Virginia Barton

1 March 2019: Au revoir, for now

1 March 2019


It’s time for a break, and when better to make a fresh start than Lent? The penitential season begins on Ash Wednesday, March 6th , and while I cannot pretend that I will devote the six weeks to what Jerry Cruncher in A Tale of Two Cities referred to as “flopping”, I shall hope to do some of it.

(Jerry’s unfortunate wife was chided if not cuffed for her habit of flopping, unless Jerry was in a tight corner when, perversely, he hoped she was doing it.)


You need a respite from my iPad, and I must make a tour d’horizon like some hopeful periscope swivelling and scanning the surroundings hopefully.

What next? The eighty-second birthday hoves ever closer: there is surely more to come? With my extraordinary good luck, no doubt something will turn up.


There is still much to comment on, and two things this week I am loth to leave behind.

I rarely mention politics, but Brexit (who’s the Clever Dickie who invented that ghastly name?) is on everybody’s mind if not lips. A clagginess drapes the country like cold porridge. One or two bright sparks, like little stars, pierce the gloom here and there depending on your point of view: Yvette Cooper, Anna Soubry and Luciana Berger. The mood is depressed; only the extremes to right and left seem to get any pleasure out of our perilous situation.

Was it Jean-Claude Juncker who said he had “Brexit fatigue?”

We ALL do, M. Junker.


As if that were not enough, the ongoing scandal in the Catholic Church concerning the abuse of the vulnerable by priests continues to affect every Catholic everywhere. It is a question that will not be resolved until long after I am dead and gone.

But I will say this: as a convert, I did not become a Catholic because of any individual priest or lay person, although several were influential.

I became a Catholic because of faith in the truth of that religion revealed by the Church and which has never failed me. Several priests have been disappointing, also nuns. Catholic teachers have not come up to expectations – perhaps one expected too much. Many more priests, nuns and teachers have been inspirational and more than fulfilled everything one hoped for.

But I repeat, I did not join the Catholic Church for individuals. It was for the Church that the Gates of Hell cannot prevail against.

Pope Francis has his work cut out and deserves our fervent prayers.

(Flopping for his intentions during Lent might not be a bad thing…)


Curiously, I was immensely cheered by a very lively Methodist musical I went to last week; performed with great slickness and con brio, by a large cast that swept us seamlessly from Exodus to the Wesley brothers. The music was fun and catchy and the audience loved every minute of this lively performance.

I sat there thinking about my own Church’s problems in which we all suffer. I know we are not unique, and hope some simple joy and genuine forgiveness may somehow show the way to a lighter brighter future.


Can’t resist a farewell quote from GK: 

The most incredible thing about miracles
is that they really happen.”



22 February 2019: Humiliations

22 February 2019


When we were little and naughty we had to stand in the corner, usually sobbing, for all to see.

A little bit older and it was a case of:

“Go to your room; I’ll speak to you later.”


BH told me that if a soldier dropped his rifle he had to kiss it in front of his Platoon before replacing it on his shoulder. The shame of it!

To drop a bit of bread was just as bad, and the humiliating punishment was a public kiss.



How casual our attitudes have become!


I don’t know about the army and weapons, but the “staff of life” is often binned unless you thriftily make croutons with it, breadcrumbs or bread and butter pudding.

Or give it to the dog.

(Modern dogs are not allowed bread, neither are birds including ducks, I’m told.)



8 February 2019: Thank you’s


8 February 2019


Times have changed.

On Boxing Day we made a careful list of all our presents and who had given what and to whom we had to write and say thank you.

The letters got shorter and shorter. The fulsome descriptions for the first two or three were sadly abbreviated by the time we came to the last two or three.

We were given lots of presents not only by relations but by godparents, far-away aunts and uncles and even business colleagues of my father’s. Everyone had to be properly thanked, and my mother read every single one.


Times have changed.

Here are a few samples of this year’s thank you’s:

Dear Gran.

I hope you are well I am. I hope Silky is well too.

Thank you for the lovely Christmas presents you sent me me, I love them,

I hope I see you soon, lots of love,

Vicky xxxxxxxxxxxxx

ps Please stroke Silky from me!


A thank you e-mail:

Hi Gran!

Big thanks for the dosh! I’ll get some sox, really useful this cold weather!

Is Silky still messing up your best cushion? See ya!

Josh XX


A thank you text:

Hey G, ta for cash! V v kind. U throttled Silks yet?



They all say the same thing, and I love them all unreservedly.

There were only two letters this year which I will keep. Several e-mails which stay in a file till I need it for something else; and texts – of which there were many – alas get deleted, even the one that suggests throttling the cat.



1 February 2019: Additions to the bookshelf


1 February 2019


How many new books were you given for Christmas? I was given three. One is what I call a browser book; I shall certainly read it from cover to cover but not immediately. I put it straight onto Kindle as, alas, the dwindling eyesight couldn’t quite cope with the small font.

It’s a joy of a book as far as I’m concerned and could have been written precisely for me. Called New Short History of the Catholic Church, it’s written by the well-known Jesuit priest, Norman Tanner, Professor of Church History, at the “Greg.” in Rome. It’s extremely accessible, by which I mean that this octogenarian finds it easy to absorb and understand. I don’t want to have to read every sentence twice and puzzle over it; neither do I wish to be dazzled by long words and tortuous sentences crafted for the conceit of the author. There is none of that here. Straightforward history told straightforwardly.

I can’t do better than quote a bit from the back cover:

“Here is a one volume history of the Christian people from Pentecost to the present day…”

What could be more inviting than that to the curious layman? Here are councils, crusades, heretics and martyrs, and all the rich fabric of Church life.

“… the scope is wide; the pace of the narrative attractive.”

I hope that convinces you; for me it’s a treat in store.


Book two is a collection of “missives and fragments”, e-mails, reflections and prayers collected after the death of Sister Mary David, by friends, family and admirers. I have written about Sister Mary David at least twice I think, she was a remarkable and much-loved Sister at St Cecilia’s Abbey on the Isle of Wight.

The Anthology is called The Bright Field after the poem by RS Thomas; a facsimile of which is reproduced as a frontispiece in Sister Mary David’s rather beautiful calligraphy. This is a devotional book which will be cherished by those who knew her– and they are legion, all over the world. A lovely tribute.


Three cheers for my last book, which is actually the one I read first because it’s a 30-page picture book, and I do love a picture book. Written and illustrated by Madeleine Wilson, it’s called Lost Children of the Night.

From the very first sentence you are filled with dangerous foreboding. Soldiers are on the move, they have already taken your parents, now they are after you. The poem, as repetitive as the tappity-tap of train wheels, has an urgency that runs throughout — a relentless pursuit. These are child refugees, of different places and decades but with the same old story: hunt, capture, escape, on the run, capture.

The illustrations are absolutely outstanding. Stark, dark, angular menacing, with a colour palette to match, they capture the mood of the poem exactly.

The author has generously donated all profits to Save the Children. It’s the sort of book I buy ten copies at a time, a) because it’s a joy to give away and b) because it’s cheap enough to do so.

(Quite apart from the fact that all the proceeds going to a good cause.)



25 January 2019: Intruders, part 2


25 January 2019


I got somewhat carried away with mice last time I wrote about intruders in the kitchen. What I actually meant to write about were the number of weird items brought in by my thoughtful family, possibly for myself or more likely for them when they visit, which they frequently and kindly do.

I have never in my life had 13 different kinds of tea and coffee in the flat. I had no idea they even existed, let alone might find a lodging with me. There are cereals galore and several types of porridge oats. There are milks in the fridge from things I never knew could be milked; my pint of semi-skimmed looks boring – worse, cheap.


In the cupboard there are pulses to set your pulse racing (sorry). On the whole I dislike pulses unless cooked to a tasteless mush, and my digestion most certainly objects to them. There are multi-coloured lentils, bullet chick peas, garbanzo beans, fava, kidney, pinto and borlotti. The very sight of them makes me clutch my middle.

And what can quinoa be? Highly dangerous I would say – let alone soya.

Good old Heinz baked beans, yes; just a few on toast.


The fruit bowl has been transformed into a profusion of exotica: ropes of run-of-the-mill garlic, a sort of orris root of ginger, multi-coloured netted chillies and several things I don’t recognize, well-travelled though I think am. Where have the jugs of fresh herbs come from and for whom are they intended, I wonder?

The window sill is lined with dill, coriander, mint, several parsleys and thyme. They smell marvellous anyway. (My herbs are either conveniently dried — and possibly out of date — or wilt in the door of the fridge, forgotten.)


Nervously I open the freezer. Ha! More familiar ground. The next generation cooks fresh, and the one after takes away, as far as I can tell.

So my fish fingers are still there, a few sausages, chicken bits and stand-by ready-mades for old persons.


I love my children and grand-children and am fascinated by their habits. They are huge. Much taller and bulkier than ever we were. They have magnificent teeth, silky hair and huge feet.

We were brought up during the second War on occasional shepherd’s pie, fried Spam and corned beef. Heaps of potatoes, carrots and cabbage.

I, the tall silent one of four sisters, am 5 foot 1 ½ inches. I won’t go on about the hair, teeth and feet.



18 January 2019: Intruders, part 1


18 January 2019


There are some intruders in my kitchen.

No, not rodents, I am happy to say, although I have always had a soft spot for mice. They lived in every nook and cranny of my parents’ country house and though we rarely saw them, we heard them behind the wainscoting and scampering in the roof spaces. Once I found a nest of them in an old mattress; and we girls all kept white mice, ugly creatures with red eyes. This despite a disgruntled cat and neurotic dog.


In 1966 I set myself up to watch the final of the football World Cup, as thrilling a match as you could wish, specially if you supported England. About fifteen minutes from the end I noticed a little mouse had joined me and was sitting, watching I presumed, a few feet from my chair!

No he did NOT wear an England scarf or wave an England flag — or even a German one — and of course when I jumped up cheering at the end of the match he scuttled away at top speed.


My mother illustrated children’s books for years, as those of you who have explored Beloved Snail will know. She felt she was letting down the side of “ART” by picturing these little creatures, and asked CS Lewis, with whom she was corresponding at the time, for his opinion.

He replied wisely:

“Never despise rabbits in hats.”

This cheered her on no end, and she completed almost sixty books.

(To be continued…)



11 January 2019: Everest, conquered


11 January 2019



Where were you when the news came that Mt Everest had been climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay? Personally I was on the pavement outside the Grosvenor House Hotel (or was it the Dorchester?), pressed up against my sister in the pouring rain on Park Lane on Coronation Day. It was June 1953. A June such as you only find in England – cold and wet, day after day.

Our climate is supposed to be terribly good for your skin; that “English rose effect” old ladies used to refer to.

Quite honestly I’d rather have the tropical tan. Hong Kong was good for your skin because it was too hot to go out in in the summer and the winters were temperate. When we came back to the UK after seven years my mother said I had the look of a rich woman:

“It’s your hands dear; they don’t look as if they’ve done a day’s work.”

I was ashamed to admit that they hadn’t. We had Ah Sung and Ah Heung. One Commonplace I will tell you about them.


Where was I? Oh yes, up Everest. We suspected they kept the news from the public in order to break it on Coronation Day. It was pretty thrilling in those days.

Two a penny nowadays; climbers all over the shop, probably on tightropes or blindfolded or with both hands tied behind their backs. 4,000 have reached the summit since ’53. No, I should not mock. Many aspiring mountain toppers have died in the attempt despite modern safety requirements.


I have been thinking of Everest recently after a particularly nasty bout of ‘flu. Recovering from it has been like negotiating the lower slopes of the Himalayas wearing large furry bedroom slippers.

Other people’s illnesses are one of the most boring of subjects, so I won’t give you a blow-by-blow account of my ‘flu. Does not your heart sink when you innocently ask a friend:

“How are you? I haven’t seen you about for a while.”

Then they launch into a lengthy account of some horrid disease you thought went out with the Plague.


One thing I can tell you, though – Mickey Mouse, an electric blanket and good old chicken soup will take care of ‘flu – should you be unlucky enough to get it.




4 January 2019: Mickey!

4 January 2019


“…The aim of the artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably,
but to make people love life in all its countless inexhaustible manifestations…”


Had Tolstoy ever seen a Disney cartoon I bet he’d clap hands and say, “Told you so! Have you read that snippet from my letter to Boborykin?”


And of course it would be the 90-year old Mickey Tolstoy would be talking about, everybody’s favourite mouse. The mouse with the white gloves, red shorts and yellow shoes is recognised all over the world and his name, of course, is Mickey.

Like Peter Pan, Mickey is forever young. A more straightforward character than PP — positively transparent and cheery; only as the Sorcerer’s apprentice did his smile slip to reveal first anxiety that morphed into terror. I think that was my favourite manifestation — Mickey out of his depth and up to his little black knees in water for once, wielding his brush like crazy. (Watch here).


It is his cheerfulness that is his charm. None of his mates matches it. Minnie is too coy, Donald Duck too cross and Goofy — well, just goofy.

Mickey can always pull you out of a black dog mood, comfort you in one of life’s not infrequent sad moments with his fixed but genuine smile. What’s not to love about Mickey?

If you have a friend undergoing lengthy hospital treatment, send them Mickey Mouse, as large and soft a one as you can afford: seriously, one of the best cures there is! His merchandise is not cheap but his products are good value.


How would Snoopy and Peanuts match up to the water test, I wonder…?



28 December 2018: The Lucky Widow

28 December 2018


BH always said, “She’ll be a merry one!”

He meant widow of course. I rather saw myself in deep black with jet earrings and a veil. Possibly even weepers. As a matter of fact my clothes haven’t changed at all: trousers, a polo shirt and big furry jerseys – in fact similar to what BH wore in his older, relaxed years. The clean and neat nurse, with proper footwear (always loved improper footwear).

Did he think I would suddenly, aged 80, start dancing again? If only; or take up bowls at the Club? Even go to Vienna, home of the merriest of widows? He knew I disliked F Lehar as much as he disliked R Wagner. Guess which one of us yelled, “Turn that rubbish off!” and which one left the room in a huff?


I dislike the word “widow”. Dry, black and rusty; and “widower” sounds like a lawnmower. French is good with its hint of bubbles – veuve chanceuse, “lucky widow”. Lithuanian even better, gentle, melodious, – laiminga našlė means “happy widow”. Get your Lithuanian friends to pronounce it for you.

While not going so far as happy, I am most certainly lucky.

How about relict? Both legal and dignified. “The Lucky Relict.” No.


My goodness I was lucky! Here was this exotic young man, handsome and with a decent job, older than my usual escorts and with the glamour of the army (why do they say “military” nowadays?) still hanging about him. Out of all the girls, when he had the pick of dozens (of his own nationality for starters), he picked me.

I couldn’t then, and can’t now, believe my luck. His whole life from then on was devoted to my well-being, my comfort, my safety. He spoiled me rotten. Even our quarrels, and there were some corkers, were fodder for future laughs and mutual growth of a positive tree of happiness.


BH and Ginny with their granddaughters on their Golden Wedding Anniversary in 2008. 


Tomorrow, December 29th, is the first anniversary of my beloved one’s death. Mass will be celebrated for the repose of his soul, not only in my local church but in many places round the world where he was admired and loved. It’s the feast of St Thomas à Becket and the Becket rose I planted in BH’s memory is hunkered down for the winter.

He left this lucky widow with all his papers in good order, his accounts up to date, his Will as simple as possible. This paragon even named and dated his photographs! His personal wishes were arranged and mostly carried out long before he died. These concerned the disposal of his books, one or two paintings, archival material, and the precious Katyn mug.


Apart from stating that he wished to be cremated (in accordance with the dictates of the Catholic Church) and his ashes taken to Lithuania, his funeral directions were left entirely to the family. What a good idea! Everybody joined in and it gave the children something of a focus to help mitigate their grief, often overlooked. Each contributed their individual skills – to the music, flowers, Bidding Prayers, Order of Service, Memorial cards, seating plan, Reception. Cocooned in the centre of all this I felt as safe as in a cradle.

Neither was I left alone, night or day, until well after the Requiem. Suitable clothes were found, delicious food prepared and shared, and a remarkable understanding for feelings and moods. The non-stop flow of tea, toast and chocolate; visitors, ‘phone calls, cards and letters all helped pass the time and ease the weird sense of being only half a person.


This man had surrounded me with love during our long life together; a love the foolish twenty-year old often took for granted, and didn’t really deserve. He never wanted anything for himself except my love, and to give his to me. An oft repeated sentence was, “If you want it, you shall have it“. A new gizmo or box-set of CD’s.

And, “Do you still love me?” Oh yes! Yes.


Of course I miss him. Tears come in little rushes – in church often; when I hear bits of opera (not Messrs W or L) we enjoyed together; a much-thumbed copy of Eugene Onegin. Old shoes are so painful they’re best given away immediately.

Someone told me it would take a thousand days; another said a year.

But I suspect it will be forever.



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