Friday, 21 December 2007

Seasons Bleatings

Christmas cards may be loved or loathed but the vast number of people send at least a few every year. I love them. I love the slap-thud as they land on the mat, so much more interesting than the pile of junk mail that usually slithers my way. Cheap tatty robins or designer glitter, mine are all read enthusiastically then pegged on strings around the hall. More is best.
There are a few from family, not full of hugs and kisses, we are a restrained bunch, but welcome all the same.
Then there's a sprinkling from friends saying how the months fly and we’ll have to meet up soon.
Two are hand made, one very arty the other of a friend's dog in a soppy outfit.
At last, a party invite. That’s lucky, now did I wear my velvet jacket to their house last year? Hmm!
A couple from ex colleagues. Is there a hint of jealousy when they mention how stressful the old place is? I hope so…
Ah ha! An embossed official card from cousin Joan. I haven’t seen the woman for ten years. She‘s never sent me a card before. I see, she’s now mayor of a small town in the Midlands, Well done Joan!
Some make me feel guilty. Two come from old acquaintances culled from my list in a moment of thrift and one from the milkman thanking me for my loyal custom, even though I haven’t given him a tip. I wish now I’d ordered extra cream.
Once I received a lovely card from Jonathan, and I still don't have clue who he was, but he sent his love. Well, that was quite a few years ago.
A couple of cards are conspicuous in their absence. Oh dear! Who have I offended now? Or perhaps they are ill? S**** is getting on in years, I hope she’s o.k. I’d better give her a ring.
What’s this? A neatly written card with my name on the envelope but inside it says To A… and Margaret. Hang on a minute. My husband is A… but my name isn’t Margaret. How can that woman make a mistake about me. I send them a card every year. This year it was one of my better ones too. I’m offended and childishly miffed. I feel a bout of thrift coming on as I mentally cross her name off next years list.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

The redwings have arrived

The redwings are back. I saw them myself this morning, their wings flashing red and white as they stripped the holly berries from the trees next door. Mine will be next, but I don’t begrudge those lovely birds their feast.

For many years, when I was working full time, redwings were mythical beasts to me. Off I’d go early in the morning, my holly tree laden with berries that were barely visible in the half light. Then I’d return well after dark only to find, by the light from the porch, that all the berries had been mysteriously removed. Not a berry left.

Indoors my phone would be flashing red, with a smug message from next door saying that, once again, the redwings had arrived and I’d missed them. The following dawn would reveal a tree stripped bare.

For neighbours, bird watching from kitchen windows can be a competitive sport. Last year my neighbour saw a spotted flycatcher on the shed, but I saw the bramblings first. We both agree that redwings are something special. So I was pleased to catch sight of the flock that flew over this mornings. Their shrill trecx, trecx, trecx and the whirr of many wings made me look up in time to see about thirty flying overhead. A race upstairs for a better view showed them feasting and growing fat on next door’s berries.

They can strip a tree bare in a matter of hours and be gone as mysteriously as they arrived, those tough little harbingers of wintry weather. What a pity he’s missed them. I think I’ll just leave a message on his answer phone. The redwings arrived but he was out.

Friday, 16 November 2007

The Stick Ape - A short story

It was still daylight and she was in bed. It felt odd. She heard talking in the garden outside the room and thought of those long afternoons when, wilful and cheeky, she had been sent to bed long before her sisters. That was a while ago, in another life. Her mind wandered to other high summer evenings, when she’d tossed, hot and sleepless, listening to the click of her father’s spade as he worked outside in the garden. It was on one of those evenings that, in the oak tree just beyond the garden hedge, she had first seen the outline of an ape.

Her stick ape had loomed larger and larger every day until it dominated her waking hours. Even in snow the ape was there, looking down, its stick arms stiff with cold. On frosty nights she thought she heard it scraping and tap tapping on the window. In the summer it hid behind the leaves, ready to swing across the gap between tree and hedge and into her bedroom. Then she grew afraid that her thoughts might let it in.

Her sisters said they couldn’t see it and laughed at her, saying she was daft. They told their mum she was silly. Her mum smiled at her fondly, looked in the wrong place and said abstractedly that it was probably an angel watching to see if she was good. She knew it wasn’t an angel. It’s stick like frame hung over her waking hours, threatening and gleeful that no one else in her family really knew the truth.

To start with she tried pulling the curtains more tightly, but that only made the ape more real, its presence more imminent, so she slept with the curtains undrawn. Each morning, on waking, she needed to see out of the corner of her eye that it was there, just to make sure it was still safely imprisoned in the tree.

One day the urge to watch grew so strong she moved her bed directly opposite the window. That night there was a terrible storm. The sort of storm that pulled down telephone wires and tore birds out of the trees, dashing them and their nests onto the ground.

She had never heard such a storm before. She lay alone in her little bed, looking out as the darkness suddenly lit up like fireworks. Huge jagged streaks ripped across the sky. Slashes of light shone behind her eyes long after the lightening had gone.

The wind tore the noise of the thunder away and rolled it around the wood. She heard the tufted leaves on the ends of the branches slashing together and the whole wood hissed with distress.

Again and again rain hit her window like hailstones on a cold tin roof. Wind gusted down the chimney, leaving patches of sooty grime in the hearth. As the latch rattled and the backdoor opened, the lino lifted as the wind came under her bedroom door.

She relaxed when she heard her father’s voice, back from the pub. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, but knew he talked of the wind. Her mother’s lighter tone answered in agreement, then their footsteps came in unison up the stairs. They whispered briefly at her door, then there was silence in the house. A silence more acute because of the tearing noise outside.

She thought of her stick ape. In her mind she saw his body lean forward, changing shape as it moved in the wind, springing back and forward, back and forward. She strained to see the tops of the trees from her bed, waiting for the next lightening flash, needing to make sure he was still there. When it came the brightness burnt strange patterns on her eyes, blinding her to what was going on outside.

She shivered as she heard the crack of a bough splitting, then ripping sounds as it fell, twisting through smaller branches, down into the undergrowth. From her bed she felt sorrow for all the animals out in the wind. She pulled the covers up to her chin but still peered out into the blackness, not sleeping until the storm eventually stilled.

In the morning washed sun streamed in her window. She lay dazed, watching the dust fairies dance in a beam of light. As she moved her legs in the bed, the dust fairies swirled and climbed. She tried sleepily to recall the night before. On remembering the storm, she sat up in bed with a start. Once out of bed she staggered, and the light coming in blinded her for a moment. Then, running to the window, she looked outside. Down in the garden tall blue flowers lay flat and battered across her mother’s once neat borders. Her cat picked his way cautiously among the debris. Tufted bunches of oak leaves lay mangled on the path and lawn. Larger twigs straddled the hedge. Beyond the hedge the tree was still standing, but the ape was gone. Where it had once loomed down at her was just a gap, a space of blue washed sky. She could see the track it had made as it leapt through the trees and bushes. She imagined it running along a road made by the fallen branches. As she stared at the path its retreating form had made, she was engulfed by loss. Loss so profound that it clutched her chest and squeezed her throat. The stick ape was gone forever.

How she missed its looming branches and its sketchy shape. From now on she would sleep with the curtains tightly closed, not bearing to open her eyes onto the space it had left so empty. For a long time she told herself it was freedom, but mostly she knew it was loss.

Now, years later she was in another narrow bed, looking at another sky through open curtains, with her thoughts flitting back to that childhood room and the stick ape that had waited beyond the window.

Outside the garden had grown silent in the dusk. Evening was rapidly approaching and, as the light dimmed, she began to feel an old familiar presence. Had her thoughts called it? Was it coming for her? Was it there outside the window? She thought she saw a movement from the corner of her eye but her head was heavy and hard to turn. The room was getting darker now and finally she was sure what crouched beyond the window. There was comfort and dread in its return. Slowly she turned her face towards the dying light. Just before the final dark she felt it close by, looking down on her again and this time she realised there would be no storm. It was there and she knew this time they would go together.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

On Presents Past

Apparently Cath Kidson is selling wool tam o’shanters at £25 a throw. I wish I’d saved mine from when I was a kid. I’d have made a fortune. I wonder what’s the going rate on eBay for a vintage tam? Unfortunately mine all met sticky ends.

My Caithness Granny must have spent most of the year knitting and sewing as around Christmas, a bulging parcel would arrive. Along with a blackbun, some oatcakes and sometimes a very dead black hen, (she was convinced we couldn’t get wholesome food in the wicked south) would be several individual parcels. Usually my Mum’s contained a tartan pinny, for wearing on a Sunday, instead of her week day floral overall. My Dad, a son in exile down south, had the most beautiful hand knitted stockings, complete with knitted garters.

My father always wore tweed plus fours. This caused huge embarrassment to us girls, but Caithness Granny made sure he had proper wool stockings, so he‘d look really smart. In fawn or lovat green, those stockings were the work of a superb craftswoman and looked well with his ‘tackety’ boots. It was an unusual outfit for a father to wear in Surrey, in the late fifties and swinging sixties. If we begged him not to wear them, a threat to wear his kilt was enough to bring us to heel.

I can’t remember what came for my big sisters in that parcel, but I often had a fairisle tam o’shanter and once a fancy pixie hood and mittens. Though I seldom saw her, I loved my Caithness Granny but I hated every scratchy stitch she made for me, even if her knitted presents were works of art.

A visit to see her meant huge expense, at two day train ride to Inverness, hours in a rickety red bus and a bumpy ride in the back of my Uncle’s van, before we reached her isolated house, out in the hills by the Grey Cairns of Camster. I now realise those presents were acts of love to granddaughters she seldom saw, the daughters of a son she missed so badly, but to me they were an embarrassment. No one else had to wear hats like mine and worse still, they were physical torture.

To this day I can’t bear wool anywhere near my skin, but off I’d go to school with my Granny’s headgear pulled hard down over my ears, my head itching like it was on fire. I didn’t dare scratch for fear of a,

“You’ve got nits”, taunt from my sisters.

I lost those lovely tam o’shanters. I left them on the school bus, dropped them in puddles, abandoned them to hang lonely and unloved on school pegs in draughty cloakrooms. The pixie hood was quietly hung up a tree. I wouldn’t be so thoughtless now. I think they’re rather smart and I’m quite tempted by a Cath Kidson’s snazzy little number, but the thought of what my thrifty Granny would have said keeps that £25 firmly in my purse. I’m sure she’d have approved of my thrift or may be she’d just be dismayed that I couldn’t knit one myself.

( The pictures are of my Dad as a young man wearing his plus fours and my Caithness Granny and Grandad)

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Back to school

A couple of weeks ago I found out that Father Christmas wasn’t real, but Mr Ellis, the school inspector. Where did this definitive proof come from? It was in the written records of the village school that I attended from the age of five. On reaching its 100th year, this venerable establishment threw open its doors to all old pupils. Some seemed very old indeed.

The staff and governors kindly opened the school on a Saturday. The children had made colourful displays, record books dating back for 100 years were available to peruse and even a traditional lunch provided. Not the dreaded mince followed by blancmange that looked pink and tasted pinker, but a tasty shepherds pie and butterscotch tart. Yum!

I stood in my old, shrunken classroom and read the school records with much pleasure. My Dad was mentioned several times. As the local forester he delivered the tree for our Christmas carol concert. I can remember being very proud when he arrived in the National Trust Landrover, a huge Norway spruce poking out of the back.

My big sister found an entry that stirred guilty feelings. Her best friend had been punished for, “Extreme rudeness to a teacher…”, Over 50 years later she still cringes. On Valentine’s day she’d dared her best friend to ask their young male teacher for a kiss. No kiss was offered but the friend got two strokes of the cane instead. It seems incredible now.

Neither of us were ever caned in school but we were both smacked with a ruler. Surprisingly, I don’t remember being troubled by physical punishment. It was a fact of school life and infinitely preferable to writing lines or having to stay in at playtime. In our rural school, surrounded on three sides by beautiful countryside, I remember sitting in class watching kestrels hover over the downs and longing to be free like them. I hated being indoors.

There were a few people we remembered at the reunion. Some very different, some hardly changed. Often I recognised a smile or laugh rather than a face. It was and still is, a very happy school. Though I’m puzzled by the smartly dressed middle aged gent who greeted both of us fondly. When we obviously didn’t recognise him he looked wistful and said, “Oh I remember you both so well. You’re the M..… girls. You lived in the woods.”

I left that school at the age of eleven with a greater knowledge of tree and plant names than I did of maths. I’d read Jane Eyre and Treasure Island and had a sketchy knowledge of British geography. I knew that Sussex was named after the South Saxons and Dorking after the Dorks. I’d also picked up that girls didn’t need careers, only husbands . It took a few years and some hard knocks before I realised they don’t teach you everything in school.

Sunday, 14 October 2007


Scalan is a collection of old seminary buildings in the Braes of Glenlivet. Though long deserted, it remains an enigmatically spiritual place. Tucked under encircling spartan hills, its ancient stone buildings huddle round a burn and a clear spring that’s commonly known as The Bishop’s Well. Some of the buildings are in ruins with yellow stonecrop clinging to the walls. Some have been restored; a place to shelter from the rain and ponder on the austere lives they once sheltered.

The ground surrounding the buildings is dotted with gnarled and twisted trees, sparsely fruiting rowans and sycamores, fissured alders, branches laden with blue grey lichen, that edge towards the waterside. All around the burn soothes and tinkles.

Apparently Scalan, set in its lonely isolated glen, was a Catholic seminary dating from a time when to be a Catholic was a risky business. I am not a Catholic, or even a particularly spiritual person, yet the place is profoundly moving.

My first visit was on a sunny afternoon when it glowed green and friendly. The second time a faint Scottish drizzle fell softly on my skin and evening was coming on. Then there was a slight air of apprehension about the place.

It may have been partly because four belligerent looking cows and a rather nervous calf stood solidly by the running water, between me and the bridge. They obviously resented the intrusion and my heart beat a little faster as the biggest one splashed purposefully through the burn towards me. The others followed, stopped almost face on, then nosing the calf before them, they turned shifty glances towards me, before nudging the calf up the bank. Once on the path they looked my way and waited.

I was too nervous to pass them so I also waited. We eyed each other, then I waved my arms. The older cow turned on her heel, gave her nearest companion a stroppy shove with her head and they all trotted away, looking back resentfully a couple of times before disappearing behind a small hillock.

Scalan was empty again. The burn played and the wind sighed softly in the trees. Once again it seethed with ancient spirituality, with a mysterious atmosphere that seemed to predate the long gone priests.

We dallied a while, breathing in the atmosphere and taking photographs, as dusk fell we walked back in the softly falling rain. On leaving the silence flowed slowly in behind us.

I caught a movement in the corner of my eye. To my disappointment it was only the cows creeping quietly round the back of the barns, waiting for us to leave, reclaiming their shelter for the night. It was cows, but it could easily have been something more secret and hidden that was also waiting for us to go.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

How I got on at the Samaritans' Craft Fair

One of the best things about having a stall at the Samaritan Craft Fair, apart from the obvious one of helping a wonderful organisation, is that everyone is so positive and cheery. I’d had my doubts. I was staying the weekend with a close friend, the person who’d asked me to have a stall in the first place and a committed Samaritan. I could hardly back out, whatever the weather, but the day before the fair was so wet I’d feared drowning on the M25. I expected the fair to be a washout.

The Craft Fair was set in a lovely house and garden that’s not usually open to the public. The owner and organiser greeted me like an old friend, despite the fact I’d just mistaken her husband for the gardener. (Well he was dressed in overalls and raking the leaves off the lawn. And it was the type of house to have a gardener. Very grand! I only realised my mistake when he entered the house wearing his boots.)

Despite steady drizzle, the lady of the house assured me the weather would be lovely and it was. How could the sun not shine on the Samaritans.

I have never been at a craft venue where everyone was so resolutely cheerful and supportive. Though I know from my experiences from Purple Coo, that goodwill is surprisingly infectious. Stall holders helped to look after each others stalls and praised their rivals work to potential customers.

I even smiled reasonably sweetly as I extracted my bright glass beads from the hands of yet another sticky toddler. Agreeing once again that, ‘Yes they did look exactly like sweeties.’ Though secretly wondering why the little poppet wasn’t firmly restrained in the pushchair.

Visitors came to the fair determined to buy. I had a good day and came away a satisfied and happy bead maker and the weekend was made doubly pleasant because I was staying with old friends.

I can’t say I returned home any richer. Craft fairs are full of temptations. I really did need a craftily turned wooden salt pot, some excellent hand made soap, that exotic chutney and, as for the plant stall…Well, need I say more.

Several people have asked where to buy my beads. They are currently displayed in Concepts in Art, Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex and Simply Unique, East Mey, Caithness.

I’ll also display a few on my blog in case anyone is tempted. If you are, please send me a PM for further details.

The flat beads (£14.50 + p&p) are threaded on silver wire (approx 40cm) and the beads have gold inclusions, one on a yellow background, the other on a turquoise background.

The bead drops (£19.50 + p&p) are on silver wire (approx 40cm) but the drops themselves are white metal with white metal beads in addition to the glass beads. The first drop is mainly mauve and orange glass, 2nd Turquoise and mauve glass, 3rd I call my 'Garden Beads', red raised flowers on a cream background, 4th a flat orange flower with a small black centre.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Making Glass Beads

I became a lampworker by chance. Long fascinated by glass beads, a few years ago I read an article about an English bead maker who’d learnt her craft in California. What a shame I thought. I was heading for the U.S,A, but chilly Alaska, not warm, sexy California.

On arrival, I mentioned making glass beads to my Alaskan host. She made a phone call, we drove forty five miles to her neighbour’s house and there I had my first lampworking lesson. When I returned to England a short while later, I carried a rucksack stuffed with coloured glass rods, a bag of tools, a hot head torch and book entitled, ‘Everything You ever Wanted to Know About Glass Bead Making.’ You can imagine what they said when I went through U.S. customs.

I’ve been making glass beads ever since. It’s a hobby, it’s a passion, but it’s not a viable way of making a living. I’ve tried. Yet the magical effect when heat meets glass, and the challenge of controlling and shaping the molten glass in the flame makes me feel like an alchemist.

Hot and flowing glass has a life all its own, full of endless potential; when cool, it’s fragile yet durable, decorative and full of possibilities.

Each bead is unique. Even those made to the same design, at the same time, will have subtle variations of shape and tone. The charm of glass is that it’s unpredictable. It behaves in different ways according to my mood, the heat of the flame, even the weather.

Lampworking probably started with the Phoenicians. It was popular with the Romans, was a large scale industry in 18th and 19th C Venice and, in the last decade, has seen growing popularity in U.S.A, Canada and the U.K.

I know why. When it flows well, working in glass is almost a meditation. It’s magical, molten, hypnotic and enormously satisfying. When it goes wrong I curse and throw the results up the garden. I wonder what archaeologists will make when they find my mistakes in the future.

Sunday, 23 September 2007



Autumn, silent killer, softly creeps

And binds her web about the countryside

With cruel chill fingers she reaps the fruits,

Then casts the empty husks aside

Her lush and sensuous colour spreads

Oozing beneath her grasping hands.

Shrouding the ground with pools of red,

Each tree and bush denuded stands

Clammy and chill is the air she breathes

Hard and cold her greedy mouth

She takes the summer to her breast

And slowly sucks the lifeblood out.

N. M.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Anyone got a recipe for Eve's pudding?

Don’t let on but I’ve been scrumping again, or should I say Autumn foraging. I’m tempted every year and one end of my workshop is now stacked with wonderful bramleys and some old fashioned little red apples that I can’t identify.

Let me explain. Lampwork cottage supports only one apple tree. Stately it may be, with a beautiful canopy, it’s a tree for climbing and resting under, but it doesn’t justify its space in the garden by providing me with apples. It promised six green marbles earlier in the summer, but three dropped off in the first strong wind and the starlings did for the rest. I’ve managed a few pies from next door’s windfalls dropping over the fence but each year I’m lured on by the lustier trees down the allotment.

Now my allotment isn’t posh, with paths, sheds and running water. There are no written rules and anarchy does reign at times. It’s privately owned and I pay £5 a year to join other stalwart gardeners fighting a never ending battle with mares tail, bindweed and other invasive terrors. But for my £5 a year I have the most beautiful spot looking onto fields and woodland. A place of peace and tranquillity, where I can watch birds and wildlife when tired with digging. The soil’s quite good too.

But my little patch of earth is constantly threatened by brambles. They creep towards me with a muscular stealth that can be quite unnerving. and, in the middle of these brambles, grow some of the most prolific apple trees I have ever seen. They are so fertile that each year branches break under the crushing weight of the fruit. No wonder I’m tempted.

When I took over the allotment the old timers told me they were Mr A’s trees. It was a couple of years, and several metres of steadily encroaching brambles, before I realised Mr A had been dead for some time. So now I quietly thank Mr A as I slash and trample my way through his brambles to scrump the apples. I do have a naughty guilty feeling as I pick, but I guess women have always been tempted by apples and I’ve had to find something to go with all those blackberries the brambles so helpfully provide.

(The pictures are just recent snaps of my garden)

I've just found this rather sweet little fairy poem. Very appropriate!

Song of the Fairies Robbing an Orchard

We are the fairies, blithe and antic

Of dimensions not gigantic

Though the moonshine mostly keep us,

Oft in orchards frisk and peep us.

Stolen sweets are always sweeter,

Stolen kisses much completer;

Stolen looks are nice in chapels,

Stolen, stolen be your apples!

When to bed the world are bobbing,

Then it’s time for orchard robbing;

Yet the fruit were scarce worth peeling

Were it not for stealing, stealing

Leigh Hunt (1794-1859)

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Country Dancing with Sir Roger

Country dancing was a big part of a child’s world in the late 1950s and early 1960s, well it was in mine. My first dancing memories are of Miss Strudwick, our infant teacher, thumping on the piano, and me clutching the policeman’s son in my sticky hands, twirling happily in the Sir Roger de Coverly. Who was Sir Roger? I haven’t a clue, but there is probably a whole website dedicated to him. I’ll have to look the old boy up again someday.

My big sisters were very familiar with him. Sometimes in the evening, they'd push the table up against the wall, hum his tune, clap their hands, pirouette and strip the willow on the living room lino. A tricky manoeuvre with just three children and a dog.

All too soon my sisters sang a different tune. The eldest graduated to dancing in halls, driving off in cars and bringing home a boyfriend, then she left home. The middle one wore tight sweaters and rode off on her bike to see her friends and suddenly I was on my own in the evenings.

But in my eighth year I was able to join the G.F.S. (Girls friendly Society. An organisation deserving a blog to itself, I promise.) Miss M and Miss B, genteel ladies, who’d lost their loves in the First World War, were very keen on Sir Roger.

Under their tuition us group of girls skipped and thumped in St Andrew’s Hall, till its wooden walls shook, though we were careful not to crash into the bentwood chairs or the hot stove. Eight o’clock found us on our knees, promising to, ‘….render to no man evil for evil…’ The most wayward of us emphasing, ‘Man’ in the most daring manner, causing giggles that the chaste old ladies stonily ignored.

Sadly I attended this girls club without my previously saintly sister. She’d brought disgrace to her family by jiving during the Sir Roger de Coverly and had been asked to stay away from G.F.S. Obviously a bad influence. Though tainted by my family connections, the fairly forgiving Miss B. allowed me to remain, but she kept a close eye on me just in case. She didn’t want any more moral transgressions. I didn’t disappoint her.

By the time I was twelve years old Sir Roger had been abandoned for the complications of American square dancing and other thrilling fare. At my all girls secondary school, lunchtimes saw me swinging and sashaying to Turkey in the Straw and do-si-do-ing in true barnstorming fashion.

When I shyly asked our young teacher if she’d ever heard of Sir Roger de Coverly, she laughed and led us onto daring European folk dances requiring much stomping and stamping and even the occasional shout. Aah! If only I’d stayed faithful to old Sir Roger, all would have been well.

In the fourth form we gave an open day dancing display. She’d chosen a particularly vigorous European dance. As a big strapping lass I naturally took the boys part in my red school shorts, white gym blouse and black lace up shoes. My partner was togged out in swirly skirt and white plimsolls. We were quite a pair.

Sadly boys play a large part in the rest of this story. One was waiting for me just outside the school gate and, excited at the prospect and anxious not to keep him waiting, I wanted to get through the dance and change as quickly as possible. Scared he might not bother to stay, I took some unwise short cuts.

Our dancing team bounced onto the arena, determined to put on a really good show. We stamped and capered, twirled and kicked and stamped again. It was the show of our lives. I knew we were impressive as everyone stopped to watch. It was going down really well. Most of the audience were smiling, some were even laughing, all were enjoying it except our young teacher. Her usual sunny face had a frozen stare and it was concentrated on me. I stamped all the harder and swung my partner with renewed vigour. Something was jouncing against my leg. Again and again I felt it bounce. Now it was both legs. My suspenders, that I thought safely tucked into the elastic of my grey regulation knickers, had come adrift and were bouncing away freely.

That was my last country dancing display. Shortly after I gave up Sir Roger and his friends for Jimmy Hendrix and a Purple Haze and bought myself my first pair of tights, then a whole new world opened up for me.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Owl box project a success!

I don’t know if anyone remembers about our village owl box project. I wrote about it when we were young and innocent and blogged courtesy of CL.

As part of our local biodiversity project 28 shiny new designer owl boxes were erected within our local parish. For six exhausting days back in February, these huge and unwieldy tawny and barn owl boxes were lugged through fields and over stiles by the intrepid owl box team. I volunteered the keen mountain biker as official photographer, but he was quickly promoted to the wheel barrow and ladder party. Mainly because we owned the wheel barrow and ladder.

The initial opinion was that no owl would even consider their new homes for at least a year. I secretly feared the only occupants were likely to be grey squirrels and magpies, but I’ve been proved wrong.

The owl inspector, yes there really is one, has confirmed a large number of the barn owl boxes are in use. Three separate adults and thirteen young were weighed and tagged, and at the time of inspection, five more eggs were still to hatch. Another box showed signs of habitation by a buzzard. The tawny owl boxes haven’t been checked yet but results should be equally promising.

Owl numbers have plummeted throughout Britain in the past few years, so the results of our little project are enormously exciting and very satisfying.

Now we have to decide upon our next project. Thinking back to those damp and freezing treks across muddy fields, way back at the start of the year, I’m keen on a dormouse village. The boxes are much smaller and easier to carry for a start. Hopefully we will be able to find a sympathetic landowner with just the right sort of coppiced woodland.

If anyone else has been involved in similar projects or if you have any ideas for small scale, inexpensive projects that may help our local flora or fauna I’d love to hear from you.

(Sorry about the rubbish quality of the picture but I had to copy it from our news sheet. It is a picture of one of the owls being tagged.)

Monday, 20 August 2007

Lessons for the holiday letter

( This is not useful advice on how to write a postcard.)

Having just arrived back from an eventful ten days in Scotland I’ve jotted down some points to remember for those in the holiday lettings business:

When a guest requests instructions on how to find your remote and romantic hideaway cottage, don’t direct her via a narrow road where the bridge has been closed for repairs for the past 8 weeks. The resulting 14 mile detour at the end of a long drive doesn’t make for a contented visitor.

Avoid filling the cottage with dry and dusty flower arrangements. The temptation to use them to light the fire may prove too great for your tired and chilly guest when she arrives and can’t find any kindling.

Remember to sort through all those useful leaflets on local attractions on a regular basis. A minimum of at least once a year is suggested. Guests aren’t interested in what fun they could have had if only they had been there in 2003/2004. This is particularly true if the leaflets are too shiny to light the fire.

If an open fire is a main feature, do warn your guest not to light it when a slight breeze is blowing. This will save her having to run into the garden in her nightie when the cottage fills up with smoke, or at least ensure she is wearing her best nightie and not just an old tee shirt, socks and walking boots, when she attempts to light the morning fire.

If an elderly relative leaves you a dirty old three piece suit in a will, don’t give it pride of place in your holiday cottage. ( The same can be said for a double bed, wardrobe, stained table mats etc….)

Likewise, a holiday let is not the place to store all those strange ornaments and faded dusty plastic flower arrangements left over from the last village hall table top sale.

Clean pillow cases and duvet covers do not hide an all pervading smell of stale bedding. Not all of your guests will have their own clean sleeping bags with them. Fortunately we did.

Double beds are crucial to a romantic holiday let. They aren't comfy if they dip so badly in the middle that guests are forced to hang on to the edges all night or sleep stacked up in a pile in the middle. (OK, I know that can be fun for a short while, but I need my sleep.)

Most important. Don’t just rely on the fact your cottage is situated in an outstandingly beautiful area of Scotland. An effort had been made to clean the cottage and it had a fancy microwave and washing machine, but the overall impression was so grotty that we actually considered sleeping in our tent in the garden and only using the kitchen and bathroom. The area is lovely, with huge heather moors, wonderful wildlife, secret glens and pretty villages. We even came across a couple of outstanding art galleries in the most unexpected hidden places, but we will think twice before returning to the Glenlivet area again.

Monday, 6 August 2007

I've been Bloomsburied

Give me two hot days in summer and my whole attitude to clothes changes. Without really noticing I drift into soft cotton and starched linen, a floppy hat pulled rakishly over my ears. Yesterday I even wore lipstick down the allotment, where there is only the odd rabbit and scarecrow to see me. I don’t count the Loic look alike who works the plot next to mine. Best not to catch his eye if you want to avoid long and boring conversations about sprouts.

All autumn and winter I happily slop around with mud splattered trousers tucked into my boots, but hot sunny weather has me squeezing into diaphanous fabrics. In winter or wet weather I shop with local charities. Give me a warm summer breeze and I dig into the depths of my wardrobe. In a flash I’m under the apple tree sighing romantically into my gin and toxic, wafting clouds of Muguet perfume, as sensuous as any Arthur Rackham fairy.

In your dreams woman!

Actually, I’ve been drifting around in a voluminous blue number I bought back in April, when the promise was a long and steaming summer. I’ll need to get as much wear out of it as I can, else I’ll be stuck with another dratted frock in the back of my wardrobe It will lurk there until it’s so completely out of fashion even my local charity shop won‘t take it. Yes, that's happened to me, but I eventually flogged that item as ‘vintage’ on eBay.

Now I need to repeat to myself,

“No more buying clothes on impulse”. Now where did I put that Boden catalogue.

(The painting is 'July Sunlight' by Douglas Stannus Grey)

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Why be bitchy about Boden?

I’m annoyed with myself for being irritated by the Boden-blogs article, but annoyed I am. Why be bitchy about Boden? I find their fabrics interesting, any garment I have bought has been well made and, making the most of the special offers, the prices are reasonable.

The catalogue is quirky, but buying a couple of items doesn’t mean you buy into a phoney lifestyle. I buy tee-shirts from Orvis but that doesn’t make me a keen fisherman. I used to read Country Living but didn’t believe it was anything more than a magazine published by the huge Hearst Corporation.

(Oops! Ignore that bit. I was taken in by the C.L. blog con after all.)

However, it’s become fashionable to knock Boden. Rosie Millard in the Independent had a go at them a few weeks back, now it’s Kate Muir’s turn, maybe a few others have joined in. I don’t often read lifestyle articles, my real life is too busy.

Once again I’m reminded of a small girl I saw in our village library, choosing books with pink covers, such is the power of style over substance. A bit like Ms Muir’s journalism perhaps.

Friday, 27 July 2007

The three irregular amber beads had been in the window for as long as I could remember. Golden chunks on a thin gold chain, they were hopelessly old and completely unattainable. The shop was painted black with a small three cornered tear in the faded front blind, but to me it was mysterious. I sometimes walked by with my Dad. Occasionally he’d stop and chat in the street, then I’d look through the door. There was a small side counter. I think I even went into the shop once, when we had our old clock repaired.

At the back, the doorway was obscured by a curtain of long, brown glass, bugle beads. I thought them unspeakably exotic. I imagined the sound they’d make if you walked through. I suspected there might be treasure on the other side.

Things came and went from the main window, but the display in the little side window never changed. There was only a couple of bits of dusty silver and the amber necklace, three lonely chunks on a bit of gold chain.

Looking back there was nothing special about those amber beads. They had trapped no Jurassic fly, nor were they glamorous, but I wanted them so badly.

I never mentioned it to anyone. What would have been the point. My father frowned upon jewellery, my mother would have said it was a waste of money and my big sister had a passion for startling fake pearls. All my friends wore crosses or little silver lockets, of the type you could open and show your boyfriend’s picture, hopefully.

At fourteen I got a Saturday job. For a while I worked in a sweet shop, but jumped at the chance of being a Saturday girl in Woolworths on the High Street. Once a week I was queen of the haberdashery counter. I sold needles, cottons, coloured tapes, embroidery silk, that sort of thing.

Every Saturday afternoon an old woman came and stole bits and pieces from my counter. Though terrified I’d be blamed, I never told. I knew what it was like to want something really badly. I knew, if left alone with that necklace, what I’d be tempted to do. Instead I saved.

One lunchtime, braving snooty disapproval, I asked the shopman the price. It was a huge sum. I think £5, but I can’t be sure. It was a while ago. I saved what I could in secret, checking that little side window when I walked past. The more I saved the more pressing was the need to own that necklace.

Eventually one Christmas, probably about six years after I first saw it and almost a year from when I’d checked the price, I had enough. I couldn’t wait for Saturday to come.

But a shock was waiting at the shop. The necklace was gone. There was a space in the window where it should have been. In alarm I went in, hoping it had just been moved, but no. It had been sold, the man said, just a few days before. Back out on the street I wanted to weep. It was a scruffy, down at heel street then, narrow and congested, just a few tatty shops including a corn chandlers, a café, chip shop and that seedy little jewellers.

It’s upmarket now, smart antique shops on both sides, traffic restricted to one way.

I’ve owned amber, jet, lapis lazuli. I’ve collected every type of exotic bead you could imagine. I make glass beads myself, but I’ve never wanted a necklace as much as I wanted that one.

Just three rough amber beads on a thin gold chain. Nothing special, but if I saw it now I’d still be thrilled.

Monday, 23 July 2007

The importance of big knickers

This is my big sister’s favourite story about me. It’s one she loves to tell but I am not so sure.

Sunday afternoons saw us both packed off to Sunday school. I now realise my parents’ religious fervour had little to do with our spiritual well being, and more to do with, ‘a little lie down’, on Sunday afternoons.

However, after lunch, the woman who ran our local G.F.S group, (Girls Friendly Society - an organisation deserving a whole blog to itself) would pick us up in her little green van. Off we’d go to endure an afternoon of stultifying boredom. In the little ones’ group I’d cut out pictures and copy an uplifting text. ‘Suffer the Little Children …. was one of the most appropriate.

I was a free range child and being indoors when I could be out playing on a sunny afternoon was torture to me. My 8th year was a year of rebellion. One inviting Sunday afternoon, lunch finished, we were sent to wait in the lane for our lift. I rushed out in front of my sister and shot up the big old yew tree that grew close to our garden boundary. There I hid among the dense branches.

My pious sister called and called but I couldn’t be found and off she went on her own.

I waited until the coast was clear and started the descent.. Topping forty five feet, the yew tree was mammoth and I’d scrambled right to the top. Getting down wasn’t easy. Yew trees are dusty and bits got in my hair and eyes. Irregular twigs stuck up from the massive branches and I got caught up.

Scared, grubby and stuck fast on a branch about twelve feet from the ground, I waited for my sister’s return. Seeing her just about to enter the gate I called out. She appeared beneath me, more than usually pious and disapproving. I tried to explain I was stuck and caught up. She tutted and said,

“Oh just jump. You’ll be O.K. The grounds soft”.

I was doubtful but jumped. My knicker leg was hooked firmly over a sticking up twig and, after falling forward, I was left dangling. Far from helping me, my rotten sister collapsed with laughter as I was slowly lowered by my tearing underwear. It says something for the quality of the fabric and quantity of the material that it was some time before, with a sudden rip, the navy interlock gave way and I was dropped unhurt onto the ground.

Pious sister was hysterical, she’s still laughing about it fifty years later. I guess if she had a computer this is the first blog she’d write. She never let on to our parents though. As I’ve reminded her on more than one occasion since, some things are better not disclosed.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Tantrums and vests

My mother used to knit my vests which, even for the 1950s, was unusual. Most of the other girls my age had hand knitted cardigans, mine were often shop bought, but for some reason she always knitted my vests.

Nearly 40 when I was born, my Mum was also the product of older parents. My maternal Gran and Grandad, what little I remember if them, were true Victorians, very religious, very stern, clothed in black and ancient.

Grandad in his nineties, still wore a bowler hat and waistcoat; Granny had an umbrella with a duck’s head handle and a fierce expression. I longed to be like other girls, have a Nana with blue rinsed hair and wear Marks and Spencer’s vests, preferably the ones with blue or pink ribbons. And how I longed for dainty aertex knickers. Mum didn’t knit them, thanks goodness, but I swear the ones I had to wear would have withstood a nuclear blast.

I had an early rebellion about wearing liberty bodices, I always chewed up the rubber buttons, but those knitted vests were indestructible. Grown out of, they would be unravelled, a bit more wool bought, and a new set knitted up in no time. Women who had lived through the war knew a thing or two about recycling.

My big rebellion came when I was about eight. Firstly I tied my knitted pixie hood to the top of the tallest tree I could climb. I did contemplate doing away with the vests but didn’t dare.

Quite by accident I found a way out. On a trip to town to buy shoes I threw an enormous tantrum. I wanted a cherry red pair with straps not my usual sensible laceups. My Dad made my big, brown shoes so shiny with polish that the boys on the school bus had started to call me ‘conkers’. I desperately needed different footwear. To my amazement the tantrum worked. I got the shoes and the power I wanted. If used sparingly those tantrums served me well.

I didn’t get the dainty vests I craved, much too frivolous, but at least the scratchy horrors were replaced by sensible white interlock. I even managed to tantrum my way into a pair of blue and white baby doll pyjamas and a startling pink swim suit, complete with saucy skirt. Only occasionally I took the tantrums too far and all I got was a smacked bottom and sent to bed but, on the whole, it was worth the risk.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

For lovers of cats and mysteries

I don’t really believe in ghosts, I’m too much of a cynical realist, but I’ve never been able to explain what happened in our previous house. When looking for suitable furniture to do up our Victorian kitchen, we saw a dilapidated old pot cupboard standing outside a junk furniture shop. The owner of the shop said they’d just cleared a Sussex farmhouse and this had been ripped out of the kitchen. We snapped it up as a bargain and, when stripped and cleaned of years of grease and grime, it looked gorgeous. It looked like it had always been there, completely filling one wall.

Initially nothing unusual was noticed until on day my neighbour, perched sipping coffee and admiring the renovations, suddenly brushed something away from her legs with a shudder. She has a fear of cats and insisted a large cat had brushed past her legs . I pointed out that my cat was asleep in the garden, but she insisted a cat had been there.

I thought no more about it until a few weeks later. One afternoon I was sitting reading at the kitchen when my cat jumped in the chair behind me. I felt him squeeze in the space between me and the back of the chair. We often had minor battles as to who owned that particular chair and this time I was determined to win. I turned round to pick him up and chuck him off, but there was no cat.

A little nervously I told my husband, expecting my story to be dismissed as a fantasy, but he took me seriously. He said that when he was rebuilding the kitchen, plumbing in the sink unit to be precise, he’d felt a cat brushing round his back. He hadn’t liked to mention it before as it seemed so strange, no cat being there.

We lived for several years with a vague feeling of a benign presence in the house. Our children were teenagers at the time and they never mentioned anything and we never told them about our extra ‘cat’.

Maybe it was our imagination but we sometimes felt it was just out of sight, in the corner of an eye, in another room. It was no way scary, just there.

Only once more did it make itself known to anyone. On her last visit to us , my mother, in her late eighties and with her mind meandering far into the past, suddenly smiled and put her hand down and stroked a cat, saying, ‘Nice puss’ or something like that. She had owned many cats in her lifetime and was an enduring cat lover. Her mind may have been wandering but I am sure on that occasion, even though I couldn’t see it, she stroked a cat.

As I’ve said, I can’t explain it. When we moved the first things the new owners did was rip out the old kitchen We saw the cupboard lying broken and forlorn in a skip in the street. They told our old neighbour that they loved the house but hated that gloomy cupboard in the kitchen. A pity, they don’t know what they missed.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Diary of an Ordinary Woman?

Before starting this book I was unsure. It certainly wasn’t on my list of ‘must reads’. I’m a fan of pre 1930s literature or yarns of daring adventure. I suspected ‘Diary of an Ordinary Woman’ to be some ghastly kitchen sink drama. I was wrong.

Certainly the first few diary entries don’t quite ring true. Millicent seems a very fictional thirteen year old to me and I was looking for faults to dislike. However I quickly appreciated the subtle way the author hangs back from telling everything, revealing some incidents, glossing over others, always leaving the reader wanting more.

It would be easy to mistake this book for a real diary, and not recognise it as an unusual work of fiction. In my own family are stories of young men joining up to fight in wars, with equally tragic results, I think George’s story is very real. The account of life in the First World War hooked me and from then on I couldn’t put the book down.

I feel for this woman. How she wants more from life but is challenged at every turn, though really she has far more opportunities than many of her time, male or female. She annoys me. I am irritated by her lack of staying power and even slightly jealous of her job on the bohemian, artsy magazine. I scoffed when she fails to realise that, when a young man says he admires her ‘critical faculties’, he really wants to get his hands on something else. I could understand her rage and frustration, trapped in that dreadful Brighton school with a head teacher she scorns and detests and all the time wanting something better. I wanted to find out more about her life. I began to really care about what happened next.

My heart goes out to her, with a life so full of duty and even love, but so devoid of true friendship. The lack of anyone close to confide in goes well with the conceit of a confessional diary.

Was she an extraordinary woman or just an ordinary woman living through extraordinary times? I haven’t made up my mind yet, I’m still thinking about it, and to my mind that’s the mark of an extraordinary book.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Ephemeral sounds of childhood

The other morning I just caught the end of a radio programme about disappearing noises, milk floats, the ching of cash registers, police car sirens and the like. That set me thinking about what sounds played in the background of my childhood.

When very small, and not allowed beyond the bounds of our garden, I remember the sound of my Dad’s circular saw working in the tiny sawmill next to our cottage. He worked as a forester for the National Trust and I can also remember the whine of chain saws coming from the woods. I wasn’t scared by these sounds, they were just the background to everyday life.

The noise that scared the wits out of me was the spooky coo of wood pigeons. And the woods round our house was just full of the wretched birds. (Just like my allotment, D **n them!)

My big sister, who went to school and therefore knew everything, told me they were witches calling to each other. The first soft hoot would have me banging on the back door to be let in. I never told my Mum what the matter was and she never thought to ask.

Later we had a golden retriever who could hear my Dad’s Landrover a long time before it came into the lane. We’d know he was on his way home when she ran to the door with her ears pricked up. Sure enough Dad would arrive minutes later. It just gave us enough time to get out our homework and turn the record player off.

Sounds are so ephemeral, with so much noise about nowadays I wonder what modern children will remember. My home was on its own in a wood. I was so used to natural sounds that I often took them for granted. I think that’s why the noise of the saws are so prominent in my memory.

What were the sounds I liked best as a child? Foxes barking in the woods or and owl hooting overhead while I lay snug in bed were nice, but best was the wind whipping the plum trees until they nearly touched my bedroom window. As I type I can almost hear them now. Even the thought sends a delicious shiver down my back.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

A nasty case of green fingers

I’m feeling just a bit guilty. It’s the village summer vegetable show today and the ‘Hidden Gardens’ open day on Sunday and I’m not going to either. I’m off to an old friend’s big birthday bash today and it’s best that, for once, I boycott the Hidden Gardens. They only make me dissatisfied with my small plot of earth, though most of the posh heritage gardens, the ones that make me really jealous, are firmly closed this year. They’re probably fed up with us humble cottage dwellers staring maliciously at their manicured lawns and perfect rose arbours. I can be a spiteful gardener at times. I would love a few rolling acres but realistically my little garden and half an allotment are about all I have time to manage. That and the fact that I haven’t got about a million and a half quid to spare.

I knew someone, a previous work colleague and a waspish sort of chappie, who would visit gardens with a pocket full of seeds specially saved for the purpose of scattering when he felt garden envy coming on. He brought a whole new meaning to green fingered. I guess it makes a change from visitors pinching plants. Sadly he never felt the need to scatter those secret little seeds in my garden.

As for the show. I really meant to enter some peas and other bits and pieces. I grew some specially. They were looking good too, but they were even lovelier in the vegetable lasagne we had last night for supper. It was either that or walk up the village to the greengrocers and, as I may have said before, I can be quite lazy at times.

(There was actually a famous ‘lady’ gardener, Miss Wilmot, who would scatter white Eryngium seeds in all the gardens she visited, the resulting plants came to be known as Miss Wilmot’s Ghost. I am not sure if I’ve got that completely right. Does anyone know the whole story?)

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Midsummer memories

I’m feeling wistful. On this day last year I was drinking beer around midnight in a bar in Destruction Bay, the Yukon, and it was still daylight. I can’t say I saw the midnight sun as Destruction Bay doesn’t do sun, just eerie twilight and an amazing scouring wind that blows 365 days a year.

The bar was crowded with construction workers and some of the toughest looking women I’ve ever seen in my life, but they were all amiable and we passed a pleasant evening talking football and the world cup. I know absolutely nothing about football but beer helps to extend opinions and I don’t think anyone else knew much either.

I remember feeling a bit wistful that evening as well . We were coming to the last couple of days of our drive from Seattle, into Canada, along Highways 97 and 99 to Dawson City and up the Alaskan Highway, on route to my friend’s home in central Alaska. An epic drive through the most amazing scenery ever.

My Alaskan friend’s daughter had just graduated from Washington State and needed to drive her car home, so we joined her for one of the most amazing road journeys in the world. She drove most of the way , with her mum, my man and me hanging out of the windows snapping photos, yarning, singing and generally behaving like a bunch of teenagers on a spree. It was great, even if our cheeky young driver did tell people we met on the way that she’d just picked us up at a pioneer home (Old folk’s home to us in the UK) Bless her!

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Some tru(ish) confessions

It seems I’ve had a few days off school and the whole place has erupted into nakedness and true confessions. I’ll pass on the nakedness, it has to be very hot for me to take off my cardi, but I’ll have a go at a few true(ish) confessions.

I learnt early on that you can get away with most things if you have the right disguise.
I’d rather be out in the wilds but have lived much of my adult life in a town.
I have been accused of being aloof and standoffish. This is always a surprise to me as I see myself as thoughtful and restrained.
I was brought up in a cottage with no electricity and 15 cats.
I love travelling to wild places. I’ve sat with mountain gorillas in Zaire (Congo) and camped wild in Alaska.
I tend to be rather lazy.
I can be bossy and self opinionated.
I’ve surprised myself at writing this as it is very out of character. I detest being the centre of attention.

(If you are interested in the fate of mountain gorillas, check out )

Thursday, 7 June 2007

My sister would kill me if she knew..

My big sister, who lives in the wilds of North East Scotland, was asked by her local womens' group to write a promotional poem about where they live. Rather tongue in cheek she wrote:

Welcome to rural Scotland
Where mountains are so high
Standing stones and waterfalls
Rainbows in the sky

See our lovely coastline Dolphins in the bay
Castles perched upon the cliff
'Tis life the highland way
Sweetly blooming heather
Grouse upon the moor
You'll get a smile from friendly folk
At every cottage door
Goodbye from rural Scotland
Haste ye back once more

To her surprise it was greeted with much acclaim, but, after a few weeks of very trying weather she wrote the antidote:

Welcome to rural Scotland
Wi' it's midges and wi' bogs
Hurricanes and aeroplanes
And everlasting fogs
If you should come to Scotland
Be sure to bring a mac
Wi' rain and wind and hailstones
Will you be coming back.

(If anyone recognises her style, she loves it there really. Don't tell on me 'cos she's bigger than me.)

Monday, 4 June 2007

The truth has to be told...

Thanks for the lovely comments about my pest of a cat but I’m afraid the truth has to be told. He isn’t the sweet furry little number he appears to be in photos. I’ll forgive him the bits of chewed blue tits left on the washing basket lid. I’m used to mouse guts squidged behind the kitchen door. I calmed down quickly when the live magpie he bought into the kitchen wrecked my show daffodils. I didn’t make a fuss when the smell in the shoe rack turned out to be a badly mauled mouse that had crawled in there to die. I know he is a cat and likely to do these things.

What I can’t accept is that he bullies small children. When brave, bold, cat confident children arrive he runs for cover under the bed or he sits scowling up the apple tree, but two of my grandchildren are timid around animals.

Then the brave garden tiger finds them irresistible. As soon as they arrive he starts some serious intimidation, rubbing round their legs, walking across their toys, sitting on their books, all the time purring aggressively. The more they stiffen with fright, the more he smirks and enjoys himself. They stand still with their little hands in the air and he purrs and winds round them in an intimidatingly friendly manner.

Even the older, bolder granddaughter, eyeing him cautiously, remarked,

“It’s lucky he hasn’t learned to eat people yet.”

I’m not so sure. I’m certainly keeping an eye on him when the little ones are at our house.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Purple Prose - make your final choice

I have managed to whittle the Purple Prose book list down to a final 5.

I’ve tried to be fair, so lots of apologies if your favourite book didn’t make the final list. I used a points system to choose - well it’s a wet day and I’ve time on my hands.

3 points 1st choice

2 points 2nd choice

1 point No preference mentioned and/or the book was on the original list.

Please make your final choice in the comment box:

English Passenger by Matthew Kneale ( A wryly humorous seafaring yarn set around an 1857 voyage to Tasmania.)

Diary of an Ordinary Woman by Margaret Forster ( A series of fictional journals recording a woman’s inner life and 20c events.)

Time travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (She meets the love of her life when she is 6 and he’s 36, but he’s only really 8 years older than her. It’s not really science fiction, it’s more about two people coping with a situation beyond their control

Redemption Falls by Joseph O’Connor (This explores the enigma of life through a love story and tale of war in 1860s America.)

Unless by Carol Shields (This is about a woman who’s comfortable life is in turmoil when she finds her daughter is sitting on a Toronto street corner with a begging bowl in her lap.)

I feel I want to read them all but that isn’t possible. Please vote and the one with the most votes can be the current Purple prose book of the month.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Purple Prose - your choice

Wow! What a response. Now we need to whittle the suggested books down to 4 or 5 of the most popular before we make our final choice of purple prose.

Please put your 1st choice and 2nd choice of book in the comment box. Bear in mind the book needs to be currently in print and readily available to all.

I’ll publish the 4 or 5 most popular on Children, Chocolate and Wine. Then we can vote for the book we want to read this time.

Purple Prose Book List 29/05/07 (in no particular order)

Time Traveller’s Wife Audrey Niffenegg.

Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte

Into the Wild John Krakauer

Unless Carol shields

Redemption Joseph O’Connor

Star of the Sea Joseph O’Connor

Diary of an Ordinary Woman Margaret Foster

Running for the Hills Horatio Clare

Falling Angels Tracey Chevalier

The English Passengers Matthew Kneale

A Monstrous Regiment Terry Pratchet

A Scandalous Life (biography of Jane Digby) Mary Lovell

My Dirty little Book of Stolen Time Liz Jensen

The Historian Elizabeth Kostovo

On Beauty Zadie Smith

Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Nature Cure Richard Mabey

Holberts Gift Saul bellow

Day A L Kennedy

How to be free Tim Hodgkinson

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Purple prose

I hope I’m not being too swotty but several people expressed an interest in a purple reading group. I can see some enormous advantages for me. Firstly I won’t have to drive home after having a measly fruit juice while my bus riding friends have been knocking back the red and white. Secondly I won’t have to drive home late at night and, with my eye sight problems that will be a help. Specs like the bottom of wine glasses loom on the horizon. (Well they would if I could actually see the horizon any more.)

Next, other readers won’t get lost trying to find my house in the dark. I live 20 mins from a coastal town and the village is well signposted, but my town dwelling friends go to pieces once beyond the security of street lamps. In my regular reading group the person who chooses the book also hosts the evening. The last time it was my turn three friends turned up 30 mns early, afraid they might get lost. The majority came late because they did get lost. And two intrepid travellers, driving a 4x4, didn’t turn up at all. They set out together and headed for a similar sounding place in East Sussex not West Sussex, only realising they’d gone wrong when they’d driven more than twenty miles totally in the wrong direction.

What book were we reading? In to the Wild by John Krakauer of course!

Is anyone interested in forming a group? If so, add a suggested title and author in the comment box and I’ll list them on the main page. A vote could be taken on the most popular title and off we go. Any takers?

Friday, 25 May 2007

On books and friends

I missed going to my book club last night. My sight is still a bit wobbly after the tadpoles in the sky incident, so I felt driving home from the town in the dark would be too risky. The group are all previous work colleagues, some now in early retirement and others are still 'in the thick of it' career women. It’s usually a great meeting. All of us are a bit spiky and bitchy but supportive of each other in our own way. They are sharp, funny and argumentative by turns, all willing to disagree, dish the dirt and listen to each other, offence seldom taken and usually never meant. We even get round to discussing the book occasionally.

This lively forum has ruined me for any other book group I’ve ever thought of joining. I was invited to one but turned it down when I realised the wife of a former boss would also be a member. I’ve nothing against the woman, but knew that I couldn’t trust myself to be civil about him, so thought it best to stay away.

Meeting up with my old group means a longish drive into town so, as part of my, ‘getting to know people in the village’ campaign, I a responded to an advert in the village bookshop. It said, ‘New members wanted for established reading group’ . Promising a warm welcome with stimulating discussion it seemed just the job and a way to get to know some like minded people.

Their daunting booklist for the past seven years arrived along with the title of the tome of the month and the address of the next venue. Until I get to know people I tend to be a bit quiet, so the first couple of sessions went quite well, but on the third occasion I found the book really not to my taste. Anxious not to offend people I hardly knew, when it came to my turn I diplomatically offered that I thought the book was, ‘sweetly pretty, but lacked any substance’. I smiled brightly then, to my embarrassment, noticed the woman who’d chosen the book looked distinctly upset. She bravely blew her nose and said that she couldn’t believe I could be so unkind about her favourite book, a book she had loved since girlhood. A horrible silence followed, only broken when our host quickly suggested we all had some tea. I drank mine feeling it might be poisoned.

After that I decided perhaps that book group was too well established and far too polite for me. Any one out there wishing to form a reading group? I promise I won’t make any hasty or critical comments, at least not for the first couple of weeks.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

I guess I'll have to do it in my sunglasses now.

On Friday we fancied a day trip to Sissinghurst garden, but I just had to pop into the optician on the way. When I told them about the funny little tadpole shapes that were swimming before my eyes all hell broke out. Stingy stuff was squirted into my eyes. I was puffed and peered at, the hospital was phoned, a letter pushed into my bleary hand and, with my husband driving, off I went to the eye hospital as a medical emergency.

Once at the hospital I had to sit on a special red chair and wait. A few more medical emergencies arrived and we were called one by one to have more stingy stuff squirted into our eyes. We sat together on our red chairs, with dilated eyes, like a row of bush babies on speed. By now I was peering through pupils the size of saucers but I was being very brave. Apparently in past times women would put belladonna in their eyes to dilate the pupils and look more alluring. It certainly wouldn’t have worked for me.

I was seen quite quickly by a lovely bearded doctor, who, to my confused vision , looked remarkably like my husband, only more patient and stern. After much puffing, prodding and peering I was told I had a bleeding eyeball (that's roughly what I was thinking by this time...) but nothing important was detached. I’d have known more of what he was talking about if I’d paid attention in biology lessons, but in those days they never taught the really interesting stuff and pictures of eyes still make me go all squidgey inside.

Apparently it will clear up in a couple of weeks in the meantime sunglasses might help. Today the tadpoles have turned into a sort of grey cobweb, so I guess that’s progress. When I asked the doctor what I could have done to cause it, he replied without a hint of humour, ‘grown older’. Not a nice thing to say to a woman facing a birthday. I replied , ‘Oh wailey, wailey’ and he showed me the door.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

A bit of a gloomy tail

Maybe its the weather but, in my darkened mood, I parked on the lavender and couldn’t be bothered to move the car. Why so glum? I’ve trays of plants for the allotment but I can’t get them down there. It’s been raining for days.. I’m working too much. I go months with not a hint of work then everybody is on the phone at once. Then there has been the slaughter in the garden and the cat’s smirking again.

I guess it’s all part of the perils of owning a cat, but why did it have to do that to the baby great tit and I can hear the blackbird alarm calling again. Our previous cat lived in permanent comfy middle age, always asleep in the garden or on the sofa; this garden tiger is a marauder.

I’ve told sad tales of mice under the sofa and shocked magpies smashing up my daffodils in the kitchen (alas all on the other blog site that shall not be named) but this morning I was greeted by half a fancy goldfish, the tail end. Should I confess to my neighbour or keep quiet and let him think it’s the heron again. (Answers on a postcard please.)

I know it’s not only cats that do bad things. Yesterday I met Jack, a hamster eating terrier. The hamster was on holiday at a friends house. Never assume that those jolly little plastic balls, designed to exercise a hamster, are doggy proof. Any canny dog can whiz the ball along with one foot, then decant a dizzy hamster and, wham, no more hamster.

What’s the real reason for me being gloomy? Another birthday looms. Not a significant one, but aren’t they all significant once your past the first flush of middle age.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Wine and water

My Man’s cooking the dinner, I’ve just had a couple of gulps of red wine and I’ve been sitting curled up in the armchair thinking what to write. Sounds good eh? Are you jealous? Actually I’m feeling really fed up. It’s been one of those days, starting full of promise, that didn’t live up to expectations.
Early on it was sunny so I breakfasted early and was ready to wheelbarrow my tomato plants down the allotment, when it started to pour with rain. It’s been torrential all day. Twice I tried to do things in the garden and twice I got soaked.
Then I tried to plan lessons for the week but I’ve mislaid a vital science book. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it before but somehow I’ve landed up as home tutor to a delightful girl with ASD and ME. I was told she was gifted, in English I presumed. Well they’d hardly ask me to teach maths would they? Ha! Ha! Now I’m teaching English, Science and Maths to a girl who’s gifted in Maths. She has a very exact approach to life and I’ve lost her science book. I’m not looking forward to Monday. It starts in a unit for troubled children with a young person who often throws my carefully prepared work on the floor accompanied by colourful expletives. (Note how polite I’m being) I usually have to frantically improvise just to keep him in the room. Then I’m off to a delightfully eccentric household and a languid girl in her pyjamas who knows more maths than I do.
I thought giving up full time work would be easy. I’m writing this rather than facing working my way through another chapter of her maths book. Hysteria is setting in. - another gulp of wine.

The sun finally came out around 6.15 pm and I sought refuge in the greenhouse to pot up some seedlings. My man has been replastering a hole in the bathroom wall (don’t ask) and swearing when it went wrong.. He came outside for a breath of fresh air, decided to clean the greenhouse glass, threw a bucket of cold water and it went straight through the greenhouse window and onto me. I’m now wearing a completely new set of dry clothes and he’s cooking the dinner. Need I say more.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

In the pink?

I guess women often meet other women at the school gates but my kids are grown up, so I needed somewhere else to meet new people when I moved to the edge of this village. I didn’t feel ready for the W.I, Scottish country dancing would be a hopeless choice, I can’t sing in tune, so it had to be the Horticultural Society. Even with a tiny town plot I was a keen gardener so, as soon as we moved, I was off to the monthly meetings.

The village horticultural society has been running for over a hundred years and many of the members could be described as ‘heritage gardeners’, people with gorgeous inherited gardens (and houses). Some of these gardens are magnificent. They are often open for the yellow book scheme, are visited on village ‘secret gardens ‘day and are the site for charitable fetes and cream teas.

I have a meagre 100 feet crammed with a huge Bramley apple, a spreading beech, a patch of vegetables, a few flowers, a ramshackle green house and his and hers workshops. His workshop houses his tools and mountains of mountain bikes and appropriate clutter. My workshop doubles as a glass bead making studio and garden shed. In the autumn bunches of onions and garlic, trays of stored apples and squashes vie for space between racks of coloured glass rods and garden tools. I can just squeeze my plant propagator on the bench next to my kiln.

Strangely I haven’t been asked to open ‘lampwork part acre’ to the public yet. In fact my ploy for meeting new people wasn’t initially successful. I’m a loyal attender but a bit on the shy side, After a couple of years of Horticultural Evenings I still felt like a new girl in the wrong uniform.

One evening, late home from work, I rushed off to the meeting wearing my bright pink jacket instead of my usual gardeners’ drab. The effect was miraculous. Several of the older gents, of whom there are many, politely introduced themselves, another offered me a chair and volunteered to get me a tea in the interval. A few years ago I’d have said I was , 'In with a chance.' The secretary even welcomed me as a new member and looked a little taken back when I tartly explained I‘d been paying him my dues for the past two years.

The next meeting I wore my usual garb, no one spoke , so I wore my pink jacket again and was met by friendly approval, at least from the gardening gents. This took place a few years ago. I can’t say even now they are a very friendly bunch, but I got to know several of them as soon as I entered the village show and started to win a few modest prizes. Once their garlic and courgettes were under threat from a woman they started to notice me. As for the pink jacket, it’s looking a little worn. Well it’s almost at the point when I’ll wear it down the allotment. I’ve got another in a rather fetching purple. I’ll wear that when I really want to impress.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Any news, any scandal, any gossip?

A few years ago, while I was planning my move to the edge of a West Sussex village my big sister out did me once again and took herself off to the far north of Scotland, (No sibling rivalry there then!)

In the quiet community where she lives the common greeting is,

‘Any news?’

‘Any news, any scandal, any gossip, and if not, let’s make some up!’ would be more appropriate.

I was staying with her last week and had the misfortune to need to visit the local doctor on pension day. The post office is just across the road from the health centre and I passed by just as the village worthies were gathering for their morning chat. I could feel all eyes on my back as I crossed over and I swear I could hear them whispering.

‘That’s Em’s sister from down south, she’s going to the doctor…’

One old farmer, waiting for his wife, quickly rolled down his car window to be ready to greet me with a cheery, ‘How are yea?‘ as I passed. Before I’d even got beyond the waiting room door my sister’s neighbour, a kindly and inquisitive old soul and ex nurse, had phoned to enquire what was wrong and could she be of assistance. In a two minute conversation she’d managed to wheedle out all essential details and within a few more minutes I imagine most of the over sixties had been updated on the state of my health. I swear even the sheep in the neighbouring field eyed me with interest.

I don’t think I could cope with that level of speculation on a regular basis but my sister takes it in her stride and gives as good as she gets. I now know quite a lot more than I needed to about several of her friends and acquaintances. Though not one to gossip myself, if this blog was a bit more secure I might even be tempted to pass on a few particularly interesting snippets. It’s not only the porridge that gets stirred up there you know. Some other time perhaps.

I’m not saying my own village isn’t capable of spreading a rumour or three. If you want to know who’s bought the empty shop and the juicy details of why the previous tenants left in such a hurry, then a visit to the hairdressers is needed. It’s only a small village but is blessed with three hairdressers and it would be unwise to upset any of them. I even heard that they’ve actually banned a woman I know for ‘bad behaviour’ but my half hour appointment wasn’t quite long enough to find out the exact nature of the behaviour. I need a perm and colour to get to the bottom of that one. It’s even rumoured that the village restaurant failed because my hairdresser’s mum had an indifferent meal there on her anniversary, but not being one to gossip myself I don’t think I should pass that on.

I travelled home yesterday and my sister phoned this evening to say she’s had several of friends pop in to see her. One brought a cabbage she had spare, another wanted a recipe, all wanted to know how I was. I shudder to think how my medical mishap has been pondered over and embroidered, but at least I know that my sister, who’s getting on a bit and not in the best of health herself, will be watched over by a community that looks after its own and its incomers. She’s a long way from me and I can’t get to see her much so I take comfort in that.

Friday, 27 April 2007

So much for self sufficiency!.

Oriental poppies, bluebells, roses, primroses and holly berries all out together. My garden has me confused. Stuff is coming up at the wrong time, some plants have disappeared completely and others, those that won’t normally self seed at all, are thriving between the stones of the path,
In March the temperature in my car at 8am was often around zero but by noon it could reach 20 degrees F, and now we’ve apparently had the warmest April since records began. No wonder many of my poor little vegetable seeds have refused to sprout. Then there are the slugs. I wrote a whole C.L. blog on slug hunting with a torch. After last night’s shower I could make it a book. Anyone any ideas on what to do with a Sainsbury’s carrier bag full of slugs and snails. Ebay?
I promised myself I would be self sufficient in veg for at least 6 months this year. O.K. I’ll buy frozen peas but I need them in the freezer in case I sprain an ankle digging my rock hard ground. All I have to show so far are a few tiny lettuces. Maybe I could serve them with salted slugs. Any ideas.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Thrift Queen

I caught the end of a radio programme about a group of people who have given up shopping for a year. I didn’t hear it all so presume buying food and medicine is o.k. and , hopefully, soap. All else has to be repaired, made, bartered, swapped or bought second hand.

Since giving up full time work I’ve become something of a thrift queen. Apparently it’s quite fashionable, which is more than I can say for my trousers. I like the idea of not going to ‘the shops’. I no longer need all the smart clothes that lurk in my wardrobe and I’m not tempted by the fancy catalogues that flood through my door and into the recycling box. They never offer the mud coloured trousers and battered hats I really need.

There was a time when I kept an old pair of jeans and a tatty sweatshirt for weekend work. Now all my clothes have to do for outdoors. Slowly my entire wardrobe will become designated gardening clothes. I wonder where the line is between charmingly eccentric and the village bag lady. I guess I’m soon to find out.

Home hint for the slatternly blogger


A quick hoover round and a touch of furniture polish at nose height on the door frame and no one need know you’ve been on the computer all afternoon.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

In at last

In at last after many misconceptions and mistakes. Unfortunately I haven't got time to write anything as I have to get down the allotment before it gets dark and it's dodgy in the lane with a wheel barrow without lights.