Some South Woodford scribbles from DD, our resident diarist, commentator and observer of all things local
I can’t remember if I told you about the mouse. Not the mouse that died in my tablecloth drawer some years ago. I had to get Manu over the road to come and remove that one. This was a more recent mouse. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel squeamish about this one, so tiny and lifeless, tucked into the bend in the stair. I planned to fetch my dustpan and brush after breakfast to sweep him up and find him a more fitting final resting place. I was quite sad. He would, at least, have been some company at the beginning of lockdown. But it was not to be: when I returned, he wasn’t there. Sadness gave way swiftly to suspicion. “If there’s one mouse,” I thought, “there are probably two. More even.” Swift action advisable. Out with the Yellow Pages. Round came Mark Thurbin from Better Pest Control to inspect, assess and treat. A kindly man. A lover of animals, I sensed. But only in their rightful place. I was confident my mouse would have a pain-free ending. How different my sister’s experience in Sri Lanka when rats invaded. The rat-catcher arrived and offered her a “truly humane rat-trap.” Sounded ideal. “But what do I do once I’ve got the rat in the humane rat-trap?” she asked. I think I should draw a veil over his bloodcurdling response, particularly if you are reading this shortly after a meal.
There is much help on hand in London E18. One of our neighbours delivers the Metro in the morning and the Evening Standard later in the day. We quarantine most of the food that comes into the house but we take a chance with the papers. They’re no use three days old, are they? I recall a touching incident in Nigel Hawthorne’s autobiography (star of Yes Minister and The Madness of King George). He was in Cairo for filming and was delighted when a small boy appeared selling The Times. At a price. But minutes later, he realised it was several weeks old. He set off angrily in pursuit and claimed his money back. Then stopped, ashamed, observing the child’s rapidly retreating bare feet and torn shirt. He tried for days to track him down and make amends. And he did. Currently, I’m reading Dr David Owen’s In Sickness and in Power. An extraordinary account of the many occasions when prime ministers and presidents have had their medical conditions concealed from the public. Sometimes with far-reaching international significance. Whatever else I might think about Boris, I respect his very public willingness to be photographed smiling from his intensive care bed in London.
My partner discovered Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels on my bookshelves. I can look up from my book and sense that he is breathing in the aroma of Gauloises and garlic in some seedy Parisian back street, or strolling in imagination along the banks of the Seine towards the Prefecture de Police on the Quai des Orfevres. By the way, his tomatoes are ripening fast. We carefully bisected the very first one: it was only about an inch in diameter, but it was a brief, sweet (self-congratulatory) foretaste of the crop to come. It’s probably an illusion, but “home-grown” does seem to mean “fuller flavour”. The first radishes had quite a kick. The uprooting of the first beetroot was a significant, ceremonial moment, notwithstanding the fact that you can buy a whole cluster of ready-cooked ones at the International Supermarket for about 75 pence. We have no aspirations to self-sufficiency like TV’s Tom and Barbara living their Good Life in Surbiton. But there are some faint echoes of our childhood: in the wartime, some neighbours kept pigs, with the whole street contributing to their rich diet of vegetable peelings. My partner remembers his mother preserving fresh eggs in a stone jar filled with isinglass in the cupboard under the stairs. My family tended to focus on fruit rather than vegetables: raspberries, redcurrants, gooseberries, apples. We had an Anderson shelter dug out under the garden lawn with corrugated iron over the top. But there was no self-distancing. Quite the opposite. There were no electric gates and iron railings. Rarely a lock on the back door. You chatted over the garden fence; you didn’t hide behind it. And our enemy was known and visible. Wretched to think of it now when we freely visit, say, Cologne or Dresden. Our enemy now is less known and less visible. And oblivious to all man-made boundaries. Perhaps this is the closest the world has ever come to a shared unity of purpose. Will we capitalise on it?
Regular readers may recall my dissatisfaction with the soup I felt I should make to use up the surplus of cucumbers in our “basics box”. One reader very kindly put a note through my door supplying a recipe for tarragon and cucumber lemonade. “Well worth making,” she wrote. I read with raised hopes, but they were somewhat dampened when I discovered that after all the grating, blending and straining, the finished product was still going to be better “with a dash of gin”.
As a life-long lover of words, I am watching with interest as our language takes “a great leap forward” during this pandemic, adapting familiar terms to embrace unique new circumstances. We’ve become accustomed to the notion of “self-isolating” and “social distancing”, but more recently we’ve been “creating bubbles” with other families. Some of the most vulnerable citizens have been “shielding”, others have been “furloughed”. I suppose I should consider carefully whether I am sufficiently “woke”. Not to mention “hashtagged”. I’m no purist; I relish the fact that language is a living and evolving organism. Otherwise, we’d still be talking Anglo-Saxon. I’ll do my best to keep up to date, but meanwhile, dear friends, I’ll plough on with my diary in my probably old-fashioned way, and hope to entertain you through, and out at the other end of, these mysterious times.