Sunday, 22 June 2014

'They have flown away' - birdwatching in June and W.B. Yeats

One of my greatest pleasures this springtime has been watching the birds on the peanut feeder which hangs from the washing line outside the kitchen window.  I've blogged about this before and included several blurry photos of rarer visitors such as the nuthatch and the woodpecker.  The one above was taken on the 20th May.  But when I returned from my trip to Ireland at the beginning of June, these birds seemed to have disappeared and now there are just a few blue tits.

I was a bit fed up about this and had various theories, blaming husband who hadn't refilled the feeder when we were away or poorer quality peanuts. Or a particularly vicious magpie..  I googled it too and apparently it's common for birds to visit feeders less often in June.  Something to do with them moulting or needing to find food with a higher moisture content for chicks or the availability of other sources of food - the slugs are rampant this year.

Whatever - they have gone.  And this has added to my general feeling of melancholy at present.  Looking back I can see this is obvious from my last few blog posts.  I think my readers may be getting fed up with my rather self-indulgent and nostalgic blog posts too as, after a spate of increased activity, comments are drying up again.  They too have flown away.

In Northern Ireland as children we'd go the lough to watch the swans.  In Ballyronan, even before the marina was built, we'd go to The Quay, a dilapidated landing point on the lough, to watch the swans.  I still do, though am wary of them remembering tales my granda told about how they can break an arm with their wings.  I cringe when I see children feed the swans up close these days at the marina, preferring to view them from a safe distance.

Swans in Ballyronan.  Photo by Kate.

There's a poem about swans which keeps going through my head at present and it kind of captures my mood.  Wrong time of year for it, but here it is anyway.  It's beautiful and very sad.

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,   
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water   
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones   
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me   
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings   
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,   
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,   
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,   
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;   
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,   
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,   
Mysterious, beautiful;   
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day   
To find they have flown away?

Update  This morning as I was writing, I glanced out of the window and the woodpecker was back.  Very symbolic!!! Need to get over myself: the longest day may have passed but it's still summer.


Friday, 13 June 2014

Remembering Sadie Ferguson and Ballyronan Post Office

Ten years ago today, my mother Sadie Ferguson died.  Too young at 73 - she never did get old.  In fact, in those final weeks she seemed to look younger.  The face of a frightened child greeted me on my last visit before she died. Here she is in happier times.

And here is an extract from the short memoir I wrote last year, about her 35+ year career as postmistress in Ballyronan.

When I was very young, about 3 or 4, our dining room, a dark place with heavy wooden furniture which was never used, was transformed into Ballyronan Post Office. The old postmaster, Mr Love, a bald man with a grey moustache like a scrubbing brush, retired, giving up his grocer’s shop and post office business.  Mammy, despite having at that stage 3 girls under five, took over as village postmistress, a role she fulfilled for the next 35 or so years.  She was unusual in the 1960’s: most of the local farmers’ wives brought up their families and some helped with the farm work.  Mummy was different: she would have nothing to do with the farm; never helped with the milking like Auntie Cissie, and pursued her own career and independent income. And so the post office played a large part of our lives when we were children.  

As we lived on the premises with a connecting door from the shop to the living room, Mummy was able to care for us get on with housework and preparing meals while responding to the bell which told her that someone wanted to collect their pension or post a letter or buy a postal order.  Sometimes when it was busy, floors remained unbrushed and meals were late, but that was just how it was and we soon learned to help.  So did Daddy when it came to getting the dinner on the table.  Our family was very different to those portrayed in the television advertisements or in the Janet and John books we read in school, with the mummy in an apron welcoming home the daddy from work with a hot meal ready on the table.

In the Post Office we also sold some other goods, mostly stationery: envelopes, brown paper by the foot from a big roll under the counter, birthday cards, pens, pencils and rulers.  But Mummy also stocked some goods for her own convenience as well as selling them to other local women.  So there were drawers full of colourful Sylco spools of thread, knitting needles of various sizes and a tall glass fronted cupboard full of wool from Hayfield: 4 ply, double knitting and Aran.  For back then the women of the village would knit matinee jackets and bootees for new babies in pale blue and pink and lemon and school jumpers for older children in shades of grey or bottle green.  You could also buy knicker elastic by the yard and Dr Whites’ sanitary towels, wrapped discreetly in brown paper and kept under the counter.  

We were fascinated by the Post Office : the date stamp with its ink pad; the little damp sponge and plastic thimble Mummy would use when counting notes; her high chair; the little brass scale with tiny weights as well the big black parcel weights with handles.  The post office was busiest on Tuesdays and Thursdays because Tuesday was Family Allowance payment day and Thursday was Pension day.  You could set your watch by certain customers who came at the same time every week.  Some would stay and chat to Mummy, if she wasn't busy.  But she took her position seriously; whereas customers called Daddy 'Jim',  she was always Mrs Ferguson.  She also seemed to act as local citizens' advice, making phone calls for those whose benefit hadn't come through and helping the family who always ran out out money before the next family allowance payment was due.  She really was a cornerstone of the community. 

And on these lovely long summer evenings, I remember the rare sunny evenings when we were children in Ballyronan.....  

On sunny evenings in summer after the Post Office closed Mummy would sometimes take us to ‘The Point’.  This was a narrow strip of soft sandy beach on the Lough a few miles away, officially called Traad point.  For us it was heaven. 

To get there you had to walk down a narrow overgrown path through trees which seemed a long way to us when we were six or seven.  You eventually emerge onto the beach which is sheltered on one side by the point which gave it the name.  The beach slopes gradually so we could paddle there happily when we were small.  In my memory the water was warm and the evenings sunny and we would drink C&C brown lemonade or my favourite strawberry flavour.

Mummy loved the sun.  Though often cross with us, she wasn’t fussy about the house like some other mothers and so was happy to leave the tea dishes on the table and take advantage of the long summer evenings when the sun shone.  We would bring the big brown tartan picnic rug and she would sit there and turn her face to the sun while we played in the shallow water....

I arranged for a In Memoriam notice to be placed in this week's Mid Ulster Mail.  I hope it will encourage others who read it to remember her too.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Year in Books: May report

Not a great reading month for me.  I haven't finished my May read Black Swan Green by David Mitchell.  In fact I'm only half way through.  I'm quite enjoying it but somehow it hasn't gripped me the way The Universe versus Alex Woods did.  It's always hard to follow a really good book.  I'm also less likely to pick up a book if it is on the Kindle as this is.  Much prefer a real book as I tend to leave it around and pick it up at odd moments during the day, something I don't really do with a Kindle as it has less visual appeal, I suppose.  I'm going to finish the David Mitchell book but think I'll start my June read at the same time, as soon as I get it from the library.  It's Jeanette Winterson's Why be Happy when you can be Normal which sounds fascinating.  The title is something her mother said to her so I hope we are back to a novel like 'Oranges are not the Only Fruit' as I loved it but haven't been keen on some of Winterson's other books.

I've also been dipping into this non-fiction book The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters which I noticed is on best seller lists.  I heard him speak on the radio and he seemed interesting.  He's worked as a psychiatrist with the British Cycling team and claims to be able to help you understand and manage emotions and thoughts.  It's very interesting - the main idea is that we all have an inner chimp who is more powerful than our rational human side and that is why, for example, we are unable to resist cake despite attempting to diet. I'm enjoying it though, to be honest, I think the metaphor of the chimp is getting in the way of my understanding and now he's mixing metaphors talking of the 'Guiding Moon' and the 'Planet of Others' so I'm getting a bit confused. I think I'd prefer straight science but it might not have the same shelf appeal.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Going Home to Ballyronan

Two or sometimes three times a year since I left Northern Ireland 38 years ago, I have returned to Ballyronan.   When telling friends and family about my plans, I always say I'm 'going home'.  Even after all this time,  I'm still more at home there than any of the places I have lived in England, even our current house in Chester where we have lived for the last 12 years.  So even though both Mummy and Daddy are no longer there,  I wanted to go back and stay in our house in Ballyronan this half term.  Kate and I spent a couple of nights there last week - she loves it too and was happy to come with me, despite being totally cut off from her friends because there's no decent mobile signal or broadband.

Oh but it was lonely without Daddy.  House all closed up and cold when we arrived; no TV turned up too loud; no Mirror crossword to complete; no callers just walking in the back door.  Just an empty armchair.

But glad we went - the sun shone for us and we enjoyed walking down by the lough despite the clouds of May flies which gather there.  We visited family and friends; we shopped in Magherafelt; we took it easy and watched rubbishy telly.

And we visited two graves.  One in Saltersland Presbyterian church graveyard at the Loup.  Evocative place names for me for now three generations of my family lie there.  And the other in Bellaghy, where Seamus Heaney is buried.  There are brown tourist information signs showing visitors the way.  I went to pay my respects there too.

I'll finish with the last part of Heaney's Clearances which pretty much sums up how I feel about returning to Ballyronan now.

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet's differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.