– an informal term for Britain or England, used by soldiers of the First and Second World Wars.
first used by soldiers in the Indian army; Anglo-Indian alteration of Urdu bilāyatī, wilāyatī ‘foreign, European’, from Arabic wilāyat, wilāya ‘dominion, district’
(Oxford Dictionaries – online)
I will soon be re-entering British airspace and am now getting just a teensy bit excited. Me and The Mighty Blighty go way back. In fact it’s my point of origin. And that fact makes me all warm-fuzzy proud and happy. It’s part of what made me me and a key part at that.
We have the perfect relationship. One enjoyed in close proximity for only brief periods of time; while the honeymoon period lasts and we still have fun together. Before the mundane kicks in. When away, I feel I definitely got the better part of the deal. When there, I recall what Blighty gets back from me thanks to the Inland Revenue and my previous employment (that’s in addition, of course, to the blessing of my birth). I, and other insiders, can acknowledge all the socio-political shortcomings of our island in our true-blue-self-deprecatory way. However, I am impervious to external criticism of the land of my birth unless it chimes with my already voiced opinion. What do others know, after all, of my first – and most – special relationship?
Here, I’m trying to resist simply making a list of all that I’m looking forward to during the fortnight I’m in England. I may yet fail – let’s see…Very swiftly, I’ll catch up with my neighbours as they have the house keys. That done, I’ll be in Colchester (my hometown) to survey the landscape for any new disasters committed by the local council. Then, I’ll go to the local grocer and cook up a storm. I have episodes of Strictly and other TV gems to catch up on while enjoying a hot cup of English Breakfast tea and Marmite on toast – maybe with a blanket wrapped round me to keep out any chill.
Another must is the whisky run to Grandad – there’ll be one of those and then a chocolate run in the same direction. I keep my fingers crossed I’ll see as many of my family and friends as want to see me. The ideal meeting point is, of course, the pub and there are two good locals I really want to revisit, preferably in good company. Other outlying villages with great hostelries can expect a visit, too. And London has to be top of my places list – I cannot be in England and not spend time there.
There’s so much to do and so many people to see and there’s never enough time, but there’s always next time -and that’s the joy in the pangs of a long-distance relationship.
I love this time of year. Autumn is the best season by far. I have a personal interest, mine and my sister’s birthdays fall here. So, it is the start of my own new year (though I would also put in a vote for March 25, but that’s another post right there). I am a child of the northern hemisphere where this is the start of the academic year and a time I associate with new beginnings. Why celebrate on January 1, in the middle of winter when it’s still dark and cold and there’s nothing new except the number? It’s an abacus new year, is what that is.
So, when does autumn officially start? August 24 is when. That’s my new year’s day. In the following week fall the birthdays of three people I love dearly, a real cause for celebration. By September 1, I’m in full free Fall mode. This year, here on that date, the weather shifted to make way for the new season. The wind, blowing so strong that last week of August, dropped to a cool breeze. The sea came down off its high horse, the haze of humidity cleared and the sun pierced the view. Suddenly, colours are more intense, light is brighter and vistas are sharper. The sun and the sea are closer now; the one has warmed the other’s heart and we move effortlessly from land to water and back.
From my bedroom, I can now see the coast of Turkey in clear detail over a newly-ironed Aegean. Even at night, the lights twinkling in that village opposite, outside Europe, appear to be only one or two streets down from the windmills. In the evening, as the sun sets over the yard and darkness falls, it’s still a pleasure to sit outside in the yard with my glass of Akakies. But now I entertain the idea of a jacket when that cool breeze blows smoothly through the bougainvillea. Night time is a joy – no more need for the fan or the ritual cold shower before bed – it’s now the right temperature to sleep under a sheet with the windows wide open.
From long before, this season brings back memories of blackberrying, rambling through hedgerows and scrumping apples. It recalls the smell and taste of my grandmother’s bramble jelly and my mother’s apple pie (still, and always, the best-ever-in-the-history-of-the-world-no-debate-full-stop). It reminds me of Hallowe’en before it was hijacked by Hallmark and Bonfire Night before home fireworks were frowned on by Health and Safety Committees. The crispness of leaves as we kicked our way to school and home again, the crunching of home-made toffee apples, the starched-stiffness of new school uniforms; all this I remember with fondness. As autumn passed on, and my sister’s birthday came and went, there was the surreptitious countdown to Christmas, yet December 25 still seemed an age away…
Autumn, always a joy.
This is the story of someone who loved and was loved.
One day, one October, arrived a sassy girl. She was given a special grandmother. Her grandmother was a class act. They lived far apart and understood each other in a quiet way. Time wore on, and on they wrote; their correspondence prospered. Little did the girl then realise, that in every letter and with every meeting, her grandmother was investing her with love. Slowly but surely, the young woman (as she now was) inherited a wealth of quiet, unassuming, selfless, tireless, boundless, practical, everyday love. As she did not, thankfully, have cause to rush this love investment (she was far too busy being sassy), the young woman was unaware of its depth and breadth – even up to the moment one day, one January, when her grandmother died. The love endured.
One day, one May, her grandmother’s gift turned to passion. So, the young woman fell in love, proper good, and fell deep headlong. The object of her affection was someone deemed too different. Sassily, she knew better. She knew he was The Man. His eyes stilled her. His hands moved her. She had to learn the hard way to trust her own heart. Only she and he were the truth, the two of them together. She dived into her reserves of love, deeper and deeper. The deeper she dived, the higher they both flew. In their intensity, they tested each other, while others tried to test them. This testing tired them, though they never tired of each other. Fatigue fed the young woman’s restless soul. In time, she wanted to travel, to rest her fevered heart. She and The Man agreed, sadly but truthfully, to part. Even up to that time, the love endured.
As the woman travelled, she took her grandmother and The Man with her, in her heart and thoughts. One day, one August, still on the move, she met an agitated man and helped him calm down. He fell in love with her and her sassiness immediately; he was sad and needed hope. She liked and cared for him, yet had no need to draw on those love reserves; or so she thought. They sustained their friendship over distance and time, and a gentler love and warmth grew. Suddenly, she simply understood he would soon need her more and flew to him. Surely and sadly enough, this was true. She moved closer just as he fell into oblivion. Once again, there were naysayers. Yet again, back into the reserves she plunged. Even up to the moment of his death, the love endured.
The love endured. It could do no other, it had such power, depth and breadth. From then on, one day, every September, the sassy woman would swim to a small, quiet islet – a place first shown her by The Man – to mark the shared birthday of the three. Through tears, she would smile broadly, feeling loved and loving. Staring out over the deep marine blues, she could feel her grandmother’s gift. She had learned that love has no limits, that it endures and that the total sum of the three added up to something far greater.
On Thursday 22 August, children in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) results. Usually, these examinations are taken at the age of sixteen and are used as a benchmark for the child’s employability or future study potential. Usually, the national release of the results leads to heavy debate in the press and pubs about the declining standard of children’s attainment, the inability to meet targets, unsustainable pressure on children, inflated/deflated grades.
Here, I’d like to declare a major, personal, vested interest in Thursday’s results (just so’s you know). Firstly, I’ve worked as an examiner (not for GCSEs) and thoroughly enjoyed the work and secondly, and far more importantly, my eldest niece was one of those receiving her results on Thursday. To say that I’m very proud of her would be an immense understatement; she did so well last week, I’m telling anyone prepared to listen and many who I’m sure aren’t (but are too scared to tell me, given the zeal with which I’m delivering the news). Put simply, she’s a star.
Now let’s take a step back from measuring the nation and quantifying its future to take a look at the children themselves. They matter. I love my niece and her sister almost as dearly as I love their mother (my sister). My nieces are great people and it’s a testimony to the way in which they’ve been raised, to believe they can do anything they set their mind to and work towards, so congratulations to their responsible grown-ups. Of course, I’m biased and proud of it. But my faith and happiness in children extends beyond this.
After years of enjoying working with teenagers from around the world (in education), I was fortunate while on holiday last summer to meet and get to know a particularly great group of children. I thought then, how bright the future looks in their hands and how exciting the world looks through their eyes. That cannot be measured or quantified, only enjoyed – not only by them, but by all of us fortunate enough to live on this same planet with them. We should all cherish our children’s futures and give them our love, not our thoughts – they have their own (thanks, JFK and Khalil Gibran). I’m happy and confident that, thinking ahead, this world is theirs.
This is about a day that dawned somber in May and an event seven months earlier and it concerns someone people nearly knew, but not quite (for some, certainly not as well as they believed).
In November last year I learned that a man I nearly knew had died suddenly and unexpectedly (to those of us left, that is – he may have realised it was time to go). It saddened me, of course, as this type of news does – this time around even more so as I wasn’t able to be there for the funeral. That, in itself, was odd as I’m normally relieved to have an excuse not to go to such events, finding them strained and unrepresentative of the person I remember.
In any case, when I was eventually able to do so in May, I visited people who also nearly knew this man and we talked of his death and his funeral until I felt I’d found out all I could. There then came a Thursday which dawned somber, humid and overcast and which found me in reflective mood. I decided ‘Today’s the day’ and set off, on foot, for the cemetery. I’d been offered lifts but wanted to go alone. I’d been given specific instructions on how to find the grave, how hard could it be?
I cut my summer-soft feet up as I walked there in flip-flops but lost my irritation when I arrived at the cemetery. I’d forgotten the sense of community and amount of everyday activity there. I wandered around and marvelled at the personal, yet uniform, touches to the graves and tombs. There were names I recognised and tombs which stood out in design and sheer size. One such was prominent for all the wrong reasons – it was hideous and also huge in its hideousness. When I saw and recognised the name on it, I was saddened. I remember her living vividly as a glossy, glamorous survivor.
After trying (and failing miserably) to locate the grave I was looking for (one of the few times in my life I’ve really wanted to see a dead person but couldn’t), I spoke to a priest who directed me to ‘the man who knew’ in the front office. Both men were kind, helpful and efficient. ‘The man who knew’ did indeed know, and instantly, who I was looking for and where he could be found. He marched me at a cracking pace through the cemetery to ‘Zone 26’. Once there, it took a few minutes of searching before I happened across the exact ‘In Loving Memory’ on a headstone. A marker notable for the information it didn’t give – an exact date of death. I think he’d have enjoyed that subtle difference. A very private man to the last, even right up to his last week in October.
I then felt I should ‘look busy’ like all the other visitors, so did some plastic flower tidying and left my lucky bracelet hanging on one of the synthetic twigs at the head of the grave. I liked that there was the sound of children in the playground just over one wall of the cemetery, the noise of speeding cars over another and, in the background, the sound of the sea on the nearby beach. I liked, too, that the cemetery was quite the hive of activity for the living – tending, tidying, visiting, shouting, driving and riding around. Layers of life and death surrounding that someone I nearly knew.
I have never liked having my photograph taken – still don’t – but do make an effort to keep existing pictures (well, ones I approve). Early, black and white, ones were taken of me when I was sent to Oxford House School, Lexden Road, Colchester at the age of three. A Montessori preparatory school, it was (and still is) a parents’ dream. There I am, standing gauche and skinny in my summer school uniform in my garden at Number 47 North Hill – a child of the 1960s, with sixteenth century gargoyles behind me and the remains of a Roman villa underfoot.
I’d long wanted to learn to read and write – I grew up surrounded by books and with parents who read daily; to me, to each other and to themselves. My books had pictures, why didn’t theirs? What were those patterns on the page and how could they hold attention for hour after hour? My father patiently wrote out words for me to copy. Early attempts at writing my name onto items around the house led to indelible accidents with biro ink – my father’s brown leather wallet had my blue name writ large. Forever.
I copied beautifully and clearly and through the looking glass. A left-hander, I automatically and instinctively wrote from right to left with reverse lettering. My writing made perfect sense to me; and to others when held up for scrutiny in a mirror. In an attempt to convince me to conform (my parents had failed to persuade me to write ‘the right way round’) and to channel my constant questioning, it was decided that school would be ‘a good thing’. A short search provided the name of a suitable institution which was also walking distance from home, from Number 47.
The pink and white gingham dress, the white ankle socks, the regulation shoes, the boater, the beret and the grey blazer were all purchased. My photographs were duly taken and I was sent to school. I did not like it. Not at all. This through no fault of the school or its teachers. I just didn’t like school. In fact, this continued for the next thirteen years – until it was post-compulsory. At best, I learned to tolerate it; at worst, I learned how to write my own sick notes.
Every morning, while attending Oxford House, I went through my rapidly-established ritual. I had the same breakfast, or would eat nothing. I had to be walked, hand-in-hand, by my father from front door to school gate, or would not move. Measles were a cause for celebration. My godmother came to pick me up from school in her pink bubble car and deposited me in front of my exasperated mother in the garden at Number 47. She shook her head, I smiled; confident of a categorical argument won without a fight.
The school uniform remains almost identical at Oxford House today. After some years away from Colchester, and in a neatly ironic way, I returned to Lexden Road as a teacher. Every morning I watched the little children in their ever-so-slightly-large-to-grow-into uniforms, hand-in-hand with parents or nannies, walking into the school building. And I knew that if I’d had children of my own, that’s exactly where they’d have been and that’s exactly the uniform they’d have been wearing. And I’d have been as sure as were my parents that I was doing it the right way round.