Tuesday, 27 December 2011

What I did on my hols

Maybe it's my Scandinavian blood, but I like nothing better than a walk on the moors in drizzle and gloom.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Ightham Mote Cobnuts Project

I was brought up in Kent in south-east England. Although close to London, Kent was and still is largely rural, famed for its orchards, its hop fields and its cobnuts.
    Hops are a wild plant, used as an ingredient for beer. Up until the 1960s when mechanical picking was introduced, the poor inhabitants of London’s East End used to come down to Kent in September and camp in the countryside for several weeks in order to pick the fruit-clusters. That was their holiday. I don’t remember the pickers, but I do remember the tall trellises on which the hops were grown and which I still see when I go back to Kent for a visit.
    We were five children, all born within seven years, so my mother had to buy food in bulk – sacks of potatoes, sides of ham, and crates of fruit. I remember in particular her driving to a local orchard and coming back with a crate of cherries, a Kentish speciality. Such riches. We gorged ourselves, having spitting competitions with the stones. I read however that 85 per cent of Kent’s orchards have been lost in the last fifty years – since my childhood in other words.
    Although my father worked in London, we lived on a farm. We let most of the fields but kept a few cows and George, who lived in a flat over what had once been stables, looked after them, and told us children off when we played in the haystacks, destroying the bales with our jumps and slides.
    We also played in and on top of derelict pigsties, running along the precarious corrugated-iron roofs, hoping they wouldn’t collapse underneath us and pitch us on to the concrete below. I shouldn’t think that was permitted either but nobody knew except us.
    Next to the pigsties was a vast walled kitchen garden, again largely derelict, and an orchard. In the orchard were quinces, from which my mother occasionally made jam, and cobnuts. Cobnuts are a type of hazelnut. You eat them green (ie not dried) and what I remember most is the work involved in cracking the thick shell – out of proportion it seemed to me with what you actually got to eat. Still, hazelnuts have been cultivated since at least the middle ages and ‘Kentish cobs’ since the nineteenth century.
    All of which is a preamble to introducing you to a blog recently set up by a friend, the Ightham Mote Cobnuts Project (http://www.motecobnutsproject.blogspot.com/ ). (In spite of its outlandish spelling, the name 'Ightham' is pronounced  exactly like the simple four-letter word 'item', ie ite-m.) Ightham Mote is a medieval moated manor house owned by the National Trust. It looks glorious in the pictures but I am ashamed to say that I have never visited it, even though it is only a few miles away from where we lived. Gill, who still lives in Kent, and whose family owned a cobnut ‘plat’ or plantation, has taken on the task of restoring a derelict plat at Ightham Mote.
    I felt quite choked seeing Gill’s pictures, as they took me straight back to Kent and my childhood. Goodness knows why, as although the Kent climate and countryside are very different from that of Devon, I can't pin down why that's apparent in the pictures.
    Anyway, whether or not you're a Kentish lass, do check out Gill's blog as this is a fascinating and worthwhile project. And I look forward, Gill, to lots more posts about what you’re getting up to - and perhaps more about your childhood in Kent as well.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The present

Our garden at dawn on 18 December last year

All I really want for Christmas, apart from snow and chocolate that is, is a few days - I'd even settle for moments - of living in the present. No hankerings and regrets for the past. No fears and plans for the future. No list of things I have to do today. Just connection with that wondrous, multi-coloured, multi-layered, hologramatic, exciting, terrifying, web-like thing we call 'now'.

A happy Christmas and other winter celebrations. More joy and creativity to us all.*

Thank you for reading this blog.

* Thank you Bunk and Roselle for these words. I hope you don't mind me passing them on. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Writing rubbish

Can you see the rainbow?

Last week I was talking to one of my sisters on the phone. (I have two, sisters that is - and two brothers.) Although she is a few years younger than me, she has been writing children’s books for many years (published under the names Emma Fischel and Lottie Stride) and I tend to look on her as an expert in creative writing. I imagine her sitting at her desk churning out perfect prose by the bucket-load.
    ‘I’m so stuck on The Novel,’ I moaned. ‘And when I do write all that comes out is rubbish.’
    ‘But that’s perfectly normal,’ she said. ‘Getting stuck and writing rubbish are all part of the process. That’s all I do most of the time.’
    Since then I’ve written two and a half new scenes, discovered something huge about one of my characters that I hadn’t suspected, and come up with a whole new twist to the plot. The fact that it’s OK to write rubbish has completely freed me up.
    At this stage, it appears, it’s the fact of writing that’s important, not what you write. I was confusing the process of writing novels with the process of writing blogs. The words for blog posts appear more or less in their final form, but the final form of my novel is many drafts away. Many of the scenes I’m writing now may not even appear, but I know they’re there. They’ve told me something. They’ve unravelled a bit more of the story.
    I did know that. Why do I keep forgetting it?

Today is Ellie’s day with the dogminder, the day she spends haring to and fro with a gang of other dogs and comes home exhausted and the day I get to myself to do exactly what I want. I planned to do a little walking, a little meditating, and lots of writing. Instead I woke up with a migraine and I know I won’t be good for much. It’s God’s way of telling me to take a break, I suppose.
    Oh dear, I have so much to learn.

Back to bed, and sorry if I’ve been writing rubbish again. My brain’s a little addled today.

Same rainbow, different time.
(Does that make it a different rainbow?)

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Making do and mending

A few years ago I dropped a pair of woollen gloves while out walking Dog. A neighbour found them and brought them back.
    ‘I knew they were yours’, she said, ‘because the fingers were darned.’
    Frog and I were brought up in the fifties, a time of austerity and ‘make do and mend’. We both take great satisfaction in adapting, repairing, tracking down in unusual places and prolonging the life of – in his case technology and in my case clothes.
    Frog has sheds full of broken-down machinery chucked out by other people. He can’t bear to see it go to waste and, whenever he has a spare moment, tries to nurture it back to life. (What he does with it then is another question and a small bone of contention between us.)
    I don’t exactly have sheds full of clothes but I do have the aforementioned chest - of bits of material, sewing gone wrong, and worn-out garments that could conceivably be reused in some other guise . . .

. . . not to mention a drawer full of bits of cord cut from posh shopping bags (that I use in projects such as the caftans I make for Frog), a ragbag, two crates of  old bed-linen, curtains, rugs and tablecloths that live under the spare-room bunks, and a suitcase of clothes I’ll never wear again but can’t bear to move on such as the psychedelic-patterned orange-and-pink trouser suit I made in my teens . . .

and the purple-and-black-striped lurex dress and jacket I wore in my twenties.

    I may also have mentioned that I’m tall. This means that I can hardly ever get clothes to fit. Either I have to buy men’s clothes which is depressing or I buy women’s and adapt them.
    One of my ruses is to combine two short t-shirts to make one long one. As you can see from the picture at the beginning of this post, the top and the bottom don’t usually match, but no one has ever commented on this particular eccentricity in my dress. Perhaps I am abetted by the current (or maybe not so current) fashion for wearing two or more t-shirts on top of each other. As you can also see, I sometimes extend arms as well.
       Mostly I use up old t-shirts for the extra bits, but I didn’t have anything appropriate for my current project, a white shirt. Luckily I found a size 20 white t-shirt in Sainsbury’s sale rail for £1.12p. More than enough material. What a find! (Even if non-PC.)

The work-in-progress
You might think from these pictures that pink and purple are my favourite colours. Actually, they're my second-favourite colours. Emerald green is my first but it's hard to find. I do have a lovely emerald-green t-shirt but sadly it's starting to go into holes now. It's a man's t-shirt so I took in the chest and the arms, and it has the word 'bollocks' on the back so I have to wear it inside out. I acquired it when I was helping my sister-in-law clear out her wardrobe. It was one of her chuck-outs. Another lucky find!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011


The following is a slightly edited extract from my autobiography. It's about Brindle, our first dog, a spaniel/labrador cross ruled by her stomach and virtually untrainable.
    I’m not sure why I’m publishing it here, now, but it came to me while I was showering this morning, perhaps as a result of yesterday’s post (in which I mentioned the words that arrive in the head, seemingly automatically).
    Anyway, for what it’s worth, here it is.

 ‘In front of you,’ said Cheryl, ‘you will see some stairs. Climb the stairs and you will see a door. Your spirit guide is waiting for you the other side of the door. Go through the door . . .’
    Cheryl was leading half a dozen of us through a visualisation in order for us to meet our spirit guide for the first time.
    Nothing much happened to me that evening but the next day when I was out walking and sat down for my usual meditation I decided to try the visualisation again on my own.
    To my astonishment, even though I had no vision of a person, information flooded into my mind in response to my questions. I asked questions about everybody – Frog, me, my parents, friends, relatives – and about Brindle.
    ‘She was human in her previous life,’ said my informant, ‘but reincarnated this time in dog form in order to learn continence and obedience.’
    I couldn’t keep up with the information, I started to doubt it, I grew a little alarmed at what was going on, and the communication stopped. When I got home however I passed on to Frog the news about Brindle. I wasn’t quite sure how he would take it, whether he would scoff, but he surprised me, accepting it without question and summing up the situation in his usual pithy way.
    ‘Well, she hasn’t learnt much of either,’ he said.
    The year before Brin died I was working frantically on New Age Encyclopaedia. The project was much bigger than I had anticipated and I’d had to ask the publisher to extend the deadline by three months. Even so, I was still pushed. Then Brin fell ill. She looked drunk. She couldn’t walk straight and she kept being sick.
    ‘A stroke,’ said the vet.
    'Please, please, don't let her die,' I prayed.
    I didn’t have the time or the energy to deal with her death at that moment.
    She rallied, climbing the stairs with her legs collapsing underneath her, getting back to her normal routine within a few days.
    Her last few months coincided with a foot and mouth outbreak when the countryside was out of bounds. She and I trudged the lanes. She was deaf now as well as disobedient so I had to keep her on a lead. If she had run into a field I wouldn’t have had a hope of getting her back and she might have been shot.
    She didn’t like the situation any more than I did. She would stop in the middle of the road and look at me.
    ‘Why are we doing this?’ her eyes said. ‘I’m an old lady now. I’d much rather be at home.’
    ‘I’m sorry,’ I would reply. ‘We’ve got to get our exercise and it’s as far now to go home as it is to go on.’
    Frog and I went on holiday to a Greek island, leaving Brindle with neighbours. Because of a storm we couldn't get off the island at the end of our holiday and it looked like our return was going to be delayed at least three days. Ben, our neighbour, sounded worried when I phoned him.
    'I just hope Brindle will last,' he said.
    Eventually we made it home and the next day Frog and I took Brindle out for a walk. This was most unusual as normally I went out alone.
    Halfway up the steep lane behind the house, she collapsed. She couldn’t move, her tongue was hanging out and she was panting. Frog raced back down the hill to get the car so that we could take her home, while I waited with her by the side of the road.
    Thank goodness Frog had been there, I thought. What would I have done on my own? I had no phone. I couldn’t carry her. I would have had to leave her alone in order to go and get help.
    Back home we laid her on her bed and called the vet. Because of the panting we thought she was hot so we put a fan on her while we waited.
    When the vet arrived he looked serious.
    ‘It’s a pulmonary embolism, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘There’s no hope. She’s slowly suffocating.’
    Brin got up and staggered outside only to collapse again on the grass. We followed her and watched the vet administer the injection. As the plunger went in I saw her spirit burst from her body like a puff of steam and streak away northwards over the shed. It couldn’t wait to leave.

She had waited for me to finish my book. During the foot and mouth crisis she had walked round the lanes with me even though she hadn’t wanted to. She’d waited for Frog and me to get back from holiday. She’d made sure we were both there when she collapsed.
    Perhaps, in the end, she did what she came here to do.
Photograph by Sam Baker http://www.sambakerphotography.co.uk/

Tuesday, 22 November 2011


I wake as it gets light, feeling refreshed and relaxed. I have nothing planned for today, nothing I have to do. I didn’t have to lie awake in the night making lists. I don’t have to leap out of bed, already worried about how I’m going to fit everything in. Daytime doesn't stamp on Dreamtime and tell it it's worthless. Instead, it wraps itself around Dreamtime, keeping Dreamtime’s riches safe.
    I put on my fluffy pink dressing-gown and go down to the kitchen, Dreamtime's secret warmth inside me. Something good is going to happen today but I can’t remember what it is.
    Frog and I have breakfast in bed as usual but today we take our time, chatting about Life past, present and future.
    Ellie is now perfectly trained. She doesn’t whine at the bottom of the stairs, impatient to be off out, expecting me to entertain her every moment of the day. She doesn’t chase sheep either or jump up at people and cover them in muddy paw prints. I can walk where I like and meditate while I walk and think about my writing rather than about her and the mischief she might be up to.
    The wind is westerly today so I don’t hear or smell the motorway. Actually, now I come to think of it, the motor car is defunct. Vanished. Gone to meet its maker in the sky. Silence reigns and the air smells sweet.
    Much of the countryside has reverted to nature and Ellie and I ramble freely through woods, beside streams, along overgrown hedgerows, across heaths and moorland, past ruined cottages covered in ivy. We meet plenty of animals but none of the human variety.
    My mind takes off, a hot-air balloon released from its moorings, and words start to clatter into it like telex messages. I get out my notebook and pencil and write them down as I walk. I don’t judge them and I don’t panic when they stop. I know that I only have to take a few more steps and the next lot will be ready.
   Because I myself am creating, I feel part of the creativity all around. The Great Spirit is speaking to us all. I can hear it in the birdsong, see it in the wind that moves the grass. I am not an alien any longer, an interloper who can only destroy. I belong. I am good.
    When I get home it is dusk. Frog has lit a fire in the sitting-room. We sit beside it and watch the sun setting behind the hill. We know that we will live forever.

Me (right) and two friends, all dressed up.
(Thanks to Chris for unearthing the picture.)

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

My big fat Greek cardigan

This post is for Nina (http://www.ninafenner.blogspot.com/ ) – and of course for anyone else interested in the minutiae of customising clothes.
    About fifteen years ago while on holiday in Greece I bought a cardigan, hand knitted in wool from Greek mountain sheep with wooden – olive wood? – buttons.

I loved its colours – bright purple with emerald green – but not its shape. It stopped in tight ribbing just below stomach and bum, and made me look as if I was about to give birth. Never mind. I could probably alter it.
    If I’d been my sister or my mother I would have unpicked the bottom and reknitted it but knitting is not my forté and I didn’t have the confidence. I could see at best an awful ridge where I’d tried to pick up the stitches or at worst the entire garment unravelling. Over the next few years I tried various other solutions, like stretching the ribbing or knitting an insert for the sides, but nothing worked. I was going to have to be brave.
    All the way round the cardigan above the ribbing I sewed a piece of tape, and above that I sewed another piece. I then cut between the tapes all the way round. Phew. The ribbing was off.
    I then folded up the bottom of the cardigan, using the tape to make a neat(ish) hem, and tried the cardigan on. Wonderful. It fitted much better.

It was still lacking around the neck area however. I like interest in the neck area. It disguises the fact I have no bust. And I still had a long strip of ribbing that I didn’t want to waste. Brainwave. I would use the ribbing to make a collar.
    I did, and it worked. The tape already along one edge of the ribbing disguised the join. I used the whole length of ribbing and it fitted around the neck perfectly so you can see how tight it was around the hips.

I wore the cardigan every day during the cold spells of the last two winters. As well as being wonderfully warm and cheering, it felt just right, like mine now, and every time I put it on I admired my handiwork.

Afraid I'm not going to pose with the cardigan on.
I haven't got the hang of self-portraiture yet and my hair needs washing.
Sorry, I’m sounding smug. Perhaps I’d better tell you about the chest I have of sewing that didn’t work. But at least the material can be cannibalised and used to adapt other garments.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Mr and Mrs Duck

In my neighbour's wild garden this morning: the ducks who have made their home there.
They didn't want to be photographed and kept hiding round the other side of the pond's island then peeping round the corner to see if I was still there. I still was and eventually they got used to me.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Significant moments

Karma is a funny thing.
    Forty (blimey) years ago I was in my first year at Exeter university and struggling. I had spent much of my adolescence in my bedroom filling out my chart of food-and-drink-consumed, in the grip of anorexia. I was not equipped for being thrown in with several thousand of my contemporaries.
    Now my lovely niece, who spent much of her adolescence languishing at home with ME, is going through the same. And not only is she studying at Exeter, she is in the same hall of residence that I was (and the chairs in the television room haven’t changed).
    These however are kinder times. She has changed her course, she may change universities, and her family are making frequent visits to keep her spirits up. With any luck the next few years won’t degenerate for her into the disaster that they did for me.
    Yesterday my niece and I went for a walk by the sea. She borrowed my camera to take photographs. Actually, as I’ve explained before, it isn’t my camera. It was chucked out by my brother – my niece’s father – because it didn’t work, and repaired by Frog. The photograph above is one of hers.
    Trish Currie in her blog ‘What’s cooking?’ (http://www.trishcookingcurrie.blogspot.com/) writes about significant moments, the moments of each day that you remember and which in her case she turns into her exquisite almost-daily posts.
    I have many lovely memories from yesterday but one stands out from the others. Ellie playing in the waves with her new friend, a chocolate spaniel called Indie. Me talking to Indie’s ‘owners’. And my niece smiling in the sunlight.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Here goes

‘You try too hard,’ said my hairdresser Michelle as she worked something called ‘craft clay’ into my hair and mussed it all up.
    She was talking about my hair, but I haven’t been able to get her words out of my head.
    I’m terrified of doing anything to The Novel (always in capitals, note) in case nothing comes to mind. In case I can’t do it. I try to impose words on to the page. I don’t wait for them to come. I try too blxxdy hard.
    The paralysis has even extended to The Blog (as you may have noticed) – something which came so easily to start with.
    Yesterday I had my once-every-three-weeks collapse in bed – not quite a migraine this time – nausea and headache, yes, but not quite the black pall of all-over wretchedness that signals migraine – so today I feel good, back in touch with myself, liberated from the ‘to do’ list. I spent a day in bed and the world didn’t collapse. Maybe I could do more just for myself.
    Writing – when it works – gives me the same feeling. So here goes. Blog post first (good or bad) and then Novel.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

My weekend

Yesterday I drove for half an hour into the wilds of Mid Devon and went for a walk along a wooded river valley protected by the National Trust.

I needed to get Ellie away from all possible sources of illicit sport so that I could have a peaceful walk for once (Ellie’s illicit sport being one neighbour’s pheasants and another’s rescue sheep and chickens, as well as all the children on bicycles who appear at the weekend).

Apart from one family also out walking their dog I saw no one all morning. The river burbled and the leaves drifted down like snow. Ellie ran free.

In the words of Van Morrison, wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time.

The enchanted wood

My poetic aunt Annabelle has recently had her autobiography published in Norway where she lives to rave reviews. Partly at my insistence, she has now translated it into English, and Frog and I have been reading it for the last two days, riveted. It is called The Girls’ School (Pikeskolen in Norwegian).

She has so much to write about – what it’s like to live in two cultures at once (English and Norwegian), losing her mother at the age of six and her current battle with an obscure illness called myasthenia gravis to name but three of the themes.

Please, English publishers, take hold of this book and give it the attention it deserves.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Fits and starts

Many apologies for my long silence. I am still here.

As I’ve said before, I’m a person of small brain and can only concentrate on one thing at a time and, as I’ve had absolutely no ideas whatsoever about what to write here, I think that my brain must be occupied with Novel at the moment.

Contrary to what I said in the last but one post, I’m still on the first draft. I discovered that while I knew roughly what happened in the second half of the book, I didn’t know how it happened. So that’s what I’m working through at the moment – in fits and starts.

I find this stage both the most exciting – when inspiration arrives – and the most terrifying – when inspiration departs. With later drafts you have something concrete to work on – words you’ve already written, however bad they are – but at this stage all you have is the mush in your brain and the divine spark that transforms it but which isn’t under your control.

I think I’m coming to my main character’s lowest point and I find it hard to put both her – and me – through that. It’s also hard to see her getting things so wrong. It’s like admitting to one’s own failures. (It is admitting to one's own failures?)

Is this all interesting to anyone apart from other writers? Or to anyone? I don’t know. In case not, here’s a picture that I took a few days ago while walking Dog. I always get Lord-of-the-Rings-ish at this time of year and this path reminds me of the (first) film.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Several pictures, not many words


More sun, more trees

Dead oak tree and view

Nearly-new moon

Toadstool row

Friday, 23 September 2011

Mini update

1.      My new walking boots are great. My feet have almost stopped hurting.

2.      Ellie is a year and a quarter now. When we took her to the vet for her yearly booster injection, the vet complimented us on her behaviour. A lot of dogs with her mixture of breeds (springer spaniel and collie) turn into problem dogs, apparently. I wasn’t sure whether to be depressed or pleased.

3.      I am suffering from a strange complaint. For the last four weeks my lips have been cracking, peeling and bleeding. Sometimes they swell as if with collagen implants gone wrong. (Frog, bless him, says he can’t see any difference from normal.) In desperation I went to the doctor and, as usual when they hear I’m almost vegan, she wanted to do a blood test to check for my iron levels. Results on Monday.

4.      I have plunged into Second Draft of Novel and am quite pleased with how it’s shaping up (at the moment, today, touch wood, fingers crossed). Hence the sketchiness of this post and my recent silence.

Ellie in clover

Monday, 19 September 2011


So sad, lump in my solar plexus. Want to cry.
What is it?
Feel alone. Lost.

Unsure about writing.
Unsure about dog.


Not think.
Chance to feel.

. . .

Such beautiful stillness today.

I love my blogging friends.

Be kind to myself.

I don’t have to do anything except put one foot in front of the other.

Help is there.

I don’t have to be in charge of everything.

One word in front of the other.

Be myself.


I feel connected again

A breeze touches my cheeks

A bird above me sings

Thank you God
Thank you.

A crow laughs at me

It will all get sorted

I want some scrambled eggs and a soya-milk cappuccino

One step at a time

Burow Mump, Somerset

Thursday, 15 September 2011

24 hours

Today is Ellie’s day at the dogminder and my day off – my chance to have an ‘artist’s date’. (I’m not a proper artist of course, even though Frog insists I am, but it’s what I’ve always wanted to be and if I have enough dates, perhaps I’ll turn into one one day.) I have three choices of what to do. I could go and see Nina’s exhibition (http://www.devonartistnetwork.co.uk/ ), I could browse round clothes shops in Exeter, or I could do some writing for The Novel.
    The third choice is what I really want - or perhaps need - to do, I think, but it fills me with terror. What if I can’t do it? I’ll end up feeling even worse than I do already, not-writing. I can’t find out where Nina’s exhibition is, so I decide to try and do (no, not ‘try’, ‘do’, as Obi Wan Kenobi says in Star Wars) some writing for The Novel.
    As I head for a private corner of the next field but one (I have to be outside for first drafts. It’s the only place I feel free, or relatively so anyway) I see two magpies. An auspicious sign! I’m going to do it!
    I sit down, open my notebook and plunge in. An hour or so later I have ten pages, the last chapter of the rough, very rough First Draft of Novel. Hooray! I ring Frog to celebrate and to sort of get his permission to go into Exeter. ‘Have a good browse,’ he says. How kind.
    I don’t enjoy my browse. Winter clothes are so boring – expensive, sensible and grey. I go to the library instead and then to Waterstone’s where I treat myself to a copy of One Day which everyone is talking about and which Frog’s niece was reading when she came to stay two weeks ago. (I looked it up on the library computer and it had 49 reservations, so no chance of getting it there. My excuse for spending money.)
    I come home and lie in the garden. The sun is out and it’s almost warm. I deliberately don’t read and instead let my mind run over what I’ve done so far for The Novel and where I might go next. I feel guilty lying doing nothing (what don’t I feel guilty about? Frog would say) but then I realise that I am doing something. Writers are working even when it looks as if they’re just lying in the sun in the garden.
    Aren't they?
    We have a small swimming-pool in the garden (Yes, I know, disgusting isn’t it, and another thing to feel guilty about, but the man we bought the house from thirty years ago had MS and had it built because swimming was the only exercise he could do so who are we to complain) so I plunge in and feel wonderfully refreshed. All the makeup I put on to go into Exeter is smeared – I have mascara all over my cheeks – and my hair is a disaster. I feel like me again, instead of somebody smart and normal.
    Dog is delivered home and then she and I hear Frog’s distinctive car-hoot and run to the gate to greet him. He swims while I cook supper.
    I have some chilli ratatouille left over from the day before yesterday and some cooked runner beans from yesterday, so I fry up some onion and then add the left-overs and some beaten egg to make a sort of Spanish omelette. Frog eats it with relish, as he does almost everything. He is a delight to cook for.
    Neither of us can see anything whatsoever that we want to watch on television, so I wipe off the smudged mascara and squash my hair and drive into the village to look for a DVD and to get our weekly chocolate ration. (Frog by now is in a caftan, so can’t be seen in public, he says. I’m not sure why not.)
    I find 127 hours about the man who got stuck in a canyon and had to cut off his own arm to escape. It’s actually quite gripping and not just an adventure story, as he reviews his life while he’s there. Interesting. My novel is set over a short space of time too. Perhaps I need a stronger plot angle/gimmick/premise. 
    I eat my chocolate ration in one go while Frog nibbles a tiny bit of his and leaves the rest to eat throughout the week. That’s what we always do. He has to have chocolate I don't like so that I don't steal his when mine is all gone.
    I sleep badly, waking every two hours. In between waking, I’m half-awake, half-asleep. My sleep goes in cycles, like my migraines. It’s tiring. I should be able to relax after getting to the end of The First Draft, but now I’m worrying about whether I can do the rest. In some ways writing books is hell, but not-writing them is even worse. The trouble, I think, is that I don’t have enough experience. I don’t have the confidence that I can do it. But maybe all writers feel like that. You have to, if you’re not going to churn out the same thing over and over.
    We wake to a glorious day but before I walk Dog I succumb to temptation (leaving her whining in the kitchen), switch my computer on and read some of the new blog I’ve discovered, ‘What’s cooking?’ (http://www.trishcookingcurrie.blogspot.com/ ). The author writes of her days in minute poetic detail. I wonder if I should try that myself.
    So I do. And here it is. My day, in minute detail. But not poetic, I think. I need more practice. Or maybe I should just saw off my leg to make it more gripping instead.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Along the lanes of Devon

One of my nieces, who lived in London but came to Devon on holiday with her family, thought that Devon was where you went when you died. She had confused the words ‘Devon’ and ‘heaven’.
    Other people look on the countryside as a litter bin.

These photographs were all taken along the lanes near where I live. One walk. A normal day.

Last week when I was waiting in the building society I picked up the local paper and read about a cow which had died after swallowing a discarded crisp packet. They go for the salt apparently.

This morning

A calf on its side.
Swollen stomach.
Flies on its eye.

A cow -
its mother -
standing over it.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Sloe gin

Here is my recipe for sloe gin. Unfortunately you do have to buy the gin to mix with the sloes, which is expensive, but the resulting liqueur is deliciously plummy, sharp and sweet at the same time, and a glorious viscous red.
    The sloe gin you make this autumn will be ready for Christmas so you can use it for Christmas presents. I gave a glass to my sister once when she came to stay with a nasty cough and the cough disappeared. Nigel Slater puts it in his plum crumble. I’ve been known to have a nip in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep.
    So there you are – a multitude of uses.

Sloes are wild plums, fruit of the blackthorn tree. They are ripe now, but stay on the trees for a couple of months, so no rush.
    As you pick the sloes, put them in the freezer. This softens the skin and enables the fruit to meld with the gin. It also means you don't have to gather them all at once and only have to pick a few at a time from each place so can leave plenty for the wildlife to eat. If you try eating them raw yourself  however they will shrivel your mouth – they are unbelievably sour.
    Pick the fruit blue and slightly soft (ripe) rather than green and hard (unripe) but don’t worry too much about the odd leaf or twig getting in. It all gets sieved eventually.

Blackthorn is called 'black' because of its black bark, particularly apparent when the white blossom comes out in the spring. The blossom comes out before the leaves and is the earliest to do so. I’ve seen it out in February, a heart-warming sight at such a bleak time of year. Both the pictures below were taken in April however, one last year and one this year, with the blossom later than usual after two hard winters.

Recipe (at last)

300g/10oz sloes (straight from the freezer is fine)
150g/5oz white sugar
600ml/1 pint London gin

Combine the ingredients in a large wide-mouthed bottle or jar with a screw lid. Shake the jar gently every so often for a few days until the sugar has dissolved and then put it somewhere cool and dark. Have a look at the jar once a week or so and give it another shake.
    Sieve the liqueur into bottles when you want to use it and put the sloes on the compost heap. (I’ve tried eating them but there’s too much skin-to-flesh so they’re rather dry and chewy.)
    Either way (with or without sloes in it), the sloe gin will keep for several years.
I’m afraid you do have to use the dreaded white sugar. Brown spoils both the taste and the colour. Unprocessed white is fine however.
    And don’t try to economise by buying cheap gin. That spoils the taste too. Whatever ‘London’ gin is, it seems to work best.

Friday, 9 September 2011

At the start of autumn

The wispy fruits of old man’s beard, a wild clematis.
    This used to grow all over the chalky soils of Kent’s North Downs where I lived as a child, but is not so common in Devon. Another name for it is travellers’ joy, perhaps because the young leaves used to be made into a poultice for tired feet and lotion for saddle sores.
    Most of the plant is poisonous (except the leaves, I think).

Blackberries, yum, at their best now before the flies find them or they start to rot (although with the recent rain they're already going soggy). To me, their taste is the essence of autumn, but at the moment I have to remember to keep my right hand for dog-treats and dog-lick and my left hand for me and the blackberries.

Hips, the fruit of the wild rose.
    According to Richard Mabey in Food for Free, rosehips contain twenty times more vitamin C than oranges. They were gathered in the War, when there was little imported fruit, to make syrup. This was then available from welfare clinics for mothers and children, as well as for sale. I remember it from my childhood in the 1950s, still being distributed for children along with the dreaded (disgusting) cod liver oil, spoonsful of which we were fed regularly.
    If you have a lot of time (for all the straining), you can make jelly with rosehips, combining them with either apples or haws.

Haws, the fruit of the hawthorn tree.
    These and other wild fruit and nuts help to feed birds during the winter, so never cut hedges at this time of year (although, sadly, many farmers do). The best time to cut hedges is in January or February after the fruit has gone but before the trees and bushes start to sprout and the birds to nest.