Monday, June 30, 2008

In the Sea

Swimming in the sea is one of the best things ever.

Here I am, doing it, earlier this afternoon. The tiny dot slightly over to the left of the photo is my head.

Of course, you can see from the crowds that don't surround me that everyone else disagrees.
Everyone else thinks look, for goodness' sake, it's June and the sea in South Wales is freezing. The woman is clearly mad.

But I was taught by my mother - and the only reason that she wasn't in the sea this afternoon was that she was in the hotel's open-air pool: and, in fact, after my swim in the sea, I came up the cliff path and had another swim in the pool. Yes, yes, I know.

My mother always assumes that if you are by the sea, than the greatest pleasure is to swim in it.
She's passed this on to me. The cold doesn't bother me - cold rarely does, as long as I can keep moving - and I absolutely love swimming where there are waves. One of my earliest swimming memories is of realising that, if you float on your back, you will just bob over really quite big waves. I love gliding in with the waves, or plunging through them, or just swimming along parallel to them.

To me, swimming in the sea is the nearest I get to a feeling of total freedom. I hope that, like my mother, I'll still be doing it when I'm eighty-four.

I don't like it when I tread on a flatfish though, and it wiggles under my foot. Everything else is great.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Beside the Seaside

Here's some seaside that we like to be beside: this was the view of Tenby today, seen from Park Hotel where we're currently staying:

And here we are, beside the seaside, leaning over some railings to look at the sand below with the sea about to wash over our shadows. From left to right: me (with camera), my mother, Emily and Stephen.

After a grey and drizzly start, it's turned into one of those golden Tenby days of the kind that have brought us back here year after year after year.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chips and Mayonnaise

"Can I get some mayonnaise and ketchup, please?" asked Gareth of the waiter in Caffi Beca, which is a delightful and unpretentious cafe not too far from Cardigan.

Because I am not pedantic in any way at all, I didn't bother pointing out to him that this "Can I get" construction is quite clearly replacing "May I have" in younger people at least: I blogged about it earlier this year in a very accepting-of-change way and not in a pedantic-old-fart way at all. Just wanting to be sure that you know that.

But MAYONNAISE with CHIPS? No. Ketchup with chips. I had to point out the error of his ways. Ketchup with chips. Mayonnaise with - - - well, nothing at all, really. Mayonnaise is mere gloop. Mayonnaise is just salad cream with the interest taken out.

Emily weighed in with a whole new tack which is that mayonnaise is usually eaten with fries, not chips; curly fries in particular, which she said were delicious. Though I tried some once and she is wrong.

Further, she explained, fries are mostly corn. There is more potato in McDonalds' milk shakes than there is in their fries, she said, warming to her topic.

I came back to the fact that Gareth was eating CHIPS. Proper chips in a proper cafe. Proper chips made from proper potatoes that grew in the ground.

And you may, if you so wish - and I generally do - eat them with ketchup, but because I was reared a rather long time ago I would call it "tomato sauce".

Sadly, by the time the debate was well under way, Gareth had dipped all his chips in mayonnaise and eaten them.

There are, I suppose, somewhere on the planet a strange group of people who prefer curly fries made from corn and wallpaper paste to proper chips made from POTATOES. And I'm sorry if you're in the USA and call all chips fries anyway. Just don't dip them in mayonnaise, that's my advice.

I'm so glad we've cleared that up.

Friday, June 27, 2008

From Bala by Eee

Here I am in Bala in North Wales, looking out of the window of the guesthouse. Firstly there's a field of cows, and the field slopes gently down the valley to the town of Bala at the bottom. Then, in the distance, misty hills. It's getting dark rapidly and the street lights are shining.

I've had a laptop for a few years; it weighs about as much as my car and is powered by a small coal-fired boiler tucked underneath. Whenever you want to use it you have to spend half an hour crushing the coal into small pieces first. When you log on it gives you a welcome message that begins "Hail, sir knight!" - - You get the picture.

So, after a bit of thought - "I want a new laptop!" - and a bit of a reminder from a good friend that I'd been saying that since March, and a lot of research done by Stephen who knows about these things, I bought this, an Asus Eee 900. It's about the size of a paperback. I think I'm going to love it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Again, for the 44th Time

Remember this? Emily and Gareth's wedding at Park Hotel, Tenby, South Wales, in February this year.

Well, that trip to Tenby felt like cheating - a sneaked-in trip to Summer in the middle of Winter.

Even the weather obliged.

(and thanks to John who took the photographs)

But now it's Summer, proper Summer - - - otherwise known as "the rainy season".

So it's time to go back, for the 44th time. Yes, really. Tomorrow we travel to Bala in North Wales, and then on Saturday to Tenby. I've had such a busy week that I haven't had time to think about it.

I expect it'll work its usual magic, though. And I'm taking my brand new little laptop, an Eee (aaah - so cute!) so I'll be posting as usual. Though perhaps not tomorrow in Bala, as the signal there is terrible, I seem to remember.

So where have I been recently? London! Skipton! Barnoldswick! Skipton again! Dewsbury! Paris! Holmfirth! Huddersfield! Today, Shipley.
Tomorrow, Bala, Saturday, Tenby.
Bill Bryson, eat your heart out.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Au Square Alex Biscarre

In the Saint Georges district of Paris, last Saturday afternoon, it was hot and sunny and I found this:

I don't know how "square" got there - I've never come across it in French before.

It wasn't what I would call a square, though: I walked through the gate into a delightful garden.

Nobody was speaking: everyone was just sitting, enjoying the gardens and the sunshine. It was remarkably quiet, with all of Paris so near. The only voice to be heard was a mother singing French nursery rhymes to her toddler.

On the other side was this imposing building:

Apparently it's the Hotel Thiers, which was destroyed by the Communards in 1871, then rebuilt, and now a library.

But I was just as interested in this, up high on the other side:

And suddenly I was imagining myself in another life: living in that apartment, waking up every day with a view of the gardens below.

Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, seemed very far away.


What time was it when Sean Connery went to Wimbledon?


No, don't thank me, it was a pleasure.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Yet Another Disgusting Thing to Complain About

A little while ago Silverback wrote a piece on his blog about all the seven people who had flooded in to complain about the use of the word "pikey" on the BBC.

Seven! Oh, that's as nothing! Two hundred have complained about the thing I'm going to write about! TWO HUNDRED! It must be important then. That's really, really lots, especially when compared with the sixty million who live in the UK. That's nearly, ooh, well, some percentage or other.

Heinz have withdrawn their commercial for Heinz Deli Mayo after those two hundred people complained about this piece of disgusting filth. Watch it for yourself, but try not to get corrupted or anything, because I won't be held responsible if it turns you gay. Or straight. Or anything else. Hope that's clear.

I heard a discussion about it on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio Two, where a woman with a Posh Voice (they're the worst, obviously) was saying it was terrible because children throughout the land would be confused because the child in the commercial calls a MAN, and what's more an AMERICAN man, "Mummy": and another woman was disagreeing, but in a rather lack-lustre way.

Only some time later did some bloke ring in as the Voice of Reason. He said that the plot of the commercial is actually that the Heinz Deli Mayo is SO good that it turns the children's mother into a New York chef. They are not REALLY living with a bloke from New York. The commercial is not really a bid to - to use that old phrase - Promote Homosexuality. It's what is known as a "joke". (If you happen to be one of the two hundred who complained, you can find out what a "joke" is here).

But still, hey, two blokes have a peck on the cheek and this could no doubt precipitate the downfall of civilisation as we know it, so Heinz have clearly done the right thing in saving the nation by withdrawing their commercial. Also the commercial was obviously not clear, especially when viewed by the kind of dreary people who get their kicks - sexual and otherwise - by complaining about Filth on Television. "Ooh, it's disgusting! Ooh! Let's watch it again and check just how disgusting it is!"

I shall leave the last word on this important topic to the man who rang in just before I forcibly ejected the car radio and threw it in its case.

"I don't mind homosexuality," he said, "but I don't want it thrust down my throat on television."

Monday, June 23, 2008

On a Paris Street

"I've got just over an hour free," I said to the delightful man who ran the Institute. "Which is the best direction to wander in?"

"Well, if you want shopping - - "

"No, no, not shopping. I just want to look."

"That way then. There's a big church up there on the left, you can use that to orientate yourself. There are lots of interesting streets up there. I'll put my mobile number into your phone in case you get lost. And here's a map. Just ring me if you have any problems."

So much for the myth about rude Parisians. I found everyone charming.

I wandered up a street near the Rue de Chateaudun, a street of small shops.

Flower shops:

Fruit and vegetable shops:

Cake shops:
The sun shone and everyone I passed smiled at me. It was that kind of morning.

I kept thinking of Ella Fitzgerald singing "I love Paris in the springtime, I love Paris in the fall, I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles, I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles."

It sizzled. I love Paris.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


This is the kind of thing that you see when you're steering a narrowboat: though I took this photo from the roof, so you'd normally be a bit lower.

The principle of it isn't difficult. If you move the tiller at the stern ("back" in case you haven't seen Pirates of the Caribbean) to the left, the front ("prow" if you have watched too much Captain Pugwash and insist on correct terminology) of the boat goes to the right.

So here we are, approaching a bend to the right - you'd just move the tiller a little bit to the left and the boat goes neatly round the bend. Easy.

Or so I used to think, anyway.

In the olden days of twenty years ago, Stephen and I had locks and swing bridges down to a fine art. I would steer the boat towards the bank, jump off and hold the boat steady with the middle line (a rope positioned in the middle of the boat, because if you grab a rope at the prow the stern swings out into the canal and vice versa).

Stephen would work the lock gates: when they opened I would take the boat into the lock: I would wait whilst the lock filled or emptied depending upon whether we were going up or down hill, and then I would steer the boat out, steer the boat near to the bank, Stephen would jump on and off we'd go.

On the first day of our boating holiday last weekend, I seemed to remember how to do all this. Into locks we went: Stephen worked the locks: Silverback observed, because he'd never been on a narrowboat before. Oh yes, I thought, this boat is not so easy to steer because it's a hire boat with an engine that's really been rather hammered, but hey! I can do it.

Up the locks we went. No problem. Yes, yes, I know that I have always had a tendency to go "Oooh, look at the cute ducklings!" and start throwing bread to them whilst the boat wandered about a bit. Yes, I know that taking photos of cygnets or foals whilst steering was always going to be slightly bad news, accuracy-wise, but I've always got away with it before.

Then we shared some locks with another boat and on board was Shouting-Instructions Man. He decided that, because I was on a hire boat and was a Only a Girl to boot, I needed to be told exactly what to do with my tiller. By the end of it I had a few ideas, too, mostly to do with him.

After several locks of him telling me to move my tiller to the left, the right and all other directions known to man, he said confidentially,

"D'you know, my girlfriend won't come on the boat with me and I don't know why."

I knew why. But the more he instructed me, the worse I got. I even let him distract me - yes, my fault I know - to such an extent that I let one of the cushions (like bumpers) on the prow get caught in a lock gate and the boat began to tip up at a jaunty angle until the bumper's chain snapped. I have never done such a thing before.

Now, remember that film where Daryl Hannah plays a mermaid? She goes into a television shop and watches a whole load of televisions, and suddenly she can speak fluent English. Silverback, whilst appearing to be merely watching proceedings whilst taking photographs from the bank on the first day or so, had in fact been silently learning Everything About How to Steer a Boat And Work the Locks.

So by the third day I'd most definitely lost my boat-steering touch and I was quite happy to let the two blokes do it. Which they did. Most efficiently. Damn them.

Still, I can make a decent bacon sandwich, which is crucial, after all, on a boat trip. I'm sorry, Mrs Pankhurst, if you think I'm letting the side down.


I generally prefer countryside to cities, but I had been to Paris a couple of times before, both on day trips when we were staying in Burgundy, and I was rather surprised to find that I absolutely loved it.

This weekend I continued to love it: and I also loved Eurostar. Now that the trains go from St Pancras which is just next to Kings Cross, it's so easy to get a train from Leeds to Kings Cross, walk a couple of hundred yards and voila! - you're on your way.

I was lucky enough to be working in central Paris, and also lucky enough to have quite a bit of free time yesterday to explore it in the warmth and sunshine. Wonderful.

I got back last night and have a really busy day today with an AGM of the company that I work for, so I haven't time to post much now: but here's a quick glimpse of one of the things I particularly liked.

Tall, graceful buildings, flowers on their balconies, trees around them.

More later: but meanwhile, here's the Paris branch of a well-known British bank.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Et Maintenant - - -

Nobody would ever class me as a well-travelled person. I love travel programmes on television - most recently Jonathan Dimbleby travelling all over Russia.

It was partly my bad leg - - I'll spare you the details but I had a deep-vein thrombosis when I was twenty-eight - - oh, enough - - but over the years it's got rather better. And I can walk for ages - but standing or sitting still is not good news for it. So I haven't travelled very much, certainly not compared to many people.

Anyway, all this not-travelling thing seems to be changing recently.

A week ago we went to London by train, you may remember: you can read Silverback's highly entertaining account here. Then the next day, by car to Skipton and, over the next few days, to Barnoldswick and back by narrowboat. Home to Leeds and then I went to Dewsbury on Tuesday and to Huddersfield yesterday. Oh yes, you can't say I haven't been travelling. Quite a lot. Quite a lot for me, anyway.

Now, the trip to Dewsbury was to do a medical roleplay to help train some nurses - as you may know by now, I have done lots and lots of this, since 1985. It's one of the - few - things I feel really confident about. So when I was sent a job advert (thanks Martina!) asking for people with diabetes who could do medical roleplay I thought hey! I've got to be in with a chance of getting this.

The upshot is, I'm doing it. On Saturday. In Paris.

So I'm travelling by Eurostar from Leeds tomorrow, staying in a hotel overnight in Paris, doing the roleplay on Saturday morning and travelling back Saturday evening. They are paying all my expenses and a generous fee.

I remember in my A-level French course there was a whole section about the Chunnel - - the Channel Tunnel. It was just a big idea in those days - nobody thought it would actually ever exist.

And tomorrow I'll be travelling through it. I've never been abroad on my own, so I'm a bit nervous, but I'm really excited. Laugh at me if you like, I don't care! I'm off to Paris! Wooohooo!

I'll tell you all about it when I get back. And also about my skills in narrowboat-steering, since you ask, Mr Pudding.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

All The Seasons in One Day

On the Cleveland Way near the Sutton Bank Visitor Centre, there is a notice warning you not to set off walking unless you have the right footwear and some good waterproofs, as you can get the weather from all four seasons in one day.

We're always going on about the weather in this country, perhaps because there's a lot of weather to go on about.

I love sunny days: but I've often wondered whether I would like to live somewhere where there's near-permanent sunshine. I think I'd like it for quite a while, certainly - here in Britain sunshine and heat is still rare enough to be considered a novelty. Especially if there was somewhere to swim! Sea, pool, lake and even river - - I enjoy them all.

But I love the different looks that the changing weather brings to the British countryside. And guess what, I'm going to illustrate some of those looks from photos I took on our recent narrowboat trip. I don't have a particularly posh camera, or any particular photographic skills - (I keep thinking I should learn more and stupidly never getting round to it!) - but I do love the countryside and here are some photos wot I took. If you'd like a better look, if you click on them they will enlarge.

Genuine British Dull Grey Clouds. We get a lot of these:

Four- o'clock- in- the- morning streaky sky: - you can see the boat on the left - I nearly fell in the canal taking this one in my sleepy state.

Early-morning mist with a sunny day to come. Yes, I know we had a Morning Mist Photo yesterday. I just happen to like early-morning mist, so here's another one. Sorry.

And one of my favourites: Lowering Clouds with Sunshine.

I still have a painting that Graham Battye gave me years ago, of somewhere in Derbyshire with light like this, and I've always loved it.

However, let me give you a Handy Hint on this one.

If you happen to be travelling along on a narrowboat, thinking that it might be nearly time to moor up for the night, and you see skies like this, then it is probably a good time to STOP.

What I did was go hey! Look at that sky! I'll take some photos of it! And perhaps we'll outrun the clouds. After all, narrowboats speed along at about four miles an hour - - no problem!

Can you guess What Happened Next?

So when the torrential downpour started, and we thought it really might be a good idea to moor up, like NOW, suddenly we were at a part of the canal where instead of having nice straight banks with grass, we had lots of shallow mud instead, enabling the boat to get nicely beached on several occasions before we found a place to moor.

I must say that the two men on board, Stephen and Silverback, did a lot of Manly Things with reversing the engine and pushing with barge poles to free the boat again, and were remarkably good-humoured about the fact that they got very, very, very, very wet in the process.

But one of the good things about British weather is that it can always change for the better. And this was the next day, coming into Skipton in the early morning sunshine:

I loved it all. Every minute. Even the soggy ones.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Now then, you may know all this, but just in case you don't, here's a brief bit about narrowboats.

They're narrow. That's as in 6'10" wide. Often people call them barges - - but a barge is wider. You get more barges on wider canals - a lot of canals in England are too narrow for barges.

In the Olden Days most of the narrowboat was taken up with cargo - such as coal - and the crew - often a family - just lived in a small area of the stern.

But these days most narrowboats are pleasure craft and they have All Mod Cons. Here's the one that we've just been on, pictured yesterday morning near Skipton in the Yorkshire Dales.

Rather foreshortened in this photo, true, but idyllic-looking nevertheless.

It was 45 feet long and inside it looked like this:

It had a fridge, shower, loo, kitchen, cooker etc and claimed it could take a maximum of eight people. Which was rubbish as it was just perfect for three. Luckily there were three of us.

Because it was a hire boat the engine was slightly tired - - okay, what I really mean is "thrashed within an inch of its life" and this boat was a bit of a pig to steer. Well, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it like glue. In reverse it didn't seem to have any steerability whatsoever and in Going Forward it didn't do much better. And I used to be really rather not bad at all at steering, years ago. Damn.

Anyway, before I finish this first post about it all, I want to show you two of the things I like about holidays on the canals.

Firstly, I just love the fact that, within reason, you can moor up for the night out in the middle of the countryside (please see photo, above).

I just love the nights on the boat. I love that miles-from-anywhere feeling. I love the bats flying about, skimming over the water having taken over the insect-eating job from the day shift of swallows.

And I tend to wake up every morning at four or five, knowing that there'll be mist on the water, and I always creep out to take a photo of it.

And then, by seven or so, the mist has cleared and on a sunny morning the canal looks something like this:

As we kept saying - - Gorgeous!

Yorkshire countryside in early summer. Fantastic.

Monday, June 16, 2008

To London

So, last Thursday Silverback and I went to London.

The reason for the visit was an invitation to the preview of Summer which is a new film from Sixteen Films, the company founded by Ken Loach. One of our actors, Steve Evets, has a major role in it: hence the invitation.

But before the film, it was time to be Tourists. London is really very good at looking exactly as you'd expect: there's this casually-dressed-men-on-horses kind of thing going on just about everywhere.

I took some photos of little-known places that had never been photographed before. Well, not more than a couple of thousand times an hour, anywhere.



You get the idea.

And a few actors trying to earn a living by doing some clever but rather silly things:

Usually when I've been to London the whole day has been taken up with some Important Event like a museum trip, or a course, or a matinee at the theatre. The beauty of Thursday's trip was that the film didn't start until six o'clock and we hit on the simple yet brilliant idea of not doing anything before it - - except wandering wherever we fancied. Silverback, who, let's face it, has travelled many, many more miles than I have, seemed happy to take charge of the map and I was extremely happy that he did.

So, after an afternoon of such places as Covent Garden Market and Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square and Chinatown, we had a very pleasant meal in a Thai restaurant and then turned up at the Charlotte Street Hotel in good time for the screening in its comfortable cinema. The hotel was lovely too!

Summer is a very well-acted story about two men who have been friends since boyhood: I enjoyed it very much. It's having its premiere this coming weekend at the Edinburgh Film Festival and you should be able to see it soon.

Robert Carlyle is excellent in it - but then, when has he ever been anything else? And our Steve Evets was superb too. As I hope you'll remember the name, perhaps now is the time to point out that Evets is simply Steve backwards.

What a delightful day it was! Interesting places, great film, very congenial company. Silverback even took in good part my interesting attempt to name every plant and shrub that we could see from the train: he didn't try to throw himself out, not even once.

A Grand Day Out indeed. Wonderful!

And the next day we went to the narrowboat for the weekend - of which more tomorrow.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Back from the Smoke and Off to the Waterways

We had a really lovely day in London today (thank you Silverback for your excellent company) and I'll write more about it very soon.

But it's now five to one in the morning and tomorrow we go off on a narrowboat on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal for a long weekend, starting from Skipton. And more of that soon too! Meanwhile, I think I should probably go to bed.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

To the Smoke

When was I last in London? About two and a half years ago, I think, on a training course for some medical roleplay.

That time it was a chilly February and the London parks didn't look very inviting: though there were indeed uniformed nannies pushing prams like a scene from Mary Poppins.

This time the reason for tomorrow's visit is a bit more glamorous.

Steve Evets, an actor whom our agency represents, spent some time last year playing the role of Daz for a film, Summer, starring Robert Carlyle and directed by acclaimed director Kenny Glenaan. It has its premiere soon at the Edinburgh Film Festival, but as Steve's agent I've been invited to a preview in London. I'm going with a friend who, but for this blog, I would never have met!

Regular readers will know that Steve is currently filming the leading role of Eric Bishop in Looking for Eric, directed by Ken Loach, and he's having a fantastic time working on the film.

So, showbiz glamour eh? And I'm looking forward to a fun day in the Smoke too!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Testing the Patio

It was a lovely sunny day here Up North in Leeds yesterday, and several good people arrived to test out our new patio and see if it worked.

Two of them were the Communist, who was home for the morning from the nursing home, and David who had come round to visit the Communist.

When he first arrived, in a wheelchair taxi, the Communist had somehow slumped down and forward in his chair.

"Can you lift me up a bit?" he asked.

"Not on my own, no," I said. He looked at my mother. "No, no, she can't help, don't even think about it," I said. My mother is very fit but not at all strong. And she's eighty-four, like the Communist.

He has no idea how difficult it is to lift him. He just can't help with it at all these days.

"Couldn't one of the actors help?" he said.

The actress who was in the office yesterday is tiny, and anyway I wasn't going to let a self-employed actress risk hurting her back and being unable to work for the next few months. So I put my foot down.

"No, sorry." I explained why.

Then the Other Communist arrived. The Other Communist has been friends with the Communist since they were both fourteen. He's small, wiry and almost blind. He's also eighty-four, of course.

"I'll help you lift him," he said.

And he did. We lifted the Communist up in his wheelchair and he was much more comfortable.

He sat on the patio and looked at the garden and chatted.

Afterwards, he declared that the morning had been "Lovely. Just lovely".

And the patio worked a treat.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Mouse Teeth and Roman Coins

It's not easy, this archaeology thing. Not that Emily ever thought it would be. They're also known for being a bit out of the ordinary, archaeologists: ferociously intelligent and decidedly quirky. She fits right in.

In amongst all the being ferociously intelligent and discussing theories about the development of mankind, there is quite a lot of digging in mud.

It's not like it often seems on television where they arrive at some random bit of field, dig for ten minutes and hey presto! A Roman villa with extensive mosaics and a hoard of Roman coins.
No, the archaeologists and students dig in trenches in the British weather, which is very good at being Too Cold, Too Hot, Too Wet and Too Windy and not so good at being Perfect Weather for Digging.

Then best bits of mud are chosen and taken back to the lab for further analysis. How do they choose which are the best bits? A qualified archaeologist who knows about such things chooses them, that's how.

(I know this might be considered rather a simplified version, Emily, but I'm doing my best here).
The Best Bits of Mud are then baked in an oven, because this makes the Best Bits of Mud more crumbly and more likely to fall off whatever's concealed in them. If, by any chance, the mud contains a silver goblet or King John's Crown Jewels, it's pretty likely that the team will have noticed this by now.

But generally, the finds aren't so obvious. So the mud has to be sieved. There are different sizes of sieve. Firstly, ten millimetres for the really huge stuff. Then it's sieved again, five millimetres this time. Then two millimetres. Then one millimetre.

Here's a photo that Emily took of the Sieved Bits. On the right is a pencil, so you can see the size.

They find a lot of mouse teeth, says Emily, and they are very sharp.

It's all glamour, archaeology.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Mystery of the Missing Foxgloves

So my mother put a few plants in pots to go on the new patio:

And finally, it's finished - here's my Ancient Mother sitting on the Ancient Bench on the New Patio, and I feel obliged to point out yet again that she's eighty-four. (She asks me to point out that in all these pictures she's wearing her gardening clothes, hence the T-shirt bought on a French campsite nearly ten years ago).

I remember the bench arriving in the mid-sixties. It's made of some kind of tropical hardwood, in the days when owning tropical hardwood was held to be cool and not a method of destroying the Amazonian rainforest and hence the rest of the planet.

But, having stood outside in all weathers for many years, it was looking a bit the worse for wear so the Communist varnished it a few years ago with Exactly What it Says on the Tin varnish and, although a bit battered, it looks set to make it to the next millennium.

Our house is full of things like that. They're not quite what you would want, but you can't quite throw them away, because they are filled with memories and poignancy.

Anyway, before my mother started her patio-building exploits I moved all the plants in pots off the area and stowed them just a few feet away.

Now, one thing about my mother is that she's always doing things that she hopes will please me, which is really kind of her, and I think I don't always show that I appreciate it enough, but I do appreciate it.

My mother knows that foxgloves are one of my favourite flowers. Daffodils in the Spring, foxgloves in the Summer. There are lots of foxgloves in the garden and my mother, in the course of her usual gardening, gathered some of the seedlings up and put them in a pot to go on the new patio.

They were all growing nicely. I lifted the pot off the patio and put it to one side.

And when I came to put it back, there it wasn't.

We've never found it. Anyway, how can you lose a big pot of foxgloves? Stolen to order, I reckon, by an international ring of Foxglove Thieves. Probably the same lot who nicked John's Landrover over a year ago. I expect they stuffed it full of stolen flowers and drove it abroad.
I bet my pot of foxgloves is in Belgium by now, selling for hundreds on the black market. Bastards.

I'm very pleased with the patio, though. Thanks, Mum.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Jonathan Admits Responsibility

In the classroom at Coal Street Junior School, all the poster paints have been knocked over and Timmy Grimethorpe has a bruise on his leg.

Miss Pudsey, the teacher, arrives at the scene having moved at some speed from the other side of the room.

"Now, then, I want to know exactly what happened."

All the children gather round excitedly and wave their arms in the air.

"Miss! Miss! It were Jonathan, miss!"

(Look, we all know he probably wasn't called Jonathan, he was probably called some trendy name from a TV series of eight or nine years ago. I am writing this piece in the names of my childhood so as not to open any more cans of worms or distract you from what it's about. Which I haven't got to yet, so I'll continue. Thank you.)

Everyone looks at Jonathan, now extremely busy painting with ferocious concentration and apparently in total ignorance of the fact that everyone else in the room is gathered round the sobbing Timmy Grimethorpe and the spilled paints.

"Jonathan!" shouts Miss Pudsey in her Very Scary Voice, which is reserved for Serious Offences.
"Did you knock the paints over and hit Timmy?"

"No, miss. It wasn't me, Miss. I never even noticed, Miss. I wasn't even there. I've been over here all morning, Miss."

Miss Pudsey takes Jonathan to one side and looks at him in her Sad and Disappointed manner.

"Now then, Jonathan. Everyone in the class says that they saw you do it. Was it you?"

Jonathan bursts into tears. "I just wanted his red, Miss. And he wouldn't give it to me. So I hit him. And then all the paints fell over."

In comes Mrs Thornton, the Head Teacher.

"What's been happening here?" she enquires.

"One of the children hit Timmy and then knocked over all the paints," says Miss Pudsey.

"Who was the culprit?" asks Mrs Thornton.

"Jonathan has admitted responsibility. I've told him he has to stay in at playtime."

Now then, let us consider the key phrase "admitted responsibility."

And now let us move forward twenty years. Jonathan has become a member of a political group - let us call them the Direct Action Through Killing People group - which hopes to further its cause by, say, planting bombs in shopping centres.

He plants the bomb, and it goes off. Luckily nobody is killed (look, there are enough people being killed in the real world without any getting killed in this fictional one).

Jonathan is arrested by the police. The incident is reported in the national press.

" - - and it is understood that the Direct Action Through Killing People group has claimed responsibility for the incident."

Now then. Why, when such incidents are reported, is the phrase claimed responsibility always used?

Let us go back to the classroom.

"Jonathan has claimed responsibility. I've told him to stay in at playtime."

Why didn't Miss Pudsey say that? Because she knew that what Jonanathan did was wrong, and she wouldn't have dreamed of using the word "claimed" in those circumstances.

When someone, say, plants a bomb in a shopping centre, almost all of us know that it's WRONG. So why is it reported with those words "claimed responsibility"? Why not,

"The Direct Action Through Killing People group has admitted responsibility."

Why do we give them the power and the glory of that word "claimed"?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Where the Caravan Isn't

Just below the office window in our house is the place known as Where the Caravan Isn't.

For many, many years it was Where the Caravan Is.

"Nothing wrong with that caravan," said the Communist. "Just needs a bit of cleaning up."

We bought the house from my parents in 1999 and their house was built in its large garden. From time to time we'd have good-humoured discussions about the ownership of the caravan.

"It's yours!" said the Communist. "You bought it with the house! We included it in the price! You got a bargain!"

"No, no," I'd say. "I think you'll find no mention of any old wreck of a caravan in our deeds. It's yours. Take it away."

My mother, meanwhile, did what she always does which was to put some plants in front of it - see above - and hope that this would make it invisible.

It didn't.

Finally, a man knocked on our door and asked if we wanted it. We tied him to a chair and made him sign a form promising to take it away at once. And he did, towing it behind a van and ignoring the fact that the caravan had no wheels. Well, no round wheels, anyway. And certainly no tyres. Lots of sparks on the road as he drove off. We didn't care. We cheered.

And, when my mother had cleared it all up a bit, here is Where the Caravan Isn't, soon afterwards.

But my mother wanted to make Where the Caravan Isn't into a proper sitting-out place, and she decided that this would be a present for me.

So first of all she cleared it of this Spring's weeds. Then she got some spare sand from the patio Gareth's been making outside Emily and Gareth's house, and she spread it all over, as a base. Then she drove to the garden centre and found some gravel. Then she came home and measured it all. Then she returned to the garden centre and got them to deliver the gravel a few days later - a Very Helpful Man put the bags all round the outside for her, whilst telling her his life story, which she greatly enjoyed.

Then she marked it all out with canes so it would be even, and she set about heaving the bags to the right places and spreading it out.

She doesn't really abide by the Union of Gardeners time rules, so she just kept on working and I couldn't take a photograph of the finished result, because by the time she came to say that she'd finished, it was only visible to owls.

But it looks great: there's a bench on it and it's a lovely place to sit and look at the garden. And also to look at the semi-derelict greenhouse.

"Nothing wrong with that greenhouse," says Mum, "it just needs a bit of cleaning up and a few new panes of glass." Really, those who survived Hitler can carry make-do-and-mend to a new level.

Still, I feel I should remind you here that my mother was born on 20th April 1924 which makes her eighty-four, so she's not doing too badly with her patio-making exploits. And if you need a hand with the pigs, Malc, I'm sure she'd be interested.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Camping des Chevrets

The last time I visited Camping des Chevrets in Brittany was exactly thirty summers ago. We went there on holiday for several years in a row.

The location, very near Mont St-Michel, was pretty ideal for us. It's a long thin strip of land - click here for an aerial photograph - with a lovely sandy beach, with safe swimming, on one side, and a rocky exploring-the-rock-pools type beach on the other.

There weren't such things as hot showers on most French camp sites in those days, but I really didn't care, because there was such a thing as hot weather. I would wake up, put my swimsuit on and crawl out of the tent in the morning and go straight into the sea. Then after my swim I'd rinse off the salt in a cold shower, and go back to the tent for breakfast. I loved it.

A party of French girls came to our school for ten days or so when I was in the sixth form: one of them, Beatrice, stayed with us. I remember that she was shocked by how early we ate in the evenings and the dearth of wine, and that she complained about "my liver" all the time which I thought was a bit wet. I preferred her friend Brigitte.

Anyway, Brigitte, Beatrice and their friends all - by complete coincidence - lived in St Coulomb, the little village just near Camping des Chevrets. So when we were camping there the next summer we went to visit them. I remember there being beautiful old oak furniture in the house, and the parents apologising for it, saying they couldn't afford anything newer.

There were - and still are - lots of good restaurants in the area, but we generally only went out to eat once during the holiday, because France was so expensive in those days. So we took most of our own food from England and lived on a rather Seventies diet of baked beans and Instant Whip.

I have such strong memories from those days. The year we arrived in a terrible thunderstorm and a family whose name was Coleman - why do I remember that? - invited us into their tent until the rain eased off. The year I had a dreadful cold and spent about a week lying in the tent feeling really ill and unable to breathe properly. The first time I tried frites - those thin French chips - and absolutely loved them. The year it rained for several days in a row and I lay in the tent reading a very fat autobiography of Noel Coward.

I loved the freedom of camping, the feeling that the actual time of day didn't matter.

In the tent were my parents, me and my brother Michael. We left my grandmother - my mother's mother, who lived with us - at home in England: she generally went to stay with my uncle and aunt in Stockport.

We arrived home clean, though never stylish. We had turned a reddy-brown in the sunshine and my sun-bleached hair was like curly straw.

My grandmother disapproved of us in this state.
"You all look terrible," she would say, which subdued us slightly. "Such a mess!"

Of course, as I realised later, she probably hated being left behind, but, as a Victorian born in 1898, would never have contemplated camping in her seventies, although she was very fit and well right into her nineties.

My mother, age eighty-four, would go back to camping tomorrow. We all got T-shirts while we were there and she was wearing hers just the other day - she believes in getting value out of clothes. Me, I believe in getting value out of memories, which is why I often go back to them.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Once Upon a Time There Was a Cat

To York today, where the river was looking particularly lovely in the early Summer sunshine:

and, looking the other way:

and the Department of Archaeology, where Emily is based, at Kings Manor, was looking all rather gorgeous:

We, however, had our minds on High Culture.

We were going to see Rabbit and Hedgehog at York Theatre Royal. Here's the image from the poster:

If you click on the link above and press Play and get the little slideshow, you'll see photographs of Rabbit and Hedgehog: and Hedgehog is played by Ashley Christmas, who is one of the actors represented by the agency that I work for.

Everyone else in the audience had an age in single figures, or was a teacher of very small children, but we enjoyed pretending to be four again, and we joined in with gusto, pretending to eat our birthday cake and singing Happy Birthday.

The show was terrific. Quality drama is quality drama no matter what age it's intended for. A great script, a simple story and the actors were superb: it's a very physical show and they must be very fit, doing two performances a day.

We were a little bit scared when it started to rain and we were worried that Rabbit would get flooded out of his burrow. But, just in case you're thinking of seeing it and this is making you nervous, I think I can safely tell you that no rabbits or hedgehogs are harmed in the making of this play.

As a child I was very easily scared by stories or plays or films. Emily still maintains - with a certain degree of accuracy, it has to be said - that my favourite kind of story goes like this:

"Once upon a time there was a cat, and it lived happily ever after. And it still does."

I think that many plays and pantomimes and films intended for children are scary bordering on the terrifying. But this play hit just the right level - a tiny amount of Mild Peril, but not too much.

A lovely way to spend a morning, and the beauty of York was a bonus.