Hazel McHaffie

BBC2

The South West Coast Path

Moth and Raynor Wynn are in their fifties when, within a matter of days, they lose everything. Betrayed by a close friend, bankrupted by a failed financial transaction and punishing solicitors’ fees through three years of fighting a court case, their home and land possessed by the bailiffs, they are then weighed down with Moth’s diagnosis of a rare degenerative brain condition. There are no drugs to halt the progress, no therapies to keep the disease at bay, and time is running out. Their hopes and dreams lie in tatters.

Raynor is determined not to waste a moment of the time she has left with her beloved husband of thirty-two years. Now officially homeless, in the summer of 2013, they decide on an impulse to leave Wales and take on the South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset via Devon and Cornwall – all 630 miles of it. Home will be a tent bought from eBay, camping in the wild, at the very edgeland of life.

No facilities, often no food, scant possessions, stinking from neglected hygiene, pain in their joints, battered and bruised feet, sunburnt, cut and bruised skin, headaches, dizziness and hunger constant companions, frequently accused of being disgusting tramps, or drunk.
A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower; I had responsibilities, respect, pride …

Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Stupid to think we could walk this path, to not have enough money, to pretend we were homeless, to get the court procedure wrong, to lose the children’s home, to not have enough water, to pretend we weren’t dying, to not have enough water.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.

But gradually, as time goes on, they readjust their thinking, find new values, new dreams, learn new survival skills. Against all medical predictions, Moth’s health improves dramatically. And their own generosity of spirit shines through. Even though eeking out starvation rations themselves, Moth instinctively shares his last chocolate bar, a sausage sandwich, pasties, with fellow destitutes. By contrast, it’s sobering to hear of a vendor refusing even a cup of cold water. Not knowing their story, being downwind of them, how would I have reacted, I wonder?

This tale has so many resonances for me. I grew up in Cornwall. Yet I hadn’t been aware that depending on which statistics you read, Cornwall has the second or fifth highest rate of rough sleepers in the country, outside of London.

I had to smile at the picture of Raynor cutting her ripped leggings off at the knees with a tiny pair of nail scissors to make shorts. I once sliced the bottom off a posh full-length evening skirt with nail scissors when I realised I’d completely misjudged the dress code for an evening Conference dinner in Australia.

When the Winns were forced to put their boots back on because the soles of their feet were being burned by the scorching hot sand, it brought back vivid memories of a similar situation on a baked beach in Greece in 1968.

Raynor Winn has the skill to conjure up a wonderful combination of sights and sounds and smells and emotions in her writing:
Mozzarella, basil and tomatoes combined in some kind of wind-whipped, gull-swirling heaven. I sat with my back to the football and the wind in my face, looking out over the end of the Bristol Channel and the start of the wide, endless Atlantic Ocean. It’s wild here, a corner where tides, winds and tectonic plates collide in a roar of elemental confusion. A place of endings, beginnings, shipwrecks and rockslides. The viewpoint by the railings caught the air and rushed it up in a jet of cold, oxygenated, sea-spray fizz. I flew with the power of the uplift; alive, we were alive.

She searches for meaning in their new life:
On a basic level, maybe all of us on the path were the same; perhaps we were all looking for something. Looking back, looking forward, or just looking for something that was missing. Drawn to the edge, a strip of wilderness where we could be free to let the answers come, or not, to find a way of accepting life, whatever that was. Were we searching this narrow margin between the land and sea for another way of being, becoming edgelanders along the way? Stuck between one world and the next. Walking a thin line between tame and wild, lost and found, life and death. At the edge of existence …
What they did find was redemption, renewed purpose and hope.

Small wonder that this remarkable author has been in hot demand on the speaking circuit since The Salt Path was published, and is now commercially successful in her own right.

On a personal note, I’m staggered by how often serendipity/coincidence bring ideas together in life. I was in the middle of this book when BBC2 showed thwarted foreign-travel-writer Simon Reeve’s travels through Cornwall as the county emerged from the first lockdown, and explored what the future holds for a stunningly beautiful tourist hot-spot, riven with homelessness and poverty and inequality. The sight and sound of a fellow-writer forced to live in a run-down shed linger.

It’s been a nostalgic journey to the land of my youth, but provided sobering insights into lives lived beyond my experience. And challenged my values and priorities.

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Do unto others …

Are you crammed full with festive feelings? Singing as you drape the tinsel?

Or are you struggling to remember where you put the list of freezer-foods you absolutely must buy before Aunt Maud descends in five-and-a-quarter hours time? Or going crazy with wee Tommy’s repeated demands to know how many times he’s got to clean his teeth before Santa fills his stocking with sugary treats? Or worried sick about just where teenage Sally, wearing not much more than 6 inches of skirt and a sprig of mistletoe, has got to at 2.30am? Or running late again because Billy has just wet himself all over your new suedette skirt just as you stopped to answer the phone on your way to the car on the way to collect Pippy from school en route to swimming lessons which will end two minutes after you should have left to go to the station to collect Granny and Uncle Herbert?

Spare a thought this Christmas for those whose daily lives are punctuated by such anxieties 24 hours a day, 365 days a year … with no hope of anybody growing out of anything.

I refer of course, to families coping with dementia. (Nothing new there then, I hear you mutter.) But it’s all down to the BBC this time. With Remember Remember due out in a couple of months time, I really couldn’t ignore two programmes going inside dementia care homes with business impresario, Sir Gerry Robinson – although I have huge problems with the whole matter of filming people who are unable to properly consent; but don’t get me started on that topic! Anyway, the second programme in the mini-series aired on Tuesday of this week. I was too disturbed by the first one to even mention it in my last blog. (A blessing to count there then.) I needed time to think about the issues it raised, calmly.

As some of you know, I have a close association with a number of homes for the elderly, which include those with dementia. I’ve been involved in a voluntary capacity for many years, and I’m privileged to be allowed alongside, and into the lives of, people for whom the boundaries of time and place are now sometimes very hazy.

A fundamental given, in our organisation, is that they are treated with respect and dignity; every effort being made to know the person they were before, in order to maximise the potential of the present and the future. So Gerry Robinson’s experiences shook me to the core. Managers with no training in dementia care whatever, running these homes? Bell-pulls tied up out of the reach of the residents? Staff asleep on duty? Owners more bothered by staff nicking a slice of white bread than a distressed woman crying out for help for thirty minutes? Residents being washed in cold water … or not at all? Carers knowing absolutely nothing about the lives of those in their care? … and all this when they knew they were being filmed!

If I hadn’t sat there and watched it happening, I’d find it hard to credit. I can only devoutly hope that, as a result of this shocking exposé, things will change. They have to. Because one of the measures of a civilised society is the way in which it treats its most vulnerable citizens. How can we simply stand by, knowing this happens?

I was sent an email this week which resonated for me with the sobering reflections generated by the BBC 2 programmes:

A frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and four-year-old grandson. The old man’s hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered. The family ate together at the table. But the elderly grandfather’s shaky hands and
failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor.
When he grasped the glass, milk spilled on the tablecloth.
The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess.
‘We must do something about father,’ said the son. 
’I’ve had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and food on the floor.’
So the husband and wife set a small table in the corner. There, Grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner.
Since Grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl.
When the family glanced in Grandfather’s direction, sometimes he had a tear in his eye as he sat alone.
Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food.
The four-year-old watched it all in silence.
One evening before dinner, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor.
He asked the child sweetly, ‘What are you making?’ Just as sweetly, the boy responded,
’Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mummy to eat your food in when I grow up.’
The four-year-old smiled and went back to work.
The words so struck the parents that they were speechless. Then tears started to stream down their cheeks. Though no word was spoken, both knew what must be done …

The tale went on, but suffice to say, the moral of the story is familiar. As the Golden Rule has it: Do to others what you’d want for yourself. I guess we all need to take the lesson of the wooden bowl to ourselves. I know I do. Repeatedly. One day we too may have trembling hands and a deficient memory.

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