Monday, 23 May 2011

Not a Blue Rinse in Sight

Romantic novels used to be regarded by many as a guilty pleasure to be read (and written) in secret, but it's an image which is way, way out of date, despite an article to the contrary in the Daily Mail, which conjured up a picture of blue-rinsed elderly ladies, clad in pearls, twin-sets and support tights, eking out their pensions by dashing off steamy, sex-filled stories, which their own families are reluctant to read.

Nothing could be further from the truth and members of the Romantic Novelists' Assocation, who had invited the reporter to their summer party and were expecting a serious piece on the modern romantic novelist were, justifiably, more than a little upset. Take a look at the photos on the RNA site ( and you'll see just how elegant and glamorous these women look - and not a blue rinse in sight. More importantly, they are professional writers (some even run workshops and courses offering advice to aspiring writers) who take time crafting and honing their work until they are pleased with the result. And, like professional women everywhere they are intelligent women who juggle their writing careers with jobs, family life, and all kinds of other activities.
OK, some of them do write about sex, and some of it is pretty steamy, but there is plenty of graphic sex in many other literary genres - and once upon a time these novelists were pilloried for stopping at the bedroom and leaving the rest to our imagination. However, the Mail article put great emphasis on telling readers that this particular  group of novelists looked like ladies you’d find arranging the church flowers, or at the Annual General Meeting of the Jam Makers and Knitted Toy Association, and stressing that they didn't look like 'racy' writers (though quite what racy writers are supposed to like I don't know).
And Mail readers didn't get the chance to seee the authors because the paper didn't use any photographs from the party although, apparently, a photographer was in attendance. Instead there were pictures of Barbara Cartland, Catherine Cookson and Jilly Cooper - all well known, certainly, but not necessarily representative of current RNA membership.

At this point, to avoid any accusations of bias, I have to admit while I am  nor a member of the RNA I have friends who are, and I must state loud and clear that until I was made redundant I was a journalist on a local paper owned by Northcliffe's regional arm, so no, I don't like the Mail. In fact, by reading this piece, I broke my vow never to look at the Daily Mail again and found it lived up (or should I say down) to expectations. Amusingly written perhaps, but only at the expense of romantic novelists and their readers. It gave a cliche-ridden, one-sided, patronising view which perpetuates stereotypical images and fails to take romantic novelists (or women) seriously.

It was pretty derogatory about older women in general. Do old ladies, romantic novelists or otherwise, still have blue rinses, twin-sets and pearls? My mother is 84, and neither she nor any of her friends would want to look like that! Some of them may be stalwarts of the WI, local church and various other organisations, and yes, they make jam, arrange flowers, paint , knit and embroider, but they also cut down trees, decorate their homes, repair cars - and even find the time to read romantic novels! Like the RNA members, they are intelligent, well-dressed, attractive, intellligent, feisty women, who desreve better than a few cheap jibes.
Today's blog is a show of solidarity with my  lovely friends at the RNA, who have the courage to sit and write, rather than sitting and thinking about writing!

It is a Monday Moan, but as I still haven't changed the wording on the typewriter, just imagine it's Wednesday!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Pulling the Devil's Nose

Today is the Feast of St Dunstan - the saint who seized the devil by the nose with a pair of red hot tongs! Having put a Facebook status about him on the wrong date (two months ago) I was going to correct my mistake on FB today, but found Dunstan so interesting I will write about him here instead.

Briefly, he was a 10th century monk who became Abbot of Glastonbury and Archbishop of Canterbury. A skilled musician, manuscript writer and metal worker, he is invoked invoked by jewellers, goldsmiths, locksmiths and blacksmiths. Until 1975, in honour of St Dunstan, May 19 was the yearly changeover date for hallmarks on gold and silver. According to legend the devil appeared as he was making a golden chalice for the church. Refusing to be tempted, Dunstan seized Satan by the nose with his red hot metal-working tongs.

There's even an old rhyme about the meeting, quoted in John Vince's Discovering Saints in Britain:
"Saint Dunstan so the story goes
Once pulled the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more."
I'm fascinated by the tales of the saints, and by anniversaries of historic events, and I like to find ways of mark these occasions - but I don't recommend this particular action of Dunstan's, even with people you don't like! Instead you could celebrate his life by buying or wearing some jewellery (it doesn't have to be expensive, brightly coloured beads and bangles will do), listening to your favourite music or reading a beautifully illustrated book. Or you could do all three. Failing that, cakes and wine are always good for feasting - or simply sit and reflect about life, the universe and everything while enjoying a cup of tea and  biscuit.

Surprisingly, St Dunstan has no connections with the blind. The charity of that name, which supports blinded and visually impaired ex-service personnel (find out more at took its title from an early location, St Dunstan's Lodge, in Regent's Park - and the house only got its name because the original owner installed a large clock in the grounds, which he bought from a church called St Dunstan's (or, more correctly, St Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet Street, London).  So it was pure chance that led to the adoption of Dunstan's name by the organisation, and it's chosen patron saint is actually Odilia, who was born in France in the seventh century. Because she was blind her father wanted her killed, but she was given to a peasant, and later miraculously gained her sight when she was baptised by a bishop.

Oh dear, I seem to have gone off on a detour again, but that's what so fascinating about reading: you end up travelling in other directions when something catches your interest and you want more information. Anyway, back to St Dunstan. Under his leadership Glastonbury became a centre of learning, while as Archbishop of Canterbury he revived and reformed the church, spearheading the rebuilding of religious buildings destroyed by Danish invader and encouraging monks to acquire skills which would enable help recreate their monasteries. More importantly, he restored discipline by insisting clergy lived according to their vows and that monks followed the Rule of St Benedict. Fostering the growth of education was always important to him and he eventually retired from his role as Archbishop, but continued to teach.

For many years he was one of the most important English saints, and his shrine at Canterbury Cathedral was an important place of pilgrimage.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Tall Tales from a Small Shopper

OK folks, the picture may say Wednesday Whinge, but this is a Tuesday Tirade. So, let’s jump straight in. I am moaning because we are a heightist society. That’s right, you heard me, heightist. And if it’s not a word it jolly well should be. Now, I am the first to admit I am a little on the short side, but personally I don’t think five-foot-nothing is abnormal – so why do I find everything so difficult to reach?

I know I've whinged about this before, but my wrath was roused during a recent foray into a well-known clothing store to buy slippers for Elder Daughter. The pair in the size she needed was on the top row of a wall display, about six-feet high. Since there were no tall customers in the vicinity to ask for help, I tried jumping up and down whilst wielding a coat hanger (snatched from a lower rack) in the hopes that I could dislodge the required purchase. Not a chance. Then I played hunt the assistant, without success (I’d like to know why you can never find a shop assistant when you need one, but when you don’t they leap out at you trying to sell you things you don’t want when you've barely crossed the threshold).

Seeking help I stood in the queue and waited... and waited... and waited. Eventually it was my turn, I explained the problem, and the assistant abandoned the till (to the angry mutterings of the customers behind me), looked at the display, stood on tiptoe, stretched for the slippers, handed them to me and headed back to the till – leaving me to rejoin the back of the queue, which  by this stage was even longer than when I started. I felt like throwing the slippers at her!

The same shop (and it's not the only offender) has what seems like hundreds of clothes hanging from rails which are as inaccessible as a mountain  top, and most of them are made for women who are considerably taller than me. Having found someone willing to hand me down a garment so I can try it on, the problems really begin. Short dresses droop to mid-calf; long skirts and trousers trail along the ground; necklines plunge waistward; sleeves flap several inches below my fingertips. And don't think shortening things is an easy option, because it isn't. Chop six inches off a skirt or trouser legs and you usually ruin the hang of the garment.

It's not just clothes shops which present problems. What about book shops? How can you browse if you can't reach either of the top two shelves? And how can you replace a book someone has got down for you if you decide not to buy it after all?

But supermarkets are the worst. Aisles and aisles, all packed with items you need stacked on top shelves, above freezers and at the back or bottom of freezers. Should you ever see a woman balanced on the edge of a freezer, with arms outstretched and legs waving, it's probably me - one of these days I'm sure I'll topple inside! And, while I'm whinging about supermarkets, why don't they have more of the small trolleys? The big ones are awkward to push around if you are short, plus it is really difficult to reach items at the bottom.

Transport can be just as tricky. On one occasion I allowed a well-meaning passenger on a train to put my case on the luggage rack above my head, only to realise when I reached my destination that my fellow traveller had departed an earlier stop.

And I once worked in an office where the doors in corridors had dear little safety portholes in them, so people could see each other and there would be no accidents.  Unfortuately, however, the windows were above my head, so no-one could see me, and I was always getting knocked over as people opened doors on me, which was pretty disastrous if I had a tray of coffees in my hands.

Over the years I've thought of walking around on stilts (but I'd probably fall off), or carrying a collapsible stepladder around with me (but that's not really a practical solution), or a very long stick to topple  things from shelves (but I expect I'd break things). No, what's needed is equality for people who are vertically challenged, so I am planning a new campaign (along with my efforts to protect the apostrophe) to prevent heightism and stop discrimination against us shorties!

Meanwhile friends are suggesting remedies. A mother-of-four assures me that tall sons can help,  so maybe I could I borrow one of her offspring? Someone has volunteered to make stilts out of string and empty cans, and 'grabbers' have been mentioned (the kind of aid produced for disabled people, apparently). A hat with a long flower waving on the top would enable me to be seen through windows and, best of all, a young acquaintance assures me that he climbs like a monkey - but I'm much too old and clumsy to consider scrambling up supermarket shelves!

So, if you have any other (sensible!) ideas please leave a comment!

Friday, 13 May 2011

Parisian Pictures

 Paris is like an old friend. You don’t see each other for a while, but when you do you pick up where you left off, and you feel as if you’ve never been apart. The city is still there, exactly as you remember it, beautiful and enchanting, providing food for the body and soul – and it still has the power to surprise. Back home after four days away I’m left with a kaleidoscope of memories: cobbled streets, cafes, apron-clad waiters, chaotic traffic, fountains, books, paintings, food, fountains and flowers.
Start with the flowers: the Marche aux Fleurs, to be precise. Created in 1898, on the Ile de la Cite, it’s the oldest flower market in Paris, and even before it comes into view you breathe in the exotic floral fragrance hanging in the air. When you see the flowers it’s like stepping into some kind of fairy land. You can hardly move for the pots of blooms, blossoms and leafy fronds packed into the narrow aisles. They are inside and out, stacked on the ground, on shelves, on racks, on counters, dangling from roofs, hanging from pillars and posts. And not only pots. There are plants growing in every conceivable container – pots, pans, boots, boxes, baskets... And they come in every shape and colour. Huge, flamboyant, tropical specimens thrive alongside small, traditional, garden favourites. All vie for space with scores of old-fashioned, wrought iron bird cages suspended above your head, and there are bird feeders, ornamental lamps, strings of lights, candles, mirrors and sculptures.
On Sundays you can hear the sound twittering and cheeping from the bird market (Le Marché aux Oiseaux) next door, where there are cages selling all kinds of birds: chickens, pigeons, doves, finches, and love birds with their electric blue and green plumage. In addition there are dozens of small, furry creatures and little, lippety, loppety ‘lapins’ (sounds so much nicer than rabbits I think) with flippety, floppety ears. Animal rights enthusiasts will doubtlessly think the cages are cruel, but the animals all looked happy and well fed.
In fact, Paris is a city of flowers. They are crammed into every available space. Every apartment has its balcony, and it seems like every balcony is filled with flowers. They climb up walls and railings; they cascade down buildings; they loop, trail and twine above windows and doors. Homes, shops, offices, restaurants and houseboats are riot of colour and perfume. Small patches of land are transformed into tranquil oases of green – we stumbled across a beautiful little park near Shakespeare and Company, with a sculpture in the centre, and the most wonderful rose arches. I still haven’t discovered what it is called, or why it is there, but it remains one of the highlights of time in Paris, all the more so for being unexpected.
On a grander scale, the Jardin du Luxembourg were as lovely as ever, although it was shut when we arrived due to the imminent arrival of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was due to unveil a plaque to mark his country’s abolition of slavery in 1848. The entire area – not just the gardens but also the roads leading to them – was closed off and I have never seen so many armed police. As law abiding English tourists we beat a hasty retreat and sat ‘people watching’ as we enjoyed cups of tea at a pavement café (I know, it should have been coffee, but Brits abroad still like their home comforts), then wandered along the Boulevard Saint-Michel.
When the ornate gates finally swung open, the elegant VIP guests drifted out, and the Parisian proletariat, unimpressed at being denied access for an entire morning, surged through in a manner reminiscent of their ancestors storming the Bastille. Armed with books, newspapers, food and drink, they reclaimed the area and settled down on their favoured chairs and benches. One lady began painting her toe nails and another started marking students’ essays. There’s always plenty to see here – on a previous visit we once chatted to a needlewoman doing conservation work on a tapestry, while a group of youngsters staged a theatrical performance which moved their watching parents to tears.

The Italian Renaissance garden was created by Marie de Medicis (widow of Henri IV), who was homesick for her Florentine home. It included a fountain built in the form of a grotto, which can still be seen, although it has been moved from its original site. Elsewhere there are formal gardens, with box-edged parterres, walkways, steps, terraces, statues, lawns and a circular fountain, as well as a little ‘wild’ orchard area with a gazebo or bandstand.
Biggest surprise of the trip was the Ile Saint Louis, which seems to be something of a secret – I never knew existed. It’s a tiny island, off the tip of Ile de la Cite, facing Notre Dame, and is named after Louise IX. Connected to the rest of Paris and its ‘big brother’ island by bridges, it’s totally unspoilt, with quiet, narrow streets lined with tall, shuttered 17th century buildings. At street level some of the shops look as if they hardly changed in the last 400 years: others have been turned into artisan boutiques and galleries – but without losing their character. Walking down one of the roads we heard music and realising it came from a church went inside, to find an orchestra rehearsing in an incredible building, where the somewhat grim exterior was at odds with the beauty of the interior with its gold gilding, paintings and statues. Later, I Googled it and discovered that Saint-Louis-en-l'Île Church (the Church of St Louis on the Isle) was designed by Louis Le Vau, the architect responsible for Versailles.
Browsing along the Left Bank I finally found Shakespeare and Company, which I unaccountably managed to miss on an earlier visit to Paris. This legendary bookshop and library was founded in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, and became a focal point for expatriate English and American writers and artists during the 1920s and 30s. Ernest Hemingway describes it in An Immoveable Feast, and other famous visitors of the period included F Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. The present site, set up in the 1950s, has achieved iconic status and stocks a vast selection of new and second-hand books, making it a ‘must’ for English-speaking bibliophiles. Still on a literary theme, on both sides of the Seine in the Pont-Neuf area you’ll find stall after stall selling souvenirs, old books, new books, maps and paintings – all using small, green, metal boxes as their shopfronts. As you stroll along you can watch artists sketching and painting the scene around them – not as many as in Montmartre, but just as colourful and fascinating.
Walking along by the Seine you can look down on wide, flat-bottomed working barges, glass-topped tour boats, beflowered houseboats, floating tearooms and restaurants, and even a ‘Theatre de Magie’. The bridges have their own character and history - including one decorated with padlocks left there as love tokens. And on Sundays, on the towpath between the Quai Anatole-France and Quai Branley, all Paris turns out for a weekly dose of exercise. Skilled inline speed skaters whizz along leaving the less experienced wobbling in their wake; dog owners step out briskly with their pets; cyclists (some with dogs attached to the handlebars on long leads) pedal past; joggers, heads up, legs pounding up and up down, rush by, while some folk take life at a gentler pace, doing exercises at the barriers by the river’s edge, like ballet dancers practising at the barre. Standing out from the crowd is a man skating backwards, arms outstretched, as he encourages his very tiny, very young son, who is trundling towards him on what must surely be the world’s smallest bicycle.

There are other snapshot views of the city.

There’s the fragrant orange pekoe served by an aproned waiter who tells us it is his favourite tea (us too, we decide); a perfect omelet and salad lunch, eaten as we sit in the sunshine, beneath the awning of a café on the Ile St Louis, looking across a narrow strip of water to Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cite, and two small apple tartes, deftly wrapped by an assistant who transforms a single sheet of paper into a container to carry them, complete with a flat bottom and handle.

I like the way the gutters run with water each morning; the lack of litter; the cobbled streets; the pavement cafes and the hidden alleys leading off the main roads. However, just as with an old friend, there things that irritate. There’s more graffiti than I’ve seen in earlier years and the stench of urine in some areas, especially alongside the river, is overpowering. The street scams are still there (you know the kind of thing - demands to sign ‘petitions’, requests to buy ‘gold’ rings), and there seem to be more beggars, especially elderly ones, holding out their cups and asking for cash.

But despite that I still love Paris - after all, you ignore your friends' foibles and idiosyncracies, just as they overlook your own irritating habits. So I hope to return, renew the friendship, reacquaint myself with my favourite haunts - and, maybe, discover new ones.