Thursday, 31 March 2011

'That's where the music takes me...'

When I'm sitting at my computer I don't usually listen to music as I find it too distracting but, if it's a really mundane admin job, there's nothing like a trot round YouTube for some good tunes. And what I find is that music can transport you to some great memories like nothing else.

Interestingly, it doesn't seem to matter whether a particular song is by a favourite artist or genre, if that was the song playing when something great happened, it stays with you. And playing it again takes you right back there.

For instance, I can't listen to 'Fly Me to the Moon' without remembering a certain group of would-be Rat Packers including my beloved blacked-up as Sammy Davis Junior (after he had eaten all the pies, obviously) giving it their all with some very dodgy words at a party a couple of years ago. Likewise, I realise I don't look like a regular fan of The Cure but, finding ourselves in a restaurant in Temple Bar in Dublin a couple of years ago, I felt the need to stand up and duet 'Friday I'm in Love' with a dreadlocked waiter. Of course, when I have had a drop or two of the black stuff, I totally believe I know all the words which when sober, strangely, I don't! Eighteen months or so later when we were back in the same restaurant in Dublin, daughter number 1 spotted a short-haired waiter who looked familiar and asked him if he had once had dreads. He had and yes, he did claim to remember the painful duet with her lunatic mother - or he said he did, which was very polite! At Christmas, the same daughter bought me a t-shirt with some of the lyrics of 'Friday I'm in Love' on the front and even though I strongly believe that women over a certain age should not have things written on their chests, I wear it - though never on a Friday.

I suppose I should be glad that I didn't stand on a chair on that occasion, unlike my recent birthday when I felt the need to stand on the chair and make an emotional speech on the wonderfulness of my family. Luckily I didn't go on too long and everyone's attention quickly turned to the aforementioned Rat Pack group who sang their latest single (!) 'Sweet Caroline' - which is another song I shall remember for perhaps not the reasons that Neil Diamond intended!

So in the words of the tall blond one in Abba, 'thank you for the music' - and the all great memories it brings.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Singing for the Brain!

Sometimes my life takes me to interesting places and events, but sometimes the most memorable are just on the doorstep. I was asked to write an article about the following and I was so moved by the experience that I wanted to share it in my blog...
If you walk past Christchurch on the Stray on a Monday afternoon, you will hear the sound of joyful singing. Step inside and you will see a group of men and women, neatly dressed, singing well-known favourites with such enthusiasm that you might think that you have dropped into a rehearsal for a performance of a singing group. But this group is not rehearsing, they are singing for fun and this is a weekly singing session organised by the local branch of the Alzheimer’s Society.
About forty people are sitting in a semi-circle around pianist and conductor David Andrews, who was for many years director of music at Harrogate Ladies’ College. David keeps up an easy banter with his ‘choir’ and they listen and laugh along with his jokes. Looking round the room it is impossible to tell the carers from those who have dementia - really. Once the music starts, everyone is singing, tapping their feet, clapping in time or whistling. One lady tells me how her husband, who was once a professional cricketer, has forgotten how to sing but whistles perfectly in tune, which he does for me to demonstrate!
David leads them in a selection of songs which are familiar - ranging from wartime favourites to popular folk songs and showstoppers. They sing wonderfully and it’s impossible to listen to their voices soaring in ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ and not feel uplifted. 
I am introduced to the group and it is explained that I am going to write an article about them. They are invited to tell me their experiences, to come and talk to me. And they want to do this. There is no shyness - both carers and their partners want to talk to me because their voices are so rarely heard. One lady tells me how her husband has just moved into full-time care rather than be at home with her. She explains that because her family don’t want to be involved, she is unable to continue to care for him on her own. “I had hoped for another six months but I just can’t manage anymore,” she says with obvious regret. Another tells me how, as soon as her husband had been diagnosed, her best friend cut off all communication with her. Dementia is not a condition where friends and family rush to your door to help. 
“Sometimes I’ve had a bad day before I come, but the singing really lifts my mood,” says one carer. One of the important aspects of the group is the opportunity it gives carers to share their burden and talk about their problems with other carers - people who really understand. “You can’t explain it to other people,” says another. The loneliness of the carers is something they bravely bear. Very little conversation with their partner at home, friends and family reluctant to get involved - “It’s wonderful to see a friendly face.”
David tells me how he was surprised by their extraordinary sense of humour. This is repeated again and again in the conversations I have that afternoon. There is laughter and a desire to enjoy every minute of the session. One carer tells me that, for the gentleman she looks after, all the days of the week are the same but singing is Monday and his face lights up when he knows he is coming singing. After the sessions, he can visualise the faces of the other members of the group and he loves to see the younger people who come along to help. Others talk about how they sing the songs when they get home. One gentleman treats me to a word-perfect solo of “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’” - a song he has known since a boy in Scotland and when the session ends, two gentleman sing a duet - spontaneously and perfectly - and with such pleasure.
One lady who has early onset dementia and is in her fifties tells me how proud they are of their group and that people from other branches of the Alzheimer’s Society come along to see and hear them in action. There is a really good feeling in the room - from the people with dementia who relish the opportunity to sing and enjoy the music and companionship, to the carers who also find a release in the singing and respite in the sharing of their experiences with other carers who understand as only they can.
I come away from the session lifted by the mood and the music, aware that I have been a part of something very special and joyous. As we leave, one lady whose coat I fasten, tells me that when she first came along, she was afraid and really thought she couldn’t sing and now every week it’s the best day of her life. Whatever the magic is that makes this so special, I know that I will never hear the poignant words of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” without remembering the wonderful ‘choir’ at Christchurch on that Monday afternoon.
“If happy little bluebirds fly above the rainbow, why, oh why can’t I?”

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Mother and daughter and mother and daughter time

I have been staying in London in what must be the only flat in Hackney without a hairdryer. In a flat where two girls and two boys live (including daughter number 1), I can count at least six rugby balls but no hairdryer. This is no surprise as all four of them play rugby but I had hoped for a hairdryer. When my children were small, I couldn't possibly have imagined producing one worldly daughter and one so unworldly that there is no hairdryer in her life. Anyway, instead I had a night's sleep (or not as it turned out) with daughter 1 and her lunatic cat.

I chose not to name my children in my blog (in case they take issue with me - I can always claim to be numerically challenged) but Spanky the cat deserves no such privilege. Daughter 1 decided to get a kitten last year to combat the mice in the flat. Spanky is now an adolescent in all the usual senses of the word and sleeps with the daughter - and on Tuesday night - with me. I now fully understand the term 'cat nap' - this means that the cat sleeps for about an hour, then attempts mining activity under my bit of the duvet, and occasional forays on to the bedside table before attempting a Tom Daley-type manoeuvre on to my head.

My London visit combined mother and daughter time of one variety with mother and daughter time of the other sort - with my mother. This involved a move from the hairdryer-free zone across town (yes, daughter number 1, I can manage buses and tubes unaccompanied) to my mother's London club. This place is great! Full of people so old that I feel like a teenager and very handily situated for my personal treat.

It's rare to find myself in London with no-one to please but me and this gave me the opportunity to take myself to the National Portrait Gallery. Big galleries are daunting and I am not artistic but it was a treat to spend an hour with the Tudor portraits. I know that none of my family would have been up for this but I have a big soft spot for Henry VIII and his three children (the legitimate ones, obviously) and it was bliss to immerse myself in my favourite dynasty.

The Gallery is divided up chronologically so I finished in the photographic portrait section from the 20th century. Two of my favourite male screen icons have stunning portraits there - Dirk Bogarde, not just a wonderful actor and gentleman but a fabulously poignant writer in his later years. If you haven't read 'A Short Walk from Harrods', it is charming. The second is the elegant David Niven, dear to my heart because he and my father had a similar look. Such style and grace puts today's so-called style icons in the shade.

My mother and daughter time with me in the daughter role also included a second visit to the brilliant 'War Horse'. Within literally moments of coming on stage, the horses are totally believable and live and breathe in front of you. Wowed for a second time, I may have to take the children later in the year.

Finally, the mother and daughter combo also visited an ice cream parlour where I chose delicious dulce de leche and my mother something called 'sex, drugs and rock and roll' - apparently it kept her awake all night but that's what happens when you have sex, drugs and rock and roll in your eighties.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Coco's Kenyan Adventure (part 3)

For the next two days, we ranged across the savannah in search, mainly, of cats. This time of year, much of the game has migrated across the Masai river to the Serengeti and the plains are empty in large areas. There is, however, a small population of wildebeest, gazelles, giraffes, zebra and waterbuck who stay throughout the year. But the cats remain and the lions are plentiful - one pride we spotted numbered 13 including cubs. Male lions tend to roam in smaller groups and we saw a group of young male lions as well as a number of fully-grown males with fine manes.

On our last day on the Mara, we visited a Masai village and school. Our group of five included Bev, a secondary school teacher (and deputy head) who was keen to take gifts to the children to help them in school.

When we arrived in the village, we were greeted by the son of the chief - although all the young men were probably sons of the chief and all the 120 residents of the village were related to him. In fact, when the young men marry they have to leave to village to go in search of a bride.

The young men of the village, Masai warriors all, were immaculately dressed in traditional costume, whereas the women sitting under a tree with their small children were obviously of much lesser importance and their dress and, more significantly, the state of the children sadly reflected this.

The young warriors treated us to a traditional dance and jumping display - this jumping is important in their selection of a bride and the highest jumpers pay a lower dowry to the father of the bride. Then we were taken into the pitch dark of the huts which are their homes. The one we entered was the size of an average room and, as well as including a cooking area and a number of hens, it slept 16 adults and children.

The young warrior hosting our visit spoke excellent English and described his journey to manhood including circumcision at 14 (don't even ask me how we got on to this) when it is considered not manly either to move or scream in pain. Then the young warriors go in groups of 40 or so into the savannah to hunt lion. Each warrior seeks to distinguish himself by being the first to stick a spear into the lion. The one who achieves this can then wear his hair long.

Although both boys and girls are allowed to go to school, it was obvious from meeting the women of the village that they have received little or no education. Whilst the men hunt and tend the animals, the women cook, care for the infants, build the huts (out of straw, sticks and cow dung), wash clothes and do a whole myriad of jobs. Not for them the fine feathers of the warrior who is, of course, able to take more wives provided he can support them. The women also walk up to two kilometres each way to fetch water daily.

The school was teeming with children proudly dressed in a range of school uniform clearly handed down many times over. Their obvious delight in the opportunity to learn was inspiring. And surprisingly, they made me realise that, regardless of my views of the exaggerated importance given to the game by the British media, football is truly a world sport and a universal language between nations.  That a small boy in a tiny village in the heart of the Masai Mara knows about and admires Wayne Rooney is surely amazing on all sorts of levels. It does make one wonder whether, if he understood this, he might give more consideration to his behaviour on and off the pitch.

Our last day started as early as ever and after our 6.30am shout of 'jambo' we were up and off, across the plains, through the shanty towns and back to the bustle and traffic of uptown Nairobi.

Looking at the westernisation of the city and the effects that our throw-away, consumerist society is having on the beauty that is Kenya, it makes me wonder how much of what we bring to them is good. I can, on the one hand, appreciate that women in their primitive tribes lead an unthinkably hard life and that we must help children living in terrible poverty in the countryside and cities. On the other hand, the proud traditions of the warriors may be lost in our drive to bring our lifestyle and aspirations to these parts of the world. And yes, all the warriors had mobile phones.

The last part of our Kenyan adventure involved a visit to the Giraffe Sanctuary in what the locals call the Karen suburb of Nairobi. This part of town was once farmed by Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame and is now a leafy suburb. The giraffe sanctuary is a unique opportunity to get really close and feed and pet these gentle giants. Their elegance and poise would make any high-heeled model look clumsy and they stand and pose for photographs with a gang of pumba (warthogs) scuttling at their feet.

Finally we went to the famous Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi - famous for its "Beast of a Feast" with meats including ostrich, camel and crocodile. Since we came here in 2003, game - zebra for example - has been taken off the menu as it is now illegal to serve it in restaurants. This is, however, a truly international experience rather than just a tourist attraction as Kenyans come here in abundance and each table strives to continue to keep the flag flying (literally a paper flag on the table) as carvers bring different meats cut directly off the bone and on to your plate. When you can eat no more, the flag is lowered and the meat stops coming - a unique experience.

And so we flew home finally reaching Yorkshire some 36 hours after leaving the Mara - tired and dirty but, I think, with our horizons broadened and perhaps with a greater appreciation of what I fear may be a disappearing world.

Special thanks to Bev for her great photographs and especially to Coco for a really fantastic, unforgettable trip.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Coco's Kenyan Adventure (part 2)

Our journey out of Nairobi took us through leafy suburbs and past many schools (which were strangely juxtapositioned by funeral parlours and driving schools!). The schoolchildren were immaculately dressed and were playing joyously - school is regarded as a privilege and the children appear to relish the opportunity to learn - a lesson for our own, perhaps. Slogans like "To read is to lead" appear outside schools and are testament to how important education is in this developing country.

We had been driving through a wooded area not unlike southern England for some time when we turned a corner and there before us lay the magnificent rift valley. This is how I remembered Kenya from our first trip  (Coco's Kenyan Adventure with child 2), flying out to our camp at Kichwa Tembo in the Mara over the valley where very few people live and the animals still reign.

As the road edged along the cliffs of valley, baboons ran out at intervals, fearless amongst the traffic. Finally making our way slowly down to Lake Naivasha, we pass dozens of greenhouses. This is a major flower-growing area, particularly for the supply of cut-roses to supermarkets in the UK. Nicholas showed us the refugee camps where Kenyans, dispossessed in the tribal wars between the Kikuyu and the Masai in 2008, are living. The memory of this is obviously fresh and recent actions from the Kenyan government suggest that there may be more unrest to come.

The lodge at Lake Naivasha was luxurious and the charming sloped huts were built in a sweeping arc around an area of grass and trees. It was raining when we arrived but we managed a short 'hippo walk' with our guide to see a pair of hippos in the lake, their snouts and ears appearing occasionally above the water.

We were advised not to walk in the grounds after dark as the hippos come up into the grounds and, as they are Africa's most dangerous animal, wandering unaccompanied at night when they are active is not advised. We were walked to and from dinner by a security guard and, on our return trip, he asked if we would like to see a hippo. We followed him into the dark and stopped a few feet from where an adult hippo was feeding unperturbed by our presence.

The next morning we were up and breakfasted ready for our 8.15am pick up to drive to our final destination, the Masai Mara. We waited for Nicholas, watching the monkeys feed. The black and white colobus monkeys looked splendid swinging from the trees like cossack tarzans!

Then, for the only time, Nicholas was late. As it turned out, he had malaria and was unable to continue - a serious reminder to keep taking our malaria pills. We were ushered into another mini-bus with a delightful Taiwanese couple (who were probably on their honeymoon) and told that a new driver from Nairobi would join us en route.

An hour and a half later, at one of the many stops for loos and shopping (it works like this: you have to go through the corrugated-iron shop full of wood-carved giraffes, jewellery, etc and persistent salesmen who make the average British car salesman look like an amateur, in order to get to the loos - which varied in health standards a lot!) James, our new driver arrived with a much better bus than our previous one (a lot less rattling and a working clutch - oh joy!). Indeed James didn't stop once to check we still had four wheels - yes, that really did occur on our first day!

We passed signposts to the Mara over an hour before we finally arrived at the game reserve. Driving across the plains, we had frequent sightings of Masai villages with their cow dung huts in a circle with the brush fence built around that. The road had deteriorated to a rutted track long before we finally reached the Reserve gates. From there it was another ten minutes to our lodge nestling on the hillside. Like the other lodges, the main buildings are conical-shaped with a high sloping roof. The sleeping accommodation was in the form of huts spread left and right of the swimming pool - ours being a good five minute walk away. Easy for child 4 and me but the undulating, uneven path was a bit of a hike for the coco.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Coco's Kenyan Adventure (Part 1)

When you're in a Masai village and you're told that grandparents are called 'cocos', you don't argue - well, not with a man who is carrying a spear and a knife (and I mean as in "that's not a knife, this is a knife" in the Crocodile Dundee sense of the word!) so our exciting Kenyan safari with my mother and child number 4 is henceforth to be called Coco's Kenyan Adventure...

It's hard to imagine twenty four hours of travel taking an 82 year old coco, child number 4 (some 68 years her junior) and me (the jam in the sandwich) from a snow and slush-covered Yorkshire to the warm heart of the Kenyan plains. Yet we have gone from our cold habitat to a land of giraffes and gazelles (or gazettes as the small one termed them!), where all around you wild animals are free and our guardians are the brilliantly clothed and beaded Masai warriors.

Our journey from the frozen wastes of Yorkshire included three trains, one plane and was topped off by a five hour drive in a mini-bus. We struck lucky with our companions in the mini-bus (which was fortunate as this was an up-close-and-personal tour) and Mike and Bev were excellent company throughout the trip. Our guide and driver, Nicholas was (apart from some interesting gear changes without, by the sounds of it, any use of the clutch, and overtaking manoeuvres which made your eyes water) was very friendly and knowledgeable and drove us, on our first day, to Amboseli.

We were welcomed at our game lodge by a Masai warrior who must have topped 6'6'' in sandals. He towered above the guests, welcoming each and everyone with a friendly "jambo" although fully-armed with a spear and machete.

Our thatched hut accommodation was large enough to include two double beds, one single and a bathroom - luxury indeed!

Our game drives took us to the Amboseli National Park some 20k from our game lodge but before we had gone far from the compound on the rough, gut-shaking track, we encountered our first elephant at close quarters. Nicholas refused to take the lid off the mini-bus until we had gone further down the road and left the adult bull elephant behind in case he charged whilst Nicholas was outside the bus. His caution was definitely for real!

Giraffes were next and soon we were at the gate of the Park where local women, wearing enough beadwork to weigh down mere Europeans, shouted "jambo" through the windows and tried to sell their wares. Child 4 was particularly taken with an older Masai lady who wore a wooden bowl on her head so she had her hands free for all the other items she was selling. We resisted and followed the advice of our tour rep (back in Nairobi) who had told us to shut our windows, otherwise the vendors are inclined to drop items of jewellery into the bus and insist on payment.

Each morning at Amboseli, we were greeted by the stunning site of Mount Kilimanjaro towering, snow-capped above the plains. During the course of the day, the mountain would become cloud-draped, its peak only visible now and again. And, as dusk fell, the peak would reappear in all its glory before turning dark grey and then black against the night sky.

Two days of game drives brought us sightings of a lioness and her cub, wildebeest, zebras, gazelles (gazettes!) of all varieties, pumba! (warthogs), waterbuck and fabulous, fabulous hippos - four wading nose-deep in swamp and one standing alone amongst the grasses. Birds from ostriches to the small, brightly-coloured (turquoise and red) ones which sat outside outside our dining room window each day - all for our pleasure.

On the drives, the shortwave radio would crackle constantly with chatter as the guides alerted each other to the whereabouts of game. "Simba!" was the cry to mobilise a whole pack of mini-buses and land rovers, each jockeying for position for the best view for the cluster of lenses.

Back at the compound, we were entertained by monkeys and mongeese/mongooses (?) playing together on the paths to our room and on our last night we went to a viewing platform where you can see hyena coming in to feed. A dead mammal of some variety was splayed across a stone and whilst we looked down into the shadowy clearing, first tiny kittens and then a troop of hyenas edged out of the darkness to feed on the entrails.

The next day was a long all-day drive back to Nairobi on roads which were alternately good and then, for no apparent reason, full of pot holes and unfinished. The rules of the road appear to be that there are no rules at all. Overtaking was on either side of the slower vehicle in front and sometimes we were 'playing chicken' with cars coming towards us as we laboured past heavy vehicles.

As we neared Nairobi, the townships became scruffier and more rubbish drifted across the roads. The clothes became more westernised until the frequent sightings of the colourful warriors became a memory and we were amongst the industrial sprawl of the city.

To be continued...