Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Of Kettle Chips and Caffeine

The lovely Rilly Super suggested that blogging may have been my displacement activity after I stopped smoking; alas, this was not the case. Blogging, I believe, has no calories. Kettle Chips, on the other hand, have loads. Especially when the Co-op is selling the large packets at two-for-one. Kettle Chips, along with Cornish pasties, lemon sherbets and chocolate limes were my oral substitutes for smoking and saw the speedy displacement of an extra stone – mostly on to my hips.

Like my previous half-hearted attempts to stop smoking, I’ve had a few vague stabs at shedding the excess weight. I’ve managed to get rid of a measly 4lbs, but no more. I am too vain and too mean to buy the next size up in clothes and I am getting rather bored with items straining at the seams.

So, I have bought a diet book. As well as cutting out nice things to eat, it commands that I banish all caffeine for at least a month. For someone who drinks strong black coffee and slurps tea throughout the day, this is a cruel commandment. The book suggests alternatives such as Rooiboos tea, which is not awfully pleasant, and dandelion coffee. I mean, dandelion coffee? I have instead substituted decaff Gold Blend and Tetley.

However, no one told me about the agony of caffeine withdrawal. Apparently my headache is caused by blood rushing to my head as the vessels contract due to the lack of caffeine. I fail to see how this is a good thing. It seems the pains in my back could be due to the same reason … either that, or it’s my age …

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

When the smoking stops

It can be so hard saying goodbye to something you care about, even though you know your continued reliance upon it is doing you no good at all. But sometimes you just have to bite the bullet; accordingly, a year ago today, I ended my love affair with smoking.

It was a passionate affair. I was not a hobby smoker; rather I was, as a former colleague described it, “hardcore”. Lighting up was usually the first thing I did on waking, the last thing before I went to sleep.

“It’s easy to stop smoking,” I’d tell people, “I’ve done it dozens of times.” My previous best was three months and even that was interspersed with cheating: I wasn’t really smoking if someone gave me the cigarette, I wasn’t really smoking if I had a drink in my hand, I wasn’t really smoking if it was after 6pm on a Friday …

Most attempts ended in ill humour after a couple of days. There was always something to be stressed about that necessitated a fag or there was always something important that needed to be done. Oh, I fully intended to stop: just not yet.

I tried willpower, patches, lozenges, chewing gum (it upset my stomach), I read books by anti-smoking gurus and winced at public health adverts with yuck oozing out of a lit cigarette. Nothing worked. Not until a friend at the stables – an even more hardcore smoker than me – managed to kick the habit. Her secret? An inhalator.

Puffing away on a little plastic pretend cigarette loaded with a nicotine and menthol cartridge might not look cool, but it worked for me. I could do it at my desk, in the car, in the bath, in bed. And I did. Until three weeks in, I lost my little plastic lifesaver. I was distraught, convinced that I couldn’t manage without it.

I did though… and now I’m free.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


In the week leading up to my 30th birthday I had some strange dreams. One stood out above all the rest. It was twilight and I was leaning over the gate to my granddad’s old garden. In the dream, the garden was just as it used to be – an acre of so planted with vegetables, with waist-length nettles in one corner, a little hillock in another, and a sparse line of trees on the long side adjacent to a paddock where a dun pony lived. Even while I was dreaming, I knew that the garden – and indeed the paddock – were no longer like this. I knew I was looking at something that, like just about every ‘vacant’ green space around here, now has houses built on top of it.

During my lifetime, there have been houses upon houses built at each extremity of the village. The last couple of years have been particularly busy: it has been like a perpetual building site. The horses no longer spook at the skips and cement bags: they are a fact of life.

I have mixed feelings about all of this building work. I detest the disappearance of places I knew, places I played; yet I know that villages must grow. But the thing that annoys me about all of this building is that most of those new homes are not affordable housing for local people; they’re too expensive for that. Rather they’re retirement and holiday homes for the better off.

I read recently that locally, a house costs ten times most people’s annual salary. Am I the only one that thinks there is something fundamentally wrong about that?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A murder of crows

The shrieking was high-pitched and heart-rending. It was the noise of something not long for this world. Two crows – looking for all the world like Antonio Banderas’ black cloaked gang in Interview with the Vampire – had flipped a baby rabbit on its back to expose its soft belly. I went to investigate; the crows let go, their victim scuttled into the undergrowth. Deprived of their dinner, they eyed me angrily from the telegraph wires.

I had seen crows mob a cat before but had never seen them catch a live mammal. From an anthropomorphic point of view, crows appear cruel. I don’t think they are: I consider them to be very clever. Indeed, the appliance of science has proven them to be far from bird-brained.

Three types haunt the horses’ fields: the carrion crows I saw attacking the rabbit, rooks and jackdaws that scatter the horse muck as they look for worms. They have chosen their homes wisely close to the shops. Their cousins who build cities in trees near busy routes also display admirable foresight by choosing locations with a ready supply of roadkill.

Yet proportionately very few crows end up squashed on the roads themselves. It amazes me how they judge when to move away from the traffic; they are rarely wrong. One made a mistake last summer, a young rook playing chicken with a gang of his mates. Leaving it a fraction too late, he crashed into my car as he rose into the air and became trapped in the bumper. I stopped to free him. His heart was pounding but there was not a mark on him. I let him go in the long grass. He lay quiet, his wings outstretched, his still body looking like a blue-black cross.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Of cars and cleaning

My car is a rather clapped out Corsa called Charlie. I have had him for nearly six years; that’s longer than some marriages last. But I am not kind to him. He is forced to do a 100-mile round trip five days a week; I tell people in his hearing that I want a diesel and I openly lust after a 4x4 with horsebox pulling capabilities. But I think, deep down, it is the lack of TLC that hurts him the most.

My brother, who is an avid Top Gear viewer, adores his car. It is regularly cleaned inside and out. It is on intimate terms with Turtle Wax and air freshener-impregnated cards that dangle from the mirror. Charlie, in contrast, never even gets a bath. His boot is full of dirty winter horse rugs, his back seat further covered in horse paraphernalia – numnahs, bits, parts of bridles, boots, plus plastic bags containing feed dregs and the odd mummified carrot.

My granddad grimaces whenever I give him a lift. He is wary of putting his feet on crisp packets and sweet papers, bits of string, more carrier bags and finds from the fields: broken cut glass decanter tops and a rusted metal crescent that I believe is an ancient bracelet but others with no imagination think was used to attach pipes to a wall.

It was worse when I smoked. The footwell debris was joined by dozens of empty fag packets. Once, when Charlie went for his MOT, someone wrote ‘clean me out’ on one of those ciggie boxes and propped it on the dashboard. Another time, the mechanic told my dad he wouldn’t touch Charlie again unless he arrived in a presentable state.

Perhaps it's a man thing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

An unattractive emotion

I love the colour green but I detest the emotion of envy. Whoever decided to link the two must have been thinking of a bilious, pea soup sort of green; that is the unpleasant imagery that concurs with the evil feeling in my stomach when I am overcome with envy.

It grabbed me yesterday, a steely hand sharply twisting and knotting my intestines, as I looked at the BBC news website. The Baftas report included a picture of someone I used to know, someone I had trained with, someone I used to share a lift to shorthand classes with, someone who had just won a Bafta for their journalistic endeavours.

It doesn’t have to be an awards ceremony: switch on the local TV news, and there is another one I trained with. See the reporter on the celluloid version of Calendar Girls? Her too. That TV continuity announcer? I worked with her; the Radio 1 newsreader? Ditto.

Then there is the woman I went to university with, the one that was on the edge of my circle and is now a big noise in regional BBC programming. The one that was invited to our house Christmas dinner out of pity, then sat prodding her nut-cutlet while treating us to a graphic description of how turkeys were slaughtered. Once, she visited a newsroom where I worked; I kept my head down, but noticed the elfin crop and pale blue eye makeup hadn’t changed since 1988.

I no longer beat myself up with thoughts of “that could’ve been me”. Now, I know why it isn’t: I am not terribly good at pushing myself forward in a professional capacity and I like to have a life outside of work.

But, like the Murphy’s, I’m not bitter. The boil is lanced ... for now.

Monday, May 21, 2007


My sister has gone gallivanting and has left me holding the baby, figuratively speaking. In addition to the grey mare, I am responsible for her four: three ex-racehorses – the cheeky orange one, who has the tenacity of The Terminator when there are sweeties around; the dark prince, black, beautiful, bright as a button, but oh-so-sensitive; the leggy, loving bay one who follows you around like a giant Great Dane; and the speckled, semi-retired Clydesdale-cross who is happy just to be. They must be checked, patted and Polo’d. She has given me £3 for the Polos.

The responsibility hangs heavy upon me. Some years ago, my sister went to the Badminton Horse Trials for the weekend and left me in charge of her previous black Thoroughbred. He had white socks on his forelegs and face like Black Beauty. I adored him.

On the second night of my patting and Polos stint, I found him looking very sorry for himself. Suddenly, I realised that I couldn’t see his white socks. They were dark with blood. He had caught and ripped both front legs on wire. It was a Bank Holiday and the vet on call was novice and nervous. It was a good job it was a woman; he wasn’t very fond of people he didn’t know at the best of times - but he simply loathed men. It didn’t help matters when an onlooker kindly informed her: “I’d watch him, he got hold of a jockey by the neck once.”

The horse sedated and stitched, I considered what to tell my sister. “Don’t say anything to her,” was the consensus, “she’ll only worry.” I sidestepped her text messages with questions about the weather. Of course, she went crazy when she came home.

I just hope she’s told this lot to be on their best behaviour while she’s away.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

You're not in Kansas now, Dorothy

I hate blow-you-away days and today has been straight out of The Wizard of Oz. Breeze, gust, zephyr… romanticise its name whatever way you will, but as far as I’m concerned, you can keep it.

I didn’t mind the fact it was blowing a gale quite so much yesterday as I was tired and the weekend was almost upon us. Today, however, it rankled. The grey mare feels even more strongly about the wind than I do. There are no flying monkeys or Munchkins for her; rather it turns blowing dock leaves into komodo dragons hiding on the verge and creates an array of other horse-eating monsters. I didn’t ride today; instead, she had carrots and cuddles.

Try as I might, I can only come up with two points in the wind’s defence: it dries things and powers turbines (which I have mixed feelings about at the best of times).

The prosecution, I think, has a much stronger case: it overturns boats, it destroys trees and houses, it can be dangerous to drive in, it fans flames, it steals clothes from the washing line and hats from heads, it messes up hairdos …
I wish I could click together the heels of my ruby slippers and make it go away.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A boxful of memories

My very first memory is of standing in a garden surrounded by flowers. The flowers were taller than I was. It was the garden where I learned to walk. I drive passed it most days.

There is another house and garden that lives in my box of memories that I also see daily. I never lived there but I yearned to. I still do; I have fleeting daydreams of what it will be like when it is mine.

Watching the wind ripple through the young corn today took me back to sitting on a wall at the edge of that garden, gazing at gusts eddying and flowing through the green wheat. In the spring, the wind in that garden shook the catkins on the pussy willow trees and made the bluebells dance.

In the heat of childhood summers, we would walk waist deep in the round pond, avoiding goldfish and shuddering as the cold mulch squished between our toes. There were tiny, periwinkle blue flowers on the rockery and pansies with gaudy faces. Beyond that grew gnarled crab apple trees where once I spied a lady with a pink crinoline and parasol that no-one else saw.

The greenhouses were warmed by metal pipes, where fat, brown toads lived among the powerful, earthy scent of tomato plants and geraniums. Inside the house, an Aga constantly supported a bubbling pan, while a smoky grey cat purred on the hearth of a giant stone fireplace.

Hidden behind the curtain and sitting on the window seat, I would look across the fields to the sea in the early summer. The sunlight sparkled and pirouetted on the calm surface like a separate entity. Outside, roses climbed a trellis on the wall.

When it’s mine, I won’t change a thing …

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Of X-rays and extractions

I went to the dentist today to have the Grand Canyon assessed. The tooth, it seems, is rotten to the core. It is to be pulled out; however, the dentist – a not-scary-at-all woman – says it is a wisdom tooth, “not a proper tooth” and it’s “not worth saving”. Oh.

Far more worrying than the rotten not-so-clever wisdom tooth was looking at the X-rays and what damage my 18-year addiction to nicotine did to my mouth. The dentist showed me where the bone under my gums had dropped down in places. This, apparently, is caused by smoking. No one told me it did that. Admittedly, I was aware that it stained your teeth and wasn’t great for your gums. However, the message that it can make your teeth fall out somehow passed me by. I do not have the zeal of the reformed addict and am not going to hector or lecture. All I’ll say is I’m glad I’ve stopped.

On a lighter note, I have returned home with some brightly coloured miniature ‘bottle brushes’ for cleaning between my teeth. They’re quite a novelty and much more user-friendly than floss. Hopefully, they will help prevent the careless loss of any more teeth.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

To whom it may concern ...

I am a great believer in complaining. If people did not complain about injustices, nothing would ever change. Just look at the Suffragettes. I like to think I would have been a Suffragette.

I am not known for ‘buttoning my lip’. I could complain for England and am the Queen of the letter of complaint. I endeavour to make people quiver with fear from afar by my use of English.

In the past couple of days, I have had reason to complain three times. The first was when I was overcharged for an item in Asda. I am generally not a fan of supermarkets and the way they conduct their business but Asda acquitted itself with aplomb. Not only did I receive an immediate refund but also a £2 gift card for my trouble. Of course, I told everyone about this and am now writing about it. Someone at Asda knows the secret of good PR.

Ten days ago, I bought an item on eBay for the grey mare. It finally arrived yesterday. The wait had me hopping up and down with displeasure (I had paid immediately via PayPal). Far from the advertised ‘excellent condition’, the leatherwork was cracked and smelt as if it had been stored in a damp, mouldy shed. I fired off an obstreperous email and the item is winging its way back from whence it came.

The final issue is the one that concerns me the most. I have contacted the ILPH to report a cob tethered with no water beside a busy dual carriageway near an A1 underpass. I believe tethering horses should be banned full stop. The Government had its chance to do so in the new Animal Welfare Act but didn’t. I have seen a black horse with white hair covering the scar tissue on its face, where its skin had grown over the too-tight headcollar it had been tethered in.

My mum used to tell me my mouth would get me into trouble. I hope on this occasion, it gets that horse out of trouble.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A nice cup of tea

My obsessions and addictions have varying life spans. The horsy one has lasted more than three decades; the smoking one went on for 18 years before I beat it; the David Bowie one even longer and is still going strong; the Johnny Depp one is now into its second decade while the Toby Stephens-as-Mr Rochester one is a mere whippersnapper.

My latest obsession is in its infancy and I hope to stamp it out before it manages to take root. The problem is, I have the taste for it but not the means to satisfy my desire.

It’s all the fault of my colleague who has just returned from a Mediterranean cruise. He and I have a cup of Earl Grey at 10am every morning; you can set your watch by his tea-making timetable. His holiday gift to me was a handful of individually packaged Earl Grey teabags, pilfered from the ship.

Initially the maker’s name – Bigelow – caused me great hilarity. In my juvenile fashion, I thought this moniker more suited to a hirsute actor of the Dirk Diggler persuasion than a purveyor of fine teas. I was also rather sniffy that he had brought me an Americanised version of a quintessentially English tea. I had always lumped the French and Americans together when it came to hot beverages: stick to the coffee.

I opened the little envelope on which there was written a lovely exhortation to enjoy “this delicately scented aristocratic blend”, signed by David and Eunice Bigelow. The first mark in its favour was the fact it had a string: I love teabags with strings as I usually fish them out of the cup with my fingers. Then the tea itself. Well, what can I say? Absolutely, totally, gorgeously divine.

Google showed no UK sellers. An email to David and Eunice confirmed this to be the case. Even with the strong pound, it will cost £25 to have a supply delivered. I only have one Bigelow Earl Grey teabag left. I am at my wits’ end …

Monday, May 14, 2007

The stud

Life is springing eternal not only in the verges, hedgerows and pastures; it’s also trying very hard in the field adjacent to my grey mare’s.

“Look, he’s doing it again,” has been the cry from the girls this weekend. “Did you see him?”

“He” is the new kid in town; a 13hh Welsh gelding with attitude. “Kid” is probably pushing it; he’s no spring chicken and he really should know better than to mount the in-season mares. But, even though he no longer has the required tackle, he’s certainly a ladies’ man. One grumpy old gal, who’ll never see 20 again, is revelling in the male attention; another played harder to get, but eventually succumbed to his persistence – or was it his pony charm?

Of course, it’s all futile – the poor love might think he’s a stallion, but he just doesn’t have the balls. He may have been cut late so he can still remember the desire he felt when he was entire; he may be a rig; he might just be a randy little man. The other alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. I might just have a closer look at his undercarriage next time I walk by …

Saturday, May 12, 2007

You can lead a horse to water ...

... but you can’t make it drink. They are big, powerful beasts, these creatures that I adore; big, powerful beasts with minds of their own. People who say racing is cruel don’t understand that: you can’t make a horse race if doesn’t want to. My sister has three ex-racehorses, one of which ran four times before it became obvious this was not the life for him. He has the breeding, but not the desire.

Similarly, you ‘ask’ a horse to do something, you don’t ‘tell’ them, because if they don’t want to, you can’t make them. My friend asked her new horse to stand still today. The horse reared vertical, overbalanced and fell over backwards. For one long, long moment, they were both rolling around on the ground. Horses can break their back and kill their rider when they do that. That rear came out of the blue; there was no warning. You can't legislate for something like that. The horse is going back from whence it came.

I, and everyone I know who rides, have had some crashing falls. I have jumped jumps without my mount, I have been dropped on top of post and rail fencing, I have been concussed, I have slammed flat on my back on the road, winded and shocked, so that when I managed to stand up, I vomited. I could go on …

The air ambulance visits these parts at least once a year. Whenever I see its collecting box on a shop counter, I put my change in. I see it as investing in my future.

My friend was lucky today: she escaped with bruises and got back on the horse. You have to. It’s a bit like life.

Friday, May 11, 2007


In am an avid listener to the Popmaster quiz on the Ken Bruce show on Radio 2. Every morning, around 10.30, I sit there with my headphones on listening online, trying to not allow my answers and my frustration with the contestants to escape from my lips. I’m not awfully good at remaining silent though: one of my colleagues says I sound like I have “musical Tourette’s”.

Today, I top-scored with 39 points. I have never done that before. The ‘real’ contestant only got nine. It was all I could do to rein in my frustration and stop myself screeching at his idiocy. I mean, everyone knows the Easybeats originally recorded Friday On My Mind and Paul Hardcastle's 19 was a hit in 1985. Don’t they?

I cannot stop myself screaming at the telly when Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? is on. It frustrates me when contestants use their lifelines so early – they should keep them for when they really need them instead of squandering them on simple questions.

I admit I am very competitive when it comes to quizzes; I hate to lose. Years ago, a housemate and I shared an obsession with Trivial Pursuit; I am a tiger at Triv. We played it repeatedly, until the questions kept coming round again and again, and it seemed rather futile to continue.

Once, I worked with a bloke who had made his living playing quiz machines in pubs. He had been banned from a number of venues for cleaning out the electronic quizmasters. He was in his 30s, lived with his parents, was spookily quiet and lacking in social skills. He probably ate encyclopaedias for breakfast.

My general knowledge isn’t quite as extensive as the encyclopaedia-eater's was
. It’s trivia that I adore and I seem to have the sort of brain that collects useless snippets of information. I just wish I were as good at remembering the important stuff.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Weather eye

Rainbows bring out a childlike sense of wonder in me; especially double rainbows, and I have seen two of those this week. Because they are so rare, I feel they simply have to be auspicious.

To be rewarded by the rainbow, however, it is necessary to first have the rain. After a global-warmed and dried early spring, there hasn’t been much of that around here recently. The ground has been hard as concrete and scored by deep cracks like the lines on an octogenarian’s face. If that isn’t a demonstration of the aging effects of the sun, I don’t know what is.

The rain has returned with a vengeance. Northumberland already boasts the best skies in Britain: big, bold and expressive. This week, the skies have surpassed themselves in their dramatic, Turner-esque turmoil. I always imagine Wagner would provide the ideal accompaniment to the movement of a stormy sky.

Today’s rain also seems to have stopped my sneezing. Bring it on!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Yellow peril

The look this spring is bloodshot eyes and a dripping nose, accessorised with a barking cough. But get it while you can – it only lasts while the oilseed rape is in flower.

I feel as if someone has sprayed pepper up my nose. I am sick of sneezing. I am not alone in this affliction; I know lots of people who have never been affected before who are cursing the yellow peril this year. One of my friends reckons that oilseed rape is banned in America because of health concerns. I don’t know how true this is, but I wish it were banned in my vicinity.

Apparently, eating honey made by local bees can build up your immunity and protect you against oilseed rape pollen. I considered buying ‘rapeseed honey’ from Aldi, but I don’t think it was made by Northumbrian bees.

In bed at night, as my nose drips into the pillow, I fantasise about another cure for my ills. If I could start a clandestine campaign, just like the Luddites of old, with an army of the afflicted equipped with blowtorches

That would sort it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Resurrection shuffle

Dealing with a dying computer was not the way I wanted to end my Bank Holiday. The inconsiderate creature decided to gasp its last when I was blogging. Something about a fatal error in the registry. I’m used to its blue screens of death; it usually gets over them if I sigh deeply, cajole, then threaten. This time, though, there were no reviving cyber-smelling salts. It was gone – taking with it all my (unbacked up) Word documents, photos and a few CDs worth of music. I could say I was rather cross but I believe incandescent with rage is the phrase I’m looking for.

The only way I could resurrect it was to use the reload CD: the one that wipes off everything and takes the computer back to basics. Then I had to reload my broadband stuff and ring the nice man at my ISP because I couldn’t remember my user name. Then I had to reload Office.

I remember the first time I loaded software on to a PC I was afraid I would somehow cock it up. Now I am blasé – I simply don’t care. These stupid machines have a mind of their own, and quite often they have malicious moods. If they take it upon themselves to eat your documents and photos, there is absolutely nothing you can do. "Internet Explorer has encountered a problem and will now close". You – the supposedly intelligent member of this partnership – don’t have the slightest say in the matter. “Oh no, don’t close,” you cry. You think you hear the PC chuckling demonically to itself as it shuts down…

My PC – a £80 second hand jobbie – has always been a fragile prima donna. I thought I treated it well – it had a nice firewall, it had anti-virus protection and I frequently scanned for malware. But it didn’t even have the decency to tell me it was going to close down and gobble up my unsaved thoughts. It just struck, hard and fast.

And if some clever clogs decides to tell me that I could have done something to save my things – a word to the wise: don’t. You wouldn’t like me when I’m incandescent with rage. Just ask the computer.

Monday, May 07, 2007

A tale of the grey mare

The grey mare and I have just celebrated our fifth anniversary together. As far as relationships go, I think it’s very satisfactory: she carries me on her back, and I feed, worship and adore her.

Prior to the grey mare, I had acquired my horses: she is the first one I paid for. Hunting for a horse can be a harrowing business. I saw four unsuitable candidates before we met. Each time, I expected to meet my partner; each time my hopes were dashed. But I was smitten with her immediately. She was a bigger, prettier version of my last pony. My sister says: “I knew as soon as you saw her head over the stable door.”

I wasn’t disappointed: I started trying to barter while I was still on her back. The dealer refused to budge, but he did give me back £20 ‘luck money’ when I paid for her.

She arrived without a name, without travelling gear and with a horrible rope halter. Standing at the top of the lorry ramp, she whinnied loudly to find out whether there were any other horses in this strange place, then tail held high, she marched down confidently.

She had a slight cough when I tried her. Within a day, this had magnified and there was thick green mucous pouring down her nose. This was ‘the Irish cough’, a problem commonly caused when horses are transported across to England. For a week, she had penicillin injections.

For a week, too, she listlessly wandered along the line of the fence, looking sorry for herself and being ignored by the rest of the horses. I fretted that she’d never settle. At the end of the first week, evidently feeling healthier in her body, she jumped the fence into the next field where the company was obviously more conducive to conversation.

We brought her back, and gradually she secured her place in the herd. Now, it’s hard to remember what life was like without her.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Grand Canyon

There is a hole in my tooth. It’s the very back molar at the top. Contrary to popular belief, my mouth isn’t big enough to get a mirror inside to examine it, so I have been probing it with the tip of my tongue. It feels as deep as the Grand Canyon, but it can’t be: only a few slightly discoloured shards fell out.

To be honest, the tooth had been hurting on and off for some time. I thought if I ignored it, it might go away. It’s not as if I’ll be able to find a dentist: having written a number of articles recently in the ‘real world’, I am well aware of that. I did check the NHS ‘dentist finder’. My local practitioners aren’t taking on any new patients.

I resent paying dentists. I pay my National Insurance, so surely I should be able to find someone to sort out my mouth on the cheap? My resentment goes deeper than meanness and bloody-mindedness, though. It is rooted in the hundreds of pounds I paid a dentist once and ended up with some attractive white replacement fillings and not much else.

I had saved up to have veneers on my teeth. I went to a dentist renowned for being good at the old cosmetic stuff: he was also renowned for being expensive. I told him what I wanted. “Ah,” he said, “before we can do that, you must have those stains removed and your horrible old metal fillings replaced with pretty nice white ones. We wouldn’t want them ruining your smile when it’s finished, would we?”

The stains, which are actually covered by my lower lip 99.9% of the time, were attacked – repeatedly – by an evangelical American hygienist with sparkling pearly-whites. I came away – repeatedly – with sore and bleeding gums, and my stains still intact. The fillings were replaced. “The injection costs more than the NHS one,” the dentist explained, “because the needle is narrower and the anaesthetic is pina colada flavoured.” I never got my veneers. By the time the groundwork had been laid, he’d cleaned me out.

So, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve paid my cash dues to dentists for at least the next 20 years. As for my poor holey tooth? Well, surprisingly it hurts less now that a bit of it has fallen out. I might just leave it and see what happens.

Friday, May 04, 2007


Bank holiday weekend, it would seem, means only one thing: convoys of caravans compelled north on some strange pilgrammage to God's Own Country.

They crawl up the grey ribbon that is the single carriageway of the A1 like cream coloured lice.

Last time, I was stuck behind a 'Crusader'; this time the miscreant was a 'Sprite'. Funny thing was, there was nothing spritely about it ...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

It's a jungle out there

I saw three deer this morning on the way to work. One strode elegantly across the road and hopped through a gap in the hedge; further on, two stood stock still in a field, heads raised, watching my car.

The 10-mile drive to the A1 is fraught at this time of year as my foot hovers constantly over the brake pedal. The road may be quiet as sensible people slumber in bed, but the verges and hedgerows are teeming with life: baby rabbits basking in the early sunshine, hares lolloping in the field, squabbling yellowhammers and chaffinches getting much too close to my windscreen as they show off their aerial acrobatics. Fat blue-grey wood pigeons whirr away at the last moment; likewise, the doves, their cousins. The pheasants, less lust-driven than in early spring, nonetheless remain a liability near the road. Partridges, in my experience, are much more circumspect.

On to the A1, and the wildlife changes. This time, the creatures are harder, more streetwise: I suppose they have to be to survive. This is the country of crows and magpies. Occasionally, Charlie slinks across the carriageway. A couple of times last year, I saw the undulating tails of red squirrels as they scampered to the safety of the other side. Kestrels hover above mice. At night, traffic-hardened rabbits, like the Owsla of Efrafa, closely graze the verge.

In the winter, I used to see the creamy apparition of a barn owl in the same spot most mornings as he returned home from a night’s hunting. It was winter too, when I saw the not-fox illuminated in my headlights.

We should bring David Attenborough up here. He’d love it.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Who needs Hollywood?

I like to tell people I went to school at Hogwarts. It’s not actually very far from the truth – my Latin room was but a stone’s throw from the cinematic version. Sometimes, my mind wandering from Caecilius or Pliny, I would gaze through the glass and see a Roman soldier walking up the road. I’d blink and shake my head, then reality would return. Obviously, someone was filming at the castle again.

I met my first famous person standing in front of the castle. At the time, I had no idea who Brian Blessed was. To me, he was great bear of a man wearing a crown. I knew who Rowan Atkinson was, though; I’d seen him on Not the Nine O’ Clock News. The filming of The Black Adder added further texture to my first term at high school.

The following summer, it was the turn of Robin of Sherwood. Michael Praed gave me his autograph: he wrote like a girl. But that was the only girlie thing about him; he made my teenage hormones quite giddy. Shortly afterwards, he decamped to Dynasty and I knew I’d been in the presence of greatness.

Northumberland’s castles have starred in numerous films and TV dramas. Alnwick also made an appearance in Disney’s The Spaceman and King Arthur when I was small, and more recently, featured in Elizabeth. Bamburgh – my favourite castle – was also a location in Elizabeth.

The county’s cinematic successes are nothing new: when my mum was young, they filmed Beckett at Bamburgh. It starred Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. Elizabeth Taylor was there with Burton and she gave Mum her autograph. Burton, however, refused because he was “busy”. I have never liked the man.

Our Friends in the North was shown when I was living in Norfolk. It made me dreadfully homesick. Daniel Craig played the drunken bum Geordie; unfortunately that means that, tight swimming trunks or not, I can never consider him to be a sex symbol.

Queen of the May

I forgot to say “white rabbits” in triplicate and wash my face in the dew this morning: that’s my chance of good luck, eternal youth and beauty blown for another year then. I haven’t seen a Maypole today, either. I have only danced around one once; I got into a terrible tangle.

Traditions, rites and folklore are woven into the fabric of our lives. Perhaps less so now, but I believe they still have a resonance. Especially so away from the urban sprawl where the skies are huge and the darkness is complete, in the sort of places where faerie folk may still tiptoe unseen through the bluebells…

During the 1970s and ‘80s, my village staged an annual May Week, which consisted of team games and competitions. For a week before, the trophies were displayed in a decorated shop window; I would gaze covetously at the shining shields and imagine them twinkling back at me from the cabinet beside my dad’s football, darts and clay pigeon shooting prizes. I managed to win three over the years: I was pancake race champion on two consecutive occasions, and my team took the rounders crown in our final year in the junior section.

May Week culminated in a fancy dress parade, which was led by a waving May Queen in tiara and sash. As a spotty teenager, I used to babysit for a glamorous 30-something, who had a cloud of coal black curls and was cloaked in Chanel. She had a sunbed and wore strapless black dresses with boned bodices. I was slightly in awe of her: I thought she was the height of sophistication.

On the night they picked the May Queen, she returned home with a sparkle in her eyes: she had been chosen as one of the attendants. “But,” she said, sucking hard on a cigarette as she tipsily drove me home, then crunched a Polo to hide her habit from her other half, “one of the judges said I should have won – only there would be a fuss if they didn’t choose one of the younger girls.”

At the time, I was outraged on her behalf: she must have looked like a swan among a paddling of ducks. But now I think the judges made the right decision. If April is the ingénue, and May is the blush before the ripening, then my long ago friend was the mellow gold of September.