Otterly Amazing: 2018

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This is certainly an Otterly Amazing tea towel, for a number of reasons, and comes with an Otterly Amazing story.  I bought it in Aberdeen, in the Cath Kidston shop.  I am not a fan of the Cath Kidston floral prints; nothing against her designs, but I am not a floral sort of a person.  However, when I saw this tea towel, I was very taken with it.  Was it those cute little otters, especially the one who is waving their paw? Or was it that stunning pink?  Because it is a very pink, pink.  Not a girly pink, or a Barbie pink, just magnificent and certainly not the sort of colour you associate with otters.

The trip to Aberdeen was definitely Otterly Amazing, from the moment we arrived at Birmingham Airport.  This was only the second time we had travelled by plane, with Liz dependent on a wheelchair.  The first trip was without a hitch, not so the second.

The Special Assitance Service has proved invaluable but because I am one of those people who need to get to an airport exceptionally early in order not to miss the plane, it is difficult to put my trust in other people to get us on board; but I have to say we haven’t been let down on the four journeys we have taken.  I suppose the process just heightens my anxiety levels.  The FlyBe flight was two and half hours late taking off; if you fly with an airline that is based on a quick turnaround, bad weather at one point in the day will always have a knock-on effect later in the chain.

We were meeting Liz’s sister and brother-in-law for an Early Bird dinner; I thought that the delay in the flight would not affect us getting there on time.  How naive can you be?  Aberdeen Airport has a taxi rank with, what I now understand to be, 57 wheelchair accessible taxis.  Should be able to get one, easily.  Haha!!  We stood in the queue for a taxi.  The first driver said he didn’t really know how to use them because they didn’t get disabled people at the airport.  That’s strange since our FlyBe flight carried three people with visible impairments.  Perhaps they knew better than to try a taxi.  He opened his car, put the ramp down and said the wheelchair wouldn’t fit in.  Liz reminded him that he needed to fold the back seat down.  He said he wasn’t doing that and signalled to the next passenger to get in, and they did without question, not even challenging the attitude of the driver.  The second driver said he had the same car as the first driver so took the next person in the queue.  Six drivers refused to take Liz; six passengers, without questioning this process, must have thought it was their lucky day.  At this point Liz was filling up with tears and said this was too humiliating and we were going by bus.  She turned round and started to wheel herself off, but with only one useful arm didn’t move at the speed she wanted to.  It wasn’t possible to ‘stomp off’ as a person who could walk would do.  I followed quickly, caught up, and pushed in the manner of a stomp.  The driver of the 727 bus was brilliant, waiting while we manoeuvred the wheelchair into position.

The kerfuffle  with taxis meant we were amazingly late, certainly missed the Early Bird Meal, and Lyn and Rob were so hungry.  We had to walk up Union Street, with a suitcase balanced on Liz’s lap.  Rob came and rescued us (well actually me because by this time I could hardly breathe); I don’t suppose Lyn expected to spend her Friday night on her own, in a restaurant, with no food.  But she had explained to the restaurant staff who were as angry as she was at the attitude of the taxi drivers.  They let us have the Early Bird Meal even though we were really outside our time limit.  Thank you Howie’s, on Chapel Street, for a generous attitude.

The story of the Airport Drivers of course went further because when the hotel receptionist asked if we had a good journey, they too were angry and gave us a card for a taxi firm (Com Cabs) who they recommended as excellent when taking passengers in wheelchairs.

As I write this now, a week later, I can still feel that sense of anger at the humiliation those six taxi drivers were willing to dish out, and at those six passengers who never questioned the driver’s willingness to take them but not Liz.  After a really nice meal, I got back to the hotel and thought I would use Twitter to express my frustration.

Twitter opened a floodgate.  Neil Drysdale, who writes for the Press and Journal, took up the issue, wrote an article (“How a trip to Aberdeen to spread her parents’ ashes turned sour for Liz Mackenzie”).  I assume he had contacted the Airport Taxis Operational Manager who contacted Liz, apologised profusely, explained how he dealt with the matter (and she couldn’t have asked for more), described the incident as “appalling” and then sent her a beautiful bouquet of flowers.  Com Cabs offered a free taxi ride the next time she was in Aberdeen, to show her how it can be done.  Aberdeen Airport Taxis asked her to contact them when she was next in Aberdeen and they would deal with her directly.

However, Liz has received some quite horrible Tweets, blaming her for her difficulties; she has blocked them but assumes it was one of the six taxi drivers.

The Otterly Amazing trip continued.  The reason we were there was to scatter the ashes of Liz and Lyn’s parents, to return their father to the city of his birth and reunite her parents with her aunts.  It was a beautiful sunny day, maybe a bit chilly.  This time there were two people using wheelchairs, Liz and her aunt.  There was no problem; so you see it can work smoothly.

There is a skill to the scattering of ashes; and everyone has a story to tell.  Our taxi driver told of a family gathering to do this and they were all so pleased to see each other that they left the ashes in the car.  Someone else told me a story about a former naval officer’s ashes being scattered at sea.  There was a regimental parade, in full dress uniform, whose uniforms were covered in ashes because they picked the wrong direction!  We were all so worried about the wind blowing the ashes but it was a still day.  What we didn’t take into account was how many ashes there would be (and how heavy they would be; thank goodness for Rob’s strength!!).  In the main, we got the wind direction right although Jean, in her wheelchair, managed to tip some of the ashes over Liz’s shoes.  That lightened the atmosphere!

Scattering of the ashes was followed by lunch at Gordon Highlanders Museum which was delightful.

How do you trust that if you order a taxi that they will take you if you are travelling in a wheelchair?  This is a problem if you need to book a taxi to take you to the airport; time is the essence.  In Aberdeen, Com Cabs came to the rescue.  If you can rely on the transport system, it takes all the anxiety out of travelling.  I remember the journalist Frank Gardiner, who uses a wheelchair, complaining about the fact that he was left on a plane, waiting for an ambi-lift for an hour and a half.  My belief is that this is less likely to happen if you are travelling on a plane with a quick turnaround than if you are travelling long distance where the plane might not leave again until the next day.

The scattering of ashes is an emotional experience for any family; you don’t need a fight with taxis as well.  But, somehow, there are people who understand how wrong that experience was and that helps.

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Postage Stamps: 2010

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I might have expected to buy this tea towel in the Postal Museum in London but actually it came from a cute shop on the Isle of Arran, along with the one of Monopoly.  I love the symmetry of the postage stamps lined up in rows.  As a Collector of lots of things, I could imagine being a Stamp Collector, but fortunately stamps are not something I want to collect, just admire from a distance.  And I’m very grateful for that.

Looking at the tea towel makes me think of the process I have been through recently when moving house: ‘downsizing’.  People talk about ‘downsizing’ or ‘decluttering’ frequently; they are fashionable words.  But serious ‘downsizing’ requires you to have thought about what you are going to do with the stuff that you no longer want, need or things you cannot find a place for.  If you are giving things to a charity shop you need to know whether everything will go to a charity of your choice or alternatively, whether you are spreading things across a number of different charities.  You don’t want to waste time deciding where to take things.

Maybe you want to give some things away to friends or relatives, where the items have a special meaning for them or you just want to give a gift to a friend.

If you are selling things, you need to know how you are going to do this: get an offer from a second-hand/vintage or antique shop, use eBay or any other internet site where you manage sales yourself, sell items in bulk or as individual items.

Downsizing for me, was an organised affair because I knew there were lots of things I no longer wanted.  To come to that decision, I had to be organised and I did give some to two charities, gave things to friends and have sold some things.  I have used eBay.  I like the idea that people can get use from things that I have finished with; it gives them a new lease of life.  Preloved, as we say.

I have probably sold more than 100 items; things that belonged to my parents where there’s no one left alive who would want these things.  I can’t add a clause in my will but there are people out there who want these things: Royal Artillery cuff links, a pack of playing cards, some silver earrings and so much more.  But the thing that has amazed me most is the story of my mother’s Denby Pottery vegetable dish which she acquired in about 1960.  I inherited two such dishes; they are green and both are a matching rectangular shape.  I loved them.  A number of years ago, I dropped, and therefore broke, the bottom of one of the dishes.  I was devastated.  I couldn’t get rid of it’s lid; it had a kind of sentimental value.  I had moved house three times and each time have taken this lid with me.  Why?  I could reason that it was in case I broke the lid from the other dish but that is ridiculous.  It is a heavy piece of china and quite cumbersome to move.  This year, after I had moved for the fourth time, I suddenly thought “Why not put it on eBay?”  That’s what I did and within less than 12 hours someone had bought it.  My only regret is that I never found out why they had bought it.  I’m sure that it would have made a good story.

But instead my use of eBay has meant that I have been to the post office more often than ever before.  Email may reduce the use of stamps for letters but eBay must have increased it.  Good old eBay!!

The Clan: 2018

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“Crisp, creased, cotton and crimson

With crimped edges framing

Cousins, children, Catherine and Christopher. 

Do not ridicule me.

I am not just a rectangular piece of purposeless cloth,

Nor worn towelling, lurking under the sink.

I am the plate for a digital image

Canvas for the artist

Paper for the sketcher.

There is a story to tell, a memory to respect.

I am the heirloom from your past,

A memoir of your unwritten history.

I can take you back in time

Or give you promise for the future.

I can make you laugh and smile

Or draw a salty tear

I can light your morning or calm the night.

I can bring sunshine and happiness, mystery and misery 

I am the key to your darkest secrets

Or the gateway to a new beginning.”

Last week, I enrolled on the second year of Creative Writing which is about poetry: reading poetry, writing poetry, discussing poetry.  I have to say that I was a bit sceptical about embarking upon a Poetry Course because (a) I have only ever written one poem in my life and that was more than 50 years ago and it was Nonsense Rhyme, already used in a Tea Towel Blog (b) I am not sure if poetry is a genre that I want to pursue.  Let’s face it, poetry is not necessarily the genre for Tea Towel Blogging.  But I decided that I needed to challenge myself, take myself out of my comfort zone, be creative.  So you, as a Reader, has the privilege of reading only the second poem I have ever written, inspired by a tea towel.

Fun with Boats: 2015

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It wasn’t long after I retired from work that I was given this tea towel by Steve.  Steve was a Trustee of the organisation I worked for, that organisation owned a narrow boat, accessible for disabled people to have a day out on the river.  Steve has a quirky sense of humour and clearly thought this would be a good reminder of what I was leaving behind at work.

I worked for 16 years at mosaic: shaping disability services; the organisation had owned a narrowboat all that time, yet I had never taken a trip on the narrowboat, Sunbeam.  I had been on the towpath to watch it sail down the canalised River Soar; I had carried out Criminal Records checks on all the skippers on the actual boat; I had attended meetings of all the skippers (volunteers) and I had even been ‘kidnapped’ by one of the skippers when I was doing his Criminal Record check because he thought that, as Director, I ought to travel the same journey as customers; that was a bit scary.  For the 16 years that I was at mosaic, we talked about the need for a new narrowboat, that every year there were major repairs to be done.  A new, adapted narrowboat costs a lot of money, tens of thousands of pounds.

As Director, it was my job to find funding for new services, for the upkeep of Sunbeam, for a new building and I just never had enough time to find such a lot of money for a narrowboat, no matter how important it was to customers.  But the new Director was able to raise that money and in 2018, the new narrowboat was launched, Sunbeam II.  The idea that a narrowboat could be designed, rather than adapted, was very exciting.  This time I would ensure that I travelled on the new narrowboat.

August is Gwyn’s birthday.  She has had a rough year; she’s been in hospital for a couple of weeks, had to cancel one holiday to Anglesey, had never-ending infections in her mouth, continuous chemotherapy and consequently fatigue; through all that she has  kept her spirits up.  But September is also the fiftieth anniversary of her meeting Pete, her future husband and September also marks their forty third wedding anniversary.  This is something to celebrate; only Gwyn could remember the actual date she and Pete first met.  Pete certainly couldn’t!!

My suggestion was that Gwyn and Pete, Liz M and Liz K and I should take a trip on Sunbeam II, since we have taken narrowboat trips together in the past.  We could see what the new boat was like.  We all agreed on 24 September so we could celebrate with Gwyn and Pete.  The trip lasts from 10 to 4; with a stop at a pub halfway for lunch.  We contemplated a picnic but couldn’t be sure about the weather.  None of us regretted a pub lunch; nothing like fish and chips followed by crumble (or Three Bean Chilli or Sausage and Mash!!).

The weather was superb; bright sunshine suitable for taking great photos and warm enough for the windows to be open.  There is nothing like moving silently along a canalised river with banks full of moorhens, swans gracefully gliding by, the spotting of a kingfisher, cows in the fields as we drift along.  I love looking at the houseboats on the banks with their own gardens and sheds.  Three locks to go through with the skipper and his crew taking care of everything.  Even a stop for an ice cream on the way back.  We were served with tea and coffee all day.  So relaxing!

For me, the accessibility of the boat was a delight; a good sized disabled persons toilet, a lift to get down into the narrowboat, wide corridor, appropriate height windows.  This is something that mosaic: shaping disability services should be proud of.  It was good to take a trip without the responsibility of the organisation on my shoulders.  We took some great photos, all agreed that it was a wonderful day out and promised ourselves that we would do it again next year.  We also agreed that this was probably one of the best narrowboat trips we had been on.

I can’t believe I worked for 16 years for the organisation and missed out on this exciting opportunity, the pleasure was added to by being with good friends with whom you can have an intellectual conversation,  a good laugh that gives you a warm and comfortable feeling.

I am now planning for next year’s trip!  Happy Anniversaries to Gwyn and Pete!!

PS: I have to say that I have been waiting three years to blog about this tea towel and yesterday’s excursion was certainly worth waiting for.  If you look carefully at the tea towel there are nine fantastic cartoons by Armand Foster, all very funny.

PPS: I think my favourite cartoon has to be “Excuse me love, is this Birmingham?”

Aran Stitches: 1986

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I don’t knit.  I’ve never been to Aran, off the coast of Northern Ireland.  I don’t remember where I actually bought this tea towel but I remember why!

My mother was not into sewing and dressmaking and as a child she didn’t knit.  For some reason, unbeknown to me, she started knitting jumpers when I went to university.  She tried knitting my Dad one but he wasn’t keen on wearing it so why not the daughter?  She had a very simple pattern, round neck, long sleeves and reasonably long body so it could be worn with jeans or a skirt.  The first one was black; it had to be black because as an 18 year old that was the colour of my entire wardrobe.  She gradually got faster at knitting; I never wore one out before the next one arrived.  Initially, she stuck to the sort of colours that I like: dark green, brown, rust.  But once these colours had been used up she got more adventurous: striped, using up the remnants of previous jumpers; she tried using angora wool but the pattern was still the same.

On one trip to a National Trust property (no idea which one), I spotted this tea towel with a guide to different Aran knitting stitches.  I thought this could inspire her to break out and try a different stitch.  You have to bear in mind that I had 23 jumpers, yes 23, all in the same style but different colours.

My mother loved the tea towel but she didn’t embark on any Aran stitches but she did branch out to knitting me socks (which you could hardly get inside a shoe) and finger-less mittens (and I ended up with at least 15 pairs of mittens!).

I still have one scarf she knitted me but the jumpers have all gone (but the first jumper would have been nearly 50 years old so not surprising).  This tea towel is a great reminder of all those jumpers that I once owned.  Shame she didn’t do any Aran knitting!

Azores: 2018

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About ten years ago, I booked to go on holiday to the Azores.  It sounded wonderful, small islands, a tea growing area, a moderate climate throughout the year, not a big tourist resort so would be quite quiet.  A bit like Madeira but less touristy.  Unfortunately, the travel company I booked with cancelled the holiday because there were not enough people wanting to go.  A big disappointment.  Since then I have looked out for further holidays but not seen any.  Meanwhile, lots of other places have caught my attention like Italy, Madeira and Canada so I didn’t give it a lot of thought.  You can’t waste time regretting things that haven’t been, just get on with things that can happen!

All very well until I went to Madeira in 2014, found a delightful tea room which sold Azores tea and my desire to go to the Azores came back.  In the meantime, I took some of the tea home, which was lovely.

While I was thinking about my next holiday, Lyn says that she and Rob have booked to go to the Azores this year.  I am green with envy, although I recognise that the Azores are not necessarily very accessible for someone with mobility problems.  Lyn had booked the holiday independently, not through a tour company, and they were staying on more than one island.  The photographs were stunning; the trip round a tea plantation and factory sounded great (and they bought some tea back!), the coastal scenery was fantastic and even the food sounded good.  It certainly sounds like the sort of place I would love to go.  It’s on my ‘List of Things To Do’

Best of all, she bought me a tea towel (and tea) back.  The embroidered picture on the tea towel reminds me that this is a place to go when Liz’s knee is better!  Thank you Lyn!

Renaissance: 2002

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I bought this tea towel in Paris, in 2002.  I loved the colours, the vibrancy and the fact that it did remind me of a painting, framed.

I love pictures; not art, as such, but pictures.  I am one of those crass people that say “I know what I like”; but its true.  I have eclectic tastes; my walls are full of pictures.  Some are older, with original frames.  I have a black and white ink sketch, drawn by my great Uncle Sam in 1928, of Immanuel Church in Oswaldtwistle which I really like but I also have a print of a kettle which Lyn gave me two weeks ago as a house-warming gift, which gives me equal pleasure.  There is a large Pre-Raphaelite print, in a mahogany frame, which I found in the shed of a house I bought in 1976; it is of a beautiful woman gazing out to sea.  She gives me a feeling of calm and peace.  I have two original paintings, one oil and one water colour, that were presented to my mother when she was Mayoress of Ealing in 1959.  What about the print my friend Gwyn gave me, of a sheep grazing in a field?  Or the cat feeding several kittens?   There is a piece of cross-stitch of the Robert Burns’ poem “My Love is like a Red Red Rose”, beautifully framed, but also photographs of family and the scroll given to my mother with her O.B.E and even my Dad’s school badge.  The pictures create a history, memories that make a house a home, make my house my home.

There is obviously a skill to painting, sketching, drawing, lithographing, doing decoupage or collage, embroidering and stitching but what I have learnt over the last few years is that there is another, and very different, skill in framing pictures.  This is not just about placing a wooden edging to a picture; it is much more than that.  It’s about the colour of the frame, picking up the shades from the picture itself.  It’s about how a picture is mounted, giving it depth and a different quality, maybe one, two or even three mounts; an additional colour can be added in the mount which can make a huge difference.

What we all normally do is buy a picture, already framed and hang it on the wall.  That’s what I have done, in the past, and have thought that was ok.  About twenty years ago, I bought some linocuts, tiny pictures of trees, in Romania for the equivalent of 50p.  I brought them home and took them to a picture framer in Leicester (at that time called the Frog and Mouse but which has changed its name to the Cank Street Gallery).  They spent a lot of time making suggestions, and advising on a good frame and mount.  They transformed three rather plain pictures into something truly beautiful.  That day I learnt what a frame can do to a picture.  I then took several of my pictures for reframing and it was like having a new ‘gallery’.

When I decided to move house, earlier this year, I thought that some other of my pictures needed a ‘spruce up’ so I had 15 reframed; pictures of all sizes and ages.  I went back to Cank Street Gallery.  I spent a long time with them, talking about frames.  They even agreed to keep them for me until I was ready to hang them.   I collected them a couple of weeks ago.  This was quite emotional for me.  Pictures that had seemed ‘ordinary’ like a Limited Edition print of Woodbury Beacon by Stephen Whittle, given to me by my Great Uncle Tom, were now amazing.  I can’t believe I’d even considered giving it away.  They framed the first picture I ever bought, a 19th century print of Highland Cattle by a pool which has been given new life.   Perhaps the most spectacular transformation was a picture by Craig Letourneau, which had had a huge mount, completely disproportionate for the size of the painting, with a thick wooden frame and now has a much smaller mount with a delicate silver frame; I would never have recognised it as the painting that I had owned.  What I suddenly realised is that being an artist does not necessarily mean that you are a skilled framer and vice versa; sometimes those skills coincide, but not always.

Today I have finished hanging all my pictures; my home is transformed, my pictures have a new lease of life.  I wish that the person that framed my paintings could see them in situ and realise what joy they have given me.