Sunday, April 30, 2006


He wasn't really from Crawley, so it's certainly not Crawley's fault, and I shan't say where he was really from, because it isn't that place's fault either. But he was the man I was sitting next to at the aforementioned Footballers' Dinner in 1986 and he was the dullest man in the world. On the other side of me was my husband Stephen, and he can talk perfectly well in real life but doesn't do conversation at dinner parties and, what's more, nobody expects him to. So it was just me and Crawley Man.

"I've just bought a new house in Crawley," was his opening gambit.
"Oh, good, and are you pleased with it?" says me, in an friendly making-conversation kind of a way.
"Oh yes. Fifty grand profit on my last house. Bought it for blah blah in nineteen eighty blah and now just blah years later it's worth blah"
"Really?" (I am still making conversation but my eyes are beginning to glaze over)
"The wife didn't like the old house. The garden was too big. We've got rid of the lawn at this house too. More space for the cars."
"And it's really convenient for Sainsbury's."
"Do you know Crawley?"
"No, I've never been there."
"Well, to get to Sainsbury's from my house you have to turn left. Then there are three roundabouts. The first one you go straight across - that's the one by the hospital. Do you know the hospital there?"
"No, I've never been to Crawley."
"And when you've passed the hospital it's about two hundred yards to the next roundabout."
"And just by the next roundabout there's the Dog and Gun. Not a bad pub actually, do you know it?"
"No, I've never been to Crawley."
"Well, about half a mile down the road there and there's the Comfort Foam shop. You can get foam in all sorts of shapes and thicknesses. Ever been there?"
"No, I've never been to Crawley."
I looked at Stephen who was apparently giving his undivided attention to his unidentifiable food which I knew he hated.
"And then after a couple of hundred yards - - no, wait, I think it's a bit further, I'll just work it out - - past the Fire Station - - then there's the vet's - - well it used to be a vet's but I think he's retired now - - must be two hundred and fifty yards - - and there's the third roundabout. The one with that house with the red windows. Do you know the house with the red - -?"
"No, I've never been to Crawley."
"Anyway, just past that and Sainsbury's it on your right. The turning in is easy to miss, though - I've been in through the way out three times now, can you believe it?"

I could believe anything. And there were three more courses to go.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Own Goal

I like simple food. Fresh ingredients and not too much messing about. None of that duck-in-chocolate-sauce nonsense.

Expensive restaurants make me uneasy, because they really do make me think of the starving millions: and then I feel a hypocrite because the degrees of plenty are irrelevant. There's always lots of food in this house, even though some of it, the fruity and vegetably bits, is considered vile by at least one of the occupants.

In 1986 I found myself at the Poshest of the Posh meals, £80 a head, and that was a lot in 1986 (it's a lot now, if you ask me).

It was a weekend jolly from my husband Stephen's work and the idea was that all his colleagues played golf all weekend - but the exciting bit was that the people they were playing against were most of the team who won the 1966 World Cup. The whole thing was masterminded by Bobby Charlton ("Who's he?" asked Stephen, who knows as much about football as I do about Higgs Bosuns) and when I rang my father to tell him that the guest of honour was Sir Stanley Matthews he thought I was winding him up.

So, for football fans, fantastic - and even I was a bit impressed when Sir Geoff Hurst MBE asked me if I was enjoying it all (the true answer was, er, no, not really, but that's not what I said).

As it was 1986 and the country was governed by the Milk Snatcher, all the women without exception were wearing huge ball gowns in turquoise satin with vast bows. - Oh, yes, there was an exception actually - me - and I don't know what I was wearing but it was deeply wrong. Some slightly hippyish-looking skirty thing probably, with shoes that didn't match. I don't want to think about it.

And the food, to justify the expense and to impress us all, had been overcomplicated until you couldn't tell what it was. Hence I don't remember what most of it was, but I do remember dessert.

Dessert was a plate covered in pureed kiwi fruit with little lines drawn on it in white chocolate and a little ball of brown chocolate nestling in the middle - - I know! You have guessed! A football pitch! What a charming tribute, eh?

It tasted really horrible and I bet poor Sir Stanley Matthews had to eat something like it at every meal he ever went to.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Wonder of Toads

I know you didn't think I meant it. You thought I'd done the frog thing and that would be it for the amphibians.

But no, here I am again with the toads.

Those tiny dots above are some rare Natterjack toad tadpoles to be found in pools among sand dunes at Roan Head (pronounced Ron Edd by the locals) near Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria: I took this photo in May last year.

If you click on this Natterjack toad link you'll find a photo by Joe Cornish, the National Trust photographer, which must surely have been taken very near to Roan Head: the environment looks identical. Here's my photo of Roan Head, which again I took in May last year:

It's a great place to walk on a beautiful beach with the Lake District mountains in the distance.

Most toads you come across will be Bufo Bufo, the common toad. They look similar to frogs, though rather wartier. It's easy to tell the difference between a frog and a toad: frogs hop, toads walk.

Frogs lay eggs in roundish blobs of spawn: toad spawn comes in long strings. Nobody has ever given me a satisfactory explanation as to why. What's so different between frog and toad anatomy? Toadlets always seemed to me a bit cleverer and less prone to drowning themselves than froglets: otherwise, if you want to rear toads from spawn, follow my frogspawn instructions earlier this month and you'll be fine.

Camping in France one year we found a lump under the sewn-in groundsheet of our tent which wouldn't go away, in spite of our best efforts to hammer it into the sand below the plastic. When we took the tent down after a fortnight the lump turned out to be a large toad which walked off in a dignified manner, apparently none the worse for being trodden on, slept on and whacked with hard objects. Hardy things, toads - and they can live for forty years.


(and you know I mean it)

Thursday, April 27, 2006


My dad's friend Harry grew up as the youngest of thirteen children - eleven boys and two girls. They didn't have much money and there were so many of them that meals were a matter of go to the kitchen and grab whatever you can find. Often the children made their own food and I suspect that there were some very odd combinations going on. Harry acquired a habit, which he still has more than seventy years later, of opening any sandwich before eating it to see what dangers lurk therein.

I felt a bit like that this lunchtime, looking at the food provided at the student exam I was working for.

Big plates of lots of different kinds of fruit - fine. Slices of quiche - fine - easily identifiable and you either like it or you don't (and I do). Little samosas - fine. Plates of different kinds of cakes - marble cake, gingerbread - - fine.

But the sandwiches! It was as though they had been given twenty entirely random ingredients and told to assemble them in as many combinations as possible. Some were good - though roast beef and raw onion is possibly not an ideal lunchtime combination if the afternoon is going to be at all sociable. It was all Ham and Unidentifiable Green Puree and Cheese with Celery and Something Else But I'm Not Sure What.

The one that really freaked me out was white bread, cream cheese and fresh strawberries. Now no doubt someone out there will think "ooh, yummy!" but to me that particular combination of flavours and textures is a vile and disgusting idea.

A very individual thing, taste. The people who made the sandwiches were clearly trying to make them different and exciting, and at least they were trying - though misguided if you ask me, because a rushed corporate lunch is not the time for culinary adventures.

Different cultures eat things which seem really horrible to us, often because they can't afford to be choosy - if something is full of protein, then it's there to be eaten, even if it is a fried locust: and I expect that if you eat enough fried locusts then eventually you will get to like them.

I have been told, though I find it hard to believe, that there are actually people out there who like mint ice-cream.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


I have always been very cautious of anything that's supposed to be cute. I blame Walt Disney (though, okay, I blame Walt Disney for a lot of things). I associate cuteness with cruelty and terror.

The cartoons of my childhood were full of cute creatures to which terrible things were about to happen. Even Tintin (not Walt's fault this time, what a shame) which I couldn't either read or watch in case something happened to the little dog.

As an adult, I thought I had become immune, hardened to it through years of gritting my teeth and looking away. Small kitten in big basket? Pah. Sleeping puppies? So what? Baby elephant? - - Aaaah, look - - no, sorry, the baby elephant is not a good example because baby elephants are always cute.

But then a friend of mine (who shall remain anonymous, because I am really kind) sent me the link to Cute Overload. And I looked at it and went "Hah! I am totally immune to all this sort of thing so I can look with no danger of becoming addictaaaaah! LOOK how SWEET! But that's just ONE picture and I am immune to the rest, just watch me, I can look without any danger whatevaaaaaaaaaaaaaah just LOOK at THAT! LOOK AT ITS TAIL! AAAAAAAH!"

The site is gloriously overwritten. "If you lean really close to the screen, you can snorgle her ears". And you can learn all about the Rules of Cuteness.

You think it's just one moment, just one visit - - and then you find yourself surfing the net, late at night, and you think oh well, one more look won't hurt, nobody will know, and perhaps there'll be some new pictures - - and that's it. Hooked.

Then you try to take a perfectly ordinary photograph of Graham and Christine's dog Custard and it turns out like this.

It's a slippery slope. And I'm not even trying to stop sliding.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

What's not to Lichen?

Terrible pun in the title I know, but how do you make lichens sound interesting?

As a matter of fact they are interesting, well I think so anyway. For a start, they don't seem to know quite what they are: they are a mixture of a fungus and a plant. There are up to seventeen thousand different kinds (I won't list them all here) and the different kinds fall into categories with such names as foliose, fruticose, squamulose and crustose - great words to say.

I love the colours - all those greens, greys, yellows, golds, oranges. Good, ancient colours that have been around for centuries.

And that's the other thing - the sense of history. Lichens grow on rocks, old walls, old branches.

I find I keep taking photographs of them.

They give me a comforting sense of the continuity of life and I think they're beautiful.

I like the lizard too.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Stones and Flowers

It's a fairly new phenomenon, yet with a somewhat Victorian flavour. I'm referring to those sad little roadside shrines which seem to be everywhere these days - a few wilting bunches of flowers to mark where someone has died, perhaps in a car crash.

In a couple of places that I pass regularly, the flowers are always fresh. By the lake in the park where I walk, the families have gone a step further and put up large stones with verses carved into them. Two teenage boys drowned there, one trying to help the other: there is a stone at each side of the lake, with a warning to others not to swim there.

It's easy to mock the bad verse, the spelling mistakes carved into the stone - - and I don't like myself for wanting to. Both families have gone through terrible tragedy: but the whole thing of these little shrines makes me feel uneasy.

All right, with the stones by the lake, perhaps the families are trying to make other teenagers think before they go into the water. But what of the roadside flowers? What are they for? Who are they for? Why commemorate the place where someone died, rather than a place where they liked to be when alive? Those park benches "In memory of Fred Smith, who loved this place" - yes, I understand that, and his family can go there and think of him.

But the flowers - no, I'm not sure, like I'm not sure about those announcements in the newspaper "In loving memory of Freda Jones who died six years ago today. Always in our thoughts. Peter, Doris and all the children." Who is it aimed at?

And then there was this one I read once - truly:

He knocked upon the golden door
The angel shouted "Come!"
The pearly gates flung open wide
And in walked Dad.

Some people say that the family are just wanting to show the world how loving and caring they are, but I don't think so. I think it goes deeper than that. I think that people hope that somehow their loved one will know that they are remembered: that they will see the flowers by the road, or somehow glance through the Yorkshire Post from their armchair in Heaven and think oh, how lovely, Peter and Doris have put a notice in the paper because it's six years ago today - -

No, it doesn't make logical sense. The Victorians, by and large, had religious beliefs to comfort them and many of us, by and large, don't. So I think the shrines are a way of helping people to feel closer to their dead relatives, and perhaps to begin to come to terms with their death.

As a society, the Victorians did death in a big way - all that mourning and half-mourning and making cards with photographs of dead babies and huge gravestones and solemn hymns. Queen Victoria led from the front in her perennial mourning for Prince Albert.

We don't want to think about death these days: it embarrasses and frightens us. We've done away with it, hushed it up, shut it away in hospitals. Perhaps if we could acknowledge it more as a part of life then there wouldn't be a need for all these sad little roadside memorials.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Two Cool and Sexy Cars

In the conspicuous-consumption 1980s, my husband Stephen was given a company car. It was a Ford Sierra with lots of letters after its name - something like an XR4i - in fact it may well have been exactly like an XR4i. This is the sort of thing, below, except ours was a rather pinker red.

It was given to Stephen because it had previously been driven by a computer salesman to the moon and back, and therefore had lots of miles on the clock. As Stephen didn't sell things, just drove from home to work and back, he didn't do so many miles and therefore the company hoped that he would bring its average mileage down so as to avoid having to pay a penalty to the leasing company.

This Sierra was capable of going very, very fast indeed. Nought to sixty in the twinkling of an eye. It had sports wheels, a generally loadsamoney look and a big sign on the front that said "GO ON - STEAL ME NOW!"

Or it might as well have had. The local car thieves seemed to think so, anyway. Every few weeks we would look out of the window and there would be a car-shaped gap where it used to be. Very annoying, though it always made its way back to us eventually.

Its most exciting exploit was when it was driven up to Newcastle and took part in an armed robbery. But of course the robbers had to park it afterwards while they went to divide their spoils or whatever armed robbers traditionally do (see Turpin for historical information about this kind of thing). Naturally, some ordinary car thieves, seeing it parked, did the obvious thing and nicked it.

Finally they tired of driving it very fast round the North-East and stopped for some chips. And when they did, two young policemen found it and very, very altruistically, with no pleasure at all, drove it back down the A1 to Leeds and returned it to us, right to the door.

"We hot-wired it! It goes EVER so fast!" they said, with considerable enthusiasm.

In contrast, in the same period of the 1980s, I had a red car too. It was a Citroen 2CV and, although the one in the picture below was not mine, it looked remarkably similar.

Oh, magnificent vehicle, how I loved it! Maximum speed 71 mph, and that was only if you pushed it off a cliff. Nought to sixty in about a fortnight. But fun! That gearstick that pulled in and out! The way it leaned when you drove round corners! We drove it as far south as Bordeaux once in the summer, the top rolled back, with the person in the passenger seat standing up and waving to scare the French drivers.

It would have been quite easy to break into by slashing the roof, and I thought it would be a real shame if that happened, so I never locked it.

It never got stolen.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Wonder of Frogs

These may just look like a couple of old sinks to you, but to several thousand frogs, they've been home.

Two old Victorian sinks. The first one, the little one in the background, was sunk in the ground when I was a child and it was more successful as a pond than any amount of messing around with proper pond-liners and cement.

So, some years later, it was given an aesthetic makeover with a combination of peat, cement and water, which made it look less like a sink and more like - - well, a sink that's been covered in peat and cement, and then the bigger sink was added too. Over the years mosses and lichens grew, which helped.

When I was a child the garden was a frog-free zone: now there are dozens, so I think I've done my bit for the Survival of the Common Frog. There's always too much frog spawn here, so we have to give some away to other ponds.

Here's what to do (and this could well be my main area of expertise in life, so please don't mock).

HOW TO TURN A TADPOLE INTO A FROG with only the aid of water, pond weed and some frozen mince. Amazing!

When the frogspawn first appears it's in a big semi-transparent blob on the bottom of the pond and after a few days it rises to the top. The small round dark blobs in the middle of each egg then elongate and, after a few days, depending on the temperature, start to wiggle.

Soon they burst out of their spawn and make their way to some pond weed and hold on tight. At this stage they have external gills behind their heads which look like tiny bits of string sticking out.

While they have external gills they are vegetarian: once the gills disappear they eat meat. They will eat insects and worms that fall in the pond, but if there's not enough food they will eat each other so it's a good idea to help them by buying a small amount of frozen mince, thawing a few bits of it every day, and putting it in the pond. The tadpoles will reward you by clustering around it keenly. It's a good idea to take out any uneaten mince lest it poison the water.

After a while, each tadpole will grow two back legs which come through together. At this stage they start to breathe air. Then they get the left front leg, then the right one. Then the tail gradually shrinks and - hey presto! Tiny frogs.

Now, my decades of experience in this field has led me to know that the main aim of a tiny frog is to drown itself as swiftly as possible, so it's a good idea to put in wood or stones that will help the froglets to climb out of the pond. And off they go, to rid your garden of insects for several years to come. When they grow big they look like this:


Resist any temptation to bring frogspawn indoors. It will develop too quickly and the tadpoles will turn into frogs before there are enough insects about to feed them. Also the water becomes very, very smelly very quickly. Trust me, don't do it.


Q. Why does the front left leg always come through first?

A. Dunno.

Q. What are you doing with that frozen mince, Daffers?

A. Just feeding the tadpoles. Why are you looking at me like that?

Thanks to Gareth who took the picture, above, in Burgundy. Frogs vary in colour and the one above is slightly different from the ones in our garden. But then, it's a French frog.

COMING SOON (but not too soon, I promise)


Friday, April 21, 2006

The Bandoneon Band

A large, cold Victorian church: one of those cavernous places that are all uncomfortable pews, plaster angels and dignity.

Not, perhaps, the most immediately appropriate setting for a concert of any kind, unless it was to be Heavy-Handed Hymns Slowly Sung by Pompous People.

But there I was last night, to hear the fantastic Ninon Foiret and her superb group of musicians - they don't have a name as a group, which I feel should be remedied pronto - play a programme called Argentinian Landscapes and Mediterranean Soul. Tango music and music of heat and passion.

Key to the Argentinian music was the bandoneon , an accordion-like instrument invented in 1850 in Germany by a gentleman with a highly appropriate surname: Heinrich Band.

Where, however, the accordion or concertina are associated with jolly, folky seaside-fun music, the bandoneon has a much richer sound. Originally designed to be played in churches where there was no organ, it can indeed sound like a church organ - - or like people singing, or an orchestra playing - - it's a tremedously atmospheric instrument. In Argentina it is used to play tango music and perfectly captures the passion of the music.

Because it's so large - it rests on the player's lap - the person playing it has almost to dance along with the music in order to play.

The evening began with Ninon improvising music on the bandoneon - tapping, deep, resonant sounds, barely there sometimes - that led wonderfully into the music of Argentina. By the interval we had forgotten we were ever cold.

As we left there was the slight swishing of crinoline on stone floor as the Victorian ghosts began wistfully to dance the tango.

Oh, all right, there probably wasn't. But it was the best three quid's worth in West Yorkshire last night, no question.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sugaring the pill

I am diabetic. Not the insulin-dependent type, I am Type 2, diet-controlled, no-chocolate-for- me-thank-you, and I'm not even on tablets for diabetes.

But I have to have an annual diabetic check at the doctor's, and mine was due in January.

Well, I kept trying to book it but the dates and times they kept offering me kept clashing with some freelance work that I was already booked for (and was this work, by ironic coincidence, helping to train medical practitioners of various kinds in communication skills? Yes, it was, since you ask).

So finally, by booking about three weeks ago, I managed to get an appointment for this afternoon. And it was very busy in our office and I didn't feel like going because I had too much to do but nevertheless off I went to the doctor's, arrived a few minutes early, and checked myself in using the automatic screen where you tell them what gender you are and when your birthday is and it rewards you by telling you that you are checked in for your appointment at 3pm.

I was only a tiny bit concerned that I'd be told that the diet isn't enough and I'll have to go on to tablets, but not really worried.

Doctors came and collected patients: nurses came and collected patients: nobody came and collected me. At 3.30pm, when I was still waiting, I went and asked the receptionist what was happening.

She looked very puzzled for a while and then called one of the nurses. They peered at the computer screen for a bit and then said that ah, well, what had happened was that someone had booked me in with a doctor but it should have been with a nurse. And all the doctors are booked up. And the two nurses who do diabetic checks aren't in today. So could I come back in ten days' time at 9.30am?

They were perfectly pleasant, just not particularly apologetic: very matter-of-fact about it and accepting that these mix-ups happen, one of those things, there's nothing that can be done about it.

They were a bit taken aback when I burst into tears, and so was I. However, they retained their matter-of-fact approach, wrote the new appointment down for me, and off I went.

I was really surprised by how upset I was. And this made me think. What about people whose major operations are cancelled, sometimes several times. How do they feel? Why on earth do we as a society seem to believe that this is acceptable?

The National Patient Safety Agency is in the middle of a campaign to persuade medics to say a big, heartfelt SORRY when things have gone wrong - in the USA they found that this approach not only made patients and their relatives feel much better, but cut down the amount of litigation considerably.

A bit more SORRY, and a bit more effort to sort something out today for me, would have been good this afternoon.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

You Can't Win

When I'm in charge there are going to be some changes and this machine is going to be first against the wall. Then we'll set about it with great big hammers. Whoopee!

I hate its colours, its nasty Disneyfied cheap toys, its appeal to our something-for-nothing mentality. The grabby thing grabs the prize and just when you think you've got it, it drops it.

A good lesson for life, perhaps, but I don't care. Pass the hammer.

Then I am going to find the person who wrote that notice and make them write out You Can't Lose a hundred times.

Then I'm going to find the person who invented the machine and make them write out You Can't Win ten thousand times.

Aaaah. Now I feel better.

Hello Little Comrade

"Hello, little Comrade! You don't mind if I call you Comrade, do you?" he gushed.

Well, actually, I thought, since I am only five years old and don't have a particularly thorough understanding of the economic theories outlined in Das Kapital, I really don't know. Meanwhile quit bugging me and let me get on with reading Little Old Mrs Pepperpot.

Not all who came to the Thursday evening Branch meetings were like that, though. One of the ones I liked was called Minnie Marks (and what's more, she still is.)

Because none of the grown-ups had ever written her surname down for me and pointed out the difference in the spellings - and I feel to this day that they should have - I naturally assumed that she was a relative of the chap called Karl whose name kept cropping up - his sister, perhaps, or a cousin, maybe.

Also, from time to time she went off and acted in films, apparently, though I never saw the evidence. Nobody took me to Disney films any more, because they had learned their lesson.

Here is the lesson that they had learned: there I was, watching the opening titles of the film, one hundred and one sweet little spotted dogs cavorting across the screen. Even in those days I had a basic grasp of the rules of drama so I knew damned well that something terrible was going to happen to them all. And there was no way I was prepared to be there to witness it.

The audience missed the end of the opening credits, hypnotised by the sound of my screams, and that was the finish of Walt Disney and me for at least twenty years.

But in one of the Disney films that other people went on about and that I was not ever going to see, there was someone called Mickey Marks, and he had a sister or a wife or something called Minnie.

So, to me, Minnie Marks always had a bit of an air of showbiz glamour matched only by her political importance because of her relationship to the more famous Karl, who never turned up at the Branch meetings.

Were the grown-ups rubbish at explaining things to you, too?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Old Doors

I've always liked old doors. It's something about their history - all the people who have gone in and gone out, and made the marks on the paint, or flaked bits off. It's also about the people who made them - the carvings, the catflap.

Burgundy has hundreds, probably thousands, of interesting old doors. Here are four of them: the first three were in the village of Montréal where we stayed, and the last one was in the nearby village of Vézelay.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Leeds Lascaux

I could have stayed at home! All that travelling to Burgundy and going down caves and here is a magnificent painting of a bison which I discovered quite by chance in Yorkshire yesterday.

Where I found it was on the wall in the toilet of Moorish, which is a really good Middle-Eastern restaurant in Hyde Park, Leeds. This suggests to me that the painting is a bit newer than the ones I saw last week which, you'll recall, were thirty-three thousand years old.

Anyway, thank you, Carry, for inviting me, it was a lovely evening.

I am hoping that nobody saw the flash of the camera through the cracks round the toilet door.

The World of Mistletoe

Many thanks to Diz who sent me the links to lots of sites about mistletoe including information about How to Grow Your Own.

I am a bit suspicious - I think some of these sites were set up by the mistletoe itself to further its bid for world domination. Don't try this at home, is my advice - the mistletoe is just biding its time before turning carnivorous.

a Peel moment

Hello from Leeds, for I am indeed back in Blighty.

Whilst in France I read Mick Wall's interesting biography of John Peel . In it he describes the first moment when John Peel heard the music of Elvis Presley - after a cold upbringing, sent away to public schools, with emotionally distant parents, it was a revelation to him.

"Where there had been nothing, there was suddenly something."

I remember that kind of a feeling, too: I was thirteen and my life consisted mostly of school and homework, for it was that kind of school. Then, in the same week, I saw Cambridge Theatre Company performing George Farquhar's 1706 satirical play The Recruiting Officer and also Arnold Wesker's play Chips with Everything, about conscripts in the 1950s.

I still think it must have been a superb double-bill and the cast included a young Ian McKellen.

Watching both plays I thought wow! This is amazing! To be in eighteenth-century England, and then in a grim 1950s barracks, and yet with the red plush of the Leeds Grand Theatre all around. The same actors totally convincing in different roles in totally different styles of plays. Wonderful.

I can still remember the sets for both plays, and the music. Afterwards - and I wasn't really one for this kind of thing - I wrote a fan letter to the company, saying how much I had enjoyed both plays. Whoever opened it was a Good Thing - she wrote to tell me that the tour was now finished so there was no more need for the publicity photographs, so she was sending them to me. And there they were, enclosed, lots of big glossy 10" x 8" photographs.

That was it. I was hooked on theatre.

Did you have such a moment?


Pousser, a French verb. I have learned a new meaning for it this week.

It means "The force consistently exerted by Daphne on a door marked Tirez."

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Spirit of Christmas

There are strange things in the trees here in Burgundy. Strange roundish blobs. They can look quite creepy, silhouetted against the sky. Birds’ nests? No, they don’t look quite right and they’re not in the right places on the trees.

Sometimes they are just on one tree, sometimes on a whole row of them. Sometimes just one or two blobs, sometimes the whole tree looks as though it’s choking beneath them.

Perhaps it is, for the blobs are mistletoe which, as you no doubt know, is a parasitic plant. The sticky seeds are rubbed off birds’ beaks into cracks in the tree, where they grow, sucking nourishment from the trees like vegetarian leeches.

There is enough mistletoe round here for the whole world’s Christmas kisses. I know mistletoe also has Druidic connotations and when I get back to England I will try to find out what they are.

Meanwhile, to see trees completely covered in mistletoe gives me a slight feeling of unease. It’s out for what it can get. Very Christmassy.

All together now:
“Christmas time, mistletoe and wine” - - - Not really very appropriate, eh, Cliff? Terrible song, too, by the way.

Friday, April 14, 2006

A Hand Print

One of the things I like about the French is that they don’t feel the need to Disneyfy everything. In Britain we tend not to believe that something will be interesting in itself – so the North York Moors become “Heartbeat Country” and the area round Haworth is “Bronte country” and everything has to have a massive souvenir shop selling tea towels with “I’ve been to Catherine Cookson Country” on them.

In contrast, here is the entrance to one of the biggest and most important set of caves in Northern France, the Grottes d’Arcy-sur-Cure.

Eleven caves, with signs of human life in them dating back 200,000 years. We had a guided tour of the Grande Grotte and it was amazing – hundreds of stalactites, stalagmites, wonderful rock formations and a huge pile of bat poo.

Tourists can’t visit the other caves because the Grande Grotte had so many visitors that it got very dirty – I presume with lichens and so on which grow where the artificial light is (but I may be wrong because I got all this from the guide who strangely enough was speaking French, and mine is rather rusty but I did my best).

So, in 1990, they washed the Grande Grotte with hosepipes, all the rocks and everything. In doing so they found many prehistoric cave paintings: but, sadly, destroyed many others. .

I have always liked caves, as long as the roof isn’t too low. I am always amazed by - and admiring of - cavers who will squeeze through tiny gaps and swim along underground streams. I love all the rock formations and the sense of timelessness.

“Look,” said the guide, shining his light on the wall, “there’s a deer - - and a mammoth - - and a bison.” Amazing, clear drawings, drawn right in the depth of this long, dark cave - - how? With what light? And why?

Then, a bit further along, what is called a “main negative” – a “negative handprint” where the person had put their hand on the wall and painted round it. There’s the print, fingers spread out, just like a child might do at school.

The guide stressed how Cro-Magnon Man was very like us, and of course I could imagine him, or her, making this print, choosing the bit of wall for its flatness, holding the hand up. Thirty-three thousand years ago.

Thirty-three thousand years ago. Wow.

Robe en Jean

I just can’t resist them, and clearly the French can’t either. One of those catalogues full of things you never knew existed, and certainly never wanted - - but hey, look! A hot water bottle that heats up in the microwave, I could just do with one, how have I managed without one all my life? - - Luckily reason usually kicks in before I get as far as my credit card number, and I think hey! wait a minute! the reason you’ve never wanted one before is because you DON’T NEED ONE! PUT THE CATALOGUE DOWN NOW!

Monsieur and Madame, looking at this French catalogue, are also tempted. “Meuble sur roulettes” they think, wow, that’d come in handy, a piece of furniture on wheels. The catalogue, clearly wary of being sued, doesn’t even try to identify what kind of furniture it might be. But it’s en polypropylène with a surface facilement lavable – whoopee!

And poor Monsieur – suddenly he realises how his feet have suffered in all his years of cycling. How has he managed without these socquettes cycliste, a snip at two euros 99, with protection for the ankles and a band to maintain circulation and a reinforced heel?

But Madame isn’t listening: her eye has been caught by the Pyjashort en satin, - pyjamas with a top and shorts, in case you hadn’t guessed - in a subtle shade of bright orange and only seven euros 99.

Pyjashort? What kind of word is that? Where are the Academie-Francaise word police when you need them?

But then I saw that, worse still, a denim dress is described as a Robe en jean. (9 euros 99, silhouette parfait, liberte de mouvements in case you’re keen)

ROBE EN JEAN? As John pointed out in a comment on my piece about postrophes earlier this week, denim comes from de Nîmes, coton de Nîmes, all romantic and French-sounding. Which Robe en jean just isn’t. I’m putting this catalogue in the bin. Now.

Well, as soon as I’ve looked at the rest of it.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Paris in the Spring

You were all right, of course. All my friends who have been saying “Paris? You’ve never been to PARIS? Oh, you’d love it - - “ And others who just gave me a Look.

We had to leave the house at 6.30am and it’s a half-hour drive to Montbard to catch the TGV to the Gare de Lyon. There had been a very heavy frost and the countryside – rolling hills, fields and forest, mediaeval villages - was an unearthly white, with thick mist in all the hollows. We paused to look at a signpost and two deer ran round the field next to us.

Freezing cold at Montbard station with a few shivering commuters and a picture of the train so we could see where our carriage would be – what a simple yet brilliant idea.

The train was clean, comfortable, quiet, uncrowded and exactly on time in just the way that the Pennine Express isn’t. In fact I am surprised that there wasn’t an announcement “We apologise to any passengers from the United Kingdom for reminding you that your train service is so CRAP”.

We went to the Eiffel Tower first as I guessed the queues would grow as the day progressed, and I was right – we only had to queue for ten minutes or so. We chose the “stairs only” option as the queue was shorter, and I was pleased that I could manage the climb without the aid of a defibrillator and me with my bad leg an’ all.

Here’s the queue seen from above:

By now the mist had turned to sunshine so the views were wonderful – our tickets didn’t let us go right up to the top, but believe me, it’s high, and I love heights, as long as there’s no chance of falling off them. We could see right to the edge of Paris, see all the flats and the squares and imagine what it would be like to live there - -

We cruised along the Seine in a boat and then walked along it in the sunshine where we met the only disappointment of the day – the Louvre was closed. I expect Tuesday is the Mona Lisa’s day off.

Not that we were planning to visit the Louvre: we were planning to visit the Musee d’Orsay across the river to see some French Impressionists - - but because the Louvre was closed, every single person who had planned to visit it had arrived at it, cursed, and crossed the river to the Musee d’Orsay. There were thousands of them, literally, and I think the queue must have extended until past closing time. We were really disappointed but quickly changed this to A Good Excuse to Come Back to Paris.

So we wandered round in the sunshine, sitting in cafes, watching the people, looking at the many beautiful buildings.

I don’t like cities, generally. But I loved Paris in the Spring.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Ah yes, l’apostrophe du marchand de fruits et legumes! See, I thought that it was frightfully clever and witty to write that in French, because the British tend to think that to write in French or even in Franglais shows how frightfully clever and witty they are. Which it doesn’t.

The French, on the other hand, like this shop-owner in Avallon, make the mistake of thinking that to write in English is cool. They are wrong. It is not. Especially when you get every possible apostrophe-opportunity wrong.

Of course, the correct version of MEN’S GIRLS’ DENIM JEANS (which I suppose is as correct as it gets) is an apostrophe lesson in itself, an exciting opportunity for an apostrophe nerd like me who thinks it’s her duty to foist the gospel of the correct use of the apostrophe on an unwilling and entirely uninterested mankind.

You may well know that “an orange” began life in English some time ago as “a norange” and time moved the n across. Well, I am single-handedly trying to change the phrase to “a postrophe” rather than “an apostrophe” as in my exciting example “You need a postrophe after girls because it means the denim jeans of, or belonging to, the girls.”

You see? Much easier to say, much less clumsy! - - Oh, I can tell already that you don’t care. But some people are obsessed with fast cars and in my case it’s postrophes.

Monday, April 10, 2006


Mediaeval village? This area’s full of them. Here’s Vézelay, which has a very steep hill and a magnificent church at the top which may or may not contain the bones of Mary Magdalene.

Because it’s very picturesque, and because of the international importance of the church and its relics, it was obvious even in April that it’s something of a tourist magnet, with a massive car park at the entrance to the village, and many restaurants and cafes.

In our family we generally choose a café based on two criteria: the price list outside, and a hunch. So we can walk past many perfectly pleasant-looking places and go “no” - - “don’t think so” - - “mm, probably not”. AND WHY NOT? Don’t know.

But then, there we are outside a little café like a dozen others and we all go “Yes, this one.” Did it have a table free? Yes it did. The staff were delightful, the food was lovely, the walls were covered in interesting posters, the whole thing was perfect.

Okay, perhaps all the ones we passed by might have been just as good, but over the years I’ve decided that going by my hunches is the best thing. Yesterday I walked into a café at a French service station, took a photo of the ice-making machine, and walked straight out again.

“Daphne,” said Gareth,“you walked into a café, took a photo of their ice-making machine, and left. What do you think they thought?”

That the Ice Police had descended, probably. I just liked the instructions on the machine which were – ironically - in some kind of English, headlined “Efficient Use of Cubelet Ice”.

Anyway, back to hunches. After many years of experience I have formulated Daphne’s Law of Hunches which is:

1) a hunch with some information to back it up is almost invariably right
2) a hunch with no information to back it up may well be right
3) and if your hunch says NO to something, no matter how much information there is in its favour, then go with the hunch.

This way a lot of pleasantness may be achieved and much unpleasantness prevented. Go with your hunches, say I. And use your Cubelet Ice efficiently along the way.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Manners Maketh Man

Reclining seats are never the most comfortable way to sleep. My husband Stephen can sleep in them, but then he can sleep anywhere – lying down, standing, sitting – he is good at sleeping. Once, when he was a child, a huge old tree in the garden was hit by lightning and came crashing down. Parts of it were found half a mile away.

“What storm?” asked Stephen in the morning.

Most people, however, find reclining seats very uncomfortable and I would under no circumstances attempt to sleep in one. But at least if you have a reclining seat on a cross-channel ferry you can reckon on getting somewhere to put your bag and a bit of floor to stretch out on next to it. And this, as an experienced reclining-seat-hater, was what I did.

Emily and Gareth, on the seats behind, bravely tried their seats for a while and then, realising that sleeping on a mattress of hedgehogs would be more comfortable, opted for the floor, leaving their bags, coats etc on the seats next to them.

All went well until the three of us were woken at half past two in the morning by the interesting thumping sound of a bag being thrown at Emily’s head. As we dazedly sat up, we realised that two middle-aged men had taken everything off Gareth and Emily’s seats, thrown it all at Gareth and Emily, and plonked themselves down in their seats.

I entered the fray as Gareth politely enquired what the men were doing.

“You weren’t using the seats and I’m sure you shouldn’t be here – have you paid for them?” said one of the men in a tone of the kind usually used for addressing convicted serial killers.

“Yes, we have,” said Gareth (correctly). Meanwhile Emily gestured at me to explain that most of her possessions were now under the men’s feet.

My first thought in such circumstances is usually to turn into Schoolteacher From Hell and in this role I would frighten anybody. However, as it was the middle of the night and I didn’t want to wake the other passengers, I went to the information desk, told them the story and asked them, very politely with just that teensy hint of incipient psychopath, to remove the two men.

Which, thankfully, they did, and the men went off without more than a bit of grumbling.

Stephen, of course, slept through the whole thing,

But why did these two supposedly respectable fiftysomethings pick on Emily and Gareth’s seats when the whole of Club Class was full of people sleeping on the floor with their bags on the seats?

Because they are young, dressed in black, Emily has piercings, Gareth has long hair, and so the men, having a startling lack of self-awareness, naturally assumed that Gareth and Emily were both yobs.

Wrong! Where’s Johnny Depp with a gangplank when you need him?

- And now we are in the beautiful village of Montreal which looks like the set of Chocolat – hardly surprising as Chocolat was filmed only a few kilometres away. So more on that soon – and many thanks to Graham for the use of his computer.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Cheep laugh

On a newspaper hoarding in Leeds this week I saw the following: sadly I was too slow-witted to take a photograph of it with my mobile because it's still difficult to remember that I can take a photograph with my mobile:


And immediately I could picture all the actors sitting round:

"Okay - together now, louder this time and I want you to really find that emotion - one, two, three - ATISHOO!"

Of course they found that swan yesterday in Britain and I should really stop making light of it all because by the time I return to England it may well be the land of Black Death and blind panic - but meanwhile, I'm off to the land of wine and baguettes. If I can post on this site while I'm away, I will - otherwise I'll be back a week on Sunday. I hope you all have a good week.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Burgundy in the Spring - - and Robson Green in the Metro Centre

This is the cottage where we'll be staying - not in Paris, but in rural Burgundy - and we'll have a day trip to Paris during the week.

The cottage belongs to my old friend Graham Battye and his wife Christine - they live nearby. It all looks delightful - have a look at their website.

I'm not good at being without my email but, if my laptop's 3G card doesn't work, I gather I can look at my email at the local Tourist Information centre.

In beautiful Northumberland last summer, I had an infuriating conversation with the hotel owner, which went like this:

Is there somewhere nearby where I can check my email, such as an internet cafe?

- Oh, no, you don't want to be doing that, she said.

Well, yes, I do, actually, I like to check my email even when I'm on holiday.

- Oh, no, you don't want to be doing that. You're supposed to be relaxing on holiday.

Actually, I like to keep in touch with people on holiday. Is there an internet cafe? Or a library, perhaps?

- Oh no, you don't want to be doing that. Just send them a postcard. You're supposed to be on holiday.

(Oh well, deep breath)

And sometimes I need to because of my job.

(I knew this was a mistake as soon as I said it)

Oh no, you don't want to be doing that. You want to forget all about your job while you're on holiday.

Actually, I don't, because I enjoy my job.

- So what's your job, then?

Well - - I work with actors - -

- Oooh, ACTORS! Do you know Robson Green then?

(Please, please let a large asteroid fall on Northumberland right now)

No, I don't, actually.

- Well I do! I do! I know Robson Green!

Well, that's really interesting. (No it sodding well isn't) How do you know him?

- I saw him in the Metro Centre and went up and spoke to him. Now, he's a proper actor. He has to learn lines. Not like most of the actors on television.

Errrr - - surely all actors who speak have to learn lines? (I know now that I am going to spend the rest of my life in this conversation but I have lost the will to live and so a weary resignation hath come upon me)

- Oh no. Only the ones in the main roles, like Robson Green. The rest just make up their lines around the main actors. Only one or two in every programme have to learn lines. The rest are just making them up.

Well, that's really fascinating and I am only surprised that I didn't know it. And now I have to go and throw myself into the sea. Goodbye.

I went and found one tiny place where the 3G connection on my laptop worked. And I checked my email every day, so there. And every time the hotel owner saw me all week, I pointed wordlessly into the distance and ran there.

And now I'm going to pack my suitcase.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Paris au printemps

Well of course you recognise it - the Eiffel Tower, last June: I was leaning against the Arc de Triomphe and suddenly Gareth and Emily hove into view, so I just clicked the camera and here it is. All the atmosphere of France captured in one photograph! Men selling onions, accordion players, Breton dancers, everyone in striped T-shirts, bottles of red wine, baguettes - -

Oh all right then, it's Blackpool. For some reason none of the girls wearing pink T-shirts with "Bev's Hen Party" on them was in evidence.

The thing is, I've been to Blackpool several times: it's tacky and cheesy and fun. There's a great view from the top of the Blackpool Tower. And the reason I don't have a photograph of the Eiffel Tower is because I've never been to Paris.

"You've never been to Paris?" - - Yes, a chorus of astonishment. But the thing is, given the chance of a bit of holiday, I'd always rather head for the countryside than the city, and so over the years I've made lots of little choices and they've never been Paris: and yet I've always wanted to go there because I love art galleries and museums and, er, towers.

Next week I'm going to Paris! Yippee!

Please leave a comment - here's how!

Many thanks to those who have left comments on this blog - much appreciated.

One or two people have reported having problems, though. When I first started I hadn't adjusted the settings, so you needed a name and password to leave a comment.

Now you don't! When you click on "comments" under each post, it now offers you a box to write in and three boxes underneath: Blogger, Other or Anonymous.

The default setting is with "blogger" ticked and this is why it asks for your password etc. If you tick Other you can just leave your first name, or if you tick Anonymous you can be - - well - - anonymous.

After you've done that it will ask you to retype a few letters in a box - this is to prevent spam being added to the comments, and is a Good Thing.

It really is very easy now - so please do leave comments, it's great to read them.

To forget the American woman

Here is a picture of the view from North Cliff in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, South Wales. Aaah, that's better.

That American woman

Condoleeza Rice. Now then, is she:

a) A glorious shining example of America at its best: even a poor black woman from the Southern states can rise to incredibly high office


b) A traitor to her gender, to her class, to her race - how could she ally herself to the dastardly Dubya?

Answers on a postcard, please, to my father, who will still give you the half-hour lecture EVEN WHEN YOU AGREE WITH HIM!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Apocalypse Now (ish)

Well, at the moment it looks as though we're all going to die of bird flu. The headlines have been pretty consistent all winter: the scientists say it will be when, not if: and some people have already stopped feeding the birds in their gardens and started throwing rocks at them instead, reading between the lines in the RSPB's newsletter.

However, although the threat is clearly real, sometimes we are lucky and don't all die of the things we are promised by the media. A few years ago it was going to be the Millennium Bug that finished us all off:

"We are staring down the barrel of a national emergency" - Tony Blair, March 1998 - and apparently one kind of train did stop working somewhere in Sweden.

Before that, we were all going to be savaged by killer rottweillers: and remember the flesh-eating bug (necrotising fascitis) that was all over the newspapers one month?

Oh yes, we like a bit of drama, so dull things like lots of patients getting MRSA because of dirty hospitals swiftly drop out of the headlines. The scare about the MMR vaccine has led to the first person dying of measles for over a decade. Both of these are things we should be worrying about, and doing something about, right now.

And of course the flu epidemic may come: and it may be as horrific as the 1918 flu epidemic. But we don't need to stop feeding the birds - or, worse, start killing them - yet.

We should keep a sense of proportion. Once upon a time a huge asteroid crashed into the Earth and killed almost all the dinosaurs. Statistically, we are well overdue for another one.

Meanwhile, blackbirds like apples, robins like mealworms and lots of birds like a mixture of seeds. It's cheaper to buy seed mix in bulk from the pet shop than in little bags from the supermarket.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Tulips from Amsterdam

Here is Daisy, who is six. She lives in Holland with her parents, who are English - in fact they are my brother and his wife. I do realise that she and her sister Flo, below, who is three, look like they should be featured on Cute Overload (and thanks to Jacqueline Abrahams who took the photographs) but that's not what this is about.

It's about their amazing genius for languages.

When I tell British people that Daisy and Flo live in Holland they invariably ask "So do they speak Dutch?"

Yes, I say, they do.

"So do they speak Dutch to their parents?"

No, they speak English at home. And what's more, they can be speaking Dutch one moment to a friend and then, realising that it's Grandma from England on the phone, they can switch effortlessly from one language to another without even needing to be told to change.

Incredible! Everyone is amazed that they can do this.

And yet, in this part of England there are many Asian families where the children can speak several different languages - sometimes interpreting for their parents - and nobody is surprised at all. Is it that Asian languages are easier? Of course not. It's just that white British people are, traditionally, bad at languages and because English is spoken - at least to some extent - almost everywhere, we've been able to get away with it.

There's a curious kind of inverted British pride in saying "Oh, I'm terrible at foreign languages." I think it's time we grew up.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Grassed up
We all know about the East Coast. I think everyone must have seen that bit of film where Richard Whiteley is talking in the foreground about coastal erosion and the hotel behind him suddenly crashes into the sea.

On the West Coast there's a slightly different problem. Here's a photograph of Grange-over-Sands - not a very good one, I admit, because I took it from a speeding train. Grange is a genteel Victorian resort peopled by delightful men and women all aged about a hundred and ten - they retire there and then live for ever because the climate is warm and the air is fresh and the scenery is beautiful.

Grange-over-Sands, though? No, not any more, it's Grange-over-Grass. The promenade, which used to be next to the sands, now looks over Spartina grass stretching out for miles. Until 1990 they used to spray it with a herbicide, which then became unavailable - and they didn't know what the spraying did to the environment anyway.

So, should we be trying to get rid of it before it clogs up the whole of Morecambe Bay? In some places there are sheep grazing where the beach used to be. Or should we just accept it as a natural process?

I took the second photograph at Bardsea, some miles along the coast from Grange. Beware of the Grass.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Story of George
"The swallows are gathering in the barn. They will fly at three o'clock."
"At three?"
"Yes, they will fly to the pond, and by seven they will all have returned. We wish success to the swallows."
"May the swallows catch many midges."

This was the kind of strange conversation that my friend Jo and I used to have on the phone all the time when we were children, in the hope that the Secret Police were listening. We never found out whether they were.

Meanwhile, I had a crow called George. He had glossy black wings with a few strange white feathers, and no tail at all. Someone had found him and brought him to my friend Gillian who worked at the RSPCA, and she brought him to me, so that I could look after him while his tail feathers grew back.

Rooks, which are of course a close relative of crows, are pretty good Goth birds: all that mournful cawing from their nests in the tops of trees, and the Hitchcockian flapping of their wings if you are near to them. But they are rather too conformist. They like to follow the crowd: they all feed together and, if disturbed, all fly off together.

Crows, however, are individuals. They may all be feeding together just because that's where the food is, but make a loud noise and they all fly off in different directions. Hence the old saying "A crow in a crowd is a rook" - that's how you can instantly tell the difference.

George lived in a large rabbit run, and thrived on cat food. After a few weeks his tail had grown back and it was time to do my Born Free bit and release him into the wild. With a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes I flung open the door of the rabbit run, and waited for him to fly out.

No chance. Sod the wild, there wasn't any cat food there. He was staying firmly where he was.

He stayed in the run for days and days, eating like a pig and smirking as only a crow can smirk. We put him in a box (not easy) and took him to the woods, and tipped him out of the box, and came home.

The next morning he was waiting outside the rabbit run, looking distinctly peeved.

Finally, we took to putting the food outside the rabbit run and he condescended to move out, but never went far, returning at intervals for some Kit e Kat. He hung around the garden for years.

I have had a fondness for crows ever since. They are the clever pirates of the skies: they lurk high up in trees, and come clattering down to nick anything they can. Good luck to them.