Saturday, March 31, 2007


My little brother has just celebrated his 21st birthday. He is much taller - and certainly more grown-up than I was at that age.

I hit the magic number in the middle of a heatwave. It was the summer of Nessum Dorma and Gazza’s tears; Madonna was Vogueing and I had a holiday job picking strawberries. The majority of my big day was spent in bed feeling sorry for myself – I had lain in the sun too long the previous day and had burnt my back. I was tempted out with cards and parcels that had arrived in the post from my far-away family and friends, and a proffered glass of gin mixed with champagne. It made me maudlin and melodramatic.

It was a summer of transitions: I was a month out of university and a month out of the relationship with my first great love. I spent a lot of time navel-gazing as I hovered on the cusp between two different worlds. It was a time of freedom and opportunity, but I felt the rug had been pulled from under my feet.

If Dr Who offered to whiz me back there in the Tardis, it would be interesting to visit my 21-year-old self. I’d like to tell her that everything would work out OK; but I wouldn’t want to swap places with her.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


I am feeling rather excited. I am about to become reacquainted with someone for the first time in almost two decades. Her name is Prue Sarn and she appears in the pages of Mary Webb’s Precious Bane. I first read this novel when I was at university. I remember going to the bookshop with my friend; she bought Precious Bane and I bought EM Forster’s Maurice. Once we’d read our own books, we swapped. I hadn’t thought about Precious Bane for years until something put it into my mind last week. I looked on eBay; there it was and it arrived today. A small, navy blue hardback volume dating from 1927, three years after the novel was first published.

I adore books. I read in bed, I read in the bath, I read on journeys when I am not driving. I was banned from reading at the table when I was a child, so as soon as I left home, I started doing that too. I read all sorts – I have shelves full of racing thrillers and I have helped add to JK Rowling’s fortune, as well as reading ‘proper books’. My all time favourite is Brideshead Revisited. It always makes me laugh - and cry.

There will always be so many books and so little time, but I do enjoy re-reading certain volumes. A fleeting thought, the weather, the time of year – any of these can send me to the shelf looking for a particular book. I keep promising myself that I will read 1984 again soon. I read it in 1984 because I thought I ought to; I think I’ll get more out of it this time around.

My brother hates old books that have already been owned by someone. I think that’s part of the charm. My copy of Rebecca had a paper dust jacket (which I have managed to lose) that said ‘Price Held in Spite of War’. On the flyleaf, it says ‘Nora E Holdforth. October holiday 1940’. I hope she had a good holiday and I hope she enjoyed Rebecca as much as I did.

Anyway, I have to dash: I have a book to read.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Staying in touch

I have friends from different stages, phases and places. I, however, am not a good friend to have. Not in the sense that I am a ‘bad’ friend; I’m not - I am very loyal and true. I’m just a bit vague about keeping in touch when I don’t see people every day, or at least every week.

It’s easy to blame geography. There are people I like dotted all over Britain, but the expense – and logistics – makes ‘popping’ down to London see a mate for the weekend pretty unrealistic. The older we get, the more complicated and responsible our lives become: frivolity and impulse start to wither.

In the age of mass communication, you wouldn’t think it would be so difficult. We have email, we have mobile phones. Just how hard can it be to make that call, tap in that text or type a couple of lines of “hello, how’s it going?” to people you consider yourself close to? But you leave it, and leave it, and suddenly it’s much more difficult to pick up the threads...

When I was moving house last year, tucked inside an old diary, I found a letter I had written to an Australian friend I used to work with. It was long, enthusiastic and full of gossip about places and people we used to know. I had never posted it. My friend was in the same industry as me and as her surname was spelled in an unusual way, it was easy to Google her and find her email address. I sent an email but didn’t get a reply; I can’t blame her – it was my first contact in more than a decade. When the teacher hands out the friendship report, mine will probably say: “Must try harder” …

Picture: Farewell My Love

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fabulous animals

There might not be bears lying in wait in the darkness in this corner of Northumberland, but I do believe there are things here that logically ought not to be. It was about 7 o’clock on an ink black December morning when I saw the creature illuminated in the glare of the full-beamed headlights on the road in front of me. Initially, I thought: “That’s a bloody big fox,” but as the image imprinted itself on my brain, the thought was overridden by: “That’s not a fox.” The not-fox had leapt out of the hedge with feline grace, bounded across the road in the same curvy manner, and over the hedge on the other side. It had a head like a cat and a tail like a cat. It was a “can I stop the memory and rewind it?” moment.

I was put in mind of this sighting when I saw these parakeet pictures sent in to the BBC website by readers from around the UK. Apparently their natural habitat is the Himalayan foothills so Blighty’s no problem. We don’t have them here but last August we had a bright yellow budgie hanging out with the wagtails in the horses' field. He was as stark against the foliage as the speed cameras on the A1. You could get close … but just not close enough to catch him. I worried how he’d survive the winter, but he'd disappeared long before the weather turned.

It was around the same time that I spotted something else that wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Walking along the verge of a field bordered by a fence and few straggly bushes, I saw a rather large stoat dashing along the top of the fence. Then I saw the undulating tail and realised it was a red squirrel - where red squirrels haven’t been before. He sat on the fence post and regarded me for a moment before vanishing among the branches. I’ve looked, but I’ve never seen him again. Like the Loch Ness Monster, he’s gone to ground, but I know what I saw...

Monday, March 26, 2007

Guard duty, by Beelzebub aged three-and-three-quarters

The mother returned very early today from wherever it is that she goes all day.

“I’ve been sick,” she said. I didn’t know the mother suffered from fur balls too.

I sat on her knee and sang for a while, but it didn’t seem to do much good because she went to bed. “I think I’ve got a bug,” she said.

My brother Wombat and I ran around the house, ensuring there was nowhere for the bugs to get in. Wombat is fantastic at catching bugs – you should see him swipe a bluebottle out of the air.

I did my bit by making sure there were none on the dressing table. I didn’t actually mean to knock the vase over, but there are always casualties in a combat situation.

Once we had double-checked the house was bug-proof, we thought we’d better guard her while she slept. It’s just a coincidence that lying on the bed is also the purrfect place to bask in the afternoon sunshine.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


I have just been watching Meerkat Manor. Every time I watch it, I swear to myself that it’s the last time; it’s just so depressing. At the end of each episode Bill Nighy intones of the “tragedy” or “disaster” the viewing public can look forward to next time. This week, poor Mozart had been expelled from her family and had a miscarriage because of it; the last time I watched, Shakespeare was bitten by a poisonous snake and suffered a long, agonising death. Entertainment, eh?

David Attenborough is the master of misery in the animal kingdom. Each time I watch one of his programmes, I come away wondering how anything survives past breakfast time (if they can even find any breakfast to eat, that is). And I must confess that if I could save an animal from a slow, painful death, I would step in and do so. But I suppose that would spoil the entertainment.

Of course, it isn’t just natural history programmes where the viewing public gets such a kick from the unhappiness of others. Soap operas aren’t exactly a laugh a minute, while people like Simon Cowell have made a mint from being pantomime villains and reducing people to tears and their dreams to rubble.

What is it about the human condition that we so enjoy viewing the pain, discomfort or humiliation of others? It’s nothing new – think about the crowds that gathered for public hangings and the little old ladies who sat knitting while the guillotine fell. There but for the grace of God …

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The coming of the light

Soon, there will be a huge grin on my face, a healthy glow to my skin and I will have thighs like Xena Onatopp. For the last few weeks, I have been like a child waiting for Christmas or a farmer praying for rain during a drought. As of Monday, the nights will be light enough to ride my horse after work.

When I was living in cities, the change in the time didn’t mean much to me other than an hour more or less in bed on a Sunday morning. It’s not that important in a world ruled by artificial light, where even the midnight sky is polluted with man-made rays. In a land of giant skies, where the day-time light has myriad qualities and the night-time velvet darkness is absolute, you feel closer to the turning of the year and the rhythm of life.

From a purely selfish point of view, I would be happy to stay in British Summer Time all year round. I dread the dying days of October, when it will suddenly be dark at 5pm. I wouldn’t mind giving up an hour of daylight in the morning and eking out the evening light as long as possible.

The animals, whose lives aren’t governed by clocks, only realise that the days are becoming warmer and lasting for longer, or growing shorter with a whisper of winter on the wind. But I’m not going to think about winter right now, I’m going to bask in the glory of springtime in the most tranquil place in England.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

And the Thoggers go to...

Have you all got your gladrags on? Well I'll begin ...

As promised, I am dishing out the Thoggers to those that asked for them (and some who didn't). In the order in which they were requested ...

  1. The Grocer at Famous forAll Kinds of Wickedness.
  2. Boulmer Brider at Boulmer Birder.
  3. Chippy at Chipen Dale's Diary (a multi-Thogger winning blog).
  4. Mopsa at Ramblings.
  5. Brom at the Windsor Castle Hot Air Balloon Festival.
  6. Eurodog at Eurodog Training.
You may have noticed there are six, rather than five Thoggers there. Well, this is my blog and I am the totalitarian ruler of it, so I can do what I want. Therefore I am also issuing an honorary Thogger to the Welsh Anon, because he actually writes more on here than I do...

So - you now have to copy the Thogger piccie and then nominate your own five thinking bloggers. Them's the rules...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Under the covers

I think I defected from Radio 1 to 2 around the same time as Mark and Lard did. However, I was gratified last week when Mark Radcliffe was sitting in for Steve Wright on the afternoon show. He had a feature called ‘CD CV’ where a listener sends in songs that chart their lives from the first single they bought to the song that reminds them of their mates.

It’s better than Steve Wright’s oldies, which I do enjoy, but like the little girl with the curl, they can be very, very good - or they're horrid. The other day, someone chose Melanie’s version of Ruby Tuesday, a song I love – when it’s sung by Mick Jagger. I’d forgotten how bad the Melanie version was. It was so bad, I had to turn the radio off.

Bad music offends me. At the moment, I’m turning off the radio when that awful Jamelia effort that mashes up The Strangler’s Golden Brown comes on. I’m not overly keen on what I consider classic songs being mixed into modern rubbish, but my biggest bugbear is the bad cover version of a song I love.

Some blokes are currently crucifying The Smiths’ Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One before. I was also upset by the BBC’s mass-voiced effort of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day (the switch off point on that one was Heather-I’m-singing-through-my-nose Small). Similarly, there was no need for Sheryl Crowe to cover The First Cut Is the Deepest (I love the PP Arnold version). Anyone who messes around with The Doors’ Riders on the Storm also earns my ire.

Occasionally someone will cover a song I love and actually do it well: Siouxsie and the Banshees’ version of Dear Prudence, Japan doing All Tomorrow's Parties, The Scissor Sisters and Comfortably Numb, and staying with the Pink Floyd theme, David Bowie’s Arnold Layne. Bowie is such a hero he can even get away with a whole album of it.

And I must confess, that along with The Beatles’ A Day in the Life, I want Sid Vicious’ cover version of My Way played at my funeral …

Get yer free award here …

I have never before won an award for my writing. There were only two prizes for English in my school the year I sat my A-levels; three of us achieved grade A. I have a memory like the proverbial elephant and I am still bitter about the snub (don’t think I’ve forgotten, you, either Johnny Morris for failing to pick out my picture in that ‘Fabulous Animals’ competition on the telly) …

Therefore, it is with great excitement that I wriggle into my ballgown, returned from my good friend Rilly at Strife in the North, and don my elbow length gloves (to cover the ingrained mud I cannot remove from under my fingernails at this time of year) to accept my Thogger from Chippy at Chipen Dale’s Diary.

I’d never heard of a Thogger until yesterday, but just like peer-voted awards are considered better than the Brits, I am honoured to be a recipient. However, being a curious creature I thought I’d try to find out what exactly I was being awarded. It seems the Thogger concept is a ‘meme’ – I had to look that one up as well – started by a blogger who wants everyone so honoured to link back to his blog via the award picture. One blogger I read was a bit sniffy and likened it to a chain letter, but I am not so mealy-mouthed and ungrateful. However, the originator’s ploy has been scuppered – the piccie I have doesn’t link anywhere.

I now have to award five Thoggers to bloggers who make me think. As I am still a very novice blogger and am living in a very incestuous bit of the blogosphere (Chip who chose me, as well as fellow recipients Rilly and the lovely Arthur Clewley’s Diary are on my sidebar), I am in rather a quandary as to whom to pick.

So – the first five bloggers to give me a good reason why they should also be recognised can have one. Any takers?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Town and country

I am nowhere near the first and no doubt I won’t be the last to remark on the lack of understanding frequently exhibited betwixt town and country. Unlike some, I have never considered the country to be inhabited by barely literate, fundamentalist Christians (the North) or peasants doused in a touch of Archer-esque charm (the South). Nor, curiously, do I believe that Britain’s towns and cities are solely peopled by modern-day Fagins and gun-toting or knife-wielding yobs. Having spent almost a decade and a half living and working in cities before escaping back to this glorious realm, I think I am qualified to make a judgment.

It’s a shame the people that govern us don’t appear to have had adequate experience of the countryside, though. A town Government, voted into power largely by town people, will understandably play to its audience. That’s probably why Gordon Brown is reportedly planning to punish everyone who drives a 4x4 in tomorrow’s Budget. Heaven forbid that he could make them economically less viable for those who don’t actually need them, but curiously, seem best able to afford them.

I have long considered 4x4s to be wasted if they don’t have a tow bar, don’t belong to farmers or to those who live in remote places accessed by single-track roads. But why should those who do live in the wilds or who actually need a powerful tow-vehicle be chastised because of those who run them as ‘gas-guzzling’ status symbols? I am not a city-based ‘yummy mummy’, so perhaps I misunderstand the subtle nuances of needing a 4x4 for the school run. Personally, I can’t see what is wrong with an ordinary car, or even the school bus.

Mr Brown would have us believe that he’s acting against 4x4s as part of the Government’s current obsession with green measures to combat global warming. I wonder if the equivalent of 4x4 drivers were blamed for making it warm enough to grow grapes in Roman Britain...

The Chancellor has been dubbed ‘Stalinist’ in reports today. I wonder if he prefers that to being considered a pursed-lipped puritanical killjoy?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Out of touch

I forgot to take my mobile phone to work today. I had a slight “Oh, bugger,” moment when I realised it wasn’t in my bag, but my heart didn’t start to beat faster and I didn’t need a brown paper bag to blow into. It crossed my mind that according to the dictates of Sod’s Law, someone would need to get in touch with me, but the odds were in favour of my surviving the day without it.

I am always in trouble with people for not carrying my mobile with me every single second of the day. At the weekend and evenings, it’s usually minding its own business on the bedside table. “Why didn’t you answer your phone?” ask mobile-addicted friends, who then berate me for my foolishness: “It might have been important.”

These are people who have the latest, blingy, all singing all-dancing mobile models. My brother even has one with a TV button on it. Mine, on the other hand, is five years old and doesn’t even have a camera. It is geriatric in mobile terms but it does a passable impression of the White Horses theme tune when it rings.

It’s not that long since the mobile phone was a novelty, not a necessity. I do not dispute that it has saved people’s lives when they have been stuck on the sides of snowy mountains or when shipwrecked in stormy seas. If I were planning to climb a mountain or sail the oceans, I’d probably take my phone with me. But in the general scheme of things, I don’t always want to be contacted 24-hours-a-day. Sometimes, it’s better to be elusive.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Good hair day

I know how Kate Moss must feel. Not the part about being incredibly rich or thin, or having a rock star boyfriend with a penchant for illegal substances, nor indeed the bit about being stalked by the paparazzi when you pop out for a pint of milk; my fellow feeling is for the primping and preening.

My hair is kind of straight with an occasional kink. When I blow-dry it, it is acceptably straight to me. My sister has poker-straight hair, which she makes spirit-level straight with straighteners when she goes out. When I go out, I occasionally straighten my hair. My sister usually says: “I thought you were going to straighten your hair.”

Last night, I didn’t even attempt it; I left it all to her. I ended up with poker straight hair, dressed with more products than I actually own, and a telling-off every time I touched it. “Stop it!” she’d say, slapping my hands away. “I can’t help it,” I’d reply, “I always tuck my hair behind my ears. It's a habit.” When I wasn’t in trouble for touching it, she was fiddling with it so it sat just so. Admittedly, it did look rather good.

But straight hair and me is like Cinderella and her fairy coach; after midnight it disappears. This morning, I foolishly went out into the teeth of a howling gale without tying my hair back. Within seconds, I looked like Cousin It.

Friday, March 16, 2007

What's your excuse?

My blog is three weeks and one day old. It barely survived its first week; after a few days I considered committing infanticide. I got the heebie-jeebies that someone might actually read it and panicked about how that would make me feel.

It’s not that I mind people reading what I write: my job title says ‘writer’ and my CV is covered in ‘journalist’. Work writing is different though – it’s generally reportage or instruction, rather than opinion or a peek into the personality behind it. It’s also tailored to fit the needs of an audience.

Over the years straddling the change of century, I kept a diary. There were four volumes – proper A4, hard-backed, page-a-day tomes. I chronicled my ups and downs, I poured out my woes, gave nicknames to people and bitched like mad. It wasn’t written for anybody but me. Occasionally, I thought “I’ll use this misery or episode in a novel one day”, but I would have crucified – or at least removed the hands and tongue – of anyone who had read it.

My blog isn’t particularly soul-baring, and it isn’t tailored to an audience. I suppose it gives me a creative outlet and allows me to paint a different picture of my part of the world, a place that other bloggers and readers have glossed over with gloomy grey. It’s certainly having one positive effect – I’m ranting a little less in the real world than I was.

Tipster service

I said I wouldn't but I will...

My tips for the Cheltenham Gold Cup are:
  • Kauto Star - ridden by the marvellous Ruby Walsh.
  • Cane Brake - nice name.
  • Idle Talk - the bloggers' favourite.
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% ...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Childhood favourites

Hoarding, I think, is a gene you are born with. I definitely have it; I hate to throw anything away, because it may well prove usual in the future. I have discovered this through bitter experience: I only ever want something I have not needed for years when it is gone.

I remember as a small child, going to a fete at a big hall. My granddad was determined to divert me from the toy stall, but I would have my way. I was delighted to discover the twins of some of my cuddly toys: toys I no longer played with, but whom I loved nonetheless. When I realised their true identities, I threw a tantrum, then spent all of my money buying them back.

Like those long ago toys, I consider my books to be my friends. I have vast quantities of them and am very possessive of them – which is why I can’t quite fathom why I gave away my Jill books. Perhaps it was because, about to leave home to go to university, I considered it was time to “put away childish things”.

Jill was my horsy heroine. I received my first Jill book as a hand-me-down from a woman my mum was working for, along with my first pair of hand-me -down jodhpurs. Like the jodhpurs – they were ancient elephant-eared Harry Halls – Jill was already rather quaint. Written by Ruby Ferguson between the late 1940s and early 1960s, Jill’s world had disappeared; it was another country, where they do things differently.

Vaguely politically incorrect, Jill’s world is full of gollys, goshes, and simply super exclamations such as “My Russian rabbits!” It’s a world where girls ride out in shirt and tie even at weekends, where tweed hacking jackets are de rigeur and competing in a bowler hat is the norm (I’ve always wanted a bowler hat). Proper teas with sandwiches and cake are daily occurrences and sausages and chips are the height of luxury.

I love Jill because she had attitude. She may have been a demure 1950s teenager, but she was feisty. In Jill’s world, you ‘loathed’ ‘drips’ and ‘blots’ and sarcasm was an art form. Sophistication was pressed powder and a little bit of lipstick. It’s also a world where the health and safety police would have a seizure.

A lot of Jill’s design for life has stayed with me. You try to play by the rules, you tell the truth, you don’t go ‘pot-hunting’ at gymkhanas, and you always put your horse’s welfare before your own. If you do that, you too can win the under-16 jumping at Chatton Show with your ‘ordinary’ ponies Black Boy and Rapide.

There are nine Jill books in the series and in the last few years, I’ve bought them all back. Dipping into one is not only nostalgia for my own childhood, it’s also a rose-tinted wallow in a world I never knew.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

And they’re off!

Oh to be at Cheltenham, now that the Festival’s there. I’ve never actually been, and people I know who have say that you can’t see anything, but it would be worth it for the atmosphere. The same with Aintree on Grand National Day. I adore going to the races; I love seeing the horses, the people, the hats, and the sound of galloping hooves approaching the winning post is one of the best noises in the world.

I have booked the day off so I can watch the Gold Cup on Friday. I will consult the bible, but since the sad demise of Best Mate, I have been no good at picking the winner so don’t ask for any tips. I’m a bit better at parting the bookies from their money on Grand National Day.

I think Elizabeth Taylor galloping about on The Pie in the schmaltzy Hollywood-ised version of National Velvet must have started it for me (read the book by Enid Bagnold – it’s much darker: suicides, children who throw up a lot…). The golden age of Red Rum fed it, and it gathered pace with The Champions, then more recently Seabiscuit, plus the liberal doses of Dick Francis I still frequently prescribe myself.

As a child, it was my ambition to win the Grand National. I figured if Liz could do it, why couldn’t I? Nowadays, my sights are set a bit lower – I’d love to ride in a point-to-point. I just need someone to lend me the horse.

I sometimes suspect that my grey mare has her fantasies too. After all, she lives with four horses who raced under rules, plus her significant other was a point-to-pointer. I bet they tell her tall tales. When we’re galloping along the beach, I wonder if she has the same dreams as me …

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The mare and the maas

Be assured, spring is but a whisper away. Ragged-winged murders of crows hovered, twigs in beaks, over the tall trees bordering the A1 as I drove to work this morning; the partridge family whirred out from almost underfoot as I walked across to the horse field tonight, and things are growing on the grass and rustling in the hedgerows…

To you and I, they’re lambs. Small, usually white, rather cute things which bounce around in fields with their mates. But, if my horse is to be believed, these innocuous little creatures have been hiding their true nature – quite literally like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Indeed, she spends much of the spring trying to convince me that they are equine-eating monsters that creep into the hedge, and wait until she’s walking past so they can pounce. The sharp evasive action she takes when she spots them has saved our lives on numerous occasions.

I don’t know where this fear of lambs comes from; probably the same place as her terror of plastic bags caught in hedges on windy days. There is a definite hierarchy of hedge-monsters – and lambs are near the top. Most years, there are lambs all around the horses’ field, and usually, a flock comes and grazes alongside them to take the top off the rich early summer grass. Those ones aren’t so frightening – she trots passed, shaking her head and pretending to be tough. It’s when they’re hiding that they’re obviously up to something – like the chunky-bodied, thick limbed little fellas that were crouched in the nettles as we cantered along the edge of a field last summer, then shot out at the last minute. The mare had hysterics.

I have no argument with sheep. The only thing that confuses me about them is why such beautiful babies grow up into such ugly adults. I’ve seen some sheep that look like bulldogs, while others appear to have eyes made of marbles, through which they survey the world with glazed expressions.

However, the Herdwick ewes in the field next to my mare are the exception that proves the rule. Looking like a cross between a dog and a sheep (the mare was similarly confused when they arrived), they have such pretty, intelligent faces: you could almost imagine they were thinking. They do everything together and when their husband-to-be arrived, they backed off in a huddle. He must have been a smooth one though, because he soon had them talked around. On warm days, he lay watching them, sun on his back and a smug expression on his face: “Yep, them’s ma bitches.”

The ewes are now just about ready to pop. But no matter how cute the mothers, you can be certain their children will be the spawn of Satan. Just ask my mare.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Spinstering along ...

I am rejected and dejected. My ‘emergency husband’ has gone and got himself affianced to someone else.

OK, so we hadn’t been in touch for a while, but we had an agreement. He promised he’d marry me if I reached 40 and was still a spinster. I’m not there yet, but a girl has to think about her options at this stage in the game.

I emailed him and railed against him for reneging on his vow. “Anyway, why are you still a spinster?” he replied. “You’re lovely.” That’s easy enough for you to say, I thought. You're not going to marry me.

At the weekend, one of the wee girls at the stables asked me if I had a husband. “No,” I said, “it’s just me, the cats and the horse.”

“And do your cats love you like your horse does?” she pressed.

“I think so,” I replied.

That’s something, isn’t it?

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Once, I thought nothing of spending the best part of £100 on having my hair done, or £40+ on a pot of face cream that promised to make me glow like a supermodel. I was intimately acquainted with the contents of Boots’ skincare shelves and could spot a new arrival at 50 paces. Each month, I bought armfuls of thick, glossy magazines, which contained pictures of stick-thin models and the odd article hiding amid the glamorous aspirational advertisements.

That was in my 20s. Now, in my 30s, I am a true suicide blonde, my anti-wrinkle cream costs a tenner and I don’t shop for a hobby. I am no longer a Cosmo or an Elle girl (although the occasional copy of Grazia goes through the checkout with the bread and butter). Now, I consider it obscene that I spent half a month’s livery or almost a week’s petrol money (I have a long commute) on a jar of moisturiser that smelled divine but was so rich that it brought me out in spots.

Funnily enough, my hair looks just as good as it ever did and my skin is much better. Stopping smoking and plenty of fresh air is more productive than praying for a miracle in a jar. I won’t get fooled again.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Isn't this marvellous?

The lovely Gill at The Dark Blonde blog did it for me after I admired her Sean begging for absinthe.

Gill is a poet, writer and digital artist and her blog has some fabulous stuff on it - lots of which seems to be absinthe inspired...

Go have a look.

Friday, March 09, 2007

A house, a house, my kingdom for a house...

I had been ‘lucky’ to get the flat of the phantom, floods and pestilence - or so everybody kept telling me. I suppose I was, because affordable, rented accommodation isn’t that easy to come by where I live.

When I rang the local council to say I was being made homeless in three months and to ask whether they would help, I could almost hear the suppressed laughter humming down the wires. As I was not pregnant, did not have a drug or alcohol problem, or a child, I was not considered a priority.

When I was put through to the housing officer, he fairly snorted with mirth. “Ms M&M,” he said, “we don’t let houses where you live, we sell them.” “So what do you expect me to do?” I asked. “Pitch a tent in the garden?” His advice? Change the locks, then the landlord would require a court order to remove me and that would buy me a further six months. It was not a route I was prepared to follow.

Let’s face it, lots of local people can’t afford to get on that hallowed property ladder in a rural community that’s full of ‘desirable’ (at least in the summer) houses. If you’re not in a position to buy, you need to rent. But finding somewhere to rent can be equally competitive and ultimately heartbreaking.

I can quite understand why someone would prefer to let out a house to tourists for £350 a week in the summer instead of £350 a month all year round. It makes perfect economic sense. But it also makes me want to stamp my feet with frustration and do my Violet Elizabeth impression.

When plans were put forward for housing association, affordable property for rent, the NIMBYs circulated a petition. They didn’t want rented houses near them; heaven forbid, it would bring down the value of their homes. The council ignored them, the houses were built and filled in a flash. The waiting list is now so long, the housing association is refusing to add any more names to it.

Vacant council houses are as rare as rocking horse poo. As the housing officer says, they’ve mainly been sold. Quite a few are with their second generation of owners …as second homes for affluent folk who fancy a weekend on the coast.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Haunted house

My cats are so much happier since we moved house. They’ve always been a purry pair, but now you can’t shut them up. They seem very pleased with themselves - quite literally the cats that got the cream - and I don’t think it’s just because they have a garden to romp in again.

The reasons why I didn’t like the flat were multitude; I didn’t want to move in the first place but had no choice in the matter as the rug was pulled from under me when the landlord announced he was selling up. I arrived at the new place with the wrong attitude and was wont to sit on the kitchen floor and weep. But in addition to feeling resentful, there were genuine niggles.

It seemed sometimes the very fabric of the place was conspiring against me: the bath was too short and the water wasn’t hot enough; it was also impossible to persuade the shower to reach a reasonable temperature, while the water from the kitchen tap trickled and tasted odd. I didn’t like the darkness of the yard at night and I became incandescent with rage when people parked over the opening, so I couldn’t get in or out. Then there were the fleas. Then there was the flood. Oh, and then there was the ghost

I first became aware that we were not alone in the dimness of a mid-autumn morning, when the world and I were still half asleep in the pre-dawn twilight. I stumbled out of bed and along the narrow corridor to the kitchen to feed the mewling cats. They had been shouting as if they were starving but then, as one, they lifted their heads from their breakfast and stared intently along the corridor at something I couldn’t see. This happened on a number of occasions. More than once, my little black cat, who doesn’t like anyone but me, also ran to hide from someone at the door. Only there was no-one at the door.

After a while, I mentioned it to my sister. Her friend, who’d known the people there before me, had dropped hints about crashes in locked rooms and dancing candles. “Don’t you want to know what it is?” she asked me. “Not really,” I said, “it was there first and it can stay as long as it doesn’t bother me.” But I wished I didn’t having the feeling that there was someone peering around the bedroom door when I put the light out at night.

Last week, my mum was talking to someone whose daughter had lived there years ago. “I didn’t like being there by myself,” she said, “Because I always thought there was something along the corridor.”

“Funny you should say that …” said my mum.

Curiouser and curiouser

There are literally dozens and dozens of magpies living near St James Park in Newcastle. I always wonder who was there first – Newcastle United or the birds? Did the club copy the black and white of the birds for its strip or did the birds flock to the area after the club was created? It’s a real chicken and egg question.

Giving your football team the same nickname as a bird widely regarded as unlucky strikes me as rather odd. I always salute and say “Good morning Mr Magpie, how’s your wife?” when I see a single one and am unaccountably relieved if I see a couple. The ‘bad’ conations of magpies had always puzzled me, because up close, they’re really rather beautiful, with blues and greens glinting among the black parts of their plumage.

It seems the superstition stems from a belief that the magpie refused to enter Noah’s Ark, and later, refused to wear mourning at the crucifixion. The Scottish tradition has it that magpies carry a drop of Satan’s blood under their tongues.

Along with the stems of superstitions, we have lost the meaning behind some of our more colourful phrases. I thought that grinning like a Cheshire Cat was a Lewis Carroll invention, but it’s not. His contemporaries would have known that Cheshire cheese was often made in moulds shaped like grinning cats.

I like the fact we call hair bands Alice bands; I like the fact that Wendy wasn’t a name until it appeared in Peter Pan. I wonder if any current children’s literary inventions will last for generations? Anyone for Quidditch and the Hogwart’s Express, or do you prefer daemons and armour-clad polar bears?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


When I ‘did news’ I always endeavoured to avoid doing a death knock. I once had to telephone a mother whose soldier son had been killed by a sniper in Northern Ireland and ask if she’d do a “quick interview” when the same thing happened to someone else. That was enough to make me feel lower than worms, and it wasn’t even in the immediate aftermath of horror and disbelief surrounding her son’s murder.

I was talking about this with a colleague today. He had done a fair few death knocks in his time. “They kept sending me,” he said, “because people would talk to me.” But he feels the same way as I do about the whole issue: if a reporter came a-knocking following a death in the family, they would be told to go forth and multiply - and in no uncertain terms.

News editors like to justify it by claiming people want to talk about their lost relative, they enjoy being able to give a glowing tribute and they’ll feel all the better for doing so. Perhaps some people do. Perhaps they obtain a sense of comfort and closure, the same way people do from attending a funeral. But personally, I couldn’t imagine pouring my heart out to a stranger.

Then there are the professional victims: the people who give pictures of their child/spouse/sibling lying in a pool of vomit or strapped up to a life support machine to graphically illustrate the evils of drink/drugs/eating disorders. They become an ‘expert’ in that particular field, enthusiastically providing good copy whenever a similar issue hits the headlines. Of course, a journalist will repeatedly return to a good contact - that’s the way it works. But I can’t help feeling suspicious about the symbiotic relationship that develops between some victims and the media.

We are the Jerry Springer generation where every detail has to be shared. Perhaps someone’s pet issue helps them to cope with their grief, makes them think their loved one’s death wasn’t in vain or even goes some way towards filling the gaping hole that’s been left in their life.

I hope it’s something I never have to find out for myself.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Guilty Pleasures

Boybands have never been my music for pleasure. I prefer ‘proper’ bands with guitars and good hair. Take That never fell into either category but suddenly, I’m finding myself singing along to Shine on the radio. “It sounds a bit Beatle-y,” I try to justify it to myself, “and anyway, it’s not that smug Gary Barlow singing it.”

Take That did nothing at all for me when I met them at a radio station years ago. They were on the cusp of fame; I was more interested in Nirvana and finishing an awkward story so I could go home. But a flock of screeching teenage girls who’d been unable to squeeze into the studio were using the newsroom as an overflow.

“If I go and get one of them, will you shut up?” I said. Oh yes, they agreed, they certainly would if a fetched an idol to worship. They didn’t even express a preference, so I found the first tall, male person in the studio and grabbed him by the hand. We walked up the corridor accompanied by further frenzied screaming. And I’d believed them when they said they’d shut up …

Confessing a fondness for the reformed Take That is one of those Guilty Pleasures that add texture to our lives. I came across this BBC Radio London programme quite by chance via the online listen again system – and now I’m addicted. I plug in my headphones every Monday morning at work and am transported into a different world of 1970s and ‘80s cheese; stuff that’s faintly embarrassing, just like confessing a liking for Take That…

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Glorious mud

I don’t know why mud-coloured jodhpurs aren’t more popular. They would hide a multitude of sins. They wouldn’t show that the wearer had been crouching down while wearing muddy wellies, which then smeared mud onto the bottom and back of the thighs.

I was crouching down to battle with the mud welded on to my horse’s legs, so I could put her boots on. I might be better off following her example by wading barefoot through the oozing mass that is occupying the field gateway: then the mud wouldn’t seize my wellies and threaten to hang on until I lose my balance and fall over.

To be fair, it hasn’t been a bad winter; the ‘proper’ mud didn’t start until after Christmas, and there have been some stunning days. Take yesterday, for example, when the warmth promised spring and dropped hints about drying up the ground. I turned the moulting grey mare out for a few hours to have a roll without her rug. She came back looking like a piebald.

Yesterday was a false dawn, though. Today, the March winds have been blowing and the grey clouds have thrown down hard little rods of rain angled like clock hands at 20-to-the hour. The saturated earth lapped it up and became even muddier.

Horses suffer from mud fever. I have mud fatigue. I wonder if I can get a sick note for that?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Have you been here before?

As a teenager, fascinated by all things psychic and spooky, I remember reading a book about reincarnation. I was particularly struck by the story of the Pollock twins (you’ll need to scroll down to almost to the bottom to see the report in full).

Their elder sisters had been killed by a car as they walked to church on a Sunday morning. Less than two years later, their mother had twin girls – one with a birthmark on her forehead identical to a scar on the brow of one of her dead sisters; the other twin had a birthmark on her hip, mirroring one the other dead girl had. In addition to the physical ’evidence’, the girls ‘remembered’ and discussed the accident in which the older girls were killed – despite their parents never having shared the details with them. They also recognised ‘their’ toys – things that had belonged to their dead sisters and had been packed away in the loft.

I was put in mind of this story when I read about an Indonesian man who lost his three daughters in the 2004 Tsunami and has just become father to female triplets. Has he been given his daughters back because they were taken away before their time?

The whole concept of reincarnation fascinates me; I am certain there are those who have been here before and those that haven’t. Some people seem to have an ‘old’ soul and a wisdom that may belie their years, while other adults have the depth of a muddy puddle.

I wrestle with the idea that we have a preordained ‘time to go’. I believe in freedom of choice, and that sometimes we make mistakes and end up travelling along the wrong path. But when life’s going wrong, it's comforting to believe that 'things can only get better', because this isn’t the way it’s meant to be. It engenders a certain cushion of confidence to think: “It’ll be alright, it’s not my time yet."

It's also comforting to believe that when the universe gets it wrong, it puts it right again. I hope that's true.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Road Rage

Jeremy Vine is holding a poll on Radio 2 to find out what vehicle the Great British public - or at least the listeners to his show - want kicked off the roads.

Strictly speaking, I wouldn’t classify a horse as a vehicle. A cart, yes, a gig or a coach, obviously - but not a horse and rider. However, members of the anti-horse brigade are coming out of the woodwork for their perennial moan about being forced to slow from the 90mph they think is justified on narrow country roads.

The majority of the drivers where I live are decent but the place is a tourist trap in the summer and you don’t know what you’ll meet when you sally forth. What these big boy racers – and I used the term advisedly, because most young boy racers round here are gentlemen when they pass a horse – don’t realise is that it isn’t just the horse and rider that might die: they could too.

I wave, smile and acknowledge motorists who do the right thing. Riders that don’t are doing their peers a disservice. But idiots receive the Paddington Bear hard stare - I am the mistress of the hard stare - and if they’ve been particularly stupid, they are treated to a range of gesticulations and the full complement of curses. I think the Highway Code should include a section whereby riders are encouraged to whip the roofs of cars that pass too close and fast.

I find it ludicrous when they start on the “You don’t pay road tax” tack. Perhaps not, but horses don’t cause potholes or belch planet-and-people-destroying fumes into the atmosphere either. Most riders are also insured up to the eyeballs, partly because of our compensation-driven culture. We live in a world where if a car speeds past a horse, spooks it, and the horse sits on the vehicle, the rider is at fault.

"You should ride off the roads,” also cracks me up. We don’t all own swathes of land and Britain’s bridleway network is a long way from being joined up. Often, the bridleways that do exist attract 4 x 4s on a jolly away from the city or horse-scaring scrambler bikes turning the track into muddy ruts.

Horseboxes are also scoring highly in Jeremy Vine’s poll. So - horses shouldn’t be on the road, nor should they be transported to the bridleways. Ken Livingstone will effectively stop horses being moved across the capital if his Low Emission Zone gets the nod.

I don’t get it. And for those of you who don’t get where I’m coming from, I’d refer you to my favourite poem.

Besides, we were there first.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Tis (almost) the season of slammed brakes, swerves and sweaty palms. I’ve already seen two dead badgers on the roads this week, innumerable squashed rabbits and now that the shooting season is over, the cock pheasants are starting to sniff the pheromones on the air and dandify themselves as they prepare to go looking for love.

No one taught them the Green Cross Code at school. Strutting around, their pea-sized brains overcome with lust, they don’t care if there’s a car coming – if there’s a likely lass on the other side of the road, they morph into a bloke in a club when the slow music comes on.

I have a friend who taught himself not to swerve to avoid rabbits. But I hate killing anything. My first roadkill was a duck on the A47 in Norfolk. I was doing 60mph; there was nothing I could do. I felt sick and for about five miles afterwards, my heart thumped like it does when I’m battling another bidder on eBay in the final few minutes of an auction.

But I’m not as sick as people who stop, pick up the poor unfortunate and take it home for tea. There’s a whole list of roadkill recipe books if you look on Amazon. Arthur Boyt calls himself a conservationist, but I bet his fans don’t swerve, slam on their brakes or suffer from sweating palms if they see a bunny walking the verge like a tightrope.

I don’t understand people who name animals, build up a relationship with them, then eat them, either. People like Hugh Fernley- Whittingstall, whose mantra seems to be ‘if it moves, eat it’, or Gordon Ramsey, who killed and cooked his piggies Trinny and Susannah.

My ethics have always been odd. I’m not a vegetarian: I am happy to gut a fish or remove the breasts from a still warm (shot) pheasant. But I don’t do venison, veal, or foie gras; rabbit has been off the menu since I read Watership Down as a child, and I suffer terrible pangs of conscience if I eat lamb, even though it tastes divine. Kill It, Cook It, Eat It? I don’t think so.