See Me

See Me End Mental Health Stigma

Invisible, long term and utterly devastating.  Mental illness, in particular depression in its various forms, is still very much misunderstood.  It’s 2 years since Robin Williams died.  The news shocked and saddened me – I’ve been a life-long fan – but I shouldn’t have been surprised.  No one is immune.  Depression isn’t choosy about who it picks: actor, football player, rugby player, teacher, police, stay-at-home mum, politician – anyone can be struck down and at any stage of life.  Some depression is situational. But for many depression comes often without reason or cause.  Depression isn’t always ‘about’ something, it just ‘is’.

Some people found it hard to understand how someone privileged could take their own life.  It’s an indication of the sheer desperation and desolation that many people with depression feel.  Wealth, family, fame, none of it can insulate you from the impact.  For many people with depression it’s the ultimate action of power against a foe which you have no control over, and no way of beating.  Hopelessness leads many down the same path.

As someone who has completed Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), and spoken to people who have lost family members to depression, it is clear that the action is not cowardly or selfish, as many claim.  The act of taking one’s own life may be a desperate one, but many people genuinely feel that their loved ones would be better off without them. Such is the feeling of worthlessness that this seems like a reasonable, logical option – the only option.

High profiles deaths like that of Robin Williams have done something to raise public awareness of depression, and that’s a good thing.  Far more needs to be done however, so that this invisible and destructive illness doesn’t take as many lives, and ruin somany more.  In 2014 (the most recent figures available) there were over 6500 recorded deaths from suicide.  The highest suicide rate in the UK in 2014 was for men aged 45-49 at 26.5 per 100,000.  Suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 and 49 , eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. That’s a very scary statistic.  There’s plenty of research into cancer and lots of preventative advice about heart disease but comparatively little research and advice on depression and suicide.  It’s mainly left to charities like the Samaritans, Mind, and a host of smaller third sector organisations to raise awareness and provide advice and support.  Given the statistics, that isn’t good enough.  We have public campaigns on testicular cancer – an exclusively male killer- why not depression?  Whilst it may be true that more women are diagnosed with depression, it is also true that more women than men seek help.

See Me Scotland have had high profile campaigns to end mental health stigma but there has been no equivalent in other parts of the UK.  Isn’t it time we made a concerted effort to tackle this serious public health issue which is affecting men adversely?

In part it is a question of men feeling that they can’t talk to anyone and receiving negative responses when they do.  Being told to ‘get over it’ is a common response to depression.  Women may be more sympathetic in general, but it’s not really a ‘man thing’ to admit vulnerability, and being depressed is often seen as a weakness.  We need to get across the message that depression is an illness.  You wouldn’t tell someone to get over cancer or a broken leg, and no one with depression should be told to ‘get over it’ either.

Clearly this is a more complex issue than this brief piece can cover.  I would urge you to find out more.  Do the ASIST training so you can recognise the signs in friends, family or strangers. Find our more from the organisations mentioned here. Above all, be kind to your fellow human beings.  You never know what struggles they are going through.  Don’t assume because someone is a joker or the life and soul of the party that they are happy, that they are immune from depression.  Robin Williams was a brilliant actor, had a fantastic sense of humour and what looked like a perfect life, but he also had depression – and it killed him.

I am running a 5k as part of the Loch Ness Marathon at the end of September in support of Support in Mind Scotland, a small charity providing support to people with mental illness and their families.  If you feel you can donate something please go to my JustGiving Page. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Debbie-Mathews-Ruppenthal

Thank you for reading this.

 

Statistics courtesy of the Samaritans:

http://www.samaritans.org/about-us/our-research/facts-and-figures-about-suicide

 

Adrift

BrexitWhen I heard the result I was devastated.  That’s not an understatement.  I literally felt sick in the pit of my stomach.  I cried.  Loss and grief broke over me.

I’ve never been one to shy away from change.  I voted remain for positive reasons.  I believe being part of Europe is the only way to protect the environment and ultimately the future – for our children and grandchildren and for the world. I believe we can only exert positive influence from within. There have been others way more eloquent than I who have put forward coherent arguments for why we should have voted to stay. There’s been a lot of scaremongering on both sides of the divide. People who were ‘in’s’ have been labelled unpatriotic and ‘outs’ have been called racist and xenophobic.  Many people voted for what they believed was best for the UK.  What they thought was best for our future.  Of course there are always people who vote for less positive reasons, and many who don’t vote at all.  The turnout was high, but not staggering, and it is telling that less than 40% of under 30’s voted.

What saddens me is the obvious rifts that exist: between old and young, between political parties, between ideologies, between different parts of society, between different parts of the UK.  These were the issues that needed addressing before the referendum and these are the issues which will need addressing long after the dust has settled.  Why people who fought for freedom and independence feel de-valued and lost; why young people feel dis-inherited of the future; why certain areas of society feel fearful for their jobs and homes; why immigrants have become the scapegoats for many of our internal problems.

A good and wise friend said that the sun still rises and sets and life goes on, or words to that effect, and of course that is entirely true.  Life will go on.  We will get up tomorrow and the day after, and the world will still be here. We will take steps as a country to work out how we extricate ourselves from a union which has existed for 40 years, which for all its faults, foibles and bureaucracy delivered tangible benefits to members, including the freedom to live, work and love in any of the member states. We will still be a little island in a big-wide-world and I for one will feel a little less anchored, a little less secure, and certainly a lot more isolated.

 

 

Island Resilience

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve often written about travelling to the Scottish islands – Harris, Lewis, Mull, the Orkney Isles, Shetland – remote outposts of the far north of our own island home.  My perspective is usually that of holidaymaker, traveller and visitor.  Perhaps not your typical tourist, if such a thing exists, but certainly my visits are not much more than a dalliance with island life.

 My trip to the Outer Hebrides this year was to a part of Harris I hadn’t been before, the bays area, along the so called Golden Road (so named for how much it cost to build).  It is a bleak landscape; treeless, rocky, full of lochans and peat bogs, similar in some ways to the flow country in Caithness.  It is wild and beautiful and full of life, but it is a harsh and unforgiving landscape.

The ruggedness and remoteness clearly encourages creativity.  In a 2 miles stretch there are 3 art galleries, a ceramic artist and photographer, and that’s in one small area.  The road is dotted with artists and artisans drawing inspiration from their surroundings.  It’s a tough place to make a living and a tough place to live; people have to be self-sufficient, resilient.

I have never met anyone more resilient than Eddie.  He and his wife owned the holiday cottage we were renting for our stay.  I don’t know how old he was, almost certainly retired, but it was clear that he had some illness which affected his speech and his core strength.  It later transpired that he was living with late-stage Parkinson’s.  This didn’t seem to hold him back: he cycled most days, did jobs about the house, gardened, and cooked.  We learned that in 2015 he had undertaken a charity bike ride up the spine of the Uists and headed all the way up to Stornoway.  Physically this should have been impossible, but he has grit and determination which seems to make up for some of the physical challenges he must face daily.  Eddie is not a native islander, but he has certainly adapted to island living and displays those characteristics – both flexibility and toughness – which make the difficulties he faces wholly surmountable.

He also makes an awesome Key-Lime Pie!

“Not the Answer…

not the answerThis statement appeared on the day of the budget in my Twitter feed.  The person tweeting was referring to the ‘Sugar Tax’.  There was heated debated about how futile it was, or what a good idea, or how it was taking the heat off other more important issues (are there many more important things than our children’s health and well-being?)

I got a bit foot-stompy and this blog is the result.  Well, no, of course it isn’t ‘the’ answer, or not the whole answer anyway.  No one is that naïve, not Jamie Oliver, not the general public, the nutritionists not even the politicians who approved it.  But here’s the thing, maybe things are so bad, with our own health, our children’s health and the health of our environment, that there is no single big ass solution – maybe there never was. Big ideas, high level strategic solutions are for governments and world organisations.  As people, we identify with the practical; what’s meaningful for us.  We feel irritated and overwhelmed by policy, policing and projects.  Most of us I suspect want to engage, but when the message is: ‘you must do this’ or ‘you can’t do that’ – negative dictates from above – we feel quite the opposite: disengaged, disenfranchised, and if you’re me, down right rebellious.

We long to be inspired by a vision of something we can achieve, something positive.  The carrot being infinitely better than the boot (to mix metaphors). We need to see results of the steps we’re taking and to take them one at a time, each one leading inexorably to the next until we’re on that journey towards making a difference. Thankfully there are trail blazers, eco warriors, impressive environmentalists and campaigners for the health of the planet and the health of the human race. And we need them to inspire and encourage us to take action.

However, there are people who struggle to survive now, people in this country who have to work out where the next pay packet, the next meal, the school books, the bus fare, the money for the electricity is coming from, and people in other places in the world who are far worse off than that.  It’s not always a lack of care that stops us from taking action as much as a sense of priority.  Ironically it is the people least able to take action that poor health and climate change impact first, and to a greater degree.

No one wants to see the earth burn; no one wants their children to be morbidly obese and unfit.  We have to deal with challenges at all levels: personal, societal and political to start making a difference to anything.

So, no, the sugar tax won’t cure childhood obesity, but it has raised awareness of the issues involved, it has raised the political profile of an insidious, damaging and costly epidemic.  There is much more to be done to rescue a generation of children from bad sugar and bad advertising, and a great deal more to be done to save the world for them.

And we all have a part to play.  We are all part of the jigsaw which will give us the panoply of answers required.

The Plan – Jamie Oliver http://www.jamieoliver.com/theplan/

 

On The Street in Edinburgh

how-to-help-homeless-peopleThey’ve become an homogenised, almost sub-human, element of our society.  A ubiquitous sight in most major cities and yet we fail to see them.  If they do register in our consciousness we ignore them.  Mostly.  Some of us complain.  Some drop a few coins without making eye contact.  Yes, I’m talking people who ‘live’ on our streets.  The homeless.  How did we come to be a society that could ignore ‘Homeless and hungry. Please help’, walking by without a thought or care?

Homeless people need better press.  Someone needs to do a marketing job so that we take some notice. They’re not cute enough or desperate enough.  I am willing to believe that familiarity breeds contempt, that a lot of us do care, but feel helpless: what can one person do to make a difference?  I am willing to be generous about my fellow humans because I don’t have the answers, though neither do I feel I can ignore a fellow human being in need.  So, I want to remind you, to remind me, that this is what the people you see –  and don’t see – on the street are: fellow human beings with history, with stories, with names.

I was chatting to Tommy the other day in Edinburgh (let’s call him that, he was too ashamed to tell me his name).  He doesn’t drink or smoke or take drugs.  He was made homeless by the council when his sister – whose home he was living in after job loss and marriage break down – died of cancer last November.  He wasn’t the tenant so he was unable to live there, even though he had no other family, no home, no job.  He was made homeless and has lived on the streets since.  He can’t claim benefits as he is ‘of no fixed abode’.  He goes from day to day with little hope of a better life, trying to survive because he wants to see his kids.

Tommy’s dad was in the army and Tommy was dragged about the place.  His education was disrupted and his literacy skills are poor. (This is surprisingly common in military families.  I taught literacy skills back in the 90’s). It was hard for Tommy to get a decent job.  After one tour his dad didn’t come home, so his mum had to leave the army accommodation and take him and his sister to a refuge.  Eventually they were re-housed by the council.  Tommy left school as soon as he could and took a job to help the family pay the bills.  He was 15.  The job was low paid and without benefits or security.

Tommy did the best he could with the resources he had.  His mum died in her 40’s and Tommy and his sister made their own lives with their own families.  In 2014 Tommy was made redundant and not long after his relationship broke down.  He found himself on the street with nothing. His sister, now a widow, took him in, but after she died he was homeless yet again.

Tommy doesn’t complain about being homeless or about the unfairness of his life.  He complained about it being a ‘bit nippy’.  He was upset that he wouldn’t get to see his kids this week as he didn’t have the bus fare.  He hates it when he does see his kids because he’s ashamed of himself.

I asked Tommy about homeless shelters and he told me that he stayed in one over Christmas and New Year, but it shut in January.  He told me his stuff got stolen.  I don’t think he was making up his story.  There are thousands of people like Tommy with similar stories to tell.

A contemporary of my stepson came home one day to find his belongings on the front lawn and the lock changed on the door courtesy of his step-father.  It was his 18th birthday present.  In young people’s homeless hostels up and down the country there are similar stories.  Young people are often forced to leave home when a parent takes a new partner or re-marries and the new partner makes it clear the young person, the son or daughter, is not wanted, or worse.  When young people leave the care system the state no longer has a responsibility for them and some of them become homeless.  They don’t have families, or if they do they’re not fit to look after them, and they drop through the cracks and out of the system. 140,000 young people run away each year and a percentage of these end up homeless in cities up and down the UK.  They’re not the only ones: ex-military personnel, people with mental illness, people whose relationships fall apart, people who lose their jobs.  The spiral to the gutter can happen surprisingly rapidly.  And without an address you are nobody.  You can’t claim any state help, you can’t see a GP.

There are alcoholics and drug users on our streets, although which comes first may be a moot point, but no one choses to sit on a busy street on a bit of cardboard and beg.  People sit with their signs and their hats – and yes, sometimes their dogs – because they have no other choices left.  Any number of circumstances can mean that you slip through the net.  When I left my husband, had I not had friends and family who could put me up, I would have been homeless.  It’s scary how easily it can happen in a so called civilised society.

I didn’t give Tommy any money that day.  I gave him some food and a hot drink and a few minutes of my time.  He was grateful, more than anything, that someone had stopped to talk to him.  You may tell me it doesn’t make any difference.  He’s still on the street today and probably will be tomorrow.  And you’re  right of course, but for 10 minutes he felt human again; connected, like someone gave a damn.  I didn’t ignore him, and walk by.  I stopped and acknowledged that he existed and listened to his story.

I’m sure there are plenty of us who care, who feel impotent in the face of such seeming hopelessness.  If enough people care enough to feel indignant about this, for the right reasons, then surely something could happen to change things, to give people a helping hand, a foot on the ladder back into society.

There are charities that do things in some places.  There was a recent TV programme which raised awareness of the plight of ex-services personnel, so maybe there will be a ground swell of public goodwill which will turn this tragedy of wasted lives around.

If you don’t feel you can do anything, if you can’t bring yourself to give money, perhaps you can spare a few minutes of your time to have a conversation with a homeless person, share your common humanity and give someone some hope, make them feel that they are worth your time and are not dross, not nothing, if only for a moment.

If enough people chose to do something small, it can amount to something big.

 

Let’s End Homeslessness Together  http://www.homeless.org.uk/facts-figures

 

Murder on the Rise

I’m not talking about the latest crime statistics here.  I’m talking the writing genre that is crime fiction.  Whether it’s ‘Nordic Noir’ or home-grown crime thrillers, there has been a definite surge in both interest and output over the last decade.  There have been awards for crime writing for many years -The Golden Dagger is the biggest in the world- and now there are crime writing festivals a-plenty, from the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival to Bloody Scotland.

crime fictionIn my home country (Scotland) there seems to be a plethora of dark writers, from established international authors like Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Val MacDiarmid, Denise Mina, Alex Gray and Ann Cleeves, to perhaps less well known writers like Alan Guthrie, and Peter May, and newer writers like Helen Forbes and LG Thomson.

The UK has a fine tradition of psychological thrillers – not necessarily ’crime’ or ‘murder’ (think Hitchcock here) and a rich seam of ‘Who Dunnits’ and detective fiction.  The ‘Golden Age’ was always considered to be the 1890’s to the mid 1900’s with the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Michael Innes topping the popularity stakes.  They weren’t so much about literary style and rounded character but much more about the ‘whodunnit’ formula which allowed readers to guess who the murderer might be, with a little deliberate misleading, though rarely with too many surprises.

I read Agatha Christie in my youth, and bored easily of the formulaic approach.  It left me with a bad taste about crime writing in general, although I don’t deny that it was often clever and compelling, and very, very, popular. However, as a result I’ve tended to avoid the genre, until now.

My partner is an avid crime writing reader and has catholic tastes.  I’ve never much been persuaded by his gory descriptions (Stuart MacBride and Tony Parsons spring to mind) although when I ran out of reading matter one wet afternoon, I was tempted to a few Ian Rankin books, and was pleasantly surprised.  Although I got annoyed with Rebus after a while, it opened my mind to the fact that crime writers can handle plot development and character with the best of them.

We both support and attend a local literary salon which invites along publishers, agents and writers.  A surprising number of the authors we’ve had to speak are crime writers: the ubiquitous Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Alan Guthrie, Lin Anderson, Doug Johnstone and LG Thomson to name a few.  Their insight into writing both plot and character have been enlightening.  When one of our own members – Helen Forbes- produced a first novel in the genre, I bought it in the spirit of supporting a fellow member, and ended up enjoying the book enormously.

I’ve been impressed with excerpts from Denise’s books, and thoroughly enjoyed the readings from LG Thomson at the launch of Emergent’s XpoNorth festival in 2015.  These are writers who write gritty interesting characters and multi-faceted plots. Crime may be the genre of choice, but there are good stories here for the telling.  It’s changed my perspective, and reading choices.

I don’t tend to like graphic bloody films, and in some ways books can be as bad if you have a visual imagination, so I’ll still avoid those especially gruesome tomes and stick to something with a little more intrigue and a little less blood.

Edmund Wilson suggested that “reading detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking” and perhaps he is right.  Auden described himself as an ‘addict’ of the genre, and I have friends who can’t get enough of their ‘fix’ and read crime fiction voraciously and exclusively. There is certainly a popular and wide appeal and this sort of fiction is no longer separated into dark corners of bookshops but competes on its own terms taking up more inches of shelf space than some supposedly worthier tomes.

John Sutherland (former chairman of the judging panel for one of the foremost literary prizes) had the view that submitting a crime novel for the Booker Prize would be: “like putting a donkey into the Grand National” This may still be the view held by ‘literary’ types, but is a kind of literary snobbery that puts people off reading, rather than encouraging them.  And with around 1 in 3 new novels being crime fiction, not too many people will be giving too much gravitas to these views.

I doubt if the current assent of the crime novel will breed a race of psychopathic writers, or a nation of murderers.  My hope is it will continue to produce a nation of readers, and that we will continue to get good quality new crime writers telling stories of the complexity of human nature, and questioning how we judge people.

L G Thomson’s website: http://www.thrillerswithattitude.co.uk/

Helen Forbes Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Helen-Forbes-Author-457783327732599

Bloody Scotland Website: https://www.bloodyscotland.com/authors/

Secret Life of Mammals

Image result for shrew

 

We found a shrew on the drive the other day.  Sadly, it was dead, though recently so.  It looked slightly dented around the middle, fur a little ruffled, like something might have had it in its jaws, though there were no bite marks.  I felt a pang of sorrow for its lost little  life, such a perfect and gorgeous creature.  I stroked its velvet fur a few times before we laid it to rest.

The shrew has secrets I didn’t know about: toxic saliva, -deadly enough to kill a rabbit- and powerful scent glands that give off an unpleasant odour, enough to cause a cat or fox to drop it, though sadly in this case, not saving its life.  Apparently birds have little or no sense of smell, so birds of prey will be undeterred by this evolutionary defence mechanism.

The SPCA recently found an abandoned pine marten quite close to where we live, and a few weeks ago we saw a badger trundle across the road. I feel very privileged to live in a part of the country where these sightings are not uncommon. It’s easy to be impressed with these large, ‘sexy’ mammals, but we also get lots of little mammals in the garden: shrews, voles, mice and weasels, and I am equally impressed with their wile, and I am sure I will be impressed by the things about them I have yet to find out.

If you want to find out more about wildlife and share what wildlife you have seen look at ‘The Wild Outside‘ .  The Scottish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals can be found by clicking this link.  See BBC Nature for additional information.

 

photo from BBC archives

 

 

60 Degrees North

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A similar latitude to Moscow, and closer to Norway than London, Shetland is a collaboration of about 100 islands, only 16 of which are inhabited.  Described as a ‘subarctic archipelago’ of Scotland, it’s as far north as you can go, and still be in the UK.   In reality it is a world apart from the UK, Europe, and even Scotland.  The ferry crossing is 12 hours from Aberdeen to Lerwick, and can often be rough.  It gives you plenty of time to adjust to a holiday in such a remote location, surrounded by sea and nothing else.

I think Turner, the artist, would have liked Shetland: a place of light, and water, always changing.  It’s one of the charms of the north of Scotland, and is particularly applicable to Shetland where the light, and the sea, can change from one minute to the next.  Stunning beaches and wide open skies characterise the landscape.  There are hardly any trees, and the wild scarcely populated places can seem by turns both barren and captivating.

I was hooked the first time I visited.  A long weekend, and a whistle-stop tour of some of the key visitor attractions, persuaded me I needed longer there, and finally, last September, I went back.  I felt in-tune with the place instantly.  The weather was stunning, and gave me plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the many spectacular sandy beaches, accessed from a rugged coastline.  Nowhere in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea, and if you’re a water-baby, like me, that’s a joyous statistic.  The beaches are often described as ‘empty’, though that’s not strictly true.  Wildlife, particularly birdlife, is abundant in the Shetlands Isles, and it’s difficult to go anywhere without experiencing something of that richness of life.  Birdwatchers are in their element with puffins, bonxies -the local name for great skuas- and gannets evident in larger numbers than anywhere else in the UK. Even if you’re not a bird watcher, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the scale of some of the colonies.  Noss is home to 150,000 gannets in the height of the breeding season, and a spectacular sight at any time, with birds clamouring for cliff space, or diving for food.  Puffins are riotous little birds, with their own charm and character.  I watched them for ages, and I’m no ‘twitcher’!

The shore is home to seals a-plenty, and it’s not difficult to get reasonable shots, if you’re a photographer, or even if you’re not.  Shetland is also the place to see otters.  The islands are one of the otter’s main strongholds in the UK, with numbers up to about a thousand.  You can see them during the daytime here, helped by the extra hours of daylight in the summer.

Further out at sea you might see dolphins, and even whales.  One of the main whale migration routes is 40 miles west, out on the edge of the continental shelf, and it’s possible to charter a boat to this area, although chance sightings of whales are possible on any boat trip, and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a breach on one such trip.

There’s plenty of impressive coastline to see, if you’re sea legs aren’t great, and Eashaness, on the northwest tip of the mainland is the result of crashing waves making their mark with saw-toothed stacks and a jagged coastline.  Dramatic scenery like this is not uncommon in this part of the world.  There are more soothing coastlines, and quiet sandy beaches, Meal Beach on Burra, is one such place where I spent a pleasant morning in the sunshine, seeing 2 dogs and 4 people in the whole time I was there.

Another are of the coastline worth exploring is the tombola at St Ninians Isle.  Reputedly the most spectacular example in Britain.  I hadn’t seen one before, didn’t even know what one was.  It was strange walking across the strip of sand and shell, sea pressing on either side.

If wildlife and coastline isn’t your thing, then perhaps Shetland isn’t the destination for you, although there is plenty of history, and, my other main interest, food.  Shetlanders have to be pretty self-sufficient, and seafood and grass-fed animals are very evident on menus.  There are plenty of local delicacies and some excellent cafes and restaurants.  I stayed on an organic sheep farm, and both their wool and meat could be bought locally.  On a trip to Yell and Unst, we were offered lobsters for our tea, by a local fisherman who we met on the ferry.  He refused to take anything for the catch.

The friendliness of Shetlanders should be legendary.  Despite the TV programme ‘Shetland’ giving the impression that a murder is committed every week on the islands, in reality, there’s little crime.  People know each other, and there’s a genuine sense of community.  People will still speak to you, visitor, or islander, and even children waved at us as we drove past in the car!

It is not an idyllic place to live, I’m sure.  The weather can be harsh as Atlantic storms batter the coastline, especially in the winter.  In spite of the oil industry, employment is an issue, especially for young people.  All the difficulties of rural life are multiplied ten-fold on an island.

There’s lots more to be said about Shetland, I’ve not even touched on the crafts, or the baking, or the Vikings, for example.  You can find out more on the Visit Shetland website http://visit.shetland.org/]

For me, Shetland is about wildness, the elements and particularly the sea, and I’m sure I will be returning to immerse myself in its enchantments again before too long.P9250223P9250223

Time and Tide..

It may have escaped your notice, but it has not escaped mine: my blog has been silent for months, many of them!  It’s not for want of things to say -and write- simply that I’ve  not made time to sit down and type them.  I could say it was because I started a new job, or because of challenges in my personal life, which are both true, but the simple reality is that I’ve not made the time available.  I’ve chosen to do other things with my time.  I admire those dedicated people who come up with regular musings, monthly, weekly, daily even for some people!  Hats off to you professional bloggers out there!

It’s all about prioritising.  I’ve not managed my time in such a way as to make time for writing my blog.  I have used the time allocated me to garden and walk, and go to the cinema; to take photos, and generally be outdoors as much as possible.  It’s not that my blog doesn’t matter to me, just that other things have been more important, other demands more pressing: family, work, health, all the priorities we juggle on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.

I am learning not to be too hard on myself.  When I don’t get everything done that I want to, the important question is, ‘have I done what I need to?’  Isn’t that what matters?  When my ‘Superwoman’ status takes a nose-dive, I have to remember not to beat myself up about it, not to let guilt erode the knowledge that I’ve done my best. That email to my friend, the 2 hour phone call to my sister, the cup of tea with a team member, they were all more important than writing this!

But, here’s the thing: writing my blog is important to me.  Having a ‘voice’ out there that can connect me with others gives me an outlet I need, whatever the impact, or lack of, on others.  We all need to ‘make time’ for ourselves, that hackneyed phrase, bandied about, and all too frequently ignored in our frenetic western lifestyles.  For me, whatever else it is, writing is making time for myself.  For you baking a cake, reading a book, or going for a run might be the way you claw moments of respite from the frenzy of pressure on you to be doing something else.

Our time is limited.  We have elected to measure it in 24 hour periods, subdivided into hours and minutes; to organise it into allotted moments which we can use profitably.  Not all cultures and philosophies have such a regimented view.  It is, science tells us, a flowing continuum of time-space which inexorably moves us along.  View it how you will, we have no choice about that.  The choices we have are about what is important to us, and it is that which will ultimately govern our philosophy on life, and the way we chose to live it.  We can be ‘in the moment’ and live for that, and we can plan for a future that may, or may not, happen.  All that is certain is this day, this hour, this minute.  The consequences of our decisions will ripple through time, impacting people we don’t even know in ways we can’t imagine.  We can’t control the consequences any more than we can control time, for all the imaginings of HG Wells, or Mark Gatiss and Russell Davies.

So, I am writing now because I’ve used some minutes to do this, rather than something else, and I feel good about that.  The thing I could have done instead will get done at some point and no one will have died, or even been hurt because of that. We often give too much importance to what we do, as if the world will fall apart or stop if we take a moment to relax, a moment to connect with ourselves, and yet so much of what we do is inconsequential, not only in the great scheme of things, but in our own lives.

‘Time and tide waits for no man” – or woman- it carries us along.  We should give up fighting against it and relax into our own rhythms; rhythms that suit our temperament, our objectives and our lifestyles.  The pressure to conform rigidly to other people’s schedules can panic us into under-achievement and regret, and life is too short for that.  Life is long enough, however, for a few blog articles now and again, a walk on the beach, a game of Frisbee, or a good book, whatever it is you enjoy, whatever frees you to be more yourself, with more energy, and time, to engage with your fellow human beings and with LIFE.

 

 

Growing Japanese

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When Debbie and I were talking about what might make a good choice of guest post topic for her blog, she mentioned her current interest in Japanese cookery. It’s a part of the world I am interested in, too, although my understanding of Japanese cuisine is in its infancy. But a lot of the plants we grow in the UK originally came from the temperate regions of the Far East, and so I thought it might be fun to look at some of the plants we can grow that have ‘Japanese’ in their common names. It might not be that they all originate from Japan; the naming of plants (with their common names, at least) is a murky business full of intrigue and confusion. Welsh onions, for example, don’t come from Wales, although they will happily grow in gardens there.

In the early days of my garden I planted Japanese onions. Some of the varieties of Japanese onions have Japanese-style names; others don’t. The difference between Japanese onions and regular onions is the time at which they’re planted. I chose them because it was autumn and I wanted to plant something in my garden. Japanese onion sets are put in the ground in the autumn, overwinter and produce bulbs slightly earlier in the year than their spring-planted relatives. There’s some suggestions that they don’t store as well as maincrop onions, but I’ve never had a problem with that. It’s quite hard to grow as many onions as you need in a year, unless you have an allotment or a very large garden. Some gardeners grow Japanese onions for an early crop, but give the majority of their space over to maincrop onions. Both can be grown from seed, as well as sets, and are readily available from seed catalogues and garden centres.

A plant that isn’t as well-known as is should be is the Japanese wineberry. It grows like a raspberry, and its berries are very similar, but until they are fully ripe they are encased in a calyx (like a shell) that keeps the birds from pilfering your harvest. The plants are very pretty, with dark green leaves on their scrambling stems, white flowers and their bright red fruit. They are quite bristly though, so don’t plant them right next to the garden path. Assuming any of your harvest makes it back to the kitchen (and one day I will grow enough to make that happen!) then you can use them in the same ways as raspberries, but they have a delightful flavour all of their own.

When people talk about growing quinces, they’re normally talking about Cydonia oblonga, a small tree that grows large, yellow fruits that are as hard as rocks. They’re sought after by foodies for making quince jellies and jams, or including in pies. Most people who grow the Japanese quince (Chaenomelesspecies) grow them for their ornamental qualities – they produce stunning blossom in the spring time. They’re also smaller plants, suitable for smaller gardens. A lot of people don’t know that they also produce edible fruit. One of the tastiest is said to be the popular variety ‘Crimson and gold’, and you can probably guess what colour show it puts on for you!

You’ve probably heard of the dreaded Japanese knotweed, a plant that was introduced for its ornamental value but has rapidly become invasive in the UK. If you’ve got it in the garden you need to be careful how you remove it – improper disposal of Japanese knotweed is illegal, and one of the ways in which it is spreading to new territory. Enquire of your local council what facilities they have for safe disposal, but there are people who go foraging for it to eat like rhubarb, so you could always try eating it into submission.

One you may not be familiar with is the Japanese prickly ash, which is one of the Zanthoxylum species used to grow Szechuan pepper. It’s a small, fragrant tree – and yes, it is prickly. Just one would give you more Szechuan peppercorns than a family could use in a year, even if you’re very big fans of Chinese 5-spice (for which it is one of the main ingredients). Not only does it give you the opportunity to grow one of your own spices, you can use it to play tricks on unsuspecting guests. One quick nibble of a Szechuan peppercorn will set your mouth vibrating for quite some time. It’s not unpleasant, but it is unexpected!

Other less familiar plants include Japanese parsley, or mitsuba – an annual herb that’s easy to grow, and for which seeds are readily available. Japanese ginger, mioga, is a little harder to track down (try Poyntzfield Herbs) but is a hardy plant that grows outside in the UK. It’s the flower shoots that are used (rather than the roots of regular ginger), and you do have to be wary of slugs, who find it just as delicious as we do. Japanese horseradish is wasabi, and you can grow that here too, although most of the wasabi we buy in shops is (apparently) regular old horseradish with a bit of green food dye. And, of course, there’s Japanese burdock, or gobo, which is a plant with impossibly long, edible roots.

I’m sure there’s plenty more I’ve forgotten, so if you can think of one you can add it in the comments!

 

Many thanks to Debbie for hosting a stop on my virtual book tour. Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs is my new ebook about unusual edible plants and the people who choose to grow them. You can find out more on the book’s homepage (http://emmacooper.org/jade-pearls-alien-eyeballs) and read a preview at Smashwords (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/414476). The book is being published on 1stMay, costs $2.99, and will be available in a wide range of ebook formats.

 Jade Pearls