Monday, 29 December 2008

Does Everyone Have a Story to Tell About Woolworths?

Does everyone have a story to tell about Woolworths? It's that sort of place.

“Meet you outside Woolworths,” was a familiar cry when I was a child. In the small country town where I grew up, Woolworths, with its distinctive red and white sign, was the place to meet up with friends, catch the bus, even shelter from the rain, but I seldom bought anything, not enough money, until my sister, a sophisticated five years older than me, thought up a cunning plan.

Then, Woolworths had the most wonderful broken biscuit counter. For 9d (less than 5p) you could buy a huge bag of broken biscuits. When we went to Saturday Morning Pictures, if we paid 6d (2.5p) and sat in the stalls along with the rough boys, instead of upstairs in the more expensive circle, with the ‘much nicer children,’ as instructed by our parents, we came out with a full shilling profit, enough to buy huge bag of broken biscuits, with a little cash to spare.

I once had a Saturday job in Woolworths. It morphed into the promise of employment for a whole summer and might have been the start of a wonderful career, except I got the sack.

I missed out on the offer of employment on the biscuit counter, fortunately my hair was too long to stuff into the hairnet, so ended up queening it over haberdashery. Tape measures, lustrous embroidery silks, pins and cottons were my domain. I’d jump off the bus, rush in through the door and grab the drawer to my till, just as the store cleaner finished mopping the wooden boards around my counter.

Tall, slow, harmless and monosyllabic, all us girls were scared of Garth the cleaner. He lurked deep in the stores along with his mop and huge wide broom, wearing a muddy brown overall and he longed to be friendly, but it wasn’t the done thing to be seen talking to Garth. He was considered far too weird.

Woolworths attracted hoards of eccentric customers, but my favourite memory is of a charming woman who sidled up to my counter almost every day and lifted small items, a paper of pins, a reel of sylco thread... Where ever she lived must have been full to bursting with filched stuff, but I never had the heart to report her to the supervisor.

But it wasn’t my tolerance of petty pilfering that got me the sack. I was asked to leave over a boy. My crime? One of the regular girls accused me of trying to get off with her boyfriend. Apparently she’d seen me smile at him, which was news to me. (Would it be too nasty to say he was probably one of Garths’s less appealing close relatives?) Assisted by two of her chums, this young lady trapped me by the staff lockers. I’d have probably been well and truly thumped if I hadn’t been rescued by another member of staff.

Even though I made it very clear that she was more than welcome to keep ‘her feller.’ I wouldn't have touched him with the end of Garth's mop, I was deemed not suitable for the job, told to collect my coat, pick up my wages and asked to leave. I never really felt the same about Woolies after that. It was a long time ago and, now that particular branch is about to close, I'm sorry for all of those who are about to lose their jobs, except for one of course, but I doubt if she still works there.

Monday, 17 November 2008

A Tale of Pink Sheep and the Dispossessed

Should you ever visit the seaside village of Porlock Weir in Somerset, leave time for a very special walk. Don’t be put off by the steps leading up from the back of the Anchor Hotel, or the wafting smells of ducted fat and dustbins, a climb of a few feet takes you onto the edge of a sloping meadow dotted with surprisingly pink sheep.

A short stroll and you meet the toll road to Worthy, but don’t be tempted along that way, to the right is a little gate where walkers, free of charge , may gain access to the darkly brooding Yearnor woods.

Dark secrets cling to those wooded slopes and linger in the shadowy coombs, so it is just as well the leafy canopy also shelters Culbone Church, reputedly the smallest parish church in England. It nestles far into woods that were once home to the desperate and the dispossessed. A place of murky secrets where even the church leaflet tells of a chaplin, who in 1280 was indicted for clobbering a certain Albert of Esshe over the head with a hatchet, killing him.

The way is steep and treacherous and, despite the early morning sunshine, surprisingly gloomy as it winds through mysterious tunnels and whispering woods. It is the sort of place where wary walkers, if they tread lightly, look over their shoulders, ‘Just in case...’

As the path climbs upwards, precipitous slopes drop down to a hidden sea that can be heard but seldom glimpsed, though seabirds cry overhead. Occasionally the way is barred by a landslide and, as the detours point up even steeper slopes, the ghosts of the blocked paths twine secretively in the opposite direction with dark hints of fallen rocks and rotting trees, or something a little more more sinister.

These woods were once home to outcasts, those who had so offended society, or the church, that they were banished to a life clinging to these shelterless and inhospitable slopes. Once the homeless rebels had died out their place was taken by a colony of lepers, abandoned without hope or help. Apparently the last one died in 1622. No wonder the woods whisper and sigh to walkers as they pass.

Eventually, nearing the summit of the woodland climb, the leafy canopy opens to reveal Culbone Church. No road leads to this church but the path creeps alongside the church wall. As we opened the gate, two cats eyed us suspiciously from the base of the churchyard cross before slinking off into the long grass. Once inside, the church feels quaint, and cold and very holy, with that not quite Christian feel so common in many ancient places of worship. As we lingered in the nave, absorbing the atmosphere, marvelling at the 13th century chancel and Norman font, the door rattled. Thinking another visitor struggled to enter, my companion opened the door and in slid one of the cats.

The next fifteen minutes were spent trying to catch the animal as, obviously no respecter of holy places, it scrambled cheerfully over areas where we were not prepared to trespass. At last, after much scrabbling under pews and keeping curses to a respectful minimum, the cat was cornered, caught and carried outside.

It was mid-day and the mood broken; any whispering in the woods banished as a huge party of ramblers announced their arrival long before they could be seen. We left the churchyard to its secrets and walked back the way we had come and lunch in Porlock Weir.

(With lots of thanks to Exmoorjane, who told me about this special place)

Monday, 13 October 2008

Salome up close and personal

I'm not a frequent visitor to the opera, but last Saturday found me at the Met. No I haven't won the lottery and taken to spending my weekends in New York, I saw Salome at a backstreet cinema in Brighton, but she was live and in high definition from the Metropolitan Opera. Too high for my liking. Can you imagine a thirty foot soprano, a hefty woman of over forty, built like a Valkyrie but doing her best to impersonate a sixteen year old temptress. There were many moments when disbelief just couldn't be suspended.

Karita Mattila, with the voice like an murderous angel, sung her socks off. Well perhaps not socks, but during the dance of the seven veils, she did have two of her attendants remove her stockings with their teeth. Excuse me, but I don't remember that bit in the bible; but then it is a very modern interpretation of an old story, where a voluptuous Judean Princess dances for her lecherous old step father, on the promise of anything she wants. The hussy gives up the chance of half his kingdom and a whole hatful of jewels, in place of the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Well I ask you, what girl wouldn't?

Karita Mattila's voice is unbelievable, the production passable; it was the filming that was at fault. It is unwise to give tonsil inspection shots of a soprano in full volume. As Karita simpered and fluttered her false eyelashes in a girlish manner, begging kisses from the ever wrathful John the B, the close ups made her look more like a camp female impersonator, rather than the seductive temptress.

Wardrobe malfunctions didn't help. Whoever dressed the strapping soprano in a figure hugging satin nightie, outlining every cutting undergarment and bulging surface, deserves to be back dressing the Teletubbies. Even the KMB, never one to remark on women's clothing, was heard to whisper cruelly,

'Trapped cellulite.'

At the climax of the dance of the seven veils, the opera lovers in the theatre were treated to a full frontal Salome, presumably on the grounds that they were far enough away not to notice any details, us lesser mortals, gawping in the cinema, were spared. The family friendly version merely zoomed in on a close up of her muscular back, then swung to Herod's lecherous face. Until then, one of the better moments.

It was only when the severed head of the murdered John the Baptist was brought onto stage, that it was possible to forget all the grisly details of the too close camera work. When Salome sang passionately of her dark longings, all the flaws of the production ceased to matter. It was electrifying. Dwarfed by the ominous angels of death, as Salome sang,

' I have kissed your mouth, Jochanaan,'

the discrepancy between role and woman didn't matter. No stripling of a girl could have sung like that. I guess the entire audience tingled all over, I certainly did. As the curtain came down, there was a burst of spontaneous applause, and that doesn’t often happen in a cinema nowadays.

(There's a brilliant clip of Mattila performing Salome on You tube, if I had the skills I'd have loaded it for you, but I haven't, so I didn't, Sorry.)

Monday, 22 September 2008

The Garden in September

Tiny golden leaves from the silver birch tree are on the lawn this morning. Soon all this will be gone. How sad.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

You can never be too careful with Hedgehogs

Deep shame. I nearly polished off a hedgehog and all through my own carelessness. When the peas were finished and getting into a manky tangle, I chopped them off at ground level. Apparently if you leave the roots in the ground it helps to fix the nitrogen in the soil, then I untangled the spent plants for the compost bin and, in a moment of thrift, rolled up the pea netting for use next year. Ever short of space, and of a slightly slovenly nature, I bunged the pea netting out of sight in the handy little gap between my workshop and the fence and there it stayed forgotten, until a couple of days ago, when I heard a,
'Thump, thump', coming from behind the shed.

KMB peered into the gap, then gave me a stern look. A hedgehog, one of four that very sensibly live in next door's garden, was completely entangled in the pea netting.

'It's going to die' I wailed, 'And it'll be all my fault.'

'Get the kitchen scissors.' I was told.

It took ages to snip him free. The poor little chap kept trying to curl up while we prised him open gently and pulled off each piece of nasty green plastic.

Once de-stringed, we laid him gently in a shady part of the garden with a bowl of water by his side.

'He's dead,' I muttered, consumed with guilt. When he uncurled slightly this changed to, 'He's gone all floppy; he's fainted from shock.'

I won't share what KMB said to me, as it was very uncomplimentary. So I left the hedgehog alone, already wondering where to dig a deep hole to get rid of the evidence of my stupidity. A short while later slurping noises told me he'd recovered and was draining the bowl dry. It's amazing how fast they can move when they want to. One look at me and he headed for safety and was last seen squeezing through a broken fence panel, wisely heading for next door.

The green plastic netting? In the bin. One positive thing. I know now the smelly mess on the lawn each morning isn't fox poo after all. That was one nervous hedgehog I can tell you. Did he have to do that all over the kitchen scissors and my gardening gloves? After all I was trying to rescue him.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

A Cliché Too Far, or how to benefit from a ill wind

The Keen Mountain Biker has hurt his back, but it’s an ill wind as they say. The first twinges were felt as he made hay in the Millennium Garden (see previous blog) and the coup de grace arrived as he hoovered the bedroom. carpet. Yes, my old man, is a new man, I’m pleased to say.

‘What are we going to do?’ wailed the granddaughters in unison. ‘Granddad’s slipped a disc and we won’t be able to go camping.’

But he would never let a simple thing like severe pain stand in the way to our annual trip to Derbyshire.

‘Now don’t get all stressy,' the elder one advised as we sweltered in the second hold up on the M1. We’ll stop in a minute and you can have a cup of tea and one of your little tablets.’ The little one nodded at her sister’s wise words. I kept my mouth shut. I’d never heard him swear in front of a child, but there’s always a first time.

Five hours later we arrived at the camp site in the pouring rain. In the old days, BG (before grandchildren) we’d have had our two person tent erected and the kettle on, in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, two bedroomed luxury with added kitchen takes a little longer, but we managed.

The camp site, more a farmer’s field with adjacent loos, is the closest place to paradise when the sun shines. In the rain you have to use your imagination, particularly when the mountains are completely obscured by dark clouds. We spent the rest of the evening doing French knitting with damp wool and playing cards.

It rained all night but the morning came with a slight breeze and bright sunshine. We put our best feet forward. The girls and I sauntering along at our own speed, KMB staggering manfully behind, a look of determination on his rugged face.

‘Sleeping on a hard surface is meant to be good for bad backs’. I suggested helpfully. ‘And you’ve got three doting females to help you on with your socks.’ He wasn’t convinced, as I was one of the females and I’m not much good at doting.

‘Where does the ill wind come in?’ I hear you ask. No the tent didn’t blow down. No tent erected by the KMB would dare. Despite horrendous weather forecasts the rain fell only at night. I had a lovely restful break. The girls carried their own packs and didn’t argue once, or lie on the ground saying they were too tired to go on any further. Neither did I beg for a short cut home.

For the first time in the twenty years I’ve been staying on this site, I was able to relax and lie around in the sun. Not once did I have to do a route march, one eye on the compass the other on a gathering storm.

Along with a bad back came humility. For the first time KMB realised what a mere mortal feels like in the mountains. He was grateful when we stopped for a snack. He didn’t sigh or look at this watch when we stopped to build a dam by a mountain stream or paused to take in a view, or admire the flowers. There were no complaints when we walked back via a quick route. So you see, ‘It’s an ill wind...’

The man is a hero and I love him to bits. Now we're home I promise I’ll make it all up to him. I’m pampering his every whim, while he watches the Olympics, flat on his back on the front room floor. I'm rushing around making tea. We even had a pudding last night. I hope this bad back business doesn’t last too long though. The potatoes down the allotment haven’t been harvested yet and the lawn needs cutting.

‘What’s sauce for the goose....’ I hear him mutter, as I struggle to get the lawn mower out of the shed.

(If you fancy the campsite look at The picture is of KMB giving helpful advice on how to build a dam)

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Snakes and Hay

What's the most relaxing way to spend the hottest day of the year? Sunbathing by the pool, cool beer and barbeque, stroll in the country? Certainly not raking hay in the village millennium garden.

The call came by email a couple of weeks ago,

‘Volunteers wanted, Sunday morning, 9.30a.m. sharp, bring your own rake and gloves.’

The millennium garden, an old orchard saved from developers when a local mansion was converted into flats, is a small patch of paradise and my shortest route to the shops.

In spring I skip along under clouds of apple blossom, summer and there’s a shady path to follow. Autumn? Apples to scrump of course and smoky bonfires of leaves. In winter there’s a mud free path with fine views over the surrounding fields.

So, duty bound, I joined my mainly grey haired co-workers, to do my bit for the village. As we stood in line, raking and piling up the hay into mounds, the talk was of how the garden, once a scruffy patch of waste land, was improving local biodiversity.

‘So much more wildlife‘, they all agreed, giggling nervously when a very small slow worm was found.

I pondered, should I mention the large snake my neighbour had spotted basking on the path as she walked her kids to school one morning?

‘Best not,’ I decided, no need to frighten off any of the workers, Many hands make light work on such a hot day. From the reported size of the snake, it was probably only a grass snake, though I’d worn my boots just in case.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Mistaken Identity

When the leaves started disappearing from my indoor pepper plants I looked for caterpillars. After the whole top section was chewed off my dragon palm, I guessed huge nocturnal caterpillars were to blame. Who was I kidding?

Then there were other clues, caterpillars don't invade a spice cabinet and chew up all the stock cubes or leave large black droppings on a window sill. They don't nibble holes in apples left in a fruit dish. We had mice.

The Garden Tiger often brings mice home but, being dead, they aren't difficult to catch. This super mouse was very much alive. I hadn't seen it but it was definitely around in the house somewhere. When my man, nodding in front of the 10 o'clock news, was shaken awake as it thundered over his shoulder and down his leg, serious action was called for and off he went on an urgent trip to the hardware store.

He returned with a whole bagful of humane mouse traps. Once baited with peanut butter and apple, an allegedly winning combination, we went to bed and waited. In the morning the traps were wrecked, bait gone, hinges chewed, mouse nowhere to be seen. I trembled.

'This is no super mouse. We've got a young rat in the house,' I sobbed.

Another trip to the hardware store, this time he returned with several inches of cruel steel trap in a plain brown wrapper. We meant business. More peanut butter, more apple, more guile...but this time we would be the winners.

The next morning I catch my man leafing through the pages of, ‘The Complete British Wildlife’ a field guide to the mammals of Britain, a slight pallor on his rugged cheek. No common brown rat was in the trap, we’d flattened a yellow-necked mouse. (Apodemus flavicollis) At nearly 12cm one of the largest of our British mice. A competent tree climber and frequenter of woodlands, formerly common and widespread now, comparatively scarce, but not yet endangered, unless of course it happens to end up in my kitchen.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Put a cork in it.

When you're tugging out your plastic corks and unscrewing the caps of those so satisfying bottles of wine, give a thought to the cork forests of the Alentejo. Portugal's cork oaks are threatened each time you buy a bottle of wine that isn't stoppered by natural cork.

If the local communities can no longer make a living through harvesting cork, other less environmentally sound uses for the cork forests will be found. If cork groves are abandoned or ploughed up for intensive agriculture, vast species rich areas will vanish. Acres of flower dappled grasslands, home to a unique eco system, will simply disappear or be swamped under invasive scrubby vegetation.

Cork has been harvested for at least a thousand years, many of the cork forests of the Alentejo may be hundreds of years old and are one of the few truly sustainable forms of agro forestry; it's an indigenous resource that is used without disturbing the natural biodiversity. Cork trees flourish without irrigation, fertilizers or chemical herbicides, and they regenerate after harvesting.

If cork can't be sold the local communities will have to find other less environmentally sound uses for the land, bringing the added risk of wild fires or the creeping desertification now present in Spain.

So spare a thought for the cork and when you next buy a bottle of wine. Make sure the wine produces have 'put a cork in it'.

The photographs were taken in the Alentejo, Portugal, May 2008

Friday, 23 May 2008

Monserrate Gardens

I first visited the town of Sintra in Portugal nine years ago. Then I was avoiding a significant birthday, working on the principle, if it happened when I was out of the country it wouldn't count. On that day I stumbled across a gift wrapped palace in a garden every bit as secret as Helligan.

At the time the Monserrate Gardens and their crumbling palace were teetering on the edge of ruin or restoration. Once the home of the louche gothic author and friend of Byron, William Beckford, its elegant filigree plaster walls and ornate marble staircases showed many years of neglect.

Though officially open as a public park, few people ever went there. The paths were broken and it was hard to find a way through all the overhanging greenery, but the romantic hidden treasures were well worth the struggle: a strange semi Christian temple locked tightly in the grip of a banyan tree, elegant groves of tree ferns, towering palms and bird of paradise lilies sprouting weed like out of every crevice.

This time, instead of wandering in through a broken down gate, I paid a fee at a neat little kiosk, Well scrubbed lavatories and even a few plants for sale indicated a whole new order. Would E.U. funding and renewed civic pride have robbed this horticultural gem of its secret and brooding beauty?

The morning may have been overcast but the garden was the same; as mysteriously lush and green as ever, slightly more accessible but still bewitchingly beautiful. As the heavy rain started the tiny number of other visitors vanished and once again Monseratte Gardens were mine.

On my first visit the palace was wrapped bizarrely in polythene pending restoration. Then the careless guard had allowed us in and we wandered around in secret, marvelling at a fairy tale beauty, even half fallen ceilings and damp green walls couldn’t disguise.

Now the outside is repainted and a polite attendant checks tickets as you enter, but even E.U money had its limits. It will be while before tasteful restoration takes over completely and turns it into a splendid teahouse or museum. Give me romantic decay with a hint of decadence anytime.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

What Would You Do With a Flat Iron?

What would you do with a flat iron?

My mother, a lady of some eccentricity, possibly bordering on madness, always preferred to use a flat iron rather than an electric one, insisting,

'You get a much better finish on your linens.'

'Yes Mum. Yawn!' At the same time vowing never to buy anything that ever needed to go near an iron, least of all one that my mates were only ever likely to see in a museum.

This was the same woman who owned curling tongs that had to be stuck in the fire to be warmed up, then tested on a piece of newspaper. As a small child I went to many birthday parties smelling of slightly singed hair. Once, in a moment of abstraction, and to my great glee, she frazzled my sister's hair so badly a huge clump had to be cut off.

Let me explain. I was seven the year electricity came to our house and by then my mum, in her late forties, was very set in her ways and saw no need to make any alterations to domestic arrangements that had seen her through over twenty years of married life, three children and a world war. She was also seeing visions in the trees, but that's another story entirely...

I've just come back from a few days visiting my big sister. Even before I'd undone my coat and sat down to the statutory tea and cake, she's a stalwart member of the Scottish W.I. and proud of her baking, a competitive sport in her village, where cake mixes are the equivalent of performance enhancing drugs, she dumped a flat iron on the table in front of me.

'There you are. You said you wanted one.'

My man turned towards me, his eyebrows raised in enquiry and surprise.A little wide eyed myself, but ever the adept liar, I smiled brightly and said,

'Great, thanks.'

Then it dawned, many years ago, after Mum had gone into a nursing home and we girls had to clear out and pack up her cottage, I was mildly annoyed when another sister grabbed the old iron griddle Mum had used to make wonderful drop scones. When I unearthed the family recipe for 'scotch pancakes' a couple of months ago, I asked my sister to look out for an old iron griddle, just like mum's. She's always involved in bring and buy sales and, as these griddles were once an essential tool in every Scottish kitchen, I thought it likely one would turn up.

Ah Well. At least I'll be able to get a good finish on my linens. If I had any...Could I use it as a camping iron? Perhaps not.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Where I Live - A village under threat

Where I live is under threat from developers. There are plans to build an unbelievable 1500 new houses not far down the road, tearing through our parish, bulldozing ancient woodland, blotting out tiny single track roads and tranquil green lanes, interrupting wild life corridors and filling in ditches and ponds.

The intention is to build on one of the few remaining areas for miles where it's possible to ride a bike in safety, where the only other traffic you'll meet is on horse back or the occasional tractor. Where it is possible to walk a dog or tramp footpaths far away from the noise of cars that threaten to swamp us all.

The fields destined for this outrage are home to a huge variety of flora and fauna. I know this as, for the past four years, I have been part of the village biodiversity survey. We've now surveyed 70% of our surrounding parish. No mean feat as the area is huge.

Our owl box project has encouraged barn owl and tawny owls into the area, we've discovered and recorded all sorts of rare and unusual plants and trees, including several previously unrecorded Wild service trees. We have ponds with crested newts and possibly even a colony of water voles. But when this large scale housing project goes ahead, and it’s likely it will, this will mean nothing.

This urban expansion isn't for local needs, there is actually a small surplus of homes in the local town; the people who will live in these houses are likely to work in an ever expanding area of urbanisation over ten miles from our parish. To get there they will have to drive on unbelievably congested roads as the trains are full and nobody relies on the buses.

We've wheeled out our local celebrities, marched in the rain, petitioned and written letters of opposition, now all we can do is sit and wait, dreading the result. Watch this space, you may yet see Lampie chained to a tree trying to hold back the bulldozers.

(The picture is of a Wild Service Tree, often an indicator of ancient woodland)

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Strange Little Visitor

I spent last night paddling in fog shrouded backwaters narrowly avoiding crocodiles, snakes, rapids and creepy crawlies, deep in Africa's Heart of Darkness. Sadly it was only in my mind. As an avid reader of travel literature, I've been hooked by 'Facing the Congo', a brilliant account of paddling the Congo River in a hand built canoe.

My evening of sofa exploration had me curled up and shivering as fist sized beetles, electric catfish and whistling cockroaches the size of a baby's foot, coloured my imagination. ( Well I have actually stroked a cockroach that whistled, but that's a story for another time.)

On finishing a really squirmy passage where the author camps in the underbush full of snakes, ferocious bees, black flies that leave bleeding holes in exposed flesh and every other kind of predatory insect imaginable, I jumped up to make a cup of tea and gave the most almighty scream.

A scary beast was creeping towards me. Don't ask me why but somehow, after breaching two closed doors and a sleeping cat, a newt was heading purposefully across the carpet, heading towards the Turkish rug. Where the tiny creature came from is a complete mystery. There isn't even a pond in my garden and why it chose to brave the kitchen floor and start a journey across an expanse of carpet instead of a cosy night on the damp lawn is a real puzzle.

It can't have been brought in by the cat as he's not that gentle, and this little creature was completely unharmed. It's more than welcome. I'm wildlife friendly, but I want more warning next time. It took ten minutes before my heart stopped racing and I could repatriate it back to the garden.

Monday, 17 March 2008

A few things about me

Tagged by Elizabethd, so here they come:

I have a naturally indolent nature that's why I've taken so long to write my 7 'Things about me.'

I have often been accused of being aloof but really I'm just shy and reserved until I get to know people.

I'm a listener rather than a confider.

I always tend to think that I am right. (Well I know I am right, but if I'd written that you'd all think I'm big headed as well as aloof!)

I use exclamation marks too often in my writing!

I hate being the centre of attention. The thought of any sort of party in my honour fills me with absolute horror. (Don't worry, I've warned my large family.)

I HATE crowds and cities. I love high and wild places, particularly when I've walked there with my tent and my man of course, he has to carry the tent.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Daffodil Envy Strikes Again

It's a sad truth, but daffodil envy has struck again. It got me at the village show. Yet again my 'Pot of Growing Daffodils, division 1' got a 2nd place not the 1st it so justly deserves. I mean, what does a woman have to do around here to get first prize? Noooo! Have you seen the judges!
Two second and two third prizes and, well, my poor little camelia, the only one left on the bush after nearly a week of storms, didn't even get a second glance.
And if I ever find out where that old bloke in the checked shirt, who scoffed because my 'Bravore' have nibbled edges, keeps his polly tunnel, I'll be at his precious blooms with my pinking shears.
Competitive? Who me?

Sunday, 10 February 2008

The True Story of how I reached the dizzy heights of a prize winner

It’s official. I’m a prize winner. Perhaps I should explain.

Our local bookshop, a tiny little place hardly bigger than a front room, is running a monthly competition. Starting this January it’s invited anyone with an interest in books to write a review (maximum100 words) of any book that may appeal to others.

All entries are displayed on the Special Review Board. (Just behind the door as you go in if you want to take a peek) As a keen supporter of this rare and dying breed, the independent bookseller, I was up there with my review of Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris, almost as soon as I saw the competition announced in our local free magazine.

I am pleased to say that my hard work has paid off. I’ve won this month’s prize. Dizzy heights indeed, considering the last literary prize I won was when I was still in school.

Sadly my triumph is a little sour. There was only one entry displayed on the board, mine.

Still, a £5 book token’s not to be sniffed at , is it?

Hang on a moment!

I’ve been Memed - I guess that’s a sort of prize too.

Pg123, 5th sentence from the book nearest to me, then the next 3 sentences:

Photography, A Concise History

Photography enabled the exchange of authentic - but also selective - information on the course of the war.

Interest in war reporting grew stronger as more nad more people were directly confronted with the war or were directly affected by war activity. On the one hand, was photographers provided visual information to people who were not directly involved, but whose family members might be at the front. On the other hand, war photography naturally served the propagands interests of the political powers.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

On reflection...A day in the life of Lampworkbeader, with no beading involved

On reflection I’ve been dreading this summons. A couple of years ago I’d have said, “Busy, busy, busy,” but then I wouldn’t have had time to write. Now my life is calmer, each day a bit different, but rather dull, so I’ll pick Monday.

7am The alarm. John Humphries nagging someone in the government, as usual. The Keen Mountain Biker has a kinder heart than me so he gets up to feed the cat and make me a cup of tea.

7.30 I’m up and stirring my own porridge.

By 8.10 I’m clean, dressed, lipsticked and sipping another cup of tea. Thankfully at the moment I only work two mornings a week. Monday is one of those mornings. Twenty five minutes of driving through country lanes and heavy traffic gets me to work. Radio 3 all the way. It calms me.

I do supply teaching with Special Needs kids. At the moment it’s two mornings at a PRU (Pupil Referral Unit) These young people are taught one to one in a unit well away from other teenagers. There’s always a reason.

My pupil arrives at 9.15am. I make her a cup of tea, she says it tastes like p*ss. I look surprised and say I’ve never tasted …… That raises a smile, a good sign, she doesn’t smile much.

The morning is satisfactory. It passes quickly for me. I sense she feels time moves at a slower pace.

The session finishes at 12 noon. I write my notes and I’m driving home by 12.30

It’s sunny and I’m in a good mood. Radio 4 this time.

KMB isn’t back yet. Since retiring he’s been involved in owl boxes (If you are interested I wrote about this back in August.)

He’s been checking the boxes and fixing them up ready for the nesting season. He’s back by 1.30, cheerful but muddy. We lunch together.

He’s been painting the hall. This involves a lot of huffing and swearing, as well as paint. I usually ignore this, I don’t want to get involved or I might end up doing it myself.

Since Purple Cooing started I’ve been writing short stories. To keep KMB company, and to act as a painting advisor if required (which it isn’t) I bring my battered old laptop downstairs and plug it in at the kitchen table.

The ‘good’ computer is upstairs in the spare and chilly bedroom, the kitchen is bright and sunny with a view of the garden.

Two hours fly past. My ‘short story’ grows alarmingly.

5.30 ish I start the evening meal, relying on what’s in the fridge. A huge pile of vegetables, a few of them home grown. These eventually turn into thick vegetable and lentil stew with sage dumplings. Fruit for desert. No wine tonight. I’ve been overdoing it recently and I’m rather weak willed.

Just time to log onto ‘Coo’ and see what’s going on. Hmm! Glad ‘In the mud’ is O.K.

8pm ish We’ve still time to watch my ‘new’ d.v.d. Thunder Road with Robert Mitchum. I’m a bit of a black and white film buff. KMB says he remembers it when it first come out. I deny that I do. He’s a bit older than me.

10p.m. I watch the news and weather.

We head for bed around 10.45 I read. I’ve nearly finished ‘Mad, Bad and Dangerous’, Ranulph Fiennes autobiography, interesting man if a bit of a twerp at times.

KMB snores. I lie awake thinking of endings for my short story. Might do some beading tomorrow or go down the allotment if it doesn’t rain…..

Thursday, 17 January 2008

The Plunderers (A short story - constructive criticism welcome)

On sunny days in early summer, if he was working in a field nearby, their father would drop them down by the river. Sometimes the two girls would play there all morning. With their two heads bent together over the water, they had one aim, to catch the elusive little river creatures swimming in the shallows. Up to their knees in the clean brown river, their favourite place was on a shallow bend, where sharp gravel washed between their toes.
With home made fishing nets in hand, (the top of an old stocking fitted craftily onto a short bamboo cane), they stalked like herons, stealthy little hunters after fish.

They found the sleek, dappled stone loaches easy prey. These lay on the stream bed with their tails pointing down stream. A crafty net could creep up alongside. Then all that was needed was a quick movement, a little panic, a tiny disturbance in the water, a flick with the net and the captive could be popped into the waiting wide necked jar.

Miller’s thumbs were the real favourites. Hunkered down between the stones they were hard to spot, but once moving, they proved a small, fast and exciting prey, and much harder to catch. Miller’s thumbs were thrilling too because they were dangerous. Their dad had told them of kingfishers found choked to death with their spiny prey stuck fast in their throats. These little terrors tended to huddle their tight triangular bodies in the smallest crevice. Neatly camouflaged unless nearly trodden on, only a sudden movement, some disturbed stones and a wisp of sand in the clear water, showed where they were.

When the tell tale movement was seen, the hunt could begin. The girls followed eagerly, with little shivers of anticipation, moving stealthily through the water, net kept low and behind the fish. Careful to keep their shadows out of sight they stalked their prey. With two it was easier. One to startle, one to catch. When one panicked the creature so that it darted away, the other positioned the net in the path of the panic.
Once caught, with heads close together, they examined the fish. They were always disappointed by their tiny captive, flattened and vulnerable in the bottom of the net. They felt a little disgusted by it’s gasping form, so much smaller out of the water.

In the middle of the river the girls felt safe. Socks and shoes piled neatly on the bank, they stood motionless, with water swirling round them it was a place for quiet concentration. Occasionally a thirsty dog muddied the water, to be called away by its strolling owner passing along the bank. Once a tramp, pushing a bicycle, muttered to himself as he walked past, but he ignored them. They stood and watched him warily, ready to flee, but quickly returned to their game as his hunched form departed along the narrow river path.

When their father called them to go home, they carried their big glass jars carefully, and set them firmly between their feet on the floor of the Landrover. He passed no comments except to tell them to make no wet.
Mostly the cramped and agitated captives, swam up and down, thwarted by the glass, but the millers thumbs sulked square on the bottom, making no bid for freedom. Occasionally a loach would make a wild jump, leaping through the neck of the jar only to find no waiting river, only dust, debris and scorching air, before being scooped, bruised and damaged, back into the jar.

Once home the little fish were released into the confines of an old water tank in the garden, or left to slowly suffocate in torpid water on a sunny bedroom window.. Fed copious pinches of fish food they seldom lasted long. One or other of the girls would be disappointed to find their small catch, belly up, reddening gills gasping on the surface. Then they would be sad. They loved the little fish and were sorry when they died, but a matchbox made a lovely coffin and they decorated the little burial places with heads torn thoughtlessly from their mother’s garden flowers.

The river trips came to an abrupt halt after their father, preoccupied with his own cares, forgot them when he went home to his mid-day dinner. It was only their mother’s shock at their absence, that made him go back to fetch them. He was guilty and angry with them for his mistake. The girls had been so engrossed in the water that that time passed quickly, They had not noticed they had been forgotten and stared in amazement at his anger.

Although they pestered, from then on their father was always too busy to take them to the river. They stood at the window looking longingly up the lane, their noses pressed against the glass, irritable with each other and dismissive of their mother’s pale and tentative suggestions for play. But one evening, towards the end of summer, their father relented. A stile needed fixing in the water meadow and, if they were ready early, he promised he would take them the following day.

It proved promisingly warm and when they arrived the river was calm and peaceful, their own stillness adding to the quiet. Father and daughters stood together on the bank as wisps of mist camouflaged the surface of the water. Together the girls stepped cautiously onto the narrow bridge and looked down to where the river flowed deeply between the high banks.

Without warning an eerie whistle pierced the mist. It came again and again. Transfixed for a moment, they shivered collectively and pulled closer together, their flesh goosy. The chilly mist seemed suddenly to penetrate under their arms and down the centre of their backs. Their dad laughed.
“It’s only an otter,” he said, “It’s calling to its young.” He told them they were lucky as the little beasts were rare. Not many of them left.

With the spell broken he went to his work and they to their sport, but it wasn’t a good day. They were restless. Soon tiring of the fishing they built damns in the shallows instead, using the sticks and rubbish swept down in the summer storms. Growing bored with this they invented a new game, climbing the slippery river bank and swinging on the curtain of tree roots overhanging the water.

Before long the peace was interrupted by a group of boys, Foul mouthed and rowdy, they stood on the stepping stones just up river and amused themselves by throwing stones into the water but, on seeing the girls, they bared their bottoms and pretended to pee into the water. Intimidated, the two sisters retreated, cringing at the humiliation of climbing the bank and running to safety across the bridge, with the boys howling and laughing at their backs. Once with their father they pestered to go home. Annoyed, he eventually packed up early and all river trips were finished.

The following year brought changes. Her sister no longer wanted to play last summer’s games and spent her time with new friends. The old tank in the garden, once home to their lovely little fish, had become dank and smelly .
Her father, always difficult to approach, was increasingly quiet and stern. Unsmiling, his work often kept him near to home, where mother sat quietly in her chair looking out at an overgrowing garden and sighing. Time hung heavily in the air. At the weekends both girls were allotted household jobs and, when the youngest had finished hers, she found some solace in collecting garden creatures. But, when garden snails escaped in the house and her mother cried, this new collection was banned.

As the summer progressed and the holidays came, she thought again of the thrill of cold water round her ankles and the scratchy, slippery feel of gravel between her toes. She thought of the river.
A short cut through the woods wouldn’t be too far. She could get there and back and still do some fishing before her father noticed she had gone. It was such an inspiration she wondered why she’d not thought of it sooner.
The plan of action started the evening before. After clearing the table and hurriedly rinsing the plates, she left her sister to dry them and, collecting her jar and net from the downstairs hall cupboard, she hid them in the long grass half way down the lane, just where the path entered the wood.

The next day, her sister was splashing in the bathroom when she slipped out of the side gate. With her mother still in bed and unlikely to get up until the afternoon and her father hammering in the barn, only the cat saw her go.

The walk to the river was further than she anticipated. What took only ten minutes or so in a car seemed a long way to her, alone in the wood. She was jumpy and the overgrown path snagged her clothes and caught at her net. Waist high nettles stung her legs and arms and a bramble drew blood on the side of her knee. Once, on stumbling, she let go of the string handle of her jar. Her heart lurched but the jar didn’t break.

On reaching the edge of the water meadow, where the woods tailed off into rough wet grass, she felt exposed. She crept round keeping close to the hedge, jumping when she startled a rabbit, her socks and shoes soaking in the long wet grass. Awkward as it was climbing with her hands full, the stile felt reassuringly familiar. She could see the lighter wood on the top bar where her father had mended it a year before. She touched it for its comfort and familiarity.

Once over, a loneliness welled up inside her, she thought of last year and the sound of the otter. Cautiously she listened again but all was silent, just the odd ripple and gurgle as the river flowed under the bridge. She wished she’d told her sister where she was going. Maybe she would have come with her, just for the adventure. Alone she felt her smallness and was no longer brave.

On crossing the narrow bridge the water looked leaden and uninviting, but the old thrill of excitement returned as she sat on the high bank looking down at the familiar fishing place. She removed her shoes and socks, putting them to dry on the roots of an old tree that lurched over the water. Gripping the jar tightly she slid the net, handle first, down the bank and slithered behind it, using an overhanging branch to steady herself.

Gasping as she entered the water, she waded out until the river eddied round her knees. It was deeper and browner than before, The opposite bank had caved in and the gravel was almost completely covered by silt. Feeling nervous and alone she moved back a little closer to the bank. A line of debris hung and flapped on the exposed tree roots hanging out over the stream. Under the shade of the bank the water seemed slimy as the mud oozed between her toes. In her heightened awareness its oily movement seemed threatening and sinister.

When a cheering shaft of pale sunlight hit the water, she edged up stream to a brighter pebbly shallow. Standing on this unprotected patch, close to the middle of the river, she heard voices coming down the path. Yells preceded thuds and splashes, stones and tussocks of mud and grass flew into the water. From her exposed position she could see a group of boys running down the path on the opposite bank. They halted at the stepping stones, jumping and pushing each other from stone to stone. The largest of them carried a fishing rod, the others had triangular nets on sturdy poles or large plastic containers that clunked together as they ran.

She was trapped in the water. If she retreated to climb back up the bank they would see her and would be across the stones and upon her before the narrow bridge could be reached. She realised with a shiver how chilled she was. Cautiously she shrank in towards the bank. She held her net tightly in defence but let her jar sink and be carried away in the stream. Under the shelter of the bank she was no longer able to see the boys but she could hear them laughing and yelling just round the bend in the river. The water in the shadow of the steep bank felt cold and the mud oozed clammily round her toes.

From her hiding place she could hear the excited whoops warning her that fish were being caught. She felt sorry for the fish, trapped like herself, unable to escape. She imagined the boys’ unspeakable cruelty. In the past she had seen the stones smeared with blood and scales where the little silver bodies had been stamped on and smashed. She looked down at her pale legs distorted by the water and shivered with vulnerability. A breeze rippled the surface as a fish floated by, looking alive as it spun in a slight eddy, but it was broken and helpless. It floated past her, belly up. Panic rose within her and she gathered herself for a wild bid for freedom.

Before she had time to move, there was an excited yell and thudding foot falls vibrated along the bank. They stopped above her head. The older boy’s voice was cracked with triumph and she remembered with horror that her socks and shoes were drying at the base of the tree. She shrank as far as she could into the bank where the looping tree roots hung out over the water. Some were like spindly fingers dipping into the water, others were thicker than a boys arm, but together they formed a tightly laced curtain. Hardly daring to breath she silently pulled herself further under the protection of these roots and held her breath. All thoughts of a panicky flight left her as she crouched completely motionless. She could hear the boys running up and down the bank. They sounded feverish in the excitement of the hunt. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut to blot them out, but one splash followed another as her shoes were hurled into the water.

One of the smaller boys started to climb down her protecting curtain. She opened her eyes in fright just as a muddy trainer came crashing down on the roots above her head. She knew if the boy scrambled any further down, her hiding place behind the roots would be revealed. Instinct told her that if she was startled out of her hiding place, she would soon be caught.

Almost on the point of discovery, a squeal of dismay from the direction of the stepping stones came to her rescue. Evidently one the boys had not taken an interest in the chase. Soon, his wailing and sobbing indicated the nature of the hurt. He was caught by his own hook. It had snagged him cleanly between the soft web of his fingers. She heard screams as the others tried unsuccessfully to remove the barb. His agony brought her relief. After a brief scramble, there was silence above her and she realised the hunt had been abandoned. They were gone and her immediate danger was past.

Very cautiously she ducked out from under the roots and hobbled through the water, staggering on numb feet and ankles. She didn’t turn round, but a commotion on the far bank told her the boys were retreating back up the path the way they had come. With care she waded through the shallows then slowly climbed the bank. Her shoes were gone. One sock still lay where she had left it, the other was snagged on a bush nearby. She balled them up into her fist and painfully started the long walk home.

On crossing the bridge she heard the boys call out. They ‘d spotted her retreating form but had no real heart for a chase. She knew she wouldn’t be followed but the thought of them behind her quickened her flight.
Once over the stile, she flew across the wet grass of the water meadow and hurled herself back into the safety of the trees. Not slowing until she felt the cover totally envelop her. There was security in the dry warmth of the wood as she ran under its protecting branches.
Only when well out of sight of the hated river did she stagger to a halt, gasping to catch her breath. Almost choking with fear and effort, she sank to her knees then rolled on her back and stared glassily up at the sky. She lay there a while, gulping in air before continuing the painful journey home on soft and bleeding feet.

The photo is of a Miller's Thumb or Bull Head

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

The Invincibility of Innocence

I’ve mentioned before that my sister lives in a remote village in the very far north of Scotland. Over the years she’s become deeply involved in the running of a drop in centre for the local elderly. Each day a lively assortment of old ladies gather there for lunch. These senior St Trinians are a chipper bunch.
A couple of days ago one of her fellow volunteers, a vigorous woman in her early eighties, phoned my sister. Apparently she was supervising the daily lunch club when things got rather racy.
The discussion had somehow got round to swear words. The ladies were trying to decide what makes a swear word such a bad thing when many of the words are to be found in the dictionary. The talk at the table ranged far and wide until, Gee, my sister’s friend, gradually began to realise she didn’t know the meaning of many of the words that were being so gleefully discussed.
On arriving home she decided to look them up in the dictionary.
“And do you know,” she told my sister in a shocked voice over the phone,
“Many of the words were marked with the word taboo and most of those words are to do with sex!”
My sister, glad that this was a telephone conversation, struggled to control her smiles,
“Yes” she agreed, she believed that was true.
Gee continued conspiratorially,
“I told my husband about those words and what they meant, and he was so shocked he threw his bible at me.”

Such is the invincibility of innocence.
I guess it isn’t only miles that separates her world from mine.

The photo is of some of my sister's other neighbours.