Friday, 21 December 2012

Christmas preparations - at last!

Perhaps you have to finish work and school term in order to feel Christmassy.

Perhaps you have to finally buy the tree and buy the food from the shops.

Perhaps it simply needs to be the shortest day of the year.

Whatever it is, at long last my 'bah humbug' attitude to Christmas this year is waning and I am being sucked into the magic and mystery of the festive season. I have done my duties - school play, band concert, another band concert, nativity - and now I can relax into it all.

I'm more organised than some years. The Christmas Letter has been drafted but is awaiting my husband's edits before being sent out (yes, it will have to be an email now!) The presents that needed to be sent abroad have gone (yes, they will arrive late but better than not at all?) and the UK presents have been despatched too. In fact, if it weren't for my son's birthday tomorrow (such bad timing on our part!) it would all seem a lot more relaxed. Today's shopping trip was for a birthday cake which, oddly enough, is not what the shops are promoting at this time of year!

One thing I've not made or bought is a Christmas Cake. Below is a recipe my friend sent me, and might just be the one I follow...

Christmas Cake


* 2 cups flour
* 1 block butter
* 1 cup of water
* 1 tsp baking soda
* 1 cup of sugar
* 1 tsp salt
* 1 cup of brown sugar
* Lemon juice
* 4 large eggs
* Nuts
* 1 bottle wine
* 2 cups of dried fruit

Sample the wine to check quality. Take a large bowl, check the wine again. To be sure it is of the highest quality, pour one level cup and drink. Repeat. 

Turn on the electric mixer. Beat one cup of butter in a large fluffy bowl. Add one teaspoon of sugar. Beat again. At this point it's best to make sure the wine is still OK. Try another cup... Just in case. 

Turn off the mixerer thingy. Break 2 eggs and add to the bowl and chuck in the cup of dried fruit. Pick the frigging fruit up off floor. Mix on the turner.. If the fried druit gets stuck in the beaterers just pry it loose with a drewscriver. Sample the wine to check for tonsisticity. 

Next, sift two cups of salt. Or something. Check the wine. Now shift the lemon juice and strain your nuts. Add one table. Add a spoon of sugar, or some fink. Whatever you can find. Greash the oven. Turn the cake tin 360 degrees and try not to fall over. Don't forget to beat off the turner. 

Finally, throw the bowl through the window. Finish the wine and wipe counter with the cat.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The gay beaver

"How did the auditions go in drama?" I ask my son after school. The lunchtime drama group is planning a production of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

"Oh, fine," comes the typical disinterested response of an 11-year-old boy.

"Do you have a part?"

"Yeah. I'm an animal." (Nuff said!)

"Any particular animal?" I ask.

"Dunno," says my son, already practicing for his teenage years.

"And your friends?"

His face lights up. "Oh, one's a gay beaver!" he declares.

"A gay beaver?" I don't recall this character from my reading of the book.

"Yeah, there are two Mr Beaver's so we've decided he must be a gay beaver."

Not two children sharing one part then? 

Photo credit: Disney, "The Chronicles of Narnia"

Thursday, 29 November 2012

NaNoWriMo 2012: Celebrate or Sink without trace?

50,000 words is an awful lot of writing...but honestly, I knew that before I started.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a challenge to write a novel in a month - or, more accurately, 50,000 words in November. I am not writing a novel but a memoir of my family's time living in Zambia. I have already completed writing the first book (In the Shade of the Mulberry Tree) but I'd always held plans for a trilogy, so I thought I would take this opportunity to work on Book 2.

Above all, what I wanted to do with the month was to reinstate writing into my life. To that end I had a private target of 30,000 words, or 1000 words a day on average. Achievable? Possibly. But I have learnt some lessons along the way.

Here is what I have discovered in the last month:

1  I love writing. When the subject matter flows it is the most enjoyable discipline.

2  It also appears I love editing, as all I am wanting to do now is go over all my writing and correct it!

3  I can maintain the discipline of writing 1,667 words a day for two weeks, then it rather goes to pot. I have excuses, with matters that have occurred within the family and other commitments that I have to fulfill, but after working at it very hard for two weeks my brain was a little frazzled and all I really wanted to do was to have a rest. So I did. (For about a week, which is too long!)

4  It is easy to get distracted, even by your own writing. I have spent a happy hour or two (ahem!) looking up information about railways in Zambia, maps of road journeys we took, and tried (unsuccessfully) to find the book I had about President Mobutu of Zaire/the Democratic Republic of Congo.

5  It turns out I can type drivel for hours, if necessary. If you have a word count to aim for then I recommend throwing in every adverb and adjective you can think of. The quality of writing falls, but you get nearer the goal! (Some sentences are really good - honest!).

6  I am itching to put together all the oddments of writing that I have done for this second book, to lay them in some sort of coherent order and try to develop a storyline that is enticing. At the moment I have a series of stories, each interesting in their own right but they don't drive the reading of the book. A lot of printing and cutting, copying & pasting are in order!

6  Above all, I'd like to get In the Shade of the Mulberry Tree published. One of the many NaNoWriMo distractions was to write the blurb for the back cover of the book, which I am so excited about. I need to double check my manuscript and tighten up on the layout. It is all so nearly, nearly there... but needs time devoted to it for its completion.

So, after 27 days of writing as if my life depended on it I have stopped.

Technically, I am a NaNoWriMo failure.

But I know I'm not a failure. Although I would have loved to reach their 50,000 word target I had set myself a lower target which I have achieved! When I put my pen down (figuratively: actually I walked away from the keyboard) on Tuesday evening I had completed 30,158 words - slightly above my private target of 30,000! I am absolutely delighted with this.

Furthermore, I know that if I combine that with the 23,000 words or so that I have already written I am well on the way to completing a book. Given the amount of editing I know needs to be done (referred to in point 5 above) I suspect that I am about on target. There are a few stories to flesh out, and a few to reposition. It is all very exciting!

And - as if all that is not enough - I am very excited about the prospect of giving my blog a makeover, since little has changed on it for a long time. Keep an eye out for it!

More news will follow about the publishing of my first book In the Shade of the Mulberry Tree in the new year. I'm not so impractical as to expect that I can organise that before Christmas as well as everything else. All I have to do is look forward to that long, relaxing holiday over the festive season when I have nothing to do but sort out such matters... ahem!

In the meantime I'm off to open up a bottle of something to celebrate my November achievement. So, put on your glad rags and pick up a glass -  I cordially invite you all to raise the roof with me at my NaNoWriMo Celebration Party!

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Stopped mid-tracks!

It was a normal day, with my eleven-year-old son coming home from school just as I was finishing writing an email. He followed me up the stairs to go to his room to change, so I chatted as we walked.

"How was your day?"

"Oh, you know, fine," he replied. "Did some work, got a girlfriend..."

I spin round in astonishment.

"Gotcha!" he grins as he goes into his bedroom.

The swine!!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

My mother at 25

Actually, this is probably her at 22, just as she graduated, but it is the only adult photo I have of her from around that time.

Today is a sort of silver anniversary, 25 years since my mother died. When this photo was taken she had no idea that she was almost halfway through her life. She will have been full of hopes and expectations: career, husband, family. Twenty-five years ago my future felt less bright: everything thrown into confusion, as her cancer took over quite rapidly.

I remember so many details of that day: the early morning phone call, my father telling my sister and I, the very gloomy undertaker, going out to a play at school in the evening. I remember the visitors: my best friend's mum and her sister, my father's cousin and his wife, our minister from church. I remember it wasn't raining. I remember calling my godmother, and being allowed to sit on the table without being told off. I remember that my family watched 'Allo 'Allo, the episode with the joke about the candle with the handle. I remember that day better than I remember what happened yesterday.

It is a funny thing to think about, as no-one I am in daily contact with would have a clue about it; many wouldn't even dream that my mother would be dead at this age. Yet this evening I get a message from my best friend from school and I am reminded that my mother was not just important to me. My father, sister and I mark this date each in our own ways: this is mine. A brief recognition of a wonderful person whom I will always miss.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Dog days

Today our puppy (just turned 1) found a book at the bottom of the stairs and decided it was hers to chew and chomp.

That in itself is not uncommon for a dog her age. I remember that when I was 17 our puppy then chewed the bows off my lovely white shoes (honestly, they were fashionable at the time) I'd paid for them so it was a big issue!!

To date Poppy hasn't chewed much that we couldn't excuse. In fact, she'd only chewed one other book before.

So why is it the only books she chews are my bible study notes?!

Saturday, 10 November 2012


The other day I baked choc chip cookies - anything to take my mind off what I ought to be doing!

The recipe always makes a huge batch, depending slightly on how big I make them. Nevertheless, here are the cookies that went in the tin:

... and here are the cookies that I told my children we had:

Ah! The joys of being a parent!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Six days; 10,000 words

Writing Wednesday

I set myself the challenge and, after nearly a week, here I am in NaNoWriMo mode, typing away as often as I can to get the word count up. I must confess that the title reflects where I should be rather than where I am. For those who don't know, this is a writing challenge for the month of November, aiming to complete 50,000 words by the end of the month. The six days bit is right...

So what are the pros and cons (so far) of this adventure?

In its favour, it has certainly instilled a little writing discipline in my life. I sneak off to my desk whenever I can and I endeavour to write rather than watch something rubbish on television. (This is not strictly adhered to, as witnessed by my inertia when MasterChef was on last night.) The daily target - 1,667 words - is beneficial, as it can motivate me to keep going just a little longer. All too often I would have given up and had a cup of tea instead.

The writing itself is not of high quality and jumps about wildly from topic to topic. I've been a little stymied by needing to do some research about the places we visited in order to write. I wonder if writing a novel would be easier than a memoir in this regard: at least then you are making everything up in your head rather than searching for accuracy. Then again, even novels have to be placed accurately or they lose their resonance.

The downside is my fear that I ignore the children too much. That period after school when I should be encouraging them to do their homework or feeding them at least one of their 5-a-day is often squirrelled away by the computer instead. My husband gets an even worse deal: I just abandoned him to looking after them for hours at the weekend and he's lucky if his dinner is more than a sandwich!

From what I read Week 2 is the most difficult: it is the wall you have to go through. I anticipate loss of motivation and then despair and then giving up. But that is partly why I've set myself a lesser target than NaNoWriMo would like: to complete 1000 words per day.

And what have I achieved? As of last night, 9,439 words - about five hundred short of top target, but 50% more than my own. Perhaps it won't be so bad after all.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

NaNoWriMo: the writing dilemma

I haven't done Writing Wednesday for a long time for a simple reason: I haven't been doing much writing. It turns out that our summer (if I can be so bold as to call it that) sapped my mojo and it has been a struggle to kick it back into action. I can tell how drained I became as I was barely reading and that, I have to tell you, is practically a life crisis! I can't remember a time when I didn't love to lose myself in a book.

Yet I long to write. When we were canal boating back in May I spent hours at the tiller, chugging along the beautiful waterways, planning stories and phrases, plotting the outline to a chapter or coming up with the perfect description of the scenery I passed. As soon as I stopped: bam! It is gone! There may be some lessons to learn from this.

1  Always make notes as you think of ideas.
2  The pace of canal life is great for writing motivation.
3  Dry land is not so good.

Of course, the main factor is time. Work went a little crazy for a couple of months and my children are always a drain on resources. That is nothing compared to many writers, who scribble away at their masterpieces from the most time-pressured, child-infested lives possible. Perhaps I needed even more pressure in order to get going.

And so, I note that NaNoWriMo approaches. For those of you who are unaware of this phenomenon it is short for National Novel Writing Month - the month being November. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Now, I'll not go into the argument that 50,000 words does not constitute a novel, nor into the pros and cons of writing so intensively expecting publication by the end of December. No - instead I'll focus on the merits of getting into a writing habit. Or, in my case, back into it.

The challenge equates to 1,667 words per day (that allows me to stop at 1,657 on the last day - the mathematician within me insists on calculating, and saving, those extra 10 words). If I aimed for 2,000 every day that I could allow me 5 days off. Even if I achieved 1,000 per day I could be writing enough words to top up one of my partly written memoirs practically to book length. Then I could spend a happy Christmas editing (ahem!)

Can I do this to myself? More importantly, can I afford not to do this to myself? The challenge is out there. Perhaps I should just give it a whirl and see where I get.

Or else I should buy a narrowboat and become a hermit.

What do you think?

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Car Story, Part II: ...and In with the New

After the month that it has taken to get our old car collected and taken away it would be fair to think that we might be more lucky with the process to purchase a new car.


Well, a little bit right. It wasn't quite such a frustrating waste of my time. But only just!

About the same time as I was first arranging the collection of our old car, we paid the deposit on the new car. We were told that it was in transit and it was possible - though not probable - that it would be ready by the end of September. I would be phoned on Wednesday to confirm its arrival date.

Wednesday came...and went...

(This blog post is already sounding very familiar!)

During the succeeding two weeks I rang the garage repeatedly to check on its progress. Their policy (or so it appears) is to not respond to any phone calls made in the morning until at least 3.30pm, more usually 5.30pm. This I note as a frustration rather than a crisis.

Finally - finally! - the car got as far as Grimsby.

"It may be ready for you on Friday," I was told, "but definitely the following week."

Friday came...and went...

"It's on the loader tomorrow," I was told, "and here on Wednesday, so you can collect it on Friday."

This was reasonable, as I know they had to do a couple of things for it to be ready for us (not least of which was to fit a towbar!)

So I arrange to go in last Friday at midday to collect the car.

Now, how long do you expect it to take to collect a brand new car from a showroom?

At 2.15pm I was free to drive away.

That's right: 135 minutes of waiting. A few bits of form-filling, a lot of form-signing but mostly, mainly, a lot of waiting. And an awful cup of tea.

I think the 'hand-slams-into-forehead' moment was when, after over 90 minutes, I was given the car keys, only to have one set taken away so he could drive round the corner and fill it with fuel. Couldn't someone else have done that whilst I was ticking all the other administrative boxes?

Now don't get me wrong: the new car is fabulous! It is clean (I note the lack of dog hairs and wonder if our dog will ever get a walk again!) It is quiet, despite being another diesel engine. It is bigger, comfortable and delightfully shiny. I love her.

But it was as I drove home that I thought, I wasn't shown the towbar. Is it there?

My suspicions were not allayed when I stopped and looked underneath the rear bumper. I could see no evidence of any fitting. Another call to the garage.

"Just let me have a look," he said. A pause as he rifled through paperwork. "That's because it wasn't fitted," he said, and spent the next half hour arranging for a man to come out to fit it.

And the manager wondered why I hadn't ticked the box saying: Yes, I am completely satisfied.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Car Story, Part I: Out with the old...

After three glorious years with our car the end of our lease contract loomed. In fact, it has been looming for the last six months but no amount of my nagging seemed to provide the time my husband needed at work to reorganise its replacement. Deadline approaching we made a decision to purchase our own - possibly financially worse, but better than being without a car for at least 3-6 months while a new one was located.

So, mid-September I rang the leasing company and arranged to have our beloved Fabia taken away.

"What day would you like?" she asked.

"Monday? In the morning?"

"Fine." She checked my home address (rather than husband's hospital) and all was sorted.

Monday morning came...and went... 

In the afternoon I gave her another ring.

"But it's booked in for tomorrow morning, collecting from the hospital," she said.

"But that's not what we arranged!"

At this point there was, of course, a bit of a stand-off, as I knew I hadn't agreed to that (my husband has clinics all morning so I'd never have arranged something that would interrupt them!) She was adamant this was how it was planned and with a big sigh said, "So, are you wanting to rearrange it?"

"Of course I am!" I blustered, and suggested that we tried again the following Monday morning.

"No problem," she said, again checking my home address.

Monday morning came...and went...

This time, when I rang, the girl on the phone had no record of the car being due to be picked up at all. This despite us having received an email from them during the week charging us £84 for rearranging the collection date. (I know! We were being charged for them not turning up on the date they had agreed to originally!)

The week came...and went...

Eventually we got an email specifying a date (last Thursday) when the car would be collected. Would we prefer AM or PM? After 1.30pm, I respond.

Imagine my consternation when I found a message on the answerphone on Wednesday afternoon asking me to call about the collection. It was another company again clarifying the time of collection.

"Between 9 and 6?" he said.

" - I'd said after 1.30pm?"

Grumble, grumble. Ok. "And collection address: Stafford?"

"Definitely not!" and proceeded to tell him our own address. Stafford is not even the hospital address. Just don't ask.

So, late Wednesday afternoon I am rearranging a company's schedule to involve possibly an extra 2-3 hours of driving in order to pick up our car. I wasn't placing money on their third attempt to collect it.

Thursday afternoon came...and went...

Surprise, surprise. But - to be fair - when I rang up this time the lady was profusely apologetic, realising that what she had on her screen had not been transferred to their driver's screen and thus he'd gone to Stafford.

I hope he enjoyed his day out!

Furthermore, within 10 minutes the lady's manager rang me to arrange whatever time I wished for the car collection, explaining again the error that had occurred.

This morning... they came!


(That bit wasn't so good. It's half-term and I'd anticipated more of a lie-in!)

And so, with regret, I watched my car being taken away before 9am. It has done us so well over the last three years, being super-economical and totally reliable. Had we been renewing a lease contract we would have got the same type of car again, but instead we have a new car to last us until my son learns to drive - a scary prospect on many levels!

The Old Car story would have been over at this point...but whilst I was out and about this morning I received a call on my mobile.

"I'm calling to arrange the delivery of your car," he said, quoting the registration number...

Monday, 8 October 2012

Water, water everywhere

We have a history of water disasters in the home.

In our first house the entire kitchen had to be ripped out due to damp in the kitchen, presumably from a persistent drip that had been going on for years.

In our second house we woke up one morning to find water pouring through the bedroom ceiling all along the front of the house. A new roof didn't solve that problem: heavy rain gathered in a front gully and something, somewhere wasn't watertight.

In our third house when the plumber assured me he'd fitted the new radiator correctly it then leaked as soon as the heating was getting going, pouring water through to the room below.

In Zambia we had problems with lack of water, but that wasn't the house's fault. Termites eating through the ceiling was the issue there! Nor did we have problems in our rented houses.

Our current home? Despite being renovated from top to toe, an entirely new plumbing system fitted and everything being (ahem!) perfect two years ago, we have one window that leaks badly when it rains heavily; another where there is damp above the window cill and - the pièce de résistance - last week it appears that emptying my bath didn't go down a pipe but through the ceiling.

Not a happy bunny.

Amusingly, when I came down for breakfast in the morning, my son had no awareness of the dining table being covered in water, everything sodden and sticking to the mat, and was happily playing games on the laptop surrounded by this water disaster. Briefly I held onto the hope that he'd just knocked over a jug of water, but looking up to the ceiling was the tell-tale sign of a yellowy-brown streak just where my bath is upstairs. How the laptop escaped the deluge I have no idea!

Still, as they say, worse things happen at sea!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

What you missed in September

When we lived in Zambia I used to write a letter home every month summarising what we had done and experienced. Given the last month's blog-void and life-rollercoaster I thought it was time for a quick revival.

Dear blog,

The last month has rolled past with barely a moment to catch our collective breaths. It turns out that working part-time, two mornings a week, can take up so much of your life that there is no time for blogging. This is not good, but it is exacerbated by the extra hours I've had to work in order to sort one particular client's accounts out. I'd rather not.

September 2012 has brought about one of those moments when you know you are getting older, moving on to the next phase in life. My first-born, son and eldest child (one person!) has started secondary school. He's taken the change completely in his stride. His mother was much more of a mess, worrying about her baby amongst all the big kids. Still - there is nothing quite like distraction (see paragraph 1!) to take one's mind off the big life-changes. I have dutifully taken photos in the front garden of the boy drowned by blazer and trousers that are a couple of inches too long.

His aunt commented on his hair ("he's going to love that photo when he's older!") ... which leads us into the other life-changing event of the month: haircuts. My son's mop was in desperate need of a trim and so, in a moment of despair that I would ever drag him to the hairdressers, I set up shop at home. (This means I sat him on a chair in front of the mirror in my bedroom and attacked him with the scissors.) He wants long hair, but the natural curls prevent it lying beautifully and it grows into a ball of chaos. Now I've cut it to be something approximating smart.

If his hair was a trauma it was nothing compared to my daughter's. She too wanted long hair and over the last year or two it has steadily grown down to shoulder length. When washed and heavily conditioned it looked beautiful, but every morning there were horrific knots which resulted in screaming and agony as I tried to brush it. I kept telling her the only solution was to shut up or cut it short. Astonishingly, she decided one day to cut it. Not believing her I left it 48 hours before sitting her in my (bedroom) hair salon. With many a deep breath I cut her a short bob - probably 15cm of hair falling to the floor. She looks so much more grown up, and best of all there are no morning tantrums any more!

Other childish events? I tried to organise a sleepover for my son's birthday party (in advance of his December birthday) and failed. I am planning my daughter's 10th birthday party, which is causing me marginally less far... I've also been to-and-fro to hospital appointments for her incontinence issues and met up with teachers, classroom assistants and speech & language therapists.

Perhaps the biggest time consumer has also consumed the most money. After three years the lease on our car has expired. If my husband didn't work such long hours he might have got round to ordering a new lease car through work but, as it became apparent that wasn't going to happen in a reasonable timescale, I decided that we'd have to bite the bullet and buy a new one. So we have - or at least it is ordered. I have to reassure myself that it is a great offer, a good deal, and we haven't been sucked in by the car salesman.

To add to the financial stress my husband has decided to invest in a trailer tent. Long-term this will be fantastic. Already the children are planning our holidays in Holland and France (Modern Languages week at school has set my daughter's imagination rolling!) but I have never driven a car with a trailer on. Lots more deep breaths and telling myself that it will all be ok! I'm praying for a glorious hot, sunny summer in the UK next year!

Both car and tent took up weekends of family time and hours of analysis (Can we justify the expense? Is this the right way forward? Will my son's 6ft tall rugby-playing friends squeeze in the car in 3 years' time?) but I am hopeful that we have made good decisions for the family as a whole.

Throw in some grandparents visiting, church responsibilities, orchestra practices, swimming lessons, dentist appointments and puppy training and you've jammed September about as full as is technically possible whilst still allowing time to sleep. Well, doze lightly.

Roll on October. After all, it must be quieter. Mustn't it?


Friday, 31 August 2012

Mud, mud, glorious mud!

Last weekend we went with friends to the Greenbelt Festival at Cheltenham, camping on the edge of the racecourse and being entertained by top quality acts.

It rained on the Saturday. A lot. In fact, there were hailstones.

Thankfully at this point I was safely inside a cafe, then queueing to hear Simon Mayo talk about his new book, Itch. Simon gave an entertaining talk and then was marvellous in his interaction with the children as they asked a million varied questions. Yes: we were first to hear about the book 'Itch goes to the zoo' ( unlikely sequel involving exploding elephants!) The most hilarious moment was the build up for the final boy to ask a question - only for him to ask where he could buy the book.

The tent survived the rain. My son's friend's book didn't.

On Sunday the sun came out ... for a short while ... then it became apparent that Rain + Racecourse = Mud. By the evening I gave up on wearing my crocs and walked barefoot through it: it came over my ankles in certain parts. Still, you should feel more sorry for the earthworms, whose bodies littered the field.

Monday was forecast more rain, so striking camp was done first thing. We stayed to hear Folk On, who were magnificent, as you can tell from this recording. I know, it is from 2011, but our main stage experience included this song with many of the same jokes! We were doubled over with laughter for an hour, and laughter is the best medicine for many ailments. (Especially mud.)

The rest of the weekend was filled with buying books and CDs, singing with The Wild Goose Collective, listening to Frank Skinner (whilst water dripped through the seam at the apex of the Big Top...) and bopping along to The Proclaimers. The heavens opened again whilst we watched some impro that had 5* ratings from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe on Monday afternoon, and with that we decided to wend our way home.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Little known fact

It is impossible to appreciate Sinead O'Connor singing Nothing compares to you whilst you are driving if your children are in the back of the car singing a medley of Bring me sunshine and Always look on the bright side of life (words amended to: always look on the bright side of sleep, with appropriate sound effect) at the top of their voices.

End of public service announcement.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Combining the last two posts... we present the Zoolympics-tathlon

Over lunch today the family discussed a new modern pentathlon to introduce to the Olympics. My husband was keen to find something that my son could participate in when old enough (let alone my daughter, though she was singularly uninterested in the conversation).

"What sports can we include that involve sitting down?" my husband asked, noting that those are the ones the Brits seem to be good at. Of course, we couldn't possibly include anything that is already used - that would be far too dull and boring.

"Donkeys!" he exclaimed. "We could race donkeys. Better still - onagars!"

We saw these at the zoo. They are donkeys that are faster than horses, and nigh on extinct in the wild.

"Or camels," my son chipped in.

"What about ostriches?" I asked, remembering the lovely photo of my father-in-law riding one in South Africa.

And thus the zoolympic-tathalon was created. It involves racing onagars, camels and ostriches, then some target-shooting from the back of an elephant (or a tortoise, but the elephant would probably cover the distance quicker!) Of course, some suggestions have to be discounted. Bashing the meerkats with a mallet as they stick their heads up of out of the ground is simply cruel...

I guess very few schools would have the facilities to house all the animals required, so it may prove something of an elite sport!

(I think we may have become a little over-excited by TeamGB's medals success!)

Thursday, 16 August 2012

We all went to the zoo...

It's summer; it's the holidays; it is time to indulge in days out.

So we went to the zoo.


I can't quite decide what I think about zoos. Is it right to keep animals like that, in unnatural surroundings? The first animals we saw were the elephants (my favourite) who were roaming around a dry mud pen. All I could think of were the elephants I have seen in the wild: in Ghana, where I heard them first charging down the hill breaking trees as they went; and in Zambia, where they frolicked in the river and wandered through local villages. There they lived in green, luscious land, covered in trees and vegetation and with lots of space to roam.

Is it right to keep them in a zoo?

Then again, at Chester Zoo (which was where we went!) they invest a lot in local conservationists, people who give their lives to providing the right environment for animals to prevent extinction. A lot of the animals we saw are endangered or threatened, and there is an argument that keeping them in a zoo means that we don't lose that genetic gene pool.

Surely it is right to breed these in a zoo?

Whatever the arguments, I still love seeing animals moving and prowling. My daughter and I were fortunate to see the jaguars whilst my husband and son were still inside (tee hee!), and spotting the cheetahs was a delight. The lions were stalking their cage, yawning and stretching before settling down for an afternoon snooze. The butterfly house was a delight: the colours, the lightness and the joy of seeing so many fluttering around our bodies.

But the biggest surprise relates again to our Zambian experience. It took us nearly a week's holiday in Kasanka National Park before one of the guides pointed out a sitatunga antelope to us. We saw its head poking above the marshy grass from miles away (or so it felt: the only real sighting of it was through binoculars). We were elated to have seen such a rare breed of antelope! Yet at the zoo: there was a field full of them. Not much marshland for a marsh-dwelling animal, but nevertheless a field-ful. My husband and I were delighted by them (unlike our children, who were more excited by the zebra on the other side!)

Sitatunga antelope

It was a fantastic day out: a day in glorious sunshine was just what the family needed! And even inspired my writing gene, as I was reminded of the children's story that lurks at the back of my mind involving some of these...


Maybe now I'll get round to writing it!

Monday, 13 August 2012

A journey through the last fortnight

It's    Outrageous expense in times of austerity,
but   London is open: no ticket unsold.
        Yearning for glory over world competition - there
are   Medals - first silver, then bronzes, then gold!
        People ecstatically chant: "Team GB"
 as    Invincible athletes crown years of tough training.
The  Closing ceremony celebrates all
        Smiles spread across nations: supreme joy is reigning.

(c) Catharine Withenay August 2012

Photo: (c)

Monday, 6 August 2012

Winning at 100m

It's all gone a little Olympic crazy here in the UK. After a slow start a flurry of medals (many of them gold) has lifted the spirit of the nation.

Last night saw the greatest race of a generation as eight men ran 100m, all but the injured Asafa Powell running less than 10 seconds. As they lined up at the beginning of the race three Americans and three Jamaicans were to do battle. Jamaica (of course, thank you Mr Bolt) won.

Yet I must make a little plug for one of the men defeated in the semi-final. No, not for either of the members of TeamGB (though don't get me wrong: I'd have loved them to win!) but for Mr Gerald Phiri of Zambia. Even his name makes me smile: it is so Zambian.

Of course, Zambia was one of those countries at the opening ceremony that you were grateful for, but only because it meant you were near the end of the teams to appear (just Zimbabwe and then TeamGB to come!) It had a very small number of athletes competing, most to no great avail ... but Mr Phiri stormed through his first heat to come third and automatically qualify for the semi-final.

Given the line-up for the final - some of the fastest men on earth, ever - it is no shame to go out in the semis, so well done Mr Phiri: you did Zambia proud!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Maeve Binchy

Writing Wednesday
Not a normal Writing Wednesday, but a tribute to a wonderful storyteller, Maeve Binchy, whose death was announced yesterday.

What I have enjoyed most about Maeve Binchy's books is their readability: they are something I know I can pick up, get involved in and enjoy the tale. The tales of smalltown Irish life were realistic and gripping.

She was clearly one of those writers who wrote in order to tell a story, not in order to be a writer. I meant that in a very positive way. Her language was not elite, but neither was it simplistic. She could have been sat in the room telling me the story, for it was in words and phrases I understood and could relate to. I knew, on picking up a new book she had written, that I would enjoy several hours lost in the world she had created.

From all I have heard and read over the last couple of days she was also a lovely person, working tirelessly for charities that she loved. I hope and trust that as her legacy lives on in the wonders of her books, so too will the memories of a wonderful person.

Monday, 16 July 2012

It's not the taking part that counts...

Yesterday I reluctantly decided to support my son's decision to be outside (YES! without a small screen inches from his eyes!) and went to join in a family game of football in the back garden. Football is not a sport I excel at. Or even know much about. I was secretly praying for the rains to come...would you believe it! They didn't!

None of my family are very good at football, but we are competitive. There is no way I was going to let my husband win if I could help it.

My son decided on the goals: ours was a fence panel; my husband and daughter aimed for 'the wall between the windows'. My heart lost a beat every time they attempted a shot at goal.

My husband would get the ball, then my daughter would shout, 'Pass!' and tackle it from him. We had to explain that 'passing' meant actually kicking the ball to another player.

Due to an extremely muddy walk with the dog earlier on I only had my best shoes to wear. I slipped and slid all around inside them. Occasionally I could co-ordinate enough to kick the ball, though usually to a rather grateful husband rather than my teammate son.

Well, the game ended when my latest husband's tackle (grabbing my arm and holding me back) meant I fell to the ground in agony, having strained some muscle in my shoulder. That's not where you're supposed to get injuries in a football game, is it?

Never mind. Whilst I was lying on the grass in extreme pain my son took the ball and scored repeated goals against our fence panel. So we won!

And that's what counts, right?

Monday, 9 July 2012

The problem with an excellent education

Many moons ago I had the privilege of studying O-level (that's to date me!) English Literature. I'm not sure the exam board were thinking totally straight when they chose the volumes to be read. I think their thinking went like this:

We need 5 books.

Poetry. Let's go classical and choose some narrative verse. Ah, here's a book [with extremely small print] that will do, choosing eight [lengthy] poems from it.

A classic novel. I know, we could choose Dickens or Austen, but lets go for something from the Brontë sisters [after all, we were in Yorkshire!] Jane Eyre? Wuthering Heights? Oh, nothing so classic or well known as that - let's set The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Ann Brontë .

Shakespeare. Of course we have to do one of his plays... but let's not choose anything obvious, such as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, The Tempest... oh no! Let's do a history play. Henry IV. Part I.

And the final two? Perhaps something more contemporary? Something that'll please a bunch of teenage boys? [I'm not sure it did, btw!] Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household: that's World War II based adventure.

And the final choice? Thomas Telford by LTC Rolt.

You may have spotted my cynicism slipping through my description of their choice. I may be the only person who got truly excited that Henry IV Part I was to be screened last Saturday night, only for the Wimbledon Men's Doubles to overtake it! But this last book really took the biscuit. It was the ultimate insult. For a teenager (particularly a girl?) this was the most boring book in the entire universe. It chronicled TT's life and engineering prowess: the Great Western train line, Ironbridge, the canals... in all their detail, with dimensions and structural information, and a splash of historical setting.

Five books that I have carried around with me ever since studying them, clogging up more removal vans than I can count.

Yet now, as I come to write about our canal holiday and the wonderful design of the Shropshire Union Canal, I'd like to have a flick through and learn a little more about the man who built it and the men who laboured at it. The canal largely avoided the need for locks by the creation of numerous embankments and cuttings, changing the landscape forever. Nowadays, covered with mature trees, you wouldn't know it had been anything different.

"Ah!" I think, "I have a book about that!"

Can't find it. Grrrrrr.

Photo credit:  Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston in Henry IV: Part 1 Photo: BBC

Monday, 2 July 2012

Rush hour traffic

There is no doubt that I have lots of words inside me; but at moments, like rush-hour traffic at the mouth of a tunnel, they jam. 

John Updike, writer (1932-2009) 

Thanks to AWAD for this quote last week. It is how I feel about writing and - in particular - this blog at present. It is all so jammed up inside me that it isn't coming out, or at least in nothing more than a trickle. 

Maybe today will be different. There are always new leaves to turn, resolutions to uphold and  good intentions to enact, leading me away from that paved road to hell. Maybe.

Then again, I had this great idea this morning of not snacking between meals but have already opened the cookie jar. *Sigh* Sometimes I just can't get beyond first base, stuck in the traffic of life.

Monday, 18 June 2012

And the answer is...

Here is a bigger clue to our recent holiday:

Two weeks on a canal boat, puttering around the Four Counties Ring. These photos were taken on the Shropshire Union Canal section, when we still had sunshine (even if we could hardly see it for the trees towering up the cuttings!) This was a particularly unusual, double-arched bridge.

Canal boating seems to bring up nothing but adventurous stories, which I hope to write up and regale you with over the coming weeks. Ironic how many stories there can be, given you slow down to 3mph!

Truly, for us, it was just what the doctor ordered, allowing us to sleep and rest, to talk (often without the children, as they played games together inside the boat) and to see some of the most beautiful countryside. The rain at the end of the second week put a dampener (ahem!) on things, making us all a little miserable as we battled with our 15th lock of the day...

I've asked the children if they'd like to go again. No response.
My husband and I? Back like a shot!
Does that reflect well or badly on our individual paces of life?

And, for the record, my son's response when asked what the best bit of the holiday was?

"Trying out two new types of Magnum ice-cream!"

We could have done that at home!

Friday, 15 June 2012

Hello again!

Still here!

We've had our family 'summer holiday' (yes, it did rain) and I know I could have planned lots of blog posts before I left, and I know I could have asked for guest writers, and I know I could have posted daily blogs from our holidays ... but sometimes we all just need a break.

So, until I get my head back in order, perhaps you'd like to guess where I've been?

I suppose I could have picked an easier photo, but what fun would there be in that?! Guesses welcome in the comments box!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Creative Writing: The Essential Guide

Writing Wednesday
Who thought writing was easy?

Once we actually start to write I don't think anyone does! Then we realise how complicated it is to put words together into sentences that make sense; then paragraphs that hold together; chapters that entice and books that can't be put down. All of a sudden, any advice that we can garner is welcomed, as we begin the steps towards the ultimate writer's dream: publishing our multi-award-winning bestseller.

Creative Writing: The Essential Guide is a delightfully simple walkthrough the process, from first putting pen to paper through to guidance about the murky world of publishing. It is eminently readable, consisting of twelve clear chapters. The early chapters have many pertinent writing exercises (I am still struggling to rewrite the list of cliché phrases!) and as the book progresses it becomes more informative, up-to-date with current trends in social media. There are chapters focussing on specific styles of writing: novels, poetry, short-stories, non-fiction and script-writing.

The style of writing is not academic, but clear and concise, even chatty at points. This makes it totally accessible for the beginner, but don't think that makes it lightweight: there is a lot of information to help anyone learning the craft of writing.

What I appreciated most about the book was the layout. The wide margins enabled notes to be taken or added to the printed word. The large-print quotes that appeared were always relevant and often précised the current chapter.

Informative and relevant, it has inspired me to continue with the practical exercises that will improve my writing and to perfect what I write, making it the best I possibly can prior to publication.

Creative Writing: The Essential Guide by Tim Atkinson can be bought from Amazon, Need2Know and all good bookshops!

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Swimming to victory!

"I can't believe she's been chosen," I say to my friend, a fellow mother. "I mean, with all her problems she struggles to understand instructions. And we've been doing swimming lessons for years and she's still only at Level 4. I know there are plenty in her year who are much better."

Thus I go to collect my daughter from a local swimming gala. She was chosen to represent her school in a competition against all four other village schools. I have blogged before about her learning difficulties and as I went to pick her up I expected little other than a wet, bedraggled girl.

Yet, just as these words slipped from my mouth, I spotted her through the window. She was grinning from ear to ear and holding up a medal and a certificate - First Place!

In here is a lesson for me not to belittle my daughter, despite all her struggles. Her friend said that everyone was shouting and cheering her on, as she swam the final and crucial leg of the relay that the school won. She was the hero of the moment... and her mother is unbelievably proud of her.

Well done, beautiful girl!

Monday, 30 April 2012

The wisdom of age

This weekend I had the delight of celebrating my father's 80th birthday. When I stop and think about it, that is a very long time.

About six months ago he moved to the same town that my sister lives in. He lives in a spacious 1-bed bungalow. The garden is a fraction of the size of his previous house. He is now a 10 minute walk into town with all the amenities he could ask for, and that 10 minutes walks past the doctors and dentists and even a cottage hospital. Previously, he has to catch a bus the three miles to the local shops, particularly after the village post office was shut down. He has lost about a stone in weight (needed!) and is looking much fitter and healthier for the move. At the time of the move I was less certain that this was a good thing - all I seemed to experience was stress!

So this weekend we celebrated the move and the passing years. It was wonderful to catch up with Dad's side of the family and various friends that he (and, by default, my sister and I) have known for many years. I think every single one commented on how healthy my father looked. He loved the party, chatting with everyone. Given his deafness, I'm not sure how easy that can have been!

Yes, the party on Saturday was good. But better still was his actual birthday on Sunday.

It poured with rain all day. But his choice of how to spend the day was to have a drive up through Wharfedale, where he spent much of his childhood and where we spent all my childhood holidays. It is probably 25 years since I last went to the top end of the dale, but it brought back many memories for me. How much more so my father! He pointed out houses where people lived ("...probably still do, if they're still alive," he would comment) and told tales of the places we passed. Much of the journey seemed to be a mock pub crawl, with his comments on how good, or bad, each was. I think it is a testament to my upbringing that they were all very familiar to me too!

After an amazing [pub] lunch (I shall probably never need to eat again!) he directed me back along the other side of the valley, wending and winding our way along single track roads.
"This is where I learnt to ride a bike," he said down one gentle slope.
"Oh, that's new!" he said of some newly planted trees. This amused me, given he hadn't been for many years and you would expect much to change in that time!
"Shortly you'll come to a big bend to the right, but you want to go straight on." How did he remember that? I would have sworn I'd never been on that piece of road in my life - possibly no-one else had either!
Still, we travelled on, through ford and flood, to return by a back-road to my sister's house.

Eighty years - yes, but memories don't fade, particularly not from land that has been such a part of your life, from early years during the war, through to holidays with family. The hills have been climbed, the ox-bow lake formed and lost, the local fairs attended, the pubs drained dry. It was a delight to give my father such pleasure from a simple drive into beautiful countryside. I only wish his parents had thought eighty years ago about what the weather would be like this weekend, as the only improvement would have been some sunshine!

Friday, 20 April 2012

If you need a job done...

... do it yourself. This is what motherhood really means now.

Before Easter, in a moment of forward planning, I booked a babysitter for tonight.

Last weekend I pointed out to my husband that he might like some time alone with his children to go shopping. "Uh?" he says.

Last night I suggested to him that I took the dog for a walk round the block before going to bed. "Why?" he asks. "Don't you need the paper, scissors and tape before tomorrow?" I reply.

This morning I elbowed him viciously in the ribs. "Don't you need to get the children up before you go to work?" To be fair, they weren't too happy with this pre-7am wakening!

Finally, before my husband left to catch the train, the decision was made to go out for dinner tonight...though I am left with the job of finding a restaurant and booking a table.

My birthday presents were two saucepans ("with lids," as my daughter keenly pointed out), a whisk and some kitchen scales. I guess I know my place! 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Wash, rinse, spin - the correct link


The link in the last post didn't work. I had a brief moment of encouraging you to read my (not-quite-award-winning) story without actually being able to link you to it. I shall add it to my long list of items that are contributing to my astonishing learning curve when it comes to computers/the internet/blogging/social media/anything technological.

Here it is again: Wash, rinse, spin. Do leave a comment ... about the story, please, rather than about my technical incompetence: the repeated failures there go without saying!

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Happy Easter!

Artwork by John Bell copyright 1998-2012 ( used with permission

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Reasons to be cheerful!

Writing Wednesday
Shortly before Christmas I entered a competition by the Society of Women Writers and Journalists. It was for Life Writing: a short story (or blog entry or other form of writing) based on real life events.

I am delighted to say that Wash, Rinse, Spin was longlisted for the competition! At the time of writing this, the winner hasn't yet been announced. (I'm trying to generously wish all the short-listed contenders luck!)

I chose to adapt a chapter of my book In the Shade of the Mulberry Tree. The chapter was relatively self-contained and (I hope) quite funny, looking at the very standard activity of getting my hair cut for the first time in a foreign land. For those who don't know, In the Shade of the Mulberry Tree is the story of my first year living in Zambia with two young children - and many of my escapades revolve around the steep learning curve of living in such a different environment.

If you are interested in reading it, I have published it in a separate page of the blog: Wash, Rinse, Spin. 

I hope you enjoy it. Do let me know what you think!

Friday, 30 March 2012

Poppy puppy progress

The weeks fly by in a mad, manic rush, so apologies for the tardiness in writing a blog post. I blame the dog.

In four weeks of ownership, what has happened?

Sleepless nights: the dog chose to start barking at 3.30am one night. She didn't quieten for long when I went to see her so I went down a second time. Then the smell hit me, and I had to open the door to let her out whilst I cleaned up the mess. But of course it is cold outside and neither she nor I wanted to go out. So puppy and mess and me in the utility room with door wide open: not a good start to the day.

Mess: toilet training has involved a lot of mopping up. Despite the previous paragraph, she is usually dry overnight (wahey!) and the sunny weather has meant she has been outside a lot, but the minute someone comes to visit she gets very excited. Very excited. So I mop up more damp patches and apologise to everyone for her (a) waving her tail in the liquid and then (b) wagging the wet tail with vigour...

Chewing: I fear this is only at the beginning of the phase, but paper does appear to be a favourite. This doesn't help much with the toilet training, given we leave out newspaper for her to go on! It didn't do much for last night's bible study notes either, and my daughter wasn't too chuffed with the loss of her work of art.

Walking: What a battle! She is excited when she sees the lead picked up (but see the note on mess and excitement...) and then spends the whole walk sniffing at every tree and lamppost and cigarette packet and leaf. Yanked along she'll eventually be persuaded to walk beside me, then gets a sniff of something new and practically pulls my arm out of its socket as she rushes to reach it. A tug-of-war push/pull fight to the end.

Eating: this she does a lot, but I'm trying not to let my husband know that I had to replant his row of box hedge plants (gosh, I hope they still grow: I'm not the gardener in the family!)

And yet...
She is good at sitting.
She is patient with children, loving being petted.
She rarely jumps up.
She doesn't bark much.
She can be bribed with a cube of cheese.
She is gorgeous.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Why I am avoiding Mother's Day

Every year Mother's Day is a problem for me and - simply put - it is because I don't have one. At least, not any more.

Perhaps if my mother had died at an 'expected' age it wouldn't matter to me so much. But I was 16, beginning my A-levels and all I think about is that she hasn't been there to share in so much of my life - going to University, graduating, meeting boyfriends, buying a house, getting married, having children (oh, that most of all).

Each year it hits me that I am now supposed to revel in this day. It is a precious time when motherhood is celebrated. As a mother, it is supposed to be the best day of all, when I get treated and pampered and might get away without doing any ironing (ha!).

I am supposed to love my children bestowing me with gifts (invariably a seedling in a pot, that I shall spend many tender weeks killing). Yet I know my children love me. Just the other day, on the way back from swimming lesson and totally unprompted, my daughter tenderly stretched her hand over to me as I was driving and said, "I love you mummy," with a big smile on her face. I am blessed by many smiles and cuddles from both my children, so the 'special day' is not necessary. After all, it is far better to be loved all year round than to have a bunch of flowers delivered by Interflora once a year.

Building on that, other things niggle.
Why are flowers more expensive now than they will be next week? Oh yes, supply and demand. I'll happily have mine when they're cheaper!
As a churchgoer, my church gives a few daffodils to every woman in the congregation. Why? They are not all mothers. It would make more sense to give them to everyone who has a mother. (Or perhaps just to those who have lost a mother?)
I have noticed that I am asked to lead Mother's Day services. Because I am middle-aged and a mother it is presumed that I am the right person. Might it not be better coming from a man who appreciates what his mother/wife have done?
Even having a quiet lunch out is unpleasant because everything is labelled for Mother's Day, tends to be more expensive than normal, and I am surrounded by generations of mothers.

I know: some of these are blocks and walls that I have built up. But, as with all things, it is wise to see the other side of the coin; to remember that there are some who are going to find the day difficult. Think of the mothers of the children killed or injured in the bus crash in Switzerland on Tuesday night. Think of those whose mother has dementia and doesn't recognise them when they visit. Think of those who've recently been bereaved. Think of those whose mothers are alcholics, drug-abusers, prostitutes, abusive, a poor role-model. In that way, you can celebrate motherhood with compassion. For undoubtedly mothers are the hardest working people on the planet, which is why they are worth appreciating.

And me? I am going away for the weekend, leaving my husband to look after the kids and giving myself some space to write. Now if that isn't a treat, I don't know what is!

(And I'm going to eat the chocolate my daughter decorated for me this year!)

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Things that bring a smile to my face

Sometimes blogging feels like rowing a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Every stroke seems futile, for where is the land? How can I be sure I'm heading in the right direction? Energy and momentum drift and wane. Then - suddenly - I am startled by a loud horn and discover an oil tanker bearing down on me.

Not that this has happened to me personally, you understand. Just sometimes we lose our way.

So imagine my delight when I read comments on another blog of mine like these:
I can't wait for more articles.
I see you put a lot of work into...
Hi comrade! I'm absolutely...
Hello Mr Expert. When...

And best of all:
Awesome website!! I like your design.

Yes, of course, these were spam messages, but - just briefly - they put a smile on my face. Somebody loves me, even if they are robots!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

My World Book Day success!

There are few things that drive me more up the wall than 'dressing up days' at school. This is mainly because I am told about them with little more than 24 hours notice (or so it seems). Even with notice, it creeps up on me unawares and becomes a last-minute panic. It is also because I am pretty hopeless and utterly unskilled in creating outfits.

Whilst I love books, I was dreading World Book Day (last Thursday) because it would - inevitably - mean that both my children would have to dress up. I am running out of characters who wear ordinary clothes. Harry Potter et al requires a cloak. Winnie the Pooh: a bear outfit. Daisy Meadows' Fairies: wings, wands and general ethereality. Children's book characters are, almost by definition, out of the ordinary.

This year, along with many schools across the land I have no doubt, I had to dress my daughter as a Dickens' character. She has never heard of Dickens, never read one of his stories nor any idea about who would be in them. In all honesty, I haven't read a full novel of his either. How many female Dickens characters are there? And how many of them are interesting, rather than just Victorian ladies.

We settled for her being a ragamuffin urchin with a flat cap on and torn T-shirt + leggings.

In contrast, my son's class have been reading Gangsta Grannie and so had to go as Gangsta Grannies or Grandpas. Not having read the book myself I had to rely on him to know what to do. He decided to go as a thief, dressed all in black, with a mask over his face.

"And green coming out of my bottom," he said.

This is a statement to make most mothers stop in their tracks.

"She eats cabbage," he explained, "and farts cabbage."

"Oh," I reply. I rack my brain to think of where I might find some green material to sew on, and scratch my head as I wonder how I'm going to do that with no hours left in my day.

Then: my eureka moment.

"Why don't we buy a cabbage and fasten cabbage leaves to your T-shirt?"

And so we did.

And why was this a success? (Other than placating my son, of course!)

He won a Headteacher's Award for his costume!

I like to think that I won it really...

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A new addition to the family

As with most things, I give in to my children.

For ages they have been wanting a sibling (one wants a brother, the other wants a sister!) They also nag me endlessly about iPad, iPod Touch, iPhone, Kinnect and other technologies. So far, I have resisted. (Well, a combination of me, my sanity and my bank balance, depending on which option you choose!) In practice, I have given in to this:

Welcome Poppy!

Two days in and she is very much part of our family, although I haven't a clue what I am doing most of the time! She is, evidently, gorgeous and so it is easy to give in to her. At nearly 4 months she is quite old for coming to a new house but that also means that she is further on in her training than other puppies are. She is an all-consuming distraction from what I'm supposed to be doing - be it writing or children or meetings or whatever. She has slept well since arriving (two nights!) but really wants a lot more attention in the mornings than I am able to give her. And our adventure to walk to the post box yesterday only got as far as the neighbours' gate!

The name caused much debate. My husband and I wanted 'Pepper' but - as you can tell - we gave in to our children's preference. Surely taking ownership like this means they'll be delighted to walk her as she gets older. No? Me still?

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Island of Wings

Writing Wednesday
Would you go to the end of the earth for love? 
1830. Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie, a newly married young couple, arrive at the remotest part of the British Isles: St Kilda. He is a minister determined to save the souls of the pagan inhabitants; his pregnant wife speaks no Gaelic and , when her husband is away, has only the waves and the cry of gulls for company.
As both find themselves tested to the limit in this harsh new environment, Lizzie soon discovers that marriage is as treacherous a country as the land that surrounds her.

This is the blurb on the back of the book I referred to in my blog post a little over a week ago. Would you go to the end of the earth for love? Possibly not. And probably not to St Kilda's. Then again, I did move to Zambia, so perhaps I would.

I found the story premise (as quoted above) a little far-fetched. Can you really live on a remote island for a whole year, particularly when pregnant, and talk to no-one else except your husband? Even if you don't speak the language? There is so much conversation that can be undertaken by simple words and gestures. And why didn't her husband try to teach her any Gaelic?

To me the story hides behind stereotypical characterisations. The minister is austere, distant, unprepared to show emotion - particularly love to his wife. The wife is subservient, timid and not prepared to make her own steps into the community. Whilst I realise that life in 1830 was very different to today, I think it would be possible at some point to write about a presbyterian who loves his wife and family, as well as God! I found it all quite frustrating, as I wanted to shout at Lizzie to pull herself together, to get a grip, to make her own way, and was thwarted by repeated put-downs.

To be fair, Lizzie's life perked up once she had a child and a maid from the mainland that she could talk to. I liked that inside the front cover was a map of St Kilda and the islands around it. When an author, or publisher, puts something like that it then I am comforted that they feel it will be helpful to the reader, to place events or people throughout the story. It would have been more use to me to know exactly where St Kilda is in relation to Scotland, but perhaps that is just me.

I did enjoy the descriptions of the islands and their inhabitants. I could virtually smell and feel the hovels that the natives lived in and I could picture the daft puffins nesting on the cliffs and the birds migrating with the seasons. I could sense the starvation that must have ripped through the community if the boat didn't come in the summer. And I could see the glorious blue sky of a summer's day, lasting almost through the night.

I cannot say I would recommend the book, although parts of it were thoroughly enjoyable to read. For me there were unresolved issues or (perhaps worse) matters that were poorly resolved. It is a bleak tale from a bleak land, but an interesting insight into a part of the world I would never have heard of otherwise. Would I go to the end of the earth for love? Possibly - but please, not here!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The value of books

Writing Wednesday

Talked to a woman tonight who grew up in tough town in north east of England and in her teens it all went horribly wrong ...
.. one day her teacher told her to stay after class and instead of the bollocking she was expecting he said 'you think you're nothing...
...but you're not', and gave her a copy of '1984'. And then another book a week later and then another. Her friends' lives stalled,... dying of a heroin overdose that could have killed her; but she went on to Cambridge and a PhD and is now a priest - because someone..
... disagreed with her self-assessment as worthless and gave her a book.

Rev Richard Coles, tweets, Mon 13 Feb 2012

Is it no wonder that books can be banned and censored? They have the power to change lives. They are the most important thing for a child to learn about and understand, as they develop imagination, independent thinking, thirst for knowledge and safely take you to places you've never been.

Long live the book!
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