Being Afraid

A personal piece this week, I hope it’s not too depressing.

Thus far, into its eleventh month, and 2020 is the year of fear. It began well enough for the UK. The out-break of an unknown ‘flu-like virus in faraway China making only the end of the foreign news. After all, we’d had bird-flu SARs and MERs and it seemed that the ebola outbreak in West Africa was now under control. Nothing to worry about in Europe. Our concerns were of a different kind, for many just dealing with the daily grind in an society increasingly uncaring and nastily polarised, for others the approaching exit from the EU.

Of course this was a fatal miscalculation, with the UK currently recording over 50,000 COVID related deaths and who knows how many more as an indirect result of the pandemic. It is a small and interconnected world and no amount of fulminating about maintaining borders can keep out a virus for long.  Our response cannot be isolationist and self-centred, as Albert Camus said, ‘…the only way to fight the plague is with common decency.’

People were, and still are, afraid, though not with the uninformed fear of March and April. We know a lot more about the virus than we did and, it seems, there is a vaccine coming over the horizon sooner than was at first thought possible.  With the defeat of Donald Trump in the recent US Presidential election it seems that those who deny reality, thereby both belittling and increasing the suffering and death of many, are in retreat. There was much rejoicing (and some relief) in this house when Pennsylvania declared for Biden.

The winter of 20/21 will be hard, without the escape and solace available outdoors in the Spring/Summer lockdown. We will be unable to celebrate as usual the traditional, often family-centred, festivals, Christmas, Hannukah, Eid and Diwali. Yet by Spring there may be a vaccine,  a game changer, and the US will again take its place in the international community. Reason may again determine actions, not populist rhetoric. Science will, it seems, prevail.

So, where is my optimism? Shouldn’t this sustain me? I am cautious and doubting. Conversations with friends and neighbours suggests that this attitude is shared. In part this could be sensible, why count one’s chickens? Trump and the husk of the Republican Party may yet disrupt the electoral college and defer the transfer of power, he is already refusing to share vital information with his successor. We have what looks like a hard exit from the EU to come with all the chaos that will bring and we are without meaningful leadership during a pandemic. In part my caution could also be a corrective to the complacency of January.

But this doesn’t sit well, I am a glass half full sort of person. On a personal level this year has been good.  My first crime thriller was published and well received. I have almost completed the revision of the second. My life, albeit indoors at home, is full and, generally, rewarding. There are many worse off than me.

Yet being afraid isn’t easily abandoned, the niggling restlessness and the anger close to the surface. Life is still restricted ( watching the southern hemisphere TriNations Rugby yesterday was poignant, it had a stadium crowd, unmasked and happy, like it used to be here ). That sensible inner voice reminds about the touching and the distance, the confined spaces and so on. We’ve done this all before, now we have to do it again.

So what to do? Hunker down and enjoy the little things. The wit and kindness of friends, via zoom if not in person. Carry on with work as best one can, taking as few risks as possible. It really is ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, maintain one’s human decency and not give in to fear. That’s all one can do.

And there’s always schadenfreude.

I’ll be back to writing about books next week. Promise.

The mock-up of the government poster is by the brilliant Dan Mogford, graphic artist and book cover designer extraordinaire.

To the Lighthouse

… the lighthouse or faro at Bonanza in Andalucia, to be precise, not Virginia Woolf’s Hebrides set novel of 1927.  The fishing village of Bonanza is on the estuary of the Rio Guadalquivir as it reaches the Atlantic, just north of the Bahia de Cadiz. The derivation of its name is from the Spanish (and Latin) for calm sea, or tranquil waters, though it has come to mean a windfall, or unexpected piece of good fortune. It was our good fortune to be there last Sunday.

I doubt Ms Woolf ever visited, though the place itself is small and charming, with one main street running parallel with the river, houses backing onto a deep sandy beach. Bonanza does feature elsewhere in literature, however, in The Confusion, the second in Neil Stephenson’s rip-roaring and erudite Baroque Cycle (2005) as the location for an audacious piece of thievery. There are no grand mansions to be found there now, though fishing boats bob on the swell and there is, at the Alguida end of town, a port area with docks and factories. There are, unsurprisingly, good places to eat fish, which was what we were there for.

Beyond Bonanza is farmland, now often given over to poly-tunnels, interspersed with houses whose architects certainly had exuberance and imagination, though they didn’t tend towards understatement (the Baroque featured here too, though attached to flat-roofed bungalows). If you continue along the single road you eventually gain access to that portion of the Donana National Park which lies on the south eastern side of the Guadalquivir.  Here there are wonderfully tranquil forests of Iberian pines and a lagoon, complete with bird watching hides.  The flamingos were displaying and we saw not one other human being.

Or maybe head back to Sanlucar de Barrameda, of which I have written before ( see Contrasts ) the rather larger port and holiday town. Both Columbus and Magellan set sail from here, their voyages being recorded in sculpture and tile work around the town. The former completed his first circumnavigation of the globe from Sanlucar, while the latter returned to his own discovery of Hispaniola. The town is intensely proud of its hugely influential maritime history. On Sunday afternoons the Plaza de Cabildo is the place to be and be seen, amongst the bougainvillea entwined palms, as the inhabitants drink manzanilla or eat ice cream at the square’s two competing ice cream parlours.

Maybe visit the Castillo de Santiago the fifteenth century fortification on the edge of the Barrio Alto, with its two museums and excellent views over the Barrio Bajo or take tea in the gardens of the 13th century Palacio de Medina Sidonia, now a hotel/hostel, for similar views.  There’s an interesting monument between the two, indicative of today’s desire among many Spaniards for the truth to be told about what happened during the Fascist era and commemorating just some of those killed or ‘disappeared’ during that time for opposing Franco. The Duchess who owned the aforementioned Palacio was one of those who was imprisoned, although she was, presumably, too eminent to do away with quietly.

If you’re in this part of the world Sanlucar and Bonanza are worth visiting – we will do so again.

Chelsea 2019

The day dawned bright and this south Londoner rose early, if not quite with the lark.  It was the first day of this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show and I was to rendezvous with a group of friends at the Royal Hospital.  I set out, in my English linen and sensible shoes, along side the commuters, checking the weather app as the 137 bus crossed Chelsea Bridge. Yet I wasn’t the first of our group to arrive, some hardy souls were there when the gates opened at eight o’clock.

Programme purchased, I headed to the River View Cafe for an absolutely  necessary shot of  caffeine and a chance to text other members of the group.  I could even see the river.  Meeting up was always going to be something of a logistical issue, given that we were from all parts of the UK – from the West Country, North Wales, the south coast and Scotland.   Plus, my phone seemed to throw a tantrum.  Why don’t they work properly when you need them to?  No matter, there was nothing for it, I would just have to wander around until I found the others – amid a crowd of thousands!

At this time of day the betting was that some, if not all, would be on Main Avenue looking at the Show Gardens, before it became too congested to see them. And so it was.  I met the West Country contingent by the Resilience Garden and we were shortly joined by those from Wales and some from Oxford, via Putney.

It was time for some serious garden viewing.  The planting this year was natural, but not quite the garden meadow and sprinkled wildflower natural which has prevailed in recent times.  There were a lot of mature trees, including a glorious Scots Pine, and green predominated.  Andy Sturgeon’s M & G garden deservedly won Best Show Garden, in this humble gardener’s opinion, with its burnt timber formations resembling ancient rock and setting off the jewel-like colours to perfection.

Thence to lunch. Fizz and smoked salmon on the grass, picnic style, where we met the Scottish and south coast contingents for some chat and catching up ( and lots of talk about this year’s Clapham Book Festival ). We disperse again in the afternoon, it being impossible to keep over a dozen people together in the growing crowds.

The Grand Pavilion is always worth visiting, with its wonderful displays and, this year, a Show Garden, the IKEA Tom Dixon; Gardening will Save the World garden.  This was intriguing, if not the most aesthetically pleasing garden, with the science on display beneath the raised ‘garden walk’.  Here were hydroponics, artificial light stimulated growing and lots of other clever ways of nurturing food plants.  Very interesting, but it couldn’t compete, in terms of impact on the eye, and the nose, with the traditional stands and their carefully chosen cultivars in riotous display.  ( This year the Bloms Bulbs man was in full tartan rig. ) Serious purchasing was done.

Time for a quick swing around those gardens which we hadn’t had the chance to visit, before meeting at a Pimms Bar – but which Pimms bar? There were several groups by now, all doing their own thing and lots of Pimms Bars, it was lucky that other people had functioning mobile phones.

A word for my favourite gardens, the Silent Pool Gin garden ( alas no gin, but excellent planting and lovely use of copper ) and the Greenfingers Charity Garden, not for the double storey so much as for the planting, with liberal use of fennel and angelica.  The D-Day sculpture garden was also immensely impressive in its own quiet way.

Another Chelsea over – though it goes on until Saturday of course and the sell-off.  It’s expensive ( £75+ for a day ticket and steep prices for everything once you’re in the Showground ) but then a ticket to a Premiership football match is not much cheaper and you only get ninety minutes ( at least the cricket goes on all day ).  I wouldn’t miss it.

For articles on Chelsea’s past and other gardening try                   London Summer Starts Here            Under Canvas                  RHS Chatsworth