Sunday, July 30, 2006

Notices I noticed

Here are some notices that interested me:

No dogs allowed on North Beach as it's a Blue Flag beach, so this one's owners had left it behind. At least it was in the shade with some water. I have mixed feelings about dogs on beaches - I know they can be a health hazard, but not half as much as some people. A well-controlled dog running on a beach exudes such joy it's hard not to feel cheered by it.

This was on a coach window - - - hmmm - - -

In the shop on Caldey Island I found Emily and Gareth laughing at this:

Here's an enjoyably precise label at Silent World Aquarium:

Here's some infuriating Municipal Apostrophe Abuse:

And finally, when I was teaching English I would have got a whole lesson out of this one:

Okay, there's the spelling of Whippy and the unnecessary apostrophe in LOLLIE'S, but what does the writer think that the speech marks are for? Emphasis, perhaps?

Oh, I know I'm a sad old pedant and only a couple of changes in the Rules of Punctuation could put a stop to me, and they would be these:

1) Apostrophes, or Apostrophe's as we shall now call them, are for decorative purposes only and may be inserted in any word at random.

2) Speech marks are double apostrophes and are therefore held to be doubly decorative. Again, they may be inserted before or after any word or phrase deemed to be uninteresting without them. "Concrete" is a good example. "Income tax forms" is another.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

No Reading at Table

Reading during mealtimes was always considered extremely rude when I was a child. This, I think, is a great pity as it’s one of my favourite activities. Sometimes it’s great to have a sociable meal with friends and talk: sometimes, however, I just want to eat on my own with a good book or a newspaper.

I eat fast (tut tut, also frowned upon) and I think I began to eat even faster when Emily was little, because she didn’t want to wait around for adults to eat – she wanted to get on with more interesting things, so I would polish off my food quickly before she got bored.

At Park Hotel, where we’ve been staying in Tenby, the food is delicious – here’s the dinner table last night before we messed it all up (the décor, as everywhere in Park Hotel, is of a style best described as “Camp as Christmas” – I love it). Meals are generally four courses and take a bit of time, particularly since my parents both eat very slowly.

So, when Emily was little, we knew she would get bored long before the end of the meal: but one thing would, we knew, keep her happy and that was a good book. So we got into the habit of taking books down to dinner and reading to her in between courses. When she was very little we would have a huge, teetering pile of picture books. Later it dwindled to a couple of books we could read to her: and then to books she could read to herself.

“No Reading at Table!” echoed round my head throughout my childhood – we always had Proper Meals with a Tablecloth. Forbidden to read books at table, I would read everything from the cornflake packet to the HP Sauce bottle (“Cette sauce de haute qualite est un melange - - “ )

Emily, on the other hand, has cunningly continued her reading at table although now, at nearly seventeen, she might be expected to sit and Talk Nicely. No meal at Park Hotel is complete without at least half a novel being read. Do my parents tell her off? No, they do not. A Precedent has been Set. She reads all the time whilst eating at home, too, without any apparent sense of guilt. Of course, this is because I have always let her do what I’ve always wanted to do. So it’s my fault. And I don’t care.

I suspect there are others who share both my enjoyment of reading whilst eating and my big sense of guilt at its naughtiness. I think a café for us would be a good idea. Lots of shelves of books. All the day’s papers. Writing paper. Pens. Tables for One. Bliss.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Ozymandias and Mrs Allen

Remember Ozymandias? In Shelley’s poem, a traveller in a vast desert comes upon the ruins of a huge statue. Only its legs now exist but carved on the plinth are the words “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair”. Unfortunately, nothing of his works remains and the desert stretches bleakly to the horizon. Serves him right for showing off.

A somewhat similar thing happened to Jessie Allen, though she had much better intentions. She owned a patch of land above North Cliff in Tenby, South Wales, with wonderful views, and in 1971 she philanthropically left it to the people of Tenby and the visitors.

Allen’s View, it was called, and quite a climb up too, but worth it when you got there. You could see most of Tenby and for miles round the bay. They installed a little monument with a plaque on the top pointing things out: Caldey Island! St Catherine’s Island! South Beach! and, further away, the Gower Peninsula, Worm’s Head and all the way to Ilfracombe. On a clear day you could see to Devon.

The foreground was pretty, too – grassland and some little saplings.

Ah, yes. Saplings. Oops. Here’s the monument, the plaque and the view thirty-five years later:

That’s right, you can’t see a thing. It’s still called Allen’s View, but there’s no view. It’s a lovely bit of wild land, though, and at least her bequest has saved that part of the headland from becoming a Prestigious Development of Luxury Homes.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Last Invasion of Britain

Governments who decide to send an invading army into someone else’s country always have a very good reason. Usually, these days, the reason given is that they don’t like the way Johnny Foreigner is behaving: they don’t agree with his religion and they way he treats his citizens is appalling. They have tried reasoning with him but unfortunately he isn’t open to logical discussion and therefore, with regret, they have no alternative but to send in the troops. In due course, of course, everyone will be grateful, especially the ordinary citizens of the country.

In the olden days they didn’t bother dressing it up in all this crap. It was simply look, you’ve got this, we want it, and we’re coming to get it, okay?

So I always find it pleasing when an invading army makes a total cock-up of the whole thing: and thus it was in the Last Invasion of Britain, in February 1797, which is a little-known and strangely cheering story.

In this case the invading army was French: but I’m not jumping on to the anti-French bandwagon – of course it wasn’t the ordinary French people, it was, as usual, the idiots in charge.

The job of invading Britain in 1797 was offered to a young Napoleon Bonaparte, who had the good sense to turn it down. So they ended up with an Irish-American chap called Tate. There were two problems with this choice of leader, neither of them too difficult to spot: 1) he didn’t speak any French and 2) he was over seventy years old.

He gathered together about 1400 troops from prisons and galleys. A crack fighting force they were not, though they could probably have won the Pan-France Drinking and Brawling Contest given half a chance.

So, on 22 February 1797, four French ships were spotted off the coast of Devon. They had a Cunning Plan – they sailed under English colours, in the hope nobody would notice they were French. I expect they sang English sea-shanties loudly, too, while saying things like “I say, Carruthers! Water frightfully choppy, what?” (in English) and “Keep those bloody baguettes out of sight!”(in French)

The next day they reached Fishguard and – in a move clearly intended to be described as “showing their true colours” – changed to French colours. The troops landed and wandered about looking for something to conquer.

Meanwhile, Lord Cawdor (no connection with Macbeth, I promise, he’s just in the story to add confusion) assembled six hundred or so militia, fencibles (volunteers not liable to serve abroad) and yeoman cavalry. The Welsh army’s trump card, in a nice variant of the trick the French had tried to play, was four hundred Welsh women volunteers all wearing red flannel – the French thought they were English soldiers.

One of these women, Jemima Nicholas, was having none of this French-invasion nonsense and arrested twelve French soldiers single-handedly, using just a pitchfork. I expect that when they saw her she reminded them of their scary mothers: “Put those guns down. Now. I said NOW!” (in Welsh).

On 25 February all the French surrendered at Goodwick Sands. Two Welshmen had been killed. Jemima Nicholas was hailed as the Fishguard Heroine and – this pleases me – given an annuity for life (and she lived to be eighty-two).

And that was the last time Britain was ever invaded.

That story’s almost forgotten. We have no memory, as a nation, of being invaded, and hardly even a folk-memory. People in their seventies and eighties remember the fear of being invaded by the Nazis, but nobody – apart from refugees from abroad who live here - remembers the terror of invasion. If we did, our leaders might be a bit more cautious about sending our soldiers into other people’s countries.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

My Great Fort

Here’s St Catherine’s Fort, built on a rocky outcrop just off St Catherine’s Beach in Tenby, seen from the sea this morning:

And I want it. I’ve wanted it since I was nine. Invited to choose a present from Tenby for my ninth birthday, I chose a painting of this fort, which I still like. You’d have thought someone would have taken the hint by now, wouldn’t you?

It was built to keep Napoleon out, and it did a fine job. After that they weren’t sure what to do with it. It is a huge, cavernous, atmospheric place of large empty rooms.

In the 1960s it was, for a while, a rather unlikely setting for a zoo, but it didn’t really get enough visitors because you can only get to it when the tide is out. When the tide is out, you can walk. When the tide is in, the currents are so strong around it that it is effectively cut off from the mainland. Here it is, seen from the beach:

You used to be able to go out on the flat rooftop of the fort and be pecked at and divebombed by seagulls. I loved all that, and the great views all round

About thirty years ago, when the zoo folded, a local man bought the fort for ten thousand pounds. The steps leading up to the fort were blocked off, and as far as I know nothing has been done with it ever since. Now, apparently, it’s on sale for three million, though I expect it’s in need of more than a little work.

I think it should be made into a retreat for artists, writers and actors. Okay, you can only get to it when the tide’s out, so artists would have plenty of time to paint, writers plenty of time to write and actors plenty of time to rehearse. It’s big enough to provide accommodation. Artists could display their work. Theatre companies could perform theirs.

I know this is a Good Idea, but sadly I haven’t got three million – oh, all right, maybe double that, to put in a damp proof course, bit of paint etc - to spare. But three million or even six million isn’t a HUGE amount. If everyone who likes Tenby gave a millionth of it we’d be there in no time.

On the other hand, Gareth suggested we should simply storm it and take it by force, following in the old tradition of Pembrokeshire piracy. Here’s a totally authentic pirate I found standing outside a gift shop in Amroth:

Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of piracy equipment with us – we have a couple of bandanas and Emily did have a plastic sword but it got lost at the Bloodstock festival recently.

So, to sum up, if you have lots of money and feel like sending me six million pounds – or even three million would be a start – or if you have any stripy jumpers, eye patches, earrings or generally piratical equipment, do please get in touch. If you are Johnny Depp, so much the better.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Visitor

Today has been a glorious day, with the sea sparkling and the sky so deep blue it was nearly purple. I spent an hour in the sea and came out only with great reluctance.

It was on a day like this, years ago, that I was in a rowing boat on the sea with Stuart and Gordon and their parents. They were staying at the hotel too and were both keen swimmers. Gordon was slightly younger than me – about ten, at that time – Stuart slightly older, about thirteen. In those days the hotel owned a couple of rowing boats that residents were free to borrow at will – ah, those casual times!

Stuart and Gordon invited me to go with them round to the next bay and we all climbed into the boat with their father rowing. The tide was well in and we gradually progressed round to the next bay, which I found particularly interesting because it can only be reached on foot at very low tide, and it’s full of interesting rocks and little caves.

Just when we were as far away from North Beach as we were planning to go, suddenly we saw a large, black, triangular fin, gliding above the water towards our boat. We looked at each other. It was before the film Jaws came out, but even so, we knew what a triangular fin above the water meant - - and it meant a shark.

Yet surely it couldn’t be, not in our safe blue sea, not in Pembrokeshire. Stuart and Gordon’s dad started rowing back, very very fast, while reminding us that there are no wolves in England now, nor are there any bears, you could not meet one after dark upon the nursery stairs. Or that was the gist of it, anyway. Their mum helpfully reminded everyone that she couldn’t swim. The dark fin drew nearer.

Just when we thought it was about to crash into the boat, instead it leaped high into the air in a perfect arc and we all cheered and sighed with relief and pretended we KNEW ALL ALONG that it couldn’t be a shark, oh yes, of course, we all knew a dolphin when we saw one.

The dolphin followed us back very nearly to the shore and stayed in the bay all afternoon, leaping in the air, catching a jellyfish and tossing it up and catching it again and generally showing off for the holidaymakers. The owner of our hotel’s son had a speedboat and took out parties of people all afternoon to watch it, and it seemed very happy to be on show.

The next day it was gone and I have never seen a dolphin here since. Apparently that summer there was a dolphin seen off one of the Cornish beaches that stayed around all summer, and the general feeling seemed to be that it had popped up to Tenby for a day trip. I think everyone who was there that day will remember it all their lives.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Mr Fish

Emily saw Mr Fish yesterday, standing by Park Hotel’s delightful open-air pool. Here’s the pool:

and here’s where she saw him, just by that notice where he always used to stand:

Now this was odd because he died before Emily was born. She wasn’t too surprised to see him, however, because she saw him last year as well, and gave me a very clear description.

Mr Fish was Park Hotel’s swimming instructor in the 1960s. Even better, his Christian name was Ivor and I thought then, and think now, that Ivor Fish is a really excellent name for a man who taught swimming.

We didn’t just laze about in those days, oh no: the hotel was full of children then and we all dashed down the cliff path to the beach straight after breakfast for a swim in the sea. Then after that we all rushed back up again for quarter past eleven for a swimming lesson from Mr Fish in the pool.

We stayed in so long that we all ended up shaking with cold and occasionally had to be brought hot soup from the kitchens which seemed to be kept for just such emergencies. But we weren’t going to miss a moment of Mr Fish’s lesson, because he was the best swimming teacher in the world.

He had a clever way of taking your stroke to pieces and putting it back together in a much better way, and all the time somehow managing to convince you that all this was because you had the potential to take part in the next Olympics if only you put in a bit of attention and listened carefully. One of us did actually swim in the Commonwealth Games a few years later.

He taught us all the different strokes and he taught us to dive. He taught us to swim underwater. But most of all, he gave us confidence, judging our ability and pushing us to the limits but not beyond. He taught me how to do somersaults underwater – eventually I could do nine in a row without coming up for air.

He was terrific and I’ll always be grateful to him. I don’t know whether I believe in ghosts or not, but I hope Emily sees him there again by the side of the pool. He was a man who took such great pleasure in his work it's good to think that something of him might still be there, teaching us all to do a much faster front crawl.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Rescue

On holiday in Tenby when I was ten, I became friendly with a girl called Margaret. One day, we decided to go for a swim together in the hotel’s open-air pool. Although we were both pretty strong swimmers, we were not allowed to go to the pool unsupervised and so the Communist came with us.

As we rounded the corner of the hotel clutching our towels, the pool appeared to be empty – and then we saw that there was a little girl in the deep end, floating face down. I remember being really, really frightened of what we might find but Margaret and I jumped in and pulled her to the side and the Communist hauled her out and laid her on the floor.

She coughed and spluttered a bit immediately and then started breathing, soon followed by crying.

We took her to the hotel reception and they tracked down her parents, who were in their room. They looked mildly pleased to get her back, but seemed unwilling or unable to accept what had just happened, or how nearly their daughter had drowned.

The next day they came and found Margaret and me and handed us each an unwrapped quarter-pound box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray. I felt about it then just as I feel about it now. A card with a strongly-felt message of gratitude would have been fine. Even a heartfelt verbal thank-you would have been fine. Or, if they felt they wanted to give us something proper, then a well-researched present would also have been fine.

But a quarter pound of chocolates? I felt it was carelessly given and wanted to say no, get lost, keep your rotten chocolates, is that all you think of your daughter? But as a well-brought-up child I just said a meek thank you.

The pool is still there but a few years ago Health and Safety insisted that the hotel put a huge, ugly, lockable metal fence round it so that no parent would ever have to work out that water might be dangerous to small children.

I think that’s the trouble – many people expect the sea, or rivers, or lakes to have been Health and Safetyfied and hence don’t ever acquire – or even think they need to acquire – the skills, judgement and common sense to check them out for themselves. Perhaps one day we’ll have to fence off every stretch of open water in the land.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Single Socks

Big pile of socks eh? And these are the ones that were left over after Stephen had patiently sorted all the rest into pairs.

What happens to cause this? Do other households have a similar Sock Mountain? There are only four of us - how could that many single socks have disappeared? Are aliens particularly interested in abducting single socks?

Apart from the ones that are obviously blue, they were all black once and now they have faded to varying shades of rusty brown. Of course, I could ruthlessly chuck out all the brown ones since they are truly horrible - - but then, they still work perfectly well as socks, and I was brought up with Grandma saying "Don't you know there's a war on?" whenever we tried to throw anything away, or even turn the light on, so I find it hard to throw things away while they still have use left in them. (nb there wasn't a war on. Grandmas are permitted to say such rubbish and small children are expected to accept it).

And every sock is a slightly different shade to every other sock, so if you throw away any individual sock you have that lingering feeling that you may be just about to come across its identical twin and Then What?

A National Sock Amnesty is called for where you are invited to Hand In Your Single Socks Free Of Guilt. Otherwise, I can see a day coming where the whole house is stuffed full of socks and I am sitting in a sobbing heap in the corner wondering what to do next.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


We're packing now because on Friday we are going to Tenby in South Wales for a week.

We have been doing this annually since I was a child: I had my ninth birthday there. And my tenth. And my eleventh. And my - - you get the picture.

It's not that we don't go anywhere else: we do: but going to Park Hotel is like coming home. It has been owned by the Howells family since well before my ninth birthday. Bill Howells, an ex-teacher, built the hotel in the early nineteen-sixties by buying some Victorian houses on North Cliff, hiring some builders and working alongside them to get the place converted into a hotel. In a stroke of genius, he and his wife Edna built an open-air swimming-pool next to the hotel. That was the attraction that made us go there in the first place.

The hotel has a pool at the top of the cliff and a glorious beach at the bottom, with safe swimming and few currents. There are beautiful walks along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Those are the things I like best: but there are many other things too and I'll be telling you a bit about them, once I've packed lots and lots of swimsuits and towels in the Big Red Bag that Connie gave me for my birthday.

Here is a sunset over the sea at the far end of South Beach from last year: some seals are smiling for the camera, little knowing it was too dark and they were too far away.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Naterally wicious

A casting breakdown came into our office this week, describing the characters needed for a new television drama and inviting agents to suggest actors to play the roles. We get about twenty of these per day but what caught my attention on this one was the phrase:

This is a children’s drama, so low budget.

Why? Why should it be accepted that just because it’s for children the budget will be low?

It’s because children are second-class citizens in our society: we really don’t like them very much.

Food is a good example. Attitudes to food are at the core of every culture - look at our attitudes to children’s food, from the intermittent complaints about women breastfeeding in restaurants (“It’s upsetting for the other diners – can’t they do it in the toilets?”) to Jamie Oliver’s discovery that we were spending an average of only 37p on every school meal.

When I got married the register office asked us not to invite children to the ceremony in case they made a noise. What were those relatives with children supposed to do with them? Lock them in the car perhaps? (We invited them. They were great.)

I think there’s a lasting legacy from Victorian times. We don’t regard children as trailing clouds of glory (Wordsworth) but as naterally wicious (Mr Hubble discussing boys in general, and Pip in particular, in Dickens’ Great Expectations). Here’s another quotation from that novel:

I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and against the dissuading arguments of my best friends.

Although many children nowadays have more clothes and toys than their ancestors would have believed possible, I still don’t think we welcome their presence in the way that, say, the Italians do, and I think it’s a shame.

Monday, July 17, 2006


“I look like an old man, don’t I?” asked the Communist as he trudged over to our house in the heat from his home at the bottom of the garden. True enough, he did, but then, as I cheerily pointed out, at eighty-two, he’s entitled.

Emily, of course, takes it for granted that grandparents live at the bottom of the garden. Mine didn’t: one set lived in Leeds, the others in Barrow-in-Furness. My mother’s father, the Barrow-in-Furness one, died when I was eighteen months old and it was him, Richard Bleasdale – always known as Dick - I’ve been thinking about particularly today, for some reason.

He met my grandmother, Charlotte – always known as Lottie - Parkinson when he was twenty-four and she was fifteen and they were together ever after. Nowadays I expect he would have been frowned upon as a near-paedophile: but the First World War sent him away to the trenches for several years, and by the time he returned she was old enough to marry.

He never spoke of his experiences in the Great War, apparently: but he was a machine-gunner at the time when a machine-gunner’s life expectancy was about fifteen minutes, so the horrors he must have witnessed in the trenches will have been many.

Years later, after my grandmother died, we found all the letters he sent to her during the war, and many years later I typed them all up.

Dramatic! Exciting! Chilling! - - they are none of those things, partly because the censor would never have allowed it, partly because I think he was trying to protect my later-to-be-grandmother from the grim truth, and partly because he was a gentle, polite man with a gentle, polite style of writing.

Last Monday night we went to the range, and were allowed to fire 15 rounds each out of a machine gun. They kick up a frightful din and seem deadly little weapons.

On Wednesday we went for a route march, full pack, but only about 8 miles. Rain fell heavily all the way, spoiling a pleasant walk.

This is about as exciting as it gets:

9th Novr: 1917
Had a longish day yesterday. Some of us were roused at 4.30 a.m. to take some material up the line. At night we were out till 11.0 p.m. Needless to say, I did not require any rocking to sleep.

On Wednesday night we were bringing some material from a distance. Fritz must have seen us on the move, as suddenly a shrapnel shell burst near us, which was quickly followed by two more. The sheeting we were carrying offered almost complete protection, and we escaped with 3 men slightly hurt.

Life is much of a sameness here, Saturday and Sunday being no different to the rest of the week, and I often forget what day of the week it is.

I don’t think anyone got killed in any of his letters throughout the war. My grandmother was not the kind to discuss emotions, and I don’t expect she ever asked him about it afterwards, sensing that he didn’t want to talk about it.

He lived a pleasant, ordered life on his return, working as a clerk in the Town Hall – where I expect his small, neat writing proved very useful – had two children, my mother Joan and her brother Richard - and became very deaf in his later years.

He once sent me a postcard with a cartoonish picture of a monkey on it, and I was delighted: I remember quite clearly its arrival. The astonishing thing is that he died when I was eighteen months old, and yet I remember three things about him with great clarity: the postcard: posing for a photograph with him: and his death.

I remember the journey to Barrow for the funeral, the grief and stress and tension of it all. My mother says that it was having to look after me that kept her going, for she was devoted to her father.

His body was – I think – in a coffin in the next room in the family house in Barrow. My mother suddenly disappeared while we were there and I asked where she was. It was explained to me that she had gone to see him. I remember not being able to understand why she would want to see him, since he was dead.

I was an early talker (yes, yes, I know, I know, make your joke here, those who know me) and maybe this helped to set the memories in my mind. I have never underestimated the understanding of small children, and I think this incident is why.

Perhaps his letters should be published one day, for they make fascinating reading in their very omissions. “Letters to Lottie” is what I have always called them, but “A Very Polite War” would be a good alternative. Polite, but not lacking in feeling.

Well, dearest little woman in the world, I’ll conclude by sending you all my love, many hugs, and heaps of kisses.

Ever your loving sweetheart,


P.S. I’ll slip round to see you as soon as I return to Barrow.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Great Railway Journeys of the World

Slightly smaller than the Trans-Siberian Railway, but very beautiful and much quicker and cheaper, is the Eskdale to Ravenglass Railway in the Lake District.

You can start at either Ravenglass on the coast, or Dalegarth Station near Boot in Eskdale. The station is currently being refurbished:

The station has the usual Gifte Shoppe but also has an excellent cafe, where large, welcoming ladies provide home-cooked Cumbrian fare at very reasonable prices in portion sizes suitable for hikers. Not a beverage in sight, only drinks.

The journey takes about fifty minutes to get to Ravenglass. I was lucky and sat in one of the open carriages at the very back of the train, which gave me wonderful views of mountains, woodland and finally estuary as we approached Ravenglass, which is a little village with a rather end-of-the-world feel and an interesting old petrol pump in someone's garden, clearly dating from the days when petrol was more reasonably priced:

In the 1960s I found a St Christopher medallion on the beach at Ravenglass, which delighted me. Ravenglass gained its fifteen minutes of fame in the 1980s. It is, of course, just along the coast from Sellafield and some anti-nuclear protesters took a random bucket of sand - the same sand that it was apparently fine for Ravenglass's children to play in - from its beach and plonked it near the Houses of Parliament. Police sealed off half of London, fearful of the radioactive threat from this sand, thus proving beyond doubt what we'd always suspected: Government doesn't give a damn about what happens to the people in the more remote corners of the country.

There's only one thing I don't like about this railway and that's its nickname. It is known as "La'al Ratty" (La'al being the local dialect for little) and that enables them to put cutesy cartoon rats on everything in the gift shop. Yuck. Otherwise, it's wonderful.

If you start from the Dalegarth end, you have to go across at least TWO CATTLE GRIDS on the way to the station. Oh yes, you can rely on me to report back to you from the more distant corners of the globe.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Saint Swithin's Day

Saint Swithin's Day, if thou shalt rain
For forty days it shall remain

It's Saint Swithin's day today. He was the Bishop of Winchester (Haha! I bet you didn't know that. I bet hardly anybody does) and he died on July 15, 862. On his deathbed, he asked to be buried in a humble grave outside the north wall of his cathedral so that the "sweet rain from heaven" could fall on his grave. Nine years later on the same date the monks decided to move him indoors to a posh shrine inside the cathedral. The Bishop, up in Heaven, wasn't pleased: it started to tip it down and continued to do so for forty days, hence the legend.

Of course, I know more than most about Saint Swithin's day because it seems to happen every year, coincidentally, on my birthday. My birthday this year is one of those nasty ones with a 0 on the end, the kind that reminds you that not only have you not managed to save the world - always a disappointment - but that you're going to DIE, leaving the world unsaved, apart from - in my case - quite a few frogs. And a fair number of well-fed birds, too, I think.

But my friends decided to distract me from all this last night by taking me out to an excellent Thai restaurant, complete with cute cake:

Ooh look! a football candle! Like every other restaurant they clearly have about a squillion World Cup souvenirs which they are going to try their damndest to use up during the next four years until it all starts again. Excellent cake, too. The tablecloth was covered in little sparkly things that said Happy Birthday.

The meal was lovely, and so were my friends.

And this morning, my husband Stephen gave me these:

Kenneth Williams' diaries, which I've wanted to read for a while - and a sparrow box. A little row of three terraced nesting boxes, which is how sparrows like to nest. For Stephen knows that, given the choice between a diamond necklace or a good book AND a sparrow box - well, they can stuff the diamonds back in the ground for all I care. Thanks too to the rest of my family, who also gave me great presents.

And then, most mysteriously, there was this:

Inside the box was an invitation: my friends have hired a narrowboat for us all for the day in early August, setting off from Apsley Basin in Huddersfield. I love narrowboats and canals. My friends are The Best.

The sun is shining today, and will shine for the rest of the summer, for here is the weather forecast:

Saint Swithin's Day, if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mair.


It's strange to come across a new word that sounds like a proper word. Concle is such a word. You feel you must know what it means. You long to slip it into a sentence. But look it up in the dictionary and there it isn't. I am offered camisole, cancel, canon or chancel. No concles.

Unless you have been to Rampside, near Barrow-in-Furness, you probably don't know what it means (and, even if you have, you may not).

Concle is a shortened version of "conc hole" which means a deep hole where ships lay at anchor, and indeed there used to be one nearby. But a short way offshore is little Roa Island, and they linked it to the mainland with a causeway. The conc hole then silted up and all that remains of it is the pub with this name, and Concle Bank on the map.

Although Roa Island is only a few miles from the centre of Barrow, it feels very remote and if you go along the causeway to Roa Island you can see Piel Island, with its fourteenth-century castle, out in the distance. Usually when I've been to Roa Island it's been raining "Oh well, we can't walk on the beach in this rain, let's go and have a look at Roa Island." But when I was there a couple of weeks ago it was a glorious sunny day and Piel Island glinted across the sea, looking all mysterious and magical: an effect which was added to by the self-launching boat walking down the slipway.

Tomorrow, try to slide the word "concle" into a conversation and see if anyone notices.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Perfect Pond

I love ponds, always have done. A pond in summer is The Best. This pond is just outside Broughton-in-Furness in Cumbria and we found it on a beautiful summer day. Dragonflies, water-skaters, , clear water, small fish - - and hundreds and hundreds of tadpoles.

The tadpoles were clearly developing from spawn that had been laid at different times, because some had legs and some didn't. As we walked along, we noticed lots of tiny movement on the ground - new little frogs hopping out of the way of our feet.

Okay, people tell me I'm obsessed with tadpoles. But just look at this little frog:

Aaaah! The wonder of tadpoles-into-frogs never ceases to amaze me. And this pond was perfect frog territory.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Village Schoolmaster

In the late 1970s I was doing a postgraduate course at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, and I shared a flat with four other girls. We were quite a multi-national group: a British Asian girl, a Ugandan Asian girl, another English girl, a Nigerian girl and me. We were all postgraduates studying different things.

The course I was doing was a Postgraduate Diploma in Theatre Studies. It was a new course and there were about sixteen people doing it, many of them from overseas. Several were from Nigeria.

One of the Nigerian students on my course was quite a bit older than the rest of us. He was an actor back in Nigeria, in a television soap called The Village Schoolmaster. Guess what it was about?

The actor on my course – sadly I’m not certain of his surname, but I think his first name was Femi – played the title role, and had done so for many years. Finally, longing for a change, he had managed to get a year’s leave of absence from the soap to do the course in Cardiff, leaving the Village to carry on without its Schoolmaster, in a Hamlet-without-the-Prince kind of a way. After the year’s absence, he was due to return to his role, probably forever.

So there he was in Cardiff, and I had a book he wanted to borrow. Could he call round and collect it that evening? Of course, I said.

So, later on that evening, there was a knock at the door of our shared flat. Bola, the Nigerian girl, who had the room nearest the front door, answered it. I heard Femi’s voice, so I went to the door. Bola said nothing.

I handed Femi the book, we exchanged a few pleasantries, and off he went.

It was then I noticed that Bola was standing stock still, still saying nothing, with a somewhat “seen-a-ghost” look.

“Are you okay, Bola?”

“That was - - “ she said, incredulously, “that was the VILLAGE SCHOOLMASTER!”

Bola had travelled thousands of miles from Nigeria to a foreign land where she knew nobody. And when she innocently answered the door, there, standing on the doorstep, was the Nigerian equivalent of Ken Barlow.

No wonder she was surprised.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Swimming in the River Esk

I was the oldest child, born after seven years of marriage and a number of miscarriages. My brother Michael was born nearly nine years later, after two more miscarriages.

This made our parents a trifle over-protective. Their attitude to anything involving physical danger was along the lines of "Oh no! There's a tree! Little Daphne might climb up it and fall out and DIE!" I longed for riding lessons - far too dangerous. How they came to allow me to ride a bike I don't know. Even the carved Victorian banisters in our house were ripped out and replaced by nasty 1960s painted panels, just in case little Daphne or little Michael might get their precious little heads stuck through them.

However, one area all this didn't extend to was swimming in rivers. Rather ironic, really, since swimming in rivers is nowadays generally held to be Far Too Dangerous. Currents! Hidden holes! Weill's disease! Killer pike!

But both our parents were keen swimmers, especially my mother, and because she'd been brought up to swim in rivers she didn't think there was anything wrong with it. And, as I have written before, immersing her children in freezing cold water was something she considered entirely necessary.

I loved it. But then, a lot of the time we were swimming in the River Esk near Boot in the Lake District, which was stunningly beautiful and has not changed at all since those days. Here is the pool where we used to swim:

It's quite deep - about five feet I should say. The water is beautifully clear and the current is just strong enough to have fun with.

I take safety in the water seriously - my husband Stephen's father drowned in the sea off Cornwall when Stephen was eleven. But I'm going to go back to Eskdale, and I'm going to swim there again.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Tempest in the Sunshine

Summer brings many good things, and one of them is open-air Shakespeare. There are several excellent companies and Illyria's Comedy of Errors last summer was a delight. Last year Theatre of the Dales did King Lear - this year it's The Tempest and I was fortunate to see the dress rehearsal last week.

I took some photographs and it's strange to see them - I was away on an island with Prospero and Miranda, but looking at the photos there are all these people sitting in the background! Because the production was in the round, all my photos have the audience in and it's clear that all ages were enjoying it.

Here's Ariel:

Here's Caliban, who had injured his hand in Real Life - it just contributed to his generally dishevelled appearance:

and here's Trinculo - always good to see authentic Elizabethan costume - -

Although it was supposed to be a dress rehearsal, it felt much more like a proper performance. It's great to see what some good actors can do with just minimal set - I love this kind of theatre.

The audience member below had dressed for the occasion and barked his disapproval of Caliban.

You can see this production at the Quaker Meeting House, Rawdon, on July 15th: at Jervaulx Abbey on July 16th: at Knaresborough Castle on July 19th and at Shibden Hall near Halifax on July 21. And I recommend that you do - it's magic! If you would like more details, leave me your email address as a comment on this blog and I'll send you more information.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Jacket Amy Made

I'm not very good at fiddly things and, to me, knitting and especially sewing both come under the heading of "fiddly". Knitting is quite therapeutic but when you've made whatever you're making you then have to sew it together which takes all the fun out of it.

At school the subject known as Domestic Science (cooking half the time, sewing the rest) was taught by very scary women who thought that the Eleventh Commandment was Thou Shalt Remember Thy Cookery Apron And Woe Betide Thee If Thou Forgettest It.

If forced to sew, I preferred the treadle machine which you worked with your feet and which did at least feel as though it might just take you for a fun ride round the sewing room if you got the controls right. The hand machine where you turned the wheel with one hand meant that you only had one spare hand to feed the thread through and keep the material straight. Worse, the spare hand was my left hand and I am very, very right-handed. It once took me six weeks to put in a zip, which was very probably a school record. I did try the electric machine once but it just ran away with me and sewed everything to everything, so I never went near it again.

I once won a prize for some hand-sewn buttonholes. Ah, weren't grammar schools great eh? Useful skill or what? Many's the time in my life since that I've heard the cry, "Help! Emergency! Is there anyone who can hand-sew buttonholes in the house?" Having reached this pinnacle of achievement I gave up sewing with a cheer. When I'm in Hell the first thing they'll say to me is "After you've finished the hand-sewn buttonholes, we'd like you to put in all these zips."

I did once knit a jumper but it took me so long to complete that I hated it by the time I'd finished it. Thus ended my exploits in both sewing and knitting.

Amy, who lives in Barrow-in-Furness and was at school with my mother as well as marrying Mum's cousin Frank, can sew or knit anything, the more fiddly the better. I've seen her cut material for a dress by throwing it on the floor, looking at it, and cutting. She once knitted a jumper which was worn by every child in the family in succession, including me. Anything knitted by Amy stays knitted.

Now, at eighty-two, she is teaching some local ten-year-olds to knit, to keep the skill going. Meanwhile, she made this jacket:

She didn't just knit it, however. She started by collecting the wool from hedges and fences and other places where sheep's wool gets caught in the Lake District. Then she washed it, carded it, spun it and finally knitted it into the jacket.

To Amy, this was quite an ordinary thing to do, and she was somewhat surprised that I should want to take a photograph of the finished jacket. To me, it's amazing.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Cold Milk

It's been very, very hot recently.
I think our fridge has been overcompensating.

On Thursday I was doing some work on Communication Skills - body language, explaining skills, listening skills - with Year Elevens (age fifteen to sixteen) at the University of Leeds, as part of a course introducing them to medicine as a career.

The weather was meltingly hot and so was all of the university apart from the room they were in, which was air-conditioned and cool. Glorious, it was, after the heat outside.

When I arrived these teenagers were all doing lots of wrapping-jumpers-around-themselves coupled with a bit of shivering-acting and a lot of dramatic anguished glances meant to imply that they were going to collapse and DIE from hypothermia THIS MINUTE.

They were a very pleasant group and they worked very hard. I told them that I could see that they already knew plenty about body language.

Friday, July 07, 2006

How I Saved the Young Vic

Nobody knew at the time: I don’t think many people know now, but I really did save the Young Vic Theatre in London from at least partial destruction.

In the mid-1970s I was a student at Leeds University. I joined the drama society and found myself playing a lunatic in a production of Marat: Sade, which was a play about Marat and the French Revolution, supposedly enacted by the inmates of a lunatic asylum. I found it a rather depressing piece but the music, by Leeds composer Roger Quick, then a student there, was excellent and I can still remember much of it, along with the lyrics.

Marat we’re poor and the poor stay poor
Marat don’t make us work any more
We want our rights and we don’t care how
We want a revolution – NOW!

It was, I believe, rather a good production. The director was one of the drama lecturers and the girl playing the leading role of Charlotte Corday was – surprise, surprise! – his girlfriend, or perhaps his wife, I forget. Anyway, the production was chosen for the National Student Drama Festival in London.

I remember two main things about this. Firstly, in a student cast, one actor was not very good and the director shamelessly ditched him before the London transfer. Exactly what a commercial director would do, of course – but I thought at the time, and still think now, that the production had been chosen as it was, and should transfer like that, because after all it was a student production. Quite a few of us kicked up a bit of a fuss about this, to no avail at all.

Secondly, the director’s girlfriendorwife was a couple of months pregnant when the play was on in Leeds. By the time it transferred to London, five months later, the line “An untouched virgin stands before you” was not making a lot of sense, but I notice that the director didn’t get rid of her.

The play ran for a week at the Young Vic Theatre and I had a lovely time. I was staying at a friend’s flat: she was out at work during the day and I went off exploring London on my own, wandering round all the galleries and museums at my own pace – I particularly enjoyed the National Portrait Gallery, I remember.

Our costumes consisted entirely of cotton straitjackets with long, dangly sleeves and I also clutched a little rattle in a stereotypical lunatic-like way. There were about fifteen of us in the fetching chorus of lunatics and we had our own, lunatical dressing-room which would be untidily strewn with straitjackets with our names sewn into them.

One night we had all left the building after the show and the caretaker was locking up after us when I remembered that I had left my bag in the dressing-room. A very uncharacteristic move for me, this, as I am known for having whatever handbag I am currently using welded to my arm.

However, the caretaker opened the darkened theatre for me and I rather nervously made my way to the dressing-room. As I approached our dressing-room I could see a crack of light round the door - someone had left all the lights on – the light bulbs over the mirrors which provided light for make-up.

I could smell burning. Someone had left their straitjacket draped over a light bulb and as I opened the door, it burst into flames. I grabbed it and hurled it into a sink, and turned the tap on until the fire went out. As heroic save-the-world acts go, it wasn’t particularly difficult.

One more minute, however, and the whole room would have been on fire, probably swiftly followed by the rest of the theatre. I told the caretaker what had happened and he displayed complete lack of interest. “Yes, dear, now let’s all go home.”

The next night one of the lunatics complained that his straitjacket was in the sink with a big burn hole in it. I explained what had happened. He too displayed complete lack of interest, other than in the fact that he didn’t now have a costume. Luckily there was a spare straitjacket and the show went on.

If anyone wants to give me an award for saving one of London’s best-loved theatres, I’d still be happy to accept it.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Oliver's Army and Mrs Thatcher

It was a warm Spring in 1979. Nowadays people seem to spend their gap years on a beach in Thailand: I spent mine in various offices in Cardiff. By 'eck, though, I knew no different: expectations were lower in those days.

In the autumn I was about to start a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education course at University College, Cardiff, but meanwhile I got a six-month job as a clerk in the Customs and Excise branch of the Civil Service, doing something dull to do with VAT.

It was an easy job to start with and then after a couple of weeks the computer, which provided me with my work, went on strike. Or, presumably, the people who worked it went on strike. It was all the same to me: it meant that I spent six months in the Civil Service doing absolutely and completely nothing. Well, nothing to do with the Civil Service, anyway: I used my time very profitably and read all the books I needed for my teacher training course. And the government paid me to do it at a positively luxurious £49 per week.

The people I worked with were lovely - Bob, an ex-policeman in his fifties, and Julie a lively girl a bit younger than me became my friends. We had an interminable game of cards going on in the breaks between work (or, in my case, between reading books about children and teaching). I have no idea now what game it was but it was one where you won tricks and the game just went on and on, day after day, week after week "You've got 396 tricks, Bob, and Daphne's got 262."

As I said, it was a warm Spring and ice-creams were a necessity every afternoon. It was a war of nerves. We all sat there in silence wondering who would crack first. Finally someone would leap to their feet and sing a bit of Elvis Costello's Oliver's Army:

Oliver's Army are here to stay
Oliver's Army are on their way

and then the whole department would join in the chorus

And I would rather be anywhere else
Than here today

Then the person who started it would have to take orders and go and get everyone's ice-creams.

But there was darkness coming - or harmony, truth, faith and hope, depending on your point of view. One day there was a knock at my front door in Splott (yes, really, it's a part of Cardiff, I'm not making it up) and there on the step stood the Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, with Michael Foot. We lived in Jim's constituency, though I noticed he always referred to it as Cardiff Bay rather than Splott. And Jim and Michael were canvassing for the election.

Which, of course, they lost - and probably deserved to lose. They were not a great Labour government, and the country wanted change. So it's partly their fault that Margaret Thatcher got into power. You can watch her speech as she arrived at Number Ten here. Putting her perfectly-coiffed head on one side in that way that Cecil Parkinson used to fantasise about, she said, quoting St Francis of Assisi,

"Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope."

She failed on all four, of course. The whole ethos of the country seemed to change in May 1979. I'm still waiting for it to change back.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Things to Do when you're Eighty-Two

There's something to be said for a very active youth. My mother, age eighty-two, who spent her youth climbing on Lake District fells (hurrah) and playing hockey (boo) has remained very physically fit and spends at least eight hours a day gardening. Here are some things she did on holiday last week:

She travelled on the Eskdale to Ravenglass railway:

She visited the Roman fort high up on Hardknott Pass:

Climbed about on the rocks by the River Esk:

Climbed up the big rock by the River Duddon: (she's the little one)

Paddled in the River Duddon (and in the River Esk as well, by the way)

and swung on the swings at Broughton-in-Furness.

A couple of years ago she went to the doctor for her annual check and encountered a doctor who didn't know her.

"And do you take any exercise?" he asked.

"Well," said my mother, "I've just come back from holiday, so I've had a bit more exercise than usual. On holiday in Tenby I usually do about half a mile in the pool before breakfast, then go down on the beach and play a bit of beach tennis, then a swim in the sea before lunch. After lunch I'll probably go down on the beach and have another swim and then come up for a swim in the pool before dinner - probably about another half a mile's worth of lengths. Then after dinner some nights we go for a walk unless there's a dance, in which case I'll go to the dance."

All this is completely and totally true. However, the doctor looked at her, and clearly decided on the spot that here was a case of delusional Alzheimer's. Under "Exercise" he wrote "Moderate".

Monday, July 03, 2006

Art, Wine and Disaster in Holmfirth

Unless you're from Yorkshire, if you have heard of Holmfirth at all it will probably be because of the long-running television comedy series Last of the Summer Wine, which has done about 250 episodes since it began. Not my cup of tea, I'm afraid, but many people love it and it has featured lots of excellent actors.

In spite of the invasion of tourists seeking "Summer Wine Country", Holmfirth still retains plenty of character and at the moment, until July 8th, there is Holmfirth Artweek going on. I was working in Holmfirth today and went to look round the main exhibition in the Civic Hall afterwards. It's mixture of professional and amateur work, with about 400 artists taking part, and there are also many fringe venues round about. I was really impressed that a place of the size of Holmfirth was able to muster such a large exhibition: I spent a long time looking round and really enjoyed it.

I met someone who ran an art gallery who kept giving me the gallery-owner's point of view. "Poppies always sell": "Old-fashioned-looking pottery never sells". We agreed, though, that some people don't paint primarily to sell their work, and that work that is done because "this will sell" is rarely, if ever, the most interesting.

The people we met were very friendly and I felt that the whole thing put the big city of Leeds, where I live, to shame - in spite of Leeds' efforts to reinvent itself as a European city of pavement cafes, I think there's still a groundswell of resistance in Leeds to anything that can be deemed "culture".

Something that Holmfirth should be known for, but isn't generally, is the Holmfirth Flood of 1852. The link gives the whole story of the flood, as originally published in the Holmfirth Express in 1910. In short, after a period of heavy rain in February 1852, the dam at Bilberry Reservoir above Holmfirth burst, and twenty minutes later a vast amount of water crashed into Holmfirth itself, as well as doing a great deal of damage to the Holme Valley. Hundreds of people were killed and there are many fascinating eyewitness accounts on the website.

How this story has got so generally forgotten I don't know - I live only thirty miles away, I am interested in history and yet I had never heard of it until John told me about it (and incidentally you can see some of his work in the Holmfirth Artweek exhibition). Where is the great British feature film? Or the television documentary?

Perhaps it's another example of the North-South divide. I can't help thinking that if the flood had happened in the South the story would be known throughout the land - - but Holmfirth in the 1850s must have seemed very remote indeed to those in London. 1852? It was even before they started filming Last of the Summer Wine.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Nature Morte

Nature Morte is what the French call Still Life. I'm not too fond of many Still Life paintings, especially those Victorian ones with a bowl of fruit and a bit of velvet curtain. I find them dull and definitely more full of death than life.

Having said that, here are some things with their legs in the air that I did find interesting:

This is a dead shrew that I came across near the cottage where I was staying in Broughton-in-Furness. I've never seen a shrew before and, although I knew that they are the smallest mammal in the country, I was surprised by how small it was - only about an inch, plus tail.

Here's a dead mole that I found. I've never seen a mole before and it was fascinating - the great big front paws for digging: the soft, velvety coat. Its eyes were so tiny that I couldn't find them and in fact the mole itself was only about five inches long, with a tail about an inch long. Odd that I've seen molehills very often all my life, and yet never seen their creator. The nearest I've come to it was seeing a molehill with a little fountain of soil coming out of the top where the mole was digging.

This is a dog. She's called Meg and is not dead at all, very much alive in fact, and she lives at Ringhouse Cottages where we stayed. Like every Border Collie I've ever met, she was friendly, cheerful and full of energy. When I was a child and we stayed on a farm in the Duddon Valley once, the border collies on the farm would spend all day herding sheep out on the fells and then, back on the farm in the evening, would help themselves to a football and spend the evenings playing soccer.

So: two still deads and one still alive.