Monday, April 30, 2007

Living by numbers

“If you pass this exam, you will never have to do maths again,” promised my teacher 22 summers ago as I prepared to sit my maths O-level. The first paper was tolerable but I was unable to finish the second. Somehow, I managed to scrape a C; I was jubilant, thinking I would now be free from numbers.

I am a words, not a numbers, sort of person. I think in the main, you are born one or the other. My mother is one of those exceptions that prove the rule. She is especially nifty with numbers: she is able to work out VAT and percentages in her head. I can manage the former with the aid of a calculator, but remain foxed by the latter.

My maths teacher was a false prophet. I am drowning in a sea of numbers on a daily basis. I can easily have used three different sets before 8am: debit card PIN to pay for petrol, the work door access code, and if I am first in, yet another set to disable the burglar alarm.

Figures flummox me. When I did bar work – in the days when a round was totted up mentally – I used to hate the return of a customer ordering the same drinks. What if I charged a different amount? I lived in fear of my incompetence being challenged.

However, I can do simple formulas: to convert dollars into pounds always used to be “times two, divide by three”. I’m even more impressed with the current version of “times two”. Even I can work that out in my head. Long live the strong pound!

Sunday, April 29, 2007

A spring soirée

The day of what was to be M&M’s spring garden party dawned, just like in all the best books, bright and beautiful. I lay in bed, picturing it: nice things to nibble, jugs of Pimm’s, Amy Winehouse on the stereo and the sunshine casting an evening glow over the fields.

It was T-shirt weather when Mum and I left to drive along the A1 to the town up the road where it’s always at least two degrees colder. We wore jumpers just in case, but the glorious spring weather had made the temperature there more than commonly tolerable.

The town may suffer from a lack of warmth, but it makes up for it by stocking ‘posh’ food that only appears in the village during the summer to cater for the tourists. Rocket, radishes, couscous – and a dress – were duly purchased. After an internal tussle, I managed to tear myself away from the dragonfly fairy lights that would have sparkled so fetchingly in the tree.

But the weather, which had promised so much in the morning, withdrew its support. The sky turned grey, a chill crept into the air, and while the rest of the country basked in the heat, my plan of a party on the patio lay in ruins. The Pimm’s coped with the transition indoors and Amy Winehouse was exchanged for The Return of ‘Allo 'Allo on TV. I’m sure my plans for an outdoor spring soirée will return too – maybe next week…

Friday, April 27, 2007


When I was small, I had a black rocking horse. His name was Midnight Melody. Together, we won the Grand National numerous times, and were also pretty hot show jumpers and three day eventers. Our adventures were only constrained by my imagination and his yellow stand. Sometimes, I thought if I rocked fast enough, we would break free even of that, and we’d be off …

When I obtained the flesh and blood version as a teenager, I rode – alone and with friends – for hours on end. I would visit schoolmates in the next village or the next village but one; we would ride on the beach and through other people’s fields, jumping low walls and seats; we would skive off school when the hounds met nearby; occasionally, we would clatter under castle arches to be served sherry on a silver tray by a Lady who wore diamonds in her hair.

Now, the horsy girls go round and round in the arena or spend an hour on the beach. They don’t seem go adventuring. But this is the modern world where even the back lanes are now filled with cars that don’t know the Highway Code says they must slow down for horses. Nor do anxious mothers know who is behind the steering wheel. Byways we used as a matter of course are no longer accessible.

Youth, they say, is wasted on the young. I like to think I didn’t waste mine. I hope today’s kids don’t either; I hope they too have boxfuls of rose-tinted memories to take out on greyer days, and sigh over the freedoms they once had.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bottoms up!

I am a gin girl. Served in a long glass, with lots of ice, a generous slug of the necessary, a squeeze of lime on top, then rubbed around the rim before topping up with a tonic. For preference, the gin should be Bombay Sapphire (thank you Gill!) followed by Gordon’s; I’m not that adverse to unbranded stuff either. But it must be a thick wedge of lime not lemon; this is the only conscious Americanism I have.

I was once thanked for my gin-mixing skills in a wedding speech. I like to think I can mix a decent drink – and was put in mind of my mixing mentor by a comment on Drunk Mummy’s blog about pink gin.

I worked behind the student union bar when I was at university. The permanent bar manager was a small, lean, grey haired man, with a Wikipedia-esque knowledge of alcohol. An old bottle of Angostura Bitters lurked behind the bar; no one ever used it and I asked what it was for. A couple of dashes in an empty glass, a measure of gin, swirl it around and voila – pink gin.

Angostura Bitters, however, I was informed, was poisonous in large amounts. Guinness, he told me, was no good for vegetarians: apparently in days of yore, the fattest rats in Dublin lived in the brewery’s malting room and occasionally were swept into the mixture along with the grain. Bitter, he said, was fermented over fish scales.

He also told me the addition of quinine to tonic water dated back to the days of the British Empire. Apparently, it was used to guard against malaria and the only way the British could be persuaded to take it was in their G&T. I think a nice glass of gin would persuade me to take my medicine too…

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Organised chaos

I have lost the grey mare’s passport; she’s not going on holiday but if I don’t have one, I’ll be in major trouble. It has been missing for around two years, and today I decided to officially declare it gone forever. Apparently it will cost me £22.50 for a duplicate.

I am not, I must confess, the most organised of people. I am in my professional life – I juggle tasks and meet deadlines with aplomb; I’m even quite good at organising other people. My animals don’t know my dark secret either: they are fed, watered and worshipped.

But in my personal motto seems to be “why do today what you can put off until tomorrow”. Hence the lack of action over the passport, and my current mild panic about the horse and car insurance policies. Both are due for renewal shortly, and due to an oversight, I forgot to tell the companies I moved just before Christmas. Ditto the DVLA. Last time I was stopped by the police, the policeman wasn’t very impressed with the fragments of pink paper that piece together to make up my licence, either.

I am a hoarder – I am always convinced that if I throw something out I will need it. I have a forest-worth of paperwork stuffed in various folders, boxes and drawers. But last year, I couldn’t find my MOT certificate and had to pay for another one. I can easily lay my hands on a letter of appointment from 1992 or an electricity bill from 1996. What’s the betting my insurance details won’t be quite so easy to find?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

April showers

There were big gaps between the raindrops last night. There was not enough rain, I said to my sister as she fussed around looking for the dark prince’s exercise sheet, to really get a horse wet. Certainly not enough, I thought, to nourish the parched, cracked earth. But I was wrong.

Driving to work this morning, things looked different. The verges were more lush and verdant than yesterday; the white and pink blossom more thickly stippled atop the trees. Suddenly, the golden yellow gorse bushes were burning for attention, while the first candles have appeared on the horse chestnuts that stand sentinel on the roadside.

The rich banks of trees that screen the fields from the A1 are tiptoeing towards ripeness. Some architects of arboreal excellence knew what they were doing; surely this mixture of rich greens, emeralds, peridots and scatterings of cream confetti is more than a happy accident? Look closely, and you can see there is so much more to come as pale buds awaken on bare branches that hide behind the fertility of their neighbours.

I adore this time of year; not yet the blowsy riot of flaming June, the plants and trees are establishing and delighting themselves once again. The yellow trumpeting daffodils give way to the shy, sap-stalked bluebells hiding in green shadows. Some might say it’s grim up north; me, I think it’s just perfick.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A spring bonnet

There are two types of people in the modern world: hat lovers and hat haters. I am in the former group. It’s a good job really, as I wear a riding hat most days. I have two: the sumptuous navy velvet one that comes out for ‘posh’ and the everyday jockey skull that I wear with a purple velvet cover. I am deeply desirous of a vented hat for the summer; you don’t want to know about how sweaty my hat was after an exuberant grey mare and I had a show jumping practice session yesterday …

In addition to the ‘necessary hats’ – the riding hats and the hats with flaps to stop a perishing north wind from whistling into my brain in dark winter fields (beware the Judder Man when the moon is fat) – I have plenty of frivolous hats. I have tweedy and corduroy caps with peaks; velvet hats; berets; fake fur hats and a superb cream creation that only comes out for racing in the summer. I have a green velvet hat box full of millinery. I prefer to tuck my hair into a hat when it rains than to use an umbrella.

I don’t know why or when people stopped wearing hats as a matter of course. Once it was new hats that we craved but women have, I think, replaced their worship of millinery with a fetish for shoes. You seldom see a man wearing a hat now either, unless it is a baseball cap, a woolly job to protect a shaved head in winter or a farmer with his flat cap. I once had a boyfriend who had a fedora and shiny shoes; I thought it was a classy combination.

But other than the races, people only seem to wear ‘unnecessary’ hats when they celebrate the Church of England's rites of passage: weddings, christenings and funerals.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Boris the spider

The spring spider season has started in my house. Their favoured hang-out is my bath. I have recently removed two to prevent them from drowning. One was able to escape onto the windowsill; the other made a run for it across the floor, but alas, the cats did to it what cats do to small defenceless creatures.

The fact I can remove spiders is a big breakthrough; it wasn’t always the case. Now, I can put a glass over them, slide a leaflet that’s fallen out of a magazine (see, they do have a purpose) under them, and set them free. I am able to mock those afflicted with arachnophobia.

I was once a sufferer myself. As a child, I was petrified of spiders, although curiously, I was a big fan of Itsy and Bitsy on TV. Over the years, I was able to convince myself that it was natural and right to fear spiders – it was a ‘primitive memory’ of when the creepy little fellas could really do you harm. When I moved to Cambridgeshire in the hot summer of 1995, the spiders were immense. They had, as my news editor at the time said, knees and ankles.

Gradually, though, I acclimatised myself to spiders outside. My theory was that I had plenty of space to run away from them. In the last few years, I have reached the stage where I have desensitised myself to them inside too.

However, I curse people who put big pictures of spiders in newspapers and magazines to make me jump when I turn the page, and I still occasionally awake with a start in the early hours convinced there is a spider on my pillow. I can’t do foreign, furry spiders either, but I reckon I have the domestic fellas sussed …

Friday, April 20, 2007

Woolly hoodies

The lambs have started to gather in great big gangs. They look like children plotting mischief in a break-time playground. I wonder if they have best friends, stories and secrets too?

It can’t be much fun being a lamb, especially if you have the bad luck to be born with balls. A brief idyll, surrounded by sunshine, daisies and mates: then, for the lucky ones, a lifetime of sex, but slaughter for the less fortunate. The more I think about it, the more correlations I can see between lambs and lads. A generation of young male sheep end up at the abattoir every year; in 'less enlightened' times, generations of young men were wiped out on the battlefield, too.

Each time I see a young lamb, I think: “I can’t possibly eat that.” But I still do. I’m not really a very good carnivore because I have contradictory ethics. I had a brief flirtation with vegetarianism as a teenager: I did it for Morrissey but I rapidly relapsed into the ways of the bacon butty. I don’t think he would’ve approved of my foxhunting anyway.

I just don’t like the thought of eating animals when they're still children. Rather than kids in the yard, I’ll try to view them as hoodies gathering at a shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon. If I can persuade myself that they’re actually dull-eyed, attitude-and-acne-ridden thugs, I’ll have less of a problem with it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Cutting it

Some people compile lists of things to do before they die; I have a mental one of things to avoid, such as cancer, broken limbs, root canal work - and mowing the lawn.

Cutting grass was not a problem at the bad place: there wasn’t any. I adored the house previous to that, but unfortunately that warm, fuzzy feeling didn’t extend to tending the garden. I would occasionally pull a couple of thistles but the grass and hedge were rampant. The cats liked it: my parents didn’t. Eventually, my dad would become so embarrassed that he and my brother would descend, armed with garden implements to tidy it up. I would smile secretly to myself: mission accomplished.

I also have warm and fuzzy feelings towards my current home; I also have, as a condition of tenancy, to keep the garden presentable. Last week, after nagging him from the day he returned home from university, I cornered my brother and forced him to come and cut the grass.

He appeared with grandad’s hover mower. “He’s going to buy a smaller one at the weekend,” said my brother, “so you can keep this one here.” It is now living in the shed. I try not to look at it when I go in for the horse feed.

The first cut, so they tell me, is the hardest of the year. Once the worst of it had been slashed through, my brother made me try. “It’s just like Hoovering,” he said. I didn’t tell him that I also avoid that whenever possible.

I was instructed to mow again at the start of the week. I didn’t, and now multiple treacherous green shoots are pushing up through the dry cuttings that I failed to rake off the lawn.

There is a bowling green close to my house. At the moment, a battalion of groundsmen, armed with machines sounding like demented dentists’ drills, are attacking all signs of growth. When they are finished, the green will look as if it has been trimmed with nail scissors. Compared to that, I simply can’t cut it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Risking it

Do you know that feeling when you overtake on a single carriageway and there isn’t quite as much room as you thought? You see the whites of the oncoming lorry driver’s eyes, your foot’s to the floor and your heart is behaving like it’s a totally separate entity. You squeeze back on to your side of the road with feet to spare and think: “God, that was close. I could’ve died there.”

But as your heart returns to a normal rhythm and the fear fades, you remember your psychological security blanket. The one where you think about other incidents in your life where things could have gone oh so badly wrong, but didn’t. The blanket you wrap around yourself and think: “I didn’t die then; it’s not my time yet.”

My stand-out episode happened almost 20 summers ago in 1989. I was picking strawberries along with other students and travellers, who came to that little triangle at the foot of the Malvern Hills twixt Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire for the fruit season. It was a grand life: piece work, paid daily and down the pub most nights.

The farm where we worked was about three miles away from town and we stayed in rough and ready accommodation: a converted barn with mattresses upstairs and a kitchen of sorts occupying the ground floor. Few of us had transport; if no-one was driving into town, we’d start walking or hitchhike.

One afternoon, a friend and I set off down the long farm driveway to the road. We thumbed a lift almost immediately with a middle-aged bloke with dark hair. He dropped us off in town, we went to a café, then when the pub opened, we spent the evening there. By kicking-out time, we’d spent all our money and were resigned to walking home. However, as we crossed the road, we saw headlights and a car pulled up. It was the man from earlier; it was almost as if he’d been waiting for us.

With the foolishness and drunkenness of youth, we accepted a lift. Were we students? Where did we come from? Would we come out for a drink with him sometime? The questions came in quick succession and became slightly unnerving. “Oh no,” we said, “we couldn’t possibly go for a drink with you: our boyfriends wouldn’t like it.”

Feeling uncomfortable, we insisted he dropped us at the bottom of the drive, and we ran. “What a creepy bloke,” we said, then thought no more about it. But the next day, while we were shopping, he returned looking for “the blonde girls who’d promised to go for a drink with him”. The travellers had difficulty persuading him to leave.

He appeared again as we were cooking spaghetti bolognaise in the makeshift kitchen that evening. We hid around the corner. The man was insistent; he would know where we were; we had promised to go for a drink with him. In the end, one of the travellers had to threaten him with the frying pan before he went.

I didn’t see him again until about four or five years later, when I was reading a newspaper article about a man whose first wife and daughter had been dug up from a field in Much Marcle, not far from our strawberry farm. I recognised the photograph immediately. The man’s name was Fred West.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Doe, a deer ...

I love to sing. I sing to my cats, I sing to my horse, I sing in the car. However, I don’t sing in front of other people.

Like most teenagers, I harboured the odd fantasy of being a rock star. I was even in a very short-lived punk band when I was 14. We wrote our own songs and used an old acoustic guitar as the bass. I was the singer; however, when you’re trying to sound like Johnny Rotten, you don’t need to be tuneful.

I thought that all I needed was a producer. I went out with one for a while; he used to wince and tell me it hurt when I sang, so I stopped singing. One radio station I worked at had regular sessions with a voice coach to improve our news reading. “It’s all about breathing from your diaphragm,” she said, as she made us read The Big Friendly Giant aloud, then lie on our backs and go “ohhhhmmmmm”. Once, I confessed to her that I wanted to sing. “Everyone can sing, darling,” she assured me.

When I am in the car, it’s: “Hello, Wembley!” I am currently radio-less and I have a long commute, so M&M’s greatest hits are bellowed out unaccompanied. At the moment, I have a penchant for The Levellers’ One Way, but Simon and Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones, The Velvet Underground and my very, very favourite, The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, all receive the treatment.

But just as I hate people eavesdropping on my private conversations with the grey mare (the ones where I’m telling her she’s the most bee-ooo-itful horse in the world), I’d be mortified if anyone caught me singing unawares.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Not so mellow yellow

One week off and the difference in my drive to work is remarkable. The trees are wearing their April clothes, the beer can man has acquired a seat as well as a dog, and the landscape is patched with vivid yellow oilseed rape in all its fluorescent indecency.

I am not a fan of oilseed rape. Even its name has repugnant connotations. It smells highly unpleasant; it makes my eyes water – and not simply from looking at it. It’s not even redeemed after it’s been cut; a wheat field gives a lovely golden stubble to canter across on your horse, but rape stubble is sharp, stocky and dangerous looking.

Oilseed rape is insidious: it’s even rife in the central reservation of the A1 near the big white Northumberland sign (which, incidentally, says ‘Welcome to Northumberland’, not, as you may have been led to believe, ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’). It's set to become even more ubiquitous as farmers are encouraged to turn to the yellow stuff to make biofuel. There may be many thousands of acres under oilseed rape, but I can’t say I’ve noticed any reduction in prices at the petrol pumps.

I shudder when I imagine a vision of the future, prescribed by the global warming police: an army of towering wind turbines marching across of an unending vista of not so mellow yellow...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Joules girls

I love getting the new season’s horsy catalogues through the post. Ride Away, Robinson’s and Derby House all bring a smile to my face and a sense of anticipation as I study the sweet, new-smelling pages. The Internet’s all well and good, but there’s nothing like getting to grips with a shiny new catalogue stuffed to the gunwales with things I think I want but can’t afford.

The people who stride across these pages have lives that bear little resemblance to mine. They can wear lemon, lilac and pale blue shirts with alacrity; they can don beige jodhs and breeches on a daily basis without fear. They, it would seem, are never troubled by mud, muck, or dribble.

Take today, for example: a beautiful warm spring day with a hint of breeze. I have arena dust in my ears and my hair; I have white horse hairs on my socks and my sleeve; I have green horse saliva on my jodhpurs. In the winter, I return home caked in mud and often have hay in my hair.

My beige breeches only come out for ‘good’ along with my long leather boots. Even then, I wear a pair of trousers over the top of them until just before I mount. It’s only wise when you have a horse that likes to use you as a scratching post.

Sometimes, I wish I were a Joules girl. Joules girls are never dirty, their hair is artfully tousled, their eyes sparkle and their skin glows. But then I console myself with the thought that life’s no fun unless you’re getting your hands dirty.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Tipster service # 2

Grand National Day has always had special resonance for me. As I have previously mentioned, I was sucked in by National Velvet at a young age, and never quite recovered. The race is the ultimate test of horse and rider, and has for me, a special romance that the Cheltenham Gold Cup can’t quite emulate.

Anyway, enough wittering. My tips for glory tomorrow are:

  1. Hedgehunter – I know everyone says he can’t do it again, but I shall keep the faith. He was only beaten by the weight last year. C’mon Ruby!

  2. Longshanks – I keep hearing good things about this horse.

  3. Simon – simple name and lovely story. He was bred and is owned by Mercy Rimell, who is now in her mid-80s. More than half a century ago, her late husband trained the first of his four Grand National winners. Oh, and this horse is supposed to be quite good, as well.

Disclaimer: Do not back a horse based on my tips. It will only lead to heartache. I will not be responsible for the loss of any monies due to you disobeying this advice. However, if you do win thanks to my foresight, commission should be paid at the rate of 25% ...

The Back Lady

The grey mare has stolen another heart to add to her collection.

“I know a hundred people who would like to have her,” said the Back Lady. “She must be worth her weight in gold.” The grey mare looked on with alacrity, knowing such compliments are her due.

The Back Lady was here to check, manipulate and massage the horses. Out of place joints and vertebrae were clicked back to from whence they came. The grey girl had slightly stiff shoulders, a little soreness on her back end but her condition was, in the main, not bad. Some racehorses have fortnightly sessions; the grey mare will be due another in six months.

The grey girl looked a little alarmed when the Back Lady pulled her tail but settled into a trancelike state when the massage machine came out. This amazing handheld gizmo emits magnetic pulses and massages deep into the muscles.

In a few days, I will receive an email showing my mare’s problem points and exercises to be done regularly to stop the stiffness building up. These include ‘carrot stretches' which the mare enjoys, as she is rewarded for her efforts.

When she was finished, the Back Lady surreptitiously slipped her an extra carrot. “Shush,” she said, “crunch it quietly, or the others will hear you."

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

It’s only words

I bought a Dime bar today. I hadn’t seen one for years; possibly because they’re now called Daim bars. However, just as I insist on Marathons and Opal Fruits rather than Snickers and Starbursts, the Dime name is safe in my house.

I don’t know why we have to change the names of things to fit in with Europe or America. I used to buy Jif; but I’m certainly not paying for a bathroom cleaner that makes me think of a venereal disease.

Words are important to me; I spend much of the day manipulating them into what I hope are lucid sentences. When I see British people using Americanised spellings, I wince. ‘Favorite’ and ‘color’ infuriate me; I gag when someone writes ‘gray’; ‘center’ makes me choke on my coffee.

My journalism tutor was ‘old school’. He always wore a three-piece suit with a pocket watch, and would ask the ‘ladies’ for permission to remove his jacket. He insisted the best way to plough through dusty law notes was “with a whisky in one hand, and a blonde in the other”. He didn’t like newer meanings for words: ‘pathetic’, to him, would always mean ‘in need of sympathy’.

I do not hold such a reactionary stance towards new words and meanings; I believe language is fluid and have been known to invent a few words of my own. However, I am old school when it comes to apostrophes. I have seen many cases of itchy apostrophe disease, but one sticks out in my mind as blatant abuse.

I was working in what I had hoped would be a very brief stopgap job (it wasn’t; I was there for a year-and-a-half and spent many evenings sitting crying on my kitchen floor). This company sold goods identified by codes made up of letters and numbers. One uncouth youth would repeatedly add apostrophe ‘s’ to denote the plural on invoices and boxes. Finally, I could bite my tongue no longer. I told him it was wrong and why it was wrong.

“My way might be wrong,” he said, “but it looks better than yours.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Now that the ground is hard and dry as a bone, and the season of squelchy mud appears to be over, my thoughts have turned to my fingernails. The aforementioned mud is no longer lodged under my nails, staining the skin with a blackened crescent that no amount of prodding, poking, lotions or potions will shift. Cutting down the nail and peeling off the offending skin is the only effective way I’ve found of dealing with it.

Now, though, it’s gone. My nails are long and strong, if very unkempt. It’s a myth that horsy gals don’t have good fingernails; I think delving in all that muck fertilises them and makes them grow like prize roses.

My sister’s nails are currently a gothic purple-black, but I lean more towards the blues. I went to see Marianne Faithfull once and she had the most marvellous blue fingernails. She used them wisely, gesticulating as she sang standards from The Threepenny Opera. As a teenager, I was also influenced by Flo Jo’s nails. I was never an athletics fan, and her nails were a little claw-like for me, but I’d never seen anything like them before. I dug out my myriad-coloured nail polishes and painted my own rather smudged rainbows, hearts and flowers.

Like well-plucked eyebrows, I think well-tended fingernails make all the difference. After all, it’s the little things that count.

Monday, April 09, 2007


I am drifting on a tide of fresh air tiredness.

My throat hurts from inhaling a windswept arena; my face is red from the sun (the factor 15 in my moisturiser’s not much cop then); one ankle was bashed by an empty oil drum, the other by the swinging stirrup iron of a pony that danced around as I tried to clamber aboard.

A jump pole was dropped on my finger, which throbbed alarmingly and now has little red bits under the nail. Another pony stood on my foot – not the one nearest to him, he purposefully stepped across to my furthest away foot to crush my toes.

I thought I was going to be the only casualty of the day until the final lesson, when a girl slipped elegantly sideways on her saddle and slid slowly to the ground.

Fortified now by a glass of red from my sometime employer and a roast beef dinner courtesy of my mum, I think I will survive. Each time, I say never again…but sadly, I’m a bit like Sean Connery

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Rise and shine

Weekends and holiday are, for me, a time to have a lie in. As I get out of bed at 6.30am during the week, I think this is perfectly justified.

My dad rises at silly o’clock in the morning every day of the year to walk Labradors. He continually tries to make me feel guilty about “lying in bed all day”. As long as I manage to surface before midday, I think I’m doing OK; 10am to 10.30am is a good time to get up.

I can’t understand these people who say: “Once I’m awake, that’s it, I have to get up.” I don’t; I can roll over repeatedly and close my eyes and my ears against the cats as they try to persuade me out of bed with purrs and prods with their paws. It is very rare that they’re badgering me because they’re hungry; nine times out of ten, they have food in their bowls. They are, I think, just being awkward. “We’re awake so you should be too,” appears to be the message. Unlike them, though, I don’t spend the rest of the day lolling around and preening.

A couple of friends have been riding along the beach at 7am this weekend to avoid the traffic and the tourists. I would’ve loved to have gone too, but I just couldn’t drag myself out from under the duvet. However, I don’t have a choice about tomorrow’s early start: I have been press-ganged into moonlighting for the day.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Stay at home Saturday

There were two things I wanted to do today and I have done neither.

The first was to go to the Point-to-Point. I resigned myself yesterday to the fact I would miss it because I am skint. Ratcheugh is the coldest place in the world: it has its own weather system transposed from Siberia. Even on a beautiful spring day, you can be assured that the crowds will be shivering. However, today has been veritably hot so I imagine Ratcheugh reached a tolerable temperature.

It is a place of giant skies and stunning views, even for those who are not of a horsy inclination; you can see the sea and at this season’s first meeting in January, we saw Robson Green. He was smaller than I imagined and impossibly tanned for the time of year.

I should also now be at a birthday party. But my sister has decided she is too tired and as I am a wussy girlie, I am not going on my own. It’s probably a wise decision: there is bound to be a fight. There are always fights. When I was younger, it was the local lads versus those who had the audacity to come here from elsewhere for a drink. Then, there was a nightclub of sorts and police presence on a Saturday night to deter the drunken brawlers.

Now, locals fight among themselves. I have seen the trouble erupt from nowhere: no argument, no raised voices, just suddenly spilled drinks and tables turned over as some unfortunate is bashed about. Sometimes it is the local lads against the Polish lads. The shouting alone is frightening; then the Polish lads fetch a knife and the tension is ratcheted another notch. The police, however, are no longer on hand; they have to be called in from elsewhere and the damage has been done before they arrive.

Brawling upsets me. I don’t understand why they do it. I wonder if they do? Perhaps it’s a sign I’m getting old.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Fish 'n' chips

It has taken me literally years to come to terms with Bank Holidays and to consider them to be a Good Thing. This is as a result of the trauma inflicted during a number of school holidays and my first university long vacation. The horror invariably reached a crescendo on August Bank Holiday Monday, but Good Friday was always the start.

The village has a surfeit of chip shops for its size. Three of them have café areas, or, as one where I worked liked to say, ‘fish restaurants’. It was a decent enough size and large numbers of people could be squeezed in due to strategic table positioning. But on a Bank Holiday, it was never big enough and from 11am, a queue started to snake its way along the street.

I would eye the queue with trepidation through the window. The worst moment – worse even than when the door was unlocked and they spilled in like bargain hunters on the first day of the Harrods sale – was when the granny buses went by. The grannies, complete with freshly set hair and a fancy for fish and chips on their day trip to the seaside, would nudge each other and point to the café. If they caught your eye, they would grin and wave. There was no escape.

Bus trips on top of the Bank Holiday hordes could easily induce a panic attack in a waitress of a nervous disposition. “Ethel doesn’t want peas, pet,” Ethel’s mate would say. Of course, when you have 30-odd orders for cod and chips (mushy peas came as standard – yuck) it’s easy to forget and blandly dollop bright green goo onto Ethel’s plate. Ethel, obviously, is upset and doesn’t want to pay for peas. You take her plate away and slide the fish and chips on to a fresh one. If the fish drops to the floor during this exercise, you pick it up and put it back on. You feel guilty for hating Ethel when she leaves you a tip.

Bank holidays were invariably sweaty, steamy, greasy, leg and arm-achingly awful. As the years passed, I got over it - until last Easter, when I almost had a relapse. Living in the bad place was just too close for comfort to the epicentre; the scent of stale fat pervaded the air and people filled the pavement, four abreast. I forced my car out of the alleyway, through the crowds, into a non-existent gap in the traffic – and fled...

Richard the Lionheart

A big cream-coloured caravan was one of the steering wheel-smacking, angst-inducing and tedium-creating reasons why I was late home from work today.

When I managed to overtake as the A1 returned to dual carriageway, I noticed it was called a 'Crusader'. Was that because it got nowhere fast?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A purpose in life

We all have a purpose in life, and three years shy of my two score, I have realised mine: it is to serve the grey mare.

Owning a horse is not for the fainthearted or irresponsible, it requires full-on commitment. Feeding, grooming, riding, problem solving and heartache are all part of the package, in fair weather and foul. People say to me when horizontal rain is being chucked down by an angry weather god: “Do you have to go and feed your horse when it’s like this?” I usually think: “Do you have to cook dinner for your children? You could always let them starve for the night.” But I say nothing and smile beatifically.

I once saw a T-shirt that said: “Poverty is owning a horse”. It’s true – the little superfluous cash I have is usually spent on things she needs. She currently has six rugs – she had more, but I forced myself to sell the ones we didn’t use. However, I am eyeing up another two. She has two bridles – one with day-to-day brakes and one with the ABS version for hunting, jumping and other exciting things. Her saddle cost more than one of my sister’s horses did. She has an array of shampoos and conditioners; she has baby wipes to clean her nose; she has two different supplements in her dinner. I could go on …

It isn’t just money and time she wants either. She has me utterly attuned to her every whim. If she has an itchy bit, she points at it with her nose and expects me to scratch it. Often, she will position herself in front of me and refuse to let me leave until I have scratched her belly. It’s a two-way street though – she does return the favour by mutually grooming me back.

Tonight, I was going riding with a friend who had offered to bring the mare in for me while I was at work. But the grey girl refused to be caught. “She trotted off wiggling her bum,” said my friend. When I went to the field and called, she came cantering over and nuzzled me for carrots. I know I’m her meal ticket, but I reckon she does love me…

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

With a cherry on top

Cherries, I have to confess, are one of my favourite things. Unnaturally red ones on cocktail sticks in drinks, sticky glace ones that go into cakes and luscious fresh ones: red, two-tone and especially the black ones. What could be more marvellous than having them on tap during the summer, ripened and warmed by the sun, just waiting to be plucked from the tree?

That was my reasoning about five or six years ago, when, in the depths of winter, I ventured into the alien territory of the garden centre to pick out a cherry tree. I found a strong, healthy looking black cherry specimen and decided to buy a Czar plum tree for good measure. They weren’t cheap, but I saw it as an investment in my future eating pleasure. The following week, they were joined by a Williams pear tree.

Due to the insecurity of rented accommodation, we decided the fruit trees would live in my parents’ garden. A year after they were planted, we had the first crop of plums – and they were divine. The pear tree, which came from a plastic bag outside Woolworth’s and thus missed the mollycoddled garden centre start in life, managed to produce a couple of fruit. My beautiful cherry tree? Not a bean, let alone a cherry.

The following year, the plum tree spread out further across the sun-warmed, mellow brick wall, the pear tree grew in stature and again, they both managed to produce. The cherry tree didn’t. “It’s putting on growth,” said my granddad, who knows about these things.

Last year, when the summer heatwave even reached the chill of Northumberland, two cherries appeared on my tree. Greedily, I watched them ripen, anticipating eating them like one would a meal at The Ivy. But before I could pick them, they were stolen by birds.

I caught a glimpse of ostentatious pink froth atop a cherry tree today; needless to say, it wasn’t mine…

Monday, April 02, 2007


I spotted a rather funky scarecrow this morning. At least, I think he was a scarecrow: transplant him to the Tate Modern and he’d easily pass for one of the exhibits. Standing around 5ft tall, he has a face and body made from black Guinness cans and white Stella Artois cans. I wonder if his creators drank them all in one go, or whether they saved up the cans, Blue Peter-style? I reckon I know what his artistic interpretation is though: Newcastle United-supporting farmer turns to drink due to single payments scheme cock up

There is a scarecrow festival held not far as the crow flies from where I saw this splendid specimen standing stark in the early morning sun. Each August Bank Holiday, Rennington is taken over by tableaux of scarecrows in a variety of attitudes. There is a bride and groom, a farrier, dancers, even a scarecrow cop with a gatso gun.

I am very fond of scarecrows. I like to think that, Worzel Gummidge-like, they awaken when the sun goes down. Unlike the sinister china dolls that pretend innocence, then spring to life the moment the door is closed, I believe scarecrows are benign. Just like the Jolly Green Giant, I find it comforting to imagine them striding across the night-time fields, keeping the crops safe from harm.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Not for me, thanks

I am a Cancerian – supposedly the most maternal sign of the zodiac. I like the idea of astrology and agree that some of the traits do fit my vision of me: moody and emotional, a hard shell with a soft centre, a home lover. However, the maternal one leaves me cold.

I am not a mother and I have never wanted children. Perhaps that’s a white lie: when I was small I had a vague idea I would have a mini-me when I grew up – a small blonde-haired daughter who would adore me. But that wasn’t a phase that lasted long: I was a tomboy with no time for dolls.

Many of my friends have children. I am the godmother to one of them. When my friend told me that it meant if anything happened to her, I would have to take over the child, I blanched and almost backed out. Lucky, she is fit and well and the child will soon be old enough to stand on its own two feet.

My mother thinks I’m selfish for not wanting children. She says: “Who will look after you when you’re old?” I tell her I’ll look after myself, thank you, and it would be selfish to have a child simply to act as a carer. Knowing my luck, it would probably cart me off to a granny farm as soon as I started to dribble.

I am actually a lot better at relating to children than I used to be. In fact, I can deal very well with them by the time they reach nine or ten and can hold a conversation. However, I cannot cope with the screaming, tantruming, sick and smelly side of things.

I probably don’t have long to change my mind (which people always tell me I will), and the ticking clock is conspicuous by its absence. I shall stick to my cats and my horse, I think.