18 February 2024

The Wild Washerwomen

In the late 1970s, John Yeoman and Quentin Blake, an amazing, gifted team of author and illustrator, wrote the tale of The Wild Washerwomen. 

This book came into our lives in the late 1980s when my then five year old daughter brought it home from school for her reading diary. The school, a small international school, was located in an old, slightly disheveled plantation house in the African country we call paradise. My daughter's classroom was on the first floor and could be reached by an outdoor staircase that led up to a large veranda behind which, separated by a row of louvre windows, the classrooms were located.  Directly below the veranda were the rabbit hatch and chicken run, in the adjacent courtyard under several large jacaranda trees, was the dining area and the stage for theater and music performances.

Her teacher was Miss M, a young woman from the English Midlands, on her first teaching post, sent by an Evangelical organization which was mainly involved in running a Christian radio station, up on the hills overlooking the harbour and small airport, from where missionary messages were broadcast to the heathens in the far away places across the Indian Ocean. The school was not part of it but qualified teachers were always welcome and Miss M was a dedicated teacher full of ideas and energy. Her big project was reading. She believed, as she informed us parents in the first week, that every child eventually loves reading, be it books, newspapers, instruction manuals, gossip pages or the bible. But that this love of reading has to be instilled with real books, not silly meaningless "readers" about "Tom and Sue helping Mummy in the kitchen" or worse, reading cards, reading tests and so on. Real books, she told us, have a story, one with a beginning and an end, with a story line and - importantly - a title and an author. A real story, so she continued, captivates, positively or negatively, the reader and encourages to talk, draw, write, complain about or praise it. For this purpose, she created big reading diaries, one for each of her pupils. And every book a pupil read was to be documented in it, complete with a proper review. Every school day, each pupil selected a book to bring home to read. Reading could mean many things from listening to the book being read, reading some of it, recognising some of the words, telling the story simply by looking at the illustrations because all books had illustrations, some even had no written words. But books they all were, with title, author, story line. And so, every day, we recorded in the big diary what was read and how, but most importantly, what the reader liked or disliked about the book. In a corner of the classroom, Miss M had created a library with whatever children's books she could find. Hand-me-downs, donations, old school stock, very few newly purchased. Many books made the rounds over and over, were read several times again and again. Some books were loved so much they were only reluctantly returned. Every day, in class and at home, there was a lot of talking about the books, sharing of reviews and opinions and regular votes for best book etc. Obviously, other stuff went on as well, clever educational stuff, words, writing, singing, rhyming and so on, to help the process.

Briefly, the story of the Wild Washerwomen is about seven unhappy washerwomen, Dottie, Lottie, Molly, Dolly, Winnie, Minnie and Ernestine, all working in the laundry of Mr Tight, a most dreadful and mean individual. So they decide to go on strike. No spoilers here, if you can, find a copy and read it for yourself. It is a triumph of feminist determination and the spirit of co-operation, no less. When the book was voted book of the week, the class sat down to draw the story while listening to it being read once again by Miss M.

Above is my daughter's painting of the Wild Washerwomen, well, three of them at least. It hangs above my desk, reminding me every day that reading is power and that a book is a gift you can open again and again.

Miss M stayed in my life for many years. In paradise, I had persuaded her to come along to the weekly women's group where we, a group of Peace Corps, NGO, immigrant, posh expat and local women, discussed feminist issues, local and world politics, music, men, sex and rock and roll, drank plenty of cheap South African wine and danced wildly into the night - in that order. She did not miss a week but remained sober and rarely danced. Later, her organization moved her to India where she still lives, teaching, sending the occasional round robin newsletter about rural living, food and water shortages and prayer requests. As far as I know, she has never been paid a salary.

16 February 2024


“Listen, I’ve got something very obvious to tell you. You’re not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong.”

- Alexei Navalny

11 February 2024


On days like this one, I feel incredibly lucky. Lucky to be retired, to have a home, to have good company and reliable support, access to information and also, living with a someone who makes excellent coffee.


It has been raining, mostly, for days. I managed to sneak out for a walk during some of the few dry patches but yesterday, it hit me head on halfway and I sloshed back home, soaked and cold. When I sat down on the stairs in the hall to take off my shoes, the first wave of vertigo hit me so hard, I actually had to laugh. There you are, you fucker. Who cares, I don't have to go anywhere. Missed your chances.

The day before, I was trying out walking with headphones. I have never done this before, it's a mixture of wanting to hear the sounds around me and being scared that someone will sneak up from behind and clobber me over the head. Anyway, it was foggy, I was halfway through an interview with Terry Waite about his time as a hostage in Lebanon when someone tapped my shoulder. From behind. It was A, my neighbour from across the garden. So of course, we walked on together. I have a complicated non-relationship with her, long story to do with watching her raise her daughters, getting a divorce and also, how she always cuts her hedge at the wrong time of the year chasing the nesting birds away. In short, I usually stay out of her way. She is lonely. I listened. To the long story. I still have complicated feelings. The next day I purposefully did not pass her house when I set out. Anyway, it was raining. Maybe I feel bad about it, not the rain but avoiding being seen by her. Not sure if I have another go with headphones.

In my inbox, a brief message from a doctor, matter of fact and so on, in a last sentence mentioning BTW the option of removing an entire section of my intestine. Possible improvement of quality of life. I ponder the words in order: possible? improvement? quality? life? and it's a riddle. 

Thank you for your comments and your concerns about me cycling to the hospital. Rest assured, I am a careful cyclist, a skilled cyclist and a very experienced one. Maybe the word is seasoned?  I would never attempt to endanger my or anybody's life or the condition of my bicycle by reckless behaviour. I have been cycling for the past 60 years, pretty much daily, at least weekly, on four continents, as a means of getting from A to B and back. It's not a fitness or sports activity for me. Some days, I am better on two wheels than on two feet. 

This also happened. Spring.

05 February 2024

get ready

Get out of bed, tidy your room, do a bit of exercise, eat something and, as Leonard Cohen sang, in his characteristically world-weary way, ‘get ready for the struggle’.

Nick Cave 

I cycled to the hospital. I was really wobbly, having not eaten anything solid for 48 hrs, but the geese and the duck in the park at this hour didn't mind. I hid the bike behind the front entrance hall because I had signed this paper that since it would be unsafe to drive or cycle, I would have someone picking me up to chaperone me on my home journey. Then they made me wait almost another hour and I got grumpy. As if not eating anything wasn't enough. 

The procedure was the easiest bit. First, I panicked because the doctor told me he could only give me a homeopathic dose of diazepam due to this being a dynamic MRI which requires my co-operation, not dozing my way through it. Thankfully, the dose was enough for the usual butterflies-in-my-mind feeling, equally pleasant and unpleasant, and as always, I tried to imagine how on earth my mother managed to get through her days with housework and lunch prep and three kids while on that stuff every day. She also drove a car almost daily, often with more than her three kids in it. All I managed was wobble cycle back through the park.

Anyway, it has a name, my condition, as expected, and the verdict is surgery. Because in the long run, this will do you in, the nice radiologist said in as many words. More appointments are due and while I waited for the radiologist findings to be written up, I emailed my favourite gynecologist to help me with a second opinion. She called within minutes to arrange a meeting, which lifted my spirits even more than the drug did.

I arrived home in best diazepam spirits, had two cups of coffee and some of the almond cake friends had brought back from Holland yesterday. Also an apple and we sat in the spring sunshine on the patio, with the woodpeckers and robins and wrens making a racket. I looked at the tulips pushing up through the soil in amazement until the drug started to wear off and by that time, the almond cake made its presence felt in the shape of painful bloating. 

And now, the shit will hit the fan, as the saying goes. Or not.