Saturday 23 May 2020


They came looking for me.

We were six weeks into lockdown and had become used to restful nights without the pounding of the tube trains and free from overflying aircraft. It was therefore all the more terrifying to hear a search and rescue helicopter circling low, very low. We’d heard it many times before, especially when there were news items about terrorists avoiding arrest. We are in the circle that the choppers use whist viewing the two most likely spots for someone to join the M1. I’d not heard news of terrorism during lockdown, what could this be?
The chopper landed in the garden next door. They have a large green space edged with narrow borders whereas we have ponds and raised beds, shrubs, garden furniture and sheds. A uniformed officer descended. Reminding me of Matilda’s Miss Trunchball she blew a whistle to attract attention and demanded that neighbours open their gates to allow free access between gardens.  She began her investigation of our sheds. To no avail she shouted, poked and shone her torch over our camping equipment, arts, crafts and DIY materials, garden supplies and accumulated junk. She moved noisily along these bigger than average gardens with annexed land, once intended as railway sidings. I sat down by our fish pond to wait until she was gone. All the usual sounds of hunting owls, prowling foxes, mice and rats trying to escape.. were obscured by the helicopter blades, whirring away just the other side of the garden hedge. 
Eventually the chopper and it’s officious passenger made a noisy departure, I presumed that officers with more competence, experience and subtlety had been redeployed in the fight against Covid 19 and that she was all there was available. Neighbours returned to their houses and switched out the lights as the helicopters flew away. I stayed awhile to enjoy the garden as the owls took their last swoops, the sun began to peep over the horizon and the dawn chorus began.
There was an unexpected sound. The gasp of a child. I maintained motionless and in silence, wondering what would happen next. Was the child alone or was the gasp a reaction to someone forcing imprisonment or danger? What should I do? My phone was in my dressing gown pocket and I’d heard on the radio that if someone in danger of domestic violence pressed one of the phone buttons repeatedly, it would call the police without the need to speak. Which button and how many times? I wished I’d listened more carefully. 
The sound had come from the one shed the officer hadn’t investigated. It was ramshackle and falling down but the roof was intact. It had been a garden house for my children to play in but when they grew too tall it was moved and redeployed as a wood shelter. It had no front but the remnants of a torn blue tarpaulin, used to keep the timber dry. I maintained my silence whilst waiting to see what would happen. I could hear occasional movement behind the pallets stacked in front of the shelter and was relieved to conclude that this was a child alone. 
Suddenly I remembered that we were in lockdown and I’d no mask or gloves. If I encountered this child at close quarters I could endanger myself or my immune compromised son with whom I was shielding. My natural reaction would be to try to catch and hold the child in safety but this wasn’t possible. I thought of nurses and care workers having to make decisions about wether or not to treat patients without the vital PPE which our incompetent government had failed to procure. I decided to sit and wait and see what happened.
Eventually she emerged. A pretty little thing with a mass of curly black hair. She didn’t notice me but headed for the camping toilet which I use when I can’t get to the house in time. She sat there on the loo, turning her hands over and examining them intently in the pale light. As she looked up, she noticed me, gasped and prepared for flight. I put my finger to my lips, motioning her to keep quiet and signalled her to sit down again. She had no other way out and complied. 
So there we were, an older woman in a fluffy dressing gown and crocks, sitting on a wooden garden chair by the pond, and a young girl with her jeans round her feet, sitting on a plastic toilet by the bird table. 
I whispered to ask if she spoke English and she nodded the affirmative. 
“Speak quietly as the neighbours get up early. Who are you and how are you and which school do you go to?”
“I’m Annalise and I’m 9 and I go to St Mary’s.”
“Hello Annalise, I’m Susan and this is my garden.”
“I’ve been watching you for days. It’s the perfect place to hide. There’s a tap on the shed where I’ve seen the man drink water so I know it’s safe. There’s even a toilet. One day when you’d gone for your walk, I found a mattress and bedding and a cup in the shed by the house. My friend has been bringing me food but you’ve helped, I’m the giant slug whose been stealing your herbs and lettuce and the strawberries from your greenhouse.”
“So why are you here?”
“If I tell you will you help me?”
“Does your mother know you are safe?”
“Yes she does but, I do need your help.”
“Please tell me more.” 
“I’m hungry.”
“If i go to the house to get food, how do I know that you won’t run away?”
“You don’t, but I promise.”
I returned with a big glass of milk and a packet of biscuits. She’d pulled her trousers up and was sitting on a broken brown wicker chair against the fence. It had last been used by my daughter on her Mother’s Day visit, the last time I saw her before lockdown. 

999 words
(C) Jan Loxley Blount 23/04/20

Images in a strangely familiar new world.

Whilst I enjoyed the Easter Eve service from Kings College Chapel on BBC 2, recorded before so many people had died and before we were all confined to our homes, it felt unreal. The grandiose setting didn’t relate to the everyday realities of our lives in the here and now. We haven’t been able to celebrate Easter or Passover in our churches or synagogues or with family meals and celebrations.  Our Muslim neighbours can’t celebrate Ramadan with nightly gatherings and communal meals, or gather to pray in the Mosque. 
All of us, wether religious or secular can only take part in communal celebration via Zoom, Skype, Facebook, YouTube or a myriad of competing social networks. Claire Balding and other familiar figures appear on TV to teach people like my husband, who previously shunned technology and derided social media, to use these as a lifeline to communicate with distant or  vulnerable family members. Many of us use these means to join our religious communities, classes or meetings.
Easter was a very present experience for the disciples, Mary meeting the gardener, the walkers on the road to Emmaus, friends gathered in an upper room. This Easter and Passover we have seen our online celebrants in their kitchens and living rooms, just as we have been seeing our politicians, celebrities and sports stars at home on television.
We have experienced the ordinariness of participating in religious and cultural festivals from our own homes, surrounded by pets, toys, foodstuffs, cooking pots, sofas, cushions and duvets. The Easter and Exodus messages are reaching those parts of our lives which we normally leave behind when we don respectable clothes and head out to celebrate with our communities. 
I’ve particularly loved celebrating Holy Communion with an iPad on the breakfast or supper table and picking up the bread, toast, pita, crispbread or whatever was to hand to break and share - just as Jesus would have shared the bread of the disciples Passover meal. I think I’ve been able to experience the Christian story in its Jewish roots and context more clearly than I ever did before. The Exodus story has become more significant as I wonder what will become the “New Normal”. The present situation has allowed for greater detail and intimacy, a friend shared her excitement at seeing decoration on ancient scrolls, picked up by the camera but which she’d never have spotted if she was present in a crowded synagogue. 
This experience of the sacred in the familiar took me back to my first trip to Naples. My friend had driven us to Pompeii and on the way back unexpectedly turned into the city and up a steep road from where we had the most astounding view of Vesuvius and the bay of Naples. I was tired and engrossed in my deliciously cold iced latte when I realised that she was chatting to Michael Palin, who had arrived with a film crew to get shots for a documentary about the abused and largely forgotten artist Artemesia Gentileschi, contemporary of Caravaggio. 
(Note: Artemisia has now become much more well known and the National Gallery will show an exhibition of her work when they reopen)
We headed into the coolness of the building behind us, where once again we found Michael Palin as he shared our fascination with the spectacular array of presepe for which the Museum of San Martino is famous. These are enormous complex nativity scenes, many the size of a room in which people could eat or sleep. In each a whole landscape has been built and the familiar figures of the nativity are found amongst scenes from everyday life in the surrounding villages. Horses pulling a simple plough, donkeys carrying household goods, the baker making bread and the cobbler repairing shoes, the old couple looking lovingly at one another as their grandchildren play nearby, the family roasting meat on a spit and sharing a meal. Three kings from the east walking their laden camels along the village street with nobody showing a flicker of surprise.  
These 18th century Neapolitan presepe are quite different to the smaller more familiar nativity scenes which came to the UK from Northern Italy, Germany and Austria. The nearest British art I have seen are the 1920’s  paintings of Sir Stanley Spencer (Tate Britain) who portrays Jesus carrying his cross through the throng of activity on Cookham High Street and the dead being raised to new life when the opened graves open in the local churchyard reveal biblical figures alongside people known to the artist, including his wife and a self-portrait.
On a recent trip I visited the great church of Santa Chiara in the centre of Naples. The 14th century church with baroque embellishments, was destroyed by allied bombing in WW2 but rebuilt like a Phoenix and consecrated by the Pope in 1953, amidst national celebrations. Unbelievably the majestic cloisters, built on the ancient remnants of a Greek, pre-Roman bathing complex survived the wartime assault. The unique decorations are another example of the profane amidst the sacred. The enclosed nuns had longed for knowledge of the world outside, so the ceramic artists had painted village and farming scenes, some quite unexpected for a religious order, into magnificent Majolica panels. There in a room adjoining the cloister I found another enormous presepe.  Because protective glass panels make good amateur photography impossible, I treated myself to the purchase of an online professional image of this. 

(To be concluded) Jan Loxley Blount 03/05/2020 

Here are two museum notes: 

    • Of course, the baby Jesus and the Madonna, who is worshipped in Naples, play an important role here as well, but these figurines are not in the centre of interest in the Neapolitan nativity scene. For example, it is perfectly okay to place a farmer’s wife cooking spaghetti next to the three Magi. (Museum of San Martino)
    • In 18th-century Naples, renowned sculptors and painters were employed by aristocratic patrons, including the Neapolitan King, to create figures and backdrops for magnificent presepie. These tableaux were highly detailed and theatrical in design, incorporating not just biblical stories but vignettes of everyday life in Naples – street-sellers, beggars, market and town folk would rub shoulders with shepherds, the three Magi (Kings) and the holy family amid an architectural backdrop of taverns and ruined temples.(V&A)
Happy Easter in Lockdown
A very strange experience

This glorious flower has grown from a bulb planted in bare earth and given as a Christmas gift to a beloved friend - he tended it with care and it flowered for Easter
Holy Saturday 
The Easter Bunny 
Digory photographed by David Loxley Blount. 

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has declared the Easter Bunny to be an essential worker, stating that the rabbit can go about its mysterious business as usual, despite a nationwide lockdown. Her youngest citizens, had wondered how the coronavirus crisis might affect the arrival of chocolate eggs and other treats.

Last spring we adopted Digory, a rescue rabbit, to fill the hole in our lives left by Papageno, who had left us after almost 10 years. Just before Christmas Digory broke his front right leg. All the PDSA could offer was amputation or euthanasia. Quite unexpectedly, some of our amazing friends clubbed together, to fund treatment at the charitable Royal Veterinary College’s Beaumont Sainsbury Animal Hospital. Digory had a long recovery and this photo was taken in March on his first walk in the garden since his accident. He really is our Easter Bunny as he’s resurrected just at the right time. I dread to think what life in lockdown would have been like without him. 

Following the instruction not to venture out, one of our first strategic online purchases was three months worth of Digory’s favourite hay. Thank goodness we did, as it’s now tripled in price, if this has happened generally to pet supplies I fear for pets with lower income owners during the lockdown. Charging exaggerated prices for pet supplies is out of order. Pets are important, especially to families with mental health needs, neurological difference or learning difficulties, also to the lonely and isolated and those with young children. Some domestic animals act as guides or to provide warning of illness.

I asked Digory for his views on the current situation, this is what he told me: 

“One day in March, something very strange happened. My cuddle girl came, but they only talked to her in the garden. They put their chairs ever so far apart and although I fixed my eyes on her, she didn’t cuddle or even stroke me and she didn’t hug or kiss her mum. Instead they made funny signs that the Bishop had told them meant the ‘Peace of the World’ and blew their kisses across the fish pond. She’s never been here since then, I do miss her.
My people used to go out quite a lot. They’d put music on the radio, thinking I wouldn’t notice, but I’m not stupid. Now they are home all of the time. It gives me more chances to look appealing and get extra strokes and treats, but sometimes a rabbit likes a bit of peace and quiet for a daytime nap.
My special boy has stopped letting me walk to and from my garden house, instead he carries me in a blanket. He says it’s because lots of cats come in our garden to watch the fish and he thinks the cats might give me something called coronavirus, which sounds a bit like the dreaded myxomatosis. I wouldn’t want that.

All kinds of things have changed. On Wednesday mornings someone from the land of Ocado used to push past my cage with bags of shopping. They could be quite frightening to a rabbit, so I used to hide until they’d gone. Nowadays they don’t come so often, they leave the bags on the floor outside and my big lady has to wash all the bottles and packets before she brings them in. Then my people go off to deliver some of the shopping to people who can’t get ‘slots’, I wonder if a ‘slot’ tastes nice?
Both my big lady and my special boy spend far too much time washing their hands, they’ve got scratchy fingers which get stuck in my lovely soft fur. The stuff they use to make their hands less scratchy puts me off my food. I always lick myself clean and I would teach them how to do that, but a woman on their television keeps telling them not to touch their faces, so that wouldn’t be allowed.
Another strangeness is that they’ve started talking to our big man on something they call an ‘iPad’. I can see him and he waves to me, but he can’t stroke me and ‘iPads’ don’t send dandelions.

Anyway I must tell you about two really good things that have happened. 

Someone from the land of Abel & Cole has started bringing us a marvellous big box of fruit and vegetables every Monday. This is much better than the dead chicken bones they used to bring. I never liked the smell of my people making chicken soup. On the last two Mondays Abel & Cole brought me really fresh organic kale, in big pieces with stalks on, way superior to the chopped up stuff in bags that my people used to go in their car and fetch from somewhere called a ‘supermarket’. I do hope some more will come on Monday.

The other really good thing is that the sky outside has got much clearer. I can hear the birds sing instead of all those aeroplanes and there are a lot less horrid noisy tube trains hurtling past the bottom of the garden. I can smell more flowers and it is easier to breathe. I do hope it stays like this.

Stay safe, be kind to yourself, those you love and those in need, have the happiest Easter and Passover that you can. Love from Digory and my friend the Easter Bunny.”

Good Friday
Christ of Saint John of the Cross
1951 by Salvador Dali
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow 

A very personal account. This was painted when I was just one year old and I discovered it when I was 29. In those days it was much less well known than it is today. 

International Year of the Child 1979 had thrust me into the temporary limelight as I had unexpectedly become the UK face or coordinator of the campaign for after school and holiday provision, for what were then known as “Latchkey Children”. Today we think of such provision as standard - in those days it was highly controversial as children were seen as their ‘mother’s responsibility’ and it definitely was ‘mother’s’ not parents. 

I’d flown to Glasgow (that was something I’d never have done in normal times), visited some embryonic parent run play and care schemes, spoken at a conference and been interviewed by BBC Radio Scotland. They were heady days, the campaign was going well and I was terrified I’d put a foot wrong. I was extremely lonely, because in a few short weeks I’d moved into a fast moving world of media and politics, which didn’t fit well with my friends and family. I had a precious few hours to spare and visited Kelvingrove. 

This vibrant painting jumped out and spoke to me. It engulfed me with a feeling of safety and of love, reminding me of a crumpled note wrapped round a crucifix, given to by an elderly priest whom I’d turned to in troubled student days “This is how it was and is. To realise that everything is known and one is loved just the same, then anything is possible.”

These days a copy of the painting and the old crucifix hang together on my wall. An officious self opinionated visitor once suggested that these and a couple of nearby icons demonstrated ‘an obsession with death and dying’, nothing could have been further from the truth. The Leonardo crucifixion is all about new life. 

There were notes and drawings on display beside the painting in Kelvingrove, which I think were by Leonardo, but sadly I can’t find them online. These pointed to the shape created by Christ’s hands, arms and body on the cross. which are reminiscent of the ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus. His feet in the birth canal ready to enter or re-enter our lives. His bowed head is the foetus in the womb - a human embryo or the origin of an idea, a neighbourhood support project, an artwork, an engineering discovery, a medical breakthrough, a campaign..... I’ve often wondered how I’d have managed if I’d not found this painting on my afternoon in Glasgow. 

The Latchkey campaign continued through the UK Association for International Year of the Child and the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres; until the Saturday in April 1982 when Mrs Thatcher recalled Parliament to launch her Falklands Armada. Instead of the anticipated government minister she sent opposition MP Alf Dubs to our conference (financed by Woman’s Own, Marks & Spencer and the Baring Foundation) to announce the first ever Government monies for Out of School Play and Care. The rest as you say is history. I suffered burnout and withdrew in 1986, but that April day was the acorn from which today’s vast local authority, school and voluntary sector service for children and families outside school hours was born.

And as new life will come from death
Love will come at leisure
Love of love, love of life and giving without measure
Gives in return a wondrous yearn for promise almost seen
Live hand in hand and together we'll stand
On the threshold of a dream

Graeme Edge The Moody Blues “Dream”

Maundy Thursday 
The Seder Plate.

This photograph was sent to a friend, by cousins from whom she is parted at this special time. The Jewish festival of Passover began last night and continues until the 16th, coinciding with the Christian festival of Easter. Today is Maundy Thursday and tonight Christians commemorate the last supper, when Jesus and his disciples gathered in an upper room, maybe above a dwelling, a meeting place or an animal shelter, to celebrate Passover. He added a new ritual, the sharing of bread and wine to represent his body and his blood, as he knew that his life was soon to end. Jesus was a Jew and the meal which he shared with his disciples would have been their equivalent of today’s symbol rich Seder meal. 

I was introduced to this by a local church when my children were growing up. Each year we celebrated the Seder, on the night before Maundy Thursday, the first night of Passover. Sometimes my daughter was the youngest person present, and in line with Jewish tradition she had to ask the set questions which elicited the elders to share scriptural responses explaining the story of the Exodus. 

The Seder is a ritual performed by multiple generations of a Jewish family or community, involving a retelling of the story of the Israelites long and difficult journey to escape from slavery in ancient Egypt. This is told in the Book of Exodus, which is an important text for followers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Seder is based on the commandment "You shall tell your child on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.'" (Exodus 13:8) Traditionally, Jewish families and friends gather in the evening of the first and second evenings of Passover to read the ancient texts, sing special songs, eat symbolic foods and perform rituals passed down to them. This year will be very strange as Jewish people celebrate Seder in their isolation.

In this difficult time when we all fear for our own safety and that of our loved ones because of Coronavirus it is all too easy for us to forget the plight of modern day slaves and refugees. People living in camps have no opportunity to wash their hands and self isolate. Their death toll will almost certainly be disproportionately massive. 

The six foods on a Seder plate are variations around: 
Maror: A paste of bitter herbs (often horseradish), symbolizing the harshness of the slavery which the Jews endured.
Chazeret : Fresh bitter herbs such as endive or dandelion greens, in keeping with the biblical instruction ‘with bitter herbs they shall eat it’.
Charoset: A sweet, brown, pebbly paste of fruits and nuts, representing the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build for their masters in Egypt. 
Karpas: Usually parsley or celery, which is dipped into salt water to symbolize the tears that the Jews shed in their slavery.
Zeroa: A roasted lamb bone, symbolising a lamb which was offered in the temple, before being roasted and eaten as part of the Seder meal.
Beitzah: A roast egg symbolizing the festival sacrifice, offered in the temple before being eaten as part of the Seder meal.

(Thanks to Times magazine & Wikipedia and friends for information)

Wednesday of Holy Week
Photograph of Westminster Bridge 

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
William Wordsworth: Sonnet 14
Wordsworth’s poem “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” was read on the Today programme a few days ago as we looked towards the celebration of 250 years since the poet’s birth which takes place this week. The reader mused on the fact that the bridge and the river are now quieter than they have been for a very long time, allowing those who have cause to cross the Thames to experience something of Wordsworth’s sense of awe and beauty. 
Wordsworth refers to the theatres and temples lying silent and bare. We all crave for our places of entertainment and public worship to be restored to us.
It was this bridge that our Prime Minister was driven across on Sunday from his self isolation in the flat above no 11 Downing Street to the NHS hospital of St Thomas which had its origins in an Augustinian Infirmary established during the 12th Century. After the dissolution of the Augustinian order the hospital was re-established by Royal Charter to care for the sick poor.
My daughter treats cancer patients at Guy’s and St Thomas’s, so everyday she crosses Westminster Bridge on her bike, in her car or on a bus. As she says she has “quite a commute” to work! Cancer doesn’t wait for Coronavirus so she and her colleagues continue to fight on as best they can, with the discomforts and inconvenience of PPE, and with reduced staff, space, drugs and facilities. I pray for their safety and that treatment outcomes for their patients won’t be too adversely affected by current circumstances. 
I’m hoping that the media and security personnel encamped around the hospital during the Prime Minister’s stay and crossing the bridge back and forth to Westminster, don’t create situations which make it more difficult or dangerous for other patients and staff, who need to get in and out of the hospitals for a multitude of reasons. 
I’ve never been a fan of Boris Johnson but the country does feel more fragile and rudderless without our Prime Minister. I wish him and all the patients of Guys, St Thomas’s and the adult patients using re-purposed children’s wards in the Evelina, wether there because of coronavirus or cancer or whatever reason, a successful and speedy recovery. I also remember in my prayers those parents of children whose anticipated treatment at the Evelina has had to be postponed because of the current situation, this includes a little girl very dear to me. 
As we draw nearer to the agony of Good Friday, I am thinking of all the families across the globe who have lost loved ones to this tiny virus which is wreaking so much havoc in our world. 

Tuesday of Holy Week
Self Portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria by Artemesia Gentilischi 

I first discovered Artemesia on a sunny afternoon in Naples, when a film crew to  turned up to get pictures of Michael Palin discussing her against the backdrop of Vesuvius. 
Since then I’ve learned that she was raped at the age of 17 by her tutor, who was an artist friend of her father’s. She went on to become one of the finest Baroque painters of the 17th Century. Her work is increasingly displayed alongside that of Caravaggio. 
Here she portrays herself as the martyr St Catherine of Alexandria, whom we celebrate with spinning fireworks. St Catherine is the patron saint of students, scholars and philosophers. She frequented the Library of Alexandria and confounded pagan philosophers by arguing the Christian case against them. Catherine’s  courage and wisdom became widely known and many were inspired to convert to Christianity by her example. The Emperor failed to get her to renounce her faith and ordered that she die a torturous death on a breaking wheel. When Catherine touched the wheel it miraculously shattered, so she was beheaded instead. She faced her death bravely. 
In Artemesia’s painting she is holding a palm which seems particularly apt for Holy Week.

Monday of Holy Week

This stunning image dropped into my email box this morning - sent to me by the artist who created it. Ruth Jacobson who I’ve come to know and love as a friend through HGS U3A.  
This is what she said about her image.  
”In this image, souls are continually circling, reaching out for contact with each other, encapsulating the present time of fear and isolation in the shadow of Covid 19.”

Stained Glass — Ruth Taylor Jacobson

Palm Sunday 
A new way of worshipping. 

This is a phone photo of the screen of my iPad during the Palm Sunday Service from Trinity URC Baptist Church in North Finchley. The left hand image is the wall hanging from the front of the church. The centre image is two palm crosses made by a member of the congregation from materials salvaged from their garden. The right hand image of a palm beach, is from a card which was sent to me last week and which I photographed and sent to the Minister - the Revd Paul Martin who you can see as the small inset. He’s doing a marvellous job of getting services, meetings, reflections online.