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


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

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


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


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 …