Big knickers and The Archers Omnibus

All going well, by the time you read this it will be 24 hours since I’ve had my surgery and I’ll be recovering in hospital. I’ve never had an operation before. I’ve never had an anaesthetic and apart from when I was ill as a little baby, I’ve only been in hospital twice – with glandular fever when I was seven, and when Lily was born, six and a half years ago. I remember the monumental boredom of being in hospital when I was seven. And giving birth in hospital was unexpected and unplanned, so I had no time to prepare. After 46 hours of labour (oh yes, folks!) I don’t remember much of the less than two days I spent in hospital after Lily was born.

This time, I’ve had time to prepare. I’ve little idea what I’m going to feel like after the surgery. I’m expecting pain and grogginess. I’ve been told I’ll be kept in for two or three nights. But one thing’s for sure, I’m not going to be twiddling my thumbs wishing I had something to do to pass the time.

I’ve starved myself of the last three Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review podcasts and saved them up for my hospital stay. Ditto the last three Archers Omnibuses. And I’ve downloaded the podcast of Seamus Heaney’s Desert Island Discs. I listened to it only recently but loved it so much I wanted to hear it again.

I’ve saved my two favourite radio stations onto my smart phone – BBC Radio 4 for Woman’s Hour and pretty much everything else; BBC Radio 2 for Chris Evans in the morning and Simon Mayo in the evening.

So much for listening. I’m currently reading David Guterson’s East of the Mountains and I’m unlikely to have it finished before Thursday morning. I’m also packing Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I’ve been saving up.

Then there’s writing. I’m on the fifth draft of my book, and chapters 16 to 30 are in need of revision (I’m not expecting to revise 15 chapters! I’ve been getting through this re-write at a rate of one chapter every two to three days). And I never go anywhere without my journal and a selection of pens, so I can write to my hearts content.

I realise I will probably indulge in few or none of these. But they will be there, if I need them, to save me from boredom.

As for the titular big knickers? When my very practical mother came to visit a few weeks ago she brought me a pack of big white knickers (size 14) which she says I will need after my operation. One of my friends suggested they could also be used as bed sheets and I thought I could fly one as a Kildare flag!! Thank you Mammy. As if having my uterus removed wasn’t unsexy enough!

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Of hawks and wild places

I’ve retreated into myself in the past few weeks, unable to write, unable to communicate. The time of year, the news stories on the television, morose thoughts about my upcoming surgery. Early September hits me like a train every year. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, the anniversary of my father’s death comes around and knocks me down all over again. It takes time to pull myself out of that hole.

This year my grief has been compounded by images of new born babies, small children, old men fleeing in desperation from their homes and searching for hope in an unsure Europe. I feel helpless in the face of such misery and desperation, yet tearfully grateful for the crowds of welcoming ordinary citizens, opening their hearts and their homes to refugees.

So I retreated inward, grew maudlin and morose, became unbearable to live with. But during my late summer hibernation two books have pulled me through, dragged me back to the world again. Both concern the interactions and engagements between humans and non-humans, wildness and domesticity, love, awe and wonder. And both perhaps not coincidentally are written by fellows of Cambridge colleges, who are friends and who have contributed in one way or another to each others’ books.

H is for Hawk is Helen Macdonald’s powerful and moving story of training a goshawk. She and I were contemporaries at Cambridge and we met a couple of times. We shared an interest in the relationships between humans and animals and I was in awe of her knowledge and passion for falconry, mesmerised by her intellect and eloquence. Little did I know, as we stood drinking a cup of tea in her college garden sharing thoughts on hawks and polar bears, that she was deeply grieving for her father and living a half-wild life with her goshawk Mabel. Her book is an uplifting memoir of how training Mabel helped drag Macdonald out of her grief. But it is also a fascinating account of the history and culture of falconry. By the last page I wanted to walk through fields in search of rabbits and pheasants, to get my skin scratched and my hair messed up from pushing myself through hedges and into woodlands, to feel the weight of a bird of prey on my hand.

From H is for Hawk I picked up Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places. From his Cambridge home MacFarlane sets out to find the wild places of Britain and Ireland, places devoid of humanity and human history. But in his search he comes to the slow realisation that such places do not exist. The wild expanses of the Scottish highlands or the west of Ireland were once filled with people before Clearances and Famine swept human life aside. He discovers that ‘the wild’ cannot be separated from ‘the human’, they exist together. He discovers wildness in a weed pushing up through a crack in a pavement, in a spider web in the corner of a room, in an abandoned factory. The book takes the reader to the far reaches of mainland Scotland and the Isle of Skye, to Anglesey, Dorset, the Burren, even to Essex. In writing the book, he travelled to places I have been to and love and to places I have never heard of. His evocative writing carried my thoughts away from Leamington Spa to these magnificent parts of the archipelago and my soul soared.

By the end of these two books I felt ready to write again, able to communicate again, ready to return to the world. These books helped the dark places in my mind open up to the continuities between past and present, human and other-than-human, life and death.

Next on my list of uplifting books? Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It’s awaiting me on my bedside table right now.