Tuesday, 20 December 2011

When housepride flies out of the window (again)

I don't claim to keep the cleanest house in the world. In fact, I may be competing for messiest at the moment. There is paperwork everywhere, Christmas stuff lying around and general chaos. I tell myself that this is all part of the tidying up, part of making the house look better, but somehow that 'better' never arrives.

Despite my untidiness, this discovery when cleaning the kitchen floor (you see, I do some cleaning!) was rather a shock.

How did he get into my kitchen?

*runs off to check seals on back door!*

Monday, 12 December 2011

Read the label

It is a well-known fact in our house that nothing stays in the same place for long. Pick it up ... walk around ... put it down ... go somewhere else ... can't possibly find the object ever again. The biggest culprit? My husband.

So it was with my kitchen scissors. To cut a long story short (ahem!) my husband lost them.

I've learnt over the years to show a little generosity of spirit about such things, a little patience, to give it all a bit of time. After all, who knows when something may turn up (just as you put down the forms for the school trip, or the music for the trombone exam, or you favourite pen...) Eventually most items reappear.

But after nearly two months without the kitchen scissors (yes, I improvised a lot using sharp knives) I gave in and purchased a new pair - not least because I wasn't quite sure how I was going to wrap the Christmas presents.

I buy new kitchen scissors. I get them home. I read the packaging.

Remove packaging and cut tie before use

Now just how am I supposed to do that?!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

In which I wonder about my sanity...

It is winter. It is cold. I need to wear socks and boots.

This is to be expected but, as I rummaged through the sock drawer this morning to find a pair of brown socks, I wondered whether I am I the only person in the world to only choose socks that match the colour of her boots?

Black boots, black socks.
Brown boots, brown socks.

You can't see the socks once the boots are on.
And the trousers won't necessarily match either the boot or sock colour.

Have I finally gone mad?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Gifts of ivory and gold

It is in those bewitching hours of 3-5am that I have most of my greatest blog posts written.

Unfortunately, I am writing them in my brain, not wishing to leave the warmth of my bed even if I have left the satisfaction of sleep. By 9am, when I have the time and space to type, they have vanished, blown away in the gale of preparation for school.

Last night (or, technically, this morning) I recall planning to write about my mother and grandmother, who died 24 and 1 year(s) ago respectively. I recall wondering about the problems of mental health, and society's attitude towards it. I remember thinking about my recent nightmare in which I had a maths exam looming but could not bring myself to revise any of the relevant subject matter.

Maybe all these will become a blog post at some point. Maybe.

I cogitated the merits of blogging, the decline in comments (my own fault, for not visiting others' blogs often enough), the speed of reaction to twitter. I thought about my children and how they make me laugh so much, yet I find it more and more difficult to write stories about them on the blog. Is it just too intrusive on their privacy? I wondered whether it was interesting to write about school plays and trombone exams and concerts, all of which dominate my life and mind but are hardly unique to my family. Or I could be more topical - debate the NHS, or the Eurozone crisis, or write about Advent and Christmas, or give my take on Strictly and The X-Factor. Would anyone really be interested in all this?

But then I thought about how lovely it would be to write a post about my wonderful husband; how much I love him; how much I depend on him and how - even after 14 years of marriage - it is a privilege to know him. He has given me two wonderful children and a life with more adventures than I could possibly have foreseen, but more laughter and joy than I could ever have hoped for. 

Happy Wedding Anniversary!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Coco Pops effect

We have a family tradition that when it is your birthday, you can choose a new breakfast cereal to have.

This doesn't sound like much of a treat, I know, but it truly is something to look forward to. The rest of the year we eat Weetabix. Or Cornflakes, Rice Crispies, Muesli or Bran Flakes. Nothing very exciting; high in fibre and (most importantly) low in chocolate and sugar.

Once a year, we each get to choose Choco Hoops or Frosties or Coco Pops or Crunchy Nut or... blimey, I'm almost salivating at the thought!

So imagine the scene when my daughter came downstairs (late!) for breakfast and discovered an empty box. It had been her birthday: her choice. "What's happened to all the-?" she whined.

My son stopped with his spoon halfway to his mouth. We all knew the guilty culprit. Before I could say anything he said, "I'll go and sit at the bottom of the stairs."

And he did!

Now that's the most effective parental discipline I've had for a long time!

Monday, 14 November 2011

Five things I've noticed in editing my book

This is at least my fourth complete edit of my book, In the shade of the Mulberry Tree, which tells the first year of my family's adventures living in Zambia. Every time I finish I think, 'Great! It's ready!' Then I find more things to correct and re-write. Is an author's work ever truly complete? Here are some things that have astonished me about my writing this time.
  1. Though I pride myself in my correct use of grammar (I blame years of repetitive practice at primary school), there was a run of chapters where I repeatedly used its incorrectly. Its = belongs to it; It's = It is or it has. I know this...but there are gaps between knowledge and application...
  2. I have a propensity to write sentences without verbs. So, not really sentences at all, I suppose.
  3. Certain words repeat many times. I removed a lot of 'somewhat's before this edit; now I have replaced a lot of showing with revealing. Sadly, I don't think I've managed to squeeze the word indubitably in anywhere.
  4. I write a lot of lists with no 'and' to hold them together. Lovely commas, no conjunctive.
  5. There is no room for sentimentality. I cut 1000 words by just hitting the delete button, but I'd really enjoyed writing that chapter! I would just like the Broccoli family to know that if any James Bond film hits our screens which is set in Zambia, my husband and I retain the copyright. (Or at least the bottle of wine that created such a fantastic film!)

And so, to end. My final chapter ought to be an epilogue. But then my penultimate chapter would be my final chapter and it has a really miserable ending. My final edit stage is to split the final chapter into two: a new final chapter and an epilogue. I hope it works!

Then edits done, all I need to do is send it off to publishers or agents. As a meerkat might say, 'Simples!'

(Oh, the irony: blogger spellcheck wants to correct meerkat to market...!)

Monday, 7 November 2011

In which I notice a big change

Sometimes you know that the season has changed.

It could be the colours of the leaves on the tree: the bright green buds of spring or the russets of autumn. 

It could be the produce of the land: glorious flowers in the summer or barren earth in winter.

It could be the TV schedule: the return of Strictly, X-factor and Merlin from September or the plethora of sport in June and July.

Or you could be me. 
I know that winter is coming. 

Today I had to wear socks.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Water for Elephants

Writing Wednesday

There are some books I look at and want to read immediately. Their cover attracts; the blurb on the back entices; the title is intriguing. None of this applied to Water for Elephants. The cover is ok, but not spectacular. The story is to be about a man who found love when he jumped on a circus train, and I have no particular interest in circuses. The title has most intrigue, but is not sufficient on its own.

Here lies the benefit of a book group. Being 'forced' to read the book was the only way I would pick it up. And it was magnificent.

Water for Elephants is a novel about Jacob Jankowski, a Polish American who is orphaned just as he is about to complete vet school. Penniless and confused, he jumps a freight train in the dark, to find he is on a circus train. By the end of the next day he has a job with Benzini Brothers and has fallen in love. Neither is straightforward.

Sara Gruen clearly spent a lot of time researching the details of circuses in the depression era and her efforts paid off. Her descriptions were light yet alive: I could feel myself on the train, against the horse blanket, being chased by mobs, feeding the animals. The whole circus atmosphere was realistically portrayed, showing the outward glamour and the behind-the-scenes chaos and rivalries.

It is a love story; but it is so much more. The circus is the majority of the book, but in flashback, being told by a 93-year-old man from his nursing home. One of the cleverest aspects of the book was the ability to intertwine these two stories, using the characters of Rosie and Rosemary, to have the contrast of keeping animals and keeping old people, and to call for the vet or the doctor.

I have not seen the film, though others at my book group had and said the book was better. The writing incorporates different levels of personalities and administration within the circus and, as I said above, it is much more than a love story. It is an expedition into the life of a second-rate circus in 1930s America.

If you wish to find out more about the book you can visit Sara Gruen's website. I would thoroughly recommend reading it!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Autumn clean

It is half-term and the bookshelves are full to over-flowing, so indeed it is time for a tidy up.

We started in my daughter's room, principally because all her books and belongings were spread on the floor rather than in any shelves/baskets/drawers that may be available. It took several hours, in two sessions, but finally we have bottomed the room.

"What's this?" I would say, picking up another piece of tat.

"It's J's" she said, referring to a friend that stayed a few months ago.

"Where did you get this from?" I asked.

"J left it," she replied.

"How come you have a water bottle up here?"
"Whose is this hairbrush?"
"Is that headband...?"

"J's," she replied...repeatedly.

It would appear that her friend left more stuff behind than she took with her. And that her mum hasn't been missing it enough to ask for it back...!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Malaria marvels

I never wanted to move to Africa. As I sat in my terraced house in London, all I could think about, cradling my 7 month old baby or chasing after my two-year-old toddler, was the risk of malaria. Malaria kills. One bite from the wrong mosquito and it could be all over. The prospect of that happening to one of my children, and not noticing it in time, was terrifying.

In practice, Lusaka was largely malaria free, with the greatest risk during the rainy season (November to March) and our awareness of the symptoms meant at the first sign of fever there was a rush to be tested. We had a few dashes to the clinic for what turned out to be nothing more than a cold. By the time a test came through positive I had been there four years, my son was now six and it all was a lot more manageable. (Don't misunderstand me: I was terrified for my boy, had sleepless nights and cried a lot, but it didn't make me rush for the first plane home.)

Malaria is a killer disease and millions die of it every year. It has been said that the mosquito is man's greatest enemy because of this threat (and that of other diseases). Across the world efforts are being made to eradicate the disease. There has been talk of breeding sterile mosquitoes and work persists in trying to find a vaccine. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been supplying millions of mosquito nets impregnated with insecticide. These are a first line of defence: if no-one is bitten by mosquitoes then the malaria cannot be sucked in by the insect and pushed out into the fresh blood of the next victim. Admittedly, there are many tales of the nets being used by locals as fishing nets rather than over their beds, but a saturated market must provide some level of resistance.

The fight goes on because we know the disease to be both treatable and preventable. No-one need die of it and simple measures can prevent its spread. A few months ago I shared this video with you - a marvellous piece of public education for the people of the Congo.

But the best news of all came this week: in the last decade worldwide incidences of malaria have decreased by 20%. A reduction of one fifth. Many, many millions of lives saved, quite probably most of them being children. Malaria is the largest cause of death in the under 5s, killing one child every 30 seconds. It is still prevalant in sub-saharan Africa (85% of cases) yet progress is being made. Although endemic in 108 countries, since 2007 it has been eradicated from Morocco, Turkmenistan and Armenia.

I hope that one day a vaccine will be found and this killer disease can be eradicated. In the meantime, let's celebrate the steps forward that we are making. Every life is valuable and every life saved is invaluable.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Apples everywhere!

The only problem with modern Harvest Festival services is that we don't bring our own fresh produce any more. Instead, we bring tins and long-term food that a local soup kitchen/homelessness project/charity can use. Don't get me wrong: this is clearly a good thing, and I gladly give what I can.

But - it doesn't help me get rid of my glut of Bramley apples.

We are a little fed up of stewed apples. Our freezer is full. There's only so much apple crumble a family can stomach. And apple pie involves the major problem that (according to my husband) I don't make it like his mother does.

So yesterday afternoon was spent making chutney.

Firstly I made beetroot, ginger and apple chutney (as we'd had beetroot in the veg box this week).

It is a glorious deep pink colour and the ginger was a wonderful smell.

Then I made three times the recipe quantity of Spiced Apple Chutney.

Principally apples, onions and raisins, together with the (nearly) out-of-date dates and a huge pile of spices - coriander, paprika, mixed spice, more ginger and chilli flakes (as I didn't have enough of the other spices per the recipe). I'm glad I didn't put in the full spice quotient as it is quite hot enough as it is!

After bubbling away for hours on the Aga, then being bottled, this morning I am greeted with this:

Not only do have a delicious lunch to look forward to, but there's plenty of Spiced Apple Chutney presents coming this Christmas!

Now, to enter The Pink Whisk October Challenge I need to give you the recipes.
All I have learnt about making chutney is that you can be very fluid with your adherence to the recipe. Keep the basic proportions of 'dry' ingredients (why apples are referred to as dry I don't know!) to vinegar the same and any combination of fruit and spices can be made. For completeness:

Beetroot & Ginger Chutney 
A Nigella Lawson special!

500g/1lb 2oz fresh beetroot, peeled and finely chopped
1kg/2lb 2oz cooking apples, peeled, quartered, cored, roughly chopped
275g/10oz red onion, finely chopped
2.5cm/1in piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
75g/2.5oz crystallised stem ginger, finely chopped
350g/12oz soft light brown suger
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground allspice
750ml/1pint 7fl oz red wine vinegar

The only change I made to this recipe was put some of the stem ginger syrup in as well as the vinegar.

Put all the ingredients into a large pan, in the order shown above. Stir to mix well.
Bring to the boil, then simmer for approximately an hour until beetroot pieces are tender, stirring occasionally to prevent it sticking.
Spoon into sterilised jars, seal and cool.

Keep refrigerated and use within four weeks (if it will last that long!).

Spiced Apple Chutney (remember: I made 3x this recipe from the BBC website!)

225g/8oz onions, chopped
900g/2lb apples, cored and chopped
110g/4oz sultanas, raisins or chopped dates
340g/12oz granulated sugar

Spices were - to my mind - excessive in the website recipe. I probably added a total of 60g of coriander, paprika and mixed spice (mainly coriander), a generous tablespoon of salt, a tablespoon of dried chilli flakes and an inch of freshly grated ginger. Divide that by three to be in proportion to the dry ingredients above!

425ml/3/4 pint malt vinegar.

Put all the ingredients in a big pan. Bring to the boil until the sugar has dissolved. Then let it simmer for 1.5-2 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent it sticking to the pan.
When very thick, bottle into sterilised jars. Seal and cool.

It is recommended to leave it for 2-3 months before eating, ideally in a dark place.

Hope you enjoy!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011


Writing Wednesday
It took me a week, but eventually I opened the package that I knew to be my book In the Shade of the Mulberry Tree to review the edits. Letting a completely independent person read my writing is quite scary, particularly as she was to criticise and correct it.

Thankfully, it is not too bad. She has found spelling errors and typos. And she has made suggestions for re-phrasing, most of which make total sense. And she has pointed out inconsistencies, which require a lot more thinking about but need to be resolved. As it is a memoir of our time in Zambia I know exactly where I was and when, but I don't always write it down as clearly as it is in my mind!

So I bravely set to. One thing she noted was that I sometimes wrote 'ok', sometimes 'okay', and sometimes 'OK'. Apparently I should always do the latter.

'No problem!' I thought. 'Find and Replace!' Word has its merits.

Do you know how many words there are in my book with 'ok' in? Here they are:

  • look, looks, looking (I do an awful lot of this)
  • book (I read them)
  • cook, cooker (half a chapter on the need for a cooker)
  • guidebook, handbook (we travelled around)
  • joke, jokes, joking (we laugh)
  • woken, woke (I had two children under the age of 3...)
  • broke, broken (I had two children under the age of 3...)
  • brook (only one)
  • took (travel with things)
  • coke (diet or otherwise)
  • smoke, smoky (unrelated to the coke above)
  • shook (fear: have you got close to a crocodile?)
  • hook, hooks, Hook (Bridge)
  • bespoke (we needed furniture)

I might have been quicker reading the whole book again, particularly as I still have to go through it for all the other edits.

Still, I have gone through five chapters in detail ... only 34 to go. (Hasten to add: They are short chapters - this is not some epic tome that will exhaust you by looking at it!)

It loOKs as if my boOk will be OK - oh, darn that Find and Replace tool!

Monday, 26 September 2011

No news is good news?

It isn't very often that Africa hits the news, unless there is political unrest (Libya, Tunisia, Egypt) or famine (Ethiopia, Somalia, Niger) or violence (Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa).

One of the many reasons we loved living in Zambia was that it was such a peaceful country. It has made the transition from colony to independent state with little in the way of unrest. Black and white live - for the most part - happily side-by-side. And despite being landlocked, and bordering countries such as Angola, Zimbabwe and the DRC (formerly Zaire), has not been involved in international disputes.

Five years ago I was living there on my own with my children when the elections took place. The ruling president at the time, Levy Mwanawasa, was seeking his second term in power and his party, the MMD, won. There were many accusations of electoral malpractice, of fiddling the results, of ballot boxes being rigged with predetermined votes, but the Electoral Commision for Zambia (ECZ) declared the vote true and fair, and President Mwanawasa duly re-elected.

The MMD had been in power since 1991, when multi-party democracy came to Zambia, ending Kenneth Kaunda's long term in power since independence in 1964. Leaders are now only allowed two terms (like American presidents) and - so far! - this has been maintained and upheld, despite some candidates best efforts.

In the 2006 elections there was interest in the Patriotic Front (PF) and its leader, Michael Sata. He had served under Kaunda and Chiluba, but disillusioned set up his own party. It had a growing following. Prior to the election he made wild claims against Chinese investment in the mines (their treatment of their employees' safety was questionable) and in support of Mugabe's attitude to white farmers in Zimbabwe. As a white guest in Zambia it was concerning rhetoric. In a couple of townships in the capital, Lusaka, there was some unrest when it became clear that Sata had lost the elections and for a couple of days we just stayed home, to be on the safe side.

Levy Mwanawasa died in 2008, after we had left Zambia, replaced (after another election) by Rupiah Banda, also of the MMD. He only beat Sata by 35,000 votes.

Levy Mwanawasa              Rupiah Banda

Last week the tables were turned, and Sata was voted in as the fifth President of Zambia for a 5 year term.

Banda gave an emotional but gracious speech of resignation, Sata was sworn in last Friday afternoon, and a new era in Zambian politics will ensue. I cannot tell what he will bring to the country but the handover has been swift, smooth and (for the most part) without violence. (There was some unrest in the Copperbelt towns as they waited for the results, which took over two days.) Indeed, since the declarations, there have been celebrations and partying by PF supporters joyful in victory.

As with every new head of state, Sata is promising much that is good: investment, peace, prosperity, reducing government size, tackling corruption. I hope and pray his actions will live up to his words.

This doesn't hit our UK headlines. There was minimal violence, no great upsets, generosity in defeat, a lack of vitriol, no white or British people were attacked or killed. For us, it is not news.

But on an African scale, a free and fair election with a peaceful handover to an opposition party - surely that is great news?

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Writing Wednesday?

Instead of this...

Writing Wednesday

... today consisted of this:

Day 1 done and dusted.

Words will wait: today was spreadsheets.
Scarily enjoyable.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Breast-feeding in church

Yesterday's church service was a little unusual as our minister didn't produce a sermon but arranged us into groups to answer 5 questions instead. He didn't allow much time to answer, which for the first couple (Why do we need to meet with God? and Why do we need to come to church?) was fine. Nevertheless, the idea was that the grown-ups would answer the questions in ways that the children would understand.

My daughter was the sole child in our group and (if we're honest about it) she really wasn't very interested.

As the questions became more difficult to understand (How powerful is Jesus in your life since he was struck down? - I am above average intelligence but really, what does that mean?) ... she was more concerned about her doll.

So while the adults battled to answer the questions, she tended to her baby. He was cuddled, and shared, and talked about, and then breastfed.

I can categorically state that it is hard to have a serious conversation when your daughter has lifted up her T-shirt to feed her doll.

Baby was delicately held in the crook of her arm, maternal eyes gazing down lovingly at him.

And then she switched him to the other breast.

And when all was done, back to normal.

*head in hands*

*die of embarrassment*

**love my daughter more than words can say** 

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Dahl's Den on Dahl Day

Writing Wednesday
Roald Dahl was one of the greatest writers for children ever. His books are classics, books that I loved as a child and my children have loved reading in recent years. We have a set of five of them as talking books read by Roald Dahl himself, who has a glorious voice to listen to. Fantastic Mr Fox got us through some extrememely late and slightly hair-raising driving to our holiday in Wales this summer.

Dahl is a national treasure, a great talent of whom we should be proud. His shed where he did all his writing has not been touched since his death in 1990. Due to a back injury during the war he was unable to write at a desk so all his works were penned (or rather, pencilled) from his armchair with an adapted writing board. All around the small hut are treasures that tell of his writing life - pictures and ornaments, special paper shipped in from the US, the ashtray and cigarette butts.

Can a place ooze creativity? Just looking at the pictures of it make me feel warm, as if any moment there could be another masterpiece emerging from its depths. It feels comfortable, exciting, inspiring. (Although I bet it was terribly cold in winter!)

Yesterday an appeal was announced for £500,000 to cover the costs of moving Roald Dahl's writing shed to the Roald Dahl museum in Great Missenden. This has caused a furore! Why should the public fund the shed's removal in these times of austerity when the Dahl family are so wealthy (and particular attention has been drawn to his granddaughter Sophie, a millionaire in her own right)? Given that Puffin sold one Dahl book every 5 seconds last year these arguments have weight. By my calculations, if each book gave 50p of royalty that amounts to £3,153,600, which ought to cover the preservation costs and still leave enough for his widow to live off. (And that excludes any film or other royalties!)

I am delighted that such a treasure is to be saved for the public. I hope and trust that many children (and adults) will be inspired by the room, just as Dahl was, and that further classics will emerge. The Dahl family's PR may have shot itself in the foot, but we should all enjoy this little piece of our collective history. If we can save the house that John Lennon or Paul McCartney grew up in, then we ought to be able to save Dahl's Den too.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Book art sculpture

Book lovers, you just have to see this: mysterious paper sculptures

These works of art have appeared all over Edinburgh in recent months, and it seems that no-one knows who has made them.

I think my favourite is this one:

Although it may be this one...

(After all - this has tea and cake - what more can a girl ask for?)

Friday, 9 September 2011

No more maternity leave!

This is the big news, alluded to in the last post. After nearly eleven years, my UK maternity leave is about to end.

I have an accountancy job, due to start in about a fortnight.

Eleven years since I walked out of the office in London, so pregnant with my boy that I didn't think I'd make it through another month end. I remember clearly spending the last six weeks BC (before child) watching (a) massive storms and floods across the UK and then (b) Bush being elected, and the tension over the Florida vote and missing chavs. It seems an age ago!

There are several good things about my new job.

  1. It is part-time: two half-days to fit in with school hours. 
  2. I don't have to work any school holidays. 
  3. I'm going to be paid. (This is quite an exciting development after four years of being a SAHM!)

Of course, every upside has a downside. What the heck is corporation tax now? (And other such panicky questions about rusty accountancy knowledge!)

I do know that I have landed on my feet. The offer came completely out of the blue and I feel most grateful to get anything so flexible and appropriate for my family's circumstances when there are many struggling to get - or keep - a job at all. I know my fears will recede after a week or two, when I've got back into the swing of things.

In the meantime ... time to pick up those accountancy magazines ...

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Ten thousand thank-yous

I've had a bit of a blog-block this last week. The end of the summer holidays and a phenomenally enjoyable time with my children and the blog just seemed of little importance.

Today they returned to school; and I returned to my routine; and the blog-block is broken.

And why? Principally because I have the time to have a nose around, find out what is happening in the world, discover new things.

Firstly, I found my last post had been highlighted in the Tots100 Best of Mummy Blogs 10 at 10 ten days ago - wow! (There's a lot of tens in that sentence - just wait: there's another ten coming... with more zeros!) Carol's recommendation gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside - someone likes my blog! Even the silly tales of my children, or our family travels, or the tentative dipping of toes into the murky world of writing books.

And I've just found out that this blog has had over ten thousand page views since it started. Ten and lots of zeros! 10,000! How did that happen? Can that many people be interested in my ramblings?

Thank you, thank you, so much! Your viewings and your comments make it all worthwhile.

And just to tease and tantalise you (now that phrase is bound to get me some more page views!) there is news afoot in the Withenay household: major changes ... but nothing definite until the end of this week. Hopefully.

So now you'll have to come back and find out more! How long to twenty thousand?!

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Can there be anyone nicer than me?

I was chatting with my son and I tell him a story about how, in one of our many house moves, I managed to dispose of something my husband made before we got married. I'd never really liked it, it was too big and damaged and... well, you get the picture.

Filled with a rush of remorse and guilt I declare, "Oh, when you get married, make sure you choose someone nicer than your mother!"

"Easy peasy," he says, walking off with a smile.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A mighty inheritance

"Dad," my son says, "why do you always use that glass?"

My husband looks at it carefully. "It's mine," he responds. "I like it. I've had it a long time and it is just the right size for my drink."

My son takes all this in, sagely nodding his head.

"Will you leave it to me in your Will?" he asks.

Somewhat taken aback, my husband replies, with a smile, "Of course. When I get round to writing my next Will I will leave it for you. But if I don't, then consider it yours regardless."

This is the glass:

Isn't it funny what children think important?

Saturday, 13 August 2011

An ulterior motive?

Last night I picked up the book my husband - the doctor - gave me for my birthday.

So much for that by Lionel Shriver (most famous for the Orange Prize winner We need to talk about Kevin, which I loved in a scary, lots of sleepless nights kind of fashion) has been sitting by the bedside for several months and I finally thought I had enough time to read it. It is quite thick (531 pages - I've just checked) so it isn't necessarily a light read for the beach.

I read the back cover. It mentions Africa, retiring to Tanzania. Interesting, I think.

It revolves around the question: how much is one life worth? Interesting, I think.

The Literary Review states: "British readers will close this excellent novel feeling grateful for the NHS."

Ah. So that's why my husband thought I should read it...

Sunday, 31 July 2011

I am not tired and I will not go to bed!

So, it is late. The children have been put to bed, stories read and sleep beckons.

I decide to have a bath - my husband's still not home from work, so I figure I could take my time, read a book, relax.

All seems right with the world.

After a while, who appears at the door but my Son, clinging to his teddies, rubbing his eyes, hair all askew.

"I can't get to sleep," he says. "I've tried every position possible on my bed."

Now, I'm not feeling very sympathetic (it is late, he's clearly tired - just sleep!!) He's interrupted my novel and I'm a little vulnerable, being as I am in the bath. And I don't really want to have to get out to deal with him. This is my justification for my next, fatuous remark.

"Have you tried sleeping on your head?"

It does stop him in his tracks.

"No," he says, looking at me as if I am mad. Perhaps I am.

"It's probably not a very good idea," I say. "After all, when you do fall asleep, you'll just fall down and that will probably wake you up and you'll be back to square one."

He laughs, in that way children do when they know their parents are both right and completely bonkers. And with that he sits down on the bathroom floor with his teddies. Then he lies down on the bath mat.

I figure, if he can't sleep, a few minutes lying on my tiled bathroom floor won't make any difference. I'll finish my chapter then deal with him. But I don't get to the end of my chapter before my next interruption: my husband comes home from work.

He walks in, grins at me, then gawps at my Son. At this point I sit up and take notice. Peering over the edge, I see him in all his childlike glory: fast asleep. For a mother, I suspect, there is nothing more beautiful than their children in peaceful repose, clutching their teddies or dolls, far away in the land of nod.

But he is on my bathmat, and I do have to get out of the bath sometime. Reluctantly we wake him and take him to bed. This time, thankfully, he falls asleep quickly in the proper place (head on pillow!)

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Thick skin

Writing Wednesday
I have often read that a writer needs thick skin. The battle to get published is a long and arduous one (well, for most of us, who don't already have a famous name to sell the book). Many, many writers have their world-famous writing rejected by publishers 20, 30, 40 times before success comes. Even when a book is published, there are reviewers out there and (heaven knows why!) some of them won't like the book. More criticism, more seemingly personal attacks.

Thick skin is not something I am famous for. I take far too much as a personal insult and, if hit with a criticism at a low point, can be utterly miserable for days. Unfortunately this fear can also be prohibitive: it stops me doing things for fear of failure, of comments that I won't be able to bear.

It is part of why sending my book to publishers and agents is yet to be done in earnest. I know that I need to be in the right frame of mind, so that I can accept the rejection letters in good grace, to receive any comments not as criticism but as constructive advice. (Cowardice is another word for the lack of action, but I prefer to think of it in more positive light!)

In the shade of the mulberry tree is currently with an editor for her comments. I am braced for its return, covered in red ink like a school essay. Yesterday I thought, 'It would be nice to have that back before I go on holiday, then I can look through it whilst I'm away.' Then I thought again. 'I don't want to ruin my holiday. I hope it comes back in a few weeks' time.' The latter is more likely; September's looking bleak.

I have also learnt that writers should ignore what their friends and family say about their books. F&F have no real idea whether it is good or not and are always more positive than the archetypal publisher/agent. This advice has made me most wary of my writing group, who always praise my writing. They get a further chapter each time we meet, and some ladies say they come just to hear the next installment. Fantastic! But are they the best critics? Probably not. Then again, in a break from tradition, last time I read them a short story I had written. That got thoroughly slated (and rightly so: it didn't really have a story, which is a clear drawback!)

Give my husband a chapter of my book and it comes back covered in suggestions and re-writes. Is he too critical? Is he writing it for himself? (He has admitted that sometimes he has different memories and wants to write it from his view instead!) Most interestingly, he usually simplifies the language. He would probably cut archetypal from the sentence above, but sorry - I like it - so it's staying!

Thick skin: that is what is needed. I'm developing it slowly and perhaps, when I've evolved from mouse to crocodile, I'll be able to cope.

Then again, at that stage I might just eat all the critics up!


During the summer holidays Writing Wednesday and other blog posts will be even more randomly timed than usual. Please bear with me! Normal service will resume in September.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Book Review: Coming back to me

Writing Wednesday

I was quite wary about starting to read Marcus Trescothick's autobiography Coming back to me.  It chronicles not only his lifelong love of cricket and his professional achievements, but also his struggles with depression and the impact it has had on his career and family life. It has had wonderful reviews, awarded the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2008, so it had to have a quality worth reading.

As a cricket lover, the first part was not a great worry, although I have little interest in Somerset as a team, nor (to be fair) in Marcus's achievements, amazing though they were. And, if you don't have an interest in cricket then I would recommend skipping most of the book. Trescothick was (still is, I guess!) one of England's greatest ever opening batsmen. He scored prolifically and sometimes easily against the most feared bowlers in the world. He was part of the 2005 Ashes team that beat the Australians under Vaughan's captaincy. My only criticism of the book is that I struggled to follow exactly which year I was in, as a plethora of matches (county and country) were rattled through.

But what worried me about reading it was his admission of and reactions to depression. Yet that was also the prime reason for picking up the book. In my teenage years I watched both my parents suffer from depression, my mother to a level that hospitalised her for several weeks, and at university age another close family member was close to taking their life. Knowing what it is like as an observer, living with the highs and lows, made me wonder if I could really read what this brave man had been through.

Marcus set out in detail the steps leading to his breakdown - the pressures of being on tour for months on end and his evident love of his wife and daughters. He also writes about how afraid he was of going public, a chapter entitled 'The Lie' when he was interviewed and only told part of the story. But when he had a few more months to come to terms with the illness he recognised that the only way to explain his absence from international trips was by admitting to his problems. He did make one more failed attempt to play overseas, but didn't get further than Dixon's at Heathrow. The crippling anxiety attacks and fearful separation from his family were too much. England's best batsman is never to play international cricket again.

Depression is a dreadful illness, coming in many forms. Marcus' strength of character to write about his experiences will undoubtedly help many others to be open and honest about their own situations. Despite my concerns, I was eagerly turning the pages, willing his illness to vanish as much as he had. It is not a book for a non-cricket-lover, but anyone with concerns about mental health should read this for Marcus's openness, honesty and candour. As a Yorkshire lass I have problems with his prowess for Somerset, but huge admiration for him as a man.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Something funny happened in the car park

So, there I am, chatting with my friend.

I hear my son sigh just by typing that sentence. He was at school, so not a witness to this event. I'd only popped to the shops to drop off some dry-cleaning and my friend happened to be doing something similar, and the sun was shining, and we just stopped to chat. Just next to my car. Nothing important, nothing to write home about.

Anyway, as we are chatting I notice the car opposite beginning to reverse.

Fine. It was reversing towards us.

Also fine.

Except it kept going. Slowly, but nevertheless in our direction.

As we realised it was about to hit us several things happened.

1  We each took a step out of the way (really, we are quite intelligent women!)

2  My friend, who was more in the firing line so-to-speak, hit the back of the car to indicate to the driver that he/she should stop - quickly - before hitting the car next to mine.

3  I looked to tap the driver's window and screamed, "Aaargh!!! There's no-one in it!"

The car was driving itself. Or, more accurately, rolling gently.

Thankfully the incline in the car-park is negligible so it just rolled to a halt without hitting anything or anyone.

But it was now in our way. (Well, mine. I was, despite my protracted conversation, about to leave and a rogue car blocking my exit was not in my plan.)

We stood there and scratched our heads for a while. We got abuse from drivers entering the car-park for being 'women drivers' - this really riled me. It was not my car, I was not responsible, I was having to delay my departure as we worked out what to do. I didn't need prejudicial assumptions laid at my feet.

The long part of the story is that we went to the local row of shops to see whose car it was and get messages put out on the tannoy. The shorter part is that we noticed a poster in the back of the car and rang the number - and got the owner (who was in one of the shops, but ignoring our dash around pleading for them to move their car!)

Irritatingly (given the verbal abuse I'd taken) it was a woman who hadn't put on the handbrake.

All's well that ends well. How and why the car started moving I have no idea. No-one was hurt, no damage done. The poor woman who rushed back in a fluster was about to get teased mercilessly by her accompanying husband.

And I left with a delightful and slightly bewildering tale to tell.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

In the beginning

Writing Wednesday

All the thinking about first lines last week reminded me of a moment when I had one up on my father. When it comes to words and knowledge and classics this is a rarity, which is why it stuck in my head and makes me smile every time.

My father has a degree in classics. This is important to remember. I don't. I did have an enthusiastic English teacher who spent a couple of lessons teaching us some basic Latin to help us in our comprehension of words (such as circum = around, thus circumference, circumnavigate, etc.) ... but my knowledge is severely limited.

On one occasion he visited me at university and we were walking past St Mary's Quad on our way to lunch. In the wrought iron of the archway into the quad are the words:

In principio erat verbum

"Ah!" my father said, "Genesis 1.1."

I stopped and looked at it. Genesis does indeed begin In the beginning... but continues God created the heavens and the earth.

My translation was In the beginning was the word. Verbum - surely this was like verb and thus word rather than creating heaven and earth? And if so...

"Or perhaps John 1.1?" I ventured.

My father looked at it again, gave a small grunt of agreement and walked on. I grinned and followed. (I was a student; he was paying for lunch. There was only so much gloating I could do.)


And now for the answers from last week.

1      It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Jane Austin - Pride and Prejudice
2      It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Charles Dickens - A Tale of Two Cities
3      Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. J K Rowling - The Philosopher's Stone
4      All children, except one, grow up. J M Barrie - Peter Pan
5      Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays. Arthur Ransome - Swallows and Amazons

Not the most obscure, and only one that I've not read. One day - I promise myself - I really will read a book by Dickens. Just not today...

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

It was a dark and stormy night...

Writing Wednesday

The first sentence of a story is probably the most difficult to write. It has so much hanging on it. It needs to hook the reader, draw them in, encourage them to buy the book. It needs to set up the story, provide intrigue and raise questions. It can’t be too long; to short, and it won’t reel you in.

I heard Tim Key's Suspended Sentence yesterday on Radio 4 which prompted these thoughts. The comedian and poet was postulating writing his first novel and knew he had to start with the opening line (an error in novel-writing in my opinion, as that is the sentence that is most likely to change a myriad number of times). It was all a little tongue in cheek, but his discussions with experts show how difficult writing this opening sentence can be. You can listen to the programme yourself here.

I had previously learnt one rule about first sentences: Don’t start by talking about the weather. I suspect that is a good rule for beginning any conversation with a stranger (although being British the weather is something I am well-trained in talking about). The infamous start “It was a dark and stormy night …” from the 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton has precluded any of us from ever touching on the weather again. There is a competition named after him for writing the ‘opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels’ with thousands of entrants every year.

Hopefully, not mine. Here is the first line of my book In the shade of the Mulberry Tree:

We take a sharp left-turn through a gap in the hedge, avoid the ditch, and pull up in front of a wall.

At least I’ve not mentioned the weather. Could it have the same impact as these, more famous, openers?

1      It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
2      It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
3      Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
4      All children, except one, grow up.
5      Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays.

I can begin to grasp why these lines work. I am already asking questions, picturing the scene, wondering why this statement is important to the rest of the book. 
Is a rich man in need of a wife? 
How can it be both best and worst of times? 
I can picture Mrs Dursley – prima and proper – saying, ‘Thank you very much’ in her clipped Southern English tones. 
Which child didn’t grow up (and why)?
And Roger? Well, I’m running with him, free from the constraints of everyday life and loving my childhood holidays.

What draws you in to reading a book?

If you wish to have a guess at these first lines, do so in the comments. I promise the answers next week! 

Saturday, 2 July 2011


Early morning, and I go into my daughter's room to wake her. I find her sat on her bed, motionless, morose. Rather than my usual chirpy morning routine I am flooded with concern. Something must be wrong.

"Are you ok?" I ask.

"I've lost Doris," she croaks.

I'm not sure I've heard her correctly. "I beg your pardon?"

"I've lost Doris."

Presumably Doris is one of the vast array of dolls and soft toys that take over the bed. It isn't a name I recall but I could name most of the ones I can see, so maybe she is lost.

"Doris?" I query.

Her voice is fading, hoarse and raspy. "My card," she explains.

A light switches on. All becomes clear in my mind as I remember the Moshi Monster cards that are so precious to her and the joy of the previous day's acquisition.

She looks at me, all forlorn, for her world is falling apart.

"And I've lost my voice," she whispers and bursts into tears.

Why is it, at these tender moments, all I want to do is laugh?

(For info, both Doris and voice have been recovered!)

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

An Awfully Big Blog Adventure Online Literary Festival

Writing Wednesday

This week, I must encourage you to plan for this:


This is a festival of 40 children's book writers blogging every half-hour over the weekend. Writers include Adele Geras, Mary Hoffman, Liz Kessler, Celia Rees and Nicola Morgan.

It promises to be a literary treat - and there are rumours of prizes and giveaways galore!

Mark it in your diary to go over and have a peek.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Frederic Chiluba

(c) The Post Newspaper, Zambia
Yesterday, Frederic Chiluba, second president of Zambia, was laid to rest. He died just over a week ago at his house in Kabulonga, Lusaka (not far from where we used to live). It is not confirmed but suspected that it was from a heart attack.

Chiluba came to power in 1991 after Kenneth Kaunda was persuaded (in the face of protests) to allow multi-party democracy. KK had been President since independence in 1964 and there were great hopes and expectations from President Chiluba. By all accounts he quickly brought some stability to the country and government which may have saved Zambia from implosion. He also encouraged foreign investment in Zambia.

But they say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Chiluba sought to change the constitution to allow a third term in power, but this was defeated. Nevertheless, his protogee, Levy Mwanawasa, was elected in 2001 who, presumably to Chiluba's surprise, tried to eliminate (well, at least reduce) the corruption in the country. A large part of that was prosecuting Chiluba. They lost after 6 years of court cases in Zambia, but won a case in London (although the multi-million dollar fine was never enforced in Zambia).

It is hard to know what to say about Chiluba. Corruption is endemic in Africa, and Zambia is no exception. When we were living there the latest list of 'most corrupt nations' came out and we celebrated the increase from 9th to 11th most corrupt within the year. Not the most glorious of matters to celebrate! Yet stories abounded about Chiluba. Allegedly, when he was voted out, there was an entire container of Italian designer suits found which, he stated, had been bought entirely from his salary as President. Can that be true?

Whatever his record, he is only the second Zambian president to die (Levy Mwanawasa having died during his second term in office in 2008) and had a funeral like most of us expect: with family there, mourning the loss of a loved one. For Zambia, it is another milestone in its short history.

His detailed obituary is on the BBC here, and details about his funeral from a Zambian newspaper here

Friday, 24 June 2011

The one where I learnt new things

Family holidays actually force us to live together for a fortnight. In the humdrum routine of life, we pass by, rush around, seek our own space and generally only talk about what we need to. Holiday allows us to unwind and (sometimes) talk, and in so-doing we learn new things about each other. Here is what I have learnt.

... about my husband ...

He has a passion for fish finger sandwiches.
Where did that come from? Thirteen years of marriage and I discover that we have to experience this culinary delight. Supplemented by a healthy portion of chips and tomato ketchup, Sunday lunch was a whole new experience for us.

When he says he doesn't like slides, don't believe him. 
I spent half our time at Duinrell holding his glasses so that he could try all the water slides. And when he says he doesn't like all the thrill rides, don't believe that either. The water slides were of increasing intensity (dark, steep, fast) and then outside it was he who rushed to go with our son on the wildest rollercoasters. Meanwhile, my daughter and I watched, waited and munched our way through a packet of sweets.

... about my children ...

They actually get on very well.
All the months at home when they whinge and whine, tell takes, thump, hit, fight ... and yet on holiday they can quietly play cards together, help each other set out clock patience and invent new games between themselves. Something, somewhere, is actually working correctly in this dragging up of children.

... about myself ...

I get too tense going on holiday.
When my son said on day 3 that I was really unpleasant, I had to pull myself in check. The adaptation to a new place, the stress of having everything in place (food, car, the final night in an as yet unknown location) was making me tetchy and liable to snap. Son objected - and rightly so. I think - I hope! - I improved after that. We're still talking to each other at any rate!

... about the Dutch ...

They are, on average, the tallest people in the world.
Incredible fact I was told. In our flat, when I sat on the toilet my feet didn't touch the floor. It must have been like mountaineering for my children! They couldn't see in the mirrors at all and none of us attempted to get crockery or glasses from the top shelves. At the Space Expo, I had to lift the children up for them to see through the peepholes at the planets. There was one I couldn't see in myself. I consider my 5' 4" a fairly average height for a female so I don't think we can base this on my diminutive stature. What makes the Dutch so tall? Milk and dairy products? Sun and fresh air? Cycling? Who knows!

To end my holiday week blog, a childish joke. I don't know any about The Netherlands, but I do know one about cows and, given their export of the black and white friesian cow to the rest of the world, it is a small tribute to one of their greatest (and smelliest) assets. (And my children taught me it, of course.)

Why do cows wear bells?
Because their horns don't work.

Photo: (c) The University of Waikato 

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The one with the graffiti and moonwalk

Little did I know, when I set off on holiday, that the place we were staying was known for its graffiti culture.

Graffiti is illegal and in order to limit the amount around town a 32m long wall was built, known as the 'Wall of Fame'. This is re-painted every year by a collective of graffiti artists known as 'Ga legaal' and is next to a similarly vibrantly decorated skateboard park. Other art is produced around town during certain festivals and for special occasions - and it would be fair to say I saw very little evidence of graffiti anywhere other than by this skateboard park.

Sometimes I am astonished by how life all comes together, particularly when I don't plan it at all. This term my son's topic at school is "Cool stuff" and they started by looking at (you've guessed it) graffiti. They have progressed through spies and onto skateboarding (this week's homework was to create a scale model of a ramp for a skateboard park: I think I made a jolly good job of it...!!)

 Personally I find graffiti a form of art, when it is not simply destructive, rude or obscene - or misspelt (that really bugs me!). So it was great to get a chance to walk around the graffiti centre and see some of the striking artwork.

Not to be outdone, my daughter's topic this term is "Space" ... and we found just out of town was the Space Expo. We spent a happy morning there spying on planets and satellites, the shuttle and the international space station.

It was far too high-brow for my 8-year old to do much more than enjoy the exhibits; and I found it quite depressing when a computer told me how much I would weigh if I stood on different moons and planets. The comparative weight wasn't the issue: what upset was seeing how much weight a holiday full of warme chocolademelk met slagroom can do to you!
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