Category Archives: Retreat

Hay Festival 2014

The Hay Festival couldn’t be more middle class if it changed its name to Pippa and married its cousin. And I love it. And if it becomes more Hay Market than Hay Festival at times, with the clear purpose of shifting tomes, then who cares? It delivers what it promises: a literary festival, a celebration, putting the word above all else and giving us all permission to sink into a proper vocabulary and literally indulge in wordplay.


I have spent most of this week sloshing around in mud listening to and talking with people who love words, people with something to say but who reached that point by listening to others and by reflecting and not by following dogma.  Joyfully reaching for the right words and finding them, hearing new ways of using them, turning context on its head and finding a new way to slip the surprisingly appropriate word prolepsis into general conversation – thank you Margaret Drabble! – has been a genuine inspiration.  Rustling about happily under the trestle tables in the Oxfam bookshop in the boxes filled with rummageable delights waiting in the dark to be found was the best time I have had in weeks. Possibly months. WarHorse and Michael Morpurgo  thrilled everyone, watching Marcus Brigstocke casually overtake a bunch of feathered aliens without a second glance on the path outside the Friends coffee shop was a little surreal, noticing the fact that we probably all had a proper education under our belts and were using it to good effect was a significant pleasure, and hearing children pronounce their words properly and insert the letter “t” in the right place was phenomenal! No extraneous or dropped aitches either, bliss! Not a baggy trousered foul mouthed rap artist in sight or hearing, and there were times when I was one of the youngest in the queue, and it is a long time since that happened………

Listening to a group of academics with serious life experiences attempt to shed light on prison life and its consequences – dear to my heart – it occurred to me that even in a room full of Telegraph readers, and I am one, the Grauniad Effect (my husbands media drug of choice)  was apparent. Most of us gave a damn, giving the lie to political drubmongers who like to insist on the differences rather than the similarities between groups of people.  That was also apparent in other conversations, and one that focussed on corporate greed was particularly pertinent. The workshops around Social Enterprise were a real pleasure and welcome at the heart of the Festival as a demonstration of how things can be done  ethically and well.

Downsides? Well……..I was unprepared for the ill mannered stampede of middle aged middle class audiences as they clambered over and around people to find their favourite seats! The wonderfully patient and charming stewards allowed those of us with mobility issues into the tents first to avoid catastophe – no-one wants Hay Headlines about mangled elders or the dissed disabled – but as soon as the hordes, or to use their title Friends of Hay (and I am also one) were released into the tents all Hell broke loose with disabled feet trodden into the dirt and bags ground into the floor as they shouldered and elbowed their way to “their” seats. Clashes were inevitable and there was,  I am sorry to say, a degree of braying involved at times. And although the lavatories maintained their dignity against all odds I did occasionally wonder, as I took my ease,  on  the number of buttocks that had been pressed against those seats during the week……..I was also a little alarmed to find I shared Jonathan Millers haircut and colour so startlingly that I wondered who had put the mirror on the table as I entered the bookshop……..

Being a seasoned Hay Friend I staggered my meals so that I ate between the usual meal times and avoided the crowds and it was very pleasant with all tastes catered for, although I did wonder if vegan and gluten free also meant salt and pepper free a couple of times as I searched for seasoning – but once I had found it the food perked up. In fact, the food even for us fussies was indecently good and I enjoyed it very much. Good choices, well prepared, charmingly served. The people running the show, from box office to stewards to food hall and more, deserve a medal!

The B&B, The Old Vicarage in Prestiegne, where I always stay was, as usual, perfect and this year they even have alpacas as well so I woke to the sound of sheep, alpacas and chickens and a real symphony of birdsong, and breakfasted brilliantly with a view over the fields and with the sound of a stream in the background. It couldn’t have been better. Best start to a Hay Day ever.


And now my Hay Days are over for 2014, but the mud is still on the car and my boots – and my jeans and my skirt and my jacket! And I have a fresh stash of books, images and memories and the certainty that words matter, that we can use them better, and that we should.  And I will plan for next year when I hope that we will make Hay in the sunshine and not the rain and I can rummage and read and rest and draw comfort from more wordsmiths. Hay Ho.






The shelves in the back of my head……..

Last week I spent some time in retreat. No, I did not hide under my desk while colleagues tried to find me after an undisclosed incident in the boardroom – I went away to be silent for a while. The wonderful Aylesford Priory were gracious enough to allow me to spend time in their beautiful and majestic grounds and buildings specifically in order to be quiet.

I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to be silent: telly, radio, cellphones, games, sirens………     It used to be a pleasure to take a train journey (please, if you are under 50 years old, don’t laugh) –  it created thinking time, space in which to read, think, gaze past the window to the trees smeared against them as the train cantered towards its destination. Now it is impossible to switch off, quite literally. Cellphones ringing (if you are lucky – if you are unlucky you will be trapped in a carriage full of people with pop tune ringtones like I was recently. It is like being forcibly confined inside an especially horrendous episode of X Factor without the restraining feature of a presenter), people babbling into cellphones, laptops tapping and pinging, iPods clicking and whooshing away. It feels as if no-one realises they are in public: like the Emperor with no clothes, the reality  of self exposure is cloaked in the self deception of self absorption..

So, I needed to tap out, but silent tapping, braille tapping, BSL tapping.

My parents died within 3 years of each other, my Mother only this year. Some bad times and feelings happened because of the circumstances and I had not had time to properly hold those times and examine them, turn them over in my hands and feel them.

So, I needed to tap out, but soft tapping, tapping that came with an embrace. But not a real hug. I don’t do touch! That must be why I like the spiritual kind so much!

Being in a Monastery has a specific feel to it. The grounds of this one are glorious anyway, and the sun dripped through the autumn leaves and created some spectacular ripples on the lakes and dapples on the hundreds of geese, ducks and swans and bounced brilliantly off the stained glass. The ancient buildings smelled of age and wisdom and the place is still in my nostrils and my head.  Silent communal prayer – silence and your God, whatever or whoever that may be, shared with other people – has a healing drench to it. It seems to get right to the centre of things and iron out some of the wrinkles and kinks. Of course, some of the wrinkles and kinks are there for a reason and remain firmly in place! It takes time and effort to gain the wisdom of wrinkles, even those inside your head, so I will hang on to the useful ones, thank you!

As I slipped gently and gradually into reflection and became absorbed in that special kind of thoughtless weightless thinking that leads to real meditation and communication with something like self, I remembered that I have held so many things against myself. I mentioned in my last post that it had occurred to me that Justice begins inside us and if we are to live justly we have to be just and fair with ourselves. That doesn’t come easy. And it isn’t self-absorbed or selfish to try to be fair to oneself – the damage that is done to our relationships if we can’t get right the relationship inside us can be phenomenal. If I am uncomfortable with who I am, how can I expect others to be comfortable with me? And if others are not comfortable with me what use am I? What purpose can I have? None of this means not taking responsibility for our actions, or absolving ourselves for deliberate malicious actions and intent. Quite the opposite, actually, it means, more, knowing the difference between what we have done with bad intent and what we have done either thoughtlessly or with good intent that turned bad. For some people it is hard to leave behind the grief and the emotional flagellation – there is some comfort in not facing reality, that someone has gone, that it is too late to say those things you never said, that there were some things said that shouldn’t have been. That Life has changed forever. Sometimes, for some people, that is too hard to bear and it becomes easier as time goes on to slip back into that sense, to cling to the pain like a babies rattle, at once annoying and pleasing, but always distracting. But unless you release the grip you have on it, allow it to slip away where it needs to go, that pain, however comforting you think it is, will stop you breathing. It will tether you to the spot where it happened. It needs to be freed to allow you to grow.

So over that strangely unquantifiable period of time of silence when I had the opportunity to reflect and pursue ideas wherever they took me I began to realise that I am still here. A bit weird, maybe – of course I am still here. Perhaps only an eejit would need time out to notice that! But I think what I mean is, I noticed that things had changed and I am still here. I have changed and I am still here. I had been waiting about for some forgiveness from my Mother for not being able to spare her those last miserable painful, tortuous days of her death. And it occurred to me that I didn’t need to wait – she has moved into another place and my own forgiveness and angst has no meaning for her now. Neither she nor I need it and neither of us would be able to give or receive it – things have changed. And her death had a consequence: the hospital where she spent those last few days which were so miserable was a dreadful place, filled with well meaning people who failed at every turn to provide the caring service that they are tasked with providing. I had to fight for every last shred of dignity and care for my Mother and witnessed some frankly evil events which were rooted not in evil but in carelessness, thoughtlessness and laziness. And I made a fuss (would you believe!). It was a sustained, draining, challenging, loud and long fuss.  I made a fuss for my Mother and we got a better end for her than we could ever have expected without the fuss. But a miraculous thing happened:  the overall, long term, result of that wail of a fuss was that changes were instituted in the organisation and on the wards. Really major changes, life changing changes, changes that took my breath away when I heard about them. These changes, told to me by the people managing those services, sound like good changes – they were a long time coming, and although they sound good I cannot evaluate them myself because we have moved on. But if even half of what I was told has been done to improve those services materialises the change would be incredible. So her forgiveness comes, perhaps, in the form of the knowledge that she made things better for the people who came after her, and that is some satisfaction. I have the benediction of knowing that good came of evil.

So, with that as my starting point, and what a good one it was, I managed to clear out and tidy up most of the shelves in the back of my head. I had a good rummage around in there and a bit of a mop and dust, mended the wear and tear of some of the things, threw out the accumulated rubbish and folded things as neatly as I could and put them back. Some things will never fold properly – they are too bulky, or too worn, or too fragile. But knowing they are still good and are stored properly is a comfort. And I can take them out again when I need to and run my hands over them, smell them, and take care of them.

If I could say one thing to you it would be: try silence. Try stopping, and listening, and looking and waiting. Have you ever seen a kingfisher swoop? Have you then gone back to that same spot and tried to see it again – the magical flash of colour and the whirr of sound. If you have seen the kingfisher swoop and want to see it again you have to wait. You have to go back to that same spot, wait, and wait. You know it’s there, you know it will be there, but you have to wait. And then, suddenly, joy of joys, it is there and it is gone . You have seen that splendid flash of colour and heard the whirr, and it is because you have waited that you had that.  Waiting, listening, pausing and being still are wonderous, and reward us so well.

Do the shelves in the back of your head need some attention? Is a bit of a rummage in order? For your sake and for the sake of the people who care about you, try silence.

%d bloggers like this: