Thank you for seeing me, your holiness, I know what a busy person you are after more than 1400 years of trying to clear your name, but  I hope you don’t mind me asking you a few questions.  The thing is, there’s a few things I just don’t quite get, and I wonder if you can help me. 

Sure t’ing. Oi’ll do what Oi can for you. And who knows, it might even help me a tad or two. 

Aw, thanks, your saintliness.  Now wait a minute, let me just find my note book.  And I’ve got a pen in here somewhere.  OK, here were are.  Now, what I don’t understand is, with you being such an important saint and all that and doing all those great things, is how you got away with it.  

Oi’m nod at all sure what you mean boi dat.   

No, no, I’m sorry, your sanctimoniousness. I didn’t mean to offend. I can be a bit clumsy at times.  So let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  I’ll start at the beginning.  You left your home in Ireland or was it called Scotland at that time?  It’s all very confusing.  Anyway, you left your home under a bit of a cloud if you don’t mind me saying so.  And I’m not just talking about the weather – though it can be a bit rough in The North Channel especially when your boat is just a basket covered in skin. Could you not fly, you being an angel and all that?  Or have I misrepresented your saintly powers?  Sorry, your beatitude, I’m going off track.  But it was awesome how you and twelve others crossed over the North Channel in what was little more than a bathtub covered in skin. it sounds like Bonnie Prince Charlie without a sail or a prayer, but I dare say you had lots of prayers. No, what I wanted to know is how you caused so much hell back in the home country that you had to get out.  After all, you were a Bishop and a grandson of Kings.  

Oi know, Oi know. But you do go on something chronic. De fact is d’ basterds had it in for me.  Oi guess dey were jealous.  But you know, I never really left.  Back den, it was the same country on eider side.  De islands to the west o’ Pictland were a kind of colony.  Dere were loads of us up dere.  Besides, Oi didn’t stay on Kintyre. Oi just planted me footsteps – for de tourists, don’t y’know.  Then Oi had a drink at de holy well and sailed off up de coast to Iona – where I couldn’t see de old country an’ get homesick   

But the indictment was you infringed copyright law.  Now why would you want to do that?.  And why was it such a serious offence they threatened to excommunicate you. 

Well, you need to understand; we never had xeroxes back den.  De bastards asked me to copy dis enormous document, covered in letters in all different colours, wid pictures all down de soide.   It took me de best part of haf a year in doese freezin’ cloisters.  Dey’d promised me a great fat fee, but when it was all done, dey didn’t give me a bean. Well, Oi was so pissed off, Oi pinched it – so Oi did.  Serves dem roit.  But how was Oi to know it would start a war.  It was moi uncle; he’s a gran’ fierce man.  An de O’Neills look after der own.  But den dat bastard King Diamairt, no more than a jumped up swoine herd, so he is, moirdered de Prince moi cousin, who was recovering from a sports injury.  An’ in moi own church, moind you. Anyway dey framed me; so Oi had to get out pretty damn quick.  But Oi was innocent, so Oi was.  Oi never did it, so help me God.  An’ didn’t yer man make me a saint just loik St Paddy before me, who, by de way, was also no angel eider?  Well, no one was.  It was a case of dog eat dog back den .  

But, you’re a holy man, your honour.  What are you doing meddling in wars and politics?  Not even Rowan Williams did that.  Shouldn’t you leave it to the military. 

Oi feel bad about all de people dat got killed. Dat’s why oi thought oi should go.  But de truth is de kings were hopeless, not quoit as bad as de British government is now, but hopeless, none the less.  Oi had to do something.  Besoides, God sent me a message.   

A message. 

Yes, dis whale came up to me in de boat an’ told me Oi would rescue a man from de fiersome Loch Ness Monster.  So Oi went up there, made the sign of the cross and your timorous beastie ran away. I reckoned Oi’d squared things up wid God.  

Ok, let’s put all that to one side, your graciousness. There’s something else that happened on Iona that bothers me,  

Oi know, it’s about all dose women and de cows on moi holy island of Iona, but God told me to banish dem. 

No, it wasn’t that.

Well, de frogs and the snakes, den.   

No, it wasn’t them either, though I don’t know how you managed to round them all up and get them off the island.    

God works in such mysterious ways; his wonders to behold! (holds up two fingers and makes the sign of the cross, him being such a holy man) 

That’s as maybe. But I was thinking about your best friend.

Aw, you’re meaning Oran the moron.  He was no friend of’ moine; he just did what I told him.  But he had a lovely wife – such a waste!   Anyway, what happened to Oran was’na moi fault.  Yer man had a hand in dat, too. God told me that he would not consecrate moi chapel until Oi’d buried a man aloive in de foundations.  And Oran volunteered, so he did.   

And so you used your grace to console his wife. 

Well (stroked his beard wistfully) you could put it loik dat, but wasn’t it the least Oi could do for a friend who had made the ultimate sacrifice?  

 But he was still alive when they dug him up. 

Yes, but he’d lost his moind, God rest his soul – blaspheming against me, the church and his God.  

So you killed him.

Oi had to.  Oi put a stake through his chest to drive out de devil.  But you know dat wasn’t truly me.  As a saint of the holy catholic church, Oi’m only the instrument of the Almighty.  But surely Oi’ve paid moi price by now.  Although I departed this mortal coil way back in 593, Oi’ve never entered dose holy gates to heaven. Oi coudn’t even foind them. An’ Oi’m still lookin’  

So you admit you committed homicide, but if it was God’s will,  why, being a saint and all,  are you not up on a cloud singing with the angels? Sounds like God’s still got it in for you.  

But Oi was innocent, Oi tell you.  All Oi did was do His will.  Oi’ve got letters to prove it, and dey’ve taken me ages to wroite. 

 ‘How very kind of you to come.’  Molly beamed at me, her face creased into a page of tighly packed script, from which words  and phrases seemed to escape  to join the grey whorls and coils that formed a nimbus around her head.  I told her it was nice to see her and  the sentences at the corners of her eyes and the paragraph across her forehead, etched themselves more deeply into her skin as, putting her face just inches from mine, she replied with theatrical emphasis,  ‘And NICE to SEE YOU TOO!’.  

‘I’ve only come in for a few days rest’,  Betty announced quietly, her countenance vacant with worry.  ‘I came from Dore.’  Then after a pause she added,   ‘And where do you live?’   

‘Bakewell’, I said.

‘Oh Derbyshire.  Nice there’.

Mrs Tang stared,  her eyes red rimmed and her mouth  just a shrunken hole towards the bottom of a face in which the skin seemed pulled too tight.  She held out her hand.  I took it and held it from a few seconds as with a sigh, she withdrew it.  Harry, sporting a depression the size of a h’penny where  they trephined his skull,  completed another lap,  ‘Can you tell me?  Are they going to call me up? They’re still fighting over there, you know.’       

And Doris, her once so delicately curled hair pulled back off her face and held by a clip, glared at the women, who sat hunched in their emaciated bodies, picking at their skirts.  ‘Look at those sexy old ladies, they’re pulling their skirts right up above their knees  again.  It’s disgusting.  Tell them to stop.’  Then she swivelled her searchlights and  announced with disdain, ‘Old saggy arse is off again,’ as Gilbert, his trousers hanging loose, hands straining on his frame, limped to the toilet.  Finally she focussed through the mist at me;  ‘Colston!  I haven’t seen you for years.’

‘And where do you live?’  Betty asked pleasantly.

‘I live near Bakewell.’  

‘Oh Derbyshire!  Nice there.’

They sat around the room, dressed in an odd assortment of might-have-beens and cast me downs,  each with a coloured paper hat on their head.  Some rocked backward and forwards.  A few were asleep.  Most just stared.   Marjorie, her face a tragic mask, reached out to anybody who passed, and kept up a constant cry of ‘Nobody loves me’.  It was true.  Few relatives had bothered.  Those that were there looked round in panic, trapped, desperately seeking rescue but having to endure the tragic chaos of second childhood, the hopeless stench of stale urine and cold gravy.          

Bright plastic musical instruments, tambourines, castanets, drums, bits of a xylophone, lay abandoned next to the oranges and sweets, the arrangements of plastic holly and poinsettia.  A large Christmas tree had been erected in the corner,  its dark green plastic bottle brushes hung with angels and stars and flashing desolation.  The bus stop in the hallway was decorated with imitation holly and fake snow.   More plastic holly was wedged above framed photographs of Vera Lynn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Flanagan and Allen,  Winston Churchill, the Queen’s Coronation and the posters advertising Guinness, Fry’s Five Boys, Ah Bisto and Ovaltine.   There was a large card pinned to the notice board. ‘Merry Christmas to all our residents from the staff at Silverdales’.   A big bunch of imitation mistletoe was suspended from a hook on the ceiling, but nobody kissed.  There were no paper chains or loops of folded crepe paper.   ‘Health and Safety Regulations!, the carer declared with an upward tilt of her head.  Then she announced, ‘Shall we play some carols?’  There was a little response.  Most just continued to stare, rock, pick at their noses and shout out.  Only George repeated ‘Carols’, with any enthusiasm,  mimicking  the carer’s jolly tones.

‘Oh so you’d like that, George.’  And with that, she turned the music up loud and Crosby’s honeyed voice thickened  with mock sincerity, entuned a familiar commercial sequence, ‘Jingle Bells, White Christmas,  Winter Wonderland’ – all the old favourites.   Some banged, rattled or tinkled an accompaniment.   Others just beat time with their hands on the arms of their chairs.  Most just sat and stared.  A few joined in with an occasional phrase and word.    And then the chords started up for Silent Night and Deborah lifted her head, took a deep breath  and sang, her voice high and clear, a note of hope that swelled and filled the room, perfectly pitched above the desolation and chaos.    The rattling, banging, shouting all ceased;   even Harry halted his patrol and listened.  John leant forward and stroked Beryl’s face with the back of his hand.  I looked across at Marjorie, her worried frown had softened and at the corner of one eye a tear glistened , filled and slowly ran down her cheek.

0645 GMT  07/12/10

Successful expedition.  Grytviken basking in balmy zero.   Back on shelf at minus 14, well stocked with lamp oil, whalemeat, blubber, pickled cabbage and two bottles of aquavit!!  Freezing fog.  When we speak, the words stay in the air and hang around outside the tent.  Voice message from Oates there last night.  Unrepeatable, poor chap! 


0755 GMT 2.12.10.

Snow flurries overnight but pressure rising.  Blizzard yesterday made transport impossible; even sledges didn’t run.  By 6pm, snow tractor got through.  Now stuck in drift. Troops digging out.  Mount Sheffield completely cut off.  No radio contact. 

Supplies will last another week.  Plenty of logs for oven.  Bags of flour, so can make bread.  Half a cauliflower and a few potatoes, two cans of chick peas, pasta and rice and lots of spice.  Oates gone, but lots of muesli.  Huskies hungry – don’t like the way they stare at me and salivate.  Must let them go.    

Please arrange air drop of skis, brandy, tomatoes and onions.    

Predicted minus ten tonight, breaking out winter duvet.

Chin up, as always. 


PS. Who needs the Gulf Stream anyway?

It wasn’t that she was meant to set fire to the hospital.  It just happened.  Well, it had been a long day and he had been on at her again!    ‘Have you recruited more volunteers?  Where’s the revisions on the protocol?  And have I seen the data from your last set of experiments yet?  Karen, how do you expect to get your PhD unless you work until you drop and then get up and work again.’  I mean, what was this guy on?    

So she cancelled her dinner engagement with Rob and stayed late again, agreeing to meet him for a drink when she’d finished.  But she was hungry.   Was there anything in this Godforsaken hole that she could eat.  Ah, the baked beans!  She fed them to her volunteers and measured the hydrogen they exhaled.  There were cans of them stacked all around the room, enough to launch a Zeppelin.  OK, she’d fart all night but what the hell.  She was hungry. 

So she opened a can and stuck it on a tripod and lit the Bunsen burner.  Then the phone rang in the office.   ‘Could we talk about this last set of experiments.’  ‘Could you open up the database and just check…..’   By the time she’d finished, she’d forgotten all about her beans.    Bloody smoke alarm was blaring somewhere.  But, it was always going off.   Fuck it, she was late and needed a glass of wine.  And now the bastard lift wasn’t working and something had happened to the lights.  Nothing for it but the stairs, but she was on the eleventh floor.   

It still didn’t register when she saw the fire engines.  There were five of them lined up in the road, sirens still blaring,  blue lights sweeping the buildings on either side.  Firemen in helmets and bright yellow overalls with axes and torches were tumbling from the cabs and rushing past her to the stairs.  Funny time for a fire drill, she thought, as she rushed out into the cool night air. 

Rob was none too pleased about being kept waiting, but he could see she was flustered,  ‘Did you get anything to eat, love?’ he asked.

She stared  at him, with focussing, unfocussed,  then  her eyes grew wide and her mouth opened    ‘Oh fuck! Oh fuck, fuck, fuck!      

They’d started evacuating the patients by the time she got back.  Some were standing there in little groups, shivering in their light green hospital dressing gowns, more were coming out in chairs or on stretchers.  She tried to get in but a policeman stopped her. ‘You can’t go in there miss; there’s a bomb.’

‘No there isn’t, it’s only a can of beans.’

‘Aye, you might say that, but move along now.’

When she got back to Rob’s, the news was on.  ‘We break into the programme to report a possible terrorist attack on Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital.’  She listened in shocked silence.  She could see it all, the beans charring, catching fire, setting the papers and the boxes alight, the cans exploding, the sprinklers going off, the lights shorting, panic, evacuation.  Oh fuck!  It was the only thing she could say. 

It was all over the newspapers the next morning.  Terrorist attack in Sheffield!  There were even  questions in the house.  ‘Why had the right honourable gentleman ignored our warnings?’  ‘Why hadn’t this government improved security in our public institutions?  Why had they cut funds to the fire service and the police?    There was no way the government, already in trouble, could survive a vote of no confidence.  They held  a snap election and lost.  ‘Fired’, the headlines screamed.  The Conservatives got in on a ticket of Health and Safety.  And six months later, Britain joined the Americans and declared war on Iran.

It’s all chaos. A butterfly flaps its wings in West Africa and there’s a typhoon in the South China Sea.   Karen cooks beans on toast ……. and well, anything could happen.

The carers leave notes for each other on the wall above the work surface in her kitchen.  The one this morning read,  ‘If the district nurse or any member of the family ask you to help them move Doris, you must say NO!’ 

I went through to the bedroom.  Mum was half lying, half sitting on pillows, wild eyed, without teeth, without hearing aids or glasses.  I was shocked.  I put her teeth and hearing aids in, put her glasses on and asked Rosina to help me get her up.  She looked scared and refused.  ‘I’m not allowed.’  So I manoeuvred mum out of bed onto the wheelchair and wheeled her into the sitting room and danced with her onto the sofa,  where we settled down and thumbed through old photos of Bristol.  When the next carer arrived, I asked if they would change her pad.  Rosina looked doubtful but Joanne said ‘of course.’    Afterwards, as she was going, Rosina told me there was faeces in it and they weren’t allowed to deal with solids. 

Later,  Cheryl rang from the office and told me she had talked to the rapid response dementia team, the district nurse, the physiotherapist and they were all of the opinion that mum had to go into hospital.  ‘It takes two carers to help Doris onto the commode or to change a pad.  And they cannot deal with solid matter’. 

I sighed, ‘Health and safety.’ 

‘Nick you would not believe how many regulations there are these days.’ 

‘I would, Cheryl, I would.  But the bottom line is that if mum goes into hospital, she will die, and I don’t want her to go like that.’ 

I had visions of her waiting around behind a curtain in Casualty for hours and then being going  to a crowded and noisy admissions ward.  So I announced: ‘Why don’t I be on call, Cheryl.  I can call in twice a day to lift her.’  

‘But, Nick, you will need to be in all the time –  even through the night.  You will not get any sleep.  And how are you going to deal with her if she is incontinent of faeces?’

‘Well, I will just have to be less squeamish.  Can’t we at least try it?’ 

Mum had rallied with me there that afternoon and I didn’t want to abandon her now.

‘No Nick, I really think we have come to the end of the line.’

It had all started after the fall.  The carer had left her alone in the bathroom and gone into the kitchen to make breakfast when she heard a crash.  The doctor decided she hadn’t broken anything, but thought she had a chest infection.  He prescribed oral morphine, which I withheld because I felt it would hasten a slide into hospital. 

But now there seemed no alternative, so I telephoned the GP and arranged for mum to be admitted to a private hospital over the weekend.  Four hours later and the ambulance still hadn’t arrived.  ‘Oh, it’s Friday night and they will be out on 999 calls.’  Mum was exhausted and sinking, so I dialled  999. 

‘Oh no, squire’, said the paramedic, who was built like a rugby player.  ‘Our rules are we have to take her to casualty at the Northern General and then they can take her to St Benedict’s after that.’ 

‘But she’s already got a bed in St Benedict’s.’ 

Eventually he agreed as a favour, but explained how much trouble he would get into if his supervisors knew.  ‘It’s not me squire.  It’s the regulations. You’ve just got to be so careful these days. But she’ll like it here.  They’ve got shower gel!    

St Benedict’s was quiet and peaceful.  Mum settled into a comfortable bed and went to sleep. 

The next day, they phoned me at 8.30am and requested a deposit of £2500.  I gave my credit card details and then asked to be put through to the ward. I was connected to the consultant, who explained with great grace that they had taken an Xray and would begin to mobilise her if there was not a fracture. 

But when I arrived, she was fast asleep and unresponsive.   They had not got her out of bed.  She had been incontinent overnight and she was not swallowing water.  

I talked to the sister. ‘We’re a busy ward.  There are surgical patients and children.  Your mum needs a lot of attention and it’s the weekend. I don’t have the staff.’ 

Can nobody help care for mum?  I have encouraged them to put up a drip and give IV fluids, they have catheterised her.  I know when meal times are and will go and try to get some of that delicious cottage pie down her. 

I suspect their attitude is to let her die with dignity.  That’s fine, but although she is 94,  mum’s heart is healthy and she is physically quite strong.  She needs the kind of 24 hour one on one attention the carers were giving her at home, but she will never get that in hospital.    In the meantime, they give her lovely food but she can’t feed herself,  they provide drink but she won’t drink it,  they prescribe mobilisation but the physio looks after the whole ward and doesn’t have the time to get her up on her feet and mum is too frightened. 

She’s now been in St Benedict’s for three days and there’s a change.  It’s like she has lost hold of her life.  When I arrived yesterday, she was slumped in a chair, desperate, pleading, ‘Oh please, oh, please Nick, pulling at the sheets on the bed, plucking at her drip, trying to sit up.  I put her hearing aid in and tried to communicate but when she responded, it was with half a sentence.  ‘I want to go …. Get me out ….. Nurses…… Toilet’ .   She recognised me, stared at me desperately before her eyes seemed to cloud and look away. 

I phoned the consultant.  ‘It will be a long haul to get her back to where she was before she came in, if she ever gets back.  Over the next few days, we will get her over the infection and try to encourage her to feed herself and walk, but I suspect this will take more time than we have got.   You will need to get her in to a nursing home.  

I guess mum had been on the brink for some time,  kept going by the constant round the clock attention of her carers.  It would only take a moment’s neglect; a fall plus the rigid application of  regulations and she was suddenly in a place where they couldn’t help.   I sense her terror.  I hold her and she quietens a little but as soon as I let go, she’s back in her own version of hell.   And what now?  She certainly can’t go back.  She will go to a nursing home.  They will keep her body alive , they will feed her, give her drinks, turn her, manage pressure sores.  I can only pray that her mind has  long gone by then,  she has released her fierce grip on life and resigned to oblivion.  

People say that the British have the best care system in the world.  It’s not true.  The boost in NHS funds may have enhanced the efficiency of health provision, but it has not improved care.  Care requires flexibility and compassion.  It takes human understanding to know how to work within the rules to provide what a patient needs.  All too often regulations lead to restriction and a withholding of care.    

He’s one of those awkward people,  too tall and not quite coordinated.  He doesn’t so much walk   and bounce along on the balls of his feet, his body held forward as if nearly falling over.  it’s like he is not of this world. He seems out of place, confused as if he can’t make out what he is meant to do.  He’s not rude.  In fact there is something endearing about him.  We want to laugh, but we would not wish to hurt his feelings.  But you get the impression he wouldn’t notice.   

He is one of those slightly odd  anti-heroes who confound and irritate the hell out of those who take themselves too seriously.   Playing tennis, he  has his own idiosyncratic method of serving, a back and forth movement of the racquet as if he was putting a pizza in the oven and then a smack, leaving his more professional opponents muttering darkly.  But don’t we love him just because he has a go?  His  car breaks down at the funeral gates but when he opens the boot to get his tools, the inner tube rolls into the wet leaves where it is mistaken by the funeral director as a wreath and hung on the tomb.  The wreath deflates but the mourners pretend not to notice and come up to shake M. Hulot’s hand for his courtesy.   And of course, it‘s Monsieur Hulot who gets to dance with the pretty girl, but there is no hint of guile or seductiveness is his behaviour.  He is just enjoying the innocent fun of being  Monsieur ‘Ulot on ‘oliday.   

If it wasn’t French, we would say that Monsieur Hulot’s holidays is a charming example of British humour,  the precursor of Mr Bean and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but it’s more subtle than either of those.  M. Hulot is not so much a belly laugh as a whimsical set of observations of people doing the sort of things that people do on holiday.  We are laughing at ourselves.  Jacques  Tati has a wonderful knock of holding up a mirror saying with just a hint of a smile,   ‘aren’t we all a bit absurd when we think about it?’

We had completed the first set of asanas and were just relaxing into the pranayamas

‘Now alternative nostril breathing.’  Pinch your nose between the thumb and ring finger of your right hand, breathe in through the right nostril,  close the right nostril, breathe out through the left, breath in through the left’.

‘What are you doing?’ 

A man, in his thirties, I’d guess,  looking somewhat weatherbeaten, and dressed in a black waterproof tracksuit sat cross-legged in front of us.  He was clutching a plastic bottle containing beer and proceeded to roll a cigarette.  I felt a bit wary, but he seemed ok. 

‘We’re doing yoga.’

‘Oh I know yoga.  Ali Akbar.  It makes you fit.’

‘ Yes. You can join in if you like.’ 

He looked at me curious, undecided.    

I carried on.  ‘Close the left nostril, breathe out through the right, in through the right, close the right nostric, breathe out through the left…..’ I sneaked a look at him.  He was looking perplexed but I didn’t want to have a conversation with him.  We were after all engaged in spiritual exercises

‘I had a few drinks with me mates last night.  I was so tired, I covered myself with cardboard and went to sleep by the motorway. 

 ‘I walked over here this morning.  I’m going to meet a friend.  She’s got a big belly.’  He winked at me. ‘You know what I mean.  I want to congratulate her’

I abandoned alternate nostril breathing and went to the next exercise.  Take a deep breath through your nose and then breath out and make a humming noise.  As you breathe in count up to five and as you breathe out, count down from 10.’  We all took a noisy breath in, held it and hummed for about 15 seconds.  Then we took another deep breath in, ….    My eyes were closed but I could hear him muttering. 

‘Now lie down in sharvasana.’  We lay flat on our backs.  Hands slightly away from your body, legs slightly apart, breathe gently through your nose.’

‘Ah that’s relaxation, that’s good for you,’  he muttered.

I went through the routine of progressive muscular relaxation.  My eyes were closed.  He was quiet.  I didn’t know whether he was joining in or not. 

‘Now as you lie there, you will be very sensitive to the things around you, the distant hum of traffic, the sounds of the birds, the gentle hiss of the river, the smell of a cigarette,  a light breeze blowing over your face and the faint heat from the sun permeating your skin and spreading into all the cells of your body.  We lay still and quiet, emptying our minds.  I lost all thought of him. . 

After about 10 minutes silence, I said, ‘Just move your hands and feet and keeping your eyes closed, sit up in a meditative posture.  Rub your palms together, place them over your eyes.  Feel the warmth of your hands.  Feel your eyes, your forehead relax.’   I was aware he was joining in. ‘Now take your hands away, open your eyes, blink a little.  Look around.  Say an affectionate Namaskar to the people around you.’  We put our palms together and held them close to our chest in an attitude of prayer and bent towards him and said ‘Namaskar’.   He repeated the gesture.  

‘What’s that mean?’

‘It’s a hindi greeting.’

‘On Hindi, that’s India isn’t it?  I can speak all those languages; hindi, urdu – all of them. 

‘That’s good, I said, so you’ll know this. 

I put my palms together again and together we chanted, Ooohhm, shahnti, shahnti, shahnti-ji   

In our own time, we stood up.  He got to his feet too.  ‘My names Rick.  It’s nice to meet you’.  He then shook hands with each of us.  I thought for a moment he was going to hug me but perhaps my look of apprehension put him off.

 ‘Take care.’  I said.   

‘God bless you’, he replied and looking in my eyes, added, ‘I mean that.’

Dimbola Lodge, home of Mrs Julia Margaret Cameron, lies just a mile from Freshwater Bay at the foot of the chalk ridge that rises high above the sea and extends all the way to the Needles.  Alfred, Lord  Tennyson, the poet laureate, who lived just down the road at Farringford, was her neighbour; their estates were connected by a private gateway. 

The Tennysons had moved to Farringford Lodge to escape the attentions of celebrity, but people followed him there.  It became a place of pilgrimage.  Tennyson affected not to enjoy the attention he attracted; he even had a bridge build over the road so he could walk up onto his beloved High Down without being seen.  But he disliked the lack of attention more. Bad reviews would cause him to fret for weeks, so much so that Emily, his wife, took pains to hide bad reviews from him, and Julia even wrote good reviews which were published anonymously.  It was largely due to the eccentric energy of Mrs Cameron that there was a constant stream of visitors (pilgrims) to her Tennysonian  salon, where guests feasted on Indian cuisine and erudite conversation with the laureate.  West Wight attracted the luminaries of the day including  Charles Darwin, the repressed pre-Raphaelite painter GF Watts and his child bride, the actress Ellen Terry,  Elizabeth Barrett Browning,  The Reverend Dodgson (Lewis Carroll,  who had a thing about little girls), the astronomer John Herschel, Thackeray, Charles Kingsley, George du Maurier, Edward Lear, Anthony Trollope, Henry Longfellow.  Julia even got Alfred to send an invitation to John Ruskin but received this dusty reply,  ‘Thank you, you’ve got nothing there but chalk and sand.’   Ruskin was not a man to indulge in frivolity and humour          

 Julia was in love with Alfred,  but he was faintly amused by her ardour, which he regarded as quite understandable though he thought her photographs made him look like a dirty monk.  She arrived at Dimbole Lodge shortly after the Tennysons and stayed on when her husband, who was much older than her returned to India.  Julia was a woman of great impulses and enthusiasms.  She came from a large family with connections in the East India Company.  The three sisters were known as Dash, Beauty and Talent.  Julia was the most clever but the least beautiful.  She was always trying to please, but never quite hit the mark.  When Alfred said he liked white roses, she had all the roses in her garden painted white, but the great man failed to call.  Spurned by Tennyson and neglected by Cameron, Julia devoted her formidable energies to the developing art of photography.  She mastered the techniques for coating glass plates with a colloid of light sensitive chemicals and would capture romantic images featuring strong bearded men, like Tennyson and Watts, striking pre-Raphaelite women and cute children.  Julia almost single handedly invented the art of photographic portraiture.  She liked the natural, not to say wild look and by skilful combination of camera angles and lighting, could emphasise the personality etched into a person’s face.  She even washed Hershel’s white hair and made it stick up to create a perpetual air of astronomical surprise.   

Tea parties at Dimbola tended towards the eccentric.   There was the brooding presence of Watts, the histrionic Terry, the strange Reverend Dodgeson and Tennyson, who was quite oblivious to everything except his own eminence.  Many a time her guests were alarmed by screams and a photographic plate would come skimming over the grass and smash against the wall.  People didn’t communicate very much and strange things tended to happen.  It seemed an ideal setting for Alice’s adventures in Wonderland.    

Now Dimbola is a local art gallery, staging frequent exhibitions as well as displaying a permanent collection of Julia’s work.  A statue of Jimi Hendrix, who died just three weeks after the 1970 Isle of Wight pop festival dominates the strip of lawn in the front of the house. I asked the man in the bookshop, a member of the local Tennyson society, what Mrs Cameron would have thought of the statue He was in no doubt. ‘Oh, if she could cope with a Victorian pop star like Tennyson with all of his antisocial and insanitary habits’, she would have had no problem with Hendrix.  She supported creativity, no matter what form it took. He would have been a welcome guest to her island salon. There would have been a clash with His Lordship the laureate though. He couldn’t tolerate rivals and he hated noise and crowds.’

Eleanor Rigby  picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been , lives in a dream,

waits at the window wearing the face that she’s kept in a jar by the door.  What is it for?  


Father Mackenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear; no one comes near. 

 Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there.  What does he care?


Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.

Father Mackenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave.  No one was saved.


All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

All the lonely people where do they all belong?



She’s a strange girl; pretty in a child like way.  She dresses in a frock and big boots, she collects smooth pebbles that she skims on canals, works in a cafe in Montmartre and lives by herself in an apartment block with other lonely people, Raymond, an artist with brittle bones, who constantly retouches his copy of Renoir’s ‘Le dejeuner des canotieres’, Madeleine,  the concierge abandoned by her husband who escaped with his mistress to South America, the greengrocer, Collignon, who bullies his assistant, and the stewardess who is rarely there but leaves her cat for Amelie to care for.  

 Amelie is quiet and introspective; she keeps herself to herself.  She lives in her own world.  Her mother, who was always afraid of what might happen,  was killed upon emerging from Notre Dame by a Quebecois, who committed  suicide by leaping off the tower.   Her father, a surgeon, cold and clinical, builds a shrine in the garden topped by the garden gnome her mother hated.  He decided many years ago that Amelie had a heart complaint because her heart raced whenever he listened to it through his stethoscope.  She didn’t.  It was just that she craved her father’s affection and these weekly examinations were the only contact she had with him.  Deprived of emotional contact all her life,  Amelie grew up wary of society.

Her life changed on the 29th August 1997.  The radio was on when the news  broke of Princess Diana’s tragic death in the tunnel by the Seine.   Amelie was in the bathroom.  The top fell off the perfume bottle she was holding, rolled across the floor and dislodged a tile at the bottom of the wall.  Amelie knelt down, felt in the gap behind the tile and pulled out a rusty tin containing childhood treasures; the photograph of a footballer, a model of the winner of the Tour de France, a toy racing car.  Amelie recognised the emotional significance of her discovery and was determined to find the owner and return his memories, but she can’t reveal herself.   So she concocts the elaborate device of ringing the phone booth he is passing so that he finds the box she has left there for him.  This instigates her mission in life, to help others cope with their loneliness by a clandestine series of good deeds,  each conducted indirectly with quirky imagination and providing her with a  secret social connection.       

She wants her father to get out more.  So she steals the garden gnome and gives it to the stewardess, who photographs it at all the tourist venues and sends the polaroids to her father’s address.   It works.  Her father decides to travel.  There is a news item of the discovery of objects that survived an air crash on Mont Blanc.  Using words and phrases photocopied from his old love letters, she creates a last letter to Madeleine expressing his sincere and undying affection.   She engenders a passion between one of the cafe’s regulars, an oddball who records the comings and goings on his dictaphone and Georgette,  the cigarette vendor.  And she destabilises the bullying greengrocer by sabotage and practical jokes so that he begins to doubt his own sanity and his assistant becomes more confident.   

But she discovers a kindred spirit poking around under a passport photo booth at Le Gare de l’Est.  There is eye contact, a recognition, but both are so wary.  She follows him.  In trying to discover the identity of the mystery man who repeatedly leaves his photos in the rubbish bin, he drops his bag and she finds the album he has created of scraps of photos from the booth.  She finds that he works in a porn shop during the day and on the ghost train at the funfair in the evenings.  His name is Nino. She stalks him and returns his book by luring him to a viewpoint telescope, which reveals her holding up his album and placing it in the bag on his bike.  Now it is her turn to be stalked.  He finds where she works and where she lives and after numerous escapes and evasions, and assisted by Raymond’s insight, who has recognised Amelie in the girl drinking water at the centre of his painting, they find the love they have both craved all their lives.           

From a social perspective, loneliness is the most common ailment of our time.   Between 35 and 40% of adults in the UK and probably more in the USA are living alone with just the television and the computer for company.    With little opportunity to make meaningful contact with other people,  except perhaps through the dubious media of email and text messaging,  people find it difficult to work through their fears and despair and many develop depression and a variety of physical symptoms.  And, like Amelie, too many children are deprived of emotional contact and numbed by television and gameboy, so that they lose the confidence to interact with anything resembling community even if it were there.  This is no training for life.  Like other social species, human beings all too readily succumb to isolation and become ill.

Amelie craves love; that complete security that comes from feeling really understood and cared for, but how can she find this when she is so nervous of people?   She is too scared to live and will only find the soul mate she is searching for in somebody with similar life experience; otherwise there is always the risk that her naivety will be exploited.  But their route to bliss is, like love making in porcupines,  going to be extremely difficult with so many mistakes, evasions and misunderstandings and so much pain.   One false step and communication will be severed and their dreams destroyed.   But this is make believe, a film, it has to leave us with hope and they have help from a guardian angel with brittle bones.   

 Amelie or ‘Le Fabuleux Destin de Amelie Poulain’  is a bitter sweet comedy on loneliness directed by Jean Pierre Jeunet in 2001 with Audrey Tautou playing the leading role to shy perfection.  All the nuances of loneliness, shyness, fear, suspicion, oddness and paranoia,  are so well observed by Jeunet.  There’s a dream-like quality in French film, that encourages  quiet reflection on human relationships.  

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