Tuesday, 24 January 2012


On Friday I had a tantrum. I didn’t feel too bad about it as Frog used to have tantrums all the time. I’m not blaming Frog. It takes two to make a situation and, if Frog’s sins were of commission, then mine were of omission.
    Yes, I know, I’m talking in riddles, but that’s all I’m going to say for the moment.
    I wasn’t brought up to be angry. I do remember however losing my temper occasionally with my four younger brothers and sisters. I had taken it upon myself to look after them all and sometimes it all just got too much. I have a vivid memory of one of my sisters barricading herself in her bedroom and me trying to kick the door down. So I do have a temper - and quite a good one at that.
    So, having not been brought up with anger – not with much emotion at all in fact – I didn’t know how to deal with Frog’s anger. I shut myself off. The angrier he got, the more I retreated, until eventually I would go and hide in another part of the house while Frog would rampage around looking for me.
    One day, I’d had enough. I emerged, squared up to Frog and said, ‘Just stop it.’ Amazingly, he did.
    Now, it’s mostly the dog that Frog gets angry with and, for my part, the fact that it’s a dog rather than a person who’s now bullying me must mean that I’m nearly there. (And I will get to grips with that canine monster, I promise.)
   Anyway, Frog and I – with all our practice – retrieved the situation on Friday and on Saturday I woke up feeling good.
    We used to have a friend (she doesn’t like me any more) who had a theory. It wasn’t good to be too healthy all the time. Sometimes your body needed a wake-up call to get it working – too much alcohol, too much chocolate, not enough sleep. A bit like jumping into cold water, I suppose. Maybe anger, or strong emotions in general, are rather like that too – although there are I know far better ways than tantrums of letting them out.
    Part of the problem was that I’d got myself confused. I’d become stuck on the novel and so I’d thought I wasn’t a novel-writer. I’d started exploring other ways of justifying my existence – a job, a non-fiction project. The non-fiction project didn’t work out and I was stranded.
    Recently I was re-reading Roald Dahl’s brilliant autobiography Boy in which there’s a wonderful section about being a writer. Unfortunately I’ve taken the book back to library so I can’t quote it to you, but it begins something like, ‘In comparison with the life of a businessman, the life of a writer is hell’ – and he’d been both. Every day, you have to come up with new ideas, and every day before you sat down to write you didn’t know if you could do it. ‘No wonder we all drink too much whisky,’ he said.
    I would agree. Maybe hell is going a bit far, but trying to write and not being able to is just about the worst feeling I know. Whether it’s worse than not even trying I’m not sure – and certainly the effect on me of not trying (viz tantrums) is pretty unpleasant. On the other hand, when writing works the feeling is amazing – like love.
    So one of the things we resolved on Friday night was that I was actually a writer after all. I couldn’t escape it. I had to keep trying with the novel.
    And, as were driving to Glastonbury on Saturday morning, I had an idea. The main character of my novel was going to have a tantrum too.
    Yesterday, I manoeuvred her into position. Today I have to send her into the attack.
    Wish me luck.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Nature in the almost-raw

Twenty-four years ago Frog and I were on a train from Exeter to London. As I looked out of the window I saw a mysterious waterway snaking its way alongside and underneath the railway track. It meandered like a river and yet it didn’t sparkle and ripple like a river. It stared back at me, a flat grey mirror almost hidden by an unruly fringe of trees and bushes.
    ‘That looks interesting,’ I said, pointing it out to Frog. ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to explore.’
    I was remembering my favourite childhood holiday, when we’d visited the Norfolk Broads and my brother and I had been allowed to go out on our own in canoes and explore the vast deserted network of pools and creeks.
    ‘It’s a canal,’ said Frog excitedly. ‘I’ve always wanted to have a canal boat holiday.’
    We’d been married ten years and yet here was something I didn’t know about him.
    A few months later Frog, Dog (Brindle) and I were ensconced on Eliza Jane, a private boat we’d hired for the week on the Kennet and Avon Canal, which runs from Bristol to London.
    The canal had only just been restored and we were the only boat around. We forged a track through weed-green water like an icebreaker, frequently going aground, partly through our lack of experience and partly because the canal was imperfectly dredged. Leaping ashore was a major operation, involving calculating just where the reeds ended and dry land began, more than often than not ending in soaking wet feet. Once that was accomplished, there was four foot or so of slippery wobbly gangplank to negotiate, something Brindle never really got the hang of. Luckily she enjoyed swimming. At night we could moor up in the middle of nowhere in bulrushes taller than the boat and listen to the calls of the wild.

The canal towpath in wilder times. (Frog and Brindle, 1988.)

On the outskirts of Devizes - only a swan to make a trail through the weed

    Since then we’ve had at least a dozen more holidays on the K & A. We all loved canal-boating. Frog loved the human-sized technology – the steam-powered pumping stations, the hand-cranked locks, the swing-bridges you pushed with your bottom, the boat’s diesel engine that you could fiddle with through a hatch in the deck. I loved being close to nature and being able to walk all day along the towpath more than keeping pace with a boat that only went at two miles an hour. Brindle had a particular penchant for eating anglers’ bait and chasing ducks. Penny loved being with us twenty-four hours a day.
    Year by year however the canal has become busier and more civilised. The shrubs and trees have been tamed. ‘Live-aboards’ (permanently occupied boats) line the banks, with designated concreted or decked stretches for ‘temporary moorings’ (holiday boats). The towpath has become full of litter, and crowds of ‘gongoozlers’ hang around watching the boaters work. Our holiday last year with Ellie was anything but relaxing. Perhaps we needed a new canal.
    On Saturday, we decided to explore the recently re-opened Taunton and Bridgwater. After an excellent lunch at our favourite vegetarian restaurant in Glastonbury (Rainbows End – go through a yellow doorway and up a passage) and a quick dart into Sainsbury’s at Street to check for some emerald green trousers I’d seen in Exeter but not in my size (they didn’t have them), we parked next to a lock and set off up the towpath.
    We had a good walk – Frog only lost his temper with Ellie once – and although the countryside was a little dreary and we could hear the drone of the M5 the canal itself was suitably empty. When we got home I checked the internet for boat hire. Google directed me to a company at King’s Bromley in Staffordshire. Not much good, but I started thinking about the place-name ‘Bromley’, partly because of the suffix ‘ley’ (for more on the intriguing subject of ‘leys’, see my post of 3 July last year) and partly because there was another Bromley near where I was brought up in Kent.
    I looked the name up in my Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names and discovered that it meant ‘the clearing in the wood where broom (gorse) or brambles grow’. Bromley-near-where-I-was-brought-up is now part of Greater London. I don’t remember it as containing even a flash of green. What a lovely name but what a hideous place. I felt a familiar pang. How much we have lost.
     I try not to get on my soapbox in this blog. With a few exceptions, I find it boring when other people do so. I’ve had my fill of protestation (as also explained in a previous post – ‘New age genesis’, 12 April last year) and these days think that positive examples are so much more effective. But I do agree with the speaker on last Wednesday’s ‘4thought.tv’ on Channel 4 that population growth is what we really need to be tackling. Worrying about global warming and biodiversity are luxury-liner-deckchair-rearranging exercises. Governments should be taxing people for having children, not paying them.
    I realise however that this is dangerous ground and that, as someone who never really wanted children, who finds the company of other humans (with the exception of Frog) almost unbearably tiring, and who likes nature in the raw, I could be biased.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Pragmatism and optimism

I feel thoroughly ashamed of yesterday’s post but Frog says keep it in and I trust his judgement. In mitigation, here are some happier stories.

Last Friday I took the day off, thinking it might forestall the migraine I could feel coming on. It didn’t, but I had a lovely time. Ellie and I set off for our usual walk at the nearby National Trust park and then deviated. Why not, I thought. I have no time limits today. We found a tiny family chapel and in the corner of the churchyard was a splash of pink. I went to investigate. A rash of cyclamen all around the ancient gravestones. So unexpected. So delightful.

On my way through the back roads by car into Exeter or down to the farm shop I pass a house on a right-angled bend. The bend is actually created as the road goes round the corner of the house. About thirty years ago (yes, we’ve been living here for a long time), I nearly collided with a car on the corner. I was driving a Mini (as usual) and my foot got stuck between the pedals, as it can do with Minis, the pedals being rather close together.
     I hurtled down the hill towards the corner trying to extricate my foot. Just in time I managed and slewed to a halt, rather shaken, about two inches from the front bumper of a car coming in the opposite direction.
     A woman flew out of the house.
    ‘It was all your fault,' she shouted at me. 'You were driving much too fast.’
    I tried to explain but I could see she didn’t believe me. I could see what she was thinking. ‘Just another young person who doesn’t know how to drive properly.’
    I’ve never forgiven her. (I was born in a Chinese snake year, and Chinese snakes can apparently bear grudges for a long long time. Too true.) What’s more, next to the house are two vast battery-chicken sheds. And so ever since then every time I go past I blast the horn loud and long, hoping that I wake her up from whatever nap she’s trying to have.
    As I drove past last week however I saw that the battery-chicken sheds were coming down. In response to the EU directive against keeping chickens in cages, I suppose. Thank goodness.
    Do I still beep my horn? You bet.

On Sunday Frog was going through the Christmas tree lights checking that they all worked before putting them away. For some reason that I don’t quite understand (and I daren’t ask why as Frog’s technical explanations usually end up confusing me even more), he combined two sets of lights into one, so that we had half the amount of lights that we did before.
    ‘Perhaps we should get another set in the sales,’ I said.
    And then I had a thought.
    ‘But of course, if the world’s going to end on the 21st of December there’s not much point is there.’*
    ‘If the world’s going to end on the 21st of December,’ said Frog, ‘we’ll put the Christmas tree up early.’
    Which perfectly illustrates his unique blend of pragmatism and optimism.

*According the ancient Mayan calendar, New Agers and a large proportion of Americans.

Monday, 16 January 2012


What I love about blogs is people’s honesty. They make me realise that, however cheerful we all pretend to be most of the time, we all have monsters lurking somewhere.
    I’ve been blogging for nearly a year now and I’ve introduced you to most of the peripherals of my life. Perhaps it’s time now to go deeper and admit to some of my monsters.

The day after a migraine. As nearly always, after a day in bed concentrating on nothing but pain, I feel clear-headed and released from burdens. Even the dog behaves – more or less. She keeps quite close as we walk up the lane and then at the top of the hill when we stop under one of the three beech trees she sits beside me.

The three beech trees on the hill
I love these trees. I think they are the remnant of a hedge as part of their roots are visible. I always feel happy when I sit under them. Perhaps it’s the view – all the way down to the sea and over to Dartmoor. Perhaps it’s because they remind me of a tree my brother and I loved to sit in when we were very young. We called it the ‘goblin tree’.

One of my beloved beech trees (in December 2010)

It doesn’t take long though before Ellie is fidgeting. First she crunches on a beech nut. Then she tears a stick to pieces. Finally, she starts digging a hole under my bottom, showering me with earth. I get the message.
    On the way down the path she spies a lone walker behind us and, ignoring my calls, races up to him and puts muddy footprints all over his trousers. Not surprisingly, he is peeved.
    All afternoon, as Frog does something mysterious in his semi-underground music room/den and I do some work towards a possible new writing project up in my loft room, she whines in the kitchen.
    The kitchen is like a medieval great hall. It is in the centre of the house and every room opens off it. Both Frog and I have our doors open. My room is a gallery over the kitchen. Ellie is not separated from us. In any case, even if I do allow her to come upstairs with me, she still whines.   

On Monday mornings Jo comes round and spends two hours scouring the house for us. (I know, I should do it myself, shouldn’t I. I’m disgustingly privileged. My excuse is Frog’s clutter. It’s a full-time job keeping space clear for me.)
    Anyway, Jo is a dog person too and she understands only too well about me and Ellie. We discuss the collars that give dogs a small electric shock. They have a remarkable effect apparently on dogs’ obedience and you only have to use the shock bit once. After that you just use the ‘vibrate’ button.
    ‘Look,’ said Jo. ‘I know you are the sort of person who bends over backwards not to hurt anybody or anything, but at the moment it’s a battle between you and Ellie, and Ellie is winning. She’s a diva. She’s taken over your life.’
    I can’t speak.
    Ellie goes to the dogminder and I sit on the hill and cry. I want my life back.   

Monday, 2 January 2012

Winter strips us naked

Winter strips us naked.
We have no leaves to protect us from the sky.
Our roots struggle to hold on to the sodden earth.
And when storms come
some of us fall.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Winter, what winter?

Here is a list of the wild plants I saw in flower when out walking yesterday, some admittedly rather bedraggled and difficult to identify, but even so.

herb Robert
red campion
greater stitchwort
wild strawberry
dog rose
field madder
wild pansy
cow parsley
black nightshade
herb Bennett?
goat’s beard?
red deadnettle?

This, I couldn't identify.