On or off the rocks

My late Father enjoyed a G&T most evenings after work, with a couple of ice cubes and a generous slice of lemon, “on the rocks”.  I now have my Dad’s old desk in my writing den.  The first mystery is, why are there always anonymous old keys in every desk? In the small top left hand drawer are at least a dozen keys ranging from the frankly enormous to the annoyingly small. Two modern keys are labelled in my Mother’s neat handwriting “Front” and “Front”.  I don’t know what happened to “Back” but I guess that the keys are to the last house she owned, a cottage in Oxfordshire, which was as cute as it sounds, thick stone walls and a view of the village church from the little window half way up the staircase.


My parents owned this desk from my teenage years.  It may have been inherited from a great aunt or they may have bought it.  Sadly that bit of family history is not documented. But I connect the desk mostly with my Father, who would sit at it to pay bills.  He mistrusted direct debits and would rather fill in little giro slips and post them with a cheque than allow a company to decide how much money to take from his account.  Even if it made his life more complicated.  Another age? For sure.


Sitting here typing I have just reached down to look into one of the large drawers of this desk.  In it I found my Dad’s stamp collection and a small box with memorabilia from his WWII days in the Merchant Navy.  Dad was a radio operator and I have discovered his Certificate of Proficiency and a document showing the vessels he served on from 1939 to 1945.  The box includes postcards he bought as souvenirs of the places he visited, mainly New York, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Cape Town and Port Sudan.  Other postcards have been made from black and white photographs of unlabelled ships on fire, where turrets lean at an angle and smoke billows all along the deck.  Most poignant is a postcard addressed from my father to his parents, sent from Cape Town. Dear Folks,  We are bound for Singapore, which is a 3 weeks trip.  Be home (if at all) by about Sept or Nov.  Love Derek.

I don’t know if his “if at all” referred to whether he would get leave or if he would be a war casualty.   I cannot imagine how his parents dealt with such uncertainty.


Whilst settling this old desk into its new home, I also unwrapped an old painting and have put it on the top of the desk.  It used to hang in my paternal Grandparents’ house and later in my parent’s house.  It portrays the Les Hanois Lighthouse off Guernsey, built to warn shipping of the treacherous rocks nearby. The lighthouse still stands although of course it is automatic now.  This painting is entitled August 89 and at that time, twenty or so years after its construction in 1862, a lighthouse keeper would have been stationed on this rocky outcrop.  The painting was (I think) brought over from Guernsey by my paternal Grandmother when she left the Channel Islands to come and live on the mainland.  The painting needs some repair work now but its fond family memories wrap around me as I type.  Dad is with me whether on or off the rocks!




Excuses, excuses…




It feels as if the whole summer of writing has been taken up with excuses.  First I tried out a different desk, up in my son’s old bedroom.  He has left home, got married, started a career, changed tack and is now re-training, so you can guess that it’s a few years since he used his narrow, single bedroom. Narrow bedroom it might be but it’s in an L shape and the right-angled section is the perfect shape for a desk.  Indeed my son studied for his GCSEs and A levels there, when he wasn’t in the dining room asking me to test him.


I moved my laptop upstairs and sorted out the spaghetti of cables.  Why are there always more cables than sockets?  The open lid of my laptop hit the small shelf above the built in desk but other than that, it was just right.   I loved the seclusion away from the front door and the view of the road downstairs.  I spent some days writing the end of another piece of work while I waited for my feedback from an agency on the first five chapters of my first draft.  The days ticked by as I waited for the report to come through the snail mail and eventually it arrived by email. It contained just the words of wisdom I was waiting for.  I was ready for inspiration to strike at any moment. The second draft was going to write itself.  This was going to be so straightforward.  Go back to writing a bit each day, use the suggestions to improve my work and bingo, my novel would soon be finished and ready for publication. Agents and publishers would be falling over themselves to be first in line.


My laptop lid kept hitting the little shelf though and my son’s old desk was too small and too low.  This was a good opportunity to put into use the large desk I had inherited from my parents. My husband ripped out the old one and also the little shelf.   Well I say ‘ripped’, dismantled carefully in case the big desk was too well… big!   It’s only a small bedroom after all.  As long as I can squeeze between the front of the desk and the seat of the chair (jammed up against the wall), then it should be fine.


So now, I had no desk to work at and had to move all my writing stuff back downstairs.  I used to write downstairs but now it seemed temporary and unsatisfactory. I couldn’t possibly settle to writing for the moment.  And in any case, those suggestions for improvement were tricky.  May be this novel was destined to remain unfinished…


The upstairs rooms were now due for renovation and we spent hours emptying the bedrooms and pulling up carpets, which is more tiring than you’d think.  Each bookcase, drawer and plastic storage box under the bed was sorted.  Bags of clothes went to Oxfam, other random knick- knacks had to be recycled, kept or thrown away.   So, no time for writing as there was so much to sort and clean.  Did I mention how much dust is created when you rip up old carpet?  And unfortunately, old underlay does not leave the house without a long, grubby trail of small black dots of rubber hiding in every corner.   I tried in the meantime to type a few words.  My hands were ready but my head was not.  I wrote a paragraph here and there and emailed them to my writing buddy.  It reminded me that I write.  It flexed my writing muscles but it was only superficial and I knew it.


More excuses not to write, came in the form of the arrival of a plasterer and decorator, the boiler man and the radiator fitter.  Surely no one could expect me to settle to write when there were workmen to-ing and fro-ing all day, cups of tea and coffee to be made regularly  and so many decisions to make?  “Would I like a thermostat valve on the hall radiator?”  “Did I want the curtain rails removed?” “Should they take the new gas pipe under the bathroom floor?”


Finally yesterday the new carpet was laid!  Obviously I couldn’t be writing while the men were laying new underlay and carpet.   This novel is perhaps best left to mature for a while before I start the second draft?   I’m not even sure I know how to improve it.  It’s probably too difficult for me.  Certainly with all that hammering and tapping, it’s impossible to write. Oops, there goes another writing day.


Finally today, I swept the excuses off my desk, which is still downstairs but there is a limit to my patience. I opened my word document, got out my feedback report and started writing!! This is it.  The excuses are over.  I’m back with the programme and shall write every day, sometimes twice a day, until the second draft is done.  No more excuses.


P.S.  By next week I may even have my big desk upstairs but I’m not waiting for that, oh no, I’m just writing, writing, writing.





Yes, I know that the more traditional amongst you will have shuddered at the use of ‘n’ to represent ‘and’ in the title of this blog post.  But that’s how it was, down with the youf about 10 days ago, when Harry Baker and his friend/support act Chris Read came to perform at Norwich Cathedral.  Harry Baker is ridiculously young, having only graduated last year.  He now has the sheer brass neck to be earning his living doing what he loves, which is what exactly?  Well, it’s a combination of poetry and rap, written from the perspective of a maths nerd and performed with energy, verbal dexterity and naïve enthusiasm.  And strangely it works!


My husband and I went to see them last year and enjoyed it so much that this year we bought 4 tickets and invited my daughter and son-in-law too.  You know how it feels when you’re responsible for recommending the entertainment?  I started saying things like, ‘they were really good last year’ ‘we hoped you would enjoy them too’ ‘ they were so clever’.  Until I settled with ‘ let’s see how it goes tonight’.  Which we did.


Let’s rewind an hour or so before the performance started.  We pitched up to Norwich Cathedral with some old duvet covers to sit on (are we the only family not to possess the standard tartan picnic rug?) and our cool bag full of goodies.  There was a pop up bar selling very respectable Pimms and we soon spread ourselves out on the grass in the cloisters.   We motored through our sausage rolls, dips, fruit and cake as others arrived (with or without snacks,) until we were ready to be entertained.


The splendid venue was one of the modern rooms tacked onto the side of Norwich Cathedral.  Here, you get all the advantage of being very close to the flints in the ancient walls and you are able to see the cathedral spire from the window, while being in the ease of a light, airy, modern room with comfortable chairs.


When Harry Baker started a familiar poem I remembered how good he was and knew that it would all be fine.  His poem about the love life of Number 59, how odd he feels and alone, until he meets… oh no, I won’t tell all, but suffice to say that number 60 is just a bit too ‘perfectly round’ for him, whereas number 61 was ‘just as quirky’.  Often writing from the perspective of the outsider, Baker writes about unfashionable preferences such as playing Monopoly and being interested in dinosaurs and FIFA video games.  Chris Read played his guitar and sang, both on his own and also while Baker recited. It was very entertaining and very original.  Both young men retained a fresh, unpolished, studenty approach to being on stage.  They chatted easily with the audience and this helped us to see life from their perspective.


Luckily my faith in the HarrynChris show was vindicated and my family enjoyed the performance.  Baker said that they will be in Edinburgh next week.  Why not check them out?

Let’s celebrate!


What’s your favourite way to celebrate a birthday?  A cake?  A present?  An outing?


Last week I went to visit Kew Gardens with my husband and son. It was my husband’s birthday and we had arranged to spend the day at Kew, an outing being one of our favourite ways to celebrate.   The two chaps were already in London and I travelled down to meet them .  As the rail network was not working at its best(!), I joined them when Greater Anglia saw fit to deliver me to the capital.


After some lunch, we went first to visit the temporary excitement which is The Hive.  This is a sculpture which was commissioned originally for an exhibition in Milan but is now available to visit in Kew Gardens until 2017, although it seems so popular that I can imagine it staying for longer.


Have you ever thought about the patterns of activity in a bee hive?  No, me neither.  Well, The Hive sculpture is a huge metal framework, which represents the structure of a bee hive.  It’s so big that you can walk about inside it, looking out through the open mesh and up to the sky, through the circular hole at the top. Inside The Hive there are lights attached to many of the metal joints, and the lights are illuminated faintly or strongly based on the activity of real bees in a hive hidden away somewhere at Kew.  There is also a background sound of bee activity and accompanying sympathetic music, based on the same humming and buzzing sounds.


The sights and sounds of The Hive are subtle and you need to concentrate in order to listen and watch for changes.  In the lower part of the sculpture, I wondered if there was a hidden camera filming me as I followed the instructions to ‘pick a thin lolly stick, place it in your mouth, put the other end in a hole in the metal pole in front of you and listen to the pre- recorded sounds of bees, with your fingers in your ears, so that you hear the sounds through your ear bones, not your ear drums’.  I was waiting for the call of “surprise, gotcha!” to come, as I hunched over the metal pole, with a thin wooden stick in my mouth and my fingers in my ears!


Are you good at identifying trees?  Ash, oak, lime?  We played endless games of ‘guess the tree’, as each tree at Kew has a metal identification label attached.  It is impossible to guess them accurately as there are so many special types.   Even the common ones are different versions e.g. large/ small leaves, softer/harder bark, taller/shorter tree.  The whole park is fertile ground for this game and I really enjoyed the tree top walkway where you could get up close to the top branches, leaves, fruits and flowers.  The walkway was substantial, wide and had plenty of room for the many people on it.  But it did have an unnerving tendency to sway – enough said, we didn’t hang about.


Has your conservatory been a bit too hot for comfort in this recent weather?  Then imagine a greenhouse built to house thousands of tropical plants. Hot and humid on purpose.  The Palm House at Kew is full of examples of plants from the tropical rainforest, which thrive in the heat and humidity.   It was a bit hot and sticky but we did see real bananas growing and some huge lily pads in a large pond, which were as big as an enormous paella dish and although flat across the middle, had raised edges which looked a bit like a pie crust.  See photo!



One of the other highlights was the Shirley Sherwood gallery, which you could spend an afternoon in, although we rushed through in under an hour.   It was jam packed with paintings of flowers, shrubs and trees, painted in the 19th century by lucky travellers who went all over the world.  There were flowers from Borneo, shrubs from Sri Lanka and trees from India.  A modern traveller would probably take digital photos and these were the Victorian equivalent.  There was an overwhelming number of accurately depicted plants, all labelled with their botanical names and place of origin.



I was filled with awe at the thought of the intrepid Victorian women, leaving home to journey into unknown jungles and villages.  They took their paper and paint boxes with them, cataloguing all the interesting and exotic flora they found.  There was so much to learn and then show others on their return.  Their painting skill was impressive and so was their get-up-and-go, especially in an age which consistently under-valued women.  I wondered aloud if it might have been exciting to live in Victorian times and discover new areas of the world and their treasures.  But my family were quick to remind me that while a privileged few went jaunting around the world, the vast majority of women were kept at home either sewing while they waited for a suitable husband or cleaning out coal fire grates for a living!


At home later, we had birthday cake to round off a memorable day at Kew Gardens and sang, Happy Birthday to Kyou, Happy Birthday to Kyou!!

Have you ever seen an opera?



Have you ever seen an opera?  I can thoroughly recommend it.  It’s like a good play but with great music too.  The music helps to bring out the emotional highs and lows of each character.  You can sit back and enjoy the scenery and the oh so clever props and costumes.


You may think that it’s highbrow but the plots tend to be more straightforward than many modern plays and still deal with the essential themes of life, such as love, fidelity, hope, despair, selfishness and revenge.  So, it’s not that you won’t be able to follow the plot.  In any case, the programme always has a little precis.


Opera is often sung in the language it was composed in, frequently Italian or German, which again, may make you think it’s too complicated if you are not a fluent linguist.  But in every modern opera house there are supertitles above the stage, which translate the words being sung into English, phrase by phrase.  No problem there then.


Tickets can be rather pricey but if you are prepared to sit further back, to stand or lean for the performance, then a seat can be yours for a mere £20 or so.  So what’s not to like?


Last week we went to an opera experience which was memorable on all fronts.  We arrived early and this is what we found.  Picnic hamper; check.  Table laid with white cloth; check.  Beautiful landscaped gardens with lake and bridge; check.  Husband, brother-in-law and his wife; check.  We had gathered to celebrate the birthdays of the two brothers, conveniently only 10 days apart.  The gardens were filling up with chaps dressed in black tie and women in fancy dresses long and short.  Glyndebourne has a reputation for being a very individual, quintessentially English venue for opera.  And it lives up to its reputation.


What do you think we did first having found our allotted table in the grounds?  We found a cup of tea that’s what!  How much more English can you get?  Although my American sister-in-law did have coffee…  We raided the picnic hamper for plates and cutlery and cut into the birthday cake I had brought along.  We sat in the sunshine, watching the procession of different dresses and evening wear parade through the gardens.  There were all sorts, from a short velvet dress, a halter neck long dress with a train, loose dresses,  fitted dresses or even trousers, with a jacket, wrap or stole for extra warmth.  The men rang the changes from a straight dinner suit by wearing a kilt, adding a cummerbund, white jacket or coloured bow tie.  In view of the warm weather there were quite a few panama type hats in circulation too.


The tradition at Glyndebourne is to have one long interval between the acts and give everyone time to eat at one of the restaurants or picnic in the grounds.  You can buy their picnic or take your own.  It’s all super-organised, there’s lots of information on line to help you plan what to do.  Now I love going to the opera but you do usually have to eat really early beforehand and then you’re a bit hungry again afterwards.  So an opera which stops especially so that you can have some supper, is right up my street.


We had ordered a picnic and after the first act, it was waiting for us in a cool bag beside our table on the lawn.  We toasted the birthday chaps and then enjoyed our quiche and salad.     The description was more flowery than that but you get what I mean.  We were so lucky to have good weather and it was magical to eat outside in such beautiful surroundings as the sun went down.  Mmmm, I had been wondering what else I might like.  But the picnic providers had already anticipated my every need and provided coffee and a chocolate before we went back in to enjoy the second half.


Which opera did we see?  It was The Barber of Seville by Rossini, full of misunderstandings  which are resolved, so that the course of love runs true, in time-honoured fashion.  The cast and splendid orchestra were top quality.  The scenery was carefully chosen to evoke southern Spain and Rossini’s music was lively and demanded my attention from the first to the last note.


If you decide to try out an opera, not all come with picnic facilities.   But don’t let that put you off.  I dare you to try one.





Warning, spoiler alert!

IMG_1565She was lowered down from the ceiling, all skirt ruffles and tights, feet gently pedalling, “they usually clap at this point” she said wryly and we, the obedient and entranced audience applauded with gusto.


An actress with the unlikely name of Meow Meow, was playing the roles of Titania and Hippolyta at The Globe on Saturday, when we went to see a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I suspect that for a Shakespeare purist the production might have been rather shocking with its racy modern interpretation. However, for a keen but not very knowledgeable member of the audience such as myself, the production was a joy.  It was about 20 minutes too long (isn’t everything?) but other than that, it was highly entertaining.


There were some parts traditionally played by women which were played by men and vice versa.  Peter Quince became Rita Quince, who played the part as a sort of keen girl guide leader, ready with her clipboard and very hearty in her instructions.  She was part of the crew on stage as the audience settled in.   She announced information about no mobile phones, no filming and no sitting (for the groundlings standing around the foot of the stage).  She morphed easily into Rita Quince and the gender swap was painless and easy to reconcile.


The second change from the traditional cast, was that Helena became Helenus, a gay young man who falls in love and is in turned loved.  This piece of original casting, with a man instead of a woman, as Hermia’s friend, made it much simpler to understand the plot.  Helenus and his loves were easy to follow and easy to separate from the heterosexual partners in the mix.  You know Shakespeare, always game for a French farce of people mistaking others for someone else, kissing the wrong person and ending up with the wrong partner.  No question of course, that this is always remedied in the end and we can breathe a collective sigh of relief as the correct pairings end up together.


Puck although traditionally a male role, was played by a young woman, Katy Owen and she was full of zest and energy.  Her interaction with the audience and in particular the groundlings was a joy to watch.  With each speech she turned to all four corners of the auditorium and caught the eye of every member of the audience.  Then, in amongst those standing (three hours in total, stronger souls than me!) she addressed individuals, grinning from ear to ear as she tempted them to join in her mischief-making, gently poking fun at us all.  Her drive and vitality made the role her own; her childish jokes made us laugh and her pointed sense of humour kept us on our toes.


Aside from the gender-bending roles, one of the other remarkable elements were the nods to modern life, included at every occasion, which brought the text to life and made us remember our own contemporary context.  The young people were referred to as ‘Hoxton hipsters’ on several occasions; when an ‘almanac’ had to be consulted for phases of the moon, a mobile phone was produced and then put away ‘you know the rules, no phones’. There was a Bollywood style dance sequence and another based on Beyonce’s Put a Ring on it, as well as other references to modern music, which went straight over my head. The music itself, played from the balcony was full of original settings of the familiar Shakespearean text and gave the cast an extra dimension to their acting, singing and dancing throughout the piece.


This exuberant production of The Dream meant that I wasn’t sitting trying to work out what the text meant, as I could see it acted out clearly in front of me. It took out the hard work and offered me the play on a plate and I appreciated their efforts and the play all the more for that.


Not waving but swimming



Swimming cap pulled on tight, smoothed down to keep out the water.  Goggles adjusted and dipped in the water to ensure against fogging, I would put on my nose peg and dip into the pool.  It required steely determination… well a dose of self-discipline anyway,  to make myself get up and out, early in the day.  After I had stopped earning a living, I felt that I needed to counteract my natural propensity for long lie-ins and so I set about swimming regularly.  No excuses, there’s a council pool within a mile of my house and I decided to learn how to swim more efficiently.  At school I had always been an endurance swimmer, not one designed for speed or sleek efficiency. I was encouraged to use my breaststroke to pass the life-saving exams and I was pretty good at picking up a brick from the bottom of the pool, if I say so myself.  If ever I see a brick in need of saving, I will be the first to volunteer to save it, as long as I have my nose peg with me.


Over two years I managed to increase the number of lengths I could swim in each session and even worked out how to swim the crawl, using You Tube tutorials to get the all-important alternate breathing technique.  As you can imagine, breathing is key to the whole process!


The reality of swimming regularly was that the swimming hat was difficult to get on and off and still left my hair in need of washing and drying each and every time I swam.    The body de-hairing process was never-ending and after each session you had to get rid of the clinging smell of chlorine, which was also a reminder that you were swimming in a chemical in order to counteract swimming in other people’s germs.  Eeugh!


You may not be surprised to know, that my swimming phase lasted only two winters.  I enjoyed the tone of my muscles but not enough to force myself into the water several times a week.


Fast forward then to 2016 when I strained my neck and then my back in quick succession, I can’t even remember how.  Gardening probably.  The strains were minor and only lasted a  week at the most but they reminded me that I was becoming less flexible and could look forward to more aches and pains unless I did something about it.  I get most of my exercise walking and cycling but neither help much with flexibility.


This is how I ended up last week clutching two tins of chopped tomatoes, swinging them about in front of the tv.  They were in lieu of weights, for my sculpting Pilates routine and although a bit lighter than recommended, I figured that less is more as they were to hand and I don’t possess any 1 – 2 lb weights.  My Pilates DVD is an old friend from a previous phase and is split into five 10 minute sessions.  I am now working on my core muscles, building up the muscle strength, hoping to guard against further strains and sprains.  The only limitation this week, is that my knees are black, blue and an attractive hue of yellow after falling off my bicycle last week.   Still, onwards, ever onwards!