95 Today!

My mother is 95 today, and undiminished. Of course, she’s incapable of a marathon, but with the aid of a walking frame, and the motorised buggy she drives around Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer, she’s perfectly capable of fending for herself, as well as providing for an ever-growing menagerie of stray cats – ‘the breakfast club’ as she calls it –  mostly strays on the make who’ve recognised a good deal when they’ve seen one.

Mentally she’s as acute as ever, and as provocative, mischievous and argumentative. She’s an avid reader, a critical viewer of the afternoon soaps, and still up to the demands of University Challenge and Mastermind. If she complains about anything, it is only of the boredom of old age, but there is clearly much to keep her entertained and exasperated.

Dressed for this year’s Easter Bonnet competition.

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Though most of them have chosen intellectual retirement, my mother likes to discuss the political and cultural issues of the day with the other elderly residents of the community where she lives in Salisbury. She’s an outspoken atheist, socially liberal, politically Conservative, pro-EU, refugee-tolerant, and she’s quick, indeed eager, to see dishonesty, self-interest, pretension, arrogance and insincerity in almost everyone in public life. She loved Margaret Thatcher and loathes Tony Blair (at least she has loathed him consistently, whereas I only loathed him after he got started with Iraq). She can’t bear false piety, or affectation. She hates pomposity, and officiousness. She can’t bear whining.

There are also a few things that she likes. She likes animals. She likes poetry and music. Above all, she likes her own country. She has travelled widely, but late in a long life has formed the view that British is always best, whether it’s a matter of gastronomy, landscape, politics, justice, or kindness to animals. Garlic, above all, must be avoided. She likes a drink or two, and would drink a little more if it weren’t that a single glass topples her.

Her low opinion of human nature has led her to see innocence only in animals, and she’s quicker to write a cheque for ailing donkeys than for the conventionally underprivileged human. I differ with her on the question of human nature. She sees the world as a worse place than when she was born: I see it as a better place, and getting better all the time. Animals, as far as I’m concerned, aren’t moral beings capable of good or evil.

My mother was born Grace Evelyn Tizard in Portland, Dorset, on the south coast of England. Her father was a quarryman, her mother a domestic servant brought up in a harsh Workhouse School in north London. She inherited from her mother the conviction that good things only come from hard honest work, and that laziness and luxury sap the soul. I have, in turn, inherited those views. ‘I want never gets’ was the constant refrain of my childhood.

She won a scholarship to Grammar School in the mid-1930s, and joined the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service when war broke out in 1939. She’d long thought that war was inevitable, and had no time for Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. She spent the war years calibrating guns and assisting with the development of radar on the cliff tops of southern England and Wales.

In 1944, despite her admiration for Churchill, she voted Labour, for the first and, so far, the only time.  The war years were hard, but possibly the happiest years of her life. As for many women of her background the war was liberating, bringing new, wider possibilities in its train.

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On demobilisation she studied at a teacher-training college in Cheltenham, and from then until the 1980s she taught at a number of state primary schools. She was a firm but fair teacher and had no problem with discipline.

She met my father, an Army Major, in 1954 and they enjoyed a happy marriage until his death in 2003. She was undoubtedly the more articulate, thoughtful and opinionated of the two, and he the more conventional. Since his death, my mother has expressed her opinions without restraint, and she cares little for others’ opinion of her. If there are those who disagree with her, they must make their case intelligently, and expect to see it demolished if it’s weak. I share her approach on such matters.

She is a woman of strong views. On a good day that can be invigorating. On a bad day…..well, it’s her birthday, so let’s put that aside for the moment.

If she can avoid physical dependency and retain her wits and wit, she’ll gladly live to a hundred. Fingers crossed.

Breakfast in Heaven

Despite the entreaties of the breakfast cereal manufacturers, a plate of sweet mush is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a good breakfast. My own demands are simple – a good strong cup of tea (the more proletarian the better) with milk and no sugar – preferably not Darjeeling. As proletarian teas go (‘builders’ tea, as it’s often called) you can’t beat Fortnum and Mason’s Breakfast Blend, though Marks & Spencer’s Gold Blend comes a close second  if there isn’t a branch of Fortnum and Mason to hand (we are not blessed with a branch in the Czech Republic). Typhoo or Lipton Yellow Label will do at a pinch. Drink Sir Winston at your peril.

Bacon and eggs, a dangerous pleasure in any case, is a figment of the English Tourist Board. Croissants are pretentious.

Tea will do, and sometimes an apple.

But to get the day off to the best possible start you need a harp.

Harps are rare, and are generally to be found only in the concert hall or in the breakfast rooms of good hotels.

I am in Chisinau, proud capital of Moldova, enjoying a pot of strong black tea and the gentle sound of a harp. Both are a welcome distraction from the wrinkled mushrooms I unwisely selected as a low-calorie option from the buffet (I shall have to eat them since I don’t like waste).

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The harp is a difficult instrument. Well played it sounds gentle and calm, but if you look carefully there’s panic beneath the surface and some furious footwork going on below. Pedals are needed to lift or lower the strings a tone or two. And you must also be handy with a spanner so that you can constantly adjust the tuning of the strings, which slacken as you pluck them, and drift too easily out of tune.

The playing of this, presumably Moldovan, harpist is good, but the best I’ve ever heard was in the mid 1990s in Moscow when two harpists played together from the gallery of a breakfast room at another international-style hotel. From a distance they looked like twins, and I don’t doubt they were playing truant from the one of the great Moscow orchestras. They were the highlight of my day every day for two weeks, my time otherwise devoted to the enforcement of SunSystems in an ungrateful environment.

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Harps are also played by angels in heaven and I look forward, if my good deeds outweigh my sins,  to an eternity of gentle plucking as I consume bowls of breakfast, lunch and dinner manna (which I suspect will taste like Corn Flakes). In Hell they make do with children who are just starting to play the trumpet, or groups of Andean flute tooters, or Jazz. Reasons to be good.

The harp is holy, and pure, and if you’re blessed with it at breakfast you begin the day with energy, holiness, joy, generosity and optimism. If you’re not at a hotel and your budget doesn’t run to a domestic harpist then at the very least you can choose the harp option on your iPhone alarm. There is no better way of waking up unnaturally.