Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Long time, no see

I blame Facebook. And Twitter. And Whatsapp. Not to mention Cooking Fever and Candy Crush, both of which I've installed and deleted from my iPad more times than I can remember.

I blame them for distracting me from the things I actually enjoy. Reading books, reading about books, writing, travel, photography, blogging. Hmmm not quite sure about that last one. Do I really enjoy blogging? Do I enjoy wondering what to post on a dull day because I know I ought to? Do I like having it on my to do list along with cleaning the bathroom and booking a dentist's appointment? Probably not, if I'm honest. There's more to this though. What blogging does achieve is reminding me of all those favourite pastimes. It encourages me to do them. More than that it makes me pay attention to what I'm doing. And that's no bad thing.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Crossing the Bay

For more than fifty years Cedric Robinson, Queen's Guide to the Sands, has escorted walkers across the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay.

We'd initially signed up to cross the bay in early August, but torrential rain had left the river channel too deep and dangerous to cross. Luckily the rescheduled date dawned bright and breezy. We left Arnside promenade at 4.30pm, a crowd of three hundred or more adults, children and assorted dogs to follow Cedric across the bay. I can survey the bay from my bedroom window but it was quite something to look back across the land from this different viewpoint. We spotted the Ashton memorial, Heysham power station and the clustered houses of Grange. A rainbow briefly coloured the view back towards Arnside.

The sand was mainly firm and the river channel deep, but not too deep, just lapping the hem of my shorts. The current was strong though. The bigger dogs swam bravely whilst the smaller dogs and children were carried across. The group trailed over half a mile or so at some points, resembling a biblical exodus. At one point a tractor sped over with horn blaring and driver shouting as a splinter group risked leading us all out into the open sea. After checking the sands, Cedric led us towards Kents Bank. Just as we approached the bank the sand turned distinctly spongy and it was easier to appreciate just how dangerous the sands can be.

Cedric Robinson is the 25th Guide of the Sands, the first being Thomas Hogeson who was appointed in 1548. The guide revives a nominal salary of £15 a year and the use of the 700 year old Guide's Cottage.

The sun was setting as the weary, hungry walkers reached Kent's Bank after an afternoon well spent.

Sunday, 14 September 2014


I've never been a huge fan of Sundays. As a kid Sundays were homework and housework days, the lets-get-everything-done-for-the-week-ahead kind of days. As a new graduate they were the deep-sinking-oh-no-I've-got-to-sell-phones-again-tomorrow kind of days.

Right now I'm sitting in a car park in Morecambe. I'm looking out onto graffitied garages and orange tiled roofs. Dried and grasses and thistles are rattling in the wind. Young boys jump from cars, slam doors and run over to their team mates. Whistles blow and parents huddle on the side of the pitch. Time to leave the warm bubble of my car and enjoy the action.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Pondling in Edinburgh

It was my daughter who spotted it amongst the wodge of flyers thrust into our hands on the short walk along the Royal Mile from our hotel to Caffe Nero.  Pondling. 'A story of love, beauty, chicken-chasing, daisy chains, cat-killing, French singing, ensuite bathrooms and a day at the pond.'

What followed was an hour of brilliance as we entered the hilarious but terrifying world of Madeleine, a young, highly imaginative girl with psychotic tendencies. With her My Little Pony bicycle and her Beanie Babies, Madeleine sought love and vengeance as the audience held its breath repeatedly and feared for those around her. 

Written and performed with great gusto by award-winning actress Genevieve Hulme-Beauman, this was definitely the highlight of my very first Edinburgh Fringe.

More about the Fringe next time.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Alive and kicking

A thoughtful comment from fellow blogger Alex and the resurrection of a much-loved on-line writers' group have inspired me to take up this blog again.

I'm sitting in my garden on what may be one of the last warm summer afternoons. My daughter's circling the trampoline in her special form of meditation. In a neighbouring garden a bossy girl shouts commands to her little brother. Bees explore the last of the runner bean flowers and the apples wait to be gathered from our trees.

In addition to the merry-go-round of work and family events over the last few months, there are a whole host of trips, books, meetings and ideas to share. Too much, in fact, to mention now, so I'll enjoy the sunshine for just a little longer and post again soon.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Morning bliss

My family having departed to their various activities, I find myself in the rare situation of being home alone on a Saturday morning.

So here I am, toasting myself by the fire in my leather armchair, reading, skimming the papers and pottering around the internet. The early morning storm has passed to leave a clear crystal morning seen so seldom since the New Year.

Life is good.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The book pelican

“A wonderful bird is the Pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week!
But I'll be darned if I know how the hellican?”

I'm a real pelican when it comes to books. If I didn't buy another book for five years I would still have plenty to read. There are the gifts, the third choices on three for two offers, those passed on by friends and family, not to mention those impulse buys stimulated by blog reviews.  Amazon certainly has much to answer for.

So, scanning the shelves, it would make good sense to begin the year with some of my many acquisitions. There's plenty to choose from:

Haweswater by Sarah Hall - Having read The Carhullan Army and a collection of short stories, I admire Hall's writing. This book tells the story of the Lakeland village destined to be flooded as a new dam is built. It has the additional attraction of a (relatively) local setting.

The Ladies' Paradise by Zola - Germinal is one of my all time favourite reads with its awful but compelling evocation of miners' lives. I'm intrigued to see how the same author can then turn his skills to a Parisian department store. Then I made the mistake of watching an episode of the BBC adaption of The Paradise which very nearly put me off the book altogether.

Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka - A group of migrant workers spend the summer strawberry picking in Kent.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan - the Mathematician and I are both  McEwan fans so I hope I'll be forgiven for adding this spy story to his Christmas list.

That's  more than enough to keep me going over the winter months. 

Happy reading!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy New Year and the best intentions

I last posted back in August. Since then I have got a full-time job, visited Munich's Oktoberfest, attempted a MOOC on historical fiction and passed a Shakespeare exam.

The new year seems a good opportunity to get back on track with blogging. In contrast to the lull in this department, my reading has been ticking along nicely. Recent books include Donna Tartt's new novel The Goldfinch and The Winter  Ghosts by Kate Mosse. Now for something completely different I've chosen Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I've never read any Gaiman before, but I like what he says about writing in particular and life in general, so I'm happy to give him a go. I'm all for trying something new this year and books are no exception.

It feels good to be blogging again. Here's wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and prosperous 2014!

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Pure by Andrew Miller

Paris, 1785. An ambitious young engineer is given the task of clearing the Cemetery of Les Innocents. What follows is a remarkable story.

With the help of a group of miners from Valenciennes, the organist from the cemetery's church, a local prostitute and the sexton's granddaughter, the engineer Baratte undertakes this remarkable feat of human endeavour. They excavate mass graves, discover mummified bodies and dismantle the church. The work is exhausting both physically and psychologically. There are other forces at work too. Mysterious graffiti links the engineer's work to growing political tensions in the capital. Change is afoot and not everyone likes it.

Miller takes the fact of the cemetery's clearance and creates a fiction that is horribly compelling. From the opening chapter in Versailles to the scene in the catacomb and the vigil in the church, there is no shortage of excitement. The book is more than a page-turner though. Life in Paris and conditions in the cemetery are vividly described with an almost cinematic effect. The impact of the work on the characters is interesting since superstitions and the power of the imagination play tricks on the mind. The threat of terrors, both real and imagined, is never far away.

Pure is one of the most enjoyable books I've read in a long time.

Monday, 15 July 2013

On cockroaches

The roaches weren't my idea. 'But dad said I could,' my daughter informed me. Oh dear.

I have said no to a number of pets in my time. No to a dog, despite 'dog' mysteriously appearing on numerous Tesco shopping lists. No to a corn snake. No to lizards and even no to a wolverine. It's not that I have anything against pets per se. We do have two cats, one very old and skinny and another big fat tabby, but still the requests came. Sooner or later we had to give in. But Madagascan hissing cockroaches?

MHCs are not as easy to get hold of as one might imagine. In the end we settle for purchasing them from ebay. Ten of them. Various sizes. I just wish I'd said to the postman when I signed for the parcel 'Ah excellent! The cockroaches have arrived.'

It seems that cockroaches travel well by post and never has such tender loving care been lavished on such undesirable creatures. In fact, despite the protestations of friends and family, it turns out that they are rather...I was going to say cute but you might not believe me. Interesting then? MHCs grow to about 8cm in length, but only the adults 'hiss' by forcing air through spiracles on their abdomen. It turns out we have thirteen rather than ten. Or at least we think so. They are nocturnal and rather secretive so not the easiest creatures to count. They're not the easiest to tell apart either, making naming them rather problematic. We've settled for calling the smallest ones 'Jenkins'. Jenkins is the name given to the boy in any tale of mischief from The Mathematician's school. Medium-sized ones are known as BDB for reasons that only my son can explain. The largest one has already shed its skin and is known as 'Butterbean' for its astonishing whiteness in the first few hours after it moulted.

My daughter is away for a week at RAF camp on Anglesey so the roaches have already become our responsibility. I've had a couple of messages from her already. 'How are you?' she asks, but I know this is code for 'How are the roaches?' They are very well looked after, I tell her, with a choice selection of fish food and fresh fruit. I even bought a lettuce especially.

My daughter's hoping to breed them, so if you'd like a few just let us know. Don't all rush at once...

Isn't he/she handsome?

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Squeezing the orange

I often turn on Radio 4 halfway through an interview and spend the rest of the programme trying to work out the identity of the interviewee. I had no such trouble when I heard the distinctive voice of Henry Blofeld. For those of you who don't know him, he's a cricket commentator on Test Match Special which I guess is one of those broadcasts you either love or hate. I can overcome my irrational northern dislike of plummy private school accents for Blofeld because I find him so entertaining. He can make interesting conversation out of nothing at all. It's a gift I wish I shared. Anyway, on this occasion he was talking about his philosophy of 'squeezing the orange', that is making the most of each and every day.

The Curate's Egg family have certainly been squeezing their oranges recently. Numerous cricket matches have taken us from Carlisle to the darkest depths of Lancashire. Add to this a swimming gala, a football tournament and a moonlight walk in aid of a local hospice and you start to get the idea. The Mathematician took his class on an outward bounds trip last week and sits his Open University maths exam this Thursday. I'm knackered just thinking about it all.

But there have been some relaxing times too. TM and I spent a weekend in Manchester where I abandoned clothes shopping in favour of books and photography - far more satisfying. The weather was glorious and gave the city a relaxed holiday atmosphere. We revisited some of our old student haunts, including the wonderful Sinclairs pub. It used to be in quite a grotty part of town, a grey nondescript square bordered by a supermarket, but is now a great place to be.

I had a go at some street photography. I love people watching and street photography seems a natural progression, but I'm never quite comfortable about snapping strangers. I took a few shots and then turned my attention to the architecture instead.

The Royal Exchange is one of my favourite Manchester buildings with its intriguing interior mixing the old and the modern. Although there is now a modern theatre 'in the round' inside the building, you can still see the old trading boards:

The sunlit stained glass was stunning.

On Sunday we visited the Manchester Art Gallery. The Gallery of Craft and Design was excellent. I particularly liked Andy Hazell's animated sculptures of domestic life:

I wanted to know what each character was thinking. Surely there must be a short story in there somewhere?

There's so much more I want to show and tell you. There are more photos to be edited and I haven't even begun on the books I've read, but cricket is calling. Unless I get a last-minute text from the Shireshead coach, we're aiming to fit in two cricket matches today so I'd better make that picnic.

This orange will be well and truly squeezed.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Rachel Joyce

'The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelled of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn't eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen's telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbours' close-board fencing.'
Harold Fry is an unremarkable man, aged sixty-five and six months into his retirement. One day he receives a letter from an old friend. She tells him she's dying of cancer in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed.  He writes a short inadequate reply and walks to the post box. He walks past the first post box, and past the next, and then, before he knows it, he's resolved to walk the four hundred plus miles to see his friend Queenie in person.

At times both moving and humorous, the novel tells the story of his journey. As Harold walks, he reflects on his friendship with Queenie and his troubled relationships with his wife Maureen and his son David. He starts to believe that by walking to Berwick he can atone for his past mistakes and somehow save Queenie's life.

On the way he suffers terrible physical hardships. He's unfit and not equipped for such a journey, walking in boat shoes and without any equipment or even - heaven forbid - a mobile phone. His wife is not at all impressed, but Harold feels alive in a way he has not felt for years. He encounters a host of unusual characters, from the girl in the garage with her 'happy to help' badge, to the tramp who dances with him in the street. Like Bunyan's pilgrim, Harold learns many lessons on his journey. His brief encounter with a man who tells Harold of his unconventional relationship with a much younger man causes him to reflect:
'The silver-haired gentleman was in truth nothing like the man Harold had first imagined him to be. He was a chap like himself, with a unique pain; and yet there would be no knowing that if you passed him in the street, or sat opposite him in a cafe and did not share his teacake. Harold pictured the gentleman on a station platform, smart in his suit, looking no different from anyone else. It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The superhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that. Moved and humbled, he passed his paper napkin.'

Joyce tells the story well, moving between Harold's present hardships and past reflections with ease. Without being particularly deep or challenging, it's a very enjoyable read.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Where to begin?

As I write this I'm sitting in my favourite spot in Caffe Nero with my usual order of diet coke and tuna melt panini. You might be forgiven for thinking I'm taking it easy, with time on my hands. It's an easy mistake to make, I know. Instead, I'm having ONE OF THOSE DAYS. You know the type - those days where no sooner do you start one thing than you remember all the other things you should be doing. I have to remind myself that it's okay to sit here, since writing a blog post is on my list. I've been rather lax of late on the blogging front, but I rather like sitting in a cafe with my notebook, pretending to be one of those writerly types.

So let me tell you about all the things I could and should be doing. At the moment I'm dipping my toe in Shakespeare rather than the full immersion I'd hoped for at the start of the course. My study calendar tells me I should be reading Hamlet - or was that last week? My head's still buzzing from a dynamic youth production at the local Dukes theatre a couple of weeks ago. I have an assignment on Twelfth Night due in a couple of weeks, but I'd rather be reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. What's more, there's a Tobacco Factory production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Dukes this week. Twelfth Night is clearly going to have to wait.

On the novel front, this month's book group choice is Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. I've read it a couple of times before, the first being the more disconcerting since I could relate to Esther Greenwood's disturbed state of mind rather more than is healthy. I'm hosting book group this time so it's unlikely I'll be able to wriggle out of reading it again, even allowing for extra coffee making and other hostess duties. Hmmph! Reading's not supposed to be a chore.

I made the mistake of opening one of my birthday gifts, Elizabeth Taylor's Complete Short Stories. I only read the first few pages of 'Hester Lilly' and now I don't want to stop. Taylor's such a subtle and skillful writer that there's so much lies beneath the words on the page. It's a rather long short story so clearly The Bell Jar is going to have to wait too.

All these literary distractions wouldn't be so bad, but with the pace stepping up at work and the cricket season beginning, real life is really getting in the way.

But hey, better to have too much to do than too little.

And at least I can now cross one thing off my list.

Monday, 6 May 2013

It's that time of year again

I have The Mathematician to thank for many things. He's taught me to appreciate curry and a good wine, but most importantly he's introduced me to the game of cricket.

So it's cricket that brings me to Tyldesley on a sunny bank holiday afternoon to watch my son in his first trial for the under 11 Lancashire county team. With a good viewpoint on the boundary, a picnic and a book of Elizabeth Taylor's short stories, life couldn't be better.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

World Book Night

This was my first year as a World Book Night giver. I can certainly recommend the experience. Of the twenty titles available I chose Victoria Hislop's The Island. A young woman discovers the secret history of her great-grandmother Eleni, and her connection to the tiny, deserted island of Spinalonga, Greece's former leper colony. It's a book I enjoyed several years ago, partly for the moving story and also for its sense of place. I gave my copies away in the playground of my son's primary school, some to people I knew and others to complete strangers. It was wonderful to be able to give away something that has given me pleasure and also to enjoy the bookish conversations it provoked. I hope the recipients will enjoy the book as much as I did and pass it on to friends and family.

Whilst I was sitting in Nero's doing battle with an essay on Plutarch and Antony and Cleopatra, a stranger came up to me and offered me a book too. Philippa Gregory's The White Queen tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, mother of the Princes in the Tower. I've been told it's very good.

When a third of households in the UK don't have books in them and 16% of adults struggle with literacy, World Book Night is a wonderful idea.

You can find this year's list of books here. Which book would you have chosen?