heads and wriggle their toes, and that evil grapevine from next door resumes sending out its grabby tendrils, knowing that I won’t notice.

AJ wasn’t a natural gardener and could ignore the small signs. He left the designing and finessing to me, and confined himself to the proper man’s job of mowing the lawn. Occasionally he was roped in to shift barrow-loads of earth or bricks from one place to another, but on the whole he considered the garden to be something to look at, to appreciate, rather than to labour in.

AJ had two images of the ideal life in his mind, at opposite ends of the spectrum. One, when he was in austerity mode, was the white-washed monk's cell with a tiny window high up in the wall, a single truckle bed, a shelf with a few selected books, a decent cd player and loads of music – Handel of course, and perhaps Palestrina and Gregorian chants. The other was the luxury apartment in a city building overlooking a large park tended by an army of city council employees for his personal enjoyment. I clearly didn’t feature in the monkish scenario – and I’m not too sure about the luxury one either – but we all have our dreams.

Here in the real world of suburbia, however, gardening has to be done if one is to live in some kind of comfort and order, and AJ was nothing if not orderly. Which brings me to Grump Day. This happened about once a year, usually towards the end of summer, when things tend to get out of hand. A steely look would appear in AJ’s eye as he gazed out into the garden. He saw something not quite right. It displeased him.  And he set about doing something about it.

Inevitably we both ended up spending the entire day slaving like navvies, hot and bothered, sore, blistered and really, really grumpy, but not stopping until we had cleared, pruned, clipped and subdued everything we could see.  And then, with luck, Grump Day was over for another year.


Friday, June 6, 2014


I grew up with verandahs. Not decks, which are platforms attached to houses, with or without guard rails, and unroofed. Decks are usually too hot, too cold, too wet or too windy to enjoy, and eventually they become covered in bird poop.

Verandahs are different. They are platforms attached to houses but there the similarity ends. A verandah has a roof and can be an extra room, but it isn’t a conservatory, which has to be properly furnished and lived up to, and often turns out to be a disappointment.  A verandah is more friendly and forgiving – it accepts an old sofa and a couple of gaudy pots, gumboots and a wet umbrella and doesn’t turn up its nose.

Verandahs love children. Babies can have afternoon naps in their prams out there in almost all weathers. Toddlers can play safely, protected from sun and rain.  Wet towels and bathing suits can be flapped free of sand and draped over the railing to dry instead of mouldering in the laundry or garage. In summer when the sun is high in the sky verandahs are shady and cool. In winter the sun is low enough to peer under the roof and warm the bones and the spirits alike.

A deck looks good in real estate brochures. People say, how lovely, a deck! It turns out to be almost useless both as an amenity and a decoration and is simply an appendage. Verandahs however …! Verandahs of my childhood were spacious enough to play on and even to sleep on. We three kids slept on ours in a little town called Gulhek (Iran) and there was still heaps of room.  The one in the attached picture was upstairs and stretched the whole width of our house in the seaside town of Shioya (Japan). There was room for toys and furniture, cots and carpets, and all the upstairs rooms opened onto it. That’s what I call a real verandah. 

It’s a place where you can wander out with a cup of coffee and survey your world. It is a place to eat breakfast on a summer’s day. To read the weekend papers and finish the crossword. To hang the laundry on the emergency line when it’s been raining for three days, or to air the summer duvet after it’s been at the top of the cupboard all winter. To sink down on the battered old sofa with a cold beer and look out over the garden after a day spent on your knees weeding. To listen to the blackbirds singing their hearts out against the roar of the sea pounding the shore a couple of blocks away. To enjoy and to remember.