Friday, 3 April 2020

The Best Day - A Time Twister's Trip to Vienna by Virginia Hainsworth

To visit Vienna is to taste history.  So let me take you there. Just for a day.  But what a day!

We will start by taking breakfast at Schönbrunn Palace, with Empress MariaTheresa, in the 1740’s.  She created much of the palace as it appears today and she bore sixteen children, so we are privileged that such a busy woman has time for breakfast. This spectacular palace’s lavish interior is only matched by its beautiful grounds and it is not surprising that the Hapsburg dynasty enjoyed it as their summer residence for so many years. Gaze out of one of the windows at the back, down through pristine lawns, to the Gloriette, an ornate stone edifice on a small hilltop. It was used as viewing platform by the Hapsburgs but now houses a café. Sorry about that, Your Imperial Majesty.

Now we must hop into our horse drawn carriage, our Fiaker, and be whisked along to Café Landtmann, established in 1873. Landtmann’s is the epitome of a Viennese coffee house. Lush, velvet clad seating with impressive looking chandeliers and mirrors inlaid with polished wood. It has  served coffee to may famous figures over the years – Stalin, Trotsky, Mahler. Should we try to sit next to one of them so that we can overhear their conversations? Maybe a plot or two, a revolutionary idea or the beginnings of a new symphony being hummed over coffee. But no, we are here in the 1930’s to have a drink with Sigmund Freud, who loved to take coffee and read the papers here. We are lucky to catch him before he fled Austria in 1938 to escape the Nazis, at risk because of his Jewish heritage. Before he leaves, he persuades us to have an Apfelstrudel, that sweet, warm, apple, cinnamon and raisin filled dessert. Layers of filo pastry, covered with warm custard.

We might have to walk that one off.

And to do that, we head all the way over to the Prater Park in the 1950’s. Remember the ferris wheel in that wonderful film The Third Man? Well it is still here in the twenty first century but in addition, there is a new wheel and a high viewing tower with a bungee jumping platform. I wonder what Harry Lime would have thought of that.

After our walk around Prater Park, let’s sit down for a while and read. The National Library at the Hofburg Palace is just the place. Walnut cases from floor to ceiling, filled with those finest of treasures – books. If you were multilingual, you could stay in this room forever and never finish all it has to offer. It is one of my favourite rooms in the whole world. And if you tire of reading, there are globes, sculptures, maps, prints and drawings. Twelve million items in all.

When you see a restaurant with a queue outside all day and evening, you know there is something good on the menu. So for dinner, it has to be Figlmüller’s, the home of Wienerschnitzel. Thin cutlets of veal fried in breadcrumbs, with a wedge of lemon and a potato salad on the side, washed down with a Stiegl beer. Delicious! Not the healthiest of meals, especially when the schnitzel is so big that it hangs off the side of the plate. But one has to try it. Unless you are vegetarian, of course.

To round off our day, there must be music and dancing. And for that, it’s back to the nineteenth century to begin with, for a waltz – Viennese of course. To the music of Johann Strauss, naturally.  Mozart wrote most of his best works whilst living in Vienna in the eighteenth century. Beethoven lived here too. And Haydn sang in the Stephansdom cathedral as a boy.  If you listen carefully, you will hear notes from all of these wonderful composers seeping out of every stone in this magnificent city and floating out to every ear. But my favourite musical venue would be the Staatsoper, the State Opera House, in the twenty first century, to hear Placido Domingo sing. What a treat.

We have had a long day – over two hundred years long, in fact. So we’ll retire to bed. Maybe at the luxurious Hotel Sacher, so we can have an indulgent slice of their Sachertorte, the chocolate cake to end all chocolate cakes. On this day of days.

Monday, 30 March 2020

The Bench by Ian White

I like a good brisk walk, especially down by the canal, and nearly every time, I find myself pausing for a few minutes break to perch on the old bench.

It's nothing special - just a bench, but it holds a strange attraction to me... Two knobbly, off-white precast concrete supports in the shape of a lowercase 'h', spanned by four rough weathered grey wooden planks which form the seat itself and the backrest. All fixed together with eight strong, long, round-headed steel bolts.

It's been there as long as I can remember, just sitting there, calm and placid throughout the years, squat and sturdy, resisting all that man and nature can throw at it - blistering summers, freezing winters, carved and painted by graffiti artists, and even two arson attempts. Yet still it survives.

I'm not the only one who loves it; groups of rambling OAPs seem to prefer the old bench to the newer metal ones further down the uneven, puddle-spattered towpath. Gaily coloured bike-riding families also use the seat as their 'breather' location. Dog walkers pause there too - their four-legged charges claiming it as their own via the application of acrid aromas in the grass round the back. And I'm sure courting couples may well use it as a rendezvous point under a bright starry night sky.

And it's understandable why, once you sit there, gazing out over the near still canal, watching ducks and geese paddle to and fro, awaiting the next group of kids bearing rustling bags of stale bread. Birds twittering in the trees on the other side of the nearby sluice gate, various livestock animals frolicking in the smallholding between here and the sturdy stone bridge down the way, the occasional whiff of smoke from the garden fire up the slope near the old cottage.  The seat is located in the most tranquil place within a mile in either direction.

Even more surprising is the lack of irritating noise from the car-park on the far side of the field which backs onto the towpath. The Yuppie denizens of the old converted mill do nothing to diminish the peaceful nature of this beauty spot.

And so, I finish my tangy cheese and tomato sandwich, swill it down with cool bottled water and repack my rucksack. I stand, brushing off crumbs for the birds and head off home. Behind me I hear a child's voice squeal in delight. "The bench is free!"

Friday, 27 March 2020

The Old Women's Race by Owen Townend

After being founded in 1850 by Dr William Penny Brookes of Much Wenlock, the Wenlock Olympian Society Games featured many sports both serious and silly including an Old Women's Race where the prize was a pound of tea...

I like Myfanwy
for the pound of tea;
she’s limber for seventy-eight.
She doesn’t often lurch
as we leave the church
and always keeps going straight.

You like Loretta,
say that she’s better
at short bursts of controlled speed.
Still you’ve seen how she wheezes,
and – God forbid! – sneezes
when she manages to take the lead.

Still this is a friendly bet
and don’t you try any tricks.
I’m not sure we’ll see old women race
at the next Much-Wenlock Olympics.

And off, Myfanwy!
And off, Loretta!
And off old Stanley
her Irish red setter.

The dog is nipping
at Myfawny’s heels
but Loretta’s tripping
and now she cartwheels!

I felt that fall!
The poor dear’s bones!
The crowd is appalled
as she puffs and groans.

But Myfawny is steady
and can’t be stopped
though she needs her Eddie
to keep her propped.

Is that cheating?
I shouldn’t think so.
His support his fleeting
and off she goes!

Here comes the finish line
and aren’t we all glad?
Loretta’s pained whine
is nothing but bad.

But there is Myfanwy
claiming her prize:
a pound of sweet tea
and tears in her eyes.

Now pay up, old man,
and let’s go to quoits.
Loretta has Stan
to put her to rights.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

The Comfort of Home - Juliet Thomas

The Comfort of Home - Juliet Thomas

We are being asked to stay indoors; not to join up to a war-zone front-line, not to live on the streets, not to head off to a refugee camp… just to stay in the comfort of our own home. 

What is being asked of us is nothing compared to others in this world and today more than any other, I need to remind myself of this as yesterday, as part of the ‘at risk’ group, I now need to stay at home for 12 weeks.

Unfortunately, with the freedom and the luxuries of a Western life, we have become spoilt and take for granted the life we’ve come to know and love. Having been social distancing since November, due to chemo treatment, I know only too well the price disease can have on your freedom, your life.

So, retreating to our homes it is, to the sanctuaries we’ve created, to home comfort, whilst the world heals. It’s not so bad really is it?

I love my home, its name ‘Mulberry Barn’, conjures up a sketched image you could find in a children’s book. It started out as part of a farm which was later converted 20 years ago into four properties built around a central courtyard. Before that, dairy cows sheltered in what is now our kitchen, hall and living spaces.

When it became ours, after tenuous bidding by my husband who works in sales and just had get a deal, I was more than joyous, I couldn’t believe it was ours. We’d come from a square-boxed, new build, which was a lovely starter home, but our new dream house was where our family would begin, and it simply oozed character and quirkiness.

I was just six weeks from giving birth to our first child, the day we moved in. After lifting boxes all day and many trips up and down the stairs, I sank happily into the deep, roll-topped bath full of bubbles to soothe my aching muscles. And then, because of my giant belly, I couldn’t get back out of it!

Later, having been rescued, I laid in bed in our double-height bedroom, transfixed by the feeling of space compared to our old house, I felt we were close to the night sky and floating. 

However, the elevated, out-in-the-sticks, climate soon surrounded us and diminished any feeling of calm. It was a stormy, November night and we lay, wide-eyed, senses on full alert to the wind whipping loudly through the eves. We felt sure the house was going to take off, like Dorothy’s in the Wizard of Oz.

I can’t say we’ve ever got used to the wild weather. Since we’ve been here, the kids trampoline has taken flight into the neighbours garden, our pet rabbits escaped from their cage as it blew down the drive and I’ve stopped the patio furniture, just short, of heading through our kitchen window.

Add in the loudest owl, field mice creeping into our walls when chillier nights arrived and a vocal choir of birds performing concerts by dawn, then you get the picture!

The antidote to all the commotion? Beautiful country walks on our doorstep, the most incredible sunsets on a Summer’s evening; fresh eggs, snowy lambs, and three curious alpacas who trot over to say hello, just up the lane from our house.

Inside, the house still has many imperfections; lights never fully work, blinking at us menacingly and Wi-Fi is often a joke resulting in many a family argument. I’m pretty sure we also have a cow ghost and don’t get me started on the size of the spiders we have hiding in the beams, but this house is alive with character and the unique features that make it special.

It’s been our first experience of having an Aga and now I’d never be without one, that warm hug as you enter the kitchen in Winter is just heaven! The rustic brick fireplace and stove is hypnotic when the flames dance between the logs. We’ve added our stamp, several times to the décor, creating a modern cosy, country feel, and my ever-increasing gallery of personal artwork adorns the walls, much to my husband’s despair!

I’m a sucker for patterned notebooks, bright cushions, snug throws, fragrant candles and the collection of vases dotted about, spring flowers spraying forth. As well as my family, these are the ingredients that make our home burst to the brim with comfort.

To get our daily dose of fresh air, whilst on lock-down, the husband has built a pergola in the garden where I’ll be able to go to write, paint, read and listen to the flirting birds, so all is not lost.

Yes, my country walks will be missed, along with coffees and catch-ups, but they aren’t gone forever and thanks to the digital age we are lucky to be able to still communicate.

The sooner we all hunker down, the sooner we get back to the life and community, that by then, I believe we will appreciate so much more. This is our opportunity to be great, get through this and then truly live life to the full.

Until then, get comfortable, and stay safe.

Monday, 16 March 2020

And In The End..... By Judy Mitchell

I envied her that bedroom with its sugar pink walls, flowery curtains and space.  It had posters, a Dansette record player and places for us to loll as we tried to copy the images of long-lashed, wispy thin, Californian girls with moon pennies in their hair. We burned joss sticks, the grey ash falling silently on to the painted, white floorboards and the dark, earthy, muskiness of patchouli mixing unsuccessfully with the aroma of a nearby Yorkshire coking plant.

The sound of Sgt Pepper’s tracks filled the room that summer and we were word perfect, singing every track with scouse, nasal overtones. We played the run out groove at a slower speed to uncover words that were said to be hidden in the last bars. We never found them. 

And then, when it got to seven o’clock we would return home, leaving talk of the hidden meanings of the lyrics for another day. My sandal-shod feet tapped down the uncarpeted stairs and outside down the path. I ran along the curve of the privet hedge between our two houses covering the short distance like the third leg in a relay race. 

Back home and on to thick carpet and my tiny space for one at the top of the stairs. No posters, no record player, no chairs, only a quiet, blue refuge with my bookcase and light to read by and enough places to hide secrets and to sleep and dream of boys, clothes and high-heeled shoes.

More than fifty years later, on a soft, spring morning, those of us who had played together in that bedroom, met with others, to say goodbye. Her car arrived and the sound of the trumpets and the opening bars of All You Need Is Love filled the hushed ante room. Smiles quivered across lips as we blinked away tears in the pale, pink morning light. The orchestral ending slipped away from us and we stood together and held hands in defiance of official advice.

Monday, 9 March 2020

The Monster by Eve Bedford (aged 9 and 3/4)

It hides inside your hat,
It hides inside your shed,
And when you go to sleep
It goes inside your head.

It has 10,000 eyes,
It has 10,000 legs,
And when it gets up close to you
It smells like rotting eggs.

Sometimes its eyes are green,
Sometimes they are not,
But always when they are
It looks like boogie snot.

It hates slippery floors,
It hates the sight of cars,
And when it always cries at night
It's because it hates the stars.

It steals paper bags,
It steals all the clocks,
And when it comes into a room
It never ever knocks.

It hides inside your hat,
It hides inside your shed,
And when you go to sleep
It goes inside your head.

It was half-term recently and Eve (my granddaughter) brought this poem along to Writers' Lunch.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Condensation by Owen Townend

As condensation faded from the café window, I saw all the women inside.
            There was Marybeth with her clarinet, giving out a comical toot and setting off the rest of the table. Candice had the kind of laugh that visibly shook her to the point where she had to lay hands around her stomach to keep it steady. Henrietta and Stella tittered in much the same way as if they were twins separated at birth as everyone insisted. Juniper surprised me though with her weary eyes expressing no genuine joy in the moment.
            And it was a lovely little moment. I was quite jealous if I’m honest, though soon Candice would doubtless say something she ought not to about a subject she didn’t really know much about. Some callous passing comment. If anyone brought her up on it, she would just hunch her shoulders and sulk.
            I didn’t know why they all chose to meet together. I know Henrietta couldn’t stand Candice, presumably Stella too by proxy, and Juniper was such a busy woman with her five kids and the drawn-out process of the divorce. Many times I have seen Marybeth in Candice’s presence, somehow enjoying the bitter discussions that would often ensue. And why had she brought along her clarinet? While Marybeth was a natural born entertainer, she was rarely so organised.
            I stood there at the window for a long time, waiting to see if they might notice me standing there. Removing my glove, I laid a bare hand on the glass. That this was a happenstance meeting seemed highly unlikely to me so where was my invitation? I had a feeling Candice didn’t care for my company anymore after that afternoon we chatted about the lewd pottery she had been working on, but I had no idea she would snub me like this. Still, the more I thought about it, the more this turn of events made sense.
            For a moment I thought I glimpsed her looking out at me with a sideways glance. She knew I was there and didn’t she look victorious. Then again, I knew that soon even this nasty feeling of hers would pass. After all, poor little Candice always felt sorry for herself. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear as if to dismiss me in favour of the rousing discussion that had now started up. Henrietta and Stella were leaning in to Marybeth as she began to deliver a dramatic anecdote about her musical life. Even Juniper seemed to perk up at her words. Candice’s full-toothed grin just widened.
            Like a closing camera aperture, the condensation soon returned along with the ear-splitting wail of a nearby steamer. It was the only thing that I could truly hear coming from within. Stuffing my chilly fingers back into their pockets, I turned and continued on my lonely way to the bank...