01. February 2018 · Comments Off on GOOD LUCK! · Categories: Uncategorized


They are an odd collection. An accumulation of small objects grouped together in no particular order on the base of my Muji lamp to the right of my computer. This in turn stands on the old headmaster’s desk (rescued from a private school being demolished in London’s NW2 in the 1970s) that I write on.

Some of the objects are relatively new. A few have been here quite a while, having made the journey from Japan to Scotland in 2013.

All, I suppose, are associated with luck. The good kind of luck, not the bad, which I would not wish on anyone.

It’s a phrase we use without too much thought, a kind of useful tool to help others on their way, in the everyday, in life itself: Good luck!

Every culture has its own form of similar encouragement. In France, a near literal interpretation: Bonne chance.

In Spanish-speaking countries, Bueno suerte.

In Swahili, Bahati njema.

In Japan, it’s more complicated. (Most things are.) Never use the phrase Kouhn wo oinori shimasu face-to-face, and only when addressing a stranger or acquaintance; it’s too polite for common usage. People would laugh, I’m told.

Address a friend about to take an exam, Gambatte kudasai. If calling to a parent off to start a new job, Gambaryro! Neither imply luck of any kind, but rather are an encouragement to endure difficulty. Typical Asian pragmatism.

The English word luck is defined as fortune, good or bad. Not physical fortune (ie a pile of gold coins), but one rooted in the metaphysical. It’s connected to fate, destiny. We reach out into the unknown and, touching wood (something I do near instinctively), pray for the best. (I’m trying to keep hope out of my vocabulary, having a dubious and even negative context.)

I will never know who FS was, initials carved into the desk long before it came to me. I used their ‘appearance’ as the basis of a short horror story back in October last year, a project set for members of The Clunie Roses, a private writing group on Facebook founded after my last course. 

I asked my Japanese husband if he believed in luck and he said no.


“Because it’s silly.”

But Japan is a very superstitious country…

“Yes, but only because we learn to be, from education, from our family…”

His mother, aunt, uncle, grandmother were all superstitious, he said, wasting so much time and money on palm-readings, clairvoyants, talismans and charms.

“They relied on them in life. None of them took responsibility for their own good fortune, made something of their lives. They were all disappointed.”

An extreme? Maybe. But with a good point. That maybe we need to make our own good luck, rather than expecting it to manifest via unknown, unseen forces.

Or maybe there is a balance to be found: that middle-ground again.

It has taken a while to find my own. I grew up with a mother who was so other-worldy that she found it hard to ground herself in reality. My father was the opposite: by staying in the safe zone of practicality, he missed out on swathes of possibility. Yet he was the one who wanted to take advantage of the government’s £10 passage scheme to Australia in the 1950s; she was the one who said no, fearful of risk and losing the little security they had. They were a complicated couple.

When my father wanted to cut down a rowan tree, planted as a sapling in the back garden, my mother went berserk. Rowans protected against witchcraft and enchantment, she insisted. Cutting one down would be bad luck.

I wonder if she also knew (on some level) that in Nordic mythology, it was the tree from which the first woman was created. (https://treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythology-folklore/rowan2/)

Siding with my father through childhood, as daughters often do, I put aside such thoughts and raised my own children not to be superstitious. Or so my own daughter told me the night I flew to Buenos Aires from Toronto in 1999. It was Halloween, which Canada (having jumped on America’s pumpkin train) celebrates big time.

I was freaked, spooked, not liking flying very much anyway, and embarking on a trip that was as much about chasing my grandfather’s ghost as being rooted in any sensible rhyme or reason. I write about this experience in Chasing Shooting Stars (Amazon.co.uk), published in 2013.

But back to my desk, which has always served me well. I wonder if the initials carved into it have made their creative mark over the years? Or is it simply that I have always tried to put the desk to good use. Respected it. Loved it. Good energy is – and creates – good energy.

As for the objects, let me remind myself of how they came to be here, where they came from, how they help, if that is what they do – or I choose to believe they do.

The black ammonite – the fossilized spiral shell of an extinct sea creature – has (by far) the longest history… Azzah gave it to me years ago, after one of her visits to our house in Zushi.

(You can read about her in Chasing Shooting Stars, and Household Stories/Katei Monogatari (www.amazon.co.uk) published late last year via Amazon’s print-to-order self-publishing facility, Create Space. If in the USA, order from www.amazon.com; if in Japan, www.amazon.co.jp

If there are other links being used, it would be good to hear of them – Europe, the Antipodes, etc.)

Quite often when beginning to write, I hold this cool object in the palm of my hand to bring me, what? Luck, I suppose. As in a positive connection of some kind that will encourage my words forward…

Often I add the grey stone bearing the image of a raven, sent me to me by my Aunt Jo for Christmas one year. It was such an unlikely gift for a pragmatist; she despised superstition and dismissed mysticism as fanciful. (The exact opposite to her sister, my mother.) The following year she sent a similar stone bearing an insect. How I wish I knew her mindset at that time.

There is a smooth crystal that I think James gave me. An equally smooth blue stone heart from Julia, with a small blemish that sparkles. (Julia often brought me bits and pieces she picked up around the house, on the beach.)

Where the pale pink and pale blue stones came from I have no idea. Very un-me. And yet, here they sit, claiming their space.

There is a piece of stucco, picked up from a pathway winding its way around the Temple of the Sun just outside Mexico City. I would never have pulled away a piece from the actual structure, but it was just lying there… inviting me, I like to think: (http://guanajuatomexicocity.com/mexico-city/Pyramid-sun-teotihuacan.html)

The tiny flying duck is from a broken brooch. (I have three 1930s ceramics on the wall above the doorway, all broken, all glued back toegther.)

The pill box and ceramic Mandarin duck were gifted by Akii at Christmas 2016. He gave me a whole box of things, all related, and as he he explained), to help inspire me to return to the story I had drafted before leaving Japan.

In late 2017, Cassie made me these fingerless gloves, all from recycled materials, and on request, added a heart, a CND peace sign (down near the wrists) and towards my fingertips, these mandarin duck heads. She said the birds on my hands would encourage my fingers to fly forward in my story-telling… 

The most recent token is a small metal hand holding what I assume to be a crystal ball. I was in Dunkeld last autumn, parked, when a woman rapped on the window. She was in her sixties, with wiry hair and a weather-beaten face. I don’t know why I knew instinctively she was Roma, which she was, and proud to be.

She knew a few things. That I had a daughter across the water. That my son had been ill as a child. That I had lived in the ‘Orient’. That I had never really every had a proper job (that’s very true!) but made my own way.

“You have had a great life”, she said. “You have been brave, made many changes, been very lucky. I see even greater years ahead, lady, so keep challenging…” And so saying, she placed the hand in my own.

My belief in talismans and omens as such, is not to be tested too deeply.  But I do believe in signs, in part because twenty-six years in Japan did leave me more open to possibility than I had been in the UK. Actually I think I was open, very open, but often found it difficult to defend myself against my father’s scepticism and dismissal of anything that could not be proven by science.

Rooted in Shinto-ism – Japan’s animist nature-based religion – its culture and people are deeply superstitious. Most shrines and Buddhist temple have a kiosk or shop selling good luck charms and talismans, and the largest and most popular are hugely affluent as a result. I know, because my husband used to have a major shrine as a customer, and reports vast sums being processed, especially at New Year – priests running to and from bearing sacks of cash.

New Year (O-shogatsu) is when you buy arrows to symbolize shooting into the future for good fortune. You tie white papers inscribed with wishes and hopes onto the branches of trees or specially erected frames. You draw numbered sticks to discover how the year ahead is going to pan out. And you throw in a few fervent prayers, just in case…

So deep is the Japanese belief in the occult, that there blessing ceremonies for just about everything, from babies to new cars. And if you don’t believe me, just watch this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf6B-_tp6gM

All this I saw as fun rather than to be taken too seriously. In the main it did no harm, except empty personal coffers. But there is always a dark side: for many people, it was serious and tended to affect future actions, reactions, hopes and fears.

Reading my pack of Angel Cards at the turn of the year, the word OBEDIENCE challenged my natural inclination to break rules and ignore advice. In this situation, however, it was just what I needed.

On December 11, 2017, my left knee joint was replaced at Perth Royal Infirmary, and while the operation itself successful, there were subsequent complications that that left me weak as a newborn…

So (once allowed home just ahead of Christmas) I needed to obey the instructions of the nursing staff: eat, drink, rest, medicate. I needed to do the physio exercises that would get me back on my feet. I needed to unscramble my brain, affected by a whole battery of drugs. Most of all I needed to listen to my own body, and rebalance in sensible fashion.

I returned home on December 20, and pretty much stayed quiet until the new year…

This has taken awhile, and why I am late in wishing you a happy new year, and – of course – the very best of luck…

But now here I am. At my lucky desk. With my lucky charms needing a dust but at the ready to do their job.

When I get started, that is.

09. November 2017 · Comments Off on At last, a new book · Categories: Uncategorized

It was clear on the proof copy that the cover needed rejigging; missing the top of the toppermost character(kanji). A new PDF was supplied, and now all is well. PS It’s quite interesting, seeing a design sideways…

I began writing my latest book in 2010, finished the first draft in 2011, and then moved to Scotland the year after. The ‘manuscript’ then stayed in my computer until this year, when I felt ready to move on.

For four years, completing a book about my life in Japan was the last thing I could handle; remembering our home and the life we led within its walls was just too painful, too sad. Every time I opened it up and began to read, I began to cry.

Being a book written in the present in the past (or is that in the past in the present?) it took much of the earlier part of this year trying to sort out the timeline.

Our home in Japan, 2002-2012. The house in the background and, upfront, Kobayashi-san pruning the trees on his annual visit…there’s a close up of him at work on page 205. 

But now here it is in my hand, the first copy of Household Stories/Katei Monogatari (in Japanese) courtesy of Amazon’s CreateSpace, the site that allows independent authors to publish their books print-to-order.

The upside of CreateSpace is that it’s free. But only if a writer is prepared to design and layout a book’s interior and cover; since I am a writer and not a designer, I paid for help. Or rather I allowed an old friend  who happens to be a graphic designer (we worked together in publishing in London in the 1980s) and now lives in Canada, to pay off a debt by utilising his creative skills.

Also since personally I find it hard to edit my own work, I sought assistance there too. A friend made in Japan in or around 1989 – we met a wedding, I seem to recall – she is now moved back to her native New Zealand.

Having published my first book in 2013, I knew the drill. But as I replied to a contact in Tokyo asking whether the process was easy, it’s easy – or easier – when you know how! Basically you need to supply a PDF for the cover art, and another for the interior. A matter of going step-by-step… and it has to be said, the staff at the other end are terrific, answering any enquiry within 24 hours.

The last hurdle that I needed help with was in pricing my work. This is difficult in any activity that requires creativity and craft to be costed in the same way one might cost the manufacture of a biscuit. Sending out mails to all four corners of the earth, asking how much friends tended to pay for books, was no help at all. Some refused to pay anything above £7.99; others were happy to go up to $30 for a book they really coveted. So, the middle-ground…

From my perspective, the main downside of this new print-to-order system is that once Amazon has posted availability online, authors are on their own in terms of mainstream distribution and promotion. And since most writers are more interested in moving on to their next project – I include myself here – this is tough.

Mostly I rely on platforms like this, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. So be a pal, will you? Order online and share links with your own networks.



Back cover text

Love, life, loss … most of us experience it all. Yet this is not a relationship between two lovers; nor even two people. “A love story with a difference” is about an intense relation ship … with a house. A house in Japan. 

Here the author describes in intricate and loving detail the years she spent in the Eastern-Western-style house that she made her home. She leads you on a fascinating and increasingly urgent journey through the interior, and the life lived within its four walls. 

“Because we may not be here much longer, and even if we stay in Japan, life is shifting, the world in transition, and I want to remember. Remember it all.” 

12. September 2017 · Comments Off on The meaning of things · Categories: Uncategorized

After words (http://www.angelajeffs.co.uk/whats-in-a-word/), things. But what do I mean by things?

An open antique market in Essex, where things include a vintage train carriage, garden furniture and great skyscapes. But is sky – the sky – a thing?

A few weeks ago, nearing the completion of a book I had been working on since New Year, I was on call in my local charity shop. As usual, I checked the book shelves, and once again a title jumped out at me: A.C Grayling’s The Meaning of Things.

 It was the word ‘things’ that caught my eye. Because my own book is also essentially about things. But as I was to discover, one person’s idea of things is not necessarily the same as another’s definition and understanding of the word. (Or maybe it’s even more complicated than that.)

Household Stories/ Katei Monogatari is about a house, and the things (with all their associated tales) that our house in Japan contains, or rather contained. (We left in late 2012 to move here.) So a book largely about material objects that could be regarded as relatively unimportant: possessions, furniture, books, plants, etc.

Grayling’s book (Applying Philosophy to Life) is about how life is enriched by things that ‘matter’: “values, aims, society, the characteristic vicissitudes of the human condition, desiderata” (Latin, desired things) “both personal and public, the enemies of human flourishing, and the meanings of life.” (An impressive paragraph in itself.)

Always interested in how a book is constructed, he offers short essays under three main headings (as in three parts): Virtues and Attributes, Foes and Fallacies, and Amenities and Goods.

It was under this final heading that I found writings most relevant to Household Stories: Art. Leisure. Peace. Reading. Memory. History. Travel. Privacy. Family. Age. Gifts. Trifles.

I suppose this is because HHS (as it has been headed in my documents file since 2011, when I completed the first draft) describes a fair amount of art, quite a few gifts, and to what a reader may appear to be any number of trifles.

And here I have to laugh. Because compared to a book on philosophy, I suppose my book is trifling in its concerns.

But that is for the reader to decide, and those concerned in its production have found it quite the opposite. So I am comforted.

Yes, HHS is a book about things. But it is also a physical and spiritual journey through time and space to the point of accepting the relative unimportance of physical things. Which leaves us with the spiritual, which is of course what Grayling’s book is mostly about.

But wait. While the Foes and fallacies of Part 2 initially left me cool to cold, I do now find Faith, Miracles, Prophecy and Paganism more than a little interesting. And some of the Virtues and Attributes of Part 1 move to warm the cockles of my heart, because HHS is also about Love, Happiness, Hope, Courage, Sorrow, Tolerance, Civility, Perseverance …  so much more than mere ‘trifles’.

Lee and Sue’s garden in Basildon, Essex. Also full of things: plants in pots, mirrored washing on the line, and Buddha. A statue of Buddha is a thing for sure, but Buddha himself?

Now I am not only comforted. I am encouraged.

By the time I next blog, Household Stories/ Katei Monogatari will be available via Amazon.com. So expect an enthusiastic and 100% unashamed sell.


05. July 2017 · Comments Off on A garden with burgeoning personality · Categories: Uncategorized

In memory of Gwendoline Edna Loader (nee  Price), September 1910 – July 2007. 

When my mother moved here in the early 1960s, the cottage was a newly renovated croft sited on a roadside amid a sea of rubble, a derelict landscape.

Once it had thatch, a tenant in the barn (now our bedroom), a cow in the byre (in my mother’s day the coal shed but now a utility room), and water was collected twice daily from a spring down at the burn. It must have been a tough life.

I know all this because soon after moving in in late 2012, I was working outside when a car halted on the road, drove on, backed, drove on again, backed again, and finally came to a halt.

A man emerged and, introducing himself as Peter Symon from Errol, shyly asked if he could take a photograph of Burnside, as it has been called for at least a century, if not – as old maps indicate – far longer.

Of course, I replied, but why?

It turned out that his aunt, Agnes Smith, had lived here until 1950.  She used to make pancakes and large scones on the range, and relatives would set up a bell tent outside in summer for holidays. Also bee hives were transported to and fro.

It seems there were Smiths at Burnside for well over half a century…

Agnes in front of a very different-looking Burnside. In the 1901 census, it was described as a croft with – excluding the byre – four rooms and windows. A decade later, the census of 1911 counted three rooms and windows. Very odd. Today it has seven (some very small) rooms and eight windows. This archival photograph, from the personal collection of John (Jack) Joiner of Errol Village, Perthshire, was scanned and mailed to me in 2012, which in part explains the quality. 

After Agnes died, the building stood empty on Forneth Estate until my uncle Charles Speid and his wife, my aunt Jo, decided to make it a home for her widowed sister, my mother Gwen. (So the two sisters, separated as youngsters by the death of their parents, could be reunited in middle age.)

But they only redesigned and fitted out the croft. The ground outside, rolling down towards the burn and with open views across the Lunan Valley, was for my mother to make her mark.

In the beginning… her view from the front door: Lunan Valley in the wild

Then came a bird table, some standard roses and shrubs, and to the right, the beginning of a rockery… Beyond, wild grasses wait in innocent bliss to be tamed for a lawn…

Early days for my mother, transplanted from city life into the most rural location imaginable, where she had to start anew in her mid-50s. I know she was lonely, felt isolated. But she never gave up. 

And she did indeed make her mark over the years, planting first rambling roses around the door, and then in borders, choosing plants and shrubs that were equally as scratchy and painfully punative.

Winters must have been so hard. With only wire to protect her plantings from ravenous deer…

I could never work out why she made such choices? Was she trying to barricade and protect herself against the world, like the Sleeping Beauty of folklore, or was it a childlike mean streak? Knowing what I know now about her internal confusions, a bit of both I suspect.

She created a lawn, fenced against rabbits and deer, and called this her ‘garden’.

Down below the fence, the land was left to do its own thing…

To the side lies a triangle of land along the roadside that is still planted with ancient but once again magnificently fruiting redcurrant bushes. She tried to raise vegetables, but everything was against her: the wildlife, which ate just about everything, and the bogginess of the ground, flooding as it did back then on a regular basis.

At some point in the late 1980s, an enthusiastic neighbour came down and planted trees: rowans, elder, oaks, hazel and wild cherry. He insists to this day that he asked her and she agreed. She insisted to her dying day that he went ahead without agreement, that he “just did it”. Nowadays there is a limited view to the other side of the valley in winter, and none at all in summer.

Another huge change was the demise of the raspberry field.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, mother rented the tract of land across the burn (that had been gifted to her for her lifetime) to a local farmer. The area around here is famed for soft fruit, and he planted canes and cropped the fruit through the summer.

Shot from the top of the raspberry field, with staked canes and the hut down by the burn very much still in business. See the small evergreen to the right of the cottage? That was one of my mother’s Christmas trees. It is now higher than the oak tree seen behind, and still growing…

As he and my mother grew older together, to the point he could no longer work, the field returned to the wild, and is now a mature copse of mostly sycamore, nettles and willow herb.

My children remember running up and down the lines of canes in the 1970s, and in later years making a bonfire of the derelict hut on the burn side that had once stored equipment. Now my son harvests the copse, a tree at a time, to feed our log house and – once dried out – our wood burning stove.

By the time my mother died in 2007, ten years ago almost to the day, her ‘garden’ was a mound of weeds (plants in the wrong place at the wrong time), and her land reclaimed by nature. I had done my best every time I returned to see her from Japan, but really it was a losing battle.

Since moving here, we have worked hard and now the three parts of the ‘garden’ all are gaining and regaining their own identities. Nearer the cottage, the borders are slowly filling out, and the roses healthily under control.

She coped by coping… love the hat!

Along the fence that separates us from neighbours, a hedge is slowly becoming a wind break, alive with colour, texture and birdsong; how my mother coped with bitter winters and ferocious gales I cannot even begin to imagine!

Along internal fences, shrubs and flowering perennials mix with soft fruit – gooseberries, blackcurrants, goli berries, raspberries, blackberries… We have apple trees, hardy Scottish varieties.  Even green tea bushes. And a lot of herbs.

Through 2014, we turned the boggy triangle into a labryrinth, for quiet reflective walks. The rest is planted with a crab apple, walnut, and most recently, a fig. In January it is a sea of snowdrops. Then come the daffodils. And in May, bluebells. (Currently, it’s nettle pulling time!)

This year, we have turned our attention to the field below the anti-rabbit fence. It’s a work in progress, obviously, and will be for some time. But already there are more fruit trees (Victoria plum, damson, nashi or Asian pear), mown paths (as there are around the labyrinth), a huge mown circle, with a bright pink ornamental cherry planted in the centre, and some rhododendrons finding their place around the edge…

We also have two benches. And a small pond.

This is located at the far end, towards the slate bridge over the burn, and where we erected a lintel from my aunt’s cottage, during its own renovation. (You can read about this in a blog from 2015: http://www.angelajeffs.co.uk/the-old-and-the-new/)

Alongside Akii planted a Yoshino cherry, to remind him of Japan, and several varieties of iris. Ironically he was in Japan this Spring when they all flowered.

The burn, running the length of the long side of an isosceles triangle? Almost invisible in mid-summer, overhung with ferns and brambles, with only the music of its coursing after rain to remind us that it’s there. It needs clearing again, but that’s a job for autumn into winter, so soon enough. (http://embrace-transition.com/2013/12/07/east-and-west-clearing-the-burn/)

Because the septic tank and lie of the land mean drainage, and intractable sedge grass, we decided to try and make a feature of its damp nature. Liam, who mows the lawn, slope and paths for us, offered us a small pond liner that he had “kicking around”, and dug it in for us at the backend of last year.

Now it looks thoroughly at home, overhung with ferns, with pond plants for aeration, a water lily, and more than a few baby frogs.

All very satisfying.

Now we are eyeing a far larger area, and thinking big. Liam is quite excited, it seems, and so are we.

The sycamore off centre to the right will be coming down in August, to open up this side of the burn even more.

The whole area of what we loosely term ‘the garden’ (about one and a third acres in total) is now green, healthy and blossoming. Even the copse is opening up, with a circle of cut log seating, a circle of stones for a bonfire, and deer as regular visitors.

It’s not easy to keep on top of, and I feel great frustration at not being able to work in it as I used to. How long we can hold on, I have no idea.

For the moment, however, it is pure joy to see its personality developing and broadening. Responding so positively to care and attention and love, it is full of birds, bees and even butterflies. (Initially there were very few.)

I choose to believe my mother is very pleased.


And yes, I have always loved red geraniums…

23. May 2017 · Comments Off on What’s in a word? · Categories: Uncategorized, words

Friend Judy Whitfield (we shared a flat in 1962 in London’s NW2) created this artwork as part of her degree at St Martin’s Central School of Art in the late 1990s. A copy now hangs above my mantlepiece, serving as a constant inspiration…

She began in the centre with the single word SPACE, and then began adding by association… Plucking out two of three words at random and working them into a paragraph at the beginning of a writing day works wonders at getting the             creative juices flowing…

Having just sent off my latest book for layout, I find myself positively astonished that yet another 60,000 words – 60,313 at the latest count – have somehow manifested.

Manifested… now there’s an interesting word.

To me it implies words having somehow, as if by magic, (and by implication, meaning) made their way from brain to screen, just as in the old days they made their way on to paper.

But what does manifested mean by accepted definition?

Good lord, not what I was imagining at all: when used as an adjective, clear or obvious to the eye or mind, and (as a noun), to show (a quality or feeling) by one’s acts or appearance; demonstrate.

And yet on some level, my reason for writing was clear and obvious to my mind, my eye. And I was most definitely demonstrating a feeling, an emotion… After all, I was writing a love story. A love story about a house. The house that was our home in Japan from 2002 until we left to come here in 2012.

Still the word, manifest, means more… to me, at least. When students write something that astonishes, even blows them away, many having never written before, they all say the same thing: ‘Where did it come from?’ And my reply is always the same: ‘Well, there’s the mystery, the magic.’

Apparently the Hindu word for meaning is “breakthrough, release”. I like this very much.

Talking and writing about what an individual may have broken through to, psychologically or emotionally, or what they may have released, inevitably leads on to a discussion about imagination and the meaning of that particular word: imagination, a noun used easily in day-to-day conversation, but without any real consideration as to its origin and inherent explanation or interpretation.

We use words so casually, especially in these days of instant communication. This is why dashed off e-mails and twits/twitters get so many into so much trouble.

When all communications had to be hand-written, time was different: longer, quieter, less dictatorial. There was time to think, to consider, to reflect, to re-consider… Words were more carefully chosen, sentences crafted, pages discarded for not reflecting the writer’s intent or emotion.

When did you last delete an e-mail and re-write, having realized it might be mis-construed, even cause the reader pain? (We are all at fault here, SEND-ing without even checking spelling and construction, let alone the emotional consciousness or un-consciousness at the heart of the message.)

I remember some years ago now a man mailing about a course I was about to run. Did he have to bring anything, apart from his laptop? When told that students would be writing by hand, and that all he needed to bring were a candle (for Proprioceptive writing sessions), a pen or pencil that he liked to work with, and an open mind, he near had a fit and accused me of being a dinosaur. Needless to say, he (being just the kind of person who would benefit most) did not sign up.

If he had come, I might have suggested at some point that he begin a PW WRITE by asking himself what he meant by accusing me of living in the past, if this was indeed what he meant or was implying. Because the question used in PW to explore our thinking and reactive habits more often than not leads into previously unexplored territory. This is how we learn, move on… how transformation occurs.


An extinct reptile? Someone living in the past? Jurassic Park? An archeological site of ancient remains. What else… where might such a question lead?

A quick google of the question, what’s in a word, brought up Michael Hoey’s five questions for learners (of English as a language, I am assuming) and linguists.

  1. What does the word mean?
  2. What word or words does it associate with?
  3. What meaning does it associate with?
  4. What grammatical function does it associate with?
  5. What position in the text does the word favour?

Questions 1-3 I have time for. But I admit to never thinking about 4 and 5. This is in large part because my writing courses are holistic rather than academic in approach. It also reflects how personally I write.

I rarely “think” (too much) about what I am writing, and am in no doubt that there is (at such an admission) a great throwing up of hands, many a wry cynical smile, and maybe even a few, “Well, that explains everything!”

Rather I am like a fountain that mostly flows full and freely, sometimes less so, and only very occasionally runs dry. An empty page, a blank screen never stays so for long. There is always something to write about. Words spill out of me… and usually in the right order. An order that maybe I alone understand, that is. But that’s okay. While writing to communicate with others, in large part I write to explore my Self, to raise my awareness, deepen my consciousness…

Or for fun. Donna (Murray-Trail) sent me this card, not because she thought I needed persistance (or rather persistence, which it appears I have in abundance) but because she thought it might make me laugh… which it does! 

On one level I admire those writers who spend a day crafting a sentence, following Michael’s five questions to the letter. On another, I think it must be hell. But that is because I am who I am (led by intuition and an ongoing search for authenticity), and they are who they are (lodged in academia and seeking perfection in logic and rationale).

The need for success seems to loom large for many. Appreciation by their peers. Recognition. Admiration. Zillions of sales. Money in the bank.

All very nice, some of it at least. But is that why I write? Not really. I write because it’s who I am, what I do. Do the words I produce define who I am? No. But they keep me off the streets and happy.

And to be honest, that’s enough.

WHAT DO I MEAN BY HONEST? Mmm. Maybe need another rainy afternoon to see where this leads.

Excerpt from HOUSEHOLD STORIES/Katei Monogatari (now in production) – from the chapter My Room:

I love this room. How many thousands — millions — of words have been written in here? How many trillions of thoughts have chased through my endlessly chattering brain? How many breaths have I taken to live through each and every day? How many deliberate slow breaths have I taken trying to enter stillness and silence, or to consciously allow energy to enter my body and heal the various parts that at one time or another scream for attention? (There are really parts of this ageing thing I could well do without.)

I no longer practise yoga, which I had done on and off for many years, and miss it terribly. I dream of being in lion’s pose, it is — was — so comfortable.

But I do sit.

And sometimes I dance.

My room in Japan (2002-2012) 








The room where I am writing now…  Remember: a  word is simply a label, meaningless in itself. Meaning less than what? Now there’s a thought… 

21. March 2017 · Comments Off on Up close and personal · Categories: Uncategorized

I love trains. Always have. They must have figured in my childhood, except that in those days, in impoverished postwar Britain, there was not much long-distance travel. So I’m guessing the love affair began in 1953, when my parents put me on to the Royal Scotsman steam train, to travel overnight alone from Birmingham to Edinburgh.


Just last week we took the Scotrail train up from Dunkeld to Inverness for the day. We wanted to see the last of the snowfall on the Cairngorms, and so we did…

As I write in my book Chasing Shooting Stars:

     Was it a sign of the times that they could be so trusting? Maybe they assumed me a well-seasoned traveller since I went to school daily on the bus. For they simply asked a couple with a dog – an old smelly spaniel with long, ragged ears – to keep an eye on me. I remember feeling sick with excitement (not fear). And going to sleep with my head on the dog’s soft but solid rump.
     At some point during the night I wake to find the compartment full of soldiers, drinking, smoking, playing cards and singing. I think, this is the life, and with a sense of pure contentment, return to my slumbers.

On a train just like this…

I was met in Edinburgh by my father’s elder sister, Catharine, who drove me to her home in Inverness. A former PE teacher, and a cricketer who played both at County level and for England, she was working for the Scottish Council for Outdoor Education, and had just published a book.

Published in 1951, with her own  photographs, and the poem below         (found on a bothy door, author unknown) that echoes my own love of    the journey from Euston to the                              Highlands…

These MEN OF TOMORROW are now my age, if     not older…MEN OF NOW, or even MEN OF                             YESTERYEAR….

I was thinking about this trip not so long ago, travelling down to London from Edinburgh on a Virgin train, for my first-cousin Genevieve’s cremation and the gathering at her home afterwards.

Gen’s mother had died in 1953, which is apparently why I was sent away, in complete ignorance, so that my father could help handle the immediate family crisis. His younger sister Elizabeth (Betty) had died in childbirth, and there was a inconsolable three-year-old (Gen), her distraught father, and a newborn to care and plan for.

My parents were also, I suspect, trying to protect me… protect me from death. But I think they were wrong. Maybe they thought me too young and sensitive to deal with it. In this I know they were wrong. Maybe the reaction was rooted in the Victorian mores in which they had grown up. Who knows now, for they are both passed on, and now that my own mother’s younger sister is no longer with me, there is no-one to ask.

It is an odd feeling. There is no-one now alive on either side, my mother’s or father’s, who can share my childhood. My memories are mine alone.


Scan 170810003

My father as a young man…

My first up close and personal experience of death was at age 21, when my father died; he was 51. His body lay in our front room for several days before the funeral, with my mother wailing as if the world had come to an end. Her own had, apparently, which is why she spent the next fifty years as a “professional’ widow. So sad, such a waste.


Scan 170810003-1

Samuel Robert Loader (1911-1962). Here not long before his death, old before his time… He always loved water, the sea.

What do I remember of his death?
It was late November, and icy cold. A corpse that my mother insisted I kiss. The look of him, and a sickly sweet smell that was nothing remotely to do with the father I loved. Also a sense of rage, that he would leave us all in such
a mess. We had parted badly, he and I, and all I could think was, Did you die because you thought that my leaving home meant I didn’t love you, didn’t care? How foolish was that!

I have no memory of any wake, either before or after.

I still miss him.

In Japan I was witness to three Japanese Buddhist-style funerals. I say Buddhist-style because Japan has a habit of taking on cultural imports from abroad and after some home-grown tweaking, making them their own.

The crematorium: imagine a long bare room with ovens down one side. Being (I have recently learned from DNA testing) that I am one per cent Western European Jewish, they still give me the shivers.

The body is wheeled in on a trolley, the priest recites sutras (prayers), the family members say goodbye, the trolley is pushed into the oven, the doors clank shut, and everyone goes off to a side room for green tea and chat.

Around an hour later, the family is summoned to return. The oven doors are opened and the trolley is wheeled out, revealing what is left of the corpse: ash and bones. Relatives then pick out the bones with chopsticks and –  to one side, in a semblance of privacy – place them inside an urn in logical order from feet to skull cap.

The first time I experienced this, I thought I was going to faint. But then I thought, hold on: this is something to really think about, consider…

By the third funeral I was as pragmatic as the rest. Saying goodbye to a corpse, treating remains in this way, is simply a ritual of respect. It has nothing to do with the ‘person’ (personae) or their life essence, which (to my way of thinking) has long gone.

I have had many discussions and arguments on the subject of funerals, in particular in relation to the open coffin. In Japan, this is normal at the wake, or otsuya (lit, ‘all through the night’) on the evening before a cremation. Once again, a ritual that initially seemed alien and distasteful, frightening even, became one that I can honestly say I came to love, in part because of the love displayed towards memory and the physical body of the deceased, which at this stage were intertwined.

I first experienced an open coffin at a friend’s funeral – one I had forgotten about, so four – but in this instance I attended only the otsuya, and not the kasou (lit. ‘funeral by fire’, or cremation) that followed on.

As a single mother, Tomiko had left her daughter an orphan, and it was immensely moving to see how she said goodbye to her mother: placing Tomiko’s make-up bag in the coffin, together with her favourite operatic CD, and a photograph of them together. She then invited everyone to surround her mother’s face with roses, while an Italian aria of great beauty filled the space left behind, and our hearts.

If only I had grown up with such personalized celebrations! Instead I was left baffled and dismayed by the body of the man who had in part created me, lying skeletal, yellow, cold and decaying, with the house full of whispers and denial. Where had my father gone? He was not there for sure. For the first time it made me consider the mystery of the separation of the physical and spiritual once the energetic life force/soul/atman has left the shell, but there was no-one to discuss it with.

My cousin Gen – her poor body ravaged by MS (multiple schlerosis) — was carried into the crematorium in a beautiful willow-woven casket. A simple bouquet of white flowers lay on top. There was music – a string quartet, a song from a group of her son’s friends (all professional singers), a Shakespearian sonnet, a tribute from her best friend from long-gone school days. Then – Gen having gone ahead to leave behind years of pain and suffering – her body was returned to dust and ashes, and physically she was gone.

And yet, her smile is still with me… it feels as if she’s not so far away. Maybe just across the mountains to the north?

Maybe I ought to take a train.

Not a romantic but slow and essentially filthy coal-fuelled train from the 1950s.

Not a narrow Virgin train in which there is hardly room to swing a cat, the toilets are stuffed, and the tea tastes of dusty tea bags.

DSC_0416Not the stunning new state-of-the art shinkansen bullet train that we rode on in Japan last year between Akita and Tokyo; glory hallelujah for just about everything: comfort, speed, bento box, lunches, green tea.

And not the next one either… just another one, soon .






27. February 2017 · Comments Off on I see you… · Categories: Uncategorized

Looking out of the window as I write, I see that this Spring – if this is indeed Spring for the weather continues to jump about, back and forth, provocatively, in teasing fashion – the snowdrops have doubled in size, as in covering twice as much ground as last year.


Up towards Cothill from Burnside, massed flowers…

They like us being here, I think.

They know we are acting as guardians rather than owners. They rejoice in our energy and admiration. They feel safe enough to multiply and offer passers by, on the A923, a marvelous display. Just yesterday, two cyclists shouted their appreciation: “Oh wow, look at that. What a garden!”

Looking, and seeing. There is a difference for sure.


The road runs from left to right, right to left, over the wall between the blue furniture at the entrance to the labyrinth, and The Bonnet, a neighbour’s house in the distance…

The young women looked quickly, glanced, and then moved on. They did not stop to see… to take time to dismount, wander around, breathe in the quiet sappy fragrance, and look deeply into the heart of the flowers… into their spiritual core, their essence of being.

It is the same with all of us. Even when living closely with someone, do we really see them? That is why the phrase, “I see you” resonated with so many in the film Avatar. Quite often Akii and I will stop, gaze deeply into one another’s eyes, and say the words: I see you. We always feel so much closer afterwards.

This “seeing” is a re-connecting on a spiritual level. It is the recognition that we are spiritual beings enjoying a human experience, rather than the other way around. Those who look go no further than enjoying the human experience, so missing the point of existence. They are too busy rushing from point A to point B, focused on the destination rather than the journey.

So let me focus, just for a while, on the snowdrop, regarded by so many as the harbinger of Spring. When it snowed the other day, they disappeared, were invisible; when the snow melted, they reappeared again, quite unscathed. Unlike many buds on trees and shrubs that yet again seem to have gone into shock at such swift climatic changes. Delicate the snowdrop may appear, but hardy is its second name.


The last Galanthus nivalis (common snowdrop) to open, shaded by the woodland copse across the burn…

Known since the earliest of times, the snowdrop was named Galanthus (from the Greek for ‘milk flower’) in 1753. Nowadays there are twenty recognised species of this bulbous perennial in the family Amaryllidaceae, ranging in shape, colour, design, height and size. (My aunt, who knew the Latin names of all the plants and shrubs and trees she planted in her garden, would be so proud that I have got around to learning this.) In the northern hemisphere, which is where we are, snowdrops have usually finished flowering by the vernal equinox on March 20 or 21. So carrying us neatly into Summer.

Snowdrops are also known as Candlemass Bells. Candlemass was originally an ancient festival (rather than pagan, which I regard as rudely ignorant) that marked the middle of winter – this year, February 2. Later it was given a Christian perspective:“The snowdrop, in purest white array/First rears its head on Candlemass Day.”

Because they are one of the earliest plants to flower, snowdrops have not only become symbols of Spring, but taken on some weird and wonderful associations, linked to what pragmatic opinion now consider to be Old Wives’ Tales.

The most common is that it’s unlucky to bring snowdrops into the house. This superstition, which appears especially strong in the West of England, and on the Isle of Mull, seems to hark back to Victorian times, when the snowdrop became associated with death, and therefore a bad omen. (They were a gloomy lot at the best of times, the Victorians!)

Legends also abound throughout Europe, the most well known – and most positive, apart from Woman being made to suffer rather more than Man! – being its association with the biblical Garden of Eden:

Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, a place where the sun shone every day, where they were warm and happy and had everything they could possibly wish for or want.  Unfortunately for them it was winter when they landed on earth, heavy rain, cold winds and dark grey skies. Eve spent every moment shivering, something she had never experienced before; she never needed to wear clothes, she didn’t even know what clothes were.  It was so cold that she felt as if her blood was beginning to freeze, and then the snow began to fall.  

At first the snow looked so pretty but that soon wore off; the blizzards made her eyes sting, her face hurt, her fingers were going numb and her body began to freeze.  Eve fell into a deep despair: would this cold never end, would she ever feel the warmth of the sun upon her face, would she ever feel warm again? She fell to her knees and began to cry. 

God hadn’t abandoned Adam and Eve completely; he had sent an angel to watch over them. Upon seeing Eve kneeling in the snow in a state of deep despair sobbing her eyes out, the angel asked her why she was so sad.  Eve told the angel that she despaired of ever feeling warm again; she had given up hope of ever seeing the sun, of ever being happy.  

The angel reached down and picked up a snowflake, gently she breathed on it, and let it fall back to the frozen ground.  Every time she did this the snowflake turned into a small flower as white as the snow upon which it fell until Eve was surrounded by a carpet of small pure white flowers. 

“Why have you done this for me?” asked Eve,

The angel replied: “To show you that winter will end, that flowers will bloom again and the sun will shine. This gift I give you is the gift of Hope”.

The flowers that the angel created became known as Snowdrops and they give us hope of a new spring, a new beginning, and new life.

Thanks to Silent Owl of County Mayo for this: http://amayodruid.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/thelegend-of-snowdrop.html

Most interesting of all, to me at least, the name of the flower does not mean a drop of snow, but derives from ‘ear drop’, the old word for earring.

Interesting to me because having learned rather more than I knew a couple of hours ago, I can now more honestly say, I see.

And ‘seeing is believing’… an idiom first published in a collection of Proverbs in English and Latin by John Clarke in London in 1639. It means, of course, that concrete or physical evidence is convincing.

Or is it? I love earrings, and wear four, two in each ear, all of which are different. Why? The simple reason is that I lose them, one at a time. Often this is while I’m gardening. I come back to the house and realize… oh no, another one gone.

So the thought bubbles up, that they are simply manifesting as flowers; which is why the land is awash in ear drops.








21. December 2016 · Comments Off on Returning to the light · Categories: Uncategorized

It’s been a complicated and deeply disturbing twelve months. And still far from over…

Why have I blogged so little… not at all since Spring. Was I blocked? Not exactly, because I did begin twice, once in late August, and then again last week.

This was the header selected for the blog begun last week: THE DYING OF THE YEAR. Today, it simply seemed wrong and out of sorts: I changed my mind.

This was the header selected for the blog begun last week: THE DYING OF THE YEAR. Today, it simply seemed wrong and out of sorts: I changed my mind.

The autumnal piece was titled somewhat prosaically, NEITHER HAIR NOR THERE, and ran on thus…

What does your hair mean to you?

The first time I sat down to have my hair washed at Caldon in Edinburgh’s Haymarket, I looked up and became fascinated by the collage of quotations on hair pasted to the ceiling.

The one that really caught my eye, resonated, was by Shane Alexander: “Hair brings one’s self-image into focus; it is vanity’s proving ground. Hair is terribly personal, a tangle of mysterious prejudices.”

So true, I found myself thinking. Vanity’s proving ground. And I remembered Leonard (http://www.leonardjacobson.com/) advising me at the end of the retreat in Monterey (Mt Madonna, 2015) that I was still too caught up in self image. And while I do worry about being over-weight, it’s my hair that has always been my premier focus. If my hair is not right, I’m not right… which is where the tangle of mysterious prejudices comes in.

Born with a thatch of black hair, and growing through infancy with a head of blonde curls, somewhere along the line my head settles for mouse. For years I was in pigtails, then my mother took it upon herself to try turn me into her with a succession of appalling home perms. Then came rebellion, in the form of a fashionable beehive. Brigitte Bardot I wasn’t – too skinny – but I could try…

Which is the point I ran out of steam, or interest… left only with a long list of further quotes from Caldon’s ceiling, which I will post for your interest or edification:

“Long hair is a security blanket for me. I cut it short a few years ago and I really never want to do that again. When I do cut it, I cut it myself.” Alanis Morissette

“I love my grey hair and wrinkles. I love the fact that my face has more of an edge and more character than it did when I was in my twenties and thirties. No Botox for me.” George Clooney

“Beauty is about perception, not about make-up. I think the beginning of all beauty is knowing and liking oneself. You can’t put on make-up, or dress yourself, or do you hair with any sort of fun or joy if you’re doing it from a position of correction.” Kevyn Aucoin

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Maya Angelou

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” Khalil Gibran

“Some of the worst mistakes in my life were haircuts.” Jim Morrison

“Symbolic of life, hair bolts from our head[s]. Like the earth, it can be harvested, but it will rise again. We can change its color and texture when the mood strikes us, but in time it will return to its original form, just as Nature will in time turn our precisely laid-out cities into a weed-way.” Diane Ackerman

“Hair style is the final tip-off whether or not a woman really knows herself.”  Hubert de Givenchy

“They’re not gray hairs. They’re wisdom highlights.” Anon

“How can I control my life when I can’t control my hair?”  Anon

“Don’t you think it’s something strange that you rarely look at yourself in the mirror, except to do things like stand and ponder? I mean, in Shakespeare’s day, it was thought that the mirror would reveal something, that it is trying to tell you something – not just to tidy your hair, but something more.” Nicolas Roeg

“I’m undaunted in my quest to amuse myself by constantly changing my hair. Hillary Clinton

Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/hair.html

Well, Hillary has a lot of time now to amuse herself. The US has a new President-Elect, and it’s not good news. It makes me reconsider Maya Angelou’s line above, that if there is something that you don’t like that you can’t change, best to change your attitude. Right now this appears a conundrum, but I’m working on it.

Just as I am working on how to explain that the blog I wrote and posted on December 20 before the Winter equinox, two thirds of which disppeared overnight, is now redundant, so I shall not try to replicate. Christmas too is over, and the year-end on its way…

Tt may have been the sight of these spikes of sunlight piercing the gloom in Dunkeld yesterday, that set me on a new course. Never be scared or too proud to admit when the words are not right.  Just start again...

It may have been the sight of these spikes of sunlight piercing the gloom in Dunkeld yesterday, that set me on a new course. Never be scared or too proud to admit when the words are not right. Just start again…

January and February are usually considered dreary months, but I see no reason for gloom (all the obvious economic and political woes apart!). Many find Autumn and Winter depressing. Rather I regard them as times for Nature to hibernate and renew energetically towards Spring. Just as we are doing: sleeping a lot, eating well, breathing deeply, gathering strength and momentum. Living in each and every moment. And glorying in the additional 16 seconds of daylight we have been granted since December 21st.

No, the year is not dying, it is simply passing… slipping off its seasonal snake skin and transforming into whatever the future brings. Which is how I regard death of any kind.

In Japan it is customary to send nengajo (celebratory postcards) to family, friends and colleagues for New Year. The Japanese post office stores them up, stockpiles them, that that they are all delivered on January 1st. Which is a hell of a lot of Happy New Year (akameshite omedeto gozaimasu) cards. Even if the population of 126 million each receives twenty, that’s quite a feat of organisation and stamina.

Anyway, here is our own nengajo, customised for calendars in East and West, and I shall spend the next few days trying to work out yet again why this website insists on deleting so much of the copy I post.

Happy year-end everyone. May 2017 look after itself.



04. August 2016 · Comments Off on On golden pond – Otsuchi Summer English Camp · Categories: Uncategorized
We're all going on a summer holiday...

We’re all going on a summer holiday…(All photographs courtesy of Chiaki Takahashi and Kevin Dodd)

Arrived at Tazawako station... now by bus to the pension!

Arrived at Tazawako station… now by bus to the pension!

Signed in, beds allocated, backpacks unpacked and it's across the road and down to the lake...

Signed in, beds allocated, backpacks unpacked and it’s across the road and down to the lake…

One way to get accustomed to the water... by paddling a paddleboat!

One way to get accustomed to the water… by paddling a paddleboat!

Only just got here and look, a fish!

Only just got here and look, a fish!


Time to go back; it’s sun set…

After supper there is music; normally That Sounds Good is a live lakeside jazz venue…

Musician friends from around the lake came to play...

Musician friends from around the lake came to play…


A high school helper leads the way back…


July 30: Up early – 3am for some excited enthusiasts is reported! – Chiaki and explorers…

Hard to get them out of the water...

Hard to get them out of the water…

Fun and games outside That Sounds Great

Team games build trust and cooperation…


Ball games in front of the pension…


Everyone loves drawing…


Time for English interaction with Kevin

Time for English interaction with Kevin

Help with homework from Heather...

Help with homework from Heather…

Craft workshop

Craft workshop

Local wildflowers used for souvenirs...

Local wildflowers used for souvenirs…


Time for more workshops…

Appreciating nature...

Appreciating nature…


To That Sounds Good… a gift of appreciation…



Appreciating good food (most foraged and grown locally)

Eating… (most food foraged and produced locally)


Chiaki, have you lost your sunglasses?


The last swim…

Until next year...

Until next year…

23. July 2016 · Comments Off on Mission accomplished · Categories: Uncategorized

On golden pond, on golden pond…

I’ve never quite seen a hotel door like the one that greeted us in Kamaishi. Golden ducks on a black laquer pond. Maybe its stylish beauty was to compensate for the plain Jane of the city, with its industrial history of iron and steel production. Maybe we had the honeymoon suite by accident. More likely (in retrospect) a premonition.

A premonition that (somehow) luminous birds on dark water would transmute into happy children paddling in a golden lake.

We were in Japan in May. Akii stayed a month. I was there just two weeks, and with only one thing on my mind: to meet Chiaki and apologise for failing to set up an imagined project to bring schoolchildren from Otsuchi to Scotland for a welcome break and some English (Scottish) language immersion.

Otsuchi, a costal town just half an hour from Kamaishi, in the north-east region known as Tohoku, lost 1000 of its inhabitants to the tsunami of March 3, 2011. This included half its city office staff; not surprisingly it took this shattered community a long time to get anywhere near back on its feet.

Otsuchi before 3/11, and beyond, now...

Otsuchi before 3/11, and beyond, now…

I became involved with Otsuchi at long distance after 3/11. Having collected coats and blankets for survivors and evacuees, I networked to try and find a way in which they could be distributed up north. Which is how I found Chiaki.

Takahashi Chiaki (family name first in the Japanese way) – based in Morioka City, Iwate Preffecture, and working as an English teacher so enabled to communicate internationally – had established an amazingly efficient volunteer organisation: Iwate Relief. It was she who drove my boxes to Otsuchi, and saw the contents distributed.

Halfway through Level 4 of DOTWW at the time of the disaster, it was clear after we reconvened three weeks later that everyone’s attention had been redirected. Alena was preparing leave Tokyo as a “radiation refugee” and move south to Wakayama Prefecture. Jacinta went on to set up (first by Facebook, later as a website) Embrace Transition, to help people cope with change. Jeffrey began writing songs about Fukushima’s unfolding tragedy, and produced a CD to help raise funds. James joined them on a trip to Otsuchi, to distribute gifts, as donated through the Share Your Christmas with Tohoku Campaign.

We had dreamed up this project over a rather drunken dinner one summer evening; good to report that it’s still going strong, with people all over the world sending gifts to share each year-end.

Eighteen months later, preparing to leave Japan for Scotland, I contacted Chiaki again. Did she know anyone who might find my sewing machine useful? Yes, she replied, a woman with children who having lost her home to the floodwaters was desperate to support her children. So off it went…

The world assumes four years on that all is well with Japan; it has “recovered”. But believe me, in those parts that have been conveniently forgotten by the media (as instructed by government), the need remains enormous. Communities have not only been battered, but subsequently abused, with Otsuchi providing a clear example.

Chiaki had gone to a lot of trouble to make our visit clear and instructive. After picking us up from the hotel, she drove 30 minutes from Kamaishi to the kindergarten in Otsuchi, where she teaches English to the little ones. I use the word “teach” loosely; rather she is familiarising the under sixes to hearing a different language and making them comfortable with using some simple phrases. And how beautifully she does it: in heavily accented American-English and using American-English expressions, true, but to which they respond with great enthusiasm and joy.

Chiaki Takahashi donates every Friday to the new generation in Otsuchi. In the morning she teaches at the kindergarten, accustoming the children to  English

Chiaki Takahashi donates every Friday to the new generation in Otsuchi. In the morning she teaches at the kindergarten, accustoming the children to English

There was no fear of me either. In 1986, when I first arrived in Japan, the large majority of children ran a mile!

Akii and I in the required line up...Chizu (cheese). As to the sweetness of the toddlers, most - but not all - born since 3/11, what can one say but Ahhhhhhhh...

Akii and I in the required line up…chizu (cheese). As to the sweetness of the toddlers, most – but not all – born since 3/11, what can one say but Ahhhhhhhh…

The owner and founder of the kindergarten came to talk with us, showed us photographs of the damage caused that terrible afternoon. The tidal wave, funnelled by the valley, swept right into the building up to ceiling height. Fortunately staff had taken all the children to safety, barring one, whose mother had come to pick her up by car before turning back into the town to collect her mother. All were swept away.

Much affected by what we had seen and heard, we went for lunch in the one restaurant back in service. It was here I explained to Chiaki why the project I had hoped to set up in Scotland had not manifested.

No matter, she insisted. “I have another idea that maybe you can help with…”

Which is how the idea of the Otsuchi Summer English Camp was born.

With the fishing industry decimated, the canning factory gone, and the iron and steel industry in Kamaishi reduced, prospects for the next generation are limited. Chiaki feels that with a wider exposure to the outside world and a confidence in English, they will have a better chance in life.

This is why she donates every Friday to the children of the town, and with nearing half a decade behind her, will continue for another five years. By this time, she will have seen at least one generation through from kindergarten entry level to age 15/16 when they move to high school.

We met many of these older children in in the local community centre, where they attend voluntarily extracurricular English language classes through the afternoon. They had all made us drawings of welcome, shook our hands with sweetly assured confidence and told us their names.

Akii chatting with one of the elementary school-age children that Chiaki teaches on Friday afternoons, as they gaze down over Otsuchi

Akii chatting with one of the elementary school-age children that Chiaki teaches on Friday afternoons, as they gaze down over Otsuchi

The community facility is the highest building in Otsuchi. Yet residents had been told to make the temple below the town’s main evacuation point in any emergency. Many of those who gathered there lost their lives. Survivors climbed up through the graveyard and huddled in the main hall, where they first cut down the long floor to ceiling length curtains and then sectioned them for wrapping up the children overnight. It was pitch black inside and out, snowing, and very very cold.

The graveyard, from which survivors climbed up to the community hall. Beyond, the construction industry having a financial field day...

The graveyard, from which survivors climbed up to the community hall. Beyond, the construction industry having a financial field day…

Those ragged curtains acted as a traumatic reminder of that time for all students and staff when school resumed. Now they have been replaced, thanks to yet another of Chiaki’s efforts: the Curtains of Love project, with major private and corporate funding, and a large contribution from Germany.

Just last weekend, on July 29, three months after our visit, a group of children from these classes, aged between 7 and 11, travelled by bus and train to Tazawako, a beautiful pristine lake in Akita Prefecture to the northwest. They stayed in the pension That Sounds Good, ran free (something they cannot do where they are living) in nature, cycled, enjoyed craft projects and began to learn to swim. Most Otsuchi children are terrified of the sea, never go to their own beaches.

As to the English immersion aspect, English-born Japanophile Kevin Dodd, who has been much involved with Otsuchi from the start, travelled from Paris where he currently based to assist. Also my friend of many years, Heather Willson, from Kamakura, south of Yokohama, promised to leave her fluent Japanese language facility at home.

We know that those Otsuchi parents who were reluctant to allow their children to travel so far, out of sight, have been watching this project with interest. With our intention to make this an annual event, a much larger group is expected next year. Needless to say, more helpers will be required; more funding also.

But at least we have a year. To have organised the weekend camp in such a short time, is miraculous. But then Chiaki is a bit of a miracle.

While in Otsuchi, she took us to meet a retiree whose house had survived while all those around were either lost or severely damaged. Initially he worked tirelessly to help his neighbours, but slowly they began to turn against him, angry at the apparent unfairness of their situation compared to his own. He has suffered innumerable breakdowns as a result, still suffering survivor’s guilt.

We met another friend of Chiaki’s who had lost his home and his car, yet is still having to pay the loans of them… He barely survives, handling his depression by escaping into traditional Japanese dance dressed as a woman.

Chiaki says that the level of mental health is low among just about everyone in the region. Everyone has problems.

Soon after the tsunami, with the population in a state of shock, the vultures moved in: real estaters from the capital, who bought or simply moved in on land from families who had no proof of ownership over generations… Now the construction industry is having a field day, laying down infrastructure and creating piles of sand which, it is reported, will be “glued together”. You can be pretty sure that the families in temporary facilities will not be able to afford to buy the houses to be built on such structures.

Chiaki is very angry. But channels this energy into helping as best she can. Which is all any of us can do, right?

I will finish with a few photos from our own stay at Tazawako…

Kathy Wu, the owners of the pension That Sounds Good, and Akii, on our last morning. Kathy, who was travelling alone from Hong Kong, is now an active supporter of Otsuchi  English Club events...

Kathy Wu, the owners of the pension That Sounds Good, and Akii, on our last morning. Kathy, who was travelling alone from Hong Kong, is now an active supporter of Otsuchi English Club events…

Lake Tazawa in Akita Prefecture: a beautiful unspoiled place to unwind...

Lake Tazawa in Akita Prefecture: a beautiful unspoiled place to unwind…

The pension That Sounds Good, on the lakeshore of Tazawako that hosted children from Ostuchi at the end of July

The pension That Sounds Good, on the lakeshore of Tazawako that hosted children from Otsuchi at the end of July

Sunset on Tazawako - on golden pond, on golden pond...

Sunset on Tazawako – on golden pond, on golden pond…

And will post photos of the camp as they come through to me from those involved. By next week, promise.