Thursday, 28 October 2010

What's Wrong with Soap?

RIGHT everyone, this is my Wednesday Whinge. Yes, I know it’s a day late, but yesterday I had a Wednesday Witter instead, so I guess this should really be a Thursday Tirade. Or possibly a diatribe (because I like the word!)

Anyway, whatever you call it, today’s moan is about those annoying adverts for no-touch hand wash systems which, apparently, overcome the problem of germy soap pump handles.

Now I can’t say this particular difficulty of modern life is something that has ever given me sleepless nights.

Personally I still favour a bar of soap and lots of hot water, but as far as I can see you press the handle, out comes the soap, enabling you to wash your hands thoroughly before using hot water to rinse off the germs along with the foam. Simple.

Come to that, if germy soap pump handles are such a threat to our health, what about things like clothes, door handles, light switches and the handles or buttons on toilet cisterns?

Perhaps we should have self-flushing loos to help eliminate the threat of spreading infection?

And if you are that concerned about bacteria on a soap dispenser, why not clean the top of the container?

It’s the same with all those anti-bacterial cleaning sprays and surface wipes. Manufacturers seem to be preying on our fears, making us feel guilty and inadequate if we are not using these products.

We are urged to protect our families by killing the germs that could make them ill. The implication is that if we do not we are ‘bad’ mothers who have dirty homes and are not caring for our nearest and dearest as we should.

As I have said before, although I hate housework I am always seduced by lotions and potions which promise to transform my house into a gleaming show home with very little effort on my part.

But I would question the methodology behind those adverts – and ask whether we really need to turn our homes into sterile rooms where kids are scared to move to fear of spreading the dreaded germs.

I am not denying the importance of good hygiene (which includes hand washing and wiping surfaces), but perhaps we need to get things into perspective, chill out and enjoy family life, with all the mess, dirt and upheaval it brings.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Sun, Sea, and Stones

IT is Wednesday, so it should be a Whinge Day, but instead I am having a Wednesday Witter about the seaside and posting some pictures taken at Bognor during our mini-break.

The town owes its regal appellation to King George V, who recuperated there following an illness. Residents were so delighted with this honour they asked his permission to add Regis (from the Latin for king -rex, regis)to its name.

Their royal visitor was less impressed and is alleged to have uttered the immortal word 'Bugger Bognor' on his deathbed!

When I was a child we holidayed in and around Bognor on several occasions, and I remember a bustling seafront, packed with deckchairs on the shingle beach, and crowds of shrieking children paddling in the sea.

But on Monday, despite the blue sky and sunshine, it had the deserted out-of-season look common to most seaside towns at this time of the year, and it seemed smaller and less prosperous than I remembered.

Most of the businesses based in brightly coloured wooden huts on the promenade had already locked up for the winter but a few were still plying their trade.

I was tempted to buy a shiny, metallic windmill, stuck into a polystyrene base sculpted into sand-dunes and painted a particularly bilious shade of yellow - but the display was so cheery and cheeky it seemed a shame to disturb it.

Instead we sat on garden chairs beside a strangely impermanent-looking cafe, and sipped scalding hot tea in paper cartons as we watched the waves break on the shore, where a small boy, undeterred by the lack of sand, set to with his plastic bucket and spade to create a stonecastle, surrounded by a traditional moat.

Back in Chichester unexpected pleasures included the beautiful rainbow light filtered through the stained glass windows of the Cathedral and reflected on walls, floors and ceilings - and the discovery of the Arundel Tomb, which inspired the Philip Larkin poem.

Here, hand in hand, lie Richard Fizalan, the 13th Earl of Arundel and his second wife Eleanor, with their dogs at their feet, just as Larkin desribed.

"Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet."

Close up, the white stone effigy has an almost chalky quality, with a powdery residue on the surface which softens the hard stone, and makes the couple seem more human.

On a pillar next to the tomb hangs Larkin's poem, so what better way to end this post than by quoting the final stanza.

"Time has transfigures them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love."

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Touching the Past

WE have just returned home after a few days in Chichester, where we wandered around the town centre, which seems surprisingly unspoilt, and visited the cathdral, its worn stone floors and walls spattered with multi-coloured splodges of light where the sun streamed through the stained glass windows.

We took a trip to Bognor, where we sat and watched the waves break on the shingle beach, while above us the sun blazed out of a cloudless, bright blue sky.

But best of all we saw the remains of remains of the Roman Palace at Fishbourne, and marvelled at the skills of those who created it.

Discovered in 1960, while work on a new water main was being carried out, Fishbourne boasts the finest collection of mosaics in the UK, preserved in situ within a specially constructed building which follows the layout of the original north wing.

From viewing platfoms above the floors we walked through corridors, courtyards and rooms, taking a close look at ovens, a burial and, of course, the incredible mosaics.

A few are virtually complete, while others have survived as fragments. New mosaics are laid on top of old, and worn areas patched with tiny tiles, with no effort to match design or colour.

It made us realise that these aren't works of art, but 2,000-year-old floor coverings, which were repaired and replaced to meet the changing demands of fashion and family life, just as we alter the decor in our homes today.

In addition we examined remnants of the underfloor heating system, and what is left of the bath suite.

Outside formal garden that would once have been at the centre of the four wings have been replanted in bedding trenches which the Romans dug out of the clay and gravel soil, then filled with loam.

The area has been planted with species known and loved by the Romans - roses, grapes, box and herbs, with a gardening exhibition in the potting shed, and an outdoor eating area.

It was, presumably, the equivalent of a moden patio and barbecue, and it seemed to bring the ancient inhabitants of Fishbourne a little closer.

Exactly who those inhabitants were, however, is still something of a mystery. No-one is certain, but the most likely candidate seems to Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, chief of a British tribe, who welcomed Roman rule and the fine things it brought and was honoured by them in return.

His opulent home, built in the early part of the first century AD, was altered and enlarged by his descendents.

In its heyday the palace must have been magnificent - a statement of power and wealth, created by the finest craftsmen in Europe and designed to impress visiting tribal leaders and Roman VIPs, it was the equal of anything to be found in Rome itself.

Today only only remnants remain, but modern archeological techniques mean the jigsaw of the past can be pieced together to help show what life was like 2,000 years ago.

Much of the evidence is on show in the site museum, which contains artifacts, information, models, a reproduction room and details about the excavations.

Most touching of all were terracotta tiles marked with a bare foot, a child's shoe and an animal's paws. Did a child chase a pet across the tiles as they were dried prior to firing? And did an adult chase the child away?

It was another of those moments when the past seemed to be very close.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Going off the Rails

A TRAIN trip used to be a joy. It was quiet and peaceful, and you could curl up with a good book and take time out from the busy world around you.

Not any longer. Apart from the fact that these days trains are frequently overcrowded, dirty and smelly, they sometimes terminate unexpectedly before you arrive at your destination, and they are invariably late - if they run at all.

We are all aware of the classic reasons for the non-appearance of a train: the wrong kind of snow, leaves on the line, engineering works, signal failure, something wrong with the train,vandalism.

But I've also stood on a crowded platform waiting for a train that was waiting for a driver, and one occasion passengers were told there was no engine!

Once your train arrives you are pushed and shoved as people elbow you out of their way, desperate to leap inside and grab a seat - and woe betide anyone foolish enough to try and leave the carriage at this point, because no-one wants to give way and let you out.

I daresay it's a sign of old age on my part, but why does everyone have to be in such a hurry and so rude? And what would happen if the doors closed and I was carried away, against my will, to an unknown and unwanted destination?

But it's the noise that really annoys. There's tinny sound of music from earphones, the constant cacaphony of mobile phones ringing, and conversations where people shout intimate details about their lives into the piece of plastic clamped to their ear.

Worst of all are the constant announcements on the train itself.

A train manager welcomes 'ladies and gents'(what is wrong with saying gentlemen?), which makes it sound as if travellers are on a plane or a boat. I don't want him (or her)to greet us, and I don't care what their name is. I just want to be transported to my destination safely, comportably and on time.

Nor am I interested in messages about the catering service (if there is one); the number of carriages (why do we need to know that?), or the location of the first class carriages (I am sure anyone who can afford first class tickets is sitting happily in their seat, not squashed in with the rest of us) listening to inane annoucements.

Notifications about the destination and the stops along the way are useful, I suppos(at least you know you are on the right train).

But it's the use of the words 'next station stop' which really irritates me. What other sort of stop is there where we could alight?

Unscheduled stops are obviously just that. If the train is stuck with fields, houses or factories on either side, then clearly this is not a station, and people cannot get out - and even if we wanted to, modern trains have electronically operated doors to prevent us leaving when we shouldn't.

Equally, if you the train does not stop at a station then you cannot get out.

And it's just as bad on the platforms. Passengers are bombarded with endless messages about not leaving unattended packages or luggages, not smoking, standing well back from the edge, and the number of carriages.

Ironically, however, announcements about cancellations, delays and platform changes are always the least clearly heard, so travellers are still left wondering what is happening.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The First Time...

LOTS of firsts today.

First an apology that I have not blogged for a while while getting to grips with my Open University course - then the laptop went wrong and I couldn't access my blog, gmail account, OU site or very much else.

The Man of the House (who has his good points) spent an entire day working on the computer and, hopefully, all now is now fixed - I am trying to key this in this with fingers crossed, to ensure nothing goes wrong, but it doesn't do a lot for my typing skills).

We have had the first fog of autumn since I posted my last literary effort. Two weeks ago now (October 7), and I had to drop paperwork off at the Credit Union office before it opened, so I abandoned the queues on the A5 and drove to Atherstone through Polesworth and the villages.

It was beautiful, with leaves and branches decorated with droplets of water, which glittered like diamonds as the sun began to pierce the gloom, and shining, golden showers dripped from overhanging branches.

In the fields solitary trees were transformed into twisted witches, while hedges became gnarled gnomes, and a prehistoric monster looming out of the swirling fog lost its terror as it neared, and revealed itself to be nothing more than a tractor and trailer.

A few days later we had the first frost, when cars and walls were covered in white, like icing sugar drizzled on a cake.

Then this morning I heard that the first migrating Siberian swans had arrived in the UK three weeks early which, apparently, heralds a long hard winter (don't you just love Radio 4's Today programme?)

Moving back to the OU I've attended my first day school in Birmingham (it was wonderful meeting other students and exchanging ideas) and missed my first tutorial because I got lost in Sutton on my way to the school where it took place (I know, I should be ashamed of myself as not only did I sometimes sub the Sutton paper, and really should know where places are, but it's only just down the road from Tamworth).

I've enjoyed studying the first two chapters (Cleopatra and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus)in the Reputations book, which forms the first part of The Arts Past and Present, which is a mandatory foundation course for all arts/humanities students - and I've roughed out my first assignment.

Then I managed to order air tickets online for my mother's 'flying' trip to Ireland to visit her brother. It was the first time I had done anything like this on the Internet, so I was very proud of myself - and mum was delighted with my achievement.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Banish Dirt, and Dust and Gloom...

WHY do articles about ‘green cleaning’ make me feel so guilty? In theory I think it’s a wonderful idea to abandon chemicals and rely on cheap, every-day household ingredients like salt and bicarbonate of soda – but in practice old fashioned methods are jolly hard work.

Besides, I want to be seduced by those magical adverts which promise to transform my home with a flick of a micro-fibre duster, a spray of polish or squirt of some potent potion which not clean my surfaces in seconds, but will kill bacteria.

It’s the same with washing powders. I’m a sucker for buying things which promise to get rid of stains, whiten whites, soften towels and garments and make ironing easier.

In my heart of hearts I know that elbow grease is the key to a clean, tidy house, but I want to believe in these products, just as I want to believe in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy.

Sadly, my endeavours at trying to make the house sparkle are never very successful.

Take vacuum cleaners, for example. Whatever model we buy, it never seems to suck up dirt as it should. Like its predecessors, the current machine (which sounds like Concorde taking off) will happily gobble up trailing wires, the cover on the sofa and odd socks.

But as it to consume the usual fluff and grime that settles on the carpet and it refuses, point-blank. I empty it, wash the filter as per the instructions, adjust the height and twiddle with the speed, all to no avail.

On one awful occasion The Man of the House took a vacuum to pieces in a vain attempt to improve its performance. Thereafter it blew dust around the house….

And what about those miraculous dusters which claim to attract dust and dirt?

Dust in my house just moves around the surfaces, no matter whether I use a posh cloth or recycled knickers.

Tidying up is just as bad: I shift things from one area to another, like a mad game of musical chairs and no-one (least of all me) can find anything.

Then there are those cleansers which aim to remove nasty marks from floors, surfaces, doors and floors. In the adverts women (it’s usually women who are used to market cleaning products) prance around in fashionable outfits with never a hair out of place, as they gently wipe the blemishes away.

I don’t look that good when I’m all dressed up to go out!

Why, you may well ask, do I persist in using these products if they don’t work for me? Well, as I said earlier, I want instant transformations and, when all is said and done, they are still quicker and easier than the methods of yester-year.

Nostalgia is all very well, but spray polishes, liquid cleaners and modern washing powders have done a lot to release women from the drudgery of domestic chores and allow the time to do other things.

So I am currently exploring a completely new way of cleaning the house.

This involves playing uplifting music, whilst dancing around, wielding a long-handled feather duster, and chanting: "Banish dirt, and dust and gloom, Make this a happy room."

Whether this will produce acceptable results I don't yet know, but at least I'm having fun!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Wrong Fridge

I MUST have the wrong fridge, the wrong food – or the wrong family.

Wondering why? Because, sadly, I fail to meet the standards set out in those wonderful cookery books that tell you how to feed a family of four for a week with a small chicken, some leftover vegetables and fresh herbs from the garden.

The cooks who write these volumes serve up beautifully prepared food to their loving family and friends, who sit around the table together, and eat what is put in front of them.

My own family’s dietary likes and dislikes make it difficult, if not impossible, to create a meal that everyone will eat.

The Man of the House is not a vegetable enthusiast. He eats potatoes and peas, but that’s about it. He won’t entertain the idea of eating a meal that contains no meat, and won’t touch anything with cooked onion in it – although he will happily chomp his way through a jar of pickled onions or a tub of coleslaw.

I, on the other hand don’t eat meat, fish, or meat and fish products. And I don’t like meat substitutes – if I choose not to eat meat, why would I want to consume something masquerading as meat?

The daughters, bless them eat most things and are quite happy to have meat or vegetarian dishes on a plate (or even to pile it high with both).

But they have their likes and dislikes, which don’t necessarily coincide with each other, or with the Man of the House, or me. I frequently find myself cooking four or five different types of vegetable to ensure everyone can eat what they like.

If they are dieting, I cannot dish up anything that is too fatty, too starchy, too sugary, too high in carbohydrates or too high on calories and, surprisingly, an awful lot of food falls into one of these categories.

Even worse, no two people ever seem to want to eat at the same time. They are either busy, out, working, relaxing – or just not hungry.

And if I try cooking up batches of food to last more than one meal they turn their noses up at ‘left-overs’.

In fact ‘left-overs’ may be my biggest failure.

Nigel Slater can conjure up delicious suppers from things like a chunky rind of Parmesan cheese, and Nigella Lawson whips up exotic bread and butter puddings with stale croissants and real custard.

My own fridge, alas, contains no such delicacies. The uneaten cheese mouldering away in a corner is in no fit state to be used, the limp lettuce leaves are fit only for the bin, and even the cat can’t be tempted to try the elderly bits of forgotten meat.

One of these days I will consider writing my own cook book, aimed at people like me, with recipes for things like pea risotto (without the peas), or half and half pasta bake (pasta and veg on one side, pasta and mince on the other).

I could include a special section on ways to serve limp lettuce, and a chapter on ‘instant’ food that can be dished up at a moment’s notice.

Meanwhile I shall read those glossy publications and dream….

Friday, 17 September 2010

The Long and the Short of it

TALL stories from Woman’s Hour today showed the flip side of my own life. As a child, the programme’s guest Joanne Champion was the tallest girl in the school, while I was one of the shortest.

Joanne, founder of the online boutique, Tall, is 6ft 3ins – exactly 13 inches taller than me. Surprisingly, however, some of the problems we encountered were very similar – but from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Joanne had clear memories of the misery of school photographs, when she was placed away from her classmates, in the centre of the back row, where she towered over the boys on either side of her.

At least she didn’t suffer the ignominy of being stuck at the end of a line of girls in a lower form. Nor did anyone try to make her stand on a box balanced on a bench.

I would have dearly loved to fail skirt inspection, but my hems were always below my knees – unlike Joanne, who could never find school clothes that were long enough.

Talking of clothes, I can still remember the domestic science apron we made, following the same set of measurements for everyone. Mine trailed along the ground, and despite the teacher’s protestations that I would ‘grow into it’ I never did.

And while people always assumed Joanne was older, they always thought I was younger: I had no chance of sneaking into a pub for a drink, or viewing an age-restricted film at the cinema. Indeed, for years after my 18th birthday I carried my birth certificate around with me – then, unlike now, requests for proof of age were not routine, and did not involve photographic ID.

On the other hand, looking younger meant I paid half-fares on buses and trains long after I should have done. When I asked for a ticket public transport staff just assumed I was a child and charged accordingly!

And things didn’t change much when I started work. The woman who answered the door at one of the first interviews I was sent on refused to speak to me, and rang the editor to complain about him sending a ‘child’ to see her.

Today’s programme follows in the wake of news stories about Barack Obama’s daughter Malia, who is only 12 but is already 5ft 9ins tall.

But perhaps we should remember that we are all individuals, and that when it comes to height, as with so much else in life, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. People should be accepted and respected for they are – not what they look like.

And it’s a poor outlook for the world if members of my former profession are more interested in writing about the height of the daughter of the US President than they are in writing about his policies.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

welcome to the Wold of Online Job Hunting

WHY would I want a job as a fashion personal shopper in Dublin, or an oil and gas consultant in Aberdeen – especially when I am seeking work as an administrator or receptionist in Tamworth?

Welcome to the world of online job hunting.

It’s frustrating, annoying, more than a little ridiculous and very, very discouraging.
I start by feeling inadequate because I have no job, and end up feeling totally incompetent because not only do I lack the lack the skills required by employers, but I cannot cope with the complexities of the internet.

I begin by keying in the name of a jobs search engine recommended by Younger Daughter, enter the type of work I want, and the desired location. I even extend the area of search within a 25-mile radius of home.

So far, so good.

But it is not that simple, for on screen appear all kinds of jobs for which I have no qualifications, no experience, no aptitude – and absolutely no interest. Not only do they bear no relation to the description I have given, but they are certainly well outside the specified 25-mile radius.

It doesn’t take a geographical genius to realise that neither Dublin nor Aberdeen are within commuting distance of Tamworth, Staffordshire.

And as for the jobs on offer! I suspect some only appear on screen because somewhere, hidden in the text, in a minuscule font, is the word ‘office’. Possibly it is only there as part of the address.

It certainly doesn’t mean that an office job is available.

Recent unwanted ‘sits vac’ were for engineers (various); a senior principal acoustics consultant; a solicitor; a driver; a software sales executive; a highways consultant and telephone makers (whatever they may be).

Job vacancies which allegedly met my demands also included a carper washer and drier, a Swedish masseur and ‘business premises’ (well, it was an office)!

Sadly, job titles give little indication of the skills required or the work involved.

Employers appear to go to great lengths to conceal the nature of the work involved, especially when it comes to sales.

Take a look and you will find ‘customer service advisor’. Aha, you may think, this is something to do with answering queries, helping people….

Not so. Customer service advisor means sales. So does customer service representative, customer service operative, retail advisor and store colleague.

This last is particularly irritating and shows a total disregard for the English language. A colleague is an associate or fellow member of staff: it cannot be a job or career.

I get just as irritated by job titles which try to make things sound more grand and important – like the operations which turned out to be shelf stacking.

And what about a sandwich artist? Perhaps this is an opportunity for a food-obsessed painter or sculptor!

Then there are the jobs which no longer exist, but are still on the internet; the jobs with no details; the jobs where you cannot tell if the employer is a ‘normal’ business or an agency; the jobs which offer apprenticeships to young people but don’t want to hear from older people, and the jobs which are only open to existing CRB holders (presumably that means employers don’t have to pay the costs).

Worst of all are the online application forms which are over-long, over-complicated and over-intrusive.

Having struggled to complete electronic questionnaires, compose hopeful cover letters and produce a CV which shows my skills to best advantage, I press the ‘send’ button, or stick some letters in the post.

What happens next? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. If I am lucky I might get an automated response acknowledging receipt, but this is unusual. There is also the occasional ‘on this occasion you have not been successful’ letter, which is not encouraging, but at least it means someone has read the details I sent and taken the time to reply.

At the moment I am upgrading my CV, highlighting my newly gained IT and Business Administration skills, and giving less prominence to a 30-year career in journalism.

And I am using my time to do the things I want to do.

But it would be nice if employers considered the feelings of job hunters, by making their adverts a little clearer and by giving some kind of feed-back to unsuccessful applicants.

Whether I’m too old or too inexperienced, I would just like to k now where I am going wrong.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

I'm a Student!

MY box of goodies arrived today from the Open University, and I was so excited that when I came to log on to the website I forgot my user name and my password!

It is to be hoped my memory improves fairly rapidly, otherwise my chances of achieving a longed-for English degree are not good!

When I left school I went to what was then known as 'teachers training college', stayed a year, decided teaching was not for me, and left to pursue a career in journalism.

I've never regretted that decision, but over the years I have toyed with the idea of studying for a degree. However, somehow it always seemed too difficult to combine with the demands of a high-stress job and a family.

Now The Daughters are grown and the job has been lost to redundancy, so it seems the ideal time to make the dream come true.

The idea still sounds a little scary, but last year I took a course at our local college to upgrade my IT skills and gain a BTec in Business Administration, and realised how much I love the gaining of knowledge.

To start with I was incredibly nervous - after all, it was a long time since I had been in a formal learning situation. But it was a wonderful experience which left me wanting to take on a fresh challenge, something I could really get my teeth into.

And what better than a degree?

The first module, which is mandatory, is The Arts Past and Present, which (according the booklet), aims to give students a 'thorough grounding' in the arts and humanities.

The breadth of disciplines involved is amazing: philosophy, art, literature, history... the list is endless.

Split into four sections, the course covers Repuations, Traditions and Dissent, Culural Encounters and Place and Literature.

First off is Reputations, where I have to consider what it is that makes some individuals famous - for example, why is Cleopatra still an icon some 2,000 years after her death? What about 'villains' like Stalin, or saintly men like the Dali Lama?

I'll also be studying musical divas, Cezanne's paintings and to study Marlowe's Dr Faustus, one of the most powerful dramas I have read.

I have to buy course books (including Faustus - I have an ancient copy somewhere, but it is not the recommended edition - and I am still waiting to hear who my tutor is.

But I have a box full of CDs and text/instruction books, as well as lots of enthusiasm, so I'm ready to start studying...

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Started Early, Took My Dog

KATE Atkinson is one of my favourite authors, and Human Croquet is the book I would most like to have to written - but having just read Started Early, Took My Dog I feel she is in danger of becoming a little formulaic.

It is not that the book is a dud. It isn't. Atkinson is a master of her craft, with a matchless ability to entwine time and characters as the past and present unravel their secrets.

In all her novels nothing and no-one are quite what they seem. Lives collide and worlds are turned inside out as actions taken long ago continue to echo down the years, while Nemesis stands just around the corner waiting to avenge the innocent...

There are lost children, missing mothers, and inadequate men: people in the wrong place at the wrong time, people in the wrong lives (a phrase she herself uses about a character in her first book, the Whitbread Award winning Behind the Scenes at the Mueum).

Perhaps that is what is wrong with Started Early, Took My Dog . The themes and style of writing are too similar to what has gone before.

As before, the labyrinthine twists and turns of the plot rely heavily on co-incidence, but this time around the element of surprise is lacking, and the story line seems a little more predictable.

It is the fourth appearance for private detective Jackson Brodie (whose private life is as chaotic as ever) and follows his efforts to discover who a young female client really is.

His search for the truth about her identity takes him on a 30-year time trip involving a murdered prostitute and a police cover-up.

Along the way he meets a cast of characters who should be intriguing, but many are a little less real and less sympathetically drawn than those in Atkinson's previous books.

There is, for example, an alcoholic former journalist, a hippy dippy social worker and a very unwelcoming B&B landlady, who are all cartoony cardboard cut-outs.

The policemen who were involved in that long ago case are also sterotypical seventies coppers. Brutal, hard-drinking, sexist, racist, anxious to look after their own, they are not pleasant men, but circumstances have made them what they are.

Like the other characters their lives have been blighted by what happened, by the actions of one man who lost control.

Central to the the story is retired policewoman Tracy, still haunted by that 30-year-old murder case, who buys a child from a prostitute, hoping to break the cycle of deprivation and abuse - and to make amends for the child who lost his mother and was nver given the chance to live with a loving family.

There is a rather engaging jam-making, scone-baking gangland boss, whose home crowded with photos of his grandchildren; an ageing actress who suffers from dementia, and Julia, Brodie's former lover and the mother of his son.

There is also the mysterious Brian Jackson, another investigator, who is trying to track down the family of a man who spent his childhood in a children's home...

At the end of the book there are clues that another Jackson Brodie is on the way, but I may give it a miss.

If Started Early, Took My Dog is your first encounter with Kate Atkinson then you may think it is a very good book.

But I was disappointed.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Chicken Jumpers

I AM knitting a jumper for a chicken. Don't laugh, I haven't gone mad (or no madder than usual) and there really is a logical explanation.

Friends of mine have lots of animals (mainly rescued), including chickens - two of which are bald.

Now I am quite fond of chickens (not to eat, I am vegetarian, remember, just to look at), and I have been intrigued by articles and websites about people who knit jumpers for rescued battery hens.

Many of these poor creatures (the hens, not the knitters) have lost their feathers, so they cannot keep warm, and they get pecked by other birds.

Eventually, with a bit of TLC, their feathers regrow, but until then they need a little protection.

Since I like a challenge, and I like to be helpful, I decided to try and knit jumpers for my friends' chickens.

I have blue wool (because I like blue), needles and a pattern from but never having knitted anything for chickens before (children, yes; dolls, yes; teddy bears, yes - birds, no) I have no idea if the jumpers will fit.

If they are too small I will try again with bigger needles, and if they are too large I shall find some smaller needles.

Nor do I know whether the featherless fowl will like them, but I will post an update to let you know what happens.

Still on the subject of chickens, The Man of the House and I went out for lunch, and were amused to note that the ingredients of one meal included 'Buffalo chicken wings'

We have no idea what this involves, but it conjured up a strange image of flying buffalo....

The picture below is of a mad hen (with feathers) I encountered during a visit to the Dorothy Clive Gardens where we sat outside to have tea and cake and this chicken ran round and round trying to steal food from people.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

A Tapestry of Love

ROMANTIC fiction is not necessarily a genre with which I am familiar, and it is always a little worrying to review a book written by someone you know – it’s a bit like reviewing dramas or musicals produced by or starring friends.

I used to do this when I was reporting and was often faced with a terrible dilemma because I hated to hurt people’s feelings by saying their show was terrible (even if it was).

On the other hand, I have my own integrity as a writer to consider, and have always been as truthful as I could.

However in the case of Rosy Thornton, an online friend (and a friend of a friend), I need not have worried.

The Tapestry of Love, her latest novel, is a wonderful read, and I loved it.

I immersed myself in it over two days while holidaying in the House on Wheels, in lovely sunshine, on a beautiful site with well manicured grass, full of mushrooms and fairy rings, which somehow reminded me of sites we stayed on in France when I was a child.

So this novel , set in France, was just perfect – it captured the feel of the country so well that it was a shock to hear the voices around me speaking English and to realise I wasn’t abroad after all.

The book is an assault on the senses. I could see the harsh mountain scenery of the Cevennes, and feel the weather as the seasons unfolded: the sad rains and howling winds of autumn, the bitter ice of winter and the searing, debilitating heat of summer.

I could hear the buzz of the bees, a hunting owl and the rhythm of cicadas.

I could smell the damp earth of the forest, herbs growing – and food being cooked and served.

Indeed the descriptions of food were so good I could actually taste the dishes and even the wild b0ar casserole seemed attractive (not something a vegetarian would usually say – I don’t even eat meat substitutes).

Oh dear, I have rambled on without even mentioning the plot or characters, but I wanted to try and portray the feel of the book.

So here goes. Catherine has left her home in England for a new life in the Cevennes mountains, where she once spent happy childhood holidays. There she hopes to build a business stitching tapestries and soft furnishings.

She leaves behind her grown-up son and daughter; her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s; her high-flying sister and her ex-husband, who has just been dumped by the woman he left her for almost a decade ago.

Rosy Thornton handles Catherine’s relationships with her family well – especially that with her journalist daughter, whose short-lived enthusiasms give cause for concern, but who always lands on her feet.

Relationships between Catherine and her new neighbours are also deftly drawn.

From her first quirky encounters with them – including an initial encounter when her car is surrounded by sheep on their way down the hillside to overwinter on lower pastures - friendships are built slowly and she gradually becomes a part of the community.

But it her budding relationship with the reclusive mystery man Patrick Castagnol - threatened by interest from her sister – which is the most important.

In the tradition of all good romantic novels, Patrick is impossibly perfect. Good-looking, suave, sophisticated, but equally at home in the rural mountains, he speaks fault-free English, is well read, well-educated and a marvellous cook. But he has a past….

And it is not as frothy as sounds. There are deeper issues at stake here, such as sibling rivalry and Catherine’s feelings of guilt at abandoning the mother whose illness means no longer recognises her.

It also explore the problems of rural life where traditional work has been lost as young people move away, and the bureaucracy imposed by national park status can stifle future growth while trying to protect an area from development.

Above all, A Tapestry of Love is a love affair, not just between two people, but with a country – France.

Read it and enjoy.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Compost Tea

MY compost is rubbish. I have been nurturing it for the last year, to little or no effect.

I carefully save eggshells, tea bags, vegetable peelings, fluff from the tumble dryer, shredded paper and grass cuttings, and into the compost bin they go – but do they turn into dark brown, rich, friable soil perfect for growing seeds, cuttings and vegetables? No, they do not.

They just sit there, looking much the same as they did to start with, and smelling a little whiffy. I have added a ‘starter’. I have watered the bin to keep the contents moist. I have stopped watering in case it was too dry.

I stuck a piece of old carpet on the top to keep it warm beneath the lid, and even tried stirring it to mix everything up and aerate it - a task which required me to stand on a chair while wielding a garden fork .

But nothing seems to work.

So when I saw a copy of The Green Guide to Compost, by Rachelle Strauss (Flame Tree Publishing) in a charity shop I pounced on it with enthusiasm.

There are 256 pages all about composting. As The Daughters remarked, you would not have thought there was so much to say on the subject.

But it seems there is.

And this book explains it all, clearly and simply, with plenty of pictures. It tells you why you should compost (good for the environment, saves money), what to put in it – and what to leave out.

There are ‘recipes’ for getting the mix right, tips about layering , greens, browns, hot composting, cold composting, and advice about the different types of containers available, as well as details on the old-fashioned compost heaps that many gardeners still favour.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on ‘How to Influence Your Compost Pile’. Would it were that easy, but so far my rotting rubbish maintains a mind of its own, and refuses to be cajoled or persuaded into what I would regard as correct behavior for a compost in the making.

For a while I wondered if the author had tried hypnotising her garden waste into submission, but careful reading revealed that I should pay more attention to micro-organisms. They need oxygen and carbon-rich materials.

There’s a useful chapter on how to tell when your compost is ready (assuming you gave the patience to wait that long), another on how to use your compost, and an excellent section on trouble-shooting when things go wrong (so I shall ignore a suggestion from the Man of the House who says a visit to the garden centre to buy ready-made products would solve all problems ).

The book also gives information about other composting methods, such as bokashi bins, which can be used to break down left-over cooked food; wormeries and special teas – for the plants, not the gardener.

It was a very informative book but whether the advice it contains will enable me to transform my rubbish heap into a bin full of wonderful soil remains to be seen.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Ancestor Hunting

ANCESTOR hunting can be hard work. It calls for stout shoes, sharp eyes and good organisational skills.

We spent a week walking around the Southam area of Warwickshire to see where where the forefathers of the Man of the House lived and worked.

He had always understood that his father's side of the family moved to the north of England from Germany, so it came as a surprise when he discovered that not only were they English, but they lived in the Midlands, not far from where we are.

In St Margaret's Parish Church at Wolston we saw the font where his great-great-great-great grandmother was baptised, and were given a guided tour by church members, who proudly pointed out the carved sheela na gig at the top of a column - it always seems so odd to find such a pagan (and sexually explicit) symbol in a Christian church.

There were also remnants of wall painting dating back to Medieval or Tudor times and a beautiful decorated ceiling.

We also visited St Gregory's Church, in Offchurch, where his great-great-great-great grandparents were married. The building had a 12th century lepers' window (also known as a squint). Now filled with stained glass, it was once a small opening covered with a wooden slat or shutter so lepers (who were forbidden to enter churches) could stand outside and listen to the service.

In addition the church contained the remains of a stone tomb, allegedly that of Offa, King of the Mercians (or, possibly his son). Apparently this small isolated village was big and impartant in Saxon times and Offa had a palace there - hence its name.

I was intrigued by this, since we live in Tamworth, which was the capital of Mercia, where Offa had his main palace.

It was quite amazing - and rather moving - to stand in the churches where The Man's forebears stood all those years ago and to think of how hard life must been for them,

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Putting up a 3D Jig-saw

WELL,we survived our first adventure in The House on Wheels and are now back home - and already planning our next trek.

The Man of the House coped brilliantly with towing, but I was much more nervous. My role as passenger and navigator gave me plenty of scope to worry. I kept looking through the rear window in the expectation of seeing the HoW backing away from us, as we continued to travel forwards.

Fortunately, that didn't happen, but I was also fearful that the HoW would topple over, or be blown on its side, or that the door would burst open and our possessions would would hurtle out...

On top of that I worried about losing us (my sense of direction is not good), and about something going wrong with the car, or someting going wrong with the HoW, or having an accident.

And if that wasn't bad enough I was uneasy about the House we Left Behind. Did we shut all the windows? Did we lock the doors? Did we turn everything off? Would the cat be good for his 'sitter'? Did I put the rubbish out? Had I left the iron on?

As a result of all this fretting, by the time we reached our first campsite I was a nervous wreck - a condition not improved by our attempts to erect the awning.

What seemed like acres of canvas had to be slid into position at the side of the HoW and manhandled over a framework constructed from a mystifying collection of metal poles of varying sizes. In addition, there were monster rubber bands, ties and metal pegs to keep the assemblage in place.

The instructions consisted of a rather bad diagram on a small piece of paper, and the whole experience was reminiscent of our past struggles with flat-pack furniture -it was like trying to put a three-dimensional jig-saw togther, without the aid of a picture.

Spurred on by our success at a site near home (close enough for a hasty retreat if anything went wrong!) we ventured further afield, but failed to pluck enough courage to wrestle with the awning again.

However, apart from that, we had a wonderful, relaxing week. We stayed on sites surrounded by hedges and trees, with mushrooms growing in the grass alongside dark green 'fairy circles'.

Other caravanners were unfailingly friendly and helpful, offering advice, and showing us what to do.

And people were just as nice in the villages where we wandered around, hunting for information about the Man of the House's ancestors and the way they lived 160 years ago.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Marooned at the end of the Garden

WE have been marooned in our House on Wheels (aka the caravan) - and we were only at the bottom of the garden!

Having gone down there to check things over we were caught in a torrential downpour of monsoon-like proportions, so we shut the door and sat inside snug as two bugs in a rug.

At least we know it is warm and dry, with no leaks. The water pump works; the cooker works and the lights work off the battery. So far, so good!

We have been equipping it with the essentials: pots, pans, tin opener,knives forks, spoons, plastic plates, dishes, mugs and a chemical loo (I have no intention of trekking across a muddy field to 'spend a penny').

I've gathered up the towels wrecked by The Daughters' hair dye, the oldest tea towels, some spare pillows, and have even bought myself a sleeping bag.

The Man of the House, who already has his own sleeping bag, says it should be replaced in its cover each morning to keep it neat and tidy, but since I have trouble getting a quilt into a duvet cover I have little hope of success. It will, I fear, be like trying to get an orange back into its peel.

Friday, 13 August 2010

The Secret Scripture

TIME to review the second of my charity shop gems. The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry, was a wonderful read that could only have been written by an Irishman. The lovely, lyrical language sang with an Irish lilt, following the cadences of speech in the author’s native land.

Roseanne McNulty has been incarcerated in a decaying mental hospital for the last 60 years. Now, nearing 100, she keeps a hidden journal, an account of her past life and how she came to be in care.

It tells of her childhood, when her Presbyterian father was superintendent of the Catholic graveyard in Sligo town during the bitter days of the civil war, as Republicans fought supporters of the recently formed Irish Free State.

It tells of her job in a café, her marriage, her fall from grace in a society where a married woman had no life of her own, the birth and loss of her child, and her life today.

It tells of the parish priest whose word was law in the local community, and whose decisions had such a terrible impact on Roseanne and her family, and it tells of her life and feelings today.

Alongside her tale another story unfolds in the Commonplace Book written by Dr Grene, the hospital’s senior psychiatrist.

He sets out to chart his efforts to oversee the closure of the hospital and the moving of patients to a new facility. But he also writes about his own life: his youth, his failed marriage – and his search to discover more about the elderly woman in his care, who seems to have been erased from history, nullified by those who knew her.

Roseanne and Dr Grene have both known love and loss, hope and disappointment, joy and despair as they search for identity. Their testimonies augment each other and eventually converge in an ending which is not unexpected – even though the book blurb describes it as a ‘shocking secret’.

There are echoes in Roseanne’s story of Ireland’s infamous Magdalene ‘laundries’ for fallen women, and we should not forget that there are still societies where women pay a heavy price for not conforming.

Verdict: I loved this book. It made me angry and sad and joyful in turn – and sometimes all at once. It is a beautifully written (almost poetic) tale that I know I will return to again and again – so into the re-reading section it goes.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Year of Wonders

MY haul of charity shop goodies has produced two gems so far.

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks, and The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry, have both made their way on to the ‘read again’ shelves. How could anyone have parted with either of them?

The first book, the author’s fictional debut, is described as ‘A Novel of the Plague’, and was inspired by the story of Eyam, the Derbyshire village which shut itself off from the world in a bid to halt the spread of the disease.

Eventually, to prevent further contagion, church services were held outside and those who died were buried beside their homes, rather than being carried to the hallowed land of the graveyard.

It’s difficult to grasp the full impact of such actions on a society where the church held such an important position and religion played a far stronger part in people’s lives than it does today.

Set in 1665/6, the novel portrays a world where blind faith vies with superstition, where knowledge strives to overcome ignorance, and where the social order of the day prevents growth and understanding.

It explores the relationships between villagers as they struggle to come to terms with the disaster that has overwhelmed them, and looks at the way they react to the deaths of others and to their own mortality.

For just over a year villagers live a strange, isolated life. Some are driven mad by fear and loneliness, while others see a chance to pay off old scores or further their own ends, and a few selflessly do what they can to care for the sick and dying and to aid the survivors.

Anna Frith, the young, widowed narrator, watches as her lodger, children and neighbours all die. Somehow, she manages to combat despair and, as she tends those who are ill, she acquires new skills which enable her to step out of her lowly position, take control of her own life and to help others.

Befriended by the rector’s wife, she gathers knowledge where she can. As she observes the villagers in their hour of need she begins to understand something of human nature; she learns to read and write, becomes a talented nurse and can translate the Latin in medical books.

But when the ‘all clear’ is sounded things can never be the way they were: once the plague has passed the survivors have more trials to face as they realise how few are left to cope with the tasks of everyday life, for animals must still be cared for, crops tended and harvests gathered.

And there are more horrors in store before Anna finally finds the confidence to make a new future for herself far, far from home.

Some of the characters in the book are base on actual people, while others have been created by the author but, thanks to her meticulous research, they all live and breathe like real people of the time – and looking at people’s reactions to the unknown, I wonder if we really have moved on that much in the last 350 years.

Visitors to Eyam cannot fail to be moved by the story of how some 260 villagers sacrificed themselves for the greater good. And there is a kind of triumph in their tragedy, because they did prevent the disease spreading to neighbouring parishes.

This novel gives them a voice, and makes a plea for acceptance and understanding.

Verdict: I really enjoyed this book. It made me think about the way people deal with illness and disaster that are outside their control, and about women's lives. Defintely one to be read again.

* See tomorrow's blog for a review of The Secret Scripture.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Boop Oop A Doop Boop

BOOP oop a doop boop! Betty Boop is 80 today – and you must admit she doesn’t look bad for her age!

She first appeared in the cartoon Dizzy Dishes, on 9 August 1930, and became hugely popular in a very short space of time, and has retained her iconic status through to the present day.

Created by Max Fleischer and animator Grim Natwick for Fleischer Studios, Betty was originally envisaged as a cross between a poodle and a woman, but soon became all woman in a series of films distributed by Paramount Pictures.

She was the first cartoon character to become a sex symbol and both her appearance and the storylines, were considered to be more than a little risqué.

Betty Boop is said to have been modelled on Helen Kane, the actress, singer and dancer known as the original ‘Boop-Oop-A-Doop’ girl, but she may also have owed something to ‘It’ girl Clara Bow.

At any rate, Kane (pictured above)sued Fleischer and Paramount, claiming they had exploited her with a caricature, but lost her case because the judge ruled that neither her appearance nor her singing style were unique.

However, by the mid-1930s new guidelines for the motion picture industry meant studio bosses had to make Betty more wholesome, with less sexual innuendo. Out went her short skirt and trademark garter, replaced by more decorous garments - but respectability came at the expense of popularity.

Today she is more popular than ever before. There is a thriving merchandising business and her name has passed into popular culture.

She may be a male fantasy, but she is viewed as strong rather than weak or down-trodden – a woman with an enormous zest for life, who is vulnerable, but lives life on her own terms, without losing her femininity.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Cards and Carpets

I WAS going to be busy all day. I even had a list of things to do:

* Dust the surfaces
* Hoover the carpets
* Wash the kitchen floor
* Catch up on the ironing
* Email the agenda for the next credit union meeting

A Facebook friend put me to shame by tidying her house and doing some baking - but I spent most of the day embroidering cards.

Since I am experimenting with mixed media techniques the floor is now littered with beads, buttons,ribbons, snippets of lace, clippings from material, pieces of text torn from an old dictionary, paint spatters, threads and a dollop of acrylic wax - to say nothing of the pins and needles.

I quite like sitting on a cushion on the floor, with my back against the sofa (which is also covered in my needlwork supplies, but I do seem to have spread!

The embroideries produced today have not yet been mounted, so I have included photos of some I did earlier. The yellow one at the top was stitched for a friend who has been ill, while the pink one at the bottom was for the wedding of a friend of Elder Daughter.

Each card I create is slightly different, depending on the materials I have to hand, and how inspiration strikes. Some have more more embroidery, some have less, and I like to incorporate bits of text, torn from books that are falling to pieces, then coated with acrylic wax, which can be painted on and dries soft, so you can stitch through it.

I finding stamping letters or shapes onto the fabric and combining this with embroidery is very effective, and each picece is backed with felt to give a quilted feel.

Sometimes I trim the edges with ribbon or lace, sometimes I use the machine to zig-zag round them, then I stitch the finished work to cards, using beads or buttons.

I love fiddling around with colours and textures, and trying different techniques,but I do seem to make a mess while I am working.

Still, tomorrow is another day, so I shall think about the housework then...

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Caravanning for Beginners

WE have bought a dear little caravan. Like us, it is a little battered around the edges and somewhat faded by time, but it is watertight, dry and cosy.

It has an awning, pale green, velvet curtains and green floral seating, which doubles up as bedding (two single or one double, depending how friendly we are feeling!)

There is plenty of storage space, a tiny shower, the smallest sink I have ever seen, (with a lid to cover it – how I wish I could cover the sink in the house), a fridge, a two-ring stove and a heater.

The Man of the House, who will be doing the driving (I have no intention of towing anything, least of all a caravan, however small it may be), plans to take us to folk festivals and research the family history (his).

I want to go to literary festivals and research the family history (mine).

Clearly, there could be some kind of conflict here, so a compromise will have to be reached, but there is plenty of scope to visit the sites where our great-great-greats lived and worked.

We aim to start by travelling somewhere relatively close, where there are no hills or bendy roads hills, or bendy narrow roads! Then, when we’re feeling confident (and competent) we can venture further afield.

The caravan, is a Lunar Meteor, (or possibly a Meteor Lunar) which sounds a little exotic and mysterious – but not so exotic and mysterious as the caravanserai of the Arab world, trekking across the deserts with camels packed with silks, frankincense, spices, and other precious ‘cargoes’ camels.

Nor is our holiday home as romantic-looking as a traditional Gipsy caravan.

But it is more homely and reminds me of childhood holidays. In those days even static caravans where we stayed had no electricity: the lights and cooker all ran on Calor Gas, and when we stepped inside for the first time there was always a strange but distinctive smell, a mix of mustiness and gas.

Anyway, we collected our caravan yesterday, and set off for home, expecting the journey would take around half-an-hour, but we took a wrong turn somewhere, got lost, and travelled in a huge circle, arriving back at the place where we had bought the caravan an hour or more after we left them!

Eventually we got back to the house, safe and sound, but the trip reminded me of the GK Chesterton poem The Rolling English Road:

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

It is to be hoped that by the time we embark on our first trip our sense of direction has improved, but part of the charm of caravanning is that you explore new places.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A Game of Go in the Car Park

IF you watched a madwoman crawling across the seats of a car, it was probably me and, unlikely though it sounds, there is a logical explanation.

Having left my VW Golf in the local Asda car park, I returned to find it wedged firmly between two large 4x4s, each spilling out over the white lines into MY space.

On the driver’s side the other vehicle was so close it was impossible to get through the gap to reach the door.

The approach to the passenger door looked slightly easier, so I took a deep breath, sucked in my stomach, flattened myself against the bodywork and slid sideways towards my target.

Success – or so I thought. My hopes were quickly dashed. The skinniest of anorexic Size 0 celebrities would have been unable to squeeze through the minuscule aperture when I opened the door.

I thought about trying to crawl through the boot, but abandoned the idea – I was much too scared of getting trapped!

Eventually I managed to manoeuvre myself through the rear passenger door and clambered across to the driver’s seat.

Then, of course, I had to reverse, out without bumping or scratching the vehicles on either side of me – although it could be argued that a driver who parks so close to another conveyance jolly well deserves some kind of damage.

The procedure was further complicated because the 4x4s were not only too wide for the spaces they occupied - they were also too long, blocking my view of oncoming traffic.

And in the row behind me, looming perilously close, were even more of these wretched automobiles.

Having escaped, I made my way to Hobbycraft, where exactly the same thing happened and once again boxed in by drivers with very large vehicles and very small brains.

Fortunately one of them returned and moved his car, but why do people want to park like that? Do they simply not care? Are they hiding somewhere, laughing at my struggles as I try to get into my car? Or is it some strange kind of game, Like Chinese Go, but using vehicles rather than counters to surround an opponent?

Anyway, I was so furious I decided a Wednesday Whinge was the only course of action, even though I wrote about the problem last summer when I was doing my Grumpy Old Woman column for the Tamworth Herald.

I’ve resurrected that piece, with some alterations, and am now considering launching another campaign (in addition to the ones for protecting the English language).
This time I will use my trusty red pen to note vehicle numbers, so I can name and shame the drivers – and I will write to shops and councils urging them to solve the problem by creating larger parking spaces.

Monday, 2 August 2010

We were only Window Shopping!

YOUNGER daughter and I went to Sutton: she to register at an employment agency, me to provide moral support.

She hoped to widen the circle of her search for work, while I planned to browse in Waterstone’s.

Since we are both short of cash, we did not intend to look at shops selling dresses (or any other garments). And we were certainly not going to seek out stores displaying shoes, bags, jewellery or any other accessories.

Window shopping was the order of the day.

But somewhere along the way our resolve weakened, and we wandered into Dorothy Perkins, convinced there was no harm in looking…

How wrong we were. Lured by the sale rail, we headed for the changing rooms bearing armfuls of clothing, still insisting that everything was fine, and we could try, but not buy…

Younger daughter succumbed to the charms of a pretty, lilac dress and some necklaces.

I fell in love with baggy, pink and black number, printed with a lacy pattern. The only problem was it was slightly see-through and had a very low neckline. So I rifled through the hangers and found a baggy, pink, elongated T-shirt, complete with frill at the bottom – perfect for an underdress, I thought.

Then I realised my ugly, flat, comfy shoes didn’t do justice to the outfit, so I tried on a pair of black high heels… and I felt instantly transformed.

Finally, I couldn’t resist a clutch bag in exactly the right shade of pink.

At that point, trying hard to convince ourselves that we had saved money because our purchases were reduced, we beat a hasty exit, and left for home.

Then I accompanied the Man of the House to get a tow bar fitted to the back of his car - but I’m not going to tell you what it’s for until later in the week. Hopefully, all will be revealed on Wednesday.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

A Loaf for Lammas Day

TODAY is Lammas, when a loaf baked from the corn of the first sheaf cut was blessed in church.

The word Lammas is thought to be derived from loafmass, and it was an ancient festival celebrating the first fruits of harvest – unlike the more modern harvest festival which marks the end of the season.

In some areas ‘first loaves’ were kept for luck, or crumbled in fields or barns to bring a good harvest the following year, and corn dollies made from the first sheaf were also considered fortunate.

Additionally, labourers were often required to present a portion of their harvest to their landlord on Lammas Day, and it was one of the traditional days on which rents and taxes had to be paid.

In Medieval times the festivities lasted a week or more. Lammas fairs were hugely popular, and were considered a good time for weddings and betrothals.

But Lammastide ceased to be observed during the Reformation, when Henry VIII broke with Rome and the Church of England was founded.

But the name lived on as ‘lammas lands’ or ‘lammas fields’. These appear to have been common lands, often on low-lying or marshy land alongside rivers. Corn and hay were grown on strips, but after Lammas, when the harvest was over, commoners had the right to graze animals there through the winter months.

When I was a child, there was a ‘Lammas’ at Staines, on the other side of the river to Egham, where I lived. We spent many a happy day there during the summer, splashing about in a little swimming pool – and for years and years I thought Lammas was another name for a pool.

It was years and years before I realised the name must refer to the area, and appreciated that land once used by the community to produce food and graze livestock was still being used by the community – but for leisure.

When I looked on the Internet, I found the site is still recreational, and there is a local soccer team called The Lammas, as well as a Lammas Band, so the link with the past continues.

There are similar sites elsewhere in the country – someone told me of one in Cambridge, while Lammas lands were among the areas cleared to make way for the London Olympics site, which provoked as much anger as the historic enclosure of common land.

Exeter maintains tradition with an annual Lammas fair, as does Ballycastle, in Ireland, and some churches have re-introduced Lammas services.

I marked the occasions by making bread (in the breadmaker, not by hand). But the yeast was old, and I didn’t have enough bread flour, so I used ordinary flour, and the result was not one of my greatest culinary successes, but it will make nice toast.

And I can always let it go stale, crumble it, then strew it around the garden, shed and mini-greenhouse to bring fortune in the year ahead.

Pictured below is a picture I found on the web of Staines Lammas swimming and paddling pool as it was when I was a child. There was a swimmin area in the river as well.(

Saturday, 31 July 2010

A Very Soggy Moggy

WELL, a little rain finally fell yesterday, and again today. Not a lot – but enough to make The Cat very wet indeed. And, as cats do, instead of letting me dry him with an old towel, he showed his love and affection by winding himself round my legs.

So here is a poem I wrote when his predecessor was young, and the ways of cats were still a novelty to me.

I’m a very soggy moggy
And my fur is soaking wet,
I’m a very soggy moggy
But I’m still your loving pet.

I’ll wrap myself around your legs
While I dry my dripping fur,
I’ll wrap myself around your legs
As I look at you and purr.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

A Room of My Own

I HAVE a room of my own! Well, actually it is a corner of the attic, just beneath the window, but it is my space, where I can sit surrounded by the books which line the walls.

The Man of the House cleared out some of the electrical paraphernalia that cluttered the floor – you know the kind of thing, old televisions, computer screens, a keyboard, lots of wires, speakers, pocket CD players, mobile phones…

Initially he insisted ‘there’s nowt wrong’ with them (he gets very northern in moments of high emotion) but he eventually conceded they did not work and were therefore of no use to anyone. So out they went.

Then it was my turn to clear some space. With a heavy heart I culled some of the books (mainly to make space for more, but I am hoping he hasn’t realised that). I always hate getting rid of books, but there were volumes I knew I would never read again. Why, for example, did I keep my A-Level geography books? Did I really want to read about weather systems, glaciated mountain scenery or vulcanicity? And was that slender but learned tome on the Thirty Years War really necessary?

So out they went: some to the charity shop and others, alas, to the tip because they were shedding pages and were no longer readable.

Anyway, back to my room. The Man of the House has bought me a corner desk, a swivel chair on wheels (I had forgotten how much fun they can be) and a proper computer (but I still have my trusty laptop as well). In addition I have acquired Younger Daughter’s printer, a little lamp, a radio (I cannot work without Radio 4) and Elder Daughter has contributed a pink waste paper bin.

Then there is even a little sofa where I can sit and read – with a fluffy Bagpuss to keep me company.

Now I am turning it into a little pink eyrie. I discovered a box of pink bits and pieces (candles, ornaments, cushions) left over from The Daughters’ Barbie phase, when their most treasured possessions were pink, fluffy and sparkly.

And I am scouring charity shops and chain stores for bargains. So far I have snapped up a pink metal jug, some artificial flowers, tea light holders, a throw for the sofa, windchimes to hang from the beams, a pink feather boa, files and a box of document drawers.

Now pink is not normally a colour I would use to decorate a room, but it is so cheerful I have decided to release my inner ‘girlie’.

I can sit up there to do my secretarial work for the Credit Union, and some writing, and my OU work.

Through the window, which faces west, I can see rooftops, chimneys, trees (it’s far greener than it looks at ground level), clouds and sunsets.

The Daughters think I have finally flipped (shades of the Jenny Joseph poem spring to mind) but the Man of the House has his shed, where he escapes for a quiet smoke and some peace and quiet. He has turned it into a miniature sitting room, with a comfy chair, portable TV, books and curtains!

So now I have my little space as well. Virginia Woolf would have approved, I feel. In her extended essay A Room of One’s Own she maintains that a woman must have money and ‘a room of her own’ if she is to write fiction.

I lack the money, but I have the ‘room’ so I can sit and be creative and write that great novel – or, at the very least, a short story.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Line of Beauty

IT must be hard to write a book which does not have a single character you feel you like, but Alan Hollinghurst has managed to do just that with The Line of Beauty.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that this novel is a beautifully written, acutely observed account of Thatcher’s Britain. But not the Britain of social deprivation many of us remember.

There’s no unemployment or run-down council estates, for this is an elitist world populated by the wealthy, who are ruthless in their pursuit status and power.

But beneath the smooth, shining surface of their lives all is not as it seems, as Nick Guest discovers when he moves into the Notting Hill home of a Tory MP and his aristocratic wife.

Nick, a brilliant Oxford graduate from an ordinary background, is attracted as much by the Feddens’ lifestyle and possessions as he is by the beauty of their son Toby, a university friend.

Nick is a bit of a chameleon, anxious to keep his place in this new world by pleasing others, by saying and doing the right thing.

But in private his quest for beauty leads him into another world, as he explores his sexuality with a black council worker and an exotic millionaire.

He’s not the only one with secrets, for other characters also have their private and public faces. Alongside homosexuality, Aids and drugs, there’s adultery, political intrigue and fraud, and Hollinghurst examines the issues through the eyes of his characters skilfully and sensitively.

Ultimately, of course, the various worlds collide, and when the crash comes family and friends close ranks to protect their own and it is Nick, the outsider, who becomes the scapegoat.

It was sad and funny, and tender and passionate, but despite the brilliance of the writing, I failed to warm to any of the characters. They were greedy, selfish, self-obsessed, manipulative, unfeeling and uncaring – but (unlike Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons), they stayed in my mind when I stopped reading, and I wondered what would happen to them.

Verdict: Enjoy was not quite the right word for this book. I appreciated the way Hollinghurst writes, his witty observations, the way he conjures up a whole way of life in just a few words. However, I wouldn’t read it again, so it goes on the ‘unwanted’ shelf.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Bubbles or Books?

OVERHEARD in The Works (mother to child, yesterday): "What do you want a book for? Buy some bubbles instead.”

Now I know many people don’t regard The Works as a proper bookshop, but it does sell books, so why would you take a child there to spend their pocket money and not let them buy a book?

And what kind of mother discourages their child from reading?

Don’t get me wrong, I like bubbles – but they’re no substitute for a good book.
Which would you rather have?

Saturday, 24 July 2010

A Man of Many Parts

I DIDN’T want Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to end, and when I finished the final page I felt a sense of loss, as if I was leaving old friends behind – a sense heightened by the hindsight of history, for I know what is to happen to these people.

The book follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell, who became Henry VIII’s chief minister and was one of the architects of the English Reformation.

This turbulent period of history, with its cast of intriguing characters, has continued to fascinate us for almost 500 years, and has been well documented, but Mantel tells the tale from a different perspective.

And she tells it with intelligence, warmth, humour and compassion.

Despite the wealth of information available about Tudor England, little is known about Cromwell. Mantel has fleshed out the facts and created a man who is more cultured and humane than we imagined from the grim face in that Holbein portrait.

She gives us an unloved blacksmith’s son, who educates himself and is a man of many parts – soldier, accountant, merchant, lawyer, cardinal’s secretary and advisor to the King.

Having dragged himself out of the gutter, he is a shrewd operator with an eye for the main chance, but he remains something of a puzzle.

He is a man who loves the fine things in his life – expensive clothes, good food and drink, witty companions, the latest books and pictures, a comfortable house – yet doesn’t seem motivated by the acquisition of possessions.

He loves his family, his friends and his pet dogs and remained loyal to Wolsey after the Cardinal’s downfall, yet managed not only to survive that, but to become Henry’s trusted confidante and advisor.

His background and personality make him better placed than many to cope with the plotting and intrigue of the court, where a man’s life could turn on the whim of the king – yet his position as an outsider weakened him, alienating him from the nobles.

He is honest, after his own fashion, genuinely believes the church needs reforming, and seems to be a man of integrity, yet he uses his considerable talents for what many regarded as dubious ends.

Was he moved by power? Religious fervour? Or did he simply deal with each situation as it arose, never expecting to find himself in such exalted company?

Figures from history spring to life as he moves up the social ladder: shrewish Anne Boleyn, sanctimonious Sir Thomas More, the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Cranmer, Hans Holbein and many others.

Alongside them are lesser known people: Cromwell’s wife and daughters, who all died of ‘sweating sickness’, his son and his nephew.

Then there are others: merchants, cooks, kitchen boys, clerks and servants.

All are clearly drawn, believable individuals who help bring the book alive as you expience the sights, sounds and smells of the 16th century.

Mantel’s award winning novel (it gained the Man Book Prize in 2009) was loved and hated in equal measure, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. Highly acclaimed by critics, it was less favourably received by some members of the public, who disliked the way it is written in the present tense, and were confuse by references to Cromwell as ‘he’.

Personally I think the use of present tense makes for a tremendous sense of immediacy and involvement in the characters’ feelings and actions, and perfectly reflects the fast-changing events at Henry’s court, as he woos and marries Ann Boleyn, cutting his ties with Rome church in order to do so.

The use of the third person singular did, on a few occasions, seem confusing, and it was not always clear who the ‘he’ referred to – but rereading a paragraph quickly resolves this, and did not detract from the story.

VERDICT: Loved it! It was well written, well researched, with a different view on a well-known period of history, that me think about our perceptions of people. It goes on the shelf for re-reading and will become one of my all-time favourites.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Graduation Day

OUTSIDE it is hot and sticky. A jazz band plays and all around us champagne corks pop, adding high percussive notes to the music.

It’s like a garden party. The women keep cool in floral frocks and spiky heels, while their perspiring menfolk shed suit jackets, loosen their ties and tug at the collars of their crisp shirts.

Brothers, sisters, boyfriends and girlfriends, all decked out in their summer finery, wander around clutching bottles of pop and digital cameras.

Then there are the students themselves looking smart, glamorous and oddly grown-up in the gowns and caps which cover their new outfits, smiling as if they would neer stop.

We sit at one of the tables laid out on the grass in front of the university while Younger Daughter disappears to meet friends, collect her own cap and gown, and pose for an official portrait.

When she reappears I fight to hold back the tears as I remember her on her first day at nursery, when she was so shy she wouldn’t speak to anyone and she refused to let go of my hand – so I spent the morning at nursery with her!

Even The Man of the House looks a little watery eyed as he gazes at her. Unusually he is wearing a suit, in honour of academic prowess, which is more than he did for his own graduation, when he turned up wearing jeans and a baggy jumper.

For some reason he is particularly intrigued by the hood on Younger Daughter’s gown: green, edged with apricot and white fur, it is a thing of beauty, but she is too excited to stand still for a photograph.

Inside it is hot and sticky. A saxophone quartet plays as we all file into the Octagon, where the graduation ceremony takes place.

The students sit in neat rows at the front, staring straight ahead, leaving parents craning their necks as they try to recognise their offspring.

Then, a trumpet voluntary sounds and VIPs process onto the sage. The assembled University Staff, Honorary Graduands, Public Orator, Senior Officers of the University, Civic Dignitaries, Mace Bearer and Presiding Officer, all resplendent in their colourful robes, take their seats.

Finally, the ceremony gets under way and we clap until our arms and hands ache as the students march, one by one, up the steps and across the stage, to accept their certificate from Professor RAL Jones, a Pro-Vice-Chancellor.

Regrettably, my efforts to capture Younger Daughter’s big moment for posterity prove unsuccessful as I mistakenly endeavour to operate the camera while clapping…

It seems very formal, a little archaic – and a million miles away from Sheffield’s council estates and the city centre.

The proceedings are broken up by the presentation to two lecturers of Senate Awards for Learning and Teaching, and the conferment of an honorary degree on Professor John C Wingfeld for his research on the environmental and endocrine control of reproduction, territorial behavior and migration in vertebrates.

The simple explanation, for people like me who don’t understand science, is that he is investigating the way creatures deal with climate change.

Apparently he discovered (among other things) that fish get seasick in holding tanks on a research ship…

Eventually the last student crosses the stage, and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor addresses us all, makes his speech, highlights the importance of education and urges the students to applaud their families for providing support.

Then, led by the Mace Bearers, the platform party files out of the hall., followed by the students and, last of all, the parents.

Outside is a melee as several hundred students are reunited with their nearest and dearest.

There are more photographs as young people hug and kiss, and say farewell to the friends they have shared their lives with for the last three years. But gradually they drift away, still smiling, to return their hired caps and gowns and begin their new lives.