Tuesday, 23 December 2008

'Twas the Night Before Christmas....

I fear this post is going to be a spewy stream of consciousness flecked with half-digested carrots and hardened bits of chicken (what is it with vomit and the omnipresent diced carrot, by the way? They're there even when you haven't eaten them, and when L was sick the other day, albeit having eaten them nearly 3 hours earlier, there they were, all present and orange and correct and apparently completely untouched - I could have scraped them up off the carpet and chucked them in a casserole. I didn't, I hasten to add. I'm not that bad a cook. Or quite that mean. But I'm still flummoxed that it was possible).

Moving swiftly on, here I am in an internet cafe in Buxton eating a sesame seed bagel slavered in butter (which will sit rancidly around my mouth for the rest of the day, wafting up at unexpected moments, despite my best efforts to wash it all off - and I don't even have a beard. Well, not a full one, just a few bristles every now and then which I have to keep on top of, but not enough to harness quite such a fetid smell) and drinking a regular cappucino. This is a little indulgence usually reserved for after my yoga class with my mates on a Wednesday (I feel myself getting more stereotypical with every syllable). Today I am blissfully alone, combining breakfast and lunch in one, before setting out into the fray once more. I have just been to my gorgeous chiropractor (if I was going to have an affair with a younger man, it would be him: nice looking, nice touch, sensible, kind and it would save me a fortune in appointments) who's sorted out my neck knackered by yoga headstands (I'm going to release myself from their torture next term by pleading medical reasons - confirmed by lovely Rob - that it is doing me more harm than good. Long neck, short upper arms - I'm a freak - and a history of upper spinal injuries (not to mention the pelvic problems) does not make it the rejuvenating, invigorating experience that Mr Yoga over in Nepal clearly finds it. He's obviously short and stubby with monkey like limbs and doesn't ski or fall off skateboards or get driven into ditches in a Land Rover by his parter. He clearly leads a very sheltered life. The Buxton branch of the Yoga Ogre will have to be informed. God help me. She hates me enough as it is. It will go down like a cup of cold sick. But that's enough of sick.

So, what do I still have to do? Buy some final presents, collect the rib of beef (turkey already tucked up in fridge), buy all the veg and trimmings and twiddly bits, drop off the recycling, wrap all the presents, finish decking the halls, deliver the last Christmas cards, throw in a few washes, bleach the dark hair on my short arms - God I feel faint. And we're going to the panto tonight
'Oh no you're not'
'Oh yes we are!'
at 6.30pm in the Opera House. Cinderella. Haven't seen that one before, then. What's the story...? 'Oh no it isn't' 'Oh yes it is'. Oh God, shut up.

And why is it that I end up buying all the presents for everyone, including myself at Christmas? I've even had a phonecall from my brother this morning, who's clearly hungover from his drinks party last night (nice to have the problem - I've had bugger all celebrations, as usual, this year), as I stood in the queue to pay at Woollies (ah, last time, I suspect. So sad. Love Woollies. All those cheap socks and pants and school clothes for the children. Oh yes, I'm quite a fan. Stickers, picture frames, arty crafty bits, cheap toys, sandals, Ladybird clothes, towels, sheets - it's amazing what you can find if you dig around. Can't believe they've managed to fuck it up. Another slice of my childhood nostalgia comes crashing to the ground) wanting to know if I have anything in my supplies which he could give E for her birthday in early January. So I drag my absurdly heavy Santa sack from Woollies (stupid girl at the check-out had filled a bag then asked me if I wanted one big one instead of 3 smaller ones. I said yes, assuming I would end up with the one small one she'd already packed and then one big one. But no. She unpacked it all - I couldn't think what the hell was going on out of sight behind the counter - and put it all in this thing that Reindeers would refuse to haul) to WHSmith and found myself staring at the CDs. Aha, High School Musical 3, mercifully 'In Stock' rather than 'Temporarily Out Of' which makes you feel a loser for not buying it earlier. I phone my brother and tell him it's sorted. Then I buy two more bags from WHSmith for 1p each (my eco-penance) and unpack my Woollies haul in the middle of the store with people perversely trying to squeeze past, tutting, despite my trying to find the most peaceful area of the shop. Bag lady or what. Then I go outside and dump them on the nearest bench and phone my husband to remind him of something. He tells me my Christmas list is looking a bit thin. That's because everything I want (and it's not much) is not really achieveable the day before Christmas Eve. I suggest he gives me the cashmere jumper I bought myself, with petulant extravagance, in DKNY last week in a rare visit to Manchester. I tell him the price and he gasps. So I know I will be handing out all my lovingly researched and created presents to all my family and I will get the usual - a few CDs (usually duplicates) and a book or two. Sigh. I dream of being with people who tramp the streets finding beautiful things in beautiful shops that they KNOW I will love because they KNOW me so well. No. I am surrounded by fearsomely practical people. I will open the packet with my oven gloves and be thrilled. They are AGA and I did ask for them, after all. The nadir, though, has to be the Christmas my beloved gave me a Dustbuster. Still, I can talk, I'm currently wasting absurd amounts of energy worrying about the present I've given my cleaners. I was in John Lewis and saw some pretty Cath Kidston washing up brushes, scrubbing brushes and dusters(makes a change from chocolates and wine, I thought). All very 50s retro. All very designer, for any one in the know. Unfortunately I don't think they're in the know and will assume I got them down Chapel market for 50p. Could be the end of a beautiful relationship. My friends were horrified when I told them. So was my mother. I probably haven't improved the situation by softening the blow by adding some smellies. My idea was to get something special but having shelled out unexpectedly large sums on the Cath Kidston dream, I suddenly went all mean (there are FOUR cleaners, I hasten to add - they hunt in a pack, but are a mercifully short time in the house as a result, which is a bonus) and got some stuff from Superdrug. It doesn't actually SAY Superdrug on the packet, but they'll probably know. Oh God.

And what is it with the nation's current obsession with flashing lights? As if this time of year isn't stressful enough, we now have to endure interrupted electric currents every where we go. It's like living in a fruit machine. How epileptics cope, I really don't know. It's certainly enough to turn you into one. And what's with the blinding blue lights? Isn't it damp and miserable enough without the chill of arctic blue? What's wrong with good old classic warm white? Non flashing. Blimey, the woman behind me's just announced she's been to a funeral. I suppose death is one way to escape it all, but a tad extreme. Still, it will be my funeral if I don't get on with what I'm supposed to be doing instead of sitting here burbling on, so I'd better go.

So, dear reader, I wish you a very merry flashing Christmas and hope that you get all that your little heart desires and somehow, somewhere, find some peace. Some hope. Just think of my brother in law, currently languishing, at his friend's expense, in a flashy (rather than flashing) house in Sri Lanka with two cooks, a daily massage and yoga lessons (poor sod) and the Indian Ocean lapping at his door. That would be the best Christmas present ever.

Dream on, girl, and go stuff the turkey. Flowered pinny on, smile on face. All very 50s retro. So Cath Kidston. So John Lewis. Not very Woollies. May my sherry glass never run dry...

Cin Cin!

Friday, 12 December 2008

The Dambusters

Time has slipped by and this is now going to seem a little out of sync given we’re hurtling down the cresta run towards Christmas and all those Remembrance Day thoughts are eclipsed by tinsel and faulty fairy lights. But this is what I wanted to say:….

The solid old stone house that I am fortunate enough to live in has great history; not in a flashy sort of way, but in a quiet, knowing sort of way. It has stood on this land, with this view, for over four centuries. Much life, and some death, has played out within its walls. It feels a fundamentally happy house. I could not live here if it did not (and I have lived somewhere that was unhappy, so I know). I think the energies were stirred up, as they so often are, when we first moved in. There was a constant unexplained tapping sometime after midnight for the first few months which used to wake me up and make me wonder. Eventually it stopped and has not been heard in the last five years. I spend huge amounts of time here by myself and I have never felt ‘spooked’ or threatened in any way. Au contraire, in fact. I feel this house envelops me and keeps me safe when wind and rain beat against its hardy exterior. It is my friend and my protector.

When we moved up here, there were a series of extraordinary coincidences regarding people who had had connections with this small village. People who had been evacuated here, people who had had cousins living here and a number of other strange collisions of fate. One of them involved my parents. They were on a history and art tour in St Petersburg and befriended another lady on the trip. It turned out, through idle chat, that she had lived in this very village for a number of years and knew the people who, at one time, lived in our house. The son was one of the Dambusters(read about him here), killed in action while the family were living here. The surviving sister married and moved to Africa and for most of her life has lived on Lake Baringo. Thanks to this new friend of my parents, Betty Astell wrote to me from Africa and told me how very happy they had been at Spire Hollins and what a lovely home it had been for them, apart from the one tragic fact that her brother had been killed while they were living here.

One day earlier this year I came downstairs and noticed some drops of liquid on the parquet floor in the hall. I looked up to see if there was any dripping from the ceiling (we’ve had many a leaky bath problem), but it was dry as a bone (and anyway, there was no bathroom overhead). I thought no more of it until the next day when I noticed the drops were still there with a slight smudge around them. I knelt down to touch them and found a viscous substance between my fingers. Very pale brown in colour and smelling just like the oil that I used to put on my bike chain as a child. It was only later that I noticed there was a trail of similar drops starting on the marble worktop in the kitchen and in a straight line across the kitchen floor and in line with the drops in the hallway. I tried to find every possible explanation but could not. It was not olive oil, or cooking oil. No, it was like an engine oil. It was not the anniversary of the Dambuster mission and I’ve never found an explanation. I just like, in an imaginative sort of way, to believe it was something to do with the brave man that had once lived here and had died for his country one dark night over northern France when his plane crashed into an electricity pylon while flying low to avoid radar detection. He never even got to the Ruhr Dam.

The week of Remembrance I took myself up to Derwent Reservoir, just half an hour from here, to see the water over which the Dambusters had honed their skills to drop the bouncing bombs. It had been a beautiful sunny day but by the time I got there the light was fading. The larch trees had dropped a carpet of golden needles on the black tarmac road that edges the reservoir; the sheep grazed on the lakeside fields and there was hardly a breath of air. It is a beautiful, contemplative spot and perfect for reflecting on the personal sacrifices made for us to enjoy the freedoms, and relative peace, which we have today.

The sunset I saw on my way back home to this special place where I feel privileged to live:

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Remember, Remember

‘Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy, but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.’ Sir Winston Churchill

Remember, remember the 11th November…

From the fun and fireworks of the Guy Fawkes bonfire to the poignant and fragile symbolism of the Flanders Poppy, the market place is the historic heart of our small town and the site where these two key dates in our history are remembered.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That marks our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
Though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae(1872-1918)

On Sunday I went to the Remembrance Service at St Thomas Becket church in Chapel-en-le-Frith, tucked away at the far end of the market place, in the heart of the old town. Combs Brownies are involved in the parade up the High Street which, inevitably, takes place in the rain; and Brown Owl has usually got a stinking cold. The uniforms, so carefully prepared, sashes worn proudly with red poppy attached, were all forlornly wrapped up in a hotchpotch of anoraks and coats. ‘Turned out nice again, then?’ said a friend, a wry smile playing across his lips. Indeed. The turnout to watch the march was slim, such was the weather. A couple of young boys opened their front door and looked out, holding their cereal bowls it would seem, while their father lurked in the shadows behind them. I recognised the woman from the hardware shop, and the local Conservative candidate who supported our Save the School campaign (unlike the Labour MP). The band played, the drums kept the beat, but this was lost on most of the young participants who were hunched against the wind and rain as they made their way up the hill, across the old cobbled market place where the War Memorial stands, and filed their way through the black iron railings and along the stone-flagged path through the gravestones into the handsome church.

The service begins at 10.30am with the vicar, vocalising his words in an absurd up and down parody of oratory ecclesiastical style (this is unfortunate), but in all other respects proceeds smoothly up to 11.00am and the Act of Remembrance, punctuated by some of my favourite hymns, including ‘Abide with Me’ and ‘Eternal Father strong to save’, as well as Elgar’s Nimrod. The Last Post was played from a lone trumpet at the back of the church – a more heartrending set of single notes you could never hear, their beauty weighed down by the solemnity of their meaning. The two minute silence has, in the past, been a fiasco with babies crying and toddlers wittering, mothers going ‘Sssshhhh’ and the Boys Brigade giggling, but this year, blessedly, we got nearly to the end without a sniff or a cough until finally a very patient baby got fed up. She did well. The Reveille, by the same lone trumpet, pulled us back out of our private contemplations and the Kohima Epitaph was read by a member of the Chapel branch of the Royal British Legion, his medals pinned proudly on his beige overcoat:

When you go home
Tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow
We gave our today

We sang ‘God is our strength and refuge’ to the tune of the Dambusters. The Sermon followed then we sang two more of my favourite hymns, ‘Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us’ and ‘Praise my soul the King of Heaven’.

From church back to the stone War Memorial on the market place, marking the loss of Chapel’s brothers. Here wreaths were laid and another two minute silence observed as the leaden skies threatened rain once more. A chill breeze blew up and the raindrops started to fall, on cue, as the band struck up and the march back down the High Street began.

I met the girls, bedraggled, back down at the Scout Hut after the mayor had warmly thanked all participants and sent us home to our Sunday lunches and the warmth of our houses. I drove them home and as we pulled into the garage and I turned off the engine there was a moment’s silence before E said ‘I wish we hadn’t gone now’. Puzzled, I asked her why and she said ‘because I’m cold and wet and my hands are frozen.’ I couldn’t help it, but tears welled in my eyes and my voice went tight and choked. She couldn’t have uttered anything more inappropriate or more appropriate. I asked her to think, then, of the men, the many, many men, not so much older than herself, who had lain out in the cold and wet and mud of the First World War trenches waiting for, and enduring, a cold, wet and lonely death; far from their mothers, far from their fathers, far from everyone who loved them and from everything that was home – the sacredness of which they were out there fighting for. For me it is that elemental and spiritual loneliness that so many thousands endured that breaks my heart. It is that which I contemplate and try my hardest to imagine during that momentous two minute silence.

Fallen Leaves

Today I was meant to be going to John Lewis but, truth to tell, I couldn’t quite bring myself to be there, in that haven of materialism, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the moment the guns finally stopped. Instead I stayed at home, turning on the BBC (no other channel would do) at about 15 minutes to the hour. Many of you out there, with me, will have seen the faces of three of the oldest men alive, and three of just four surviving servicemen of the Great War: Henry Allingham, Harry Patch and William Stone (even their names tell a story). Henry Allingham insisted on trying to lay his wreath himself; Harry Patch held his hands to his face; William Stone sang the words of the hymn. Henry, at 112, is the oldest man in Europe and the oldest surviving member of the Great War; Harry, at 108, is the last man alive to serve in the trenches and such was the impact of this it took him 100 years to speak publicly about it for the first time; William Stone, at 108, is the last known veteran to have served in both the First and Second World Wars and believes his family has a Guardian Angel looking after them as he, his four brothers and his three uncles all survived too. As you watch them close their eyes, you cannot begin to know the horrors they have seen, the pain they have endured, both for themselves and for their fallen friends and comrades. I couldn’t help noticing some of the small gestures of human kindness and respect for these marvellous men that the servicemen and women by their sides showed: the gloved white hand of the current holder of the Victoria Cross squeezing Harry Patch’s shoulder; the flapping label on the wreath, disturbed by the November wind, held out of the face of William Stone. I looked out of the kitchen windows onto my garden and found some metaphors in nature: as the silence had begun, so had a passing rain shower; as the silence ended a shaft of weak autumn sunlight illuminated the kitchen wall; as Siegfried Sassoon’s Aftermath was read, so a sudden vortex of air whirled leaves chaotically around the lawn and I spotted one lone brown leaf tossed into the faded straw-like stalks of a border perennial, trapped as a man in the barbed wire of the trenches.

This is not sentimental. This is what I saw and this is how I feel. The older my father gets, and he is now 80, the more choked and emotional he gets whenever telling a war time story. But I never dismiss it lightly. As we grow older we somehow become more connected with death, and in that connection perhaps we start to understand the true meaning of life and of the freedom to live it as we wish. There are many brave men and women who continue to give up their own lives, their own freedoms, for the greater good of us all. We should never underestimate this sacrifice, or treat it lightly, and I will try and make sure my children understand this too.

Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz-
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack-
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads-those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget

Siegfried Sassoon, 1919

Post Script
With extraordinary timing, the phone rang as I was writing this, and it was the Padre. We have not heard from him, bar a change of address notice, since his visit here that April when he was off to do his service in Iraq. He lost many soldiers, it was a dangerous time and no-one was safe, and he was very pleased to be able to return, almost a year ago now, after the desert and the dust, the chaos and uncertainty, to this green and pleasant land. Rupert Brook's The Soldier seems as relevant now as it was nearly a century ago:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there is some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

The following links may be of interest. The first is the BBC World Service's coverage of the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph which William Stone, Harry Patch and Henry Allingham all attended; the second is the story of those that lost their lives after the Armistice was agreed - with many interesting comments from readers.

Did you observe the silence and if so, where were you? I'd love to know.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

‘Remember, remember the 5th of December, gunpower, treason and plot’ – so sang my silly songbird six year old as we left school in the gloaming. ‘I think you mean ‘November’’ I said, helpfully, squeezing her warm little hand. Then, less helpfully, I completely couldn’t remember the rest of the ditty, and neither could she. Oh well, nice try. Got us in the spirit, at least, and took me back to my childhood Bonfire Nights….

How exciting they seemed then. Full of drama and horror when I was little: the doom-laden voice of the school teacher warning us of the dangers of fireworks ringing in my ears as, nervously, I watched my father stomp round the garden lighting the blue touch paper and sort of standing back; then going forward again because it hadn’t lit, my eyes widening at the impending tragedy of my father losing an arm or an eye as the wretched little firework suddenly decided to take off in the damp November air and he leapt back in the nick of time with a curse. Ah yes, those were the days: all those dire warnings of pets needing to be kept in, entreaties for us all to take care ‘this Bonfire night’. It was a night filled with excitement and alarm and a smell up my nostrils like exploded caps (remember those? – those lines of little black dots on a long thin strip of bluey-green paper which you put in a ‘gun’ which had a trigger which slammed down on them to make them go bang? Good grief, what would Health and Safety think of those, eh? Or does someone still sell them somewhere secretly under cover of darkness…?).

As I grew up, we progressed from the back garden to organised events dotted around West Sussex. There were torch parades and baked potatoes and big bonfires and the excuse to meet up with your mates and hang out on a school night: because in those days Bonfire Night was the 5th of November. Not the weekend before, nor the weekend after, nor two weeks either side. No. It was on the night that history was made. I used to get so mad in London, before we moved up here, to have desultory fireworks (or rather just loud bangers) going off for weeks before the 5th. It completely ruined it, like having Christmas decorations in the shops in October. It just renders the whole thing meaningless and makes you tire of it rather than one special night to look forward to once a year. That is the point of any remembrance ceremony isn’t it, to have it on the date that whatever it was actually happened?

Anyway, the good people of my local town do actually have Bonfire Night on Bonfire Night, for which they are to be applauded. They build a bonfire on the market place (not large) right outside the Co-Op, the Post Office, the Betting Shop, the take-away and two pubs (with two more 20 feet away across the high street) and put on a generous 45 minutes of fireworks, during which increasing numbers of people teeter onto the pavements from the hostelries and go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ before going back in for another pint (or three). It’s a wonder there are no charred bodies on the glowing embers the next day, frankly, as tipsy home-goers stagger past the flames in the small hours. It would certainly put a whole new spin on burning the Guy. A couple of years back apparently someone pitched up with an old three piece suite which they duly chucked on the flames. And why not? Saved a trip to the dump at least.

Yet despite the enticements of Bonfire and Booze on my own high street, I decided to stay local. Very local. Like my own back garden. Like the days of old. The village used to have its own bonfire and ‘a jolly good do’ (according to Henri) in the car park before half of it was unceremoniously built on. I think we should bring it back as a tradition, but in the meantime, my garden will do. So we built a bonfire, my friend and I, chatting the while as we wheeled barrel loads of branches and old door frames up the garden path to the top of the garden. We then dropped down into dingly dell (newly cleared of scrub and gnarled old rhododendron) and formed our wigwam. The sheep were wandering on the hills beyond and golden beech leaves dropped silently from above, dancing their way gently and unselfconsciously to the ground. The sky was dull and grey and all was still and waiting. It was very November and a delightful hour of companionable work.

The friend returned with her family and a very smartly turned out Guy just short of seven. N had amazed me by walking through the door at 5.30pm, despite being in the middle of a spectacular work crisis (what’s new?), only to get in my way making toast and things as he’d not had lunch while I was trying to be organised getting food and drink prepared so that, for once, Holy Cow, I would be ready when guests arrived. I was ready, but N was not. No, he had to go on an emergency conference call just as they walked through the door. Vile words exploded from my mouth like Roman Candles. So we sat and drank our mulled cider in the kitchen till we could wait no more and then stomped up the garden without him. Unfortunately my friend’s husband is less of a pyrotechnic than my own and, as friend and I had crucially forgotten to put cardboard at the heart of our marvellous wigwam, our efforts to light it were wasted. Fire lighters were pathetically placed on dry foliage; fuel was sprayed onto naked flames with much alarm all round and chitterings and mutterings from the children all clearly heavily steeped in teacherly warnings. The cat, who’d been let out absent mindedly, was much worried about. G imagined her death by firework. Tears were fought back. I knew she’d be up a tree somewhere, safe as houses. The children played in the darkness, their torches flashing through the foliage. We drank tepid soup under the branches of an old yew and tried to imagine the fire burning brightly. Then suddenly and unexpectedly the cavalry arrived. A call from the darkness ‘How’s the bonfire?’ The Accountant, fresh from numeric battle, came to save us from chilly soup and chilly hands. He tweaked logs, threw on more charcoal fuel, smashed down the wigwam and promised flames. Guy’s head caught fire and dropped off dramatically in a decapitated sort of way, his body resolutely unburned. But it was a start. So we ate our cold hot dogs and turned our thoughts to fireworks. The town’s were now long finished, and we had the night sky to ourselves. It was a splendid display in the way only garden fireworks can be. Giggling from the only two Brave Girls and cries of ‘pathetic’ as each flimsy firework threw it’s pink and green best at us. The small rockets shot off at dangerous angles; the large ones with their swaggering bangs and mushroom of sparkles, caused simultaneous whoops and whimpers from the Brave and the Not So Brave. Parkin was eaten, washed down with more mulled cider. The show must go on. Ears were covered, tears were wiped away. The little huddle of spectators was enveloped in a sweet scented cloud of smoke as the last rocket scattered golden flecks into the night sky with a contented boom. It was a scene straight out of my childhood, but this time it was my husband lighting the blue touch paper, not my father. The baton has been passed to the next generation. Or should I say, the matchstick.

We made our way back to the wood and the now splendid fire. We lit sparklers and wrote our names in the air, the part of the evening everyone loves, the most innocent bit of all. Once they were spent and black, we bathed in the glow of the bonfire for a few minutes more before reluctantly gathering up children and gloves, torches and lanterns and made our way back down the garden to the house, its warmly lit windows drawing us in from the darkness outside.

‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
The gunpower, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder and treason
Should ever be forgot….’

Bonfire Night, 5th November 2008

Click on the links below to find the recipes I used:-

Mulled Cider
Mulled Apple Juice

Friday, 24 October 2008

Life on the Ocean Wave – The Final Chapter

There was a lingering heaviness in my heart on that last morning. I went to the very smart (as you would expect in Sotogrande) Heads to take my final boaty shower, still mulling over what the guys on the other yacht had said the night before. We’d wandered past on our way back from supper and they’d all been out in the cockpit drinking, smoking and laughing and having the sort of time that strangers do when thrown together in new experiences. The night was still and the boats swayed very gently side to side on the inky water, that familiar chink chink of the halyards filling the quieter moments. I was reminded of the PR trips I used to go on all those years ago – a gaggle of journos thrown together in some foreign land. It was either a blast or plain bloody awful. This little gathering definitely fell into the former category and I couldn’t wait to climb into the cockpit and join the fun. People tell stories and reveal so much more of themselves in these circumstances than in the cold light of day or back on home turf. I always find it fascinating and love watching the personalities unfurl – sometimes dangerously so. They were drinking some hideous hooch they’d found and it didn’t take much to persuade me to try some. Why is it that you always end up buying this stuff abroad and thinking it would be a good idea to take some home? I have a whole cupboard full of strange shaped bottles containing tastebud torturing evil spirits dreamt up by monks and mad mountain men. I suppose they have to do something to fill the time and keep out the cold.

At a certain point someone suggested I stayed on for another week as most of them were doing so. It was a tempting offer. I was so enjoying the learning experience, the freedom, the fun of meeting new people and I wasn’t sure I was ready to go back to my small little world in the Peak District, dividing my time between a Bermuda Triangle of provincial towns, my house and my children. I felt the shackles of domesticity descending again just at the thought and with it a certain loss of my sense of self. Here I was me. There I was Wife and Mother. The ME bit tends to get lost under a pile of laundry, shopping bags and grass cuttings. I was also very flattered that they wanted me to join their team despite their having established a tight-knit little unit. I would have learnt a lot more – about sailing, about them and about myself. N seemed surprisingly cool about the idea, I have to admit, and I went to bed that night pondering the possibilities. Yet with the dawning of the new day my innate sense of loyalty to N and the family woke up with me and I decided I should quit while I was ahead and leave the others to roam the open seas without me. It’s sometimes a good idea to leave the party in full swing, so taking home only the best of memories and avoiding the possibility of things going tits up at the end.

I held that wise old thought while I showered, luxuriating under abundant hot water in a cubicle the size of our boat. As the others came in, I already sensed them slipping away, soon to become people I would no doubt never see again. Our lives briefly entwined, now untangling again by the minute.

Back aboard Manjaro, we drank our morning coffee and listened to Keith’s instructions as to how he wanted us to exit the berth. With more hands on deck, Jambo was able to leave in quicker time than us and I had again that horrible, yet all too familiar, feeling of being Tail End Charlie. Having failed to engage in a race across the Straits the previous day due to the gin enduced hangover of Jambo’s crew, Keith decided to put the Spinnaker sail up once we’d done our coastal navigation exercise. It was thrilling to see the massive sail fill with air against a bright blue sky as Keith told tales of races won and lost. The wind got up as we approached the Rock and we had to take it in again to prevent any last minute dunks. Manoevering between tankers and past a wreck site, the harbour finally came into view with an air of unfamiliarity after our adventures on the briny. We had learned so much in those three days away that it was hard to remember how we had been at the start of it all. It was not hard to imagine how dislocated from their reality returning mariners, ancient and modern, must feel.

Our fellow shipmates were already washing down the decks and making things ship-shape when we berthed for the final time. Keith spared us the domestics, so all we had to do was re-pack our (enormous) bags and get our de-briefing. I’m happy to say that N is now a Day Skipper and I can wear the badge of (In)Competent Crew with honour and pride in the knowledge that I fulfilled all the same practical exercises as N, just skipped the navigational side. You can only have one Captain, after all.

We promised Keith a farewell drink ashore before he went up into the hills to snatch some R&R and much needed time with his wife before starting all over again on Sunday. The others joined us in drips and drabs as they completed their various tasks. Cat and Pia were off to Malaga airport to meet the friend joining them on the boat for their second week. Nol was bundling his dirty laundry off to the laundrette, Erika was psyching herself up for her solitary travels around Morocco and Nick, their instructor, was off home to sleep for the next day and a half. It felt decidedly end of term-ish as we sat round that table in the sunshine for the last time; and the saddest part was that we were just really getting to know each other. Email addresses and hugs were exchanged, pictures taken, another round of drinks bought, and people peeled off bit by bit. Big Mr Tim continued to mix flirty with some genuinely positive and encouraging comments about the woman that he saw me to be. Not just N’s wife, not just the mother of my children. No, in a very short space of time he had observed the essence of me, and in a wonderfully blunt, South-African sort of way, had let me know. It was good to be noticed, it was good to be appreciated for qualities which I’d forgotten I had and to be encouraged to acknowledge them and be proud of them. He was a good man. The fact that he set up his own charity school in West Africa is proof enough. He was also a funny man and I know how much the rest of his crew had appreciated his presence and his strength of personality. It is for all these reasons that I’ve always loved travelling: you never know who you are going to meet and what you are going to discover. It is a reaffirmation of life and all its possibilities. Your heart and mind are expanded, you learn from your experiences and you return home a richer person for it.

We nearly missed our flight, of course, after one too many 'last rounds' of drinks and ended up sitting at completely different ends of the plane to eachother. I tried to make sailing notes but ended up chatting to my neighbour instead after he’d kindly allowed me the last chicken salad and was clearly reading what I was writing. We roamed over many subjects and once again, locked together in the experience of travel, another stranger became a person to me. If the plane crashed I would have died next to him, after all. Thrown together in the air, you then land and life hangs between two realities as you make your way along the endless corridors through Passport Control to Baggage Reclaim, the intimacy of the flight cabin receding by the minute. Then, finally, as you are re-united with your loved ones, eager to embrace you and hear your travellers tales, the world you have been inhabiting slips inexorably away and is replaced again by the one you left behind. I hugged my girls and became a mother again; I listened to my parents amazement that N and I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being cooped up on a boat together and became a daughter again. But I have my memories and I have my pictures – and N and I have come a little closer to realising a dream. That can’t be bad, now, can it?

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Hockey Mom

Can anyone explain how someone as seemingly vacuous as Sarah Palin could be on the brink of being Vice President of one of the most powerful and (sometimes unfortunately) influential nations in the world? Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not remotely against hockey moms, let alone working hockey moms (if that’s not an oxymoron?) and, boy, she’s one helluva working hockey mom but….Let’s just say she doesn’t seem quite ready for the job.

Talking of Hockey Moms, I found myself a Running Mom yesterday afternoon, and a very proud one at that. G was competing in her first cross country race at school (she’s not currently in the afterschool running club because it’s on Brownies night – don’t get N on THAT subject) having got selected out of games lessons. N, a bit handy in his youth at the old cross country (Muggins here obviously didn’t go to the right schools as I never even got the CHANCE to prove my no doubt prodigious skills in track and field, ahem), had offered up worldy wise tips of how to surge to the front at the beginning, then calm down a bit, then start pushing forward again about two thirds of the way round (sounds like a good life plan too, if you ask me) before he then rushed off to catch an early train to London. I was, of course, late and missed the start (don’t blame me! – I was fighting against a tidal wave of departing mothers and traffic at the school gates where I had to collect E as well as first having had to pick up L from 13 miles away, huff puff). When we got there they were at the far side of the playing fields and it was impossible to make out anyone. As the mob came closer I was peering somewhere near the back for G’s blond head. Then the front runner came by, looking invincible, and I was completely amazed to spot that blond head steaming along in 8th place with a huge great grin on her face and mud all up her back. Wow! A lump of pride came to my throat instantly and I could barely choke out words of encouragement. E told me off for using her nickname. We dived under the hedge to see them come round into the adjacent field and as the winning line approached G spurted past the girl in front of her and just couldn’t quite make it past the next (apparently, G told me later, she stuck her elbow out, little cow). So there it was – 7th place out of 63 and never run a race like that in her life before! Yes, I was very, very proud. That girl has a huge heart, in all senses of the world, and fantastic determination. You can’t say better than that.

I was sad N hadn’t been there to see it. G asked specifically if she could tell Daddy herself. I said ‘Of course’. I was much sadder that he didn’t get home till 10.30pm when I thought he was due home at 8. It had to wait till the morning, but it wasn’t quite the same. Will he ever understand how much he is missing out on? I fear not.

9th October 2008

PS: I've just found this video link re Sarah Palin. I think it says it all!

PPS: And this...!!

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Life on the Ocean Wave – Part 5

N and I got up and wandered over to the Heads together. Together. Yes, really, TOGETHER. There is not much in our busy home lives that we do Together. He does the caveman provider stuff, I do the cavewoman keep-the-home-fires burning stuff. He leaves early and comes home late. We have supper together and watch a bit of telly. We’re usually both too tired to talk much. He sometimes slopes off to his computer to go through another 300 emails before bed or read over accounts an inch thick (yawn) and I seem to spend forever getting stuff ready for the following day – school bags, PE bags, snacks, swimming bags, homework diaries to sign, notes to write, forms to fill in, cheques to write. The tireder I am, the longer it takes. You might ask why I don’t do this during the day when I’m less tired. I do. But there is always more to do and which has to be achieved before dawn breaks and we rush to catch the school bus.

Thus, it was quite a novelty, and really rather nice, in a gentle, unexciting sort of way, to be clutching our wash bags and each other’s hands as we meandered past the clinking yachts, life beginning to stir within, towards our ablutions. We greeted fellow boaties with smiley ‘good mornings’, all of us united by our current salty circumstances. Luckily I entered the Ladies washroom with someone who had been there before and checked I had a key on me – if you didn’t, she warned, the door would slam shut and you’d be resolutely trapped as there was no handle on the other side. Now, I’m normally quite resourceful in these circumstances and would have found a window to crawl out of somewhere, but, in fact, this would have proved impossible. All the windows were small and high and had strong metal bars on them and I would have been reduced to shouting pathetically or, in desperation, crawling down the loo into the sewers or something unthinkable. I was pleased fate had brought me to this place with this kind woman. Being stuck in a loo is always rather demeaning somehow. It feels like you’ve been caught with your pants down, quite literally.

On returning to the boat, we breakfasted and did our checks, and soon it was time to leave Ceuta – this little bit of Spain in Morocco - behind too. The snores on our sister boat mixed with the clink and fizz of soluble aspirin. I was not envious. And it was nice to be ahead of them, for once.

So, back across the Straits we sailed, this time heading for Sotogrande, boaty-golfy paradise for the rich and not so famous. The famous go to Puerto Banus, further up the coast near Marbella. As we drew nearer, we practised Man Overboard exercises. The weather had deteriorated by now into leaden skies, no horizon and persistent heavy drizzle. The water was slate grey. We might as well have been on the Solent. As a bucket was thrown over the rails to represent Man Overboard, I couldn’t help thinking of my little daughters and how completely horrific it would be if it was real and it was one of them. So small, so vulnerable, so terrified in the immense, remorseless ocean. It was a hard thought to put aside.

I was last in Sotogrande nearly 15 years ago and thought it a funny old joint even then. I’m not good with conceptual places. I like things to be old and settled, having grown organically out of and into their environment rather than just plonked down randomly by developers. Places like that lack soul, and Sotogrande is no exception. The weather didn’t help, it’s true. Nevertheless, once berthed, knots secured, ropes tidied, electricity hitched up, we jumped enthusiastically off the boat and headed to the nearest bar. Keith joined us, then his wife and dog who’d come down from the hills where they live to say hello. We’d chatted a lot during this week and learnt that they’d left the horrors of two busy working lives in England (coincidentally, in fact, they lived quite close to us in the Peaks) a few years back, invested in some more boats and used all their prodigious sailing experience to join in business with Trafalgar Sailing. Part of the decision to do this was to spend more time together. The reality was that they still spent much time apart, but it was still a better life, and they were, at least, no longer in the blood-sucking grip of corporate employers. They were in control, not somebody else. Their ultimate aim, in a few more years’ time, is to buy a very large catamaran and sail it all over the world, taking on friends and family wherever and whenever anyone wants. It sounded like a lovely plan. It was a little more ambitious than our own attempts to escape the corporate grip, but then they have a tad more experience than five days in the Straits of Gibraltar. My mind went back to the image of those sun-kissed children on that beach in Rhodes, all those years ago, and I wondered if we were really any closer to realising that long-held dream. Soon we would be back in England again and corporate life would force our hands apart once more.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Life on the Ocean Wave – Part 4

There is something very cosy about the cabin on a yacht, especially the fore cabin where we were tucked up. Curling into the nose of the boat, a little skylight above you, loads of well-designed cupboards and cubby holes in which to put your stuff (too much in my case, of course), all in shiny wood and with natty little metal push button catches; all so carefully thought out for life on the ocean wave. We were mercifully next to the Head (boaty speak for loo), too, so night time needs were easily met without crashing through the cabin and worrying about waking others up as you pumped furiously and noisily to keep things flushed and ship-shape.

Breakfasts were a pleasure too. Keith would lay out what was available (cereal, toast, jam) and we’d help ourselves and eat wherever took our fancy, inside or out. As the sun was shining on Smir, I decided to potter out into the cockpit to eat and sip my coffee. Coming from the rain-soaked High Peak, every minute of UV light is essential to my very well-being, mental and physical. Thus I was greatly looking forward to the R&R promised after a morning of harbour exercises and lunch. I was heading for the beach. I searched through my enormous pile of clothes for bikini and Boden (naturally) kaftan, grabbed a towel and hopped off expectantly. For good measure, I took my RYA handbook to swot up on lights and buoys ahead of our night sail, where I knew we were to be tested. The beach looked enticing and there were a number of groups of young locals frolicking on the sands. We chose a nice looking spot, away from the hubbub, and laid down our towels. With that the sun went behind the only cloud in the sky. And stayed there for the whole two hours we had to relax. I’ve yet to understand why you can have days when the sky is filled with puffy clouds but never goes behind one, and days where just one cloud buggers everything up. A chill breeze arrived simultaneously and I watched the calm sea transform before my eyes into something choppy and uninviting. N fell asleep so he was all right. I just sat there, slightly hunched, cursing, with only snoring for company. I was too irritated to sleep, so, having made a shell picture on the sand and gathered some up for the girls, there was nothing for it but to swot up. Dull, dull, dull.

I prodded N and said we should get back to the boat. Keith had cooked up supper which we enjoyed before getting ourselves and our vessel ready for the night sail exercise. I wasn’t too sure what to expect and left the harbour with a little bit of apprehension lurking in my stomach (unless it was Keith’s cooking). I’ve never been good with deep dark water at night. Think I went down with the Titanic in a former life. It started well with calmish seas (the breeze died down and the sun came back out just as we’d had to leave the beach) and a serene sun set. Keith sat back contentedly and declared it all very pleasant. He tested us on lights and buoys and I beat N hands down. Hah! That’s what comes of sleeping on the job. My jubilant mood had nonetheless evaporated by 1.00am as we were still lashing about in the straits of Gibraltar in large swells trying to tack in towards Ceuta but failing dismally because of the strong currents and wind in the wrong direction, and was actually thinking ‘sod this’. Luckily Keith came to the same conclusion and suggested we stick the engine on. If it hadn’t been a sailing course, we’d have done that hours ago and would be nicely tucked up in the harbour bar by now. As our shipmates were. Humph. They’d set off earlier than us and had had a different tidal situation. They were hideously cock-a-hoop when we finally joined them at the bar – and not a little pissed to boot. Mr Tim, the big south-African stow-away with the equally big gob and ego, was in fine form. Expletives were issuing from his mouth like there was no tomorrow and he was attacking people, aggressively and relentlessly trying to reach their inner core. It seemed I was his target this particular night. Keith decided he was unnecessarily offensive, which is probably true, but, hey, I can handle it. I’m an incurable nosey parker and probe people incessantly for every last known detail of their so-called private life and that of their first-cousin-once-removed’s. In fact I was rather flattered that he was even interested in finding anything out about me. Then when he kept calling me a ‘damned sexy woman’ I was, of course, putty in his hands. What a nice chap. I’m 45, married, with three children – God, I take it when I can! So I told him very little (no point baring my soul when he was drunk and would forget five minutes later) and threw a few punches back in his direction, finished my lake of gin and tonic (what is it with the Spanish and gin?) and teetered back to my cosy cabin, happy that we got here without hitting any icebergs and that I, at least, would not be encumbered by a hangover in the morning.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


Hello World!

Bloody hell, I do seem to be having my fare share of problems with the internet at the moment. It took me 3 months to sort out what was wrong in the UK - uh, new router was all it required in the end (bastard thing kept pretending to work but wasn't actually communicating with my computer properly at all) - and now here I am in La Belle France and it's taken me nearly 3 weeks to try and connect here too. It's 1.15am and I've finally made it back into cyberspace on an ever so quaint old-fashioned dial-up (time to cook 3 course meal while it connects)system. I have a storming migraine and was going to have a bath and an early night until I thought I'd have one last try at trying to crack the French internet nut which has been slowly driving me even further insane than I was before.

I am painfully aware that I haven't even finished my tedious sailing tales yet (just one more part to go and then you're all off the hook on that one), and I haven't been able to properly acknowledge the lovely Arte e Pico award that kind Working Mum gave me - or read and comment as I have wanted to for so many weeks. All of this is probably going to have to wait till I am back home on a fast connection (God willing!) or I'll be here farting around in cyberspace for the rest of my holidays.

So, dear Reader, don't hold your breath, but I might be able to pop another post or two out while I'm over here (can you bear the excitement?). However, right now even the thought of cleaning my teeth before I can lay my throbbing head on a soft pillow is more than I can bear, so smelly breath it may have to be tonight...

On that glorious note I shall bid you bon nuit. Dormez bien. I shall.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Life on the Ocean Wave – Part 3

After the tidal swells of the straits of Gibraltar we came round Punta Almina (Spanish territory but on the African continent) and were suddenly becalmed. It was a welcome break from wrestling the helm and a good place to have sandwiches had we not consumed them on the straits (me having made myself queasy knocking up ham, cheese and Branston butties in the heavily rolling galley). This is what out sister boat did, we later found out. Us, well, we just admired the view and took in the glassy water, peering to bow every now and then to see where the line of rougher water began, signalling where we would pick up the wind again as it funnelled down between a valley on the mainland.

And so we arrived in Marina Smir some time in the afternoon after three or four hours of exhilirating sailing. As we negotiated the narrow channel, exotic scents wafting on the warm air, there was no mistaking we were on a different continent. This is a relatively new marina on a stretch of the Mediterranean coast which is being developed as part and parcel of King Mohammed’s Vision 2010. Ten years ago there was nothing here. Now there is a goodly spattering of white villas and apartments and one large hotel. The ubiquitous golf course is currently under construction. I had mixed feelings about all this. I would have preferred to have seen it with pristine hills sweeping to the sea undisturbed, but tourist development is happening all over the world these days and there is nothing little old me can do to stop it. It is, though, one of the reasons that I had to leave my career in travel PR in the end as I couldn’t bear promoting unknown beautiful places which were likely to lose all their appeal thanks to people like me promoting them! It was a bit of a dilemma, to be sure.

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, motoring gently into Marina Smir which appeared calm and serene in the afternoon sunshine. We moored up to report in and complete convoluted paperwork before proceeding to our alloted berth. A few natty little manoeuvres and knots later and we were able to hop off and enjoy a cool beer on one of the quayside cafes. Not so our South African shipmate on the other boat. Having not got a visa, he was confined to barracks. Frankly, I’m really not sure anyone would have known or noticed if he’d stepped ashore, but he was happy to bob around doing his own thing while we got fleeced by the locals, so that was just fine.

So after the chilled beer and debrief with our instructor, we piled into a minibus where small, hawkish Abdul, in grubby chinos and checked shirt greeted us with outstretched hand and toothless smile with burly, bovine Mohammed crammed uncomfortably behind the steering wheel. Having welcomed us in French and broken English they then proceeded to talk to each other ten to the dozen in Arabic, pausing only for petrol and to indicate the various ‘points of note’ on our journey. We were on our way to Tetouan, a large provincial town about an hour away from Marina Smir. We were promised souks and supper (and possibly a carpet). All was well with our world.

The bus ride was the first opportunity N and I had had to properly meet our sister ship shipmates. Nol I have already told you a bit about and he was there resplendent in his orange trousers, white shirt and white hair, clutching a large camera and asking interested questions of our guides in a variety of languages. Pia was a glamorous blond with an enviable hair cut and skin tone, half Italian half English, living in Amsterdam (also enviable), previously a buyer at Morrisons (not so enviable). She had also spent a fair number of years in Milan, but somehow we never got round to talking about that much, despite the fact that we had lived there for a couple of years too. I watched her nonchanantly enhance already lush lips with Clarins lip gloss, quizzed her about various aspects of her life, as I always do, then thought I’d better shut up and leave her in peace. She had boarded the boat with her mate Cat (a sailor should always have a cat, after all) – smallish, darkish, pale-skinned and kind looking. Latterly from Nottinghamshire (and knowing Buxton and the Peak District), she too was now resident in Amsterdam, worked in advertising and was doing the sailing as a two-week break before going back to start a new job. Erika was the final member of the party and the youngest of the group. She was in her early twenties, having finished at university and now doing admirable things in social work in London. Her studies had been in psychology and she was hoping to take them further. It made my mind flick back to the fact that I had originally been enrolled on a French and Psychology course at Manchester back in the early eighties before being diverted into Modern Languages at Oxford. I often wonder if I made the right decision. With my art-science divide, I think the Manchester degree would have been right up my street and probably would have helped me focus my subsequent career rather better than I did. Ho hum. But I digress again. Erika had none of the regret of age and all the enthusiasm of youth. She was following her sailing course with travels, alone, around Morocco. I admired her spirit and her courage – a young blond girl with big brown eyes in an Arab country was potentially asking for trouble. But she’d already understood that she was going to have less hassle if she covered up her blondness and had a scarf draped elegantly around her head which, with those big brown eyes, transformed her miraculously into something less English, more exotic. She would be ok.

Stepping out of the minibus just outside the narrow streets of Tetouan’s souks, I felt every inch the tourist. I don’t do that sort of thing very well. I’ve always tried to be as inconspicuous as possible in a foreign land. After a spiel from Mohammed delivered at a million miles an hour, we set off into the alleyways.

I tried not to take too many pictures, despite wanting too, as it just draws attention to yourself and I hate making local people feel like a circus act. Imagine a whole load of Arab tourists making ooh and ahh noises and photographing you in the aisles of Tesco as you finger the fruit and veg and try and work out what the hell you're going to cook for supper. Most unwelcome! For those of you who have visited souks you will already know the sort of things we saw. Cubby hole after cubby hole filled with meat, fruit, veg, fish, some of it live, some of it dead. The chickens were very much alive, the pigs very much dead and chopped into myriad parts. They clearly eat the lot a la Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall aka Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall. Waste not want not. The air was thick with mint and spices and conversation. Pause for a moment and someone tried to lure you into a purchase. Nol’s gang bought a shiny new moka coffee maker as Nol would be removing his when he left the boat at the end of the week. Flat rounds of crusty Moroccan bread, beloved of both our sailing instructors, was purchased in large quantities, as was a huge bunch of outrageously sweet smelling mint.

Erika’s linen trousers trailed through the pungent liquids running down the alleys of the fish market but she remained unbothered. She would be fine on her travels, I thought to myself, while N, on the other hand, started to regret wearing his open-toed leather sandals as we squelched on. We passed a pile of huge multi-coloured eels which I showed too much interest in and nearly came away with a bagful, perish the thought. We ducked through dark passageways, trying to keep up with Abdul and his mate, who mysteriously stopped every now and then to discuss prickly financial issues with shady men in shady booths. Money owed, money paid. Who knows. It’s always about money though. As a tourist, I find this so unsettling. They know we have more than them. They try and pretend it doesn’t matter. They always try and get more off us. Mohammed repeated like a mantra how cheap everything was in the souks for us foreigners and how much we would pay elsewhere. I felt awkward, unnerved. I hate discussing money. I hate what money does to people. I hate feeling the difference between those who have more and those who have less. But money makes the world go round. I wish it didn’t. I wish we could go back to bartering (actually, we have, haven’t we, from what I was reading in the papers the other day about all these new bartering websites?). Radix malorum est cupiditas [The Pardoner’s Tale, Chaucer]. Avarice is the root of all evil. I repeat it constantly as I go through life. There has never been a truer phrase coined.

And so the inevitable happened. The ‘fair trade’ craft emporium. Aka the Carpet Shop. Our guides' mates, of course. Lots of commission. Rub hands. We were greeted courteously and unctuously by a flurry of excitable men. We were shown the view from the roof of this majestic old riad. We were offered sweet green mint tea on soft red leather poofs and then the show began. Carpet after carpet was flapped in front of our eyes – oranges, yellows, browns, blues – every colour, design and origin under the sun. A cigarette lighter was even taken to one and held there for minutes to prove that silk is inflammable. Something new I learnt. If there’s ever a fire, throw the silk carpet over your head and RUN! At this point it was all smiles and jokes. After the display, we were then asked to go through the whole lot again, saying yes or no (in Arabic). It took hours. Everyone was getting twitchy and hungry. It was half past nine. Cat had already bought a carpet elsewhere. I was interested, but not really in the ones they’d shown us. The place was heaving with rugs of every description. It would have taken weeks to go through them all. I knew the perfect one for me was in there somewhere, but I had to make do with what I was shown. I foolishly muttered interest in a few of them and with that they were whisked off to another room, large and barefloored, where they were all duly laid out for me. My God, the pressure. I was starting to crack. N was asked what he thought they were individually worth. This is torture. He’s an accountant, for God’s sake, a bean counter – don’t mess with him! N duly threw up a mean offer and there was much reciprocal throwing up of hands and rolling of eyes. Suddenly the atmosphere was changing from friendly to fierce. I wanted to run. Get my supper. Just get out of there. I hate buying things like this. I’m a browser. I take my time. I go away and think about it. I, in turn, threw up my hands and walked out of the room, heart pounding. I couldn’t take the pressure. Unwittingly, this was the best thing I could have done. Suddenly N’s mean offer was being accepted, other things thrown in. Credit cards were produced. Hands were shaken. 'Shukran'. I apologised to our fellow travellers and their rumbling stomachs. Nol reappeared from the roof where he’d been in deep conversation with the mint tea maker. Abdul, getting grumpier by the minute, marched us to the restaurant where he gets a commission. He asked what time to come and pick us up and we said in an hour. He said, no, take your time. Ok then, an hour and a half. We enjoyed our meal. We chatted gently.
I still felt slightly sick about the carpets we’d just bought (and realised one of them was the fire blanket). Did we really need them? Had we been ripped off? Had we ripped them off? How were we to lug them home? Abdul appeared earlier than agreed and then got very antsy that we weren’t ready. So much for taking our time and enjoying our meal! With the suggestion of indigestion in our stomachs, we were hurried back to the waiting taxi. The fee was demanded. We thanked him. He still looked displeased with us English tourists and, job done, turned swiftly on his heels and disappeared off into the hubbub of the Arabian night, his small frame instantly engulfed in the flow and shadows of human life.

We travelled back to the boats in amiable silence. It was late, we were tired after lungfulls of sea air and steadying of helms. We'd had a good evening despite the pressure of unwanted sales. The smells and images of Morocco were embedded in our senses and my carpet, with all its mixed emotions, would surely bring them home with me. You can't put a price on that.

The harbour was still and calm, the white boats sleeping on the dark mattress of water. All was silence below deck,a DVD left hanging on 'pause' and a half drunk bottle of red on the table. Life interrupted, like the Marie Celeste. Then reassuring snores seeped out from a closed cabin door and we, ourselves, retired to find our way effortlessly to the land of Nod, rocked gently on our way by the almost imperceptible motion of the vessel which had become our home.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Going Back

Tuesday 1st July

I have just got back today from 24 hours in London where I left behind 26 degrees and beautiful blue skies, the streets thronged with people sitting outside at cafes, bars and restaurants in the summer sunshine; I’m looking out of my windows now in the High Peak and it’s like something from a bad movie where there’s some bloke with a wind machine set to ‘gale force’ throwing buckets of water at the glass to recreate a winter storm. It might as well be December out there. N is in Nigeria (under armed guard apparently – for his safety rather than others’, I hasten to add, lest you believe he’s turned in desperation to drug running and gun crime) and I’m, frankly, feeling ‘a bit funny’. This could have something to do with being tired from walking miles with a pull along suitcase amongst crowds and hard pavements with arthritic aching feet in shoes that are meant to be comfortable (they’re Ugg for God’s sake); it could be something to do with being jaded after a shed full and a late night; or it could be the cold I seem to be fighting courtesy of one of the girls. Whatever, I feel distinctly in some bizarre other world, caught between two realities: my life here and my former life in London; my role as mother and wife versus just plain old ‘me’ (you know, that person who always gets forgotten that existed once as an independent individual with her own hopes and dreams); and me back in my home in the rain-soaked north while my husband, who I waved goodbye to in his black cab on a London street just 12 hours ago, is having dinner somewhere in Africa.

We went down for a huge bash courtesy of ‘The Firm’. 800 UK wide partners and their other halves (so an intimate little gathering of 1600 people then) celebrating 10 years of merger of the original firm with one of its rivals. ‘The Firm’ has not been known for its full appreciation of the long suffering ‘Other Halves’ – but last night they finally came good. Hotel bills and champagne in the room were picked up (N wished he’d known this was going to be the case – we’d have had another bottle), Jules Holland, Marc Almond (of Soft Cell fame) and Ruby Turner were the surprise entertainment at the dinner. There was something just a little sad in my view seeing all these 40 and 50 year olds still dancing like idiots (me included) to ‘Tainted Love’ and, worse, knowing all the words AND singing them at the tops of their voices as Marc (pint-sized and with gold fillings glinting in the lights) held the microphone out to the crowd (I’ve never felt older). But hey, they were having fun, so who am I to be a killjoy.

I’ll never forget the day, 10 years ago, that we learned of the merger: we’d just arrived in Milan and N went to the office to collect the keys to the apartment. I sat in the car outside and when he returned he told me that this merger had just been announced. Given that his remit in Milan was to win more telecoms business and the firm they were going to merge with already had most of those going, the raison d’etre for our move out to Italy was wiped out before we’d even begun. This was not an encouraging start. Still, we managed to cling on for two years out of the originally proposed three, but I’ve never quite forgiven them for sending us back to the UK earlier than planned. As with our enforced move to Manchester, we’ve always just been pawns in the political game. A tick in someone’s box. And I’m still not sure that creating such a global business monster was the right thing to do either, but that’s a whole other story.

I’m digressing again. All I’m trying to say is that I’ve come back up north today feeling like I’ve just been on the briefest of ‘city breaks’ to London. I realise I have now lived up here long enough for our capital city, my former home, to seem sufficiently unfamiliar that a visit is like a holiday rather than me simply returning to my old stomping ground. Indeed, before yesterday, I hadn’t been down for 18 months. Moreover, given the huge difference in the weather between north and south at the moment, it really did seem like another country. I remember returning to London from Italy and it didn’t feel as unfamiliar to me then as it does now coming down from my northern hills and my village life, despite there having been far less cafĂ© culture back then as there is now. These days you can barely walk the pavements without tripping over chairs and tables every two paces. Indeed, it almost felt like I was back in Milan today as I wound my way through the back streets from Mayfair to Euston. Yet stepping off the train at Macclesfield you enter a whole other world again. Being whisked through some 200 miles of English countryside in a Virgin Pendolino, from huge city to small provincial northern town in just two hours, is not really long enough to adjust. My mind was in a world I used to know, but one which has also subtly changed in my absence. And I guess I’ve subtly changed too. My vowels are slipping slowly but surely into something vaguely northern, with my mind gently being shaped to reflect the world in which I now live. It’s a far cry from London. It’s a far cry from Milan. It’s certainly a long way from Nigeria. N forgot his sunglasses and his sun cream. Looking out of the window again, I can say for sure that I won’t be needing them here any time soon….

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Life on the Ocean Wave – Part 2

The wonder of travel is that it opens your mind. Once out of whatever rut you have struggled to escape from to make your journey you literally enter a new world of people, places and possibilities. At times it is hard even to imagine yourself back in the rut you left behind - that familiar place which builds up so much importance in your mind and heart when you are there living it, but which recedes with remarkable swiftness once the break has been made. I have travelled most of my life, yet this simple fact, however many times I experience it, still surprises me every time.

So, now back in the High Peak with my familiar routines of family and home, it is hard to believe that Nol, the Dutch-Swiss man, is still out in Gibraltar bobbing about on a boat with our instructor. If he has done what he has set out to achieve he should be a qualified Coastal Skipper by the end of the week. Whether he manages this or not is probably something I shall never know. Some of his shipmates, in the week we were there, were dubious as to his skills – that despite the talk, there was a lack of practical application. Indeed, half way through the week there were reports of a mutiny aboard our sister yacht, Jambo. The crew were tired of being bossed around by their supposedly better informed mate who then apparently didn’t actually do what he was meant to do with ropes and things when in came to mooring. Ah yes, teamwork. There is nothing like handling a boat to sort out the wheat from the chaff and individual strengths and weaknesses. Every body has to be clear what they are meant to do and when, which requires good leadership and communication skills from the Skipper. Be late with your ropes and your fenders and there could be serious damage to an expensive piece of kit – or indeed the boat next to you! More crew makes, in theory, for easier boat handling – but can create misunderstandings and cross-purposes leading to dramatic moments of high tension if communication is poor. Some boats end up being very noisy as they come into port with frantic running around and barking of orders. Our instructor preferred to keep things calm and did everything in a measured way. So despite there being just N and I on the boat, there were never any shouty moments which, frankly, was a relief and made for a more relaxing time of it.

Early on, I discovered my pleasure in knots. Knot knots, not wind knots. Our instructor would show me one or two, then I had to practise them endlessly to get them right, before moving on to the next. It is hard to explain the satisfaction which I found in turning a long piece of rope into something both pretty and functional – each one carefully designed to serve its purpose. Knots which slip when they’re meant to; knots which don’t slip when they’re not meant to. Knots which can be untied quickly in an emergency; knots which tidy up; knots which lengthen. It is an art form. Entire books have been written on ropes and knots. This was a whole new world to me – and totally fascinating! Perhaps that is what appealed to me – it was both art and science, which is the core of my own nature.

There was another surprise in store too. I have a reputation for being messy which, though not ill-founded judging by the evidence, is not the full story. I also get a real kick out of being organised and tidy – it just doesn’t happen very often. Why is this? Mainly because I am always being interrupted or distracted by someone or something; also because feeding the children, doing their homework and getting them to bed and making sure everyone has clean socks and pants is a higher priority, when time is so short, than making sure my study is a temple to tidiness or that all my clothes are put neatly away in the cupboard. Despite 25 years together my husband still doesn’t understand (or believe) this. Unfortunately he is on firmer ground than me here since the first ever message he left me on my door at university was ‘Your room’s a tip!’ No romantic little billet doux for me, then. It sort of set the mood for our entire relationship – practical over passionate, shall we say. My excuses for the room remain that I was far too busy having fun, and occasionally studying, to tidy my room. And also, unlike my future husband who was living in the lap of luxury in a newly built building funded by the Sainsbury family which looked like a country club rather than university digs – all glass, wood, balconies, terraces over water and swish kitchens – my room was effectively a broom cupboard in a clapped out old Victorian grey-stoned gothic building. While surrounded by people with larger spaces than I in which to file their files and make neat piles of books, my room had been shaved off my neighbour’s by way of a partition wall through which I could hear him stir his coffee and fart, in no particular order. I’ll never forget turning the key in the lock with great expectation on my first day, only for the door to slam into the wall of the narrow passage which then opened up into a small square which was the dimensions of the length of the monk-like single bed. There was just room for a small desk and chair, with a bar fire on the wall, and that was it. You couldn’t even get to the window because the bed was in front of it. Oh, the disappointment of it all! Dreams shattered before I’d even begun! I don’t think there was even a cupboard in it and I can’t remember any drawers, so no wonder it was a bloody mess. Meanwhile His Nibs was swanning around in a white dressing gown in his country club down the road overlooking lake, swans and meadows. I think I could just about see the laundry room from my bedroom beyond the small rectangular patch of grass and the concrete steps with their metal hand rail. Ah yes, a room with a view…

But I digress. Before leaving dry land, His Nibs Mr Ship-Shape had taken great pleasure in pointing to the pictures in the book of tidy boats and messy boats (tidy obviously being the objective) and giggling with the girls as to which picture our boat would look like with Mummy on board. So I took immense pleasure in keeping the boat immaculate. I had time, after all. No-one to distract me. This was part of the morning routine. I loved all the little hidy places and pop-out handles; I loved the gimbal (swinging stove to keep it flat at sea) and all the other marvellous little design features. I was particularly happy when I found the biscuit cupboard. Every morning, while doing our checks before departure, I went around tidying away the breakfast, washing up and putting away, making sure all clothes not needed were tucked up in the cupboard and anything that might be required, like hats and waterproofs, was neatly at hand’s reach. Everything had its place. And in a small world, with time on your hands, this makes being tidy easy. On a mechanical note, I enjoyed learning how to do the engine checks and the simple but effective process of pumping out the head (boaty-speak for loo) – although our instructor was less chuffed at having to fix it on the first morning as said simple pumping mechanism actually wasn’t working. Messy job. Rubber gloves and Bio-suit required. And a spanner and a strong stomach. Then a cup of coffee to recover. I think it was that first morning, out on deck and glancing over at the activities on our sister yacht, that it struck me how this sailing mallarky really was a lot of ‘messing about on boats’. Sailing de-mystified. Ok, I know I’m not Ellen MacArthur (who, incidentally, hailed from the land-locked Peak District) attempting some absurd round-the-world-single-handed-on-a-banana-skin routine which is probably a little more demanding, but the world I was being introduced to was really very civilised. Bursts of frantic activity, often very physical, counter-balanced by long periods of relative idleness where the time was filled with chat, tidying ropes (so satisfying – and crucial to avoid accidents on deck) or simply gazing out across the blue waters to distant lands and distant horizons where distant worlds wait to be encountered and explored. The mind is opened and the spirit is free to fly on the winds that play in your sails like the dolphins that danced across our bow as we crossed the straits of Gibraltar. Holding the boat steady against a strong tidal swell, the sun shone down from a clear blue sky catching our faces, our smiles and the dolphins backs as they darted through the waves. Ahead lay Africa, another continent, where the sights and sounds of Morocco would soon be bestowing us with new experiences, new memories, and a carpet or two…

…To be continued.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Life on the Ocean Wave – Part 1

He suddenly appeared, out of the darkness, in luminous orange trousers and white shirt, clambering across our boat as if it was his own. When challenged as to his activity, his response, in a thick German accent, was ‘I’m looking for a nice young girl to rape’. And why not.

So this was my early introduction to Nol, a polite dutch (they like orange trousers) ICT teacher. He had flowing grey hair, kind and knowing greenish eyes and a smooth tanned face for his 57 years. The Dutch do age well too. Must be the blond hair and hippy genes; and he lives in Switzerland, which is very civilised. Takes the strain out of life. His rape comment really was a little out of keeping, I came to realise, and I banished all thoughts of Austrian cellars from my mind…

No, Nol had a kindness and sensitivity to him which I really appreciated as the days went by. He was divorced for reasons I could quite understand: his wife insisted on her sister living with them most of the time, which isn’t ideal, is it? (And I speak from experience, as my brother-in-law came to stay for two weeks when I was first married and left 18 months later. I think I’m very tolerant.). Apparently they’d sit at the table and chat of an evening, largely ignoring Nol when he came in from work. Yet despite this, he had the grace to say ‘I know I’m not easy to live with either’. I liked him. But then again, I didn’t have to be cooped up on a boat with him for five days like his fellow sailing students. I had the luxury of sharing a drink and walking away, so it isn’t fair of me to comment. So I won’t.

We were in Gibraltar yacht basin, bobbing about on a Bavaria 37. German made. Very solid, very stable, very reassuring. This was the realisation of a 20 year old intention – to learn to sail. We’d been on a beach in Rhodes in the mid 80’s enjoying the solitary sands and setting sun when we noticed a little dinghy being launched from a boat in the bay and being rowed slowly towards us. Its occupants were bleached blond little children coming ashore to play at the end of the day. Their father was a retired RAF pilot and they were spending a year sailing around the Mediterranean. It looked like Heaven, it sounded like Heaven and I said to N how I would love to do that one day when we might have young children. Having now reached that potential time in our lives we knew that the dream could never happen all the while we couldn’t tack and gybe and tie the ropes. So here we were, at last, about to start our week’s sailing course where Europe meets Africa (which appealed more than the Solent, it has to be said). N and I had the luxury of the boat and the chief instructor to ourselves; our shipmates on the other boat had to learn to get along with eachother. I was a little envious because I love a bit of camaraderie, but they were here for two weeks while we just had the one, so we had to learn a lot, quickly – hence we’d chosen to go alone.

That first morning, I was out on deck in the sunshine with a cup of coffee, practising my reef knots and bowlines and gently nosing over to the other boat to see how the new crew were getting along. I’m fascinated by strangers being thrown together and I was trying to sneak a peek at the dynamics of all these diverse personalities and ages. Nol was there, appearing slightly dogmatic with his German accent and more knowledge than some of his shipmates (he was doing a Day Skipper refresher course in preparation for two more weeks in which he was hoping to attain his Coastal Skipper qualification). There was a young girl with very blond hair and big brown eyes who was having sun-tan cream rubbed into her back by a large guy with a south African accent and imposing manner. ‘Top of the morning’ he called across to me and we exchanged some further pleasantries and jokes. Two other girls of similar but indeterminate age (30s?), wearing shorts and sunglasses and looking relaxed in each other’s company were also on deck. I ear-wigged as their laid-back instructor was telling them all about flares and then turned my attention back to my knots. N, meanwhile, was holed up in the cabin sweating over charts and compasses. I was glad I had elected just to do (In)Competent Crew. You can only have one captain on a ship, after all...

…To be continued.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Walking to School

It’s national walk to school week this week, apparently. Or that, at least, is the line they’ve been feeding us at the village school. This is all very well, but it’s a time-consuming exercise. You can’t just whizz down in your car, drop and run. Oh no, suddenly I’m hob-nobbing with every Tom, Dick and Harry in the village.

Take yesterday. First, since I was passing, I popped my head into the barn where the village mechanic does his thing amongst the chickens. This is very handy, I might add – having a man what does cars at the end of my lane. Certainly much cheaper and more convenient than schlepping over to the swanky Audi concession in Macclesfield where they stitch you up royally with the invoice and you have to hang around finding things to do in the industrial estate for hours on end. There’s always the bowling alley I suppose….anyway, I digress. I’m umming and aahing about whether or not to get my timing belt done. The car’s, I mean, not mine. Mind you, my timing belt’s in need of a good service. Maybe that’s been the problem all these years? Hmm, I’d never thought of that. Can you get that on the NHS? I shall have to investigate. But I’m digressing again. (See? That’s why I never get anything done – and am always late.) Anyway, a discussion was had and we agreed to talk. Then, just as I was leaving, a friend drove up in her smart new 4x4 (needed round here I can tell you – it’s not Fulham, you know). We proceeded to have an erudite conversation about the clanking noise coming from underneath the vehicle despite the fact that it had just been fully serviced but in the end decided best leave it to the mechanic. (However, I did just wonder if it was a trapped stone and later discovered this was the startlingly technical conclusion the mechanic had drawn too. Is this the start of a new career for me, perhaps? I did once have a boyfriend who regularly dismantled cars, so I must have picked up a few tips there. Move over Kylie Minogue. Er, not. I’m 45 and brunette. Not quite the same, is it?).

But I’m digressing AGAIN. So, where was I. Ah yes, walking up the lane, just trying to get home but meeting various obstacles along the way. The next was one of my near neighbours. I was teetering on the verge, composing a nice shot over the hedge of the field with the marsh marigolds and the sheep and the sweep of the hills beyond, when he came past and was clearly in dire need of a chat. We tut tutted about all the sheep and lambs wandering round the place (one had whizzed down the lane in front of me and L as we walked down to school, its lambs bleating furiously in the field and wondering why the hell their mother was doing a runner when they wanted feeding (I think I know); another three were hanging around outside the pub, presumably waiting for opening time; another two lambs had just thrown themselves under Joe’s wheels etc etc). The farmer concerned believes in the right to roam. When he still had dairy cows he used to deliberately leave the field gates open so one cow would wander out, moo, and then all the others would follow it down the lane to the milking barn. Same on the way back. Simple, eh? We also discussed the myxomatosis rabbits (one had tottered across the road in front of me when I took the big girls to the bus this morning – and the same one was still bumbling about in a befuddled manner now, bless its little heart). Did see three tiny little bun-buns just yesterday though, so there’s hope. Breed like rabbits, etc etc. So it’s not total wipeout. I do love seeing their little white tails bouncing across the green fields, though it’s always seemed rather unfair to have a camouflaged coat then a white tail which just screams ‘Shoot me! Shoot me!’. Still, their problem, not mine, I’m pleased to say. I’m a little higher up the food chain.

So, what was next? Ah yes, I was on the home straight (clutching - slightly guiltily - some pink and white wild flowers I’d gathered from the roadside) and panting up the last really steep bit, hallucinating about kettles and Agas and nice cups of tea, when my neighbour staggers out with his box of goodies to recycle. Now, he’s always up for a chat, so I knew my cuppa would remain a mirage for a while longer. We discussed the merits of the day (sunny and therefore glorious and much cherished round these parts); we discussed blossom and his hollyhocks (there’s a story there but we won’t go into that now) and the fact that everything up here in the hills is a good two weeks behind the plains. We’ve still got snowdrops. Ha, ha, only kidding. But we do still have tulips and bluebells and the daffs have only just faded. Ah yes, it’s a harsh life in the High Peak. We discussed moving to Gloucestershire or some such soft southern option, but concluded we might just stay put for a while. Maybe. And he asked me about the house in France (he’s a bit of property magnate on the side, unlike his farming brothers in the village), and I told him the weather seems to have taken a dive down there too ever since we invested our precious pennies in finding ‘A Place in the Sun’. Huh! Last August, you could count the balmy nights on the fingers of one hand. There was me imagining lazy hazy days by the beach and much drifting about hotly in a Kaftan, sipping on a gin and tonic. Yep, ok, more disappointment to handle. But I’m good at that now. I’ve lowered my expectations. I told him how the property had been moved, timber by timber, from its original inland location, to one closer to the sea because the previous German owner had a, clearly, very bossy wife who it was clearly not worth crossing (they've since divorced). Anyway, saved us the trouble, I spose. And then we went on to discuss the merits of old houses versus new until, finally, I was able to take my leave with a smile and a cheery wave and go and get that kettle on. It was now 10 o’clock and I’d taken 45 minutes to get home. I could have driven to Manchester in that time. Still, I’m not complaining really. Is this not, after all, what village life is all about and what I love compared to the anonymity of my previous life on a street in London? Indeed it is, and my day felt complete before it had really even started. You can’t ask for more than that, can you now?
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