Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The First Snows of Winter

I'm sitting at my desk with a perfect vista of snow-covered slopes and crags before me. The sun is rising above the escarpment, backlit by a soft pinky yellow sky. A few lone clouds are drifting gently above its rim and a flock of birds has just passed overhead for some unknown destination. The snow-encrusted drystone walls take on a beauty all of their own, drawing my eye down towards the village which still sleeps. All is silence, peace. Is this not what Christmas should be all about?

For many the snow has caused so many problems. Everyone dreams of a White Christmas but no-one really wants one because of the disruption and chaos that it can bring in this (absurd) country. I took the precaution on Friday of getting my snow tyres put back on. Best decision of the year. Without my trusty Audi chugging up and down the hill I, too, would have been as stuffed as the Christmas turkey. My parents and mother-in-law braved the roads from Sussex yesterday amid dire warnings of road closures and more snow to come. None of that actually happened, thankfully, and they managed to get down into the village where I then came to pick them up and transport them and their Christmas luggage back up the hill. I have got The Big Cheese to his trains on time and helped dig him out of the station car park. I am rather in love with my trusty steed at the moment, old and slightly battered as she is. She is a workhorse, and drives like a dream to boot. Despite pressures from Himself, I have no immediate plans to get rid of her. She's just like a favourite old coat.

I still have Christmas cards to write and send, a mountain of presents to wrap, food shopping to do and parts of the house still to clean and decorate for further guests. I have relished this quiet moment of solitude at my desk after an early foray out to the station, enjoying the crisp beauty of the early morn in its soft chill blanket. But now the household is waking, there are voices discussing the Christmas cards displayed on the back of the study door and my moments of blissful peace are swiftly drawing to a close. Soon the day will swing into action with discussions about toast and cereal, coffee and arrangements. We are hoping to get to Manchester for a few hours to wander around the Christmas markets before they shut down for another year. We are having an early supper at a favourite Italian and then taking the girls to see the stage production of the Sound of Music at the Palace Theatre. The stuff of Christmas.

After the festivities here, we leave on the 27th for an overnight in Sussex at my parents' home before catching a plane from Gatwick to Bordeaux. We're spending New Year down amongst the pine trees of the Landes with friends from here, before driving over to the Alps for a week of skiing. It has meant a huge amount of pre-Christmas organisation with packing and mountains of washing and gathering together of ski kit on top of all the other stuff, but it will be worth it. The snow in the Alps is abundant and there is nothing like a burst of mountain air to blow away the cobwebs of the old year and put the world in perspective.

So all that is left is for me to do is wish whoever may be reading this a very Happy Christmas and New Year and I'll catch up again in a few weeks time.

Have fun, stay safe, and enjoy the peace and the slowing of pace that comes only with snow.

PS: And for anyone who still has time on their hands for this year (unlikely!) or who would like to plan ahead for next, I have posted my own recipe for Christmas Chutney over on my Fridge Food site.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

More Fridge Food

Thick and fast they came at last! Another new Fridge Food post - duck breast in plum sauce, roasted garlic potatoes and green beans. Christmas Chutney coming up next...

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Cream Cracker Man

I've just been watching Sue Perkins doing a show on BBC 2 about 'domestic art'. I hadn't planned to watch it but started to get sucked in when a picture of Brighton Beach came up on the screen. I always have nostalgia for Brighton having been born and brought up just 20 minutes away. This was also my father's birthplace and where he lived through WW2 - his childhood memories of doodlebugs, mined beaches and bombings are vivid and extraordinary. My mother-in-law grew up there too. My own memory bank is huge and full of iconic images and experiences of this highly influential, quirky, arty, historic town - but I will write about that another time.

As the programme progressed I started to get the picture (excuse the pun). We were moving happily through the decades in terms of the pictures that hung on a thousand walls - and when we got to the 70s and the Girl on Tennis Court one (scratching bare bottom in fading evening light, tennis balls strewn artfully about), I knew what was coming next. Yes, the Man and Baby poster.

I think there are plenty of mid-lifers who'll remember this one. It was on every student's wall (if they were female or gay) in the late 80s. Gorgeous hunk cradling fragile baby, sepia light etc etc. I can't be bothered to discuss the imagery - it's too obvious. What I will tell you is, quite simply, that I knew the model. Well, to be fair, I didn't exactly KNOW him. And given he slept with about 3,000 women, that's a sad indictment of my charms. My consolation is that he slept with 3,000 women AFTER he was famous, and I knew him BEFORE he was famous. Yes folks, he went to my school. Good old Haywards Heath Sixth Form College (formerly a comprehensive and prior to that, a good old Grammar School).

While I was poncing around being Head Girl, he was larking about in a Jam jacket (purple and green stripes) and dark grey drainpipes with a close cropped Mod hair cut. Very right on. I didn't look twice at him (despite my having a rather respectable Parker with all the correct Mod embellishments lent to me by my then boyfriend). He didn't really apply himself to the learning process, but I do remember him winning the dry cracker eating contest at the School charity day. He sat on the stage and stuffed them into his mouth like there was no tomorrow. Girls, his saliva glands were legendary. Therein lies his success, clearly.

The summer after we left college, I was working with a local agency called Helping Hands to get some holiday money. I remember being dumped a load of young teenage Italian school children for a week. My tasks included chaperoning them around the likes of London and Cambridge (not easy on the Tube when they're all roped up to Sony Walkmans and drifting around in their own little world of Wham's 'Wake me up before you Go, Go' tripping up little old ladies with their treacherous wires) and, on one occasion, to a local tennis court. Now, it just so happened that my companion for that glorious moment, was one Adam Perry. I barely recognised him at first - he'd gone all blonde and tanned and (relatively) floppy-haired. He certainly caught my eye this time. We fell to idle chit-chat while the Teenagers tapped disinterestedly at tennis balls. He told me that he'd just signed up at a model agency in Brighton. I asked interested questions (having always secretly wanted to be a model - though conscious my atrociously knobbly knees would let me down on the catwalk; but, quite frankly, my participation in a local beauty contest, Miss Dolphin (cringe), and the horror that ensued was, frankly, more than enough for me to park my dreams). Still, I would have happily found the excuse to hang out with Ad a bit more, given his new look and his talk of all the foreign assignments he had lined up....

Hell, I never did anything about it of course and my sense of duty to the Italians prevented me from eloping with him there and then. If he'd have had me, that is.

So, Adam, if you're out there (and I know you are), this is just a quick 'Hi'. Much as I want to believe the iconic image, sadly I'll always know you as the Cream Cracker Guy. Sometimes reality hurts!

The Athena poster sold over 5 million copies around the world. (I even saw it on a wall in a girl's student flat in Padua when we lived in Italy. I told the girl I knew the guy. She nearly fainted.) Sadly the art director was gay and died of Aids in the early 90s; the photographer was a greedy bastard and shoved his fortune from royalties up his nose and down his throat; Adam got peed on by the baby and paid about £100 for the shoot (reduced because he arrived with a sunburnt chest!), though it shot him to fame and enabled him to bed the 3,000; the baby's now a 20 year old law student and his parents got paid £32 - but had to buy the poster! Funny old world.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Remembrance Day - 'Just show business'?

As I look out of the window, damp grey clouds hang heavily in the valley, the top of the escarpment shrouded in mist. A few black crows peck in desultory fashion in the sheepless field. It certainly looks raw and grim out there in the fading November light.

I'm in no-man's land - caught between Remembrance Sunday and Remembrance Day - and my thoughts are on the military. Not the larger entity, no - just the individuals and their immediate band of comrades and mates. The people they do their job with, the people they are far from home with, the people with which they laugh, cry and die.

This time last year, the three remaining British survivors of World War 1 were, remarkably, still alive: Harry Patch, Henry Allingham and William Stone. I watched them at the televised memorial service and I was deeply moved by these once strong, brave men. Great age had taken its toll, inevitably, but their strength of spirit still shone through their eyes. The emotion in their own faces was powerful as wreaths were laid on their behalf. I wondered where their thoughts were, what images they were conjuring up in their mind's eye. The good, the bad and the ugly. Friends lost, friends found.

Until he hit 100 years of age, Harry Patch, a character and a half, had dismissed the Remembrance services and ceremonies as 'just show business' and had never bothered with any of it. He'd lived his war. He knew what he'd seen, what he'd done and what others all around him had sacrificed too. It was only when he became one of very few First World War Veterans still on the planet that he finally agreed to take part in the acts of remembrance, television documentaries and the like. I think he took to it rather well in the end.

When I was younger I don't think I took the whole thing on board like I do now. With age and maturity you start to understand its significance, even as the years take it further into the mists of time. You better understand about loss, loneliness, the futility of war, the vagaries of politics and politicians and power-crazed individuals. You understand, too, how strong the human spirit can be, against all odds.

So is Remembrance Day 'just show business?' I don't think so. Not for me, at least. I think it is vitally important that, in an age of increasing superficiality and excess, where individualism reigns over collectivism, it is important to stop, look and listen. What have we become? What did all these soldiers, seamen and pilots lose their lives for? Why did so many innocent people have to die and be persecuted and tortured? Was it for the greater good or the long term stability of the world? If you look at Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other conflicts the world has seen since 1945, then the answers to these questions do not look good. If you reflect on the nature of society today, it does not look good either.

For me, the two minute silence is a precious 120 seconds when, for the majority at least, we are forced to stop. A fleeting calm descends around us and, briefly, we have an inkling of a world at peace, a world at one with itself. The power of a collective act, the paying of respects to our fellow human beings and that moment to pause, and think, and be still, in an ever spinning world, is a remarkable thing. And even if it comes but once a year, it is better than nothing at all.

11th November 2009

On Sunday I found myself, once more, at the Remembrance Day parade in our local town. For once the sun was shining, the air was still and thus the march up the High Street of local Brownie, Guide, Scout and Army Cadet packs, led by the town band, took on a more upbeat air than is often the case. For once we were not hunched and pinched against driving winds and rain, uniforms shrouded in a hotchpotch of raincoats. A car was parked in front of the memorial on the market place. The police got on their radios and set about moving it. Some people, I don't know, just lost in their own little worlds...

We all filed into the church - a beautiful one, just plain and simple, stone and wood, but full of history - and settled into the wooden stall pews. The booklet to accompany the service, 'Lest We Forget', is a compelling read, full of facts and information concerning Ypres and the Menin Gate, the Enigma Code, the Battles of Jutland and Kohima, and the Dambusters, together with background information on the writers of the hymns and an explanation of the Last Post and Reveille and the Flame of Hope. The whole booklet is also dotted with poems and quotes and, in short, it really makes you think.

E was carrying the Standard for the Brownies which she bore up the High Street and then down the aisle of the church to just in front of the altar. Others did likewise. From where I was sitting I could see her in the choir stalls and I was wondering how much of all we were singing and listening to really made any sense to her. But she was there. She was taking part. With time she would better understand. And so would her sisters. The vicar gave his sermon and pointed out that the Book of Remembrance, with the passing away of Harry, Henry and William, was, in a way, now closed. Yet the case it rests in remains open as the wars still have not ceased...

I became choked, as ever, when, just before the Last Post was called, they read out those staggeringly simple and poignant words:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

I thought of those marvellous old men who had just died at such a great age, having seen so much and given so much to a country that they must have barely recognised as theirs by the end; and I thought of the young men who are still losing their lives in Afghanistan and in other spots around the globe and all the loved ones that are left behind.

By the time we left the church again a slightly chill wind had blown up but a pale November sun was still shining. We went to the memorial where we did the usual wreath laying ceremony and E did her stuff with the flag, solemn faced. Another two minute silence ensued, broken by the harsh trill of a mobile phone followed by a voice echoing around the cobbles in a stage whisper 'Oh hi Sally! We're just up in the market place doing the minute's silence'. Well, we were. Not any more. The woman concerned, oblivious to the crassness of her conversation at such a moment, exited stage right, hunched over her phone, believing no-one could hear her as she warbled on about arrangements for dinner. My, oh my.

Today, Armistice Day, the eleventh of the eleventh, I was in a yoga class. We sat still for two minutes in a suitably yogic, meditative, still position and I was pleased. I had feared we would not, and had planned a loo break for myself to observe the ritual. G and L had their two minute silence in Assembly. E was at her swimming lesson, but they still all got out of the pool and stood there shivering in silence.

Many a brave but lost soul has shivered alone in rain-soaked trenches or snow-strewn forests in dead of night with nothing but Fear, Faith or Fate to keep them company. To me, this also is the importance of the two minute silence. It is the least we can do. To remember.

Suicide in the Trenches
(published in the Cambridge Magazine, 23 February 1918)

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Please read this tribute to Harry Patch - it is well worth reading and puts some of what I've been trying to say in a proper context.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Jeremy Vine gets a Taste of the North

My husband has just called me. He had spent the night in Manchester having attended the Manchester Evening News Business of the Year awards dinner. N was up on stage presenting the last award after a fairly riotous evening in the best northern tradition. Anyway, seems that Jeremy Vine, as the celebrity host, was on stage with him - and just before N presented the last award in a decidedly upbeat and banter-filled atmosphere, old JV strides over to him beaming all over his face and says 'this is a good awards ceremony, isn't it!'

And you know what, that's one of the truly great things about living up here and a big difference between north and south (she says sweepingly) - they really know how to enjoy themselves and it's an immensely endearing quality. The south can be so self-conscious, so anonymous at times. Here you always feel part of the pack. There's a solidarity, I think, which comes out of this corner of England (true, I'm sure, of the north-east too). It will be born out of many things on which I can only speculate: being further away from the nation's capital the larger cities naturally forge their own identity (just like Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse, Lille - to name a few - in France); the relative harshness of the weather and the strong work ethic. This was the heart of the industrial revolution, after all. Certainly, there is a resilience to the people up here. Their feet seem firmly planted on the ground. No pretence. What you see is what you get.

And in the current economic climate, it is good to see something positive - to learn that hard work, dedication, determination, innovation can still pay dividends. It will be interesting to see if Jeremy mentions any of last night on his show later today.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Land of La Dolce Vita

Autumn has always been a time of new beginnings for me - ironic, perhaps, as everything fades and loses life around us, shutting down for the winter months ahead. But Autumn is when the new school year starts and, in my own life, many new experiences. One of those was going to Italy to live for the first time. N's job was taking him over there for a six month secondment (which turned into two years) and, with nothing to lose (we weren't married and I was working freelance at the time), I decided to go with him. Having studied French and Spanish at university, my justification was going to learn Italian and to get to know a country which I had previously visited just fleetingly.

So, one late September day in 1990, after the wild farewell party where too much Pimms was drunk and my darling brother 'came out' for the first time, we set off, two cars packed to the gunnels, reeling slightly from what had gone before and what lay ahead. The UK was in the grip of a deep recession which had taken the life-blood out of London and we were, to a certain extent, relieved to be escaping to the land of La Dolce Vita.

I really had no idea what to expect. N had gone on a fleeting visit some months earlier and had come back with a few photos. I'd asked him what he thought and his answer was not the fullest. I was no further enlightened. I didn't press him.

So we put the cars on the ferry and headed south to our new life. We passed through Berne to say hello to the bears and our friend who was working there. Then on again, stopping next on the Sustenpass from Switzerland into Italy. We found a hotel right at the top where we dined that night and fell to talking with a local guy who'd hitched up from the valley and was planning to skateboard down that night in the dark. All the way. I often wonder if he ever made it in one piece. Quite a guy.

The following day we journeyed on past the Northern Lakes and then on the autostrada which dissects the northern plain from West to East. We passed Milan, Verona, Vicenza - our ultimate destination, Padova (Padua) inching inexorably closer. I remember stopping for a sandwich on the motorway and being completely fazed by not being able to speak or understand a word. We ate a dried up old panini and I sipped my attempt at getting a shandy which ended up being a mix of beer and lemon cordial. I wouldn't recommend it.

We turned off the motorway at Padova Est. The excitement was mounting - in equal measure with apprehension. It didn't look too promising. We didn't know where we were going - just the vaguest of instructions. We muddled our way through to the inner ring road and popped through a large stone 'porta' (gateway) - one of many around this small city – into a whole new world. We went from brash, wide, open and modern to small, narrow, atmospheric and ancient with one flick of the indicator. It was totally magical, totally unexpected and it took my breath away. N pulled up his new dark green Volkswagen Golf and came over to my old white Fiat Panda to inform me he was lost. I didn’t care. I wound down the window and simply said ‘Why didn’t you tell me it was like this?’ It was utterly wonderful and I fell in love with it in an instant. Big heavy wooden doors with shiny brass plates hid behind the low stone arches of the porticoes that lined the sides of this labyrinthine network of little cobbled streets. Wooden shutters in brown or green, geraniums in window boxes. There was an indescribable peace and calm about the place. None of the hectic horror we so often associate with Italians. Here is was all quiet sophistication, stone, wood and glass. And then suddenly you burst out onto a set of ancient piazzas, onto which all these little streets converge – and here it is all movement and bustle, a cacophony of animated voices, a vision of all things stylish and Italian against this fabulously ancient, silent, backdrop.

We arrived in early October, and this is a period of extended ‘re-entra’ for the Italians after the long summer break. Everyone is gathering and catching up with eachother – swopping stories and travellers’ tales over pizzas and prosecco in the piazzas. You look around and you see nothing but greens and browns and golden tans. Everyone dressed up and looking their best in their autumn colours.

We stood and joined the throng, sipping our drink, staring at the animated scene before our eyes and were filled with an overwhelming sense of well-being. This was going to be fun. Grey London was far behind us, the colour and verve of Italy all in front.

I have posted a recipe for the perfect mushroom risotto over on my Fridge Food blog. Such things I learnt in Padua, the place where I really learned about Italian food and started to cook properly myself. Everytime I cook risotto, I am transported back to these wonderful days in the north-east corner of Italy, a stone's throw from such historical and architectural gems as Venice, Verona and Vicenza. It was a privilege to live there and the experiences and memories I have of these times will stay with me forever.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Chatsworth - Beyond Limits

For the last few years, Chatsworth has been hosting a sculptural display for Sotheby's called 'Beyond Limits'. This is a display of contemporary and modern monumental sculpture set in the beautiful grounds of the Duke of Devonshire's magnificent country house in Derbyshire. It closes on 1st November 2009, so there is still time to visit. I went with my camera on a beautiful sunny day last autumn. Here are the photos I took - click on the link below and then hit the slideshow button (top left). [I'm sure there is a more sophisticated way to do this - but I don't know it yet!!] I hope they might inspire you to go. It really is worth it.

Beyond Limits 2008 Slideshow

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Man versus Woman

Dear Man

I am not just meat to pummel and knead;
I am flesh that wakens to a gentle touch,
A flower opening to the soft caress of morning sun,
Petals unfolding, gently, as the growing warmth draws moisture from a dewy lawn.

I am not your friend if you hear not what I say,
If you close your ears to things that do not fit with your desires.
And if I dare speak and yet still feel alone
Then, as petals fold in fading light, I shall close my beauty to all who watch in silence.

Slowly, slowly, I shall wilt and die.
The peace and trust that lies within all cherished things will shrink
Like leaves on autumn trees, as cold creeps close around us.
The flame that warms our souls will wither where love once was and touch was soft.

I am a flower whose petals bruise.
Remember that when next you come to me.

Love Woman.

Watch Criminal Justice, BBC 1, 9pm.
It's a powerful story.

Friday, 2 October 2009

'Cooking Doesn't Get Better Than This!' (shouted)

Well, it does, actually. Some of the stuff these contestants in 'Masterchef: the Professionals' serve up to the boggle-eyed Roux I wouldn't give my granny. He has every right to flare his malteser eyes, lift his designer stubbled chin and grimace. Raw poultry, venison that's practically walking off the plate...the catalogue of basic errors is endless.

But come, come, I mustn't be too harsh, or I'll sound like one of the puffed up, pudgy faced restaurant critics that these hapless souls have to cook for to win a semi-final place. (And what, exactly, I would like to know, equips you to be a restaurant critic? A large stomach, a huge ego and a penchant for a glass of red? I certainly think I am quite capable of eating my way round the best restaurants of the world and knowing the difference between a tasteless, unimaginative, poorly seasoned, poorly conceived dish and one that really tastes rather good. But call me old-fashioned. It is obviously a black art and I'm not in the magic circle.) And I certainly would find my concentration shot to pieces with Greg and Michel hovering like vultures in the background offering up helpful comments like 'You've got 30 seconds left, are you going to do it?' as the poor contestant's sweat drips relentlessly into the Masterchef saucepans. (If the food's too salty - you know why...). Followed with the equally unhelpful 'Well done, now go on, GO!! and don't drop it!'. No, Greg, I'll try not to. And they could at least hold the swing doors open for them - or is that the one final test? Mis-timing your exit and having one of the bastard things swing back and send the plates of food shimmying off your already shaking forearms and skidding across the floor to the feet of the fat critics...now THAT would be good telly.

Actually, it is good telly anyway and I usually try and watch it. The one thing I could REALLY do without though (aside from the shouting - oh, and the tasting mannerisms: food-laden fork hovering in front of close-up of lips then poised, as if time has stood still, in the damp cavity of their mouths, tastebuds sizzling or screaming the while) is the equally nerve-rattling, excessively irritating breathiness and tonal trippery of the girl doing the voice-over. My God. I could hit her.

Anyway, the other day they had to do a Boeuf Bourguignon in the 'Classic Test' which put me in mind of the beef chunks I had in the freezer and the casserole that I've been meaning to cook for the last week or two. I finally got round to it last night and have just enjoyed the left-overs re-heated for my lunch. I posted it over on my 'Fridge Food' blog. It's not Masterchef (even they struggled to make a casserole look pretty and refined on the plate) but my mash didn't have lumps in it and it tasted pretty good too, if I say so myself. So, pop over and take a look. Just don't shout at me, please.

Monday, 28 September 2009

All My Yesterdays – Part 2

From here we drove down to Burgess Hill, ten minutes away. The distances seemed shorter than they used to, the roads narrower. We pulled into the drive of our old school, the one neither of us had set foot in since we walked out for the last time in 1979, thirty years ago. If I pull my mind back to those days, they are now so long ago that I have the impression that I was once part of some Malory Towers scenario. At the time, it was as normal as my own children heading off to school in their school bus, blazers on, rucksacks on back. But seeing the changes that have taken place in those 30 years emphasizes that it was a totally different era – part of a world that no longer exists, except in my mind.

I had not expected to go to a girls’ private school, but changes in state education in the 70s forced the situation. I knew it was a stretch for my parents and I worried about that greatly. Maybe, though, this plays a part in why I have such strong imprints on my memory of this collection of buildings, the landscape they nestled in and the time I spent among them. And it is only now, going back, that I realise many of my night-time dreams are placed in locations approximating to these buildings and gardens. A small mystery solved, at least.

In those days it was a classic old school made up of Victorian houses with lovely gardens and little gravel paths edged with wood leading through trees and grass from one house to another. The floors were polished parquet, the stairs wide, or small and rickety in the parts that would have been servants’ quarters. Some corridors were wide, some were narrow and all had their own special smells. In contrast, there were also some very new state of the art buildings which made a big impression on me too. A particular favourite was the Assembly Hall – a magnificently incongruous structure attached to the main old house. It was 60s architecture at its very best (and, I noted with foolish pleasure, completed on 6th June 1963 just two days before my very birth) – a large, almost square, structure which had the stage at one end then floor to ceiling glass on the three remaining sides. It was a room filled with light and sun from which one’s eye could take in the gardens all around. Where better place to start one’s day. Inevitably the stranglehold of Health and Safety has ripped the heart out of it by insisting that those beautiful life-affirming glass panels be blacked out. Funny how we played badminton and volleyball in there for all those years and never once was there any cause for concern…

A little group of us, just six friends, had come together for this day: three I had stayed in touch with, two I had not seen for 30 years. We peered through windows and wandered into rooms we’d lived and breathed in as children. Names and faces, long forgotten, came flooding back as their ghosts walked with us. Memories abounded of hurtling around the Lacrosse pitch, playing netball matches on the top courts, or rounders on the bottom field (I was always terrified of being put in ‘deep field’ as I could never through the ball straight – oh, the agonies). We reminisced about the long trails of white loo paper we threaded through the rose garden on our last day at school, lamented the disappearance of the grass tennis court (a favourite place for me) and tried to embrace the new buildings everywhere which threatened to change this place in our minds forever.

As I wandered around, I was desperately clinging to the key memories I had, all brought to the fore by this return to something long left behind. I remembered my mother parking her car on the crunchy drive one hot summer afternoon, that first day that I met the headmistress with the bandy leg and wiry grey hair tied up in a chinon. It all felt so exciting, so different for the child straight from the country primary school in the middle of a cornfield. This was sophisticated, smart and not a little daunting. I remembered rummaging through the second hand uniform on the school stage, walking down the little steps (now gone) into the Assembly Hall for my Chemistry ‘O’ level, ginger-haired Mrs Ayers handing me my papers. I remember setting out my pencil case and my lucky charm on my desk and walking out at the end of my Biology ‘O’ level – the first ‘O’ level that I took. I remember the freedom of getting to and from school by train, juxtaposed with crunching into the school driveway and knowing that was where the freedom stopped and the Double Physics in the gloomy lab began. I always hated Tuesdays.

I remembered the blue winter berets, the beige felt summer hats and the nasty brown sandals which flew off when running (as the scars of gravel in my knee bear witness). I remembered Sophie with the long white plaster cast from a nasty accident on the school ski trip hobbling around at break time – a picture of her is frozen in my mind – and my friend reminded me of my own trials and tribulations with a large cast and crutches from that wretched skateboard accident.

I remembered slapping my Latin teacher in the face by mistake as I waved my hands around over-expansively while talking, and seeing the French teacher’s knickers as she sat swinging her little legs on the front desk while dictating some aspect of grammar.

Precious memories all, long buried but uniting the now disparate lives of us six friends in their resurrection. Time moving on, yet standing still, pasted on our mind’s eye for the rest of our lives.

Someone had brought photos of us at the end of our time there: that shot of ‘The Class of ‘79’ with us all poking our heads out of the branches of a small weeping tree (lost when they expanded the hard courts). We’d taken another on the steps outside the Assembly Hall. These were still there, so before we parted, we took one more photo for the record. Just some of The Malory Towers girls, thirty years on - berets long lost, all grown up.

I am, I can, I ought, I will. That was our school motto, and the Skylark was our emblem – encouraging us to reach for the skies and fly ever higher. Not bad really, when you come to think about it.

Monday, 21 September 2009

All My Yesterdays – Part 1

Going back is always tricky. Especially when where you’re going back from is not necessarily where you’re sure you want to be.

I arrived at Euston Station on Friday night and already noticed changes. There’s a new travel and information centre which means the Paperchase and The Body Shop booths have moved, and Tie Rack has gone. There’s no flower stall any more either. Outside there are now lots of coffee shops where once there were none. Down in the Underground all the ticket machines seem to have changed again. I still remember when you just pressed a big yellow square button saying ‘Adult Single’ with the price on it. I tried to look nonchalant but felt rather dazed and confused by the machines and what ticket I was meant to be asking for, and where I was going, and what zone it was in, and would a Travel Card be cheaper? All my former deep knowledge of my capital city and how it works had completely left me, or was so changed that it was no longer relevant. Oyster cards seem to be the only way to move around – but only worth it if you live in the city. For the rest of us, they just make the other options left open to you more difficult and complicated.

When I’d finally muddled my way through to Waterloo I was equally thrown. Now there are ticket barriers like in the Tube to all the platforms. I arrived with three minutes before my train left. Normally I’d have run to catch it and bought a ticket on the train. No longer. I had to search for The Machines again, queue, work out how the hell The Machine worked and what type of ticket I wanted and…I missed my train. Next one half an hour later. A second visit to M&S Simply Food ensued (already done once at Euston) to buy bottle of wine to complement box of chocolates for my hostess. I felt almost overwhelmed by the volume of people, the way our lives were crunching together, snatches of mobile phone conversations, banging into eachother, dodging eachother, hearing about people’s Friday night plans, the enormous queues, the largely unfriendly and disinterested faces at the tills. I have been away too long.

From there to Teddington and my friend’s house – a friend I hadn’t seen in seven years, but one I’d known since I was a child of seven. We used to walk across the park and catch the train to school together. She was my neighbour but one. We made camps in the hedge, rode bikes round the houses, played games of ‘Flutter’ and African Mancala up in her bedroom and seemed to spend hours of our lives tidying it at her mother’s request. I had my first ‘French kiss’ with a boy in her parents’ sitting room. Yes, we grew up together.

Now here we were, middle-aged women and mothers both – she, more sensibly, to just one child. I last saw said child as a seven year old. I remember my own toddler playing in her pink bedroom with all her pink fairy castles and Barbie dolls. She seemed so old compared to mine. Now my youngest, my ‘little one’, is the age she was then and this once child is now a teenager. How Time plays games with us. The champagne was opened and the catch-up began in earnest. I was fed a wonderful meal, friend’s husband serving and allowing us to talk (what an angel he is).

The following day we were to drive down to Sussex. We turned out of her road and I instantly saw the huge church where I used to take my little daughters for ‘Monkey Music’ and where I made a special friend. We drove along Teddington High Street and I recalled pushing my tinies up there in their pushchairs not really so many years ago, but it felt like a different lifetime. In those days the High Street was unremarkable, but now it is heaving with enticing looking restaurants, shops and cafes. I felt a little jealous as my mind flicked, unbidden, to the high street of Chapel-en-le Frith. Fair to say there is no comparison. We passed streets and roundabouts I remembered for a hundred inconsequential reasons, past the house of old friends of my parents, and thence into Bushy Park. It was all too strong a reminder of how I loved those London parklands – a tract of country in the great metropolis – and where I had spent so many hours myself. The deer with their mighty antlers strode arrogantly close to the road, groups of people were engaged in arduous looking push-ups with a man with a large rucksack on his back barking at them (had they paid for this?); people walked along grassy paths through the bracken and cyclists were everywhere. People enjoying a Saturday morning in London in the milky September sunshine, just as I had once done.

We passed Hampton Court Palace where I have enjoyed concerts and shown friends, foreigners and my own small children, in that different lifetime, the beautiful rooms and gardens. Crossing the Thames I thought of N’s aunt and uncle just downstream at Sunbury. How I love their house and wish I was still close enough to pop down there for lunch on a summer’s day, to sit at the end of their garden, drink in hand, rocking gently back and forward on their swinging chair, watching the life of the Thames drift by, the smell of river water filling my nostrils and the chat ebbing and flowing like the tide.

We passed a large pub where I stopped once with a friend on my way back from work in Brighton. It fell into disuse and became a sad blot on the landscape. It is now flourishing again, all painted up and fancy with manicured box in outsize terracotta pots lining the walls. The circle of life.

Our next stop was my friend’s parents’ house. Pulling into the drive, everything seemed smaller, apart from the trees and bushes which had grown bigger. I always remembered the kitchen carpet, unchanged. Ditto the red benches and the formica table and the once state-of-the-art ceramic topped cooker. Memories crowded in of Christmas Day Pimms parties, and hours on the red benches doing homework and sipping ‘milky coffee’ (hot milk with Nescafe – a 70s English version of a latte I suppose). The old apple tree with the swing fell down in the Great Storm of ’87. A new summerhouse stands in its place.

I popped to the loo and my thoughts were of the very same downstairs cloakroom (right down to the tiles) that we had in my old house, two doors up. I remembered the pen and ink drawings of roses that my mother had done which hung on the walls. Our house was identical to theirs – a classic build of the late sixties – hence being back in theirs was almost like being back in mine. Sadly, as we drove past, I noticed it was looking rather neglected with weeds along the edges of the very drive where I badly broke and dislocated my ankle on a skateboard in 1977 – a day I will never forget and whose physical repercussions have followed me through the rest of my life.
[to be continued]

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Gone in a puff of smoke

What's going on? First it's Michael Jackson, now it's Patrick Swayze and Keith Floyd! Rather bizarre that some us were watching a Keith Allen documentary on him just last night. Now he's dead. Keith Floyd I mean. Apparently he died well - after a hearty lunch of oysters and champagne and wine and some other fishy thing and some more champagne and a quick slug of wine and then...he died. Marvellous. To die like that I mean. Not the fact that he died. I rather liked the man for all that fantastic non political correctness and the fact that he was a TV chef who didn't swear (or did he?). Last of the Old Guard. I grew up with him, of course, in the background of my life. Floyd on France, Floyd on Fish, Floyd in Some Far Flung Place Again. (Jamie, I'm sorry mate, it's all been done before...). And now, suddenly, he's gone. Has to be said that he was no advert for food and drink. Not enough food, too much drink, clearly. My God, he looked ravaged. Decades older than my 81 year old father (who, it has to be said, enjoys a good glass too). My liver was pretty much packing up just looking at him, let alone my lungs as he coughed and wheezed his way through another cigarette. Still, I'm a great believer in living life to enjoy it. It's far too bloody short not to (although, of course, you can make it a little shorter, can't you Keith, if you lack a small ability to moderate...?). Still, I was heartened to see that in the last shots of him a week ago, sitting outside a pub or something, he looked considerably better than he'd done in the Keith Allen documentary. Ironic that he then dropped dead.

And then there's Patrick Swayze, the man so many young girls have wept for, silently and alone, staring at the poster on the wall of their teenage bedroom (and who always rather reminded me of the boyfriend I lost my virginity too - well, round the face at least, the rest of him rather lacked the physique). Ah yes. Sigh. All that brawn, muscle and pulsating sex appeal. It was tragic to see him so shredded by disease, a grim reminder of what might be ahead for any of us. Especially if you smoke, I guess. Still, life is for living, and both these characters lived it, that's for sure. The choice is yours, in the end.

Here, perhaps, is how we would like to remember them:-

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Where did the time go?

I have taken a pause in packing up the house - a job I hate and put off for as long as I can - to reflect on our time out here.

So, has it been a good holiday? Well, yes it has. For the first time since we bought the place, I would say we have had a 'proper' summer and I thank God for that! Until now, it had been so consistently unreliable that, much as we love it as I've described, we were wondering whether it was really delivering the goods as regards the weather - so important in the context of it being an escape from the almost relentlessly cold, damp, windy High Peak. But, enfin, this year we have found what we came looking for.

The days have passed easily enough in a melange of friends, family, beach, meals in, meals out, and the odd trip further afield just to shake things up a bit. There have been breakfasts and lunches in hot sunshine - snacks on the beach watching the waves crash over golden sands, the view and the croque monsieur washed down with a chilled bottle of wine or a cold beer; other times in the shade of a favourite restaurant savouring the more maritime flavours of crevettes au gingembre, huitres, moules au bleu, seared scallops or squid in ink. There have also been plenty of omelettes, crepes, pizzas and the ubiquitous maigret de canard or steak frites. Simple pleasures of the palate. And then imagine young girls with chocolate ice-cream all over their faces and their pretty summer dresses, and you have a picture of childhood paradise.

Sea defences have been built and washed away, castles created and crowned, holes dug. Shells and stones have weighed down buckets; crabs called Colin caught and lost and tears shed; knees grazed, hair bleached blonder and skin turned softly golden by the warm and cold embrace of sun and sea. Books have been read, postcards written but not sent, new words learnt and new friends made.

And this year we have finally all made in-roads into the surfing. For many this is the raison d'etre of the Cote d'Aquitaine - the kilometre after kilometre of sandy seabord against which the mighty swells of the Atlantic Ocean bark their shins and curl into majestic aquamarine arcs releasing all the oceanic energy built up over thousands of watery miles. Somtimes these waves are strong and perfectly formed - a surfer's dream; sometimes they are ragged and angry, spitting with foamy rage onto the shore; and just occasionally they are calmer, quieter. Yet even then you must never let your guard down: the currents formed by the sand banks and hidden lagoons ('baines') are always present, always dangerous for the unwary or the arrogant.

It is over this sea, in all its moods, that the thing we love best about all western coasts takes place - sunset after glorious sunset. For us, a beach holiday can never really be complete without the full stop at the end of the day - the fiery orb, giver of all earthly life, slipping slowly through the earth's atmosphere towards the horizon, leaving, as it sinks ever lower, the rosy reflection of its flamboyant evening gown glowing on the faces of all who watch, transfixed, by this daily wonder.

And now I must put my own full stop on our holiday. The time has come to draw stumps, reluctantly but refreshed, and point the car north again. Time to go and finish the packing.

Au revoir for now.

France, 30th August 2009

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The roads we travel...

I have just returned from my friend's house 10 minutes away. When I first visited her in this part of the world four years ago she was pregnant with her first child, long awaited. This afternoon we had a cup of tea by the pool as our children swam, played dolphin games (I found myself briefly masquerading as a dolphin, flipping my flippers, jumping for fish and making dolphin noises - a talent I never knew I had), and acted out a shark attack. Funny how their minds work sometimes. We chatted around the edges of the animated watery activity and moved seamlessly enough into aperitif time. Tea was exchanged for wine. We have much to discuss at the moment as she is separating from her husband of many years - almost as many as N and I. I understand all the reasons, and understand them more and more the more we chat. But nevertheless I am sad. And so is she. She has a very bright light shining at the end of her tunnel but it doesn't make the ending of things any easier. In the few years we have been coming here we have built up a whole new bank of memories - summers, autumns, Christmases, New Years and Easters. Time spent together. We are both adjusting to the future, not entirely sure what it will bring.

The children gamboled around the garden together. They dressed up and played their games, they swung dangerously in the hammock. We watched the sun slanting ever lower through the pines, throwing beautiful shadows and tranches of golden light towards us. I never have the camera with me when I need it. We laid the table with home-made quiche and polenta flavoured with cheese and garlic. There was a tomato and cucumber salad made from tomatoes from the garden, homemade bread, cherry cake and melon. A simple feast fit for a king. The children ate hungrily then disappeared inside to watch an ancient (yet still brilliant) 'Mr Bean' video. We were left to our chat, both our men absent - one fishing on the local beach, the other doing his accounting back in the UK. Such different lives. Such different outcomes.

She and I go back far, back to the Alps over 20 years ago. Though distance has separated us, our spirits and our intense experiences have kept us close. With the passage of time we have the advantage of a bigger picture, a better overview of all that has gone before and where it has led us. We also have the wisdom of hindsight.

Even if we travel along a road we shouldn't perhaps have taken, we see things along the way and learn from them. If you keep your eyes open, no journey is ever really wasted even if you take the odd wrong turn. And often you return to where you began, but older and wiser. You come home.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009


You will be pleased to hear that I am writing this with a glass of 'Coteaux de Chalosse' rose by my side. The Chalosse is to our south, a land which rolls more than here, lanes cutting through high hedges of maize at this time of year, with glimpses of the Pyrenees in the distance. Further south again, the undulations increase and become the softly crumpled foothills of the Pays Basque, another beautiful and fascinating region. I will never forget peering from my plane window five years ago as we came in to land at Biarritz. Seeing the soft green curves dotted with attractive looking houses and blue pools, the high mountains standing proud and strong, the sea glittering to the west, I had one simple thought: 'This is where I want to live'. The memories of my four hot, sunny, intensely happy days in this vibrant 'grande ville' by the sea will stay with me forever.

While I was there, I travelled a little further north into the pine-clad flatlands to visit my friend from my days working in the Alps. She'd spent the last 20 years dividing her time between here and there and I'd hardly seen her since. But sometimes life has a way of coming full circle and the next thing I knew, later that same year, this house of ours, in which I sit now writing this, simply presented itself to us one smokey autumn afternoon. Nothing in life is ever as you plan it. All this happened at a hugely difficult time for me with everything in chaos, not least my emotions. Right then, I didn't even know what my future was and I was trying desperately to make sense of everything that had happened to me in recent years, months, weeks...yet when I saw this house, just as when I first saw our house in the High Peak, it just felt right. Some things it just doesn't do to question.

We had no formal appointment to view it - we had happened by chance on a photo in an estate agent's window and, having asked directions, came to have a gentle little look. We found it easily enough, down the end of a lane dotted with other properties before opening out into scrub and forest: a 'Hansel and Gretel' house, quite lovely, sitting at the bottom of a gently sloping woodland garden. An oldish man was wandering across the grass, rake in hand. We wondered if he was the gardener. We tentatively entered the property and explained our presence. He was German, speaking French rather than English, and we soon discovered he was actually the owner. Very sadly, at 80 years old, he was divorcing and needed to sell the house as part of the settlement. He had bought it in the mid Seventies, an almost derelict farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in the heart of the Landes, over an hour inland from here - a hamlet named Guiraboye on the map. His wife had wanted to be closer to the sea so they moved this perfect example of a traditional Landaise farmhouse (albeit in a state of near ruination), wooden pillar by wooden pillar, all painstakingly numbered like a giant meccano set.

And what a labour of love it was! This man was an artist by trade, but such a pure aesthete that he never sold a single one of his paintings - he chose to give them away only to people he knew valued them and made a meagre income instead by teaching his artistic skills. It is the incredible story of how this remarkable man moved this house and meticulously rebuilt it, practically single-handedly, according to all the ancient local traditions and craftsmanship, which make it so very special to us. He created small foundations (which are not normal round here - houses were traditionally built directly onto the sand and hence have many inherent problems with termites) and raised it on stone plinths about 8 inches or so higher than it originally was to create a little more headroom inside. He even bought another dilapidated property of the same era so that he had a stock of appropriate raw materials (particularly terracotta tiles) to replace any that got damaged in the process of removal and re-build. Grand Designs, eat your heart out!

What we have now inherited is a building that oozes character, warmth, charm, history and, most importantly, love. He really, really did love this place and it was breaking his heart to leave, but he had no choice. There were people who came to look it, apparently, before us, who, clearly didn't 'get it'. They picked at this, they picked at that. But for me it was utterly perfect. Ancient wood beams, rough white walls, terracotta floors. And then there were the quirky artistic touches - the vents in the chimney to allow hot air into the upper floor; the intricate system of pipework which creates the underfloor heating (not yet tested out for fear of leaks!); the 'pissoir' in the downstairs loo; the other little loo in the utility area set at an angle, the cistern all integral with the white plaster walls; the loo design and tap designs in the bathrooms the Philip Starck's of their generation; the tiles in the kitchen all hand-laid by his wife. I could go on and on (particularly about the loos!), but it wouldn't make sense unless you saw it. Indeed, it was clearly not everyone's cup of tea (just like our house in the High Peak too - many had dismissed it before we came along), but it was mine. He loved it, we loved it and he wanted to sell it only to people who loved it. I hope we are doing him proud.


PS: sorry - cannot get photos uploaded at the moment, will add at a later date when back in the world of higher technology!

Friday, 21 August 2009

And so to France....

Every August I shift my home and family from the heather-hued hills of north west England to the flat pine-strewn expanses of south-west France: from stone and moss to wood and sand, from being land-locked to being in touch with the ocean. In short, from the High Peak to Les Landes. It is a set of contrasts I adore, and a way of keeping me sane.

France has been in my heart and, I like to think, in my blood, since I was a young teenager. My parents used to take in students and teachers. One of the first ones we embraced was an auburn-haired creature called Cathy. I thought she was the bees knees. She had a fabulous French accent and I was so jealous of her ability to speak the language. I had passed many a family holiday in France, living as we did just across the water. Newhaven-Dieppe. It's etched on my psyche. The reason I particularly wanted to learn French,though, was because I am also particularly curious and I soon worked out that sitting in French bars, cafes and restaurants would just be a set of endlessly frustrating experiences if I was unable to earwig what was going on around me. Life, people, relationships. Fab. Have to see and know it all. So, no high-blown intellectual reasons or desire to read Proust. Non. Just sheer, blatant noseyness.

I did indeed go on to do French at university and have spent many months and years hanging around les Grenouilles. My intention was to marry a French doctor(who actually did cross my path, quite literally, in Toulouse), but being cautious and practical of nature I felt I had to return to England to finish my degree and continue my relationship with my English accountant (er, WHY?!). Yet here I am, nearly a quarter of a century later, finally with my own little patch of French soil. And very agreeable it is too. I don't think I ever really wanted French children anyway. Didn't seem quite right. But I love the exposure my little English Roses are getting to the land I have always loved.

And so we rolled off the ferry in St Malo in the same heavy grey shroud of rain-soaked clouds and howling gale that has greeted us for the last three years and toute de suite pointed the nose of the car south. By Bordeaux the skies had cleared and the temperature guage registered 27 degrees. That's more like it. We stopped by our friends house for a late lunch before finally arriving chez nous in the early evening. From afar, I sometimes think how boring it is to be going back to the same old place, but all I have to do is glimpse the front of this beautiful old Landaise farmhouse, bursting with character, atmosphere and stories, and all doubts retreat once more. Familiar smokey smells greet us as we open the heavy wooden front door, the hallway stretching through to the glazed door at the back and the forest beyond. The kitchen tells the most tales of the holiday gone before - the coffee cups washed up but not put away beside the sink, the children's paint brushes standing in a jam jar by the taps. A life continuous, yet gently interrupted. I open the kitchen door onto the slightly ramshackle terrace on the side with the millstone table, the rampant roses, the vine and the comforting watery jingle of the stream that embraces the house on two sides. We were last here at Easter with no leaves on the trees, so the atmosphere is entirely different now. We are enveloped by greenery, the new houses they built nearby thankfully blotted out by the lushness of summer.

The girls shoot up to their rooms and gather the soft friends left on their beds and fall to playing straight away. While they clatter and giggle about we unpack the car and sort out the goods and chattels of our long-awaited holiday. The air feels warm and we feel optimistic that this is going to be a good one. Perhaps summer, for us, has finally arrived.

Friday, 24 July 2009

The End of an Era

Very shortly I am going to go down the lane for the last time to collect my youngest daughter from the village school. We had the Leavers’ Service this morning, followed by coffee and biscuits decorated by the children with icing and fruit and all sorts of wonderful things. Presents were handed out to teachers; videos and photos were taken.

I have been going to Leavers’ Services at the school for six years now. I have had two previous ones which have directly involved my own children (E in 2006, G in 2007), and now little L. It seems only yesterday she was in a pushchair while her oldest sister set out on the educational road. These first footsteps are so important, and so poignant. But if seeing your little ones step into school for the first time is hard enough, having to see them step out for the last time I think is even harder. Our village school, you see, is only an Infants School, so they are only 7 when they leave it to move on to the next stage. It is also tiny (just 24 pupils) and so has a very intimate, family atmosphere. Living in the village, as we do, means it is extra special to us.

I think I have been dreading this moment for all of those six years, which is perhaps why, now the moment has finally come, I have not been as all over the shop emotionally as I had feared. I have been thinking about this for so long, mentally and emotionally steeling myself for the final farewell. It was potentially made worse by the fact that the Head Teacher, whom I hold in high regard and with whom I’ve enjoyed a very good relationship, is leaving too today after 13 years at the helm. She has done a marvellous job – always so far ahead of her game and therefore keeping up the phenomenal standards of the school. I will never forget the first moment N and I met her: we had come up to look at the house we were going to buy and were just exploring the village when we noticed what looked like a village hall. To our amazement, we then saw that it was also an infant school – and at 4.30pm on a dark dank November night, the lights were cheerily blazing. We knocked on the door and Mrs Curry came to answer it. They had just finished computer club. We said we were likely to be buying a house in the village and that we had three young daughters, the oldest of which was just coming up to school age. She was nothing but welcoming and enthusiastic and we were so struck by her and the evident quality of this little school, buried away in the Peak District countryside, that we asked her if she had plans to move on in the near future. She made a quick calculation (she later revealed to us) and said, ‘No’. She had already decided that this was where she wanted to end her career and she had six years left to go. Perfect for our girls.

And so here we are on 24th July 2009. It is the end of an era for us, for our children, and for Mrs Curry. I drew and painted a picture of the school for her which I put in a frame and I made up a photo collage on canvas from the photographs I have gathered over the years. It seemed the only appropriate gift and it was lovely to see her obvious pleasure at receiving these physical memories to take away with her.

For my own part, I received a beautiful lavender plant and a token, and a certificate ‘For outstanding levels of hard work and achievement in our school vegetable garden’! (This is a project I started this year and hope to continue – more of that another time – but it has given me immense pleasure, so this light-hearted ‘award’ and gift could not have delighted me more.)

And so it is now 3 o’clock and I am going to walk down that lane to school for the last time. Think of me as I say my last goodbyes. It is not going to be easy. In fact, maybe only now, in the very moment that I write this, the reality is only just hitting. I admit it, I now have tears streaming down my face. I hate endings and I hate goodbyes. Although the future has so much still to bring, it is so very very hard to let go of such a huge part of our life in the High Peak since our arrival here on 31st May 2003.

Class of 2006

Thursday, 23 July 2009

So did it rain, then?

Blimey, is it summer elsewhere in the world? Certainly not here again. Yes, you guessed it, RAIN, RAIN, RAIN and more RAIN. I went to get my snow tyres taken off last week. I’m wondering why...

So, was it sunny for the famous party? Well…..erm, no. Oh, c’mon, whaddya expect?! BUT, I can reveal that, given the weather we’d had before and the weather we’ve had since (i.e crap) it is a minor miracle that it didn’t rain. It was even vaguely warm (don’t get excited, now, I said ‘vaguely’). Let’s say it was warm enough for the kids to arrive, rush around like flies on speed and get sufficiently hot and bothered to demand the water slide be unravelled and pegged out so they could don their cozzies and throw themselves on to it with the sort of gay abandon that only a bunch of party-crazed children can do.

So, dear reader, I think we can conclude that it was a success. And that we were very lucky. It was mainly grey, with the odd burst of sunshine to give the merest hint that it was actually high summer. There were a few spots of rain which meant a sudden burst of activity from the adults to erect the borrowed gazebo – and, of course, like umbrellas, the moment it was up, the rain stopped. Fair enough. It was a good preventative at least.

The main thing was, they were able to charge around the garden, not my house. Phew. Everyone got wet and grubby. Great! That’s what kids should do.

I had suggested to Mein Fuhrer (aka N) that we put signs up in the village to direct people to the right place. ‘Nah,’ he says with utter confidence and in that ‘Don’t even THINK about it!’ sort of way that he does. Waste o’time. My instincts told me otherwise and, inevitably, everyone’s posh SatNavs sent them up to some long-suffering farmer who, at least, was faintly amused to see all these smart Cheshire 4x4’s actually being put to some proper use on the devilishly rutted farm track. Of course Muggins here not only had to bow and scrape apologies to the hot and bothered parents (having to take your kid to a party on a Sunday is bad enough without getting lost, arriving late and trashing your vehicle for good measure) but then had to make a special phonecall to the farmer the next day to apologise for ruining his Day of Rest too. Sigh.

PS: why do I listen to my husband? Answers on a postcard please…

Friday, 17 July 2009

The Great British Summer

Humph. I have just poured myself a tot of sherry as it feels sufficiently wintery up here on my windswept, rain-lashed hill. Yes, dear reader, this is summer in the glorious High Peak, and this is the view from my windows just now (though I'm disappointed it doesn't show how much rain is actually falling):-

A friend called a short while ago. She currently lives in Geneva and has just come back from two fabulous weeks in the sun-filled Algarve. I asked her how the weather was in Geneva today. 'Oh, foul' she says. 'It was 34 degrees yesterday but today it's pouring with rain and the temperature has plummeted to 18 degrees.' Good Grief woman, 18 degrees? That's a hot day up here! We're currently revelling in 11.5 (the .5 bit is very important). Really, can I stand it much more? I have hung the washing on the line (a favourite little summer domestic pastime of mine) a mere handful of times. I have eaten outside at lunchtime another mere handful of times. I have sat outside in the evening just once. The summer clothes have been consigned to the 'Sale' rack at the back of the shops and the Autumn Collection is taking pride of place. HELP!!! I haven't felt I've had ANY summer yet, let alone the idea that it's all over. That would mean I haven't enjoyed the pleasures of the 'hot' months in my own home for nearly 36 months now - with the prospect of being denied them for a further 12. Is this really an acceptable way to live? Endlessly cooped up within the four walls of the house doing the same old tasks like a hamster on an infernal wheel? 36 months of the same routines, the same clothes, constantly living in hope that THIS year will be a good summer, only to have them dashed once more.

I remember the two glorious summers we have had - 2003 (our first up here) and 2006. We had breakfast outside every morning, the doors were constantly open as we shifted seemlessly from outside to in and back again. The deckchairs came out and one could sit in them and sneak in a snooze or simply rest and listen to the birds and the bees. Rugs were spread on the lawn and the children made camps out of them and various other bits and bobs from the summer house. It isn't much to ask, is it really, just to be able to go out into one's garden and enjoy some fresh air and outdoor living?

Each year I have dreamed of summer days and picking the girls up from the village school and walking along one of the lanes to find a picnic spot in a field by the stream. I have the odd photo and memory of this - perhaps two or three - but in six years that's not a whole lot, is it? Now my youngest child is about to leave the village school - just one week left to go - and then all that will be gone forever. Irretrievable moments of which I have always been so acutely conscious are so very very precious and so very short-lived, they grow up so fast. It breaks my heart, it really does, that such simple innocent summertime pleasures have been denied by the relentlessly poor weather.

I think it is this accentuated awareness I have of the passage of time that makes all this so unbearable for me. I feel a physical sensation of panic - tight chest, breathlessness - at the sheer frustration of it: the fact that I appreciate the moment and want to grab it, but am constantly thwarted. Let's face it, one of the key reasons I was so distraught at moving back to the UK from Italy was because of our piss-poor summers. London seemed a grey, damp mulch of weather which changed little in temperature through all the seasons - too warm to feel like winter, too cold to feel like summer, ill-defined springs and autumns. My one consolation for moving further north, onto the rain-swept western side of the isle, was that I would enjoy a good winter. A proper winter. But, yes, dear reader, you have guessed it: the moment Yours Truly arrives, the patterns change and the harsh winters that were typical of this region no longer happen. The snow has decreased with every year we've lived here. A long hot summer and white Christmas that first year, but has not been repeated since. Just rain, wind, rain, wind, rain. All year round.

If I'm being REALLY fair, I have to acknowledge that we have had SOME sun this summer. We all remember the sun-drenched two weeks of Wimbledon (completely predictable this being the first year they'd spent unthinkable millions on a fancy new roof); but I would like to remind you that, of course, it was not quite as blistering up here - I definitely remember a day or two where the dazzling blue of the sky in SW19 was certainly not replicated out of my own window as more spots of rain fell, but it WAS the best week or two of the summer so far. Shame I spent all of it driving around in a car. But I've moaned about that before, so I shall spare you a second rant on that one. Yet it is equally true to say that EVERY trip I have accompanied the village school on this 'Summer' term has been memorable only for the levels of drenching we have had to endure. I was so wet at the end of our canal walk that my knickers were squelching (and that was with a 'Dry as a Bone' style coat on) - I was chilled to the core and couldn't get myself warm for the rest of the day. At one point it was raining so hard and blowing such a gale that you could barely see these poor little wellington-booted figures a few yards ahead as the rain and mists slanted across the landscape. Ditto our trip to Solomon's Temple - the highest point above Buxton. We saw black clouds ahead but thought we might make it there and back before they burst. We didn't and they did. I was fully suited and booted this time in skiing regalia, yet as we huddled in the Temple with the wind driving the rain through the structure, a make-shift tarpaulin over our heads (a piece of sheeting held by the adults), trying to eat bananas and jumping up and down to keep warm, I was staggered at the violence of the weather and the depth of the cold and how, once again, these poor children were being subjected to absurdly wintery conditions on a summer term outing.

Our next was a nature walk round the village and over to the reservoir. Again, it should, or could, have been lovely. But no. Grey, damp, chill. Started raining just as we stopped for their fruit break. Sun just started to peak through as we walked the last few hundred yards. An infuriating taste of what it should have been.

Sports Day was similarly rained off, but thankfully, when re-scheduled, fell in the hot week. But I think last night really took the biscuit. After weeks of planning and organising, we were holding a farewll party to the Headteacher who retires at the end of this term after 13 years at the school. We normally have a fundraising barbecue in the summer term, but this was planned as a party that all the parents could enjoy as well. There was to be a hog roast, a bouncy castle, live music, some simple stalls for the children, a raffle and a barn dance. The school is in an idyllic position in the centre of the village surrounded by beautiful hillside vistas dotted with bleating sheep. Would it be too much to ask just to have a warm summer's evening where people could relax and enjoy themselves, the children could frolic about and we could all eat, drink and be merry? Not really. But it seemed it was. The day before it rained all day, but then turned into a lovely evening. Yesterday was dry and reasonably warm all day (albeit grey-skied) until....5 minutes before the party started. The clouds came down pretty much to field level and the rain was heavy and relentless. It had completely set in and was going nowhere - well not until 9.05pm, I predicted, with the party due to end at 9pm. People arrived hunched under umbrellas or swathed in waterproofs, their noses dripping rain. The marquee leaked (thank GOD we decided to splash out - no pun intended - on that, or the evening would have had to have been cancelled), the children were drenched from head to foot, bouncing in a lake of water. The moment the speeches were over, just as the Barn Dance was due to begin, loads of people decided enough was enough and took their soggy selves and soggy children home. The rest of us, feeling for the band and the feelings of the Headteacher, spread our smiles wider and threw ourselves into the dances. As with life in general, those that made the effort reaped the rewards. The dancing was fun and tipped the balance in our minds as to the success of the evening. We had a laugh. As the last chords were struck the rain finally began to abate. Indeed, at 9.05pm it had just about stopped. As only the British can, we had 'made the best of it', but how much lovelier it would have been to have memories of golden evening sunshine with children gambolling about and people drifting and lingering into the descending dusk. I felt the The Headteacher deserved that at least. She was sad enough without the gloomy elements to fuel her emotions.

Ah yes, 'The Great British Summer' - how great, indeed, this country would be without it.

And so, was our own 'Party Day' last Sunday wet and windy, as I so feared and dreaded? I think I shall have to tell you next time as my sleepy babes are waiting for their goodnight kiss and my Friday night curry awaits me...

Friday, 10 July 2009

Why do we live in England?

Hmmm. Drums fingers. I'm really beginning to wonder why ANYONE would ever choose to live in this country. I have 45 children (more fool me) coming to a 'Garden Party' on Sunday at our house. Now, this should all be quite simple. Blow up the paddling pools. Throw in some coloured plastic balls. Peg down the waterslide. Get the water pistols out. Throw down some rugs for the picnic tea. Play a few team games and Bob's Your Uncle. Everyone has a great time. Not too stressful.

You would have thought it would be safe to plan something like this for the middle of July, wouldn't you? It's not like I'm perversely trying to pull this one off in April, May or even June. No. It's July. But hey. This is England. The temperature flickered at 12.5 degrees celsius yesterday. A chill wind blew and made it feel even colder. The tomato plants shuddered, the cucumbers said 'You've got to be joking', the slugs ate the broccoli.

There is absolutely no doubt about it that if you live somewhere that manages to be warm and sunny in the summer (not too much to ask, I wouldn't have thought), then life is so much easier. You don't have to spend your whole time making decisions: if it's sunny we'll do this; but if it's rainy we'll do the other. Constant provision making for bad weather. It's absolutely exhausting. I've just wasted 2 hours of my time going over to a friend's house to pick up a pair af gazebos (thank you friend), JUST IN CASE it rains. Given I've now got them and wasted that time, it probably won't. Just like umbrellas. I've been checking the forecast and it changes every five minutes, but at least it's moved from Heavy Rain (all day) to Light Rain. And I hear you all cry - 'Oh it doesn't matter, the kids will have a great time even in the rain.' Yeah well, all fine and dandy if it's at least summer temperatures, but I can tell you right now, it is pretty grim up here when it's raining, windy and 12 degrees. And the temperatures are looking low. 18 at best.

Anyway, me sweethearts, that's enough moaning. I have party bags to fill, shopping to do, kids to collect and ferry around for the next 3 hours - oh, and the sun's just come out! Shame I have to be driving around again. When will I EVER just get to sit in a deckchair in the sunshine in my own garden on a proper summer's day? I know, when I'm 80...

On that merry thought, I shall bid you a fond farewell. Please offer up a prayer or two for me. And if you don't hear from me again on this blog, it's because I have committed hari kari (again).

Happy Weekends y'all.

Monday, 6 July 2009

News Flash!

I've just written a new post on my Fridge Food blog. It's an 'Easy Summer Supper for Friends'. Italian inspired, of course, and involving prawns, chicken, cannellini beans and strawberries. Whet you appetite? Go see.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Random Jottings

I have just come in from the garden where I have been contemplating my day over a tonic water on the green bench. The air was still soft at 10pm (remarkable for up here – but then it hit 30 degrees in Buxton today – equally remarkable for the wettest town in Britain!), the honeysuckle hung heavily in the atmosphere and I listened to the sounds of the evening. A horse snorted, birds sang, sheep bleated and some human voices drifted up from the valley. I could have sat there for hours. In fact I could have sat in my garden all day today such was the perfection of it all: hot sun, warm air, no wind, all plant life exploding in the combined conditions of wet and warmth (we had a big load of rain yesterday afternoon and evening, and another big dump at the weekend – my mother, in the arid south east, spending hours watering to keep things alive, is hugely jealous). There are compensations, I guess, for suffering our temperamental climate up here. We had friends staying overnight last Friday. He is a very keen gardener – took a course at the Chelsea Physic Garden and came out highest in his class (aka Chief Gnome). They haven’t visited for four years so we wandered round the garden, clasping our tall glasses of bubbly, and exchanging conversational titbits, when Chief Gnome was heard to comment on the marked abundance of astilbe and loostrife which, no surprise, apparently love a wet climate. I will say no more!

I must say, the lawn is looking rather good at the moment. When we first moved here, it was a mossy mattress. I will never forget lying down on it that very first day we moved in, 31st May 2003, utterly exhausted. Its soft green sponge caressed my weary limbs and welcomed me to my new home. At a certain point, I decided that it needed some attention, and employed Green Thumb to get rid of the over-abundance of moss and some nasty pernicious weeds which were increasingly invading it. A few years down the line and the lawn started to look worse than it ever did – uneven, patchy, not appealing. I took a brave step and got Chief Mr Green Thumb to come and have a look and declared that I didn’t think their attempts to make it like Wimbledon Centre Court were ever going to work, let alone be appropriate, up here on our windswept, sun-deprived hill. It was agreed that we’d let the treatments stop and see where we got to. They phoned the other day and I was pleased to say ‘Actually, it’s looking better than it has done in ages, so I think we’ll give the June treatment a miss, thank you.’ She was very understanding. True to say, I think they helped reduce the moss and weeds, but right now, it seems to have reached a happy equilibrium between moss and grass, and I want to leave well alone for now. Nature has regained its balance.

So, I was supremely jealous when, on Wednesday, I had to leave the gardener sitting on our new bench, contemplating his lunch while I charged around, scissors in hand, frantically cutting flowers to take to my friend for lunch. I should never have said I would go. I’d only just got in from other duties, and now I had to rush out again, AND miss Wimbledon. It truly was a sublimely beautiful day. The garden in all its glory – lush from that opportune combination of rain and heat in recent days and weeks - hot, still, fecund. Glorious. My friend declared me ‘a little stressed’. I know, I was. Because I wanted to be at home in my garden, OR watching Wimbledon, anything but running all over two counties again in a hot car.

This week has loomed large in my diary for some time. It’s an ‘Oh God, no’ sort of week. A music festival, two sports days, a Welcome Day, a school concert, a party and a child going away on Friday for a 3-day PGL school trip. No husband. Wimbledon on telly. It was going to be a battle between selfless devotion to children and selfish devotion to self. I had a feeling I knew which would win. They always do. Conscience and kids – as devastating as an Andy Roddick serve.

Monday, 29 June 2009

A Day in the Life

I have just come in from the garden, finishing abandoned tasks before the light fades completely. I have finally been planting plants which have been hanging around in their garden centre plastic pots for, in some cases, nearly four weeks now. Despite dipping them into the trough to drench their roots reasonably regularly, they were looking yellow leaved and unloved and I desperately wanted to show them that I cared. I really did. It is just, as ever, a question of time.

I had reluctantly gone inside at about 7.45pm to get the children into bed. N went off to Nigeria at 7.30 this morning, so I was doing my single parent bit as I so often do, even when he is not travelling. They had eaten tinned tomato soup and bread and butter (a favourite quick supper – spare me the lecture), and E had explained to her little sister that, although she preferred it to the one at school which has lots of bits and lumps in it (i.e real tomato soup), it really wasn’t very good for you ‘because, you see, it’s really bright orange and things’ (her mother, meanwhile, earwigging from her task of removing whole fields of ground elder from the herbaceous border, was pleased that the E-number discussion had clearly taken pleasing root in eldest child’s brain). Youngest was pleased to spend what remained of the evening with alarming orange stains around her mouth, nonetheless a cheerful reminder of a supper enjoyed and consumed without fuss or waste. Everyone’s happy.

So, what did we still have to do before bed could be achieved? (I had hoped for an early one. Vain hope.) Well, E had to practise her piano piece (Autumn, Vivaldi) for the Year 5 -music festival first thing tomorrow morning. I played it for her and told her that though it should be loud in parts, it need not be plonking. Lightness of touch was the key. (A tangible improvement ensued and I wish I’d told her that before she'd performed it for her Grade 1 test the other week.) She then had to print out some more homespun invitations from the computer for their all-in-one summer birthday party (42 children screaming around the place while the rain pisses down outside – spare me a tender thought on 12th July) which had to be named and put into envelopes. G had to go and wash from head to foot, covered as she was in mud from the party she’d been to this afternoon where, like my own worst nightmares, the Heavens opened as the clock struck 3pm and the party began – leaving 40 children screaming round the garden and throwing themselves down a huge blow-up double slide which had effortlessly turned itself into a water slide – except no-one was in a swimming costume as they sloshed through the lake of water at the bottom of it, plumes of liquid flying like Diana at Alton Towers (remember that shot?).

Indeed, it was a total monsoon. Anyone would have thought we lived on the Equator rather than in the Peak District this afternoon. We set off from home in 26 degrees and beautiful sunshine. 10 minutes away and, with the windscreen wipers on full frantic mode, I could still not see out of the windscreen as veritable curtains of water were hurled at the car from every angle. We were driving at 5 miles an hour, the window de-mister bellowing at us so we could barely hear ourselves think, negotiating 30cm flash floods on main roads, me muttering unkind words about ‘bloody parties and I knew we should never have said we’d go’. After all, we could have been at home in our garden enjoying the sunshine – a rare treat, let’s face it. But no, here we were doing some kind of Indiana Jones thing just for everyone to get soaked to the skin, or worse, the car broken down with a flooded engine. I couldn’t find the house. I couldn’t SEE the house for all the rain. My nerves were strained – and this was the second trip I’d done to Macclesfield today already, having hoiked them off to tennis lessons this morning at their school. I cursed my husband’s absence. Never bloody there when you need him. Blue balloons eventually found. Long drive. Smart house. Fountain. Gravel. Pond with coy carp and netting over the top. Lots of flashy cars and private number plates (they just LOVE private number plates round these parts). Tasteful blinds at the windows. Tasteful chairs and tables on tasteful terraces. Manicured lawns, sweeping parkland views. Would have loved to have been able to stay and have a nose round, even in the rain, but alas duty called and I had to turn swiftly on heel and schlep back through the torrents and rivers to home and, for once, the high dry land, hopefully to find my two other daughters still safely ensconced – one chained to the dining room table doing her history project (deadline fast approaching), the other chained to the coffee table in the sitting room doing her scrap book and watching television. I phoned them to let them know I was on my way back and to check that they were still alive. All was well and I’d spared them another wasted hour driving around the highways and byways of Cheshire and Derbyshire. They probably won’t even miss me when social services call to take me away.

So – back to this evening - while G scrubbed herself down, I washed little L’s hair which was dry and matted (almost as abandoned as my plants). I poured over the conditioner and tied it all up in a smart turban with a linen towel. She loves hats and scarves on her head. She picked up my dark blue pashmina the other day at the pub, when she and I were having lunch as a treat on an inset day, and said in an unfortunately shrill little voice ‘Look Mummy, I’m a Muslim!’ Cough. Didn’t seem quite appropriate at the village pub in the depths of the Peaks. ‘Yes, lovely darling, now let’s take it off, shall we?’ It suited her though. She pulled the same stunt while we were in Turkey, having observed the girls at the market in Fethiye. She wrapped an orange headscarf with sequins dangling off the edge of it round her head, tucking it behind her ears quite delightfully, and, well, quite looked the part, it has to be said. Funny little creature. Anyway, back in the bathroom, I sent her upstairs to get on her pyjamas (she’s such a little twiglet that she’s currently sporting a nightdress which is for a 3 month old! – though it is a tad short, it has to be said) before we then lay on my sheetless bed (stripped in a moment of enthusiasm but not yet re-made) and finished her school reading book all about donkeys. Lots of complicated words, took forever. By this time E and G had joined us and we curled up together to listen to L practising her recorder pieces for her Big Concert on Tuesday. It was quite painful. E started to giggle. This annoyed L. G just continued brushing my hair which made me feel calm, despite the screeching notes in my right ear. Finally, though, I could stand it no more and declared emphatically that this rehearsal should be finished in the morning. Just then N called to let us know he was safely arrived in Nigeria and that it was basic accommodation, to say the least, and very hot and sticky. I suffered no envy.

We climbed the stairs to their bedrooms, pulled curtains and said goodbye to the day, me twittering the while about how I still had so many jobs to finish in the garden and around the house. With that I heard the rain splattering on the velux window on the top landing and rushed outside to rescue lemon cake, mobile phone, place mats, deckchair, scrap book (mercifully The History Project was already inside) and the other detritus of our day. By the time I’d flung everything into the kitchen, cursing, it had started to ease and I soon found myself pottering about completing my tasks and feeling totally at one with the world outside. The air was damp and soft and as I weeded around my sickly looking garlics the heady citrus scent of the lemon balm behind me was intoxicating. I finished putting dark loamy compost from my wonderful heap around the plants I had placed in their position in pot or border. I did a little desultory weeding around the paths and terrace and tidied up abandoned tools and now empty plastic pots. Every now and then I glanced up and took in the milky grey views across to the reservoir or over the valley to the escarpment. The sheep bleated softly in the background and the birds sung their evensong. The dampness threw up so many heady scents of grass, honeysuckle and rose. Through the lit windows of the house I could see that all was chaos within – the laundry room with piles of clothes, washed, unwashed, ironed or waiting to be ironed; the kitchen table littered with the remains of their al fresco soup supper, clothes discarded from this morning, school bags, tea cups, magazines, tennis raquets and a hundred other miscellaneous items which roam the house in vagrant fashion, never quite finding a home; the kitchen sink piled with unwashed pots and pans, the worktop covered with dishes ready for the dishwasher. How I would love for it all to be in perfect order, but you know, if I have a choice, I would always rather be tending to my garden, breathing in its sweet air and feeding my soul with its shapes and perspectives, its dark corners and its wide open lawn, looking up from my tasks and seeing the world from on high.

Goodnight all. It is now midnight and I still have a bed to make.
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