Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Live Simple Live Full.

I haven't posted on this site for some time, but if you are interested in seeing my current project, then I'd be pleased to welcome you to Live Simple, Live Full . Same writer, same overall themes, but more  focused I hope!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Shadowy Tale

Apologies to Beatrix Potter

ONCE upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. They were visiting Wise Old Owl near the big oak tree one warm May evening. Cottontail had a question, “What is a Squirrel please, Wise Old Owl?”

Wise Old Owl had no time for squirrels and, as it was getting near hunting time, he decided to not answer the question.  Besides, apart from some leftover vole, he had not eaten since breakfast, and the sight of these baby rabbits was making him feel hungry. He bent his right wing and looked at it as though he was wearing a wristwatch; “I think that it’s too late to go now, but tomorrow morning why not visit the University and ask some of the very wise people that you can find there?” Owl pointed with his wing and, in the distance, the young rabbits saw a vision of gleaming spires.

“Thank you” said Cottontail as the four young rabbits started to hop homewards.

“While you are there why not ask a really interesting question like ‘what is the meaning of life’” hooted Wise Old Owl in an attempt to be witty as well as wise, but he feared the young rabbits were not listening. ‘Nobody really understands me’ he thought to himself.

The next morning Old Mrs Rabbit gave the children wholemeal bread and bramble jelly for breakfast and saw them out of the burrow with a smile on her face. As a single parent, a morning of peace and quiet was just what she needed.

“Don’t go near Mr McGregor’s garden” she called, but they were too excited to listen to her. They had never been allowed to go as far as the University before and it was a great adventure. Each baby rabbit had taken a packed lunch with them except Mopsy, who had inadvertently left hers on the kitchen table. On reaching the University they agreed to split up, each rabbit going in a different direction. They left a small pile of rabbit droppings as a marker to meet up at later in the day (rabbits do that kind of thing you know ~ even very anthropomorphic rabbits).

Peter (who had guessed that a squirrel was some kind of animal) made straight for the Life Sciences Building and, being a lucky rabbit, he found a professor of Genetic Engineering sitting on a bench with a laptop open on her knees. Peter cleared his throat, causing the professor to look down at him.

“Excuse me please. But can you tell me anything about Squirrels?” said Peter.

Sciurus carolinensis or Sciurus vulgaris?” asked the professor.

Peter looked a little confused at this answer and wasn’t at all sure that he knew what she was talking about ~ he decided to answer “Yes”.

“Well it doesn’t make too much difference in respect of the genome. Let’s see if I can link with my database from here....ah...just a moment...there we go!”

Peter peered at the screen of the laptop as it was placed in front of him;

“We are obviously trying to identify some complementary palindromic triplets said the professor, but looking up, she noticed that Peter had gone. In fact, he left the campus and made straight for Mr McGregor’s garden, having remembered  that a row of young carrots that he had been watching for some weeks were just ready to eat that morning.

Flopsy was sure that she could find out about Squirrels at the library so off she hopped. The steps of the library were far too steep for young rabbit paws so Flopsy started to look for the wheelchair entrance. She saw a student coming down the ramp in a wheelchair with a lap full of books.

“Excuse me, please,” called Flopsy “have you got anything in your books about Squirrels?”

The student was a kind young man and wanted to help so he started thumbing through his books, looking up the word ‘Squirrel’. It seemed a very long time before the student had found anything.

“Oh yes, here’s something” he said. Clearing his throat he read; “The word squirrel, first specified in 1327, comes from the Norman esquirel from the Old French" escurel, the reflex of a Latin word sciurus. This Latin word was borrowed from Ancient Greek word σκίουρος, skiouros, which means shadow-tailed, referring to the bushy appendage possessed by many of its members. The native Old English word, ācweorna, survived only into Middle English (as aquerne) before being replaced. The Old English word is of Common Germanic origin, with cognates such as German Eichhorn ,Norwegian ekorn, Dutch eekhoorn, Swedish ekorre and Danish egern......”

“Thank you” interrupted Flopsy trying to disguise the fact that she had understood very little of what the student had said. “Does it say anything about what a squirrel looks like?”

“No...I ..don’t think ....let me check another book.”

“No please, don’t trouble yourself ~ I have taken up too much of your time already.”

“My pleasure” said the student and went on his way. As Flopsy watched his wheelchair continue down the ramp she decided to go and lie in the tall grass and eat her lunch. She hoped that Peter, Mopsy and Cottontail were having more luck than her.

Mopsy had discovered that her lunch was missing and, like all small rabbits are most of the time, she was hungry. She hopped around the campus until she found a kitchen with a rather rotund woman in a white coat and hat, standing outside.

“Please may I ask you a question?” asked Mopsy. (The woman looked very interested indeed.) “What can you tell me about Squirrels?”

“Why, I can tell you lots ~ come with me” Mopsy willingly followed the woman through a door and found herself in a busy kitchen. The woman was now thumbing through some sheets in a folder.

“Here we are,” said the woman “Southern Squirrel stew, Squirrel spit-roast, Squirrel and onion gravy... I've got lots more. The student restaurant budget has just been cut for the third time in a row and I’m always looking for recipes with a cheap source of protein.”

“I’m a vegetarian” said Mopsy quietly. The cook looked a little annoyed at this.

‘Vegetarian counter over in the corner’ she said. Mopsy started to fantasize about diving into a salad bar and slowly eating her way out. “Egg curry with boiled rice today” said the woman, who was now running her thumb down the blade of a seriously sharp chopping knife.

“I’ll take a rain check on that, but thank you” called Mopsy as she run to the doorway and out of the building. She decided to find Peter ~ perhaps in Mr McGregor’s garden she thought.

Cottontail had a frustrating time that morning, finding herself too shy to ask anyone about squirrels. She decided to find a lovely spot to eat her lunch, and before long she found a lovely quiet place at the edge of some nice woods. On a bench sat an old gardener who looked so kind that Cottontail was not afraid and she sat down in front of him.

“Hello” said the old gardener kindly “are you going to eat your lunch here?” Cottontail was about to answer when the gardener put up a finger to his lips for her to stay quiet and then took a piece of the sandwich he was eating and threw it towards the base of a tree. Cottontail watched as a small brownish-grey animal with a huge bushy tail came down the tree, picked up the piece of sandwich and started to eat it.

“It’s so beautiful” whispered Cottontail “What is it?

“It’s a squirrel.” said the gardener “I always share my lunch with them ~ they come everyday to see me”. Cottontail was too thrilled to talk so she and the gardener just watched the squirrel until it had finished eating and quickly run up the nearest tree.

After a long chat about squirrels and all kind of things, it was time to go. As she was hopping off she turned to the kind old gardener and asked “By the way do you know the meaning of life?”

The old gardener thought hard for a little time and then said “No ~ but when I have a difficult question to answer I get on with my work, then I come here and sit quietly in the sunshine, I enjoy my lunch, look at the trees, and watch the birds and animals and ..oh yes, I feed the squirrels”.

Cottontail hopped away, happy with her day. Meanwhile Peter was getting into trouble ~ again!

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2012


The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

The best thing ever written about squirrels;

Some very non-vegetarian squirrel recipes:

What's Hay Quaker up to this week

Frozen ground and freezing me! Unable to dig even a leek out of the ground this week. Below -10'C on three mornings in the garden. Luckily a freezer full of last summers vegetables plus bottled fruit means we continue to live off our land even in the depths of winter!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

But Still Within...

One thing can be known by many different names ~  it’s true! If the Sami peoples have three-hundred words for snow (claims about Inuit words having been convincingly proved wrong) why doesn't the Welsh language have three-hundred words for rain? When darkness falls on your part of the world each February, the first is is a cross-quarter day, being exactly half way between midwinter’s-day and the spring equinox. In many parts of North America this is ‘Groundhog Day’ whilst in Ireland it's known as ‘Lá Fhéile Bríde’, in much of the Christian world as ‘Candlemas’ and for the ancient Celts and many modern Pagans, ‘Imbolc’. You may have many questions about what these days all mean and why they are so named and why are they, in fact, the same day?  If so, may I suggest you book some time with Wikipedia, for I intend to use them only to start at this point and then (as is my custom), move off on tangents of fancy.

Starting at the begining seems a good idea, so why not think about what happens outside at this time of year ~ if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, it may look like the world is clinically dead! Trees have lost any remaining leaves and fruit and the ground may well be hard and lifeless ~ but this is not so.  Life is dormant but some things are happening. The Ancient Celts always liked to be in at the beginning of things; they started each new year in November, each day at dusk and each season before the signs of that season were obvious. The trees look dead but they contain the first precious drops of rising sap within them, deep within them; seeds buried in the ground are beginning to change and absorb water ready for sprouting, and the uterus of many a mammal is preparing itself to bear young ~ and so it is with all living things. This is it ~ the deep and buried, long-awaited secret start of spring! Not a performance for the rest of the world to gaze at in wonder ~ we have to wait for that a bit longer ~ but the 'inside spring' that stirs in every living organism! All things start in the dark; years, days and life, just as your life and the lives of your children started in the dark months before birth.

This is a time of hope for what lies ahead and a time of waiting for all of us ~ the idea that things start long before you notice them is one that may seem out of place in a modern world where hope and waiting are both becoming rare things. Think of this ~ if you have been unwell, perhaps your health is starting to return from deep within you, so small that you can’t yet detect it, but perhaps it’s there, buried deep inside of you!  If you have been depressed and all the joy of your life seems to have gone forever, then perhaps the tiniest germ of joy is starting to develop, not outside, not within someone else, but within you. It could be that one day, that joy may make itself so obvious to you that you will no longer doubt it. The cycles of nature are not to be hurried; the growth of trees and the growth of a person are slow processes with many setbacks, but if we could watch a tree grow or a human develop on some kind of time-lapse photography, then we would see that nature never rests.  We, and trees, are always growing and changing. Some things are worth waiting for!

Another belief common in Europe and North America is that if Candlemas morning is a sunny day when shadows are cast, then winter is still with us for another forty days, whereas if the day is overcast, then not forty days will pass before the arrival of spring. An animal would be released from a box to test whether the day was ‘shadow casting’; in Germany a badger, and in Philadelphia a groundhog! (In my garden, a small black and white cat is usually the only convenient animal to hand ~ it works just fine!). The spread of this custom in modern times is mainly a result of the excellent 1993 film ‘Groundhog Day’.

When Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin wrote the script for ‘Groundhog Day’, I am unaware that they had any inkling of the Celtic festival of that day, but they managed to hit the nail on the head. What we do know is that both men used their Jewish roots to explore the idea of redemption from the continuous ‘mitzvahs’ or good deeds. Eventually the main character (played wonderfully by Bill Murray) manages to turn his life around and regain his humanity ~ the seeds of his own redemption were locked deep inside him all along! I’m sure that you have seen the movie more than once, but just in case there is even one person reading this who has not seen the movie then what are you waiting for! (If you have seen the movie before, why not treat yourself to a timely repeat!) To all of us, Jewish or not, the message is simple, pure and so beautiful ~ in answer to the question ‘what can I do today’ the answer will always be ‘what you did yesterday, but try and do it better’. The rest of your life may develop from a tiny seed today that starts to grow, as all things start to grow, in the darkness.

At Candlemas ~ Charles Causley

'If Candlemas be bright and clear
There'll be two winters in that year';
But all the day the drumming sun
Brazened it out that spring had come,
And the tall elder on the scene
Unfolded the first leaves of green.

But when another morning came
With frost, as Candlemas with flame,
The sky was steel, there was no sun,
The elder leaves were dead and gone.
Out of a cold and crusted eye
The stiff pond stared up at the sky,
And on the scarcely breathing earth
A killing wind came from the north;

But still within the elder tree

The strong sap rose, though none could see.

(C) Poem ~ the estate of Charles Causley
(C) Article ~ Ray Lovegrove 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wi Bickering Brattle!

(Whisper) It is dark, so dark that I need my torch to see what I’m doing. I am twelve years old and my parents are downstairs watching television. I have been sent to bed some time ago, but instead of sleeping I’m perusing the books on my father’s bedside bookshelf. Most books are kept downstairs, but some thought unsuitable are kept here and it is one of my regular nocturnal occupations to go and read them by torchlight. If you want to stay and find out more you must be very quiet.. any noise and one of my parents will be rushing upstairs and I won’t have time to get out of this room, back to my own bed and perform my regular feigned sleep routine. They probably will be very unsympathetic to you being here anyway; I’m only twelve and how old are you again?

Don’t worry, nothing on this shelf is that bad and if these books had been kept downstairs, I would probably have not even looked at them; the fact that they have been placed where I would not normally see them makes them ‘forbidden fruit’. Let’s do a little check on what’s here; some Henry Miller..D.H.Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover of course, but also Sons and Lovers, here by association I suspect),... two volumes of The Golden Bough by Sir J. G. Frazer, (I have inherited these two paperbacks and cannot imagine my father getting past chapter one! I guess he was seduced by such headings as ‘The influences of the Sexes on Vegetation’ and ‘Tabooed Acts’ only to find a lot of stuff on trees and Ancient Celts). Ahh... that’s what I was looking for - The Merry Muses by Robert Burns ~ torch still in hand, I am settled on the side of my father's bed and start to read!

"Not suitable for Maids, Ministers or Stipplings"

Robert Burns (forgive me if you already know this) was not a highlander, but a lowlander; he did not speak Gaelic, but the Scots language, and was unlikely to have ever worn a tartan. Lowland Scots, (from whom I am descended on my mother’s side) were, in the main part, farmers who managed to grow crops in what can only be described as pretty difficult conditions. Wheat does not grow well in much of lowland Scotland so oats, and later potatoes, were the principal crops and sheep the most abundant animal. Poverty, hunger and hardship were the constant companion for Burns, like most of his contemporaries. Why then, you ask, should this copy of The Merry Muses be ‘hidden’ from my young eyes? The answer is that this collection of Burns’ poems is extremely sexually explicit and contain almost every obscenity that you can think of (and as a twelve year old growing up in South London I can think of quite a few). If you read Burns at school you might be a little surprised at his use of language as well his apparent sexual appetite! In Victorian times these poems were banned and it is only...Quick I can hear someone coming you had better go ~ Quickly ~ I’ll tell you more later!

I worked for some years in an international school and was surprised by how keen Russian students were on Burns ~ how could you set about translating vernacular Scots into Russian! Back in the USSR, Shakespeare, Dickens and Burns were all compulsory reading in schools ( I was once told by a Russian colleague that she had read Oliver Twist at school, her teacher had told her that it was a novel set in contemporary Britain and was an accurate account of life in London!). I imagine the harsh life, shortage of food and short growing season gave Soviet readers of the time a natural empathy with Burns and his work, while his egalitarianism and working class origins endured him to the authorities. Burns has affected many with his poems and even Bob Dylan once cited him as his greatest influence. He is of course, the most quoted poet on Earth, mainly because of his poem Auld Lang Syne, sung at Hogmanay around the world.

As an adult I still love Burns’ work, but I rarely turn to his bawdy material (I can never find my torch!) ~ I'd like to mention his poem often called To A Mouse which tells of a farmer disturbing a mouse’s nest with his plough, but really sums up for us the fragility of the environment, our use of nature, our gift of empathy and our own destinies. It is the most profound poem I know of ~ please read it if you have time this Burns’ Night, or whenever you need reminding what humanity is all about.

Burns original
Standard English translation
Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.
I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An' fellow mortal!
I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't.
Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's win's ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!
Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.
That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld.
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!
Small, crafty, cowering, timorous little beast,
O, what a panic is in your little breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With argumentative chatter!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff.
I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!
I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal;
What then? Poor little beast, you must live!
An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request;
I will get a blessing with what is left,
And never miss it.
Your small house, too, in ruin!
Its feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one,
Of coarse grass green!
And bleak December's winds coming,
Both bitter and keen!
You saw the fields laid bare and wasted,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the blast,
You thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel plough passed
Out through your cell.
That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter's sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.
But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Still you are blest, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
 I guess and fear!

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2012 (except poem, of course)


Robert Burns;

Only if you are very old and can take some serious bad language; The Merry Muses (you may need to browse for a while to get really offended! )

Wonderful site about the Scots Language;

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I Second That Emotion

‘He’s very emotional, isn’t he?’  I try to look surprised ~ and fail. I say ‘Oh, is he?’, but my mouth is locked into a polite smile and my voice sounds like Scoobydoo! I should explain that my five year old son ~ a very happy, at ease with himself, and sociable little boy ~ is prone to get carried away with his emotions. Sometimes they erupt and he is uncontrollably tearful. These episodes pass and eventually he cheers up and returns to normal; and perhaps he will grow out of it, but maybe he won’t, I never did...

It’s true. I ~ his father and many years his senior (obviously) ~ am an emotional male, not that you would guess this by looking at me. I don’t carry around an industrial size box of Kleenex or anything, but I am still emotional. What have I got to be emotional about?  Well, nothing more than the next person, really, it just seems that they are more able to take it in their stride than I am. Music, films, poetry, novels, speeches, news-bulletins, photographs, in fact almost anything acts as a trigger for me to lose control. This doesn’t happen in public as I take care to avoid too many of the known causes of this effect if I’m in front of other people, but it does happen when on my own and... well, let’s just say my wife could hold a symposium on this topic.

The title of my blog is a pun on the title of a Joni Mitchell song and her music is a major trigger for my emotional episodes. I had all Joni Mitchell’s albums on vinyl (and yes, I did buy them all again on CD), but I can’t listen to any of them! The emotional effect on me is so great that I just start to sob as soon as she gets a line or two into any song. I once heard an interview with Joni in which she said that when they meet her, a lot of people just burst into tears and she has to pat them on the back and move on... Her music is wonderful, and to me, very emotional. A few years back she was interviewed by a Sunday newspaper here in the UK about the reunion with her daughter, her child that had been adopted (as the story is told on ‘Little Green’ on the album Blue). My wife showed me the article and I could not read it for the tears welling up in my eyes, not to mention the lump in my throat. I made several attempts over the next week or so to read the interview, but never got past the first paragraph ~ eventually it was recycled and I was able to talk about it. All her albums are difficult for me but the most tear-jerking is For the Roses, in particular the track ‘Lessons in Survival’ ~ go and try it for yourself.

Joni Mitchell is not the only musical tear sponsor for me.  There are others, including much of Leonard Cohen’s work, Emmy-Lou Harris, a fair slice of Paul Simon and a deal of the lamented Laura Nyro. I also have to mention all songs by Jimmy Webb. The song ‘Galveston’ is about the Spanish-American War, but it was released by Glen Campbell during the Vietnam War (Jimmy Webb being so subtle and clever a song writer that the connection is never made apart from in the mind of the listener). I am fine with the song; I love it, until the line comes up;

‘Galveston, oh Galveston, I am so afraid of dying
Before I dry the tears she's crying
Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun
At Galveston, at Galveston’

That’s it ~ I have fallen off the cliff and am now swimming in a sea of emotional fall out. This happens every time ~ it never fails!

Films are a problem when viewed in public; thank heavens that the lights go down in the cinema. I have a long history of emotional breakdown through Oliver Stone movies; I wept at ‘Platoon’, I sobbed through ‘Born on the 4th of July’ and I have only managed to see the first hour of ‘JFK’ through a tear-soaked tissue. I even cry at the last fifteen minuets of ‘Nixon’ (easily his best movie to date) ~ strange though, I have managed to view the whole of ‘W’ with no stronger emotion than mild nausea.

You may by now have developed a theory about my inability to maintain a stiff upper lip ~ you may think that it is merely nostalgia for past times or regrets over my lost youth ~ well, not so! I can listen to vast amounts of music from any part of my long, music-loving life and most things do not have this effect. I have worked out long ago what it is in a song which puts me in such emotional turmoil... it is honesty. Someone of the immense song writing and performing talent of Joni Mitchell fills her albums with slices of pure undiluted honesty ~ and that makes me cry. A review of Blue In the UK magazine ‘Uncut’ says; “And then it’s over, this painful 36 minute confession, this open house with Joni's diaries from 1969 - 1970. Such honesty makes this an album to treasure. It's difficult listening. Like all her work is. But it's that rare thing, an album that speaks to you the way only a lover can.”  If that isn’t enough to make you cry then what is? And from ‘Sound Stage’  ‘...through BLUE, the emotions and honesty of Mitchell the singer, the writer and the musician are indelibly written on the soul of anyone who listens with an open heart.’

Before we go, and having explained my condition, I need to touch on the idea of honesty and confession myself. Why write a blog unless you are going to be honest with your readers? Six years ago my parents died, first my father, and then within 24 hours, my mother too. I confess that I have not shed one tear from that day to this about these events. What does that say about me ~ a man who will cry at a song or a poem, but cannot cry for the death of his parents? Am I like some character from an Albert Camus novel?  I had problems with my parents and one day I just might write about them ~ who knows. I am reminded of those Nazi concentration camp guards who lived to deliver pain, inhumanity and death to the inmates of their camps, but were reduced to tears as the camp chamber orchestra players entertained them with a little Schubert in the evenings. Emotion is strange ~ like anything that comes from so deep inside you it cannot be explained ~ perhaps someone should write a song about it.

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2012


Uncut review Blue;

SoundStage review Blue;

Galveston (Glenn Campbell);

More about Oliver Stone;

What's Hay Quaker up to this week

A hard frost all week has kept me off the land.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Housewives Choice

Whatever else I try to be, most of my time is taken up with looking after my home and family. My wife has a demanding and successful career and I am charged with those jobs which, perhaps thirty years ago, might have been seen as ‘women’s work’. I am therefore ~ a housewife. Many men in the same position as I might wince at the term ‘housewife’ as indeed might many women, but that is what I am. Of course, other terms can be used, such as the oxymoronic ‘house husband’ or the deeply unflattering ‘stay home dad’. To me, the words ‘stay home dad’ conjure up a picture of a large, rather sedentary man; he wears shorts all year long,  gazing out of a window, unable to go outside lest his ‘stay home’ status be removed. Women feminists mostly dropped the word ‘housewife’ because of its historical associations with subservience but, as a male feminist I feel that I can adopt the term because; a) I do not fit into the historical stereotype of a housewife, b) no suitable alternative word exists, c) my use of the word unites me (at least in my mind) with others of either sex who perform the same role as me. Housewifery is not so different when performed by either sex, so why the need for a different name?   It is the ‘wife’ part of the word which causes the most problems to people.  My Oxford English Dictionary tells me that it comes from the Saxon word ‘wif’ of unknown origin; it has come to mean ‘woman’, but not always.  We have male midwives (at least we do in the UK) and, though I confess I never have met one, male fishwives, so what else can I be but a male housewife?

I note that some men have invented various roles and designations to cover up the fact that they are looking after the house, such as ‘domestic economics consultant’, ‘cleansing and restructuring officer,  ‘or ‘provisions and child distribution manager’. I would urge these men to go to a mirror in their house, (give it a quick clean first), then ~ look themselves straight in the eye and repeat ‘my name is ...........and I am a housewife’.  Do this whenever the urge to invent a fancy name comes upon you. Make a point of filling in the word ‘housewife’ on documents that require your occupation, but you must never ever put the words ‘only’ or ‘I’m just a’ before the word ‘housewife’ ~ that lets all of us down! Hold your head high and don’t feel that you are alone; above all never be ashamed ~ you are now part of a noble profession. Housework may be routine, but without it civilization would grind to halt, probably just after the supply of clean socks runs out and no one has fixed breakfast.

One of the hardest parts of being a male housewife is the reaction of women. Some women greet you as an ‘honorary sister’ and the fact that you are male seems never to cause them a problem. Such women are wonderful people, true egalitarians and good friends. Others use indifference or glaring hostility; they move closer into their all-female groups and do that thing that penguins do ~ I think it’s called ‘huddling’. These women jealously guard their domain and look upon any ‘housewifey’ looking man as they might upon an albatross about to swoop into the group and steal eggs or eat baby penguins or some such thing. I can only imagine the consequences if I tried to infiltrate such groups by ‘popping in’ on a coffee morning, or throwing a comment on the price of washing powder into their huddled conversation. I think they might attack me and send me squawking off to another part of the beach, bloodied and defeated ~ never to try again. The reaction of other men is different again; seeing me walking to school with two children in tow, plus one in pushchair, as often as not with some mild but rumbling family altercation in full flow, leaves many men just shaking their heads and mumbling to themselves ~ I assume that they offer up some kind of prayer or invocation to protect themselves from a similar fate.

Don’t for one moment assume that I am a reluctant housewife ~ not one bit; cooking, cleaning, childcare, laundry, ironing are all fine with me, somebody has to do them and the fact that for thousands of years it has been the women does not mean that men are somehow unsuitable for them. If, on the other hand, men find themselves unprepared for them ~ then we need to re-examine what we expect from children in the home. Do we expect girls and boys to have different experiences of work in the house? If you expect more from your daughters than your sons in terms of helping out, are you actually doing boys any favours?  I like keeping house partly because I do not see it as a subservient role ~ it may well have been for my grandmother and possibly so for my mother, but not for me. Neither do I find that my role threatens my masculinity; changing diapers, cooking supper and hanging out the washing can not be seen as female-only activities, even if they have been for generations. For me, being a housewife is enabling and liberating ~ I am my own boss and set my own agenda ~ as long as I don’t mess up big time, all will be fine. Being a ‘good’ housewife is only judged by others in terms of outcome, not process. I am a feminist and, above all else that means that a persons’ sex does not determine their role in life; it is interwoven with equality, so if we want women presidents, and Nobel Prize-winning women scientists then we also need male housewives and male childcarers! How else can the whole thing work! Modern men are much more likely than their forefathers to get involved in domestic duties, however many are still reluctant to become the main provider of these services.

We have three children at home in a three-storey house; the housework demand is large ~ chaos never sleeps. The house is heated by a wood-burning stove which brings its own set of chores ~ chopping wood, stacking wood, moving wood, lighting fires, cleaning grates, cleaning flues, blacking stoves and removing ash. Then there are animals; chickens, cats, quail and guinea pig ~ all need feeding and cleaning up after. My mother was a housewife but she never did decorating, carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, mending gadgets and sorting out computer problems etc ~ I do! Modern housewifery is a multi-skilled operation. Don’t believe me ~ ask a housewife! I’m lucky I have a sympathetic and helpful partner, many don’t.

Being a housewife, of course, is not my only role in life... I am also a self-sufficient grower for the family with about one acre of land under fairly intensive cultivation ~ finding work to do is never a problem!  Finding the time and energy sometimes is. I do not have a paid job at all and my last pay cheque from a job was eight years ago! I have done some paid writing since then but, as the family has grown, the role of housewife has become bigger too and more demanding of time. Whatever I have to do, however much there is still to get through, I know that I am not alone ~ hundreds of thousands of, mainly but not only, women are doing the same things and facing the same challenges. Do I miss my career and my exciting job, which I loved? – Yes, but my sacrifice is nothing compared to those women of the past who had the yoke of housewifery thrust upon them before they had any chance of reaching their potential, starting a career or sometimes even completing their education. Oh yes ~ I wear my housewife status with pride and I know I’m not alone!

Finally a word from Quaker William Penn for those penguin women: ~
“Being different sexes makes no difference because there is no sex in the inner person where the substance of friendship lies.”

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2012

What's Hay Quaker up to this week

  • Harvesting of brassica and leeks (great for St.David's pie).
  • Mild weather has made it the perfect week for pruning fruit trees ~ apples and pears.
  • New trees planted! Eight flowering crabs for fruit arch, field maple to give a little extra wind protection from the west, and a purple hazel to replaced the diseased horse-chestnut sapling that died in the autumn.
  • Midwinter is the perfect time for window-ledge sprouting seeds!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

First Month ~ Two Faces

For some years I worked at a Quaker school,  At the entrance (being a Quaker school it had no gates) was a sign with the name of the school and below it the words: ‘A Quaker School Open to All’. At one point some independent marketing agency was employed to look at how the school was perceived in the locality. What did local people think of us?  Well, after some weeks the agency reported back that, amongst other things the word ‘Quaker’ should be removed from the school’s signs and notepaper, etc. It seemed that people associated Quakers with being ‘quirky’, and that this association affected their perception of the school, its pupils and its staff.

I well remember objecting to this at a staff meeting on the following grounds; a) it was pointless research, b) it was a waste of money, c) ‘quirky’ was the only word beginning with ‘q’ on the option list of adjectives offered to those inhabitants questioned. After all, children are raised with Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Peppa Pig, Bugs Bunny etc... they are surrounded by simplistic alliteration in all directions.  If they see the word ‘Quaker’ and then look down the list and find the word ‘quirky’, well then “bang” ~ they have found the chosen response. Similar tests, under the same conditions for other groups might have resulted in bouncy Baptists, mousey Methodists or uppity Unitarians!

Needless to say, the school signs were repainted without the work ‘Quaker’ and I suspect hefty invoices were presented from various marketing personnel and sign painters. Quakers ~ quirky?  NO! Quakers ~ a bit different ~ well I suppose so ~ sometimes...

Quakers can seem different from those around them. Today those differences may not be obvious, but in the not too distant past, Friends saw themselves as separate from the culture that they found themselves living in. You could look back at the history of Quakers and think that early Friends were always on the lookout for ways to be different. This is not so strange; many religious groups felt that a group identity was not only a way of showing the world that you were a member of that group, but also a way of bonding the group together. In a recently screened television series here in the UK, an Amish woman answered the question ‘Why do you dress as you do?’ with the answer that she did not do it for herself, but to show her support for the community in which she lived.
One of the ways that Quakers marked themselves apart (though in truth some other groups did the same thing) was adopt a ‘Plain Calendar’ where the days of the week; Sunday, Monday, Tuesday etc. were replaced by First Day, Second Day and so on. Months were similarly named, so January became First Month. The reason for these namings was to disassociate from the ‘heathen’ associations with various ancient gods. I like to use Plain Calendar terms myself occasionally and many Friends still use the numbering of days and months all the time. I have to say that using the ‘regular’ names for days and months rarely conjures up an image of a Roman or Nordic deity in the mind, but every January I do think of the Roman god Janus and remember the words of J.B.S. Haldane;
So now I am like two-faced Janus
The only god who sees his anus.

taken from his excellent poem about rectal cancer, ‘Cancer’s a Funny Thing’ (link given below).

Would you choose to be like Janus and, with those two sets of eyes, see what is going to happen as well as what went before? Memory of things past can be a wonderful thing, but it can also haunt and taunt us, it can twist in our minds and lead us to remorse and guilt. What then could a clear vision of the future give us? At this time of year when we are full of resolutions and hope, could a view of the future bring us anything other than despair and dread? Hope assumes ignorance. The older we get the more of the past we can see, but at the same time, the less we can see in front of us. Unlike Scrooge, our view of the future would be the shape of things to come and not the shape of things that may become.

Leo Tolstoy, we know, corresponded with Quakers in Britain and America and praised them for their stance against bearing arms and their beliefs in passive resistance. I presume that correspondence was translated for him and wonder if the Plain Calendar was translated as it stood, or simply converted into the conventional Russian day and month names. Tolstoy had strong views on the past, present and future, and touches upon these ideas in several of his works. In his short story usually translated at ‘The Three Questions’ a king has, as you may have guessed, a few queries; what is the most important time, who is the most important person and what is the most important thing to do. The story (well worth reading) concludes;

"Remember then: there is only one time that is important--Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!"  

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2012


Plain Calender as used by Quakers;

More about Janus;

Poem by J.B.S. Haldane

"The Three Questions" by Leo Tolstoy