Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Writing binges

Goodreads is a social networking site where people share opinions about books. At least, I think that’s what it is. I find it very confusing. I’ve joined in order to support Patrick Newman (mentioned in a post a few weeks ago in connection with his new book Tracking the Weretiger). Pat has been assiduous in posting book reviews and one which caught my eye was about Buzz Aldrin’s Magnificent Desolation, in no small part because of its magnificent title. I found it in the library and am reading it at the moment.
    I’d heard about the trouble astronauts have adjusting to life back on Earth and I’d always thought that was because they’d had such a profound spiritual experience while in space that normal existence paled by comparison. For Buzz, it wasn’t quite like that.
    The title is his description of both the moon and his reaction on returning. Having achieved in his thirties something as momentous as walking on the moon, something for which he’d been training all his life, he didn’t know what to do next. He began to suffer from depression and he began to drink.
    His description of the moon voyage is technical rather than emotional. As he says, they were trained to get the job done, not have feelings about it. (And with typical modesty he suggests that a poet, musician or journalist should go to the moon so that they can describe it properly for the world.) But it’s interesting nonetheless because of the detail – about the suits, the food, the metallic smell of moon dust, the fact that you can't stop dead when walking on the moon, the dicey machinery. (He had to replace a broken switch with a biro in order to take off from the moon.)
    What’s really struck me about his experiences however (and I’m only halfway through the book) is how secret he felt he had to keep his illness and how, once he did come clean and ask for help, his career in the Air Force was finished.
    Aren’t we all sick, to a greater or lesser degree? Health is a process, a process of experimentation and of adjustment to changing circumstances. You can always have more. And I think it was Jung who said that his patients never actually recovered. They just learnt to live with their condition and moved on.
    This morning at breakfast, I was trying to explain to Frog my current mental battles. (Breakfast is a good time to catch him. He’s half asleep and not distracted by all the things that usually distract him, like music, radio, practical tasks, television, books.) I was talking about the way I go into inspiration overload, how I seem to have to work myself into a frenzy in order to write, about how unpleasant that is, and about how unpleasant the comedown is (exhaustion, depression, migraine).
    ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘Writing binges.’
    Wow, I thought. He was listening, and he’s encapsulated in two words everything I was trying to say. And, having been in the doldrums since Wednesday (‘I'm bereft of inspiration. I shall never write again’), I thought ‘blog post’.
    Whenever we have a strong wind our broadband disconnects. I reconnect it by clicking on a button labelled ‘connect’ on my computer. I find that incomprehensible. How can something physical – the effect of wind – be remedied by something virtual? Don’t I have to climb on to the roof and fiddle with wires?
    As I reconnected this morning, I thought - if only I could do the same with my brain. Why can’t I switch on the inspiration when I want to write and switch it off when I want to relax? Why does it all have to be so painful?
    Perhaps it doesn't. It's not as if I've been to the moon or anything.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Two more snowy pictures

I like this picture because of the view. We're on the hill behind the house and the grey smudge on the left-hand horizon is Dartmoor

'I can roll in this stuff AND make tunnels in it with my nose. It's SO exciting.'

And now I really will stop (unless we have any more snow). As you might be able to tell, I like the stuff too.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Garden tour

Inspired by the lovely Autumn Cottage Diarist blog and in imitation of the Ightham Mote Cobnuts Project blog which cleverly interweaves text and pictures, I thought I'd give you a tour of our garden. I should warn you however that it is nothing like the beautiful and beautifully tended plot at Autumn Cottage. (Links to both blogs in panel, right.)

I am ambivalent about flower gardening. I like my nature wild so I baulk at introducing non-native plants and then spending hours tending them. Nor do I like uprooting plants in the name of weeding. Frog's good at destructive gardening, preferably with a machine - hedgetrimming, mowing and chainsawing, but not keen on the detailed stuff. So our flowerbeds are a compromise, to say the least.

Note the birdfeeder in this bed, which was the stand for the For Sale sign outside our house when we bought it thirty-three years ago, never collected by the estate agents so turned upside down by Frog and put to good use.

My pride and joy are my raised vegetable beds, which I dug out myself from the steep slope that is our garden about five years ago (and then spent a month in agony lying on my front).

The beds vary in size because of the shape of the space but - in case you're interested - I have discovered that the ideal width is 2 1/2 to 3 feet. (Any wider and you can't reach the middle. Any narrower and you can't get much in.)

In the background of this picture (above right) you might see some scrap metal and a strange boat-shaped object lying in the hedge. These are variously an aerial, the rusting frame of a kit car and the base of a kit car. As I say, Frog always has lots of projects on the go . . .

You might also note the upward extension on the beds. Frog did this for me this autumn as rabbit-proofing (rabbits can't jump higher than about 18 inches I have discovered) and because the beds were starting to overflow.
And if you want an efficient, helpful and reasonably priced timber merchant in Mid Devon, I can thoroughly recommend Pennymoor Timber.
In the background of these pictures (left and above right) you can just see the mesh protecting my purple sprouting broccoli from pigeons and butterflies/caterpillars. Unfortunately when the snow landed on it last Friday the plants were completely flattened. I brushed all the snow off and I think they'll recover.

The beds were starting to overflow because, when I have time and when I want some strenuous exercise, I load them with compost and horse manure.

Both my compost bins and my horse-manure source (the stables next door) are at the bottom of hills - which means that full wheelbarrows have to be pushed uphill. Well, it's as good a way of working off the Christmas surplus as any.

In the picture on the right you might notice the fencing laid across the base of the hedge. This is Frog's attempt to stop the dog excavating rabbit holes and then coming home plastered in mud. Luckily the dog has found a way to climb on to the hedge and approach the rabbit holes from above. (I say 'luckily' because, if Dog is happy and busy, then so am I.)

Because our plot used to be an orchard, we are blessed with proper Devon hedge on all sides. Some of this is made up of elm which, as I'm sure you know, dies when it gets to a certain age. If you cut down the dead trees, the bases do sprout again, but we like to leave some of them for the woodpeckers.

Here (right) is some of Frog's scaffolding put to good use keeping pots out of the way of the rabbits.

(Plus a trellis cobbled together from some of what Frog calls 'racking'. It was being thrown out at one of the places where he works so perhaps I'd better not say too much about it. I tie my tomatoes to it in the summer.)

(Also some gutttering waiting to go up. Another project.)

This table is made of something called Plaswood which is recycled plastic. It has been sitting outside all year round for about ten years and is none the worse for wear. It is comfortable to sit on, being warm and non-splintery. And it also makes a good cutting surface when I want to remove roots etc from harvested vegetables.
Leaning against the table you might notice another piece of metal. This is part of a second-hand anemometer (wind-speed thingy) which Frog wants to get working again and put up. (Another project.)

And I think I'd better stop there before you fall off your seat with boredom.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Snow dog

Wild with excitement at this strange white stuff

Drifting snow and dog-tail

Spot the dog

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Beams and motes

Being half-Norwegian my mother was ahead of her time with regard to health in so far as the British were concerned. We were pushed outside at every opportunity, even when in our prams. So much so that one of my sisters, with her tan, was taken for an Asian baby. The mainstays of our diet were potato soup, stewed apple and grated raw vegetables. She even managed to persuade my brothers’ prep school to introduce salad into their meals.
    In my teens and early twenties I suffered from anorexia and then compulsive eating. One of the ways I managed to cure myself was by concentrating on the quality of what I ate rather than the quantity. That led to an interest in complementary health and eventually I knew so much about the subject that I was paid to write about it – for magazines, encyclopaedias and partworks (the book/magazine hybrid that you buy in instalments).
    As a hangover from my eating disorder days however I can’t eat chocolate sensibly. I either have lots or I have none at all. I put up with this, allowing myself the occasional binge, as beating oneself up is part of the problem, and not beating oneself up part of the cure.
    On Monday I decided that, since I hadn’t had any chocolate since Christmas, it was time for a binge. I went down to the village shop and bought a mars bar, a mint aero, a small Cadbury’s milk chocolate and a small packet of chocolate raisins. (Posh chocolate is no good for binges. It has to be bog-standard stuff.) Back home I ate them all at once. I felt fine. After supper, I decided that I was still in binge mode, so I had four pieces of ryvita, butter and cheese, which I topped off with a handful of walnuts.
    During the night, my stomach – used to a near-vegan diet – started to complain. I felt violently sick and spent several hours hanging over the red-for-danger bowl that we keep for such purposes.
    The next morning as Frog and I ate our usual breakfast in bed we heard a news item (about a new-style Coca-Cola advertisement) which mentioned that two in three American adults are obese and one in three American children. I began to expound my theory about junk food, that because it lacks the necessary nutrients it doesn’t satisfy. Your body is looking for the vitamins, minerals and so on that it wants and so prompts you to keep eating. ‘A healthy diet is so important,’ I said.
    The room fell silent.
    ‘Ah,’ I said after a few minutes. ‘I’m a fine one to talk.’
    Luckily, Frog laughed otherwise I might have bopped him one.

A couple of the books to which I have contributed


Saturday, 12 January 2013

A place apart

In the eighteenth century ‘gentlemen and ladies would sooner travel to the south of France and back again’ than venture down to the West Country (according to Gentleman’s Magazine, quoted in my Gothick Devon). This was because of the state of the roads, described as ‘all mud, which rises, spues and squeezes into the ditches’. Devon (and Cornwall) therefore remained as places apart.
    Belief in the supernatural for instance lingered long after it was scoffed at elsewhere and even in the twentieth century people remembered the old stories – of pixies, wild hunts, black dogs, hairy hands, devils (many of these stories documented by Ruth St Leger-Gordon in her 1964 book The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor).
    James Ravilious (son of war artist Eric Ravilious), who had trained as an accountant and then taught art in London, moved to Devon in 1972. Having recently taken up photography, he was asked by the Beaford Art Centre in North Devon to start a small archive of local pictures. So entranced was he however by what he encountered that the project took seventeen years. He realised that he was documenting a vanishing rural way of life and went on to take similar pictures in France, Italy, Greece and Ireland.
    The 5,000 photographs he took of Devon are now recognised as an internationally important collection. Do check them out (www.jamesravilious.com ). They’re funny, moving and quirky. (I won’t reproduce any here as they’re in copyright and, as an author suffering from illegal downloads of my books, the last thing I want to do is infringe anyone else’s rights.) The pictures are available as cards too, which was how I came across them.
    When I first came to Devon in 1971 I thought it was a bit of a dump. It rained all the time and there were no shops. I returned however in 1976 and grew to love the place. Whenever I passed the blue ‘Welcome to Devon’ sign on the M5 or the ‘Devon’ sign on the A303, when returning from some visit to family in the south-east, my head would clear and my heart would lift. I would feel free again. It was something to do with the space and the lack of people and the fact that everyone was poor so money didn’t count for much.
    Now I don’t want to moan (then again, perhaps I do), but that doesn’t happen any more. Devon is now like everywhere else. The population has doubled in the last forty years. They are building a new town a few miles away from where we live and we can see the lights at night. A phone mast stares in at our bedroom window. The hedges are enclosed in fences, the wild patches are disappearing. People rush around in smart cars.
    At the end of December Frog bought a Telegraph. (I know, I’m sorry. He says it’s a good read and ‘you don’t have to believe it’.) We hardly ever buy newspapers but he wanted to look at the New Year’s Honours List. I browsed through it and came across a page of aphorisms from famous people – their favourite of the pieces of advice they’d been given over the course of their lives. Most of the advice gave me that awful weary feeling that New Year’s Resolutions do but one piece I loved. It was from the writer Susan Hill and it went something like, ‘If you don’t know what to do, do nothing.’
    Sorry, this is turning into rather a long post, but I will get to the point eventually, I promise.
    As an inflexible Taurean, I run my life on military lines – lists of goals, daily ‘to do’ lists, one job finished before another is started, etc etc. Frog on the other hand is a slippery Piscean. He only ever does anything when it’s urgent. He has hundreds of jobs on the go at once. If I make him a list he loses it or writes something silly on the end like ‘Be happy’. 'Nature is strong,' says another Piscean, a sister-in-law, when I wail at the development of Devon.
    So what I’ve been thinking is this. What you see reflects what you are inside, so maybe it’s me I’ve built over. It’s me who’s becoming too civilised. Maybe I need to take Susan Hill’s advice and do nothing occasionally. Take a break at the end of the 'to do' list.* Wait before starting a new one. Sit down. Watch the birds. Even if I can no longer find that place apart outside, I can still find it inside.
    And at least the mud never goes away.

*It occurred to me while out walking Dog this morning (Sunday) that I could even take a break in the middle of a 'to do' list, or even - heaven forfend - before starting to tackle one. Would the world survive without me? I shall just have to see.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Anguish in the soul

I love all my aunts but Aunt Susan, my father’s elder sister, had a special place in my heart because she was my godmother and because she saved my life when I was only a few hours' old. I was born at home and Aunt Susan was staying to help out. Glancing into my cot, she saw that I was turning blue so picked me up by a foot and shook me till I started breathing again.
    Their mother died of pneumonia when Aunt Susan was eight and my father six. (There were two younger children too, one of whom was to die of muscular dystrophy.) Aunt Susan was always a good talker, a fount of hilarious stories, but in her later years she started to tell me about that time, about how desperate she was, how she prayed and prayed, how she was sent away to boarding school because they thought a change of environment might help her. (It did.)
    She married a Staffordshire farmer and had four boys. I used to love going to stay there, but I think Aunt Susan missed the city-life she’d known when young. As the children left home she began to suffer from depression. Religion still played a big part in her life, but – like me – she took refuge in reading. The library van came every fortnight to Abbot’s Bromley, the village to which she and Uncle Philip had retired. She would walk the mile or so to the van’s stopping point with her tartan shopping bag on wheels and then drag it back home laden with books.
    She died in her eighties and Frog and I went up to the funeral. She was buried in the traditional way, in the village’s lovely country churchyard. It was a beautiful October day, and throughout the ceremony as we stood round the grave and the vicar spoke the service a blackbird sat in a nearby hawthorn tree and sang. I knew it was her way of telling us she was all right at last.

In the last post but one I mentioned ‘golden eras’. My golden era was the year I spent working and travelling in Australia in my early twenties.
    ‘What is it about this place?’ I asked a fellow Brit, whose reactions were the same as mine. ‘Why are we so happy here?’
    ‘The people don’t have anguish in their souls like we do,’ she replied.
    Yes, I thought. She was right.  
     What did the Aussies’ lack of anguish stem from? (I won’t say ‘does’ because I fear they may have changed.) I would say that at least in part it stemmed from the landscape which was still untamed, still so much bigger than human civilisation. It had presence. It gave perspective and meaning.
   What our anguish stems from I don’t know. Guilt perhaps, for what our country has done and is doing to other countries, for what we are doing to the environment. A dearth of spiritual certainty.
    All I know is that Aunt Susan's anguish at least is gone.

Aunt Susan, my father (right) and Bill, who died

Friday, 4 January 2013

A sense of place

On the Wednesday before Christmas I found myself aching all over and unable to squeeze out another word so I took a break from my computer and watched a television programme I’d recorded called ‘The Other Irish Travellers’. It was by a film-maker called Fiona Murphy and in it she examined her Anglo-Irish roots. I was interested in it because I too have Anglo-Irish roots.
    The part of the programme which has stuck in my mind is Fiona Murphy’s uncles talking about the war years. These were a golden era for them as they left the English public schools to which they had been sent and returned ‘home’ to Ireland. Not all the family thought of themselves as Irish however. Most of them in fact thought they were English and some (including the film-maker herself who lives in London) didn’t know which they were.
    My Anglo-Irish ancestor was a sixteenth-century French Protestant refugee – a Huguenot – who was set up in Ireland by Queen Elizabeth (in order, sadly, to organise the expropriation of land from Irish Catholics). The family then had to flee yet again – to Scotland – in the Irish Troubles of the 1920s.
    So, on that side of the family (my mother’s father) I am twice-refugee’d with allegiance to four countries. Not only that, but my mother’s mother was Norwegian.
    If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning (poor you), you may remember a very early post in which I mentioned possible Jewish ancestry on my father’s side. This has now been confirmed by my aunt who has been doing some research. The family fled Prague in 1770, most members going to America but one going to London and founding a business in the City (at which my father still worked). Through the American branch I am related to Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent and wife of Ernest Hemingway. Her mother’s maiden name – Fischel – was the same as mine. (I’m terribly proud of this, so I hope you will excuse a little boasting.)
    More refugeeism.
    I’m a refugee too. Although I was brought up in Kent, I’ve been living in Devon for thirty-seven years – for reasons which I had perhaps better not go into here. At Christmas - in Devon; just me, Frog and Dog - I spent a lot of the time going for long walks, and I realised that the places I found beautiful were the places that reminded me of the Kentish North Downs, and that although I love Devon I’ve never felt that I belong here.
    Fiona Murphy’s programme made me realise how important it is to belong somewhere. But where do I belong? I may have been brought up in Kent but I’m far from being Kentish. I may hanker after the Kent countryside but the M25 now goes slap-bang through the middle of the my childhood meanderings. And, given my ancestry, perhaps the problem goes deeper than a choice between two counties.
     Tom Petty sings ‘You don’t have to live like a refugee.’
    Oh but I do, Tom. I do.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013


I know that we're all suffering from the weather, but I can't resisting posting some pictures showing the situation here. (It delays having to pick up The Novel again anyway and keeps my sadly neglected blog going.)

At least we don't have water in the house (touch wood), unlike a neighbour who lives a short distance away above our house who suddenly discovered a river running through theirs - as water rolled off the hill with nowhere else to go.

The road to our house.
Frog has been down there just about every day over Christmas
and New Year with his drain rods but it hasn't made any difference.

The drive of another neighbour.
After their drive was washed away in November, they dug out their stream and filled in all the holes, only for the same thing to happen all over again at Christmas.

Landslips are another problem.

We have had two in our lane, which the council speedily and efficiently cleared for us (in spite of everything else they must have to do at the moment).

On the Grand Western Canal, mentioned in two previous posts, an embankment breach in November sent a huge volume of water into the farmland below. The canal was dammed by volunteers and council staff that night and is now open again for walkers, with a detour round lanes. More info on the website (www.devon.gov.uk/grand_western_canal ).

Canal Breach from Safe Viewing Area
Pic from canal website