Friday, June 30, 2006

Where to Stay in the Land of Remote

As I drove into the land of Remote last Friday (which, you may recall, involved going across TWO CATTLE GRIDS) I could tell already that I would like it, and I stopped to take this photo as I approached the cottage.

The place we stayed was called Ring House Cottages - this is the website I found, searching on the internet for cottages in the area - and the nearest village is Broughton-in-Furness, about three miles away. My mother is from Barrow-in-Furness and the Furness peninsula is known - if it is known at all - as the place where the Victorian shipbuilding town of Barrow is situated.

Outside of Barrow - which itself has some beautiful beaches and nature reserves - the peninsula is quiet and delightful, with beautiful scenery and it's easy to get to the rest of the Lake District.

The cottages nestle (no other word for it) in a little valley and here they are, nestling:

I managed to write this blog from the hillock looking down on the cottages: here's the view in the other direction:

A couple of people asked me how I managed it, and the answer is using my very sloooooooow laptop with a 3G card, which works off the mobile phone signal. (Actually, the signal wasn't strong enough to be a 3G signal, and I don't know what it is called, but it worked.)

I had to sit on the hillock because that nestling-in-a-valley thing is not helpful to mobile phone signal. But sitting on the hillock was no hardship, believe me - lovely views and the only sounds were insects buzzing (and the chomping of their jaws as they ate my husband Stephen) and the many different kinds of birds.

We stayed in Latter Rigg cottage, which was very well-designed: here are the Communist and my mother one evening, giving their demonstration of How to Relax:

There are many walks in the area that we didn't have time to do. I'd certainly recommend it and hope to go back.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Up the Duddon

Some things don’t change. When I was a child and we visited the Lake District, the river Duddon was one of our favourite places. Our favourite place on the Duddon is easy to find: travel on the winding road from Duddon Bridge towards Ulpha and park where you see this big rock on your left.

And there you are – everything for a perfect afternoon. We climbed the big rock and stared at the views of the river and the fells.

The river is about knee-deep in the middle at the moment – though I know I’ve seen it shallower, as I’ve waded across to the other side in previous visits. The river must be fascinating for geologists as there are many different kinds of rocks – they’re a bit slippy but you can wade about for ages if you’re careful (and I was, and I did). The water’s cold, which, on a hot day like today, was great.

Dragonflies hover nearby and sheep baaa at you. Grasshoppers chirp. Buzzards soar.

One of my strongest memories of this rock is that one day in about 1970 we made our usual encampment of rugs, chairs, picnic, waterproofs, swimming costumes, books, snow shoes - we never travelled light – on the downstream side of the big rock. We paddled, waded, wallowed - - and gradually noticed that wafting on the breeze from the upstream side was a very strange smell, so we climbed round to investigate.

Round the other side was a dead sheep in one of the pools off the main stream, half-rotten and black and wiggling with tadpoles.

No dead sheep today, just lots of live ones with lambs. People? Just one or two apart from us, and they were clearly loving it as much as we were. Weather? Perfect summer sunshine.

Was there anywhere better to be today? I don’t think so.

Tomorrow it’s back home to Leeds, and I’ll show you where I’ve been posting from.


Let us say I was considering going into doll manufacture. Would anyone be interested in buying my Chinky doll, bright yellow with a perfectly round face and little slits for eyes? Or my Pakky doll, where you pull a string and it talks in that Peter Sellers sing-song Asian accent? Or my Yiddy doll, with lots of curly hair and a big nose? No? Why not?

Because they’d be disgustingly offensive, that’s why. I expect some people might even buy them, but as a matter of fact I think the public has more sense than it’s often credited with, and I don’t think many people would.

Okay, anyone want to buy one of these then?

For sale in Hawkshead, Cumbria, that lovely cuddly old-fashioned racist caricature of black people. Is Hawkshead the last outpost of the golliwog?

Those things we took for granted in the 1960s – cloth toy golliwogs such as the ones in my photograph; collecting paper golliwogs from Robertson’s marmalade to send off for badges; the Black and White Minstrel Show on television, with white men “blacked up” to play what were known as “nigger minstrels” (yes, really) all seem from a bygone, more ignorant age.

But if people want to buy golliwogs, then why shouldn’t they? Market forces, and all that.

Hmm – if we follow that argument, then we’d be selling weapons to any old dictatorship who wants to buy them - - oh, we do. Sorry, I must have forgotten that. But I bet any toyshop owner would say that there isn’t a huge mass of people clamouring for golliwogs, and if that’s true then the market forces argument – which I don’t agree with anyway – doesn’t hold up.

Ah – but it’s TRADITIONAL. Yes, like toffee apples, or Beefeaters, or putting people in the stocks, or boy chimney-sweeps. Sometimes, just because something is traditional, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. I don’t think anyone should be making golliwogs, or selling them, or buying them.

Yes, but – and here’s the last argument of the losing – it doesn’t matter if there are golliwogs for sale in Hawkshead, because no black people will see them. Because, in spite of the smiling photos of mixed-race children sailing on the lakes, which I saw in Coniston Tourist Information Centre, there really are very few black people to be found in the Lake District.

Not bloody surprising, is it?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Horror in Hawkshead

A long, long time ago, round about the time of the Summer of Love, we used to stay in the Lake District village of Hawkshead, at the Ivy House Hotel.

It was a sleepy village, full of wood smoke and the sound of church bells, which were so loud that they frightened my brother, who was then a toddler.

I loved it, every inch of it, the smell of it, the look of it, the hidden wild places at the edges of it. I loved the sound of the church bells too. Hawkshead to me was the essence of Lake District.

Strangely, though I have been back to the Lake District many times since, I hadn’t been back to Hawkshead, until yesterday.

At some time after I was last there, Hawkshead was voted Britain’s Prettiest Village or something of the sort - and that has been its tragedy.

Massive car park, coachloads of Japanese tourists - Come to England and see what a Cumbrian Village Theme Park looks like! - and shops everywhere selling this kind of thing:

Almost every bit of character has been carefully removed and sanitised:

The Ivy House Hotel is still there, and still looks very pleasant, but Hawskhead is no longer a real place. If you look carefully at the buildings beyond all the tea shops, Beatrice Potter and Wordsworth souvenirs and Cutesy Crafts, you can see the village it once was:

Many people, I suppose, think that the present Hawkshead is the Lake District. Luckily, it isn’t. The Lake District is wonderful - just not the Hawkshead part of it.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Greetings from Beckriggthwaite

It's hard to invent an authentic-sounding placename, a fact that Victoria Wood satirised in Acorn Antiques, set in the town of Manchesterford. Real place names are far too bizarre.

At the moment I'm on the Furness peninsula in Cumbria. I have frequently seen Barrow-in-Furness written as Barrow-in-Furnace, because, knowing it is an industrial town, people think it has something to do with steel-making. Either that or they think it's very hot which, as any regular visitor knows, is most certainly not the case. Walking along the beach in a howling gale is a typical Barrow happening - well, it is in our family, anyway.

In fact, a Ness is a sort of nose of land sticking out into the sea. Greenodd is the first one: Odd is Viking for headland, apparently. The next one, is, appropriately, called Next Ness. And we are in Furness, the furthest one.

The Victoria Wood equivalent of the place names round here would probably be Beckriggthwaite. However, driving back to Barrow today we came across two which just don't fit the pattern. We passed a village called Po House which nestled next to a hill called Whirl Pippin. Who'd believe those if you put them in a novel?


“Remote” means different things to different people. To some people it means a mountain that has never been climbed: to others it means a pub five miles outside Manchester. To some it means a cave system that has never been explored: to others is means a beach without a pier. To some it means a six-week expedition up the Amazon. To others – and I have to say that one of them is me – it means over a cattle grid in the Lake District.

For if you go over a cattle grid you are leaving the so-called civilised world and entering a world of fells, bracken, rocks and gorse, a world where there are more sheep than people. The sheep gaze at you in puzzlement and it takes a while to work out that they look at everything that way.

They have three settings, sheep – eating mode, puzzled mode and fear mode. Oh yes, and Super-Puzzled mode, which I have only seen once. In the Sixties we had a white toy poodle – not an actual toy, you understand, but of the breed known as toy. Forgive us, because it was the 1960s and that was the kind of dog that people had.

Anyway, in a previous over-a-cattle-grid moment, this dog – and this may be a good moment to slip in guiltily that the dog was called Fluffy, because he was named by me, and I was only seven, and anyway nobody stopped me - encountered some sheep. Please don’t go all don’t-let-your-dog-near-sheep on me, because he was only about six inches high or something and extremely good-natured and white and, well, fluffy.

The sheep looked puzzled. An extra lamb, they thought, where did that come from?
Fluffy moved nearer, intrigued. Yes, thought the sheep, a lamb, we’d better move in protectively, even though we’re a bit puzzled.

Fluffy sniffed them with interest. They sniffed Fluffy. It took them a few seconds to react. This, they thought, looks like a lamb. AND SMELLS LIKE A DOG.

We left them, stock-still, in Super-Puzzled mode. I think their brains suffered meltdown and I don’t know if they ever got over it.

Now, I tell you with pride, this place where we are staying is remote. It’s not just over a cattle grid. It’s over TWO CATTLE GRIDS and along a long, winding country lane that is longer than the borders of some countries. It has views of hills and woodland in all directions, with a bit of Duddon estuary off in the distance.

It is wonderful. I hope to bring you more bulletins from this far-flung corner of the Furness peninsula very soon.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

How to Write a Splendid Essay

When I was teaching in the early eighties, the exam which is now called GCSE was called 16+. There were two sets of grades - O-level (the gateway to Everything) and CSE (not much use really, unless you got a Grade 1, which counted as an O-level). So it was our task to drag the unwilling teenagers over the border from CSE Grade Two to O-level

As part of this exam in English the candidates had to write something like a dozen long pieces of writing (hah! not very long in some cases) and we would pick five to send to the lucky external examiner who would groan quietly and agree with whatever mark we had given them.

These were called "essays" and in our English department we mentally divided them into two kinds.

Type 1

Whatever the nominal topic - A Day at the Seaside! My Most Moving Experience! The Day I saw a Ghost! The Beauty of Trees! the first kind would start like this:

Me and my mates was sat on this bench. We was bored.

After this exciting start the spelling would get worse, the grammar would fly even further out of the window and a few short sentences later it would come to its dramatic conclusion which was one of several options along these lines:

and we played in the sand and had a luvly time

and so we all moved into the new house

and then I saw a gohst and it was realy scarry

and there were some trees and they were beatiful

Type 2

These were of the kind written by Clever Bastards (such as my brother, who may even have composed the first line, below). Whatever the topic (see above) their first line would be

Charles picked up the brick

And why? Because this is a Good First Line which any examiner would fall on with joy. Charles is a middle-class name and hence opens up a myriad possibilities as to why he picked up the brick. The Clever Bastard would then write a grammatical, paragraphed, interesting essay with perfect spelling and get himself or herself a grade A O-level. In fact, if I were still teaching today I would recommend that line as a good opener to just about any topic.

Try it for yourself, if you don't believe me.

And now I'm off to the Lake District for a week - - - more news when I can get to a computer with internet access. I love remote places with scenery. And a good phone signal. I find it rather traumatic that the two don't always go together.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Brantwood and Mr Ruskin

On Friday Stephen and I are taking the Communist and my mother to the Lake District for a week. We'll be staying in a cottage near Broughton in Furness and I note to my horror that 3G coverage is negligible so I doubt if I'll be able to post on this blog while I'm away - if not, I'll be back on Friday 30th June.

Last time I was there, a few weeks ago, we visited Brantwood, which is the house next to Coniston Water where John Ruskin lived. It's a fascinating place and John Ruskin was involved in most of the interesting developments in the arts during the nineteenth century.

I didn't know much about him before, except the story that when he saw his wife Effie on their wedding night, he was so horrified by the sight of her pubic hair that he never consummated the marriage. The poor dear was apparently so innocent that she didn't know what she was missing, but fell for, and went on to marry the artist John Millais, who was a friend of Ruskin's. Once she found out what it was that she didn't know she rather took to it and produced eight children.

John Ruskin bought Brantwood without ever seeing it, and it's a remarkably ugly house, particularly when considering all the lovely stone Lake District houses:

When you look at it from the lake it looks, frankly, a bit of a mess:

But I think he knew a thing or two, Mr Ruskin. Where's the one place around Coniston where you can't see that remarkably ugly house? Inside it, of course. The view from that top window is just glorious, even taken through glass and even in the mist:

There are lots of Victorian photographs and documents from the times inside the house, and next week I plan to go back for another look. John Ruskin was definitely a Good Thing and should not be forgotten.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Me ears are alight

"But you must know the words, Mum!" says Emily, "You've heard it hundreds of times."

But I don't know the words, usually - I just don't hear the words of songs: not correctly, anyway. I'm one of those people who think that the Police were singing about Sue Lawley and that Desmond Dekker had somehow set fire to his ears.

But this morning I found that I did know the words to something. I was driving along in my cool, sleek Suzuki Wagon R and listening to Classic FM. Now, as you will know if you ever hear it, Classic FM has a repertoire of about eight pieces of music, but I don't care: they are Classical Music's Greatest Hits and I like them all, so I keep listening.

Oh yes, there's that duet from the Pearl Fishers again - - aaah - - and here's Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance - - dee dee diddle diddle diddle diddle dee dee diddle diddle diddle diddle DEE DEE diddle diddle diddle diddle diddle dee dee diddle diddle here it comes now - - LAND OF HOPE AND GLORY, MOTHER OF THE FREE - -

And there I was, driving through Chapeltown, singing along. Great tune, Mr Elgar - - and I know he didn't write the words, they are by Arthur Christopher Benson, a man whose name is revered and remembered not very much at all, which is still a hell of a lot more than it should be.

This is what I was singing.

Land of Hope and Glory bit of a dodgy start I feel, what's the glory bit about?
Mother of the Free this has my-country's-better-than-yours overtones and I don't like it
How shall we extol thee nobody has the foggiest clue what this means but it's a really crap rhyme with Glory
Who are born of thee? okay, extol means praise but it still doesn't make much sense
Wider still and wider I think we can tell which way this is going
Shall thy bounds be set told you so, it means let's walk right into anywhere we fancy
God, who made thee mighty they know they're on deeply suspect moral ground when they start dragging God into it
Make thee mightier yet aha! now we're at it. Down with Johnny Foreigner and Hoorah for British Imperialism!

The Communist has always referred to this piece as Land of Dope and Tory. I'm really rather shocked that it's still sung with such gusto at the Last Night of the Proms. What a pity that this fantastic, stirring tune has such outdated, unpleasant words, and that they're so embedded in the nation's consciousness that even I know them.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Working in Television

Gap years hadn’t been invented when I went to university, but in 1979, after graduating and then after doing a year’s postgraduate theatre course, I had a kind of gap year. I’d had enough of studying and exams and had a place on a teacher-training course for September 1979: meanwhile, I was living with my then boyfriend (my now husband) and I needed a job. He was a student, and I didn’t want to be away from him, so it was Cardiff or Cardiff, because that was where he was at university.

It wasn’t too hard to get work of a low-paid temporary nature and I was good at keeping my head down and getting on with whatever dull job they threw at me. So off I went to an agency, which I shall call Dulljobs Inc (it wasn’t really called that, it was called Manpower).

After I’d done a few weeks in offices, Dulljobs Inc decided to test my mettle by giving me the dullest of the dull: they sent me off to the National Panasonic Television Factory. It was a huge place, run by enigmatic Japanese men, with slogans on the walls:

Cleanliness in the Workplace Makes for Quality in the Market Place

The whole place beeped. A lot. All the time. Blue lights flashed too. At one end of the assembly line were some rather more skilled workers doing things with screwdrivers and circuit boards.

I was down the unskilled end, of course. They tested me out with the tricky job of putting the feet on the televisions once they had been assembled. The television arrived in front of me, upside down. I picked up the foot and placed it on the television. I placed a nail through the middle of it. I hit it with a hammer. On to the next foot. Whoopee.

The hours were 8am until 4pm with half an hour for lunch and two ten-minute breaks. Radio One played constantly and top of the chart was Summer Lovin’ from Grease - - they played it what seemed to be several times an hour for all the time I was there. I don’t know what you think of when you think of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, but I think of televisions, and their feet.

I hit on the idea of working twice as fast, stacking up a pile of tellies, and then having a little break where I could stare into space for a bit. The foreman didn’t like this, I could tell, but didn’t say a word to me, because he wasn’t sure what to make of me. I had decided to be More Enigmatic than the Japanese, and that confused him.

The other girls on the line were very nice to me, though there wasn’t much time for conversation. I was horrified to find out that most of them came back in the evenings to do overtime.

“It’s something to do, and the money’s good.”

The money was good too, by low-paid-dull-job standards - £49 per week as opposed to the £44 I usually got for office work.

After a couple of weeks, sensing that television feet were beginning to lose their appeal, they changed my job to sticking the badge on the front that said Panasonic. It was a highly-skilled job: I used a soldering iron to melt the plastic on the back of the badge and then I stuck it on.

But by now I was seriously bored. Seriously, deeply, endlessly bored in big gaping holes of boredom. Bored bored bored bored bored. Then someone told me that the badges tended to fall off after six months. And in six months I would be long gone.

So on the back of the badges, with my soldering iron, in mirror writing, I wrote every rude word that I could think of, in the hope that when the badge fell off the television’s proud owner would be greeted with the word ARSE in neat plastic letters. Hah! There’s not much you can tell me about youthful rebellion.

After six weeks, I left and presented myself at Dulljobs Inc. They expressed surprise that I had stuck it so long, and found me another office job.

After eighteen months, by complete coincidence, Stephen, thenboyfriendnowhusband found himself at the same factory for his Industrial Training Year. The girls I had worked with were still there in the same places on the same production lines doing the same jobs.

Later, when I was teaching, and teenagers asked me what on earth was the point of doing all these exams, I felt I had something to tell them.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Father's Day

Father's day eh? I'd forgotten all about it until about an hour ago and I expect the Communist has forgotten all about it too: but I'll take him a card anyway. He and my mother live next door and I usually go to see them for half an hour at about eleven o'clock at night.

I do appreciate the Communist, who was busy painting our garden bench today and is always well-meaning even if thoroughly opinionated and very slightly bonkers.

They're both eighty-two, my parents, and I know that many - perhaps most - people have lost at least one parent by the time they are my age. So I'm glad they're both still here.


We all have pain from time to time and how we cope with it depends very much on our attitude to it. So labour pain can be hell - but millions of women cope well with it in the hope that the outcome will be a healthy baby. Because I have a somewhat abnormal womb that didn't contract properly, I don't think I ever suffered proper labour pain. When I was in labour having my daughter Emily, people kept offering me gas and air and I kept politely declining until finally I accepted just to keep everyone happy.

Other pain is hard to bear and people with terminal illnesses frequently choose to have less of it, even if it shortens their life. The Communist was a pharmacist and he made up many prescriptions of "mist. terminalis" - a heavy concoction of drugs to keep the person sedated until they died.

The pain that I have at the moment is not a good kind of pain. After my first baby died in 1984 I was very ill for a long time and, after being almost immobile for about three months, I had a DVT (deep-vein thrombosis) which was not diagnosed until some weeks later, when it moved up to my lung and became a pulmonary embolism - really, I am very lucky to be around and I must remember that.

The pain from the DVT was astonishing, and I think I have quite a high pain threshold. If you imagine the worst toothache you have ever had, and then imagine it in the whole of your leg, that's what it was like, and it was like that all the time, reducing me to a shaking, sobbing heap.

Over the years it gradually got better. It did hurt all the time, but only when I thought about it. So when someone asked "How's your leg?" I would be aware that it hurt, but the rest of the time I could kind of screen it out.

But now, after over twenty years, pain has, over the past few months, suddenly erupted again at the top of my foot where it joins the ankle. After a visit to a physiotherapists and a podiatrist the general consensus seems to be that it's to do with the circulation, caused by the DVT.

I hate it. It hurts like hell and it reminds me of losing my baby. Also, it makes it hard to do my job, which involves sitting at a desk for much of the day - exactly the position my bad leg likes least. I can walk absolutely fine - eight miles along Sutton Bank recently - it's standing still that's the worst, and sitting on a high chair the second-worst. "Everyone else I see can sit but they can't walk," said the podiatrist. "You can walk but you can't sit, and that's quite unusual."

Ibuprofen will get rid of the pain for a few hours but I don't want to take it all the time because I know it's not good for me in other ways.

One thing is, the pain doesn't show - so nobody thinks to give me their seat because I look perfectly all right, and because I don't want to be that person with the bad leg, I don't tend to ask them to.

My GP is referring me to a circulation-doctor next, though the podiatrist did say "but there may not be much they can do." I don't like having all this pain, and I don't like being the self-pitying moaner it turns me into.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Tomorrow Belongs To Me

I've just seen the first half-hour of The Pianist, which seemed to be a rather good film about a pianist in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War. I taped it a couple of months ago onto one of those video recorders that records onto a hard disk rather than on to tape, but hadn't watched it yet.

Unfortunately, after I saw the Nazis throw a man in a wheelchair out of a first-floor window and then shoot the rest of his family, the adverts came on and, without any apparent instruction from me, my right hand grabbed the remote control, paused the film, stopped it and deleted it. So I won't be watching the rest of it, it appears.

My earliest dreams were about the men in big boots who burst into my house in the middle of the night and dragged us all away: and sometimes about the wolves who chased after me when I jumped off the cart and ran away across the snow.

However, they were dreams, not memories: I was born more than ten years after the Second World War finished, in cosy 1950s England. So the logical explanation is that the dreams were caused by people still talking about the war all around me.

The men in big boots carted off and killed all my relatives in Eastern Europe though, as far as I know.

I suppose if I suggested to the bloke up my street with the big flag and all the little flags that there was any connection, he'd find it deeply offensive. Many people think that patriotism is a good thing: I don't, not in the way that some people mean it. Of course we should look after our country, its people, its environment, its wildlife, and of course we can be proud if we do that - - but that other sort of patriotism, the "my country's better than yours", which is halfway down the slippery slope to "my people are better than yours" - - well, it stinks.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Lions of Mediaeval France

As I wrote a couple of days ago, the Communist calls any plant a dandelion.

He could well be right: apparently there are over a hundred species of them. They are closely related to chicory and have a bitter taste and diuretic properties. You can eat the young leaves in salad, should you wish to - but hey, I used to graze my way round the garden as a child eating anything edible, and I drew the line at dandelions.

Folk names include bitterwort, wild endive, priest's crown, doonheadclock, piss-a-bed, Irish daisy, blow ball, yellow gowan, puffball, clock flower, swine snout, Pu gong ying, fortune-teller, and cankerwort. All the books tell you it got the name of dandelion thus:

Two old French men were fruitlessly trying to dig them out of their lawns in about the year 1263AD, one Sunday afternoon, wishing that proper trowels and weedkiller had been invented.

"Eh bien," says Pierre, "quel plant is this?" (They lived near the coast and were fluent in Franglais)

"Vraiment, " replied Alain, "je ne sais pas. Je have never seen it before in ma vie."

"Regardez les leaves," said Pierre "Quoi does that look like to you?"

"Et alors," exclaimed Alain, "les leaves rassemblent exactement aux dents de lion."

"Oui," said Pierre excitedly. "Les dents de lion!"

And when Pierre went home to tell his wife that he had found a new plant with leaves that looked just like a lion's teeth, she was busy cooking some kind of vile mediaeval fish stew and didn't really listen so misheard the name and later told Mme Dupont next door that her husband had found a new plant called a dandelion.

Well, it's rubbish, isn't it? Firstly, Alain and Pierre had never seen a lion in their lives, not even on television, far less examined its teeth. Secondly, have you looked at a dandelion leaf? Okay, it is a kind of zig-zag, but tell me honestly, would you look at it and go "Wow! That looks EXACTLY like the teeth of that lion I saw at Longleat last August"?

No, I reckon somebody just made up the story to explain the word. I reckon the true explanation is that it comes from a long-forgotten Old English word meaning "nearly bloody impossible to dig out of the lawn."

The soil in our garden has been lovingly made from old vegetable peelings composted by my mother over a period of nearly fifty years. Add to this a bit of global warming and the dandelions are in heaven. Usually dandelion leaves are about six inches high, right? And occasionally up to a foot, in the right conditions.

Here is my mother with some she found this morning:

It would have to be a jolly big lion, that's all that I can say.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

1984 part four

While Laurence was in the special care baby unit they didn’t seem to know what to do with me, so returned me to the ante-natal ward rather than the post-natal ward, to the little side ward with the banging door – but at least now I was allowed to get out of bed to shut it.

“You need to express some milk for baby. Go and collect the breast pump.”

Where was the breast pump? On the post-natal ward, down the long corridor and past all the women with their huge, plump, full-term healthy babies.

I was very weak, because I had lost a lot of blood at the birth, because “it was all so sudden” – well, that’s how it seemed to them. Not to me, because I had been claiming I was in labour for hours. Nobody ever mentioned this, though any kind of apology would have been at least a start.

Twice a day, I walked the Green Mile through the post-natal ward and collected the breast pump. I never produced any milk. Apparently that can be the case with premature babies, but I think it’s also to do with the fact that you need to be relaxed, and reasonably healthy, and I wasn’t either of these. They looked at me with disappointment.

Late one night the door opened and a woman came in, wearing either civilian clothes or a uniform that I didn’t recognise. She didn’t introduce herself, but then nobody ever did.

“Now then. Your baby is very small and very ill. Would you like him to be christened?”

“No, thank you.” I hoped that this would make her go away.

“I don’t think you understand. He’s very premature, and quite likely to die.”

“Yes, I know that.” (And I’m so pleased you’re going on about it at half-past eleven at night).

“So would you like him to be christened, then?”


When they admitted me to hospital I had written, next to Religion, the word “None”. Strangely, this was always taken to mean “Church of England”, which I consider to be rather an insult to the Church of England.

“Because if you don’t, he might die without being christened.”

“Yes, I know.”

“And wouldn’t that bother you?”

Okay, here we go then.

“So you’re saying that if I don’t have my innocent new-born baby christened then he’ll go straight to Hell if he dies?”

“A lot of people believe that, yes, so perhaps you should consider it.”

“Can you go away now, please?”


“If you had read my notes at all you would know that I am not religious. Now go away.”



I think I woke every patient on the ward. She went. In the morning I complained about her. Who on earth was she?

She was Matron, that’s who she was, setting the tone for the whole tactless, thoughtless, uncaring pile of shit that was that ward in the autumn of 1984.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Our Gothic Pile

"Where's this?" I cruelly asked the Communist and my mother.

They peered at it.

"It's somewhere near here," I said helpfully.

They were baffled and thought for a while.

"The Roman baths on Gledhow Wood Road," said the Communist.

Not a bad guess, but WRONG.

"It's nearer than that."

They drew a blank.

"It's in our house."

They looked even blanker.

"In Emily and Gareth's study."

Finally I told them.

"It's about one and a half inches high."


Yes, Gareth, Emily's fiance who lives with us, made it from plaster, using moulds, and then painted it and took the photo. It's to be used when playing Dungeons and Dragons, and looks very realistic. In fact, if I were Millie, the tiniest fairy in the world, I might move in.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Hermaphrodites of Lyme Regis

The Communist frequently talks in code, which is only to be expected. Sometimes he claims old age as his excuse, but verily, 'tis not so, he's been doing it for years.

"You're mum's got some dandelions. Can you get a jamjar for them?"

This means:

"Your mother has picked a beautiful bunch of flowers from the garden. Could you supply her with a vase?"

Or, sometimes you get,

"The one who was in that film. You know, with the rabbit. The one who died."

In this case it was James Stewart. In many other cases you don't get much of a clue, except "The one who died" is the usual ending.

I have to say that my mother has always done it too. Cousin Frank once marvelled when she said to me,

"Daphne, can you get that thing? It's in the thing on top of the white thing"

and I instantly fetched it.

Tonight the Communist came up with a new one.

"When we were in Lyme Regis we walked along that place where Meryl Streep walked in The French Lieutenant's Woman. And then there's that place under the cliffs where you can collect things."

"What things?"

"You know. Hermaphrodites."

Happy and Contented

“He was happy and contented” we say, frequently putting the two words together in a phrase, which suggests we don’t think they are the same thing. Otherwise we’d just say “happy”, wouldn’t we? It was pointed out to me the other day that because until relatively recently we didn’t expect to live much beyond the age of thirty-something, we didn’t evolve with a contentment gene that kicks in at forty. It wasn’t necessary, because we’d be dead by then.

Actually, I don’t think that’s the reason we never got the contentment gene. Our DNA just didn’t want us to have it. You’re as old as you feel, right? Well, most of us feel about twenty-one, and it’s all our DNA’s fault. Our DNA, of course, regards us merely as a useful tool to replicate itself. By the age of forty many of us have done this, and reared the results, which consist of more DNA of the kind that listens to loud music and doesn’t tidy its bedroom.

Once we’ve done that, the DNA loses interest, and has no further care for how we feel or investment in our behaviour. Okay, a bit of contentment might be pleasant for us, but what’s the benefit in evolutionary terms? None at all that I can see. DNA’s not into contentment, not anywhere.

When the bluetits have exhausted themselves rearing a whole nestful of chicks, and those chicks have fledged and left the nest, do the bluetits think to themselves hey, great, job done, I’ll just spend the rest of the summer sunning myself on the bird table? No, they don’t. They think wow, fantastic, just time for another brood before the autumn if we get a move on.

And it’s the same with us. What if suddenly, on our fortieth birthday, we woke up contented? This job’s great, we’d think, and I love my house exactly as it is. The garden’s fantastic, I’ll keep it that way for ever. I’m totally happy with my standard of living and when my cat dies I’ll get another one just the same. My partner is gorgeous and I’m never going to even glance at another human being and think I might fancy them.

Of course, some of us are like that: but then some of us were like that at twenty-one and didn’t seem to have any of the drives that fire the rest of us.

The rest of us stay how we always were – contented in some areas, perhaps, but in others always seeking something different, new, better. It’s happiness we seek, not contentment. This kind of potatoes will grow better than last year’s and that will make me happy. I’m going to change my job, or travel to Thailand, or find a new partner, or learn the tango, or buy a new house, and that will make me happy.

So what is happy? Happy is more fleeting than contentment – it’s that lifting feeling inside when you suddenly feel wow! all’s well with the world! But it doesn’t last.

The contented middle-aged are in some ways lucky – they perhaps don’t have that much Happy, but neither do they have much Depths of Despair. The trouble is, they’re a bit - - well - - dull. Those who retain their drive to explore new things, to move forward, are easy to mock, and the contented mock them. “But why do you WANT to do this?” they say. “What, at your age?”

They say these things partly out of fear. They know, in their heart of hearts, that they’ve missed out, that we weren’t made to be contented, that it’s better to have the ups and downs of emotion and to help each other through the downs. After happiness, the next thing to come along is sadness, but the happiness will come back. After contentment, the next thing to come along is death.

Monday, June 12, 2006


What does this mean?

Everywhere, aren't they? But what do they mean? Okay, there's the World Cup going on and we last won it in 1966. And who are "we", exactly? It wasn't me, I was too young to play. Was it you? No, I thought not. So, the people sporting these flags on their cars somehow think that by doing so they will become part of the "we" and when David Beckham finally raises the World Cup in the air and the papers the next day all have huge banner headlines about Forty Years On, then they will, in some small way, have been part of it.

Well, they won't. Supporting your local football team, taking pleasure in watching people you know play and improve, okay, fine, if you like that sort of thing. But don't kid yourself that this team called "England" is anything to do with you: it isn't, it's to do with huge big business. I'm not even complaining that footballers are paid too much - they are very highly skilled, and therefore in demand, and therefore paid accordingly.

It's a shame if the only way to feel we belong is by the old-fashioned method of "My country's better than yours". Worst-case scenario: England beat Germany in the final. Can you imagine the so-called jokes, the endless references to the Second World War, the jingoistic reporting? Second worst-case scenario: Germany beat England in the final. The endless jokes about German efficiency not paying off, the tasteless headlines all referring to the War and how this is Germany's revenge - - oh, I can't bear to think about it.

People do want to belong to a community and these days, too many don't feel that they do. So they are creating this artificial community of "EN-GER-LAND"-worshippers. Wouldn't it be great if all this wanting-to-belong could be harnessed and put to good use in people's local communities, instead of all this "we're better than you" nonsense?

Near where I live there is an excellent pub, the White House, of Oakwood, Leeds. Good food, pleasant atmosphere. I am particularly pleased with it at the moment for this reason alone:

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Escaped from Flannan Isle

I like birds and I'm forever feeding them - at this time of year, when they've all got nestlings, they clear the bird table at least three times a day.

Mostly, of course, we get the same kinds - sparrows, blackbirds, bluetits, great tits, thrushes, magpies, collared doves, woodpigeons - - and the occasional rarer ones like yesterday's goldfinch.

And a mile or so away in Roundhay Park there are plenty of ducks and crows and geese and I usually feed them, too, as I walk round Waterloo Lake, which was looking particularly good this morning.

At the far end of the lake there are some fence posts sticking up, and often there is a line of gulls sitting on them, though there wasn't today:

What's that in the middle of the picture? Zooming in, I found this:

So what on earth is it? Huge great bird, about the size of a heron - in fact I thought it was some kind of black heron at first, but I don't think so, I think it has webbed feet for a start, and a heron doesn't.

Nobody else seemed much bothered by it - and there were lots of people in the park - so perhaps I'm the last person in Leeds to find out about the Big Black Bird of Roundhay Park. It looked like one of the three black birds in Wilfred Wilson Gibson's poem about the 1900 mystery of Flannan Isle, where the three lighthouse-keepers disappeared:

And as into the tiny creek/We stole beneath the hanging crag/We saw three queer, black, ugly birds/Too big by far, in my belief/For guillemot or shag/Like seamen sitting bolt upright/Upon a half-tide reef/But, as we neared they plunged from sight/Without a sound or spurt of white.

Well, Wilfred, I think what your narrator saw were cormorants. And, if we weren't sixty miles inland, I'd say this was a cormorant too. You know, big black things, perched on a rock out at sea, often seen with their wings spread out drying in the sun. Not usually found on a lake in Leeds with a lot of ducks and coots and the occasional heron.

Here's a link to a picture of a cormorant. If you can confirm or deny, or come up with any other theories, please let me know, because I'm a bit out of my depth with this one.

I'm going back to feeding the birds in my garden now. Tomorrow perhaps I'll find a golden eagle on the bird table.

Saturday, June 10, 2006


My father, eventually finding the tiny button, switched his mobile phone on.

Because its battery was flat, it immediately switched itself off again.

“Is it on now?”

“No, it’s switched itself off.”

“But I’ve just switched it on.”

“Yes, but its battery’s flat so it switched itself off again.”

“So can people ring me now?”

“Well, they can, but it won’t ring because it’s switched off.”

“But I’ve just switched it on.”

“Yes, but its battery’s flat so when you switch it on it immediately switches itself off again.”

“So how do I know its battery’s flat?”

“Because it’s switched itself off.”

“So how do I know it’s off?”

“Because the screen’s gone blank.”

“Well, I wouldn’t notice that, would I, if I’ve just switched it on. How on earth do they expect you to spot a thing like that?”

Who needs a mobile phone? The old, that’s who, more than anyone else, for when they go out and the car breaks down or the bus is late or the weather turns bad. And by “old” I mean the over eighties, and I’m not using any tactful terms like “elderly”, I mean “old”. There are lots and lots of them, the active over-eighties, and there will soon be more.

And they haven’t got mobiles, mostly, because they can’t work them. All right, the cost may come into it, but I’d be willing to bet that one look at all those fiddly little buttons and menus puts them all right off.

So Vodafone decided there was a gap in the market and produced a phone for the old (whatever else they pretend it is, that’s what it’s trying to be).
They called it the Vodafone Simply. And, like a fool, I let my father buy one. And it’s rubbish.

The Top Man at Vodafone clearly thought it would make them look good if they produced a phone for old people. And then they thought, hang on, there’s never going to be any money in this, because all these old codgers are only going to use these phones in emergencies to tell their daughter their car’s broken down. So they got their youngest trainee phone designer – let us call him Kevin – and asked him to design it.

But Kevin, of course, became a phone designer because he was good at using mobile phones. He lived for using his and it had all the latest gadgets. Texting, sending pictures, videos, the internet - - he loved it all.

So his idea of “simple” was not the same as yours or mine, let alone my father’s.

Look at the website. “Big buttons” it says of the Sagem VS1, which is the phone my father has. What? Somewhere deep in the heart of Fairyland lives Millie, the tiniest fairy of all. And she is using buttons BIGGER THAN THESE to do up her underwear.

And to use these tiny buttons, look at the simple instructions.

“You can also access your voicemail with the usual shortcode. To listen to your voicemail again, press the Log button and choose Voicemail.”

Oh yes, that’s going to mean a lot to the generation that fought Hitler, isn’t it?

There are helpful Tips too. If you can get at them.

“To access the full collection of tips from the Home screen, press Settings and then All Tips.”

Pressing one button and then ANOTHER button is NOT GOING TO HAPPEN, okay? Nothing in life has prepared my father for two-button sequences and he's not starting now.

What’s needed is a BIG phone. Twice the size of a normal mobile, at least. Okay, so it’s going to be heavier, but at least it’s harder to lose and then you can have proper BIG BUTTONS.

When it’s ON it should say ON. All the time. It doesn’t need any facility for saving numbers. The numbers are in the diary in the top pocket and that’s where they’ll be found if needed, thank you. It needs clear, written instructions that scroll down the screen by themselves.

“Someone has left you a message. Press One to listen to it.”

It doesn’t need any facility for texting. Forget it. Neither does it need a “Silent” setting. Once switched to it, it would be switched to Silent for ever and its owner would never receive another phone call.

It needs to be able to make calls, and receive them, and that’s it.

Might it not have been a good idea, Kevin, to ask the potential customers what they wanted? Of course, Kevin thinks anyone over forty uses a Zimmer frame and the idea of talking to anyone over eighty is incomprehensible to him.

And, of course, to come back to my earlier point, there’s no money in it. The over-eighties just aren’t going to chat to all their friends on their mobiles, running up huge bills. So, however much Vodafone – or any of the other phone companies - pretend they care, they really, really don’t.

Meanwhile, if you want to buy a phone for an old person, get a Nokia. It’s not ideal, but it’s far easier to use than a Vodafone Complicated.


It's great when people leave comments and I get some interesting, witty, entertaining and thoughtful comments on this blog, so many thanks to you all who have written about moot holes, spider diagrams, coffee machines in ice-cream vans and many other topics. The most recent one which I found this morning is a good example, from my cousin Colin, about the piece I wrote on the subject of his daughter Helaina last Monday.
So please, keep the comments coming - if you're not sure how to leave a comment, you click on "Comments" on the bottom of the piece. If you tick either the "other" or the "anonymous" box you don't have to sign up to Blogger. Then you have to retype a few squiggly letters - this is to prevent spam (and so far, it's worked).

Friday, June 09, 2006

Rabbit smoots, bee boles and dry stone walls

The traditional jobs in the British countryside all involved long hours, heavy lifting and cold weather. However, in another life if I am ever asked which one of these jobs I would prefer, it would undoubtedly be building dry stone walls.

A dry stone wall is a thing of both beauty and usefulness and it lasts for years and years. You can see the skill that has gone into building them.

As well as looking good, they have many uses apart from dividing up the land. Sheep shelter against them. Mosses and lichens grow on them. Insects live in them. In places such as Shetland, where there are few trees, small birds nest in them.

Below is just a short stretch - I wonder how long that took to build, and when it was built? Incredibly hard work - but surely it must have been rewarding to see the finished wall, and know that future generations were going to see it too.

Click on this link and find about rabbit smoots, bee boles and hogg holes in dry stone walls. Not to mention squeeze stiles and step stiles.

Wire fences, in comparison, are dull, ugly and have far fewer uses.

Hoorah for dry stone walls - long may they last!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Grand Day Out

From the top of Sutton Bank on a clear day you can see for ever. It certainly feels that way. It's not as well-known as the Lake District or the Yorkshire Dales perhaps, but it has wonderful views and some superb walks.

You too can see this view:

Go up the A1 (or down it, if you live a long way Up North) until you reach the turning for Thirsk on the A168. In Thirsk, turn on to the A170, signposted Helmsley and Scarborough and then just keep going, passing through the wonderfully-named Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe. It's all flat. Flat - - flat - - very flat - - flatter - - hey, bit of a slope here - - OH WOW IT'S VERTICAL!

That'll be Sutton Bank. You drive up it, marvelling at the sudden steepness, and then turn left at the top and there is the Sutton Bank Visitors' Centre and a large car park (pay and display, not expensive). There are often exhibitions of paintings or photography in the visitors' centre, and they sell books of walks in the area, including several of varying length from the visitors' centre itself. There's a good cafe too.

You can walk to the White Horse of Kilburn (just over a mile) which is astonishingly clear from a distance and very hard to identify when you're almost upon it.

But one of the best walks is along the Cleveland Way, and that's the one we did last Saturday. You walk from the visitors' centre to the edge of Sutton Bank and there's the path. At first it looks like this:

Then it opens out and looks like this:

Most people seem to cluster round the visitors' centre, and if you walk along the Cleveland Way you quickly leave them all behind - after half a mile you hardly see anyone except the occasional friendly walker.

The views are wonderful all the way - here's Lake Gormire:

and you can see all the landscape and villages spread out in the distance.

What astonishes me is that there are so few people about. It's not difficult to get to and it's one of the few places where you can see wonderful views and yet the walk itself is only very gently rolling. The Cleveland Way goes on for miles but we turned back when we got to the place in the picture below, just to make sure we come back soon to see it again.

Dream come true

One of the favourite books of my childhood was Marianne Dreams, by Catherine Storr.

The story is about Marianne, a young girl who is recovering from an illness and begins drawing with a special pencil. The things she draws she then dreams about, both good and bad. It has a strangely haunting quality and I read it many times – so many times, in fact that my copy fell to pieces. From time to time I would think of it and wish I still had a copy.

Years later, in the year 2000, I was in the bookshop with my daughter, who was then age ten. Suddenly, I came across it – Marianne Dreams! They had republished it.

“Emily, look!” I said excitedly. “Marianne Dreams! I’ve been wanting this for ages. It’s fantastic. You’ll love it. It’s the kind of book that stays with you forever. One of my absolute favourites. I’m going to buy it for you now and I know you’ll have read it by the end of the day.”

Suddenly, I noticed a familiar figure standing nearby, clearly having overheard every word. It was Emma, a doctor whom I knew from some work I had done at the University of Leeds.

“Oh, hello, Emma. I’m just telling Emily about this wonderful book. Did you ever read it?”

“My mother wrote it,” she said.

Oh yes - - of course. Emma Storr.

So I asked Emma to tell her mother, who was very elderly, how much the book meant to me, and she did.

Things like this happen very seldom, I find, but isn’t it good when they do?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Days of the Sixes

Today is, of course, the sixth of June, 2006 - or 06/06/06. They don't pop up that often, these memorable dates, and therefore they tend to stick in my mind.

The last one with all the sixes was the sixth of June, 1966 - or 06/06/66 and I remember it well. I was in the third year of primary school, in Miss Temperley's class, and that afternoon things were a bit different from usual.

We were not in our usual classroom, which was upstairs in the main school building, but instead we were in the prefabricated hut where we were destined to spend the whole of the next - crucial - eleven-plus year, in Mr Storey's class. For some reason Mr Storey was in charge of us that afternoon - perhaps to get us used to him, or to get us used to the classroom, or both.

He was much stricter than Miss Temperley - he had to be, in order to turn a motley bunch of ten-year-olds into a streamlined fighting force prepared to do battle with the fearsome eleven-plus exam and to win, thence to conquer all the local grammar schools and take over the world.

But he was breaking us in gently and we were having a reading afternoon. No catch! No questions or worksheet or essay to write afterwards. Just reading.

There were three books on my desk. Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, which I had read before and very much enjoyed. Then The Jungle Book, also by Kipling, which I had picked up off the shelf because it was next to Just So Stories. I had, however, tried it that afternoon and abandoned it. Deeply dull. Never liked it. Never finished it. Still haven't read it. I went back to Just So Stories for a bit.

But, as a kind of insurance policy, I had picked up a third book without really looking at it. Being bored was the thing I liked least of all - it still is - so I thought I'd better grab another book just in case. It was The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

I started to read and was plunged into an eternal Narnian winter with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. Aslan the lion was my hero. I loved it all. The hot afternoon sped past and the bell went and I went home and carried on reading.

"Daphne! Tea's ready!"

"Just let me finish this chapter - - "

It was the eternal cry of my childhood. Over the next few days I read all the Narnia books and they are part of me forever, like the boarding school of Jennings, the river bank of The Wind in the Willows, the Lake District of Swallows and Amazons, the dream world of Catherine Storr's Marianne Dreams.

And the strange thing was, I knew it at the time: I knew that book was going to be special to me. I'll remember today, I thought.

Now I’m on my second Day of the Sixes. An ordinary day in many ways: a day of sunshine and interesting conversations. I’m going to remember this too.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Perfect People

In the newspapers recently I read that twenty foetuses nationally have been aborted late on in pregnancy because they were found to have such defects as club foot or cleft palate - both now correctable with modern medical intervention.

Thinking about this, here is a photo of Helaina, which I took last week at a birthday party:

Helaina has Costello's Syndrome , which is a very rare genetic disorder with only about 200 reported cases worldwide. She is the daughter of my cousin Colin and his wife Kath: here they are all together:

Helaina is twelve. As you can see, she is tiny. She has multiple handicaps and has had cancer and spinal problems.

She clearly feels loved and secure. At the party she had a digital camera and went round taking lots of photos, laughing with pleasure. Her parents have worked incredibly hard to give her the best possible quality of life, and nobody could have done a better job than they have.

Many people, if they knew they were expecting the birth of a child with multiple handicaps, would have an abortion. In these circumstances I am not anti-abortion: I think it's a matter of personal choice. Some people would simply not be able to cope and the child would have a very poor quality of life.

However, aborting an otherwise healthy, wanted foetus because it is known to have a club foot or a cleft palate is not only wrong in itself, it's a step down a slippery slope. The thinking goes: if your baby isn't going to be perfect, why not get rid of it and try again?

What if they could check your unborn baby for such factors as blonde hair, or not being very clever at maths, or having little aptitude for team games, or being frightened of horses, or not having a Pollyanna-type overly-cheery personality?

"Oh no," you say, "of course I wouldn't have an abortion for any of those reasons."

And I know you wouldn't, and I wouldn't either. But some people would, and it's wrong.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Rags, bones, onions and ice-cream

I heard it the other day, for the first time for a while.

"Raaa - - Bo!"

When I was a child the cry of the rag and bone man was a weekly occurrence as he went by with his horse and cart. Now people tend to take things to the tip in their cars, or hire a skip. But in Leeds we still have a few rag and bone men.

One of my friends was astonished by this recently. In every other city in Great Britain, she insisted, rag and bone men were extinct, gone for ever like child chimney-sweeps.

But no: the rag and bone man still exists, though sadly the onion man seems to be no more.

The onion man came from Roscoff in Brittany, France. He came once a year throughout my childhood with his son, and when his father got too old his son came on his own until just a few years ago. They cycled round the streets with great strings of onions dangling from their bicycles. They always had a chat with my mother because she spoke French and when I was at secondary school I used to hide in case I was made to speak French too.

"Say hello to the onion man, Daphne." - - - - NOOOOOOOOO!

When I was little I used to think that they somehow cycled from France to our house with a bikeload of onions, just for us. Then one year I found out the truth when their lorry broke down and they asked to store their onions in our garage. Onion skins are like Christmas tree needles - they go everywhere. The garage leaked onion skins for years afterwards.

When I was twenty-one I lived in a Victorian terraced house in that part of Cardiff with the great name of Splott, down towards Tiger Bay. One night it snowed. I woke the next morning and looked out of the window - everything was white and because it was early there had been no traffic and there were no footprints.

Walking down the road with his brushes over his shoulder was a chimney sweep. It looked like a scene written by Dickens.

Look, honestly, I'm not that old. But so many things that were common when I was a child have gone completely.

What will be next? One of the signs of summer is hearing Greensleeves or the magnificent classical piece Just One Cornetto played on that glorious instrument, the ice-cream van. But some parts of the country have decreed that their tinkling chimes pollute the air and their evil wares add to the epidemic of child obesity.

All right, it's difficult in these days of exercise-free children to argue that ice-cream vans waiting outside schools are a good idea. But going to the park, or to the beach, and getting an ice-cream as a treat - that's summer. That's fun. Save the ice-cream vans!

Red Red Red - - and revision

I'm posting late at night because I have been out walking on the Cleveland Way near Sutton Bank in North Yorkshire. More of that another time - except to say that it's stunningly beautiful. And to advise everyone to wear suncream, like I didn't. I had almost forgotten about sunshine as there has hardly been any this year. I did, however, wear my Tilley Hat. It is a superb Canadian Hat which is the best possible hat for walking in the sun. Read the blurb: it's all true. Except it doesn't mention how silly they look. Mine is the one on the right hand side with the huge brim. Great hat. Looks ridiculous.

Meanwhile, this is what has happened to our kitchen cupboards:

Emily's AS-level history revision about the Chartists and the Reform Bill Crisis 1830-1832.

It is not the weather for that sort of thing. The sun is shining and the May blossom is out, for goodness' sake! Here's the view from Sutton Bank this morning.

I wish we could find a better system, so that teenagers didn't have to sit external exams on days like this. They might never go out in the sunshine: they might still choose to sit in darkened rooms playing guitars - and that's fine by me, too - but at least they'd have the choice.

Friday, June 02, 2006


Here are some shadows that I found in Golden Acre Park, Leeds, today:

They are shadows from a Monkey-Puzzle Tree , Araucaria Araucana, a native of Chile and Argentina and so called because it was thought that it would be tricky for a monkey to climb. And so it would, because the branches are very, very spiky:

Some people love them - majestic, characterful - some hate them - gloomy, Victorian! I love them - they are so strange and remind me of a Victorian country house in the Lake District where we used to stay. They were imported into Britain from the eighteenth century onwards as part of people's unusual plant collections.

The Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby is well-known for jet, the black shiny gemstone so beloved of Victorians, and still made into jewellery today.

And what is jet? Jet is fossilised monkey-puzzle trees.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Art of Failure

At grammar school they never stopped teaching us things. Learn to conjugate these verbs, these formulae, how to use a slide rule, to draw a sketch map of the Great Lakes (I still can, should you require it) to draw a diagram of a motte and bailey castle, this list of French nouns, adjectives that keep the E in Latin - - on and on and on.

Except in Art. In Art they taught us nothing. In Art we were given a piece of sugar paper and then had something plonked in front of us. We were to draw it, or sometimes to paint it with poster paints. Sometimes it was a plant. Frequently it was a still life. A pile of books with a ruler on the top. What could be more exciting for a class of thirteen-year-olds? A bowl of fruit. Whoopee.

Such things are only worth drawing if you have at least a morsel of an idea of how to draw them. What we did was start in the top left hand corner with an apple and then find that the apple was too big and the banana on the right-hand side wouldn't fit. Or that the apple was too small and you now had a drawing of a tiny bowl of fruit in the top left hand corner of a vast grey sugar-paper desert.

Occasionally we had a burst of using our imaginations where we were given a title such as "A Jungle" and we had to paint this. We all tried to put in monkeys, which we couldn't draw, and parrots, which we couldn't draw, and it was all very frustrating, apart from the snakes, which were easy, so we did lots of them. We drew our deformed parrots and monkeys and then coloured them in neatly and we knew this was not the way to great art but had no idea what was. My friend Sarah wisely stuck to lots of differently-coloured leaves and hers was a bit of a success and was put on the wall outside the Headmistress's study.

Did either of the art teachers ever suggest a method for setting about this mysterious craft? Or suggest how to show where the light fell, or how to draw a shape, or how to work out where to put it on the paper, or indeed how to look at anything and see how it actually looked rather than how you assumed it would look? No, they did not. This was the early nineteen-seventies and school art was still trailing clouds of summer-of-love and free expression.

So, when our tiny-bowl-of-fruit or deformed-monkeys was finished, or as finished as it was ever going to get, one of the art teachers would come and look at it. They were both gentle women aged about ninety-three (almost all our teachers were ninety-three at the time, though, with hindsight, they may have been a bit younger than that).

The art teacher stared at your picture for a while. If it looked reasonably like whatever you were trying to draw she would exclaim

"Ah! It's beautiful!"

If it looked nothing like anything at all and was a hideous mess of which you were deeply ashamed, she had a different exclamation.

"Ah! It's beautiful - - - of its kind."

Well-intentioned though they were, they failed us. They neither taught us the traditional skills of drawing and perspective, nor invited us to experiment with ideas and new materials. Our art lessons were one big missed opportunity.

In my brother's class at the middle school just down the road, they had a more lively approach and a skinny lad in my brother's class was no doubt doing terrible things to the school goldfish in his art lessons. His name was Damien Hirst.