Thursday, December 27, 2007

A belated merry Christmas

I hope Christmas brought you everything you hoped for and more. All the best for 2008!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Further tales of the Grey Mare

The Grey Mare has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis in one of the bones of her foot. Her treatment was a steroid injection into the coffin joint in her foot to bring down the inflammation, plus an expensive joint food supplement for life. Being the sort of horse mother I am, I have also bought her some magnetic boots.

She has been sound now for around six weeks. She was sound when she went into the vet for her injection three weeks ago. My vet had warned me there were certain risks associated with this procedure, not least the nasty things that can happen if infection gets into the joint because of the injection. I closed my mind to this, and thought happy thoughts.

Fortunately, my Horse and Hound was delivered a day later than usual that week. I think the fates were being kind to me, because hours after the she'd been for the treatment I sat in the bath reading that week's veterinary article which just happened to be a very frightening rundown of what happens when such a procedure goes wrong.

Luckily, it didn't go wrong. Madam is now out in the field during the day and in the stable at night. Last weekend, I started riding her. We will have to walk for around a month to build up her muscles again. Today, we have been for a power walk around the adjoining two fields.

On Wednesday, we had the farrier and because the Hunt was in the area and liable to send her doolally, she only had a couple of hours in the field. Consequently, on Thursday she did go doolally when I turned her out: cantering, squeaking (you should hear her squeak) and bucking with excitement. No one, it seems, has told her that she has arthritis.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Demobbed

My month's notice was up today at work and I am free. I have felt demob happy for the past week or so, a feeling that has grown as my leaving date approached and the amount of work I had to do dwindled. Today, I have written around eight useful paragraphs; yesterday wasn't much more productive. I feel I would have been better employed staying at home.

Instead, I played a few rounds of word association email with my editor. The final one started with Stalin and ended with golf, meandering via The Ronettes, Rowan Atkinson and Marmite on the way. I then had my own meander round t'internet, starting again from Comrade Stalin, via the Cold War to the BBC's espionage timeline which was a wonderful launch pad into the world of the Cambridge spies (I had an art teacher who claimed to have been taught by Anthony Blunt: "I always thought he was shifty" she used to say), through death by umbrella at London bus stops to David Shayler, who I recalled had recently developed something of the David Ickes.

I interviewed David Icke many moons ago, when he was on a speaking tour. This was when he was in his turquoise shellsuit phase before he decided that the world was ruled by an elite group of giant lizards. Although he had not reached that point, he was on the brink: he didn't once look at me when answering my questions, rather he gazed at a distant corner of the ceiling as though channelling proclamations from the mothership.

However, after setting off on the trail of Mr Shayler, I believe that rather than being touched by the David Ickes, he has been touched by tongue-in-cheekism. His website ('I'm Brian and so is my wife') has convinced me of that. I almost emailed him to thank him for cheering up a turgid Tuesday afternoon.

I then spent a pleasant 10 minutes munching cherry liqueur chocolates and gazing out of the window, imagining my life as a spy. However, I must realistically conclude that after a few G&Ts, I may be as indiscreet as the talkative Mr Shayler.

So, rather than MI5 or 6, it's back to the world of straight journalism in the New Year for me. But now I must dash - Spooks starts shortly .....

Friday, December 14, 2007

Laika

I have never had a problem with the Russians. OK, so Vladimir Putin reminds me of an archetypal Bond villain but as a 1980s teenager, I found Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher a more frightening prospect than the USSR. I even wore a hammer and sickle badge on occasion.

But I’ve recently discovered something that has made me rather cross with Russia. It has nothing to do with poisoned spies, but rather a poor little dog that died 50 years ago. I was vaguely aware that the first living creature sent into Space from Earth was a Russian dog, and that the dog died. But I didn’t realise the dog was deliberately sent to her death with no intention of bringing her back.

I’ve missed the 50th anniversary of Laika becoming the first animal sent into Space – that happened at the start of November. In 1957, she was blasted off in Sputnik 2, around a month after Sputnik became the first satellite sent into orbit. That first satellite hadn’t even come down before they sent up another one with a living animal on board. And they seem to have done it so quickly to satisfy the vanity of Krushchev, who wanted a grand gesture to mark the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.

I can’t understand why the people who trained the space dogs – and there were a fair few canine cosmonauts - didn’t stop and think about what they were doing. How can you justify sending an animal to certain death when you have built a relationship with it? And they must have had a relationship with the little dog. Did no one step back and say: “Hang on a minute, this is inhumane?” Did no one say: “Hang on a minute, dogs’ bodies work differently to ours?”

As it was, Laika didn’t live for the four or so days the world was told; malfunctions in the equipment supposed to keep her alive meant the tiny cabin she was strapped into became hotter and hotter and
she died within hours of stress and overheating.

Now, one of the scientists responsible for sending her to her death says: “The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it... We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.” At least he had a choice; Laika didn't. I hope the guilt never leaves him.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dear Readers

Thank you so much for the concern and the good wishes that have been passed to me through the comments box and via email. It’s all very much appreciated.

The Grey Mare is currently on box rest. A week and a half ago, she went for x-rays, which have been sent to the Royal Dick in Edinburgh for a second opinion. I am still awaiting the results.

Today, a bone cruncher has been, who has found a sore spot on her shoulder. He thinks she had ripped a muscle and has prescribed massage. He says she is sound. In herself, she is bright as the proverbial button and adoring all the fuss and pampering. She is a very ‘nice person’ and is an adorable horse to handle. She is the perfect patient.

Her stress levels at having to stay inside (this is now her third week on box rest) have been mitigated by the fact one of her two boyfriends is also ‘under the vet’ and is currently residing the box next door. They make eyes at each other across the divide.

As for me, well, I’m knackered – and keeping everything crossed for a good outcome.

Love M&M.

PS. The Edwardian ring went for £177 – way way beyond my reach.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Edwardian bling

Edwardian ladies had much smaller fingers than me. I don’t have particularly fat fingers, but I do have chunky knuckles. They’re the sort that are better at giving a good punch than looking elegant. In fact, a psychic once told me: “Of course, you know you will suffer from arthritis when you’re older?” “Can you tell that from reading my palm?” I asked. “No,” she said, “I can tell because you’ve got big knuckles.”

I know this, but I have felt myself utterly compelled to bid on eBay for an Edwardian amethyst ring that I am unlikely to be able to force on to my finger. It’s just so beautiful and purple and old. There are a good few days left to run on the auction so it’s likely that I’ll be outbid (I know my limit and I stick to it). But however irrational, I really really want it.

My left hand is currently missing having its own ring. The last one – a gorgeous green amber and silver jobbie I called my dragon’s eye – was caught on the arena fence once when the Grey Mare and I parted company. I needed a hammer and plenty of patience to remove it from my finger. Prior to that, I had a square honey-coloured amber ring, which sadly snapped. The space is now waiting to be filled.

I wonder who the Edwardian lady was that owned the amethyst beauty? I wonder if she treasured it and wore it every day? I wonder if she’s left any of her aura on it? Sadly, I know for certain that she had smaller fingers than me.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Starry, starry skies

Northumberland’s giant skies are rightly renowned for their lack of light pollution and the clear views afforded to those who want to gaze at the stars. Walking through a 5 o’clock field this morning, the sky was a little girl’s Disneyified dream: it looked like someone had grabbed generous handfuls of diamonds and hurled them across a backdrop of black velvet. Having recently finished reading Stardust, shooting stars were on my mind. Within minutes, there had been two to wish upon.

The bright, shiny, fake modern world makes us forget just how enveloping and dark real darkness is. Once, caught in a power-cutting storm while going to fetch the Grey Mare for her dinner, I was reminded of just how total it is. It’s surprising how much difference light from the village makes in the middle of a field. When they’re all switched off, you’re bent double against horizontal rain and your only illumination comes from the occasional flash of lightning, it would be very easy to become disorientated. Just the searching beam of a car’s headlamps on the coast road and the comforting three red buttons of the Chatton Mast at the foot of the Cheviots keeps you grounded.
Another more pleasant elemental experience also happened to me while walking back through a New Year horse field about two winters ago: my first, and so far, only view of the Northern Lights. The shifting and stretching colours dancing across the darkness left me transfixed. For once, I felt that over-used soubriquet awesome was justified.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A turn of phrase

Over the last few months I have unwittingly found myself talking like a 1950s pony book. “Jolly good” has been in my repertoire for some time – initially said with a sarcastic tinge – but it has also been joined by “Crikey!” which I’m finding myself saying more and more. And I’m not alone: a friend at work and a friend at the stables are also crikey-ers, while my sister has taken to exclaiming: “It’s simply not cricket!”

I don’t know how these archaic phrases have entered my vocabulary. I admit “jolly good” was initially said tongue-in-cheek, but it has rooted itself and now pops out quite naturally. I had a similar phase with “sweetie” and “darling”, when Absolutely Fabulous was on TV (Patsy is such a heroine of mine). That passed in time, but my current turn of phrase is showing no signs of abating.

I have to confess I think some of the exclamations in old pony books really are simply super. I’ve mentioned before that Jill Crewe was my pony book idol – and the speech of Jill and her friends was riddled with classic such as gollys, goshes and the sublime “My Russian rabbits!” which I have never encountered anywhere else.

But my word of the day has unfortunately been much more prosaic. It was repeated often while I was driving this morning. It begins with T and rhymes with fat.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Changes

Things have changed so much in the month that the Grey Mare has been lame. I have missed the subtle changes I normally notice while we hack around the quiet roads and through the fields. I feel I have been cheated out of the best bits of autumn.
Suddenly, now that I have started noticing things again, I see there are crunchy brown leaves on the ground. Small children jump, kick and stamp upon them, while bigger ones freewheel through on their bikes with grins on their faces. The conker trees that stand sentinel along the A1 have changed into clothes of red, yellow and rust. The scarlet scattered berries amid the thorn hedges have ripened to a deep, bloody and squashy red. The marshy field at the bottom of the lonnen is riddled with toadstools. I counted 10 heron silently sitting on the other side of the reeds. Sometimes, I think there is something otherworldly about that place.

The Grey Mare, too, has changed. Gone is the sleek coat of summer; now she is fluffy as a teddy bear. But there is no point in clipping until she’s back in work. The enforced break has also affected her belly. Never the most svelte of horses, she is now as round as a barrel. I hope I can fasten her girth when the time comes to get back on and see what else we’ve missed.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ouch!

I firmly believe that some things happen for a reason. Yesterday, I went to catch the Grey Mare ahead of the latest vet visit, but before I saw her, I spotted a pristine, white poultice in the grass. Totally unsullied by sweaty horse hoof, it must have come off shortly after it was applied the previous night. This is the first time in a fortnight that she has managed to lose her poultice.

Her foot was black and muddy and I decided to give it a good soak in a bucket of warm water before the vet arrived. A very relaxed Grey Mare almost nodded off, so the tubbing lasted longer than usual. So long, in fact, that her black heel looked white and across it, two red lines were clearly visible. Two red lines that reacted when the vet used the hoof testers: the first ‘ouch!’ the Grey Mare has given since this saga began.

This, it appears, is the source of the nasty stuff; the place where the pus is attempting to track out. I am helping it all I can with more soaking and poulticing. I am considering taking out shares in Animalintex and Vet Wrap.

The vet returns on Monday. I am continuing to pray for pus and am very grateful for everyone’s support and kind thoughts.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Bye for now

I'm taking a break from blogging for the moment because my poor horse is still not right and that's all that's on my mind. I don't have anything more interesting to say right now.

I might be back in the future.

All the best!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Of poultices and pus

I never thought I would have cause to regret the excellent quality of the Grey Mare’s hooves. Forget tough as old boots, these little beauties are hard as granite. My farrier often praises her hooves and lauds her as an excellent example of a barefoot horse.

However, when the horn is that hard, and a nasty abscess is grumbling away inside, there nowhere for it to escape. So thinks the vet after reassessing the still lame Grey Mare yesterday. The poor darling cuddled into me while the vet injected the nerve block into her heel, just lifting her head once when the needle went into her soft flesh. The nerve block showed that the lameness was indeed in the foot.

On Saturday, I suspected it may have been in her shoulder. She flinched when I prodded her shoulder on the bad side, but didn’t on the good side. She was massaged with muscle embrocation (amazing stuff for clearing a blocked nose), and I called the Back Lady. The Back Lady was in Devon.

On Sunday, she showed no reaction when I poked her in the shoulder. However, there was heat around her coronet on the bad foot. It was still there on Monday when the vet came. The vet will be back on Friday. Between then and now, the Grey Mare must be tubbed each night, which she tolerates as long as I stand stroking and chatting to her; the minute I walk away, she lifts her foot out of the bucket. Then her foot is poulticed, bandaged and taped. The plan is to soften her foot sufficiently so the vet has a fighting chance of finding the poison if it is there. I am praying for black, smelly pus.

I saw a shooting star tonight; I hope that’s a good omen.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Fly away

Swallows are, I think, my favourite birds. I love everything about them: their first appearance, swooping low over the fields, signalling that summer’s around the corner; their cream chests and rosy cheeks; the athleticism of the adults in their aerial arcs; the cherubic babies with their wide mouths in an ever-present grin.

But this ridiculous hotchpotch of weather has conned some couples into breeding again, leaving it dangerously late for their brood to build up the strength for their long journey to Africa. The one good thing about this year’s plague of flies is that they still have plenty to eat. But time isn’t on their side; just last week the brood living in the bottom corner stable was fluffy and soft. Expecting them to make the trip to warmer climes would be like asking a toddler to run the London Marathon. I feared for their future.

I went to look at them tonight. The babies of last week were gone; perched on the beams were little navy coated adults. Suddenly, like a flurry of fallen leaves caught up in a gust of wind, four or five of them were dancing in the air, swooping amid the rafters to show me what they could do.

I hope the weather is kind. I really hope they make it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

International talk like a pirate day

Arrrr me hearties, did you?
Unfortunately every time I do, I sound like a member of The Wurzels ...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A poorly Grey Mare

My Grey Mare is not a sore and sorry sort of horse; unlike my sister’s thoroughbreds, who have a habit of hopping on three legs if they suffer the indignity of a scratch, the grey girl grins and bears it. So, when something is wrong, I fly into full panicking mother mode.

Initially, we thought her lameness was due to a poison foot. She was dually poulticed on Saturday and Sunday to draw out it out. The farrier came on Monday to probe for the pus. There was none. Suddenly the confidence of certainty disappeared and the butterflies stirred in the pit of my stomach.

“Never mind,” I thought, “the vet is coming to the yard to see some other horses.” I booked the afternoon off work and rang the surgery. Apparently the vet was “too busy” to look at her, the receptionist informed me. She would book me in for Friday instead. This didn’t help my mood. I tackled the vet (who, incidentally is a lovely person and a damn fine horse vet) when she arrived. “I’d hate to think,” I said, “of her suffering until Friday.” The vet agreed this wasn’t an ideal state of affairs and promised to look at her if she had time. Fortunately, she had time.

The poor Grey Mare has a bruised sole and has been prescribed three days of box rest and a course of anti-inflammatory powders, which are mixed into her dinner. For a greedy horse, she is very fussy and is very suspicious of the tiny yellow granules added to her food. However, she eats it if I feed her by hand.

She is also very upset at being confined to barracks rather than being out in the field with her mates. Consequently, she is very pleased when I arrive. She mugs me for sweeties, insists I scratch her itchy bits and makes me feel incredibly guilty by refusing to eat her hay when I am there. I am told she settles down to munch when I have gone. She is bright as a button in herself, but I can’t help fretting. I love that little horse.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sloe-ly does it

Whichever god of greenness was responsible for this year’s glut of brambles appears also to have waved a magic wand over the blackthorn trees to create a similar surfeit of sloes. Looking like hard, little black grapes, the berries swarm across the branches. The best one are usually high in the trees: big, black, touched with a brush loaded with bluish mat paint, so they look like out-of-reach blueberries. But don’t pop one into your mouth: raw sloes are poisonous. Even the birds don’t eat them.

Sloes are secretive; if you weren’t looking for them, you would probably not notice they were there. Unlike brambles which announce themselves with red berries before colouring to purple juicy ripeness, sloe berries turn directly from green to black. Similarly, sloe pickers can be secretive about their sources. Where I Iive, there is a place that everyone interested in picking sloes knows about. But a few years ago, quite by chance, we discovered somewhere new. I can’t tell you where it is though.

The best way to pick sloes is to find a handy branch to hook your bag, so you have one hand to pull down a laden branch while the other gathers the berries. Due to the berries’ hardness, you can also strip them from the branch in a whoosh if you don’t mind removing all the leaves and pieces of broken bark afterwards.

In no time at all, we had 7lbs of sloes. They’re now in the freezer, their skins bursting before they’re defrosted and mixed with gin and sugar. Come Christmas, it’ll be time to crack open the first bottle.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

In the darkness before dawn

It’s been some time since I was out and about at 5am. A mid-September 5am is dark; very dark. The sky remains devoid of those comforting first streaks of brightness, those tentative fingers fumbling for the light switch. Much of the world is asleep, including many of the horses as I walk through the fields.

As my eyes become adjusted to the darkness and my night vision kicks in, I can see that they’re not all asleep. Some are lying down, dozing, but there are always sentries on guard. A few are snoozing on duty, their heads hanging low. Others are cropping grass.

Overhead, an unknown bird lets out a warning cry. The horses take no notice. When I reach the Grey Mare’s field, I fear I won’t be able to find her. But I’ve forgotten one of the beauties of grey horses: they shine like little beacons of brightness in the dark. Indeed, she’s easy to spot: a snoozer on the hill.

She seems surprised to see me, but bribed with a carrot, she follows me slowly, a child shaken from sleep. “I know how you feel,” I tell her, “but it’s your own fault.” My early morning jaunt is due to her refusal to be caught by my sister for the farrier the day before. Today, I’m taking no chances and am catching her myself before I leave for work. Sometimes her devotion to me is endearing; sometimes it can be galling.

I lead her into the stable and she nudges me for carrots. I studiously avoid looking down the row; a pony died there yesterday and I do not want to see a head looking over a stable door where none should be. I have seen horses that weren’t there before, but I don’t want to today: the loss is still raw.

I fetch the Grey Mare some haylage, and suddenly she’s awake and tucking into her out-of-season treat. Outside, the sky is brightening. The new day is here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Jelly virgin

The pillowcase looked as though it had been used to mop up after a particularly gory accident. Deep purple-red liquid seeped through and dripped into the container below. Its contents didn’t look very edifying; in fact, one could be excused thinking the remnants of said accident had been scooped up and hung out to dry.

The pillowcase, which I'd nailed to shelf in the larder, was actually filled with a mush of brambles and cooking apples. The juice dripped into a (sterilised) plastic bin overnight and I have just finished attempting to turn it by some kind of alchemy into bramble jelly.

People are often surprised to hear that I cheerfully concoct chutney, make sloe gin and cook a mean quiche. I like to think of myself as quite domesticated. In fact, I often claim that I have missed my vocation and would’ve made a marvellous housewife. However, until tonight, I have never attempted to make jelly or jam.

My mum is a practiced jam maker. She gave me instructions on judging when the jelly was set, but refused to come round and tell me whether it was or not. “But I need you,” I pleaded into the phone, gazing at the bubbling brew on the cooker but knowing not what I was looking for. She laughed at me and refused to come to my aid. “I’m cooking fish fingers,” she said.

I think jelly making must be a dark art. I have no idea if the purple goo is set or not. Anyway, it’s in jars and I’ll find out tomorrow when it’s cooled whether I’ve inherited the knack.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

On the cusp

Suddenly, this week, the scent of autumn is in the air. The vividness of summer is gone; the landscape has lost its lush texture and is brittle and fading, the sky is a backdrop of washed-out chambray with a handful of painted, far-away clouds. The light is amazing but is gone shortly after 8pm. We are on the cusp between seasons.

The summer weather has not been kind. It has not been a vintage year of memories in the sun. When I shut the door on it this year, it won’t be with regret; rather I am ready for the new season and won’t be looking over my shoulder at the summer that never was.

But the wheel of the year is turning and its cycle is on time. The hedges are stuffed with a glut of glossy brambles, the crab apples are starting to appear, the sloes are beginning to colour on the blackthorn. Our plum tree and cherry tree have been a disappointment but the apple trees and especially the pear tree are groaning under the weight of their fruit. My fridge is packed with courgettes, cucumbers and tomatoes – little red and yellow jewels - from my dad’s greenhouse. Soon, I will start to think about making chutney and sloe gin.

Tonight, the beach was lonely, the sea turquoise and still, and the stubble fields stood empty, their gates open and inviting. The Grey Mare loves this time of year too.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Driven to distraction

The theory part of the driving test has apparently just been made more difficult. The BBC website is carrying a quiz to see how many of the multiple choice questions we know the answer to. To pass, you need nine out of 10. To my shame, I scored seven. I would have scored six if I’d answered question 10 honestly.

In my defence, I sat my test a long time ago – before the theory test was even invented. Our theory involved swotting up on the Highway Code and learning the stopping distances on the back cover parrot-fashion ('and double it if it’s wet’). I had no concept of what the stopping distance physically looked liked then, nor do I now, and I certainly can’t remember what they are in theory. I wasn’t quizzed on stopping distances in the three quick-fire questions I was asked after I’d done the practical part of the test. I am one of those unbearable smug people who passed first time.

I am a firm believer that you only really learn how to drive when you’re out there doing it on your own. I didn’t drive at all in the six months between passing and buying my first little mini. Three days later (with a friend along for moral support), I did a round trip of 300+ miles: I had to find somewhere to live because I was starting a new job. That drive was a baptism of fire: I managed to graze the central reservation while fiddling with the lights. I also learned to parallel park in that little car, something I would’ve failed my test on had I been asked to do it. But in the real world, I had to learn if I wanted to park outside my house.

I think now, though, new drivers forget rather than learn new skills when they throw away their L-plates.

One question I would like to see included in the new theory test is:

When do you use your indicators?

a. I don’t, I expect the other motorists to telepathically know what my next manoeuvre will be.
b. Indicators? I don’t need indicators – I’m king of the road!
c. My car doesn’t have indicators.
d. When turning or pulling in or out.

I reckon a lot of today's drivers would get that one wrong …

Friday, August 31, 2007

Diana – a decade on

Ten years ago today I was at a 30th birthday party. There were twinkling fairy lights, buffet food in the garden and plenty of gin. I allowed someone else’s fiancĂ© to kiss me and wasn’t popular. Later, my flatmate and I went with our former news editor and his wife and drank more gin at their house. They had a separate fridge reserved for alcohol; I thought this was the height of sophistication. Later still, we ended up looking at Ceefax, as journalists do. We ‘oohed’ a bit at reports Princess Diana had been injured in a car accident.

The next morning, I was woken from my alcoholic slumbers by my flatmate bashing on my bedroom door. “Princess Diana’s dead,” she said. I surfaced from the haze of sleep, convinced I was still dreaming. Once copis mentis, I wrapped myself in a duvet and planted myself in front of the TV for the day: “This is history,” I told my friend.

In the week that followed, reality seemed suspended. I had read a piece by Lynda Lee-Potter days before Diana died, in which she ripped the Princess to shreds; miraculously, hours after the crash, Ms Lee-Potter published a gushing column, praising the People’s Princess and surreptitiously sweeping her tirade of the week before under the carpet. Suddenly, in the public’s perception, journalists were in league with the devil. Midweek, I took a taxi to the pub with the same group of friends; we fell to discussing conspiracy theories that the Princess had faked her death and was now living with Elvis on a remote Pacific island. Then I caught sight of the taxi driver’s pinched face in the mirror; I thought he was going to throw us out.

I was bemused by the public wailing and gnashing of teeth; the piles of flowers outside Kensington Palace, the petal strewn road as the hearse travelled to Althorp. I didn’t weep for Diana: as Keith Richards reportedly said, “I never knew the chick”. I saw her once, when I was sent to report on her visit to South Tyneside. Etiquette dictated that one could not address a member of the Royal Family unless they spoke to you first. I had to be content with smiling recollections of elderly ladies with plastic union flags who had briefly bathed in her sunshine. My abiding image, though, was of a tall, slender woman with impossibly thin ankles. She looked like a sunflower: one strong gust of wind and her stem would break.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Rats

It’s about this time of year that you start to see them. Once the corn has been cut, you catch sight of them feasting among the golden stubble in the early mornings, or dodging the traffic to gobble up any grain that has been spilled on the road. They don’t all survive the road: I have seen about half a dozen squashed rats today. Drivers don’t tend to avoid rats like they do other creatures.

There is something in the human psyche that recoils at the mention of rats. “They’re just sleeker, less cuddly rabbits with a PR problem,” I said to my mum tonight. “No they’re not,” she said, and shuddered, “they’re dirty and disease-ridden.” That’s just the point: I’m sure our collective revulsion is a racial memory dating back to the plague. But rattus rattus, the black rat that was infested with Black Death-carrying fleas, was expelled from Britain long ago. Our rats today are his cousin, the brown rat.

I have not inherited the rodent-terror that runs down the female line in my family, but mention rats to many otherwise sane people, and they feel fingers of repulsion creeping up their spine. Rats still have the power to strike fear into people’s hearts. We thought we had the rat story of the year when I was a trainee journalist. One of my fellow trainees spotted a couple of rats one morning; research revealed they’d been lurking in the area where the city’s cholera dead had been buried decades before. How long could cholera survive in the soil, we wondered? We communicated with the director of communicable diseases at the hospital; (un)fortunately, he told us that the disease did not lie dormant.

Apparently there is a new breed of ‘super’ rat that is resistant to warfarin. These fortnightly bin collections are probably keeping him in a manner he’s become accustomed to. His country cousins, gorging on the grain, don’t know what they’re missing …

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A little mutter and meander

A little while ago, I received an email inviting me to take part in an interview with Bloginterviewer.com.

I checked out the site, and seeing a few familiar faces there, I tackled the questions. If you’re interested, you can see my interview here. You could even vote for me if you felt like it...

And watch out – it could be you next … I have nominated some of you ‘orrible lot to spill the beans as well!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Showbusiness #2

I have no regrets that I stuck to my guns and didn’t steward at the big agricultural show today. OK, so I had to pay the entrance fee and buy my own lunch, but it was worth it. I didn’t have to climb out of bed at the crack of dawn, and for once, I was able to watch the action in the main ring.

A group of horsy ladies of a certain age arrived as I sat watching a hunter class. “The chairs have been commandeered,” said one. “They’ve been commandeered. Comm-an-deered!” Their chat centred on the eventing world. They’d been to Blair last week, and didn’t like the way the British young riders all rode the water jump the same way. “They bounced in. They bounced. Think what that will do to their horses’ legs. The French didn’t ride it that way,” said another. Next weekend, they were off to Burghley. Today, they sat in the sun and tried to pick a winner from the small hunters.

We saw pony show jumping, stunt horses and riders and the hunt. After the hounds had galloped around the ring a few times, the commentator invited the watching children in to meet them. There is something very endearing about foxhounds; they are always waving their sterns and they always seem to have a delighted grin on their faces. So did most of the children, until they reluctantly had to leave their new friends and return to their parents.

The show was, as always, a wonderful cross-section of humanity. Joules Girls in pearl earrings, farmers, hunting types, pensioners, families out for a day with the kids. And of course, there were more of those dreaded bargains to be had; and had they were. I really am suffering from a guilt trip now. Thankfully, the Joules stall wasn’t as tempting as the one at Thirlestane, but there were plenty more temptations to separate a gal and her money.

Unfortunately, the cattle, sheep and goats were missing this year but there was still something for just about everyone: local food, clothing, jewellery, paintings, crafts, fairground rides, tractors, trailers, cars and motorbikes, and of course, horses, horses, horses …

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Twitchers

My pair are neither entirely house cats nor are they outdoor cats. Like an over-solicitous mother, I do not allow them to wander, but I do allow them to play in the garden.

My current home has a wonderful garden for cats. As well as clumps of long grass that I have missed with the mower, there are bushes to hide beneath, fences to climb upon and trees to bird watch. They are very good twitchers but that’s as far as it goes. Birds fascinate them but they simply cannot work out how to catch them.

It’s probably my fault; they do come from a long line of streetwise farm cats so it’s not their breeding that’s to blame. When they were kittens, we lived in a house with a garden that didn’t have the same bird watching and stalking opportunities. Moreover, there was a busy road near a school which is why they have never been allowed to wander the streets alone. After that, we lived in a flat devoid of a garden for a few months. Then, their sport consisted of watching a family of swallows that slept on the telephone wire and becoming over excited about two young pigeons that set up camp for a while on the windowsill.

Sometimes, I feel guilty about their lack of bird catching skills. They know how to stalk, how to hide in the undergrowth and how to shimmy between the blackcurrant bushes next door. I think they’d be able to manage a mouse if they found one, but creatures with wings elude them. It must be very frustrating being a cat.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Of mud and money

I am always over-awed when I see sportsmen and women performing at the top of their game. Especially, when like yesterday in the rain and mud of the Thirlestane Castle Horse Trials, conditions are not ideal. Horses bounded over giant cross-country fences as if they were tiny logs, jumped off drop fences that looked like they should’ve come equipped with parachutes, and skipped through tricky combinations.

Watching the professionals at work also inspires me; I go home thinking: “I want to jump like that.” But then I return to reality: those were Olympic class riders who have worked for years to get that good.

One thing I am good at is shopping. The monsoon conditions and red clay mud, so different to the Bournville brown of home, didn’t put paid to that. The credit card took a hammering and with it came the associated guilt of spending too much. But what else can you do when Joules tops are half price, Mark Todd jackets are so very reduced, and that new winter rug you’ve been eyeing up for the Grey Mare is £15 cheaper than you’ve seen it anywhere else?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Brambling

I studied Seamus Heaney at school. His bog body poems may have been thought-provoking but I much preferred Blackberry Picking; it was something I could relate to. Like Seamus and his pals, we would pick industrial quantities of the black sweet fruit. Ours didn’t go to waste: I made soggy-crusted pies and crumbles with topping that was too thin, so purple juice seeped to the surface like blood through a bandage.

There is something inescapably bloody about brambles; as Seamus says, they look like ‘a plate of eyes’: much more macabre than desiccated bodies in the peat. Brambling always makes me feel somewhat like the prince in Sleeping Beauty, fighting through the thorns to reach the prize. Fingertips turn red, clothing is snagged, burrs stick to sleeves and no matter how hard you try to avoid them, the nettles always sting you. I don’t know what sort of protection racket the nettles have going, but wherever there are brambles, you can be assured they’ll be there too.

I picked my first brambles of the year tonight. There weren't many in the usual place so I tried another spot where I had spied them from the Grey Mare’s back. I started off picking anything that looked ripe then, as I found more fruit hiding under thorns and dry grass, I became more finickity about the specimens that made it into the bowl. Truth to tell, there weren’t as many as I’d hoped; but there were enough to bake into a crumble with apples from the garden. Hopefully, this one won’t leak around the edges.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Goggle box

Televisually, things aren’t great for me at the moment. The quiet, blank-faced TV sits in the corner like a rejected lover whose charms have waned. He has nothing to offer me; he is a disappointment.

I’m not saying this state of affairs will continue indefinitely. It’s just there is nothing on TV that I want to watch. I am not the sort of person who switches it on automatically as background noise; rather I watch TV when there is something that I want to see. I’d rather listen to music, have a wander round cyberspace or read a book than view drivel.

I see around 20 minutes of BBC Breakfast News when I’m getting ready for work in the morning. I catch the odd sniff of a soap when I’m at my mum’s. But the last thing I purposely sat down and watched was Austin Powers on Saturday – and I’d seen it twice before. I’m positive when there were fewer channels, there were more things worth watching. TV was an event: I remember watching Live Aid and Charles and Diana’s wedding, just like everyone else was. Getting my first TV in my bedroom was an event too. It was a black and white monstrosity that a neighbour had been about to throw out. I sat in my room and shrieked with glee at The Young Ones.

Going further back, and there was a golden age of horsy TV: Black Beauty, Follyfoot, Flambards, The White Horses. I’d gladly watch them all again but they’re never repeated. Instead, we are now in a golden age of reality TV. Apparently the next big thing is a US show where someone is attached to a lie detector and asked excruciatingly embarrassing questions in order to win wads of cash. I don’t care. Nor do I care that Louis Walsh is returning to the X-Factor. I certainly won’t be switching on. I don’t find ritual humiliation – or inane wannabe pop stars - entertaining.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Summertime blues

We are quite blessed with the weather in this little coastal pocket of Northumberland. Thanks to the salty air, it’s never too hot or too cold. Snow rarely sticks around for very long and the baking heat they allegedly sometimes feel inland is tempered by the breeze. I’m thankful, too, that we haven’t had the floods that have done more than simply ruin summer in some parts of the country. But I can’t help feeling cheated.

Already, the long, lush verdant grass is gone; in its place are yellowing stalks and dry heads of seed. Look closely, and the red berries are starting to appear in the hedges and the first flush of ripe brambles, deep and black, are dotted amid the thorns. The fields are turning to gold; tractors are trundling along the lane. Soon, the swallows will stop swooping after flies and gather on the telegraph wires ahead of their long journey to Africa.

The thick, creamy skies of June and July with their texture of shiny blue gloss paint have gone. Instead, the blue is now a watercolour wash; at least when it’s not a swirling dark mass carrying the threat of thunder. There is a nip of autumn in the air and the nights are drawing perceptibly in.

To paraphrase my Dad, if that’s our summer, we’ve had it…

Friday, August 10, 2007

Who are you?

I am a pig farmer, a dog breeder, an oral health co-ordinator, a writer on soap operas, a sales director at a property development company, a cookery book author, a Hollywood corporate accountant, a community worker and a nun. Google says so, so it must be true. Gratifyingly for my ego, the real me was actually the first entry on my vanity search; later, some reports I had written at the turn of the century about a struck-off medic appeared, preserved in the aspic of cyberspace.

“I’d have a great answer when my wife asked: ‘What did you do today darling?’” said my colleague after he tapped his name into the oracle. ”‘Oh, in the morning I split the atom, did a spot of power boating before lunch, then I wrote an article for The Guardian, before taking some photographs, rewiring a house and recording my new album.”

Apparently, search engines that ferret out personal information on people are a huge growth area. I find that quite frightening. The opportunities for identity fraud must be immense; not to mention schizophrenia. As a small child, I would apparently ask my family to guess the character I had chosen to be that day. I would sulk if they didn’t get it right. Imagine if the Internet had been around then. Which me shall I be today? Or shall I roll them all into one composite?

I don’t know which would be worst result of a vanity search: finding lots of details about yourself, or no mention of the real you at all...

Who will you be today?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A tale about a tail

I have bought some net curtain whitener. It’s not for whitening net curtains, it’s the latest weapon in the war I am waging against the stains in the Grey Mare’s tail. I have been questing for the Holy Grail of Grey Mare tail cleaners for some years, but unlike Indiana Jones, I am yet to find it.

On Sunday, I tried the Fairy Liquid tip. It had to be proper, branded Fairy Liquid of the original variety. I squirted purple spray into the final rinse, as had also been recommended. I can’t say I was impressed with the result. I have tried expensive equine whitening shampoos and I have tried human shampoos; they were a disappointment. I have searched the Internet in vain for the old fashioned ‘blue bag’ that used to be the thing for white tails. Unfortunately, it is no longer manufactured. Biological washing powder is the next recommendation if the net curtain whitener doesn’t do the job.

When you see grey horses at shows and on TV, their tails invariably look like waterfalls of silvery light. That is how I want the Grey Mare’s tail to look. After washing, it does – in places; but her tail is large and luxuriant and the strands of silver are spoiled by yellow-stained sections.

Let’s be frank about this; mares pee differently to geldings and it stands to reason there will be bits that aren’t quite Persil white. But one day they will be. I will discover the secret formula...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Fatal curiosity

My cousin is home from the War on Terror. I walked into my mum’s and he was sitting on the sofa, drinking tea.

My sister and I berated him for not bringing his gun with him, so we could shoot annoying tourists.

I wanted to ask him if he’d shot anyone, but I didn’t. Well, it’s only in Agatha Christie that one discusses killing over a nice cup of tea.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Mad hatters

When I was kid, we wore velvet riding hats with elasticated straps. Usually, we shoved these straps over the peak and out of the way. We only took them down when we went hunting. I fell of frequently; luckily, the only lasting damage was to my pride.

Those were the days when elderly ladies riding side saddle to hounds were still a common sight. Wearing top hats and netted veils over their faces, they would jump five-bar gates with serene dignity. Portly, Christmas card men also sported top hats and occasionally, you would still see someone in a bowler. Oh, how I coveted a bowler…

Then along came Esther Rantzen with her crusade for safer riding hats. Things were never the same again. I remember my best friend’s mum buying her a jockey skull. She wore it without a silk. I thought it looked ugly and swore I’d never have one. I do though: it has a purple velvet cover. I also have a lightweight, vented suede-covered hat and a ‘posh’ navy velvet hat that comes out for best.

I remember, too, when back protectors first appeared. We thought they’d never catch on. Those of us who grew up without them find them awkward and wear them infrequently, but today’s little girls feel undressed without them. Health and safety has created a different world. We used to clamber on to the riding school ponies bareback and hatless and jog down the road to the field. If things got dodgy, you clung on to the mane and closed your eyes.

Legally, you don’t actually have to wear a riding hat after the age of 14. I think you’re a nutter if you don’t, though. The last time I got on a horse without a hat, I was bucked off, twice, in the space of two minutes. Luckily, I landed on my feet both times. The previous time I rode without a hat, I was also bucked off; I bashed my head on a stone and was seeing stars for a few minutes. You’d think I’d learn.

But it’s all down to personal choice. I have a friend who cracked two vertebrae in her back in a fall and she still doesn’t wear a back protector. I used to work with someone who had a similar accident and now won’t go near a horse unless she has her full body armour on. You pays your money and takes your choice.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Little luxuries

My shower is on strike. Apparently it’s just too big and powerful for the fuse box and it won’t work again until a new one is installed. As I’ve said before, I am a bath person; but I have a lot of hair and I like to rinse the conditioner off with the shower.

Instead, I am pouring beakerfuls of water over my hair to rinse it. It puts me in mind of my teenage years before we had a shower fitted. I must’ve been about 14 or 15. We had central heating installed around the same time: the radiators were an utter luxury. They meant the end of freezing mornings dressing with the airing cupboard door open, socks and knickers warming on the tank. It was also the finish of the feathers and fronds left by Jack Frost’s fingers on the windowpane; of warm, white breath blowing a window within the window to see if it had snowed overnight.

Until last year, I spent almost five years in a house with an open fire and no central heating. I coped fine with two oil filled radiators that plugged into the electricity socket. My current home has storage heaters but I am too mean to switch them on. Instead, I heat the room I’m in and put on an extra jumper. I think my generation was the last to grow up without central heating as the norm.

Where I live, there is no mainline gas. I remember approaching a gas cooker with trepidation when I first left home. Now I would love a gas cooker. I’d like the option of gas central heating too. But what I really, really want is my shower back. It can be grim up North, you know …

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Separated at birth?




I have finally been to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Am I the only one that thinks Imelda Staunton did a damn fine impression of Maggie Thatcher as the toad-like Dolores Umbridge? Helena Bonham Carter was in fine form as the evil Bellatrix Lestrange but I wish the director had told Emma Watson (Hermione) that constant deep breathing and eyebrows with a life of their own do not a convincing performance make.

The other thing that grated was the amount of munching and slurping going on. Harry Potter films are long – yet the sense of being at a midnight feast persisted throughout. Has the nanny state so shamed the UK’s junk food eaters that they now only dare indulge under cover of darkness at the cinema?

Perhaps the eating was a desperate ploy by parents trying to keep their children quiet. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. After the first half hour, the small people because restless and talkative. There were children there who were far to young to be able to follow the plot and were patently lost.

However, I enjoyed the film and enjoyed the trailer for the first of the His Dark Materials films, which will be out later in the year. Though why Northern Lights has been renamed the Golden Compass I do not know. I just hope they haven’t messed about too much with the story.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Dear tourists …

Do you leave your brains at home when you go on holiday? That’s the only explanation I can offer for the idiocy I have witnessed from tourists this weekend. Either that, or those I have encountered are just imbeciles.

I have ridden on the beach twice this weekend. It has been windy on both days and people have decided it would be marvellous fun to fly kites. Fine; just don’t swoop them down so they frighten the horses, and don’t stand in the middle of the beach so I don’t know which side you’ll chose when you bring them horse-scaringly down to earth. In addition, if you have a yappy, rat-like terrier that enjoys chasing things, keep it on a lead when there are horses cantering by. I don’t enjoy being chased.

I also would advise fathers with toddlers to look where they are going and not stare at the sand when they decide to walk up the beach from the sea. Then you will avoid being ploughed into said sand by a galloping horse. That’s what nearly happened to one poor dear today. He awoke from a dream when I yelled: “Watch out!” as he ambled across my path. There is no way I, or the two riders behind me, would’ve been able to stop in time.

Climbing down the main access route to the beach through the dunes, must, it would seem, be arduous work. I can come up with no other explanation why a family would set up their seats, yellow inflatable boat and child’s buggy across the main thoroughfare like an Everest expedition’s base camp. Such behaviour is tantamount to sitting down in the middle of the pavement. And don’t look at me like I’m an idiot when I ask you to move it. It’s not me that’s blocking the only horse-friendly route off the beach.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am no fan of caravans. My hatred is ratcheted up another notch when caravette drivers with white hair and indecipherable gender decide to reverse without bothering to look what’s behind them. I offer no apology for going into full shouting, arm-waving Basil Fawlty mode when they narrowly avoid hitting a pony.

And it’s only the second weekend of the holidays …

Friday, July 27, 2007

Fame, fame, fatal fame...

When I was small, I wanted to be famous. I used to think everybody did. Now I can imagine no worse fate than having a recognisable face. Of course, it’s not just your face they’re interested in: it’s your cellulite, your skinniness, your wrinkles and your spots. Each blemish magnified and laid bare for criticism. They reckon you’re fair game.

To my chagrin, I must confess to surfing the Daily Mail’s website while I have my lunch. Every few weeks, someone else is ‘It’. At the moment, it’s Amy Winehouse. Amy, apparently, is too thin, and her lifestyle is taking its toll on her looks. Before her, it was Kate Moss. Photographs of 30-something Kate are compared to Kate when she was a teenager. Goodness, can you see the difference? Kate’s lifestyle is apparently taking its toll on her looks. For a while, it was Sienna Miller. How dare Sienna, the paper intimates, dare to be blonde, good looking, and managing to survive without Jude Law? I think the Daily Mail should just be done with it, and call itself the Daily Misogynist.

In my radio days, I had two pseudo-stalkers. The most recent called himself my “biggest fan”, and would telephone the newsroom when I was reading late night and weekend bulletins. Where, he would ask, could he see me perform? Surely I acted as well? It would be a shame not to, he said, with a voice like mine. A few years earlier, at a different radio station, I would receive frilly cards riddled with bad spelling from an ‘admirer’. He would call reception and ask to speak to me. I always refused. Then, I think (I can’t be sure), I met him while ordering drinks at a bar. A surprisingly normal looking person asked me where I was from. “The North East,” I replied. “So is M&M on the radio,” he said. “You sound like her. She’s from Newcastle, you know. Do you know her?” I quickly made my excuses and fled.

I was uncomfortable, although not unduly worried by these experiences. But imagine that magnified by a million and happening every day. When I am a famous author, I shall have a pen name. I shall invent a history for the book jacket. At book signings, I shall wear a black wig, huge black sunglasses and scarlet lipstick. No one will ever know it’s me.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Show business

The letters have gone out: I am a wanted woman. I haven’t received mine (it will be at my old address and I’m not going around to retrieve it) but my friend has. My name is on her letter too. But we have both agreed to stand firm this year: the local agricultural show must go on without us.

When I agreed to steward for the pony classes, I thought it would be a fun thing to do. I didn’t realise I was signing away my August Bank Holiday ad infinitum. That, however, has been the case. I’m actually quite scared to say: “No, sorry, no can do.” I plan to duck and dive a bit instead…


Showing classes, or rather the people who show their horses, have rather a reputation for competitiveness. Even – or should I say, especially - the tiny tots on the lead-rein: the determined mothers dressed in tweed matching their adored little one’s jacket, the toning ribbons in the child’s hair (it’s usually a girl) and the pretty Welsh pony and its tack polished to within an inch of their lives. “You’re on the wrong diagonal!” I heard an anguished father hiss at his daughter as they trotted passed. When I was that size, I had no idea what a diagonal was.

Then there are the Arab owners. There are two types of people who buy Arabs: the jolly hockey sticks endurance types and those with a desire to show their exceptional equine in-hand. The in-hand Arabs arrive, their dished faces adorned with traditional rolled leather Arabian bridles, their heads held high and their pixie-like ears pricked to attention. They are usually accompanied by the most unhorsy horsy people you would expect to see in a show ring. If it wasn’t for the leather cane carried under the arm, the flat shoes for running, and of course, the horse, you could be forgiven if you thought they were supposed to be somewhere else.


They appear perfectly lovely, hair piled high, immaculately dressed and made up – until something goes wrong. Like when they’re late and the class has started – and finished - without them. Then they’re not so sweet. As they argue with the judge, you think: “You’d have made it if you hadn’t spent so much time in front of the mirror.” But you don’t say anything.

You don’t know whether to speak up, either, when the judge bends down to examine a pony’s hooves .. . and leaves her tweed skirt around her ankles. You bite your lip to stop yourself laughing, then wonder if you should dash to her aid. The competitor standing nearby prods you. “Steward! Don’t you think you should be helping your judge?” As you traipse across the field, you hope she’ll notice before you get there. She doesn’t, but fortunately she has a sense of humour.

As you leave after the last class, you cringe as you hear her tell the reporter from the local paper: “You’ll never guess what just happened to me …”

Monday, July 23, 2007

School's out

At this time of year, I wish I were a primary school teacher. How I would adore six weeks free from the daily grind … then I remember that I’m not particularly fond of children (I wish some of my teachers had had the decency to consider that fact when choosing their careers) and that actually, primary school teachers work damn hard. Probably.

In truth, I haven’t had the freedom of a six-week stretch of summer holidays since I was 13. The holidays between leaving middle school and going up to the scary high school were bookended by a week at an aunt’s and a week with a friend at her grandparents’. In the middle was the heaven of other people’s horses, sea and sand; days of fresh-air tiredness, of appetites sharpened by salty air and satisfied by guilt-free fish and chips.

After that, my summer holidays were spent working. I worked in a green grocer’s, where I learned to count the correct change into people’s hands; I worked in shop, where I learned it was politic to wait until the foul-smelling person left before blasting the air freshener; I worked in a chippy, where I learned to tell the difference between haddock and cod; I worked in an hotel, where I learned chefs enjoy a pint and making a mess, but are far too important to clear up after themselves.

Overall, I learned that, like children, I’m not overly keen on tourists and the service industry was not for me. I learned that if wanted something more out of life, I’d better get me an education. Then one day, pallid, indoor teenagers may be waiting on me as I enjoyed my moment in the sun.