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How I learnt braille as a child

A friend recently asked me to write about how I learnt to read braille as child, so here goes!

I started to lose my sight when I was six and by the time I turned seven I couldn’t read print. I had to leave mainstream education and in the summer term of 1968 I started at an institution for the blind in Wimbledon called Linden Lodge School.

I came into a class of boys and girls of approximately my own age, some younger, some a little older, of mixed ability and with varying amounts of sight loss.

The boy who sat next to me in class was a very fluent braille reader. Sometimes, when we couldn’t go out to play due to rain, or when our teacher was in a staff meeting, he would read to us. He set an early benchmark for me, so I knew what reading speeds could be achieved.

I was desperate to read again, having only just discovered the joy of reading print before I lost my eyesight, so I was very motivated to learn braille. Our teacher at Linden Lodge, Miss Garling, was great. She stimulated our imaginations and was always encouraging us in our studies. Initially, I had some one-to-one tuition with her and then she gave me some simple braille to practise reading on my own.

My first book had just a few letters on each page. Braille uses a group of six dots to represent each letter of the alphabet, but it can also use one of these six-dot groupings to represent certain groups of letters or commonly occurring short words. These short-cuts are known as “contractions” and work a bit like shorthand or “text speak”. Once you’re used to them, they greatly speed up the process of reading and writing braille. Being young and enthusiastic, I soon got the hang of it and once I started to read words with contractions in them I was given a little book with a few words on each line.

I lapped it up! I believe it took me around half a term to get to the point where I could read simple stories on my own.

Linden Lodge was a boarding school but, back at home, my parents were encouraged to learn braille too so that they would be able to write letters to me. They were issued with a device called a Perkins Brailler, which is a sort of braille typewrite that embosses dots onto thin card, and a braille primer to read. My dad in particular threw himself into the project and did his best to learn simple braille. He did very well and continued to be able to identify numbers and some words for the rest of his life.

The first weekend I came home after they had begun this process, they showed me the Perkins and I started to pound away on it. I gather that they were mortified. They had bene so proud of their progress and were taken aback by how fast I could read and write!

I still remember the day when I graduated from a book with rows of words to a proper storybook. We used a series called “Gay Way,” which, if it still existed, would be renamed now. The first book was called Little Red Hen and the second, Joe the Cat. I think it was the Red Hen book which contained the word “scissors.” I don’t know why I remember this and I can no longer recall what the hen was doing with the scissors – possibly cutting the cat’s hair – but that first encounter with the braille representation of the word has stuck in my memory. I know that the next two books were about pigs and rabbits. The latter obligingly did a lot of hiding in hedges in order that we could learn the sign for “ed”.

There was a bigger book once you had read all the little ones and this had a story involving swans and jelly. I’ve no idea where they came up with these storylines. I don’t think the swans were made into jelly. That would have been cruel. (And illegal!)

After this, I moved on to the Beacon Books. These had more complex stories and a few still linger in my memory. My favourite was about a monkey who escaped from a fair and caused havoc in a little girl’s bedroom.

After that, I was a proper braille reader, and the world was my oyster.

The Gay Way books were what was known as “half-size,” so they were manageable for children to hold, but once you got on to the Beacon series you were dealing with the big chunky volumes that most braille books are made up of. These were very hefty for children to carry around. In fact, I still find braille books a bit heavy and unwieldy. My brother helped me to reorganise my books this weekend and it made so much difference to have someone there who could pick up piles of books and move them around easily.

I don’t recall whether I was specifically taught how to follow along a braille line although I understand that, these days, children are taught this skill before they start learning letters. I was taught to read braille with both hands, which is the “correct” way to read. As well as enabling you to cover more ground, it means you can be finding the next line with one hand while still reading with the other. It is the fastest way to read but most of us develop bad habits early on and tend to read with only one hand. Most of us have a dominant hand and mine is my left. I read with two hands or my left only and can’t read very well at all with just my right hand.

I have heard of people trying to learn braille in later life and finding it difficult to detect the dots with their fingers. I suppose at the age of seven my fingers were quite sensitive. I certainly don’t remember being able to feel the dots ever being an issue.

There is an ongoing discussion among those with visual impairment as to whether braille is simply a representation of print or a language in its own right, like sign language. I think it is, in a way, both. I suspect that reading braille is a different cognitive process to reading print and uses different parts of the brain. When I am reading poetry, for example, which includes a strongly emotional component, I sometimes try to imagine myself reading it in print and I have a strange feeling that the print letters would get in the way. Somehow, reading braille allows my imagination to run free. This probably sounds a bit odd, and I can’t demonstrate whether it is true or not, but it is an interesting question to ponder.

So, all these years later, I use braille every day. Respect to its inventor, Louis Braille!

What it felt like to lose my sight

I don’t think I have ever tried to describe what it was like to lose my sight. This will be a challenge. It was a long time ago and I was a child. At the time, I didn’t analyse what was happening to me. Still, I’m going to have a go.

When my Still’s Disease (juvenile rheumatoid arthritis) was first diagnosed, the doctors told my parents to watch my eyes carefully for signs of inflammation because the disease could affect the organs of sight as well as my joints. At a subsequent hospital visit, they discovered that I had lost all vision in my right eye apart from light detection and the ability to see some hand movements. The hospital told my mother that she couldn’t have been checking my eyes but she said firmly that she had.

I don’t recall any of this. I was told about it much later. I was six and all I knew was that doctors were looking into my eyes with lights. It was not long after this that I passed a sight test at school and, on learning of my impaired vision, the embarrassed optician said I must have memorised the chart or peered round the card they were holding over my left eye. I remember the test but not the conversation between my mother and the clinician.

At this point, I don’t recall anything changing. My left eye must have taken over and I was unaware that anything was going wrong.

My first experience of sight loss occurred one day when the headmistress took us for a lesson because our usual teacher was otherwise engaged. We had been given some writing to do and I asked the spelling of a word. The teacher wrote it on the blackboard. I couldn’t make any sense of it. I could see white marks on the blackboard. I could see that they were in groups so I knew they were words but I could not decipher the word she had written for me to copy. I thought I was being stupid and kept quiet.

I continued to do the same work as everybody else and don’t remember having any further problems for a while.

At some point I was given NHS specs. In those days they were round with pink plastic frames and were not the height of sartorial elegance. I don’t remember minding very much. I don’t think I was teased. Mind you, the girl who sat next to me wore specs as well so perhaps there was safety in numbers.

Coil spring spectacles, pink plastic, National Health Service issue, 1955-1969. This photograph is taken from the Science Museum Group website and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence. You can find the original here: https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co151632/pink-coil-spring-spectacles-national-health-service-issue-1955-1969-spectacle-frames )

A while after this I started to experience a strange phenomenon. I would be reading and the print would suddenly go very small. Sometimes I would see flashing lights or coloured spots in front of my eyes. At some point someone opined that it was probably migraines brought on by my struggling to read. No one suggested any treatment or showed any particular concern. It was just one aspect of losing one’s sight, apparently.

Eventually, I moved up to the “Transition” class, the class between Infants and Juniors. I did sit very close to the blackboard, so I’m guessing that the teacher had been told that I had a problem. Otherwise, I carried on as before. I read, wrote, and did sums. Somehow, I managed to see the blackboard. The big excitement was getting a descant recorder and starting to learn to read music. That made me feel very grown-up.

I do remember the teacher asking me one day about the book I was reading. I struggled to answer her question. She said she thought I didn’t always understand what I was reading. She was probably right. Looking back, I think that the sheer effort of making out the words meant that I didn’t always take in their meaning. I still sometimes found the print shrinking away before my eyes.

In time, I got a new pair of NHS specs. The lenses were very thick, but they had red frames, which was a big improvement on the pink. I got very excited about this and I think they must have helped me for a while.

It was while I was in this class that we had the school trip during which a duck psyched me out of half my lunch. (For more details, see my post “Duck Terror!” from 16 June 2020.) I know my mother was concerned about me going. She felt it was asking too much of the staff to take responsibility for looking after me but I pleaded and got to go. I still had quite a bit of useful vision and didn’t think of myself as different from anyone else, whatever my mother (or the duck) had to say about it.

Then something happened.

At some point over the summer of 1967 I lost a lot of sight very quickly. As I recall it, when I went home for the summer holidays, I still had a lot of sight, but by the time I went back to school in September, I was really struggling.

I remember that I had  a brand new pen – not a biro, but a fountain pen. I was very proud of it. I could write with it, but I couldn’t always read back what I had written. I remember quite clearly one day trying to write the date. An image of the word “September” is firmly fixed in my mind, but after that the letters I wrote got smaller and smaller and started to slope down towards the corner of the page. The words weren’t neat, and they weren’t intelligible. I couldn’t read them, and neither could anybody else.

I could no longer trust myself to be able to submit legible written work.

I couldn’t read any of the textbooks, either, but strangely enough I could still draw. In fact I continued to do so on into my teens, even when I had to press my nose right against the paper and could barely see what I was doing. But back in my primary school, the teachers finally began to take my visual impairment seriously. I wasn’t allowed to go out at playtime in case I got knocked over. Kind friends volunteered to stay in and read to me.

I went into Moorfields Eye Hospital in the October of that year but they were unable to restore much of my sight. After that, the hospital recommended that I be registered blind so that I would get the help I needed.

A social worker came to visit with a £20 voucher from the RNIB. With it, I bought something called Unilock letters. These were plastic squares with print and braille letters on which you could join together to make words. I also bought a tactile draughts game and a game of “Beetle.”

But, being registered blind, I couldn’t go to school any more.

I was at home, then, for seven months while Essex County Council twiddled their thumbs and did nothing about my education until, one day, in anger and frustration, my mother rang them to tell them I was in tears because I was bored stiff and wanted to go to school. Finally, things began to move and eventually I was sent to Linden Lodge, a special school for the blind – but that’s another story.

All this happened a lifetime ago and it is difficult for me to get everything in the right order now. As you can tell, my memory of those days is patchy. As far as I can recall, though, I don’t think that I found the process of losing my sight especially traumatic. In my own childish way, I took it in my stride. On the other hand, when it finally sank in, the realisation that I could no longer read was absolutely devastating. I couldn’t wait to learn braille and get back to reading.

I also remember gradually losing the ability to see the television. This was nearly as frustrating as not being able to read. My family were good audio-describers, but some programmes were just too tricky to explain. Cartoons became impossible and describing what was happening in fast-action films and detective shows was sometimes beyond the powers of even my valiant family.

Looking back, there were other things that I minded, too, such as my inability to participate in games at Girls’ Brigade or to read aloud in Sunday School. The gradual realisation that I was not the same as everybody else did have an effect on me. I did mind and I did have nightmares about it but I eventually learned what all of us who have disabilities and have spent time in hospital as children and away at boarding school have learned, and that is stoicism.

I learned to put up with it.

In fact, a friend and I were talking about this recently. Maybe I’ll write a blog about that too.

Bats

For my birthday a week or so ago, I received some rather splendid bat jewellery. My sister and brother-in-law (the editor of this blog) gave me a jewelled necklace with a long-eared bat in the centre. My niece gave me matching earrings.

Just to avoid any misunderstanding, I should emphasise that this wasn’t because they didn’t like me, or because they were hinting that I’m a bit batty. No, it’s because I love bats – they are my favourite animals – and they know that I collect bat-themed objects.

I have rings, a bracelet, and now a necklace and earrings based on bat designs. I have rubber bats of various sizes, and furry bats too. One of these is enormous. He hangs on my wardrobe door in what I like to think is quite a regal way. He was also a present from my relations. He was given to me one Christmas and I spent Christmas Day stroking his beautiful furry body and elegant wings.

It doesn’t stop there. I have bat keyrings and fridge magnets. I even have a knitted bat which laughs squeakily, and somewhat manically, when you press its tummy. And I have a splendid bat door-knocker, given to me as a house-warming present by my brother. (One lodger thought it was an ironic comment on my disability.)

So, why bats?

I may have mentioned that I fell in love with Dracula whilst watching a TV adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel back in the 1970s. I was probably around 15 or 16 and a soon as Louis Jordan, who was playing the title role, said, “I am Dracula,” I was smitten. When the actor died a few years ago, I hoped one of the many TV channels would show the film again, but none did.

I don’t, however, just love mythical bats. I think bats are amazing creatures. I love their furry bodies, their pointy ears, and their little fingers at the ends of their wings. Sadly, of course, I can’t see them, although I’m told that some have been spotted in my garden. I can’t hear them, either, as the noises they make are at frequencies beyond the range of human hearing.

I must have seen them at one time, though, because the picture in my mind of what a bat looks like is so vivid.

When could I have seen a bat? I don’t recall the occasion. Perhaps I saw them at a zoo or on television when I was little, before I lost my eyesight. Perhaps I am just drawing on memories of pictures. Still, I know I have seen bats somewhere.

As I think about this, I wonder how many animals I actually have seen. Have I pictured some in my mind for so long that I mistakenly think I have seen them in the flesh?

I can remember the blue whale in the Natural History Museum in London. It was so huge that, as a small child, it gave me a slightly edgy thrill to stand in the gallery alongside it. I know I saw penguins swimming underwater at a zoo or wildlife park. There are other creatures, too, that I remember seeing in the flesh and whose images I can still conjure up, including elephants, giraffes and bears.

But what about aardvarks?

I don’t think I have ever seen one. Does this mean that the image of an aardvark that I see in my mind is just something that I have conjured up from scratch, or was there a description in a book somewhere that wormed its way into my brain?

I thought about this a lot when I encountered a tactile picture of a wildebeest recently. I realised that, before I touched the graphic, I couldn’t have told you what one looked like.

I don’t know much about the working of the human brain but it does make me wonder how accurate a picture anyone can create who hasn’t seen an animal for themselves. I expect you all know the story of the four blind men who each feel one part of an elephant and conclude from that small area that they know what the animal looks like. Imagine, though, how difficult it might be to conceive the size of a whale or picture what a rhino’s horn looks like if you have never seen either in the flesh.

There are many more tactile images around now than there were when I was a child, and plenty of furry toy representations of wildlife are also available. I have quite a collection myself. A cuddly octopus, a velvety raven and a plush duck-billed platypus all adorn the back of my sofa. Despite their unusual shapes, I have pretty good idea of what they all look like because I have been able to feel them.

Size, though, is difficult to convey. After all, what do you use for comparison?

“It’s the height of this house.”

Okay, so how high is that? I know I’m being a bit pedantic now. You can walk to the top floor of a building and get an idea of its height but, still, I’m sure you take my meaning.

It is said that no two people see colour the same. I expect it is true that perception in general is very individual. So, perhaps, it doesn’t matter if a blind person’s idea of an elephant is different from that of a sighted person but I can’t help feeling that there is a great research project for a keen student somewhere, exploring how our brains manufacture images without having a picture to look at.

But, be all that as it may, I think I have a pretty good idea of what a bat looks like. And I think that it’s a beautiful creature.

Woodwork

As I have mentioned before, at the age of seven-and-three-quarters, I was sent to a school for the blind. Linden Lodge School in Wimbledon was a light, airy, modern building. There was also a modern approach to teaching children with sight loss. By the age of ten I was already being taught a wide curriculum including biology and French, as well as craft subjects such as pottery. There was a great emphasis on music and drama and we even had an indoor heated swimming pool.

We also had woodwork lessons.

(Yes, you read that correctly. They actually taught visually impaired children how to use hammers and saws.)

I am not a very practical person but I loved woodwork. We had a wonderful teacher called Mr. Grenfell who was a descendant of Sir Wilfred Grenfell, the celebrated medical missionary who was sent to Canada in the late nineteenth century and founded clinics and hospitals in Newfoundland and all up and down the coast of Labrador. In his own way, our Mr Grenfell was a marvel too. He seemed to be able to keep order without ever raising his voice. I think we were all so engaged in what we were doing that playing up never entered our minds!

It was all interesting but I particularly enjoyed planing wood. I found the repeated arm movements soothing and it was deeply gratifying to feel a rough wood surface gradually becoming beautifully smooth.

When it came to banging nails into wood we used a gadget rather like a small bottle. There was a narrow neck which you fitted round the nail. You then held the bulbous end with one hand and hit hard on the end with a mallet. This too was highly satisfying and it was a system that meant we could hammer nails with reasonable safety.

But we weren’t only taught how to wield simple hand-tools like planes and hammers. We were also instructed in how to use more sophisticated devices and I well remember how much fun it was to use the jigsaw. The one we used had a mechanism that allowed you to pre-set the length of wood you wanted to cut. There were holes in it that equated to inches. You counted along to the length of wood you wanted, put a peg in the corresponding hole and put the wood under the saw. It would then cut your long piece of doweling to the required size.

The sensation of sawing wood was wonderful. You could feel the vibration and hear the blade cutting through the wood. You could even sense when you were getting to the point when you were just about to cut right through.

We made a variety of different objects in woodwork and when we had finished the carpentry part of each project we then got to paint our creations. I made a box for my father to keep his shoe-cleaning materials in which he used for the rest of his life. Inspired by the moon landings that were happening at the time, I also made a spaceman puppet. I painted his body silver and Mr. Grenfell attached strings and added felt hands.

I know of many visually-impaired adult men who are very good at woodwork and DIY in general. I don’t know if any of the girls I was at school with carried on developing their woodwork skills. Once I left Linden Lodge I never had another opportunity to indulge myself with a plane or a mallet. Looking back, though, it gives me immense satisfaction that, for a few years during my childhood, I positively revelled in hammering, smoothing and sawing wood.

Invisible Numbers

There is a brilliant programme on BBC Radio 4 called “More or Less”. It is presented by Tim Harford, a financial journalist, who probes the numbers bandied about by the media. For instance, he recently delved into the UK Covid stats to get to the true picture. He explains everything so well that, for the half hour that the programme lasts, I actually believe that I understand numbers.

Occasionally he poses puzzles for the listeners. A recent puzzle went something like this: add 28 to 50-something (I’m sorry, I can’t recall the exact sum). The point was, people wrote in with what seemed, to me, to be unnecessarily complicated solutions. There was talk of carrying numbers over and other technical terminology. Surely, I thought, you just add 20 and then 8?

I remembered then that, when I was at school, my parents were told that children without sight thought of figures differently to sighted children.

So: is this true?

I don’t remember much of the maths we did at my infants’ school. We did do some but I can only really remember sheets of numbered squares. To help us learn our times tables we had to colour in, say, every third square or every ninth square. I loved colouring and all that stays with me now is a memory of the fun I had choosing the colours to use. The numbers were a secondary matter as far as I was concerned.

I also remember buying a Ladybird addition and subtraction book which taught you to do sums by putting numbers above and below lines. I know I enjoyed learning how to do this and completing the book but I can no longer recall how to do sums in this way.

I first went to a school for the blind when I was seven and three quarters. (I was very proud of knowing my precise age!) I still had residual vision and was given something called a Colour Factor. This was a box with bars of different colours and lengths representing the numbers from 1 to 12. The figure one was a small white cube rather like a sugar lump. The number two was pink and twice the size. You played around with these bars until you discovered that pink and light blue equalled yellow. Again, as I loved colours, I really enjoyed playing with the Colour Factor. I don’t think many of my classmates had enough sight to make use of this piece of apparatus. It had limited educational value but it looms large in my memory.

After that I moved on to sums brailled on red card. When you finished each card, you went to the teacher and got the next one, thus getting a good feeling of making progress. There must have been some teaching involved. I can’t have magically known how to do all the types of sums on the card, but, again, the cupboard is bare. I can’t recall the teaching, I just remember the cards.

It was at this point in my education that I started missing lessons through having to spend long spells in hospital and in sick bay.

When I went to Chorleywood College, my secondary school, I got on all right with numbers to start with. In the days before electronic talking calculators, we used abacuses. I loved mine and still use it for addition and subtraction although I have forgotten now how to do division and multiplication. Incidentally, when I visited Russia in the 1990s and stayed in a town on the Russian-Chinese border, I was delighted to find that many of the shopkeepers still used abacuses to tally amounts rather than electronic tills.

Another fun maths activity at school was creating geometric shapes. We had tactile graph paper laid out on rubber mats. Following the teacher’s instructions, we would count, say, five squares along the bottom row and, say,  six from the left edge, and then fix a drawing pin at said point. We would follow further instructions and determine the location of the next pin. When all the drawing pins were inserted, we joined them up with an elastic band and, hey presto, there was an interesting shape!

At some point we tackled matrices, which involved writing figures in squares on our Perkins braillers. I don’t recall what we did with said figures but, whatever it was, I did manage to do it.

I wasn’t too bad at algebra in the beginning but at some point it left me behind.

We didn’t have to take O-level maths because it was understood that it was a difficult subject for visually-impaired children and I never sat the exam. Some girls did go on to do A-level maths and even studied it at degree level, but they were few and far between.

I left school with the conviction that I was useless at numbers. Looking back, I believe now that, at some point, the gaps left by my earlier absences from class had undermined my ability to keep up.

As an adult, I did get some confidence back by doing the numbers problems on the TV game show “Countdown”. Using the four stand arithmetic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, you have to make a specified large number from a random collection of six small numbers, none of which is larger than 10. I couldn’t necessarily do the sum in the 30 seconds allowed on the show but I started to get there if I gave myself time and didn’t panic.

So, back to my original question: is it true that children without sight think of numbers differently to sighted children?

My considered answer would be yes, but it depends on what age you were when you lost your sight.

My experience was that children who lost their sight after or around the age of 11 still thought of calculations in terms of carrying numbers and putting numbers above and below lines. But if you lost your sight at a very young age, like I did, you almost had to start off all over again and relearn arithmetic from scratch.

I don’t know for sure but I think there is something inherently visual about Maths and you have to have a certain kind of mind to overcome this if you can’t see. I expect that if I Googled enough I would find learned research papers on this very topic…

…But life is too short and, besides, it’s time for a tea break. (Yes, I can tell the time – with a tactile watch, of course!)

Eccentric and nefarious dogs!

Some of my visually impaired friends have guide dogs to help them get around. My mobility problems mean that owning such an animal has never been a viable option for me, but I enjoy hearing from others what mischief their guide dogs have been getting up to. I even sometimes have my own close encounters with these larcenous canines.

I have learned over the years that a guide dog doesn’t have to have failed its training to be badly behaved. When I was on the committee for the Chorleywood College Old Girls’ Association, we held some of our meetings at the flat of one of our members who had a guide dog. After we had finished the business of the day, we would have tea. I vividly recall a sandwich disappearing from my hand somewhere between the plate and my mouth. The theft was so professionally carried out that I can’t believe it was the dog’s first offence!

Other guide dogs of my acquaintance have been slightly eccentric. One friend’s large Labrador, for example, is under the impression that she is a lapdog. When I visited, she attempted to climb onto my lap, thus pinning me to the back of the sofa behind her not inconsiderable bulk. She then attempted to quietly eat the biscuits off my plate. Perhaps she thought that I must be deaf as well as blind. As it was, I could hear perfectly well what she was about. In any case, when I found them gone, who else would I have imagined could have eaten them?

Judith and Jack the Dog studiously ignore each other in an old family photo from 2004.

Out of deference to my brother-in-law, who edits this blog and manages my website, I won’t mention his dopey dog Jack*, who never got the hang of the fact that I couldn’t see where he was and let me bump into him rather than move out of the way. However, if I was going to mention him, I might also say that my brother-in-law wrote a rather good song about said dog and, if you are lucky, he might put a link to it here.

* Editor’s note: Judith is clearly referring to that deeply wise and erudite canine, Jack the Dog, who, during her visits, bravely used to protect her with his furious barking from all sorts of threats and imminent dangers, like the postman coming up the drive outside or that elderly woman closing the door of her car three houses away.

Cat antics

In my last blog on the subject of pets, I told you about Jason the rabbit and my brother’s guinea pig Brandy, AKA “Squeaker”. It is high time that I told you about some of the cats in my life.

We mainly stuck with rodents as pets when I was a girl, but later on, when I was a law student, I did “adopt” a cat. A friend and I were sharing a flat and the girl in the flat below us had a cat which she didn’t look after properly. We started to feed him and he became “one of us.”

His name was Thomas.

He was big and black, and very strong and resourceful. He could stand on his hind legs and open the fridge, so we had to start taping the door up with Sellotape.

He would sit on my lap while I was eating and continually edge his chin over the side of the bowl. I would push him back down but he would soon return. I often gave in and let him eat the last bit. He especially liked tinned rice pudding and fruit cake.

Thomas liked to sit on the cupboard behind my chair while I was at my desk brailling my lecture notes. He would put a paw on my shoulder and lean over as if he was reading my work. He also liked to sleep on my floor cushion, which was often propped up in front of a glass-fronted cabinet. The door of the cabinet didn’t shut properly and he would lie there, casually batting the door with his paw. I was often awakened at night by the gentle, thump, thump of the cabinet door banging.

Thomas’ other hobby was playing with wrapping paper. He just loved it. I remember Christmas in the flat, with me kneeling on the floor trying to wrap presents, and Thomas on his back, with his legs in the air, rolling happily to and fro in the middle of the wrapping paper.

Perhaps his most annoying habit was sitting bang in the middle of my bed. I would find him there each night when I wanted to go to sleep. I would try to edge ever so carefully into the bed so as not to disturb him but just when I thought I had achieved this feat, he would decide to get up and walk off in a huff.

I don’t have a cat myself any more, but fortunately my family have continued to keep them over the years. My brother and sister-in-law currently have two cats. One purrs so loudly that I can hear him all the way from Leicester! (Well, down the phone actually, but he certainly makes himself heard.) The other is a champion hunter with a taste for frogs. When she isn’t littering the house with dead amphibians, she proudly offers gifts of dead leaves.

My sister and brother-in-law used to have a lovely rescue cat called Maggie, who had the softest fur I have ever stroked. She had been raised entirely by humans and so didn’t know she was actually a cat. She couldn’t groom herself but for some reason she did groom me. When I stayed there she would lie on my chest and let me cuddle her like a teddy bear while she combed my hair with her claw.

Maggie the Cat.

Maggie also liked to sleep on my bed at night. Whenever she got thirsty, she would try and drink from my glass of water on the bedside table. One night, reaching over me to get to the glass, she put her paw on my talking alarm clock and accidentally set it off. I’m not sure which of us jumped most when a voice in the dark suddenly announced that it was 12:30 AM!

Rabbits and guinea pigs

As I’ve explained previously, we were allowed to have pets at my boarding school, Chorleywood College, but only between the second and fourth years. Such age restrictions, however, entirely failed to curb my pet ownership ambitions.

I continued to keep pets back home with my parents even after I could no longer have them at school. Julio the rabbit was followed by a rabbit named Jason, who was a Yellow Dutch, which meant that he was a beautiful golden colour. He was also full of fun. He liked eating toast, which he regularly dunked in his water bowl. All very well for him, but as the one who had to clean his bowl and prepare his breakfast while not actually being able to see what he’d been doing with his crockery, I can testify that handling soggy toast first thing in the morning is not at all a nice sensation!

My dad built Jason a hutch. He used part of a piano sounding board for the rear wall of this construction and Jason loved nothing more than repeatedly thumping this with his back legs to produce a loud, resonant and drum-like sound that you could hear all round the house.

My dad also put up a wire enclosure in the garden so that Jason could enjoy being outdoors without the possibility of our losing him in the flowerbeds. We used to place some food and a water bowl in the corner of this pen and Jason would sit with his back to them while all sorts of birds, drawn to the seeds in the rabbit food, came down to feed. He would deliberately wait until several birds had gathered, then spin round and gleefully leap among them, chasing them all off in a flurry of flapping wings and avian cries of distress. This was obviously good sport from a rabbit point of view because Jason would play this game over and over again.

Another favourite game of his was running round and round in circles with his head inside a plastic flowerpot.

During this time, my brother decided that he would like a guinea pig, and one was duly purchased. Her name was Brandy, but she rapidly became known as Squeaker because she was so vocal, especially when she was hungry. She was quite a character and, as an Abyssinian guinea pig, had lovely fur which stuck up “every which way,” as my father put it. (I believe that these radial swirls of fur are actually known as “rosettes”.)

We read that rabbits and guinea pigs could live together, so we tried the experiment. We opened both hutches and waited to see what would happen. Squeaker barged into Jason’s bed compartment and refused to let him in. The experiment was promptly abandoned!

Christmas 2020

Christmas preparations are different for all of us this year.

We are all having to rely on the Internet even more than usual to help Santa fill his sack. The trouble is, I quite like to go out to actual shops. True, I can’t walk far and have to plan my shopping campaigns carefully to limit mileage, and, yes, even in other years I do buy some presents online, but, for all that, I do like an actual shopping trip.

The thing is, shopping online just isn’t the same for me. If I want to buy, say, jewellery, I want to know what it feels like. Is the pendant a pleasing shape? Is it smooth? Is it light or heavy? Perhaps I want to purchase a scarf for someone. I want to know, is it silky or woolly? Can I imagine the recipient wearing it?

I also feel some loyalty to my local shops. There are precious few left in the centre of Swindon and if we all sit at home clicking on links, there will be none at all quite soon.

There is also the question of the Christmas treat. I normally like to take my long-suffering personal assistant and friend out for a meal or an excursion at this time of year.

We were reminiscing only today about a trip we made to Gloucester Cathedral four years ago. They had the most amazing life-size knitted Nativity scene. Yes, really! They had hung the fabric characters on wooden frames to give them shape but they were, otherwise, all knitted. We had the good fortune to arrive as people were gathering for a carol concert, so we sat and listened to the beautiful sound of carols being sung in that wonderful building with its brilliant acoustics.

This year, however, we will have to be content with sitting at home eating mince pies and pulling a cracker, looking forward to better times.

No Christmas outing this year, then, but I have instituted the tradition of buying my PA and I each a pair of Christmas earrings. Despite having enough earrings to, as my father used to say, sink a battleship (a form of maritime ordnance which the Royal Navy hasn’t tried yet), there is, in my view, always room for another pair.

Some people collect stamps, I collect earrings.

I’m sure I will find an excuse to buy us some when shopping expeditions are a lawful pleasure once again.

So, yes, Christmas all feels rather different this year. I hope my nearest and dearest will bear with my lack of imagination this festive season but I hope to make it up to them in the new year. Meanwhile, there will still be good cheer this Christmas, carol CDs to play and rubbish on the TV – so perhaps it’s not all quite so different after all!

Advent Calendars

This week I have had the pleasure of starting to open the windows of my advent calendar.

“You have an advent calendar at your age?” I hear you cry!

Actually, I think these calendars are being increasingly marketed at “older” people and not just at young children. You can even get them with cosmetics and alcohol behind those little numbered doors.

Some years I have had calendars with pieces of chocolate in festive shapes sitting temptingly in their niches, but really I like the ones with pictures best.

This might seem odd to you as, obviously, I can’t see said pictures, but the fact is that I have always loved pictures. I used to adore painting and drawing when I was a child, and I continued to struggle to draw with thick black felt tips even after my sight was too poor to do this properly.

Maybe it is my inheritance from my artistic mother. I have a good imagination and enough memory of what objects and colours are like to be able to conjure up an image in my mind if someone can describe a picture to me. Of course, what I am picturing may not resemble the original, but does that matter? I don’t think so.

I vividly remember my first advent calendar. It had a golden coach on it and a glittery sky and I still recall that one of the windows had a bright red ladybird behind it. What that had to do with Christmas I don’t know, but it was colourful and I liked it.

Over the years these calendars have become more elaborate and I do like to try and find one with some tactile elements. I have had splendid ones that are 3D scenes. One was a representation of Bethlehem with lots of little houses in the streets. I had a tower with elves making toys inside once. I have had calendars which play “Jingle Bells” and this year I have a squirrel’s house.

Yes, I do mean “house.”

It is not a representation of a large nest (dray?) but a children’s picture book house. There are several rooms, with squirrels variously asleep, sitting by the fire and, in one case, climbing a ladder. This last one is great fun because you can push the little squirrel up and down the ladder. You can also turn a wheel and make Santa fly through the air.

So far, so childish – and in case you are wondering whether I ever have calendars with religious themes, the answer is, yes! Besides the Bethlehem calendar mentioned above, I have had ones with scripture texts and one with an African scene which a friend gave me, which had the nativity story divided up into brief episodes so that, by the time you opened door 24, you had heard the whole tale from the Annunciation to the arrival of the baby Jesus.

In the end, what I love about these calendars is the air of anticipation they create, especially when it comes to the fun of hunting for the door. I can’t do this unaided any more, although one year RNIB did produce an advent calendar with braille numbers on the doors. But even if I have to have help, I still enjoy waiting while my friend locates the appropriate little door. When she’s found it, I open it and listen to her description of the image inside. It is all part of the preparation for the big event and I have never lost my childhood delight in it.