from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: a Black Swan in the Botanic Gardens

August 5. Today, we walked in the Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens in the hills to the east of Adelaide. It was one of our coldest days with the daytime temperature hovering around 3°. But the sun was out and that was enough to make it pleasure.

an early flower

The Mount Lofty Botanic Garden, established in 1857, is a 97 ha area covering native forest as well as sections of European trees and flowers such as rhododendrons, azaleas and daffodils. We were a few weeks early for the spring flowering. It is interesting how the English immigrants wanted to replicate their beautiful home gardens in this new continent. In the nearby suburb of Stirling, if you bought built a new house you were required to plant deciduous European trees such as maple, ash and oak in order to create an autumn show. Adelaide gardens are filled with roses and huge camelia bushes.

the blackbuttt forest

The English also brought their birds because they thought the local birds did not sing well enough or that birds they were familiar with would solve an agriculture problem. Blackbirds, song thrushes, skylarks and goldfinches were introduced. Most of the species died out or are now only found in limited areas. They were not able to adapt to the hardness of the Australian climate. Blackbirds have survived in urban Adelaide gardens: one sings in our valley.

The most catastrophic decision was the introduction of the common starling to Australia in the mid-1800s. The idea was that it would feed on local insect pests. Instead, starlings have attacked fruit crops and have caused significant problems for livestock and poultry farmers. In western South Australia people are employed to shoot starlings to try and stop them migrating to Western Australia. If you spot a starling in West Australia you are required to report it and authorities will destroy the bird as soon as possible.

Since we are birdwatchers, we spent some time in the botanic gardens looking for birds. It is noticeable that most of the bird species were found in the native forest on the fringes of the rhododendron-filled valleys. I noticed that the huge blackbutt eucalypts had old burn marks on their trunks. In 1983, the devastating Ash Wednesday fire destroyed more than half of the botanic garden. Eucalypts grow back, English shrubs do not.

social distancing – Australian style

We had the garden almost to ourselves, although there were many warnings about the necessity of social distancing. It was not an issue. We got lost and could not find another soul to ask for directions.

On one of the smaller lakes a single black swan was half asleep amongst the lily pads. And I thought: Yes, that is appropriate. After all, we are living through a ‘Black Swan’ event: a rare event, with a severe and widespread impact, unexpected, but obvious in hindsight. The Black Swan event reveals our frailty.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: what makes a ‘good’ day?

South African Rusks

July 19. I have had a good day. Maybe, we each have to define in our terms what a good day entails.

Some simple things. We stayed at home all day – with no committments and no energy to rush out. It was chilly and misty at first so I made a wood fire to take the edge off the cold . Later, we took our slow-walking, one-eyed dog for a walk up the road. The birds were out by then: little red-browed finches, the Adelaide rosellas, the wattlebirds busy making nests. Sometimes, we count the number of species that we see on our walk. Usually, it is not much short of 10.

Then, after a little prompting plea from my husband, I did some cooking: I made rusks. These are South African biscuits that are first cooked in a block, like a cake, then cut up and returned to the oven to dry for eight hours. They are delicious: the tradition is to dunk one (or two) in your early morning coffee – at the risk of crumbs falling into your coffee. I have been experimenting with the recipe – adding all sorts of nuts and raisins. Today, the result was spectacular. (I recommend you try the following recipe from Drizzel and Dip. All day the house smelt marvellous.

My son, David, phoned from Cape Town to tell us about their two-week-old baby girl. She has now been named. It took a little while for them to make that decision. Her name is Chloe Anne … it is charming and most popular in that both grannies are “Annes”. Both grannies have an ‘E’ at the end of Anne as well. Good choice. Chloe is a very pretty little thing. I cannot remember babies being so cute. Or so tiny.

Mid-afternoon, after a little prompting, our grandson in Seattle phoned. It is Frost’s 19th birthday (and yes, he is named after the poet). I remember him well as a cute baby and that does not seem very long ago!!

Late afternoon, I took Roy for another walk: this time through our bush. I noticed that the spring native flowers are starting to appear. It has taken many years for the native understory to re-establish itself after we cut out the feral olive trees. On the way home I harvested some of our spinach, parsley and coriander.

Dinner this evening was another success. Two in one day! And here I must be honest – I’m NOT a good cook. Honest friends will confirm that! I made a mushroom risotto and included the spinach and parsley from the garden. I love mushrooms and having grown up in Zanzibar, I love rice. Even creamy Arborio rice.

Perhaps another one of the reasons why I feel happier today is that I have not listened to the news much, nor read any online papers like the Washington Post. It is frustrating to continually read depressing news when there’s nothing you can do about it.

It is enough to bake some biscuits, take a one-eyed dog for a walk and to hear from your family.

From Brenda in Hove: It’s Part of my curriculum

the Toulouse-blue crepe van

11 July. I have been feeling a bit poorly for a few weeks and haven’t been out much. Truth be told, life felt somewhat joyless. Covid and attendant restrictions are getting to me. Today I felt a bit better and went to the park to find out if my legs still worked (they did). I trod my usual paths and looked out for anything different since I was last there. Same old thing: lots of men with very shaggy beards; lots of men who haven’t heard of clippers; lots of women with weird hairdos who clearly haven’t made it onto the appointment lists; boisterous teenagers being the only people who at least don’t seem as subdued as the rest of us but behaving rather recklessly nonetheless. No joy there.

I noticed that there are now well trodden, clearly discernible paths alongside the main paved paths around the park – made by people like me trying to keep an acceptable distance from the people on the paths – lots of them. I read somewhere (The Observer, 14 June) that these are called “desire paths” (can you believe it?) – paths trodden by people who are usually intent on a shortcuts but are now intent on keeping to social distancing measures. It struck me how furtive and suspicious we all seem now – avoiding each other as if our lives depended on it (and they may). If an alien landed from another planet, it would think we were a very unsociable species. And that is before we don our masks. No joy there either.

The children’s play area was open. Now there is a joyful thing! I love children and I love watching children play. They have been kept away from the playground for so many months that they were relishing being back. Children walking with their parents on the path and spotting the playground just took off, faster than they have ever run before. Amusing. And joyful.

And then I caught sight of a dear little Toulouse-blue van advertising French crepes (gluten free, by some miracle). I felt genuine joy! I love crepes and haven’t had a single one since I went on a gluten free (dreary) diet. The brand name was “Oui!” I leapt to it – even though I had to go back to the apartment for my card. It was delicious. It reminded me of what I already knew: joy can be found in small things. It doesn’t do to be too ambitious.

I read a book some time ago called The Book of Joy by Douglas Abrams in conversation with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. There was much to be learnt from it. One story stuck with me and comes to mind as I try to come to terms with a life after Covid (challenged as I am by my advanced age). The author’s father had fallen down some stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury – with no guarantees that he would ever return to his former self. As it happens, he did, eventually. When one of his sons said that he was sorry he had had this terrible experience, the father replied, “Oh no, not at all. It’s all part of my curriculum.” (page 157)    

I think it is very much like this with Covid. We have to learn to find joy in new ways. It’s part of our curricula.     

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Roy’s routine and a Magpie chorus

Roy in Kensington Gardens Reserve

June 15. Routines help us. We don’t have to agonise over the pros and cons of each action, each day. Its set. Our cairn terrier, Roy, understands the routine right from 6.45am when he knows it’s time for my husband to get up and feed the flock of wild red-browed finches – and make me tea. It’s barely light at 7am as we approach the winter solstice – only 6 days away.

After breakfast, Roy knows its time for THE FIRST WALK. This is often a short walk to our gate – half a km away. Since Roy is now 11 and a half (around 77 in dog years) this walk is taken slowly to check on the smells on the way. We have both feral cats and foxes that roam our property and he has a fierce antipathy to these animals. Roy’s’ eyesight is going – due to cataracts, but for dogs, it’s the nose that counts. A dog is a nose with a couple of eyes. And Roy has a superb sense of smell. He knows the cats are in our valley without sight of them.

flowering time for the eucalypts

After the walk, there is a period of rest for Roy while we can attend to other matters. Some time around 3.30pm he raises his head and will let us know its time for THE SECOND WALK. This is usually the best and longest walk. Since I realise he is older and a creature of routine and habit, I most often take him to Kensington Gardens Reserve where dogs can go off-leash: there are three ovals, lots of other dogs and even a river to swim in. Even in the park there is a regular path that I follow – slowly. The route is about 40 minutes at Roy’s pace. Along the way he lifts his leg countless times to let others know of his passage. When we are on the second oval, I usually meet a family of Australia Magpies.

the greeting chorus

These friendly black-and white birds come to share Roy’s treats. The Australian Magpie has a very interesting social life and a beautiful song. Their Latin name Cracticus tibicen (flautist) is a reminder of their singing ability. They are extremely territorial and will recognise human faces – I know they know me, as before I even call these birds, they arrive. Their wonderful range of singing is actually a bonding mechanism in the family. Their offspring stay with the group and help raise the next year’s siblings. The magpie is the iconic resident of Australia’s ovals but their numbers are declining and people wonder if this is due to pesticides, feral cats, habit destruction – or just too many people.

Roy and I head back to the car at an even slower rate – if that is possible. He knows where the car is and a certain stubbornness is his method of prolonging the enjoyment of the outdoors. Roy has a Scottish winter coat so does not feel the cold.

And then we go home to another of Roy’s day’s highlights: the prospect of dinner before the 6pm news. Unlike us, Roy does not have to deal with the sadness of most of the news. That is our routine during these times.

from Megan in Brisbane, Australia: no man is an island

May 20.


‘NO MAN IS AN ISLAND’
John Donne – Meditations 17

Good news for Queenslanders – Restrictions have been eased, and what is allowed is clearly depicted in the visual above.
After carefully studying this roadmap, I set out with a neighbor and my dog Holly for a walk along the creek near our respective houses. The path winds through trees and bushland, with the sound of the water running over the rocks as a soothing background. There are about four children’s parks on the route, outdoor gyms, and an off leash area for dogs. Very well designed public space, catering for the needs of the community.

It’s the first time I’ve been for a walk along this path in two months, and I was quite overwhelmed by the experience. ‘Every man and his dog’ has now taken on its literal meaning. I couldn’t move for the number of people on the path and was amazed at the size and number of the dogs out walking. Great lumbering animals thundered down the path toward Holly and me, dragging their bedraggled owners, who were trying to appear in control,  behind them, and my neighbour was lost somewhere in the crowd.

So much for 1.5 m distancing. It was every man (and dog) for himself. Dogs were bounding along, desperate to greet other dogs, people were trying to extricate themselves from the mess of harnesses and leashes and pretending that theirs were not the dogs snapping and growling or doing their ablutions on the path, causing holdups for the rest of us; theirs were not the dogs sniffing these ablutions and causing more holdups, traffic jams and even  “bumper bashing”.

Despite this chaos, the general spirit was much better than any I had experienced before. People were more willing to engage, to exchange friendly words, to have brief conversations. Isolation is not normal for social creatures and the people out walking that day served as a reminder of our need to engage with others, that no man is an island, and that 1.5m distancing does not come naturally.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: it’s the environment, stupid …

Adelaide: from the hills to the sea

May 18. What has been noticeable in our community over the last 2 months is the emphasis people place on our environment – on the pleasure of walking and the freedom to get outside without restriction. In South Australia we have been allowed to walk: walk with a partner, walk the dog, throughout our severest lockdown, even when, at first, no one quite knew what was in store for us. On social media these activities featured prominently. People commented on the things they noticed and photographed: the sunsets; the animals and plants; the teddy bears they found perched in trees, hanging on front gates or looking out of windows.

People went to the beach, maintained social distancing, and spoke about how special it was to go there. Suddenly, the normal became appreciated. Did we miss going shopping? Not really. Did we miss travelling? Maybe – but what we missed was family more than the act of seeing new places.

Walking, or getting out of our houses, the freedom to move around became the number one thing we wanted to do – we took pictures, posted on Instagram and told others about it. Walking is therapeutic, no question. At 3 in the morning you can feel anxious about the way forward … but once you walk out into the forest, the bush, the park, those thoughts are blunted. This effect is not rocket science.

What we should now realise is that we must preserve our parks and wilder places in our cities and our urban fringe. Whenever I flew into Los Angeles, our Air New Zealand flight circling to land, I was amazed by how little green space there was visible in the city. Where were the great parks? The city appeared to be a crosshatching of buildings under a mist of pollution. Contrast Los Angeles with my Adelaide. (Not fair really: 18 million residents in greater LA compared to 1 million in Adelaide.)

downtown Los Angeles from Griffiths Observatory
Harbor12 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Adelaide is a small city, a young city in European terms. It was planned with great foresight by Colonel William Light in 1837. The main city grid is based on a Roman ‘castrum’ with a central public open space, 4 smaller ones in each quarter sector and the whole square surrounded by a 500-metre wide band of parkland. Town Planners love it, study it. This city works and the plan has stood the test of time. The encircling public parkland is a joy to residents and fiercely defended when various state governments have tried to invade it with what they regard as essential, ‘progressive’ development.

1839. Plan of the City of Adelaide, Australia by Colonel William Light

Add to our environment a slow meandering river, the River Torrens, which runs west out of our Hills, right through the city to the sea. It is flanked by a 30 km ribbon of parks and bike ways. The Torrens is a thin, seasonal river lined with ancient River Red Gums. And when you reach the sea, there is a 70km coastal park path along the seafront from North Haven to Sellicks Beach. Indeed, this is a city that is a happy place for bike riders.

People are wondering how Covid-19 will change our societies. Could we perhaps build a better world? Or is that pie in the sky? It is apparent that, for some time, there won’t be funds in our government’s budget to be generous with such plans. But on a small scale we could start thinking of things to do.

Could there be a change of emphasis driven by the community, a community now more aware of the precious nature of our public spaces?

New Zealand, led by their PM, Jacinda Ardern, plans to do things differently with a ‘Well Being Budget’. This is like a breath of fresh air.

“Finance Minister Grant Robertson outlined the plan to the country’s parliament – with billions released for mental health services, child poverty and measures to tackle family violence.

“Success is about making New Zealand both a great place to make a living, and a great place to make a life,” he said.

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/new-zealand-is-publishing-its-first-well-being-budget/

Could we not lobby our councils to: offer maps for walking and bike riding; provide a listing of street trees; grant conservation protection for older stands of trees; proactively advise residents on trees to plant; halt building plans that cover the full block? Our council already offers cheap sessions of yoga and exercise for older people. They could also offer supervised walks by environmentalists to educate about the bushland that we have within the council area. Get inventive.

Schoolkids could get involved in planting trees along waterways and cleaning them regularly – perhaps to ‘own’ a section of the river. We could lobby to reduce the speed levels on urban roads and add more dedicated bike path ways. More people will be working from home. Make the home area more community friendly.

We don’t have enough community gardens. In Seattle people seldom have front fences and use their sidewalks as planting space for herbs and vegetables. We don’t do that in Adelaide and our tree filled urban back yards are disappearing under the onslaught of huge double homes on old single blocks.

What other ideas are out there?

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: walking the dog and the leaving of Africa

Roy the Cairn terrier

May 8. Here in Adelaide walking our dog is a necessity and a daily enjoyment. Roy is an 11-year-old pedigree Cairn terrier. Mind you, his ears never managed to stand up, but he is a fine, much admired dog and knows his rights regarding walks after breakfast. We proceed on a regular route at about half normal walking pace as he is most interested in examining every bush, every gum tree for evidence of previous visitors. He is a determined dog and there is no rushing him.

During this time of Covid-19 life-change, many people are walking their dogs and perhaps even more slowly than normal. Dogs can go off-lead in our park. Regular dog-walkers greet one another at the prescribed distance. I know their dogs, but not their owner’s names. Roy, however, loves people and expects pats, but I notice that many won’t even touch him. Can a dog’s fur be infected? I suppose it’s a possibility.

Today, while watching Roy having an unscheduled swim in the muddy creek, I started taking photos of some vivid gum tree blossoms, and I got talking to a tall man walking his overweight King Charles spaniel. He commented on my accent and it turned out that he was an Afrikaner, originally from Pretoria in South Africa. We spoke for almost an hour. Like us, he left South Africa in the mid-1980’s. I am in the middle of a novel about the political situation in South Africa in 1985 and it was strange talking to an Afrikaner about those fraught times.

My new acquaintance is a doctor and we exchanged stories. As a young medic, newly qualified, he was conscripted into the South Afircan Defence force and spent 6 months in Angola during the infamous border wars. He remembered the beauty of the palm trees on the border; of how he treated a 17-year-old soldier whose damaged spine meant he would never walk again; of how lucky he was not to be sent into the townships to shoot at black school kids protesting . He said that when he visted Durban wearing his army uniform some white people spat at him believing him to be a supporter of the Apartheid regime.

This man looked at the towering eucalyptus trees around us and said he struggled to relate to the bush of Australia: what he remembered and loved was the bushveld of his homeland. He told me he was of Dutch origin, distantly related to the famous Doris Lessing by marriage.

How strange life is: you can leave a country and over thirty years later meet a dog walker and be taken back to those days. South Africa in the mid-1980 seemed headed for decades of violence, if not civil war. It was the time we decided to leave. Leaving your country is never easy. You are always a creature of two realities. No one in your new homeland really understands your background: the ‘shadows’ behind you as someone once said. Yet here I was talking to an Afrikaner and he understood.

You should realise that in those days we foolishly regarded all Afrikaners as being on the ‘other’ side, enforcing Apartheid.

Life sometimes gifts you such snippets of time –  to look back, to share the world you came from and see it in a different light.

All while walking Roy, the dog.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: follow the tortoise …

a tortoise walk

April 28.  Casual walking out of a house, down the street, into a park or out to the countryside, has long-been the most practised and least studied form of recreation.

For most people in most times, it was the basic form of relaxation.  Until the twentieth century, domestic over-crowding meant that it was often the only means of escaping the press of people and finding some privacy.  Because it was essentially unstructured and unrecorded, it has rarely received the attention of historians.  Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, to which I referred on April 24, is, like a handful of other such books, essentially an account of literary walkers, from Rousseau and Wordsworth onwards.  The one exception is the now elderly account by Maurice Marples, Shank’s Pony (1959).

In Britain, however, one of its most common forms, walking the dog, has long been counted.   During the nineteenth century an increasingly firm distinction was drawn between walking with a dog, and dog-walking.  Next to the immobile pedestrian, the greatest fear of polite town dwellers was the uncontrolled dog.  It was at best a source of noise, pollution, and unwanted physical contact for other pedestrians, and at worst a threat to life through the widely-feared disease of hydrophobia, or rabies. Taxing dogs, which began in 1796, was a means of policing their mainly urban owners.  Rural working dogs were exempt.  Following reforms to the cost and efficiency of taxation in 1867, reliable records were kept.  By 1877, there were nearly 1.4 million licensed dogs in Britain, mostly in towns and cities. At least as many owners again were believed to be avoiding the tax.  By the second half of the twentieth century the figure had reached four million, doubling again before the licence fee was finally abolished in 1987.

In most countries in the coronavirus lockdown, some kind of exemption has been allowed for exercising a pet.  Last week a story went viral of an Italian woman who had been fined for exceeding the time limit for this activity.  Her excuse was that the pet was not a dog, but a tortoise, and there was a photograph to prove it.

Initially I had much sympathy for the woman.  In my adult life the only pet that I have owned myself, as distinct from the family cat, was a tortoise, named Herodotus, or Hod for short, after the first historian.  It always seemed an appropriate companion for an historian, or indeed anyone engaged in the slow business of writing a full-length book. At this time of the year Hod would be trundling about the garden, eating buttercups and clover as he recovered his strength after the winter’s hibernation.

But then again, a tortoise really does, in Kipling’s terms, walk by itself.  Cats are in fact always aware of human company and generally seek to be close to it.  But a tortoise is entirely indifferent.  That is what makes it so relaxing a pet.  No complex emotional interactions.  Our cat would walk surprisingly long distances with us when we were out on an expedition.  Not Hod.  It is not so much about mobility.  On a hot day, especially if there is a tortoise maid in the offing, a tortoise can manage a turn of speed.  Rather it is a matter of independence.  There is just no way in the world you can get such an animal to follow you down the street.

I am afraid the Italian police had the right of it.

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Some things have to change!

25 April: I am not a person who likes routine. This quiet life that Corona has visited upon me, and the  routines, I find very irksome. This week I sought to change at least some things. Other changes were thrust upon me!

  1. I decided that my daily walk in the park would incorporate a walk through the meditative maze in the park. This particular maze is a “labyrinth-like design based on a fingerprint set into the turf using stone, on a slight incline in the park”. Such a design is said to be “an ancient, mystical pattern – a meandering path to the centre, which is often used to symbolize the journey through life.” http://www.publicsculpturesofsussex.co.uk/object?id=358 Rather unlike life, the labyrinth has only one path to the centre, requiring no decision and allowing the mind free to contemplate – in theory. I set off rather pleased at the prospect of something different only to find that two people were sitting right in the middle of the maze – and showing no signs of moving. Pipped at the post. Tomorrow is another day. And the day after that.
  2. Our shopping list has been, more or less, the same – week after week. Nice enough dinners but the sameness is what gets one. An Instagram advert presented the possibility of a change. A company called #Mindfulchef delivers – once a week – a box containing five selected recipes and all the ingredients necessary. Everything is fresh – and all are gluten free. Today is Day One of a more adventuresome diet. Can’t remember when I was more pleased.
  3. I have big plans for my balcony garden. Getting planters and pots was easy enough but pot trays impossible. I couldn’t get potting soil either. Everybody who could was out there, gardening their heads off! Finally a kind gardener I know said he would deliver potting soil and some plants to my front door – if I put out plastic sheeting. His choice of plants, not mine. Beggars can’t be choosers. Nearly fifty plants and eight (eight!) bags of soil were duly deposited in the passage outside our door. I already had taken delivery of three dozen plug plants. The first hurdle was the absence of crock. We have recently moved and I didn’t think to bring such a thing with me. Any delivery that entails polystyrene has been greeted with unusual delight and I spend evenings pummeling pieces of polystyrene into suitable sizes to go at the bottom of my pots – and, in the process scattering little white balls all over the apartment. Some routine that! Watering not a simple matter either: one watering can at a time from the kitchen to the balcony – taking care to only water when the woman in the flat below me is safely tucked in bed and cannot be rained on from above! This is not gardening as I know it. Bloody but unbowed, I continue.
  4. I signed up with the Commonwealth of Learning to act as a mentor for young women in far-flung places. I was informed of the names of my mentees today. None of my present cohort would imagine that they are doing me a much greater favour than I am doing them. I will tell them!

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: going backwards …

spring-time isolation

April 24. Towards the end of Wanderlust, her fine history of walking, Rebecca Solnit passes by a glass-fronted gym, and looks in at the men and women relentlessly working on their exercise machines.  ‘The treadmill’, she writes, ‘is a corollary to the suburb and the autotropolis: a device with which to go nowhere in places where there is now nowhere to go.  Or no desire to go.’  (264-5)

The contrast was with more purposeful forms of exercise, the walk in the countryside, the bicycle ride from one place to another.  This, of course, was in a time where it was possible to undertake such movement.  Now it describes the fate of most citizens in most countries.  In my case I have a private field adjacent to my house, but the Shropshire and Welsh hills basking in this morning’s sunshine are out of reach and are likely to be so for the rest of the year. 

rowing backwards …

Instead I keep fit on a rowing machine.  It is a Concept 2, for those who take an interest in such matters.  A professional-level device which has withstood heavy use over the years.  British readers might know that it was on just such a machine that the broadcaster Andrew Marr gave himself a near fatal stroke seven years ago.  It is said to be the most efficient of all the gym equipment, exercising muscles from the calves to the shoulders, and also, of course, heart and lungs.  This morning I managed 2,924 metres in my standard fifteen minutes, which at my time of life is hard work.

I learnt to row at school in Kingston-upon-Thames.  I loved the business, the walk to the riverside, the sleek fours and eights on their racks in the boathouse, lifting them out as a team and lowering them into the water, adjusting the footstraps, gripping the oars, and on command, a racing start, going up through the gears to a full stroke. The surge of power so close to the water is one of the great sensory experiences.  Better still was the single scull that I could use.  Difficult to balance, but when you mastered it you could race like a motorbike across the surface.  Then back to the boathouse, lifting the boat and turning it upside down to empty the river water, and onto the racks.

My Concept 2 has none of these pleasures.  The machine is housed in what was once a medieval cellar below my house.  The room has been tanked out, fitted with bookshelves, a light-well and bunks for the grandchildren.  It is a pleasant enough space, but nonetheless underground.  There is no view.  No sound of the rest of the household, or indeed a rippling river.  Just the seat running back and forth on its track while I listen to the news on the Today programme.

It is difficult not to view the rowing machine as a metaphor for our current circumstance.  A disciplined activity which preserves my health and is going nowhere at all, day after day, backwards.

But there is another, more famous metaphor associated with movement on water, the last line of The Great Gatsby: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’  I am by profession and practice an historian.  This does not seem a problem to me.