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 ( ), 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?’ ( ). 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.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

What I'm reading/watching

In my teens and early twenties I was consumed with travel fever. After a year spent working my way round Australia, however, the fever abated. I realised that it wasn’t so much travel fever that had afflicted me as the need to get away from my family and establish myself as independent. Australia obviously did that (up to a point). One place I would still love to go though is Iceland.
    According to Frog’s book about flags, Iceland is almost half the size of the UK but has a population of only 280 thousand (whereas the UK has a population of nearly 60 million). According to Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason the lakes in Iceland ice over in the autumn and if you fall into one you die within minutes. In the countryside, a blizzard can arise from nowhere and take a child out seeing to the animals with his father. The men have names that sound as if they belong to Tolkien heroes, sheeps' heads pickled in sour milk are a traditional delicacy, and the prospect of winter casts a blight over everyone’s souls. What more could a girl want?
    Indridason’s most famous book is Jar City (I love that title), also published as Tainted Black, but I haven’t managed to find it in the library yet. Hypothermia is a later title in the same series, which is about a police detective called Erlendur. It is beautifully translated and as near as I’ve managed to get so far to that country.

Last night, while Frog was doing archery, I watched a film called Julie and Julia, recommended by a niece. It was about blogging, the love of good food, a tall woman and wanting to be a writer. I wonder why she thought of me.
    It was nothing ground-breaking but a pleasant way to spend an evening, with Meryl Streep in fine form, and was apparently adapted from a book of the same name.

A book which kept me awake most of Monday night and which is also to be made into a film is The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Set in Mississippi in the early 1960s, it tells the story of that stultifying, not to say atrocious, place and time through the eyes of two black maids and a young rich white woman. Riveting, heartbreaking, funny. I only hope the film does it justice.

Yesterday I drew up a list of strategies to help my writing. One of them was to stop reading for a while. I am a compulsive reader, and I know that filling my head with other people’s words is not conducive to producing my own. (Stopping reading is also recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, a book I mentioned earlier, in March (‘Artists’ dates’).)
    This afternoon, when I got back from rushing around Exeter doing errands, I just had to lie down and rest. (It’s probably an age thing.) I put the new regime into practice immediately and didn’t pick up a book as I usually would. This post was the result. Let’s hope I can extend the effects to novel-writing.