Documenting the Harvie travels/travails …

On family

I went and dug this photo out earlier this week as my Papa Harvie died on Tuesday, just a few weeks past his 99th birthday. For the past few years he’d been bedbound but at at home – fed, washed and wonderfully looked after by a mixture of carers, the indomitable Wilma (who we lured away full-time from the care company because my strong-willed granny liked her and would tolerate her ministrations), my dad and his siblings.

I wanted to remind myself of what my grandfather had been like before the latter twilight years set in. More recent friends will probably only know of him as the reason I’d stoically set off north of the border every Christmas, and the incredibly aged reason the Prof lived in the Borders, and always had to be mindful of bus and train times so he wouldn’t be late home to take over from Wilma.

But Papa had been so much more for so many decades. A spitfire pilot – albeit a rather inept one who thankfully never had to fire a shot in anger, a natural born teacher to so many hundreds if not thousands of pupils, an enthusiastic actor and singer.  At their diamond wedding anniversary he brought the whole room to tears as he serenaded granny with a rather querulous version of My Love is Like Red Red Rose.  Carried away, he then followed it up with a song that  that appeared to feature wife beating in it, but we gloss over that.

He was a born community organiser, and everywhere he and granny lived still bear the mark of their presence – from literary societies and choirs to new buildings and systems of education. He was the one who had to sit me down aged 7 and explain the meaning of a ‘legend’ – as dad had told me one too many Scottish nationalist bedtime stories, and I was CONVINCED there was a fairy gold mine in the local Eildon hills, and was forcing the family to climb and fingertip search each of the three hills in turn.

He and granny were married for over 70 years, and their love for each other was probably only nearly equalled by their loyalty to the Liberal Democrats. The only time granny ever voted anything but Liberal was when the local minister’s son was standing for the (then fledgling) SNP.  He got in and she never quite forgave herself. This shrine to David Steel is still to be found in the Melrose home they spent their retirement and the end of their lives in, and the man himself came to visit my grandfather in his bed overlooking the same Eildon hills just last year upon the occasion of the re-opening of the Borders Railway.

I love this photo for so many reasons – Papa’s tie, granny’s handbag, my tank top. I was born in Germany and  my grandparents “just happened” to be holidaying in the vicinity as my mum went in to labour. Given I was two weeks late, they must have been loitering in Swabia for some time. They were bedside within 12 hours, determined to greet their third and final grandchild promptly. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful relationship with both of them – they took their grandparenting very seriously and cared about family above everything else.

And on Mother’s Day it’s also in an excuse to share a photo of my beautiful mother, who I’ve been thinking of a lot recently as I finally, over a decade after her death, start to make my own mark on the flat and belongings she left behind. She looks rather scared here, possibly as she realises the strength of the Harvie genes she’s taking on.

Everyone in this photo apart from the yowling infant is gone now, but their influence echoes on – in stuff, and principles and strong foreheads and eyebrows.


I heart Michael

I heart MichaelI think in this photo I may be pretending to laugh at the fact that Michael Young and I appear to have the same glasses. In actual fact I’m secretly hoping the similarity could possibly prove a relationship closer than just style.  Let’s not forget that on starting at the Young Foundation in 2009  I decided to inform a slightly taken aback Geoff Mulgan that Michael Young was responsible for my very conception*.

But my relationship with Victoria Park Square had begun a little before my moment of over-sharing with Geoff. Back in the day, before actually securing a job there, I was rather unhappily employed at the other end of Bethnal Green Road and would regularly trot along the street and harass the lucky Paul Miller and his  colleagues in the School of Everything. Memorably once inviting myself over after having been dumped (CAVEAT: it was via email and with the seminal line “It’s just that with your love of Vogue, and my appreciation of Spanish medieval buttresses …”) I’m sure the open plan space at the back of 18 Victoria Park Square really appreciated my carrying voice that day.

Anyways – in order to access Paul and his cronies you had to get past the welcome committee. I’m not going to deny, for at least the first few months I was plain terrified of the lady sat behind 4ft of a wood effect reception desk. I’d try to smile winningly and then whisper to Paul “I’m pretty sure Monica hates me …”

Everyone loves MonNearly 5 years on I think/hope she doesn’t. Turning the corner down in to Victoria Park Square and catching a sight of that dark bob just about visible over the top of her empire reception always lifted my spirits. And I can only apologise to the generations of temps covering reception who I’ve greeted with “BUT WHERE’S MONICA?! I HAVE NEWS”

But it’s not just been the daily gossip with Mon that kept me so happy at The Young Foundation. Though, as an aside, I genuinely think that having the Financial Times delivered every morning, and needing to come pick it up from reception at the centre of the building, has improved my knowledge and appreciation of everything the YF and its network is up to.

For the role of a comms person can sometimes feel a bit ’emperor’s new clothes’ – inflating what an organisation does based on scant evidence or proof. The joy of the Young Foundation has been how much there is to talk about. Sometimes the great irritation, the lack of focus, has also been my biggest source of pride. That for almost every occasion I had not one, but often three of four pieces of YF work to pull out of the bag.

Apart from being able to make dinner party small talk, when I first took on the comms role here, the request was to start getting ANY coverage for Young Foundation work. As part of my legacy I’m incredibly happy to leave behind a happy and busy media centre AND an article citing us as “the future of thinktanks, and that a thinktank made in this image would be an amazing force for innovation and good”.

So with job so effectively done I’m off to pastures new, and will have to get used to turning left out of my door in the morning after seven years of turning right.  I’m incredibly excited by my new role, but as many will appreciate, I am a child of routines and rituals. I’ve already been heralding my impending departure from the London Fields lido in the mornings with the lifeguards in the vain hope that they might want to throw me a party. So far they’ve just (all too enthusiastically?) suggested new potential swimming pools.

I remain sentimental in the face of this practicality though – and will miss the Young Foundation an awful lot.  Aside from actually doing my job it’s thanks to this place I’ve drunk immeasurable cocktails in care homes, squiffily hosted quiz nights in a lamé jacket, become a bona fide runner, hosted a number of aubergine themed dinner parties and danced to Solange’s Losing You for Monica’s delectation more times than I care to remember. New Zealand House has a lot to live up to.

* The reality being that my parents had met through the Open University – Dad a lecturer, Mum a student (a massive old ’70s cliché – their eyes locked across the dance floor at the Summer School disco). And as we have Michael to thank for the OU – at least according to every Young Foundation blurb since 2005 – in my convoluted reasoning we also had him to thank for the creation of a mini Harvie.

Sponsorship touting cunningly disguised as a long post on travel options to the Black Forest

The view from my hotel room balcony. I am steeling myself to go on a run, but procrastinating by telling myself that I need to allow at least 2 hours for my lunch to digest. Or else I’ll definitely drown from a stitch.

Those trees are quite literally the Black Forest. I think. I know that’s where I am geographically – and I’m rather assuming that any gathering of trees in the area qualifies?! I’m here for the Prof’s annual conference on regional politics. This has been going for at least 20 years and I’m still not entirely sure what the actual theme is. 30 or so of Dad’s buddies rock up to this idyllic hotel in the south of Germany for the weekend and talk to each other. As they are academics this needs to be done through the framework of seminars and workshops.

I first attended the summer after mum died. She’d gone along every year and I thought it my daughterly duty to turn up in a supportive fashion and play hostess in her stead.I stoically sat in on every seminar and panel discussion, not taking a huge amount in and annoyed at Dad for not concentrating all his energies on making sure that I was ok, and actually allowing himself to get distracted by the needs of the other attendees. This all resulted in an almighty only child tantrum on my part, accusing my dad of abandonment and he obviously a bit confused as to why I’d found the whole experience so onerous.

It then emerged that what my canny mother used to do was to turn up at mealtimes, make charming chat, and then absent herself on a ‘long walk’ just as the seminars got underway. So now I still come along most years, but in homage to my mother, I turn up and sing for my supper with banter at mealtimes and into the evening. The rest of the time I slope off, read books, do my nails, take long baths, watch trashy german TV (Ladies of the Scolt will, I’m sure, fondly remember my word perfect rendition of the theme tune to my favourite German soap opera Gute Zeiten Schlechte Zeiten), and try not to scare the wedding party that is invariably taking place in the hotel at the same time.

This year, of the whole three days alloted to this excellent excuse for a mini-break, I chose to spend one of them simply in making the journey by train to Germany. You COULD do this in about 7 or 8 hours in an efficient (dare I say German) fashion via tunnels and high speed train routes by way of glamourous Lille and Strasbourg. OR you can take 14 hours, have at least an hour + to spare in each of Brussels, Cologne and Stuttgart and take the slow meandering route along by the Rhine. Or as the Prof liked to sell it in an email: “The Rhine: Castles! Boats! Vineyards!”

Obviously I chose the latter route. However I also got a little overexcited in anticipation of my first day off in months and stayed out way past my bedtime the night before. In my head I was celebrating a friends’ engagement – even if that wasn’t quite their plan or concept of the night. A state of affairs which resulted in some interesting post pub packing. On my eventual arrival I opened my suitcase to discover just the one change of clothes, yet two sports bras (my 3.30am self REALLY wanted to go running), an adaptor plug yes – however one that converted continental plugs to british sockets, and the charger for a Nokia phone I owned about 5 years ago rather than the Blackberry I’d brought with me.

I’d also helpfully only booked a train ticket as far as Brussels, meaning I had to contend with the random Belgian ticketing system whilst trying to explain that yes, I really did want to take the route that took two hours longer for the same price. “It’s got castles and vineyards” did not impress the Belgian ticketing official.

Travelling on a hangover and with scant sleep can either be horrendous, or if you’re lucky as I was, just wash over you in a rather dreamlike state. The Rhine really does do everything the Prof said of it. You wind along  and stare out of the window at castle after castle after castle.  If there was a rocky outcrop with no visible means of access save a vertical climb there would be a chocolate box castle. Those vineyards and boats obviously need a lot of protection.

So here I am, 5 trains later safely installed in the Black Forest. I’ve procrastinated for 9 paragraphs and the running fear is setting in. People have donated good money towards seeing me be able to run a half marathon in a matter of months. Simply schlepping my trainers and (change of) sports bra across the continental train system won’t cut the mustard. Time to trot up the path you can just about make out in the foreground right and attempt to overtake the Nordic walking enthusiasts.

Bundesverdienstkreuz o’clock


Dream Harvie scene for a Sunday morning. I am on my way to Scotland. The scenery is maybe not quite as dazzling as that of a few months back but this is a banker of a journey. East coast, via memories of seven years’ schooling in York, three University years in Newcastle and an entire lifetime of visits to the Scottish family.

It is a very special family visit this time. Tomorrow my dad gets awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz. I will confess that my knowledge of the German honours system was (is) scant but – according to wikipedia and any passing German I have been casually dropping this into conversation with – it is quite the thing. Unlike the UK, with our knights, dames and commanders, Germany only has the one state award. Which of course has allowed me to tweak its comparative importance according to how grand I want to sound. I COULD get away with claiming the Prof is being made the German equivalent of Sir Harvie, but in reality it would seem to be on par with an OBE. Important, though awarded to quite a few people every year.

Still – that is not to denigrate the honour. I am WILDLY proud. The invitation (which brilliantly I haven’t actually received yet still nevertheless signs off with “Dr Harvie and his daughter Alison look forward to seeing you there”) states that he is receiving this for “services to education and cultural co-operation in Germany, Scotland and the British Isles”. Some might call it cultural cooperation, members of the Scottish parliament would probably remember it as the Honourable Member for Central Scotland and Fife 2007 – 2011 standing up frequently in the chamber to point out how we might learn something from how Germany tackles XXX (insert current topic of debate).

There’s no denying Dad loves Germany. He headed there in 1979 – possibly in a fit of nationalistic pique as, despite his and a certain G Brown’s best efforts, Scotland had just said no to devolution, and he had been offered his first Professor post at the University of Tübingen. He was already going out with my mother, and family legend has it that his romantic request to her went along the lines of “I’ve been offered a job in Germany, I’d very much like you to come with me, and for tax purposes it would probably be best if we were married”.

People often to threaten to leave countries if politics doesn’t go their way, for some reason Paul Daniels in 1997 comes to mind, but Dad stood by his word and wasn’t to live permanently in the UK again for almost thirty years – until politics had not only gone his way but also offered him a seat in the process. In the meantime he set up academic shop in Germany, wrote books, gained honorary professorships from Aberystwyth to Strathclyde (though as yet not the coveted PhD that would allow him to tell dreadful “doctor doctor” jokes), even stood as a local SPD councillor and made a home and a family in Tubingen.

I was born in Germany (all too) nearly thirty nears ago. My mum obviously chose to overlook Dad’s rather careless style of proposal and agreed to marry him. However, in her classic strong-willed (family trait alert) fashion, she only did so with the caveat that they would always keep a place in London. In a decision that must have made sense to two slightly elderly and possibly sleep-deprived parents I was then sent to primary schools in London and Tubingen AT THE SAME TIME. Until I was eleven I merrily swapped back and forth with my Mum every three months between education systems and languages. Primary school in Islington in the mid 80s consisted of learning an awful lot about the workings of the local Victorian canal system, whilst in Germany I learnt long division two years ahead of my London counterparts, finished school by 12 every day and in the summer spent every afternoon at the local open air swimming pool.

That childhood, and a year spent in Leipzig after a decade of a slightly-less-itinerant education at school and university in the UK, means that my love of the country almost equals my father’s. And I love it all the more for recognising him with this gong. To go with it he gets to throw a party and the man has been as busy planning as a prospective bride, to the extent that I threatened to rename him a Bundesverdienstkreuzilla as I was rung for the nth time to discuss potential venues. And so tomorrow, to quote the invitation I have not yet received, but been copied in on a number of times, a hundred odd of us will gather at “the Summerhall culture centre, formerly the Dick Vet. A delegation from the Bundestag in Berlin will be present and the Consulate will also launch its new Facebook site.”  Brilliant.  A party of German politicans,  social media and a venue with a name that would definitely not stand up to SFW googling.  News on the other side.

Sherry o’clock

This is my 93 year old granny. I took and posted this photo on Facebook last Christmas – slightly shamingly because the sight had amused me so.  I’d been rooting through around the Harvie (Senior) Nest in Melrose for items I could steal back south with and found a rather natty rabbit fur hat at the back of one of the wardrobes. Thinking it pleasingly on trend I asked Dad if I could take it – and as “she NEVER wears it” – he said that would of course be fine.  However, I returned to the living room minutes later to discover this scene.  Granny had obviously found the hat left out and, possibly wise to my plans, promptly jammed it on over her headscarf/hairnet combo. In the end we coaxed it off her with the distraction of visiting great grandchildren and a bourbon biscuit or five, my aunt hid it in my bag, Granny forgot all about it, and the hat now resides in the Harvie Nest south of the border.

This is a rather flippant sketch of what daily life is like for my grandparents – both 93 and still living in their own home, my Dad who has moved in with them and his two siblings who both still work and give up nearly every weekend so my dad can have a break.  Granny has dementia and my Granpa (Papa), as he has basically followed her lead their entire married life, chooses to demonstrate similar symptoms though we think he’s basically just deaf as a post. They have been married for 68 years and lived in this same house for longer than I’ve been alive.

I don’t go and visit as often as I should, and to be honest find it tough when I do. To state the obvious but old old age is not glamorous. We’re good at looking for the levity in the situation – Granny querulously declaring any meal put before her as “good, 100 out of a 100, but not as good as Riiiiiiiiice Kerrrrrrrrrrrrispies” (best delivered in her Miss Jean Brodie accent), Papa once absconding from the Borders General Hospital and, the alarm having been raised, being found in his own garden a mile’s walk away – but most of the time it is feeding, changing, bathing, and stopping them from having their breakfast (featuring guess which cereal?) at 4am.

My admiration for my Dad and his siblings knows no bounds – they are all nearing retirement (however unwillingly) and yet so much of their energy is poured into looking after their parents and providing for them like they themselves were provided for in childhood.

Fear not, I am not about to stumble into a post about the perils of an ageing society (*cough* I would suggest a forthcoming publication from Yvonne Roberts and the Young Foundation if you were that way inclined).  However it does not take much in the way of cod psychology to link my guilt about the situation above with my enthusiasm for the work of Magic Me, an intergenerational arts charity which shares the same building as the Young Foundation in Bethnal Green.

I started going to their Cocktails in Care Homes evenings at the end of last year. In fairness I wasn’t quite sure what I was signing up for, but figured that it sounded like the sort of scenario my ‘carrying’ voice and ability to make conversation with a lump of cheese might suit.  The idea is simple – young(er) people come into a residential care home for an hour or so to have a drink, a chat, and maybe even a dance. Simple maybe – but it turns out that these parties can sometimes be the only interaction with outside world that the residents might have.

My first foray wasn’t a complete walk in the park.  I found myself next to a lady with a speech impediment, and so could only understand the last word of her every sentence. I found myself basically having to freestyle conversation based on that one word, and it rapidly turned into a somewhat inept game of Just a Minute. However, her carer came and joined us and we evolved a translated and three-way conversation helped along by sherry.

Since then every visit has been more of a joy than the last. These are Tower Hamlets care homes and so the vast majority of the residents are East London born and bred and unsurprisingly fascinating to boot.  We look at wedding photos and talk about boys, we establish the differences between being from Bethnal Green and being from Bow (MANY and IMPORTANT it turns out), we point over towards Victoria Park and remember how you used to be able to take speedboat rides around the lake …

It’s been eight months now and it’s not just me who feels the love. Last week they were featured in the Evening Standard, and this week I exhibited mild hysteria as I raced around the building with a copy of THE LADY magazine – which features a two page spread on the evenings and a one inch square picture of yours truly.

Magic Me are on a fundraising drive at the moment and I would urge you to watch this video for a one minute synopsis which basically makes the point of my last 9+ paras in a far better and more succinct fashion. And then maybe donate. Please. Thank you.

Cocktails in care homes

Cocktails in care homes.

Our last day in San Francisco.  The prof suggests a walk around the neighbourhood.  We both know this is because our three day tourist transport passes have expired and we would actually have to cough up ready money for any further travel – so by foot it is. It is obviously sheer coincidence that said walk just so happens to take us past the cable car museum.

I love the stance in this photo – despite the grey hair and suit, Dad could be a ten year old surveying his model railway … though in fact is the actual wheels and ropes (technical jargon there) which drives the entire cable car system of San Francisco.  To my mind it is all a little too close for comfort, and feels like we’re in the opening minutes of an episode of Casualty – where father and daughter are happily pottering a little too close to large moving machinery before tragedy strikes. Or something.

Suffice to say nothing of the sort occured – though I did love how the museum makes no effort to simplify the technology for the visitor.  All the accompanying labels talk of ratios, wire widths, pulley and sheath systems – meaning that only MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE will have any clue what they’re on about.

Still I got my own back by making us walk through Chinatown afterwards and duck into one of those stores that would seem to sell anything you could ever want. Ostensibly this was so I could find a something to strap my overflowing suitcase together with, but blatantly because I love those stores and always want to buy tupperware, a plastic marbled washing up bowl and some form of parasol whenever I’m in one.

On the subject of my luggage and gannet-like shopping tendencies – I’d just like to draw smug attention to the scene as we checked out of our hotel.  Whilst obviously wildly impractical, I just thought the pair of suitcases would look oh so fine to cross the states with.

The hatbox was a more recent acquisition from a flea market in Ashby which I managed to wangle a visit to as part of our trip out to Berkley. Dad had gone to buy tickets for the train  and in the space of ten minutes I had raced around the market (winningly described as “ghetto” by the girls I’d asked for directions from) and returned proudly with hat box, hat, two scarves, a woollen jacket and a vase and “all for just $10!”.  Given that when we were in Berlin he’d had to stand there whilst I haggled auf Deutsch over a vintage East German telephone which to this day I haven’t managed to make work – I think he realised he’d escaped lightly.

So the luggage and I set off for the airport, leaving the Prof behind, who’d been booked on another (cheaper) flight from San Jose by his hosts back in Wyoming. After an amazing ten days was all a bit emotional.  I do believe dear reader my little North London head might have been turned by the West Coast and San Francisco.

I boarded the plane somewhat sad and also apprehensive in the face of my first red-eye flight. Though really, I can conclude that no better way of being reminded of the cosmopolitan wonders of London than by being sat next to a wildly hungover Norwegian man who works for a tech start up in Old Street. His banter and the below buoyed my spirits somewhat as we made our way back home. Though the hat box never even survived the flight – I thought I was being clever using it as a foot rest. Turns out vintage cardboard: not so robust.