Thursday 30 May 2013

Of boys and boats

This morning on the radio I heard the old nature v nurture argument again, and a woman who has obviously never been near a small boy was coming up with the old chestnut about conditioning. Well, having spent the weekend with three of my grandsons, brought up by gentle parents but invariably armed to the teeth with an assortment of weaponry, I would take issue with her. And we have a good example in our family: triplets, where the boy is all Boy, and the girls are, well, girls. Admittedly one of my sons could knit cable stitch when he was young, but he now designs racing cars. And yes; I'm sure there are girls who design cars, too, but I'm also sure the men outweigh the women.

We are off tomorrow, for ten days on this ship,  and I can't wait. We've been before, and it's a huge treat, but we're worth it...I think (we won't be worth much when we get back, but no matter). We might even see the sun (but will we recognise it?).

Tuesday 28 May 2013

But the week-end wasn't all bad...

...because we went to a beautiful country house/adventure playground with the grandchildren, and we saw this beech tree. And beech trees in new leaf are (for me) the epitomy of spring.

(For a modest mobile phone, it takes a mean photo!)

Monday 27 May 2013

After the lemon meringue pie, another lesson learnt

And that is: if you've had a small grandson in the back of your car, do check that he hasn't left the window open before you take it through the car wash.

I don't like car washes at the best of times. They make me sick and disorientated. And when water(?) began to put through a back window, it took me some time to close the window. Now, the back seat is soaked, and I am drenched in what could be either water, soap, or polish. Whatever it is, it tastes funny.

Other grandparents: take note.

Sunday 26 May 2013

Thrice-baked lemon meringue pie

Thanks to yesterday's little experience (see post), I have discovered a wonderful new recipe. I hope you'll let me share it with you.


Bake pastry base and fill with lemon filling

Add meringue topping, and place in very hot oven for twenty minutes. The meringue should be an even black colour.

Get someone to hold the rubbish bin and carefully remove all the burnt meringue. It should come off more or less in one piece (this part is oddly satisfying). Discard in bin.

Make more meringue, and bake for an hour in cool oven this time. The meringue should be a nice golden colour.

Voila! Thrice-baked lemon meringue pie.

Saturday 25 May 2013

Aga saga

We inherited an Aga with our house. At first I was terrified of it. You are told to use special pans, a special kettle, and learn How to Cook on an Aga. When we went to the Aga shop (to buy the special kettle), there was a daunting bunch of tweed-clad women watching another TCW demonstrating. I thought I was going to have to learn to cook all over again (and wear tweeds. And a headscarf. And green wellies. And drive a Range Rover with labradors in the back). But in fact, all that was b******s. You can use any old pan, and cook just the way you always did. The mystique surrounding Agas is all invented by the Aga people to encourage you to spend more money on  your treasure.
But there is a downside. Several, in fact. And one is that if you put something in the oven, you cannot smell if it's burning. You have to remember. And this evening, not only did I not remember; I put my lovely lemon meringue pie (actually, I hate lemon meringue pie, but it is loved by a visiting son) in the hot oven to finish off rather than the cool one. And it burnt. It came out looking like the kind of cowpat that might be produced by a cow fed on coal and spinach.
Phew. Now I've got that off my chest. And I still love  my Aga. I think. (But it's not clean and shiny like the one in the picture. It's not cream, either.)

Friday 24 May 2013

On an old fashioned son, and modern technology

My eldest son said recently that everything we really need had been invented by the 1970s. He will have no truck with social networking, refuses to text, and must be the only person on the planet who has  asked (and been refused) a mobile downgrade (he now uses his wife's old mobile).

Having given this some thought, I think he has a point. I see my grandchildren glued to their little screens (when they're permitted; this son's children have very little of that kind of thing, and his eleven-year old  is the only child in his class who hasn't a mobile); young mothers texting as they walk their children to school; people tweeting what they had for breakfast; ever faster and more sophisticated gadgets...and I wonder whether we need any of it. I know computers are useful (son has one as he  has to have it for work), but we managed without them; we used to speak to each other and write to each other; proper conversations and real letters. We don't need to manage the whole house via a switch, which I gather is coming soon.

Meanwhile, everyone is "stressed" (why?), trains are filthy and crowded, meadows of wild flowers have vanished (probably beside the point, but still...)and no-one seems happy. So I've come round to thinking he's right. All the things I really need (washing machine, vacuum cleaner) were there long before 1970. Apart from a word processor (forget the computer; and I know I'm using one now, but that's because it's there), there's nothing post-1970 that I really need.

How about you?

Wednesday 22 May 2013

The gas man cometh

Every year, we have our ancient boiler serviced. Every year, we are warned that we could die in our kitchen from Toxic Fumes; that we have inadequate ventilation, and are At Risk. And when the boiler has been serviced, a little sign is appended to it which reads: DO NOT USE THIS APPLIANCE (??). Sometimes, they remove the door from the ancient cat flap (we have no cat) to provide ventilation and are told that if we replace it, no-one will know (nudge, wink). And then we are advised to buy a new boiler.

A nice man from the gas board came this morning to advise. He talked of flues, and neighbours, and water drainage and "the issue of products in the property". What did that mean? we asked. Gas leaks, he said. Ah. I see. And of course, if we do have a new boiler, we would have to get permission from the listed buildings people because of outside flues etc. etc. etc.

We lost the will to listen, be interested, even CARE.

We are not going to buy a new boiler. I'd prefer to die together, peacefully, in the kitchen.

(And if you've actually read all this, you deserve a medal.)

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Fiction addiction... a condition I seem to have. Reading it, writing it,  listening to it, watching name it, I do it. If I tot up the hours in the day that I spend on some kind of fiction, it's quite alarming. Does it mean that I spend my time escaping reality? And what is it about fiction that is so wonderful? I have a good life, so I'm not trying to escape from anything. But when I look at (for example) John's bedside reading (history, biography, theology, politics) and mine (pretty well all fiction) I do wonder whether my life lacks...well, balance. Maybe I need help...?

Oh dear.

Saturday 18 May 2013

Important information for animals-lovers

I tried posting this before, but the link disappeared. Fingers crossed for the second attempt!

Friday 17 May 2013


Quite simply, I can't make decisions. Whether it's what to cook tonight, whether to tackle the WIP or blog (guess what won today), whether to do take yet another mistake to the Oxfam shop or hoover under the bed (Oxfam shop),  what to take to the Oxfam shop in the first place (today, old tee shirts and an anorak. I think...), whether to phone the vet and pay my bill (after all, I've got to do it some time). What is the matter with me?

I dither over such clothes as I buy (I don't buy many), and when I finally decide that I will buy That Garment, it's gone (or the the very  next day, it's in the sale. How infuriating is that). I dithered over whether to buy another horse, because they are a luxury, and Titch was irreplaceable (horse won); I dithered over whether to have saxophone lessons (I really liked the idea, but still haven't got round to it).

So here I am, living as it were in a big room, with lots of open doors. I can't quite decide which door(s) to go through, so they all remain open, but the rooms/oportunities beyond remain unexplored.

Is there a name for this disease*? And more to the point, is there a cure? Anyone...?

(*It's hereditary. I have at least one very dithery son, the poor love.)

Wednesday 15 May 2013

May moan

Last year, I posted about having to wear boots in June. Well, this year, it's even worse:

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.
Never thought I'd ever see the day
When I would wear
A vest in May.

Suddenly, weather's not the way it used to  be;
There's a raincloud hanging over me
And I am wearing a
A vest in May.

( I'm sure the Beatles will forgive me.)

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Letter from Death Row (Texas is executing more prisoners than ever this year)


"They executed my friend R. I've known him since he got on the row in he's dead, and I'll never see him again...I worked a deal with the law to get him fed when he went off and got gassed....The night he was executed I stayed up listening to rock music. Singing our favourite songs. I sang until I screamed and screamed until I was hoarse. It's still hard to realise he is no more...I refer to more of my friends in the past tense than I'd care to." And this is a man who says he doesn't know how to love.

Irving lives in a cell like the one in the picture; alone all the time. He's been there for 12 years. I read his heartbreaking letters, and sometimes they make me weep.

Whatever he has done - and he never refers to it - does any human being deserve to be treated like  this? He had an appalling childhood; not an excuse, but maybe a reason? He writes: "I once went to school, and for show and tell I showed them the belt marks and bruises".

Thursday 9 May 2013

Introducing Aliya Whiteley

I am delighted to welcome Aliya Whiteley, novelist and short story writer, whose new short story collection, Witchcraft in the Harem, is published next week. Aliya's quirky sense of humour is unique, and this collection is bound to be a delight. If you want another taste of Aliya's humour, I particularly recommend her novel Mean Mode Median (my favourite of her novels).

Meanwhile, here are Aliya's thoughts ....

...On The Twin Inspirations of Poetry and Jelly

When I first starting writing, I wrote poetry. I think that’s because one of my favourite books when I was young was a collection of comic verse, and I still have a great respect for anyone who can make me laugh in a line or two. So when Frances kindly gave me permission to take over her blog it seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk about humorous poetry; after all, she writes it so well herself.

That sense of the absurd, the fantastical, that inhabits the best comic verse has certainly been a strong influence on me. I see it in my short stories in particular, and throughout my fantasy writings, that have just been published as Witchcraft in the Harem.

So what makes funny verse so funny? The fulfilment of comic poetry lies in the juxtaposition of the weird with the delight of the uniformity of the rhyme. Like in Eletelephony by Laura Elizabeth Richards, where the elephant tries to use the telephant… or is it the elephone who tries to use the telephone? I’ve always loved that poem.

Or sometimes it’s the observational nature of the poem combined with the tight rhyme structure. Ogden Nash tells us:

To keep your marriage brimming

With love in the loving cup,

Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;

Whenever you’re right, shut up.

But it’s the sheer absurdity of Spike Milligan that appeals to me the most. It’s so straightforwardly silly that it never fails to make me smile –

My sister Laura’s bigger than me.

And lifts me up quite easily.

I can’t lift her, I’ve tried and tried,

She must have something heavy inside.

This, and poems such as The Bald Twit Lion and The Ning Nang Nong, have been my friends for a long time, and I see their influence every time I write my stories, sometimes comic, sometimes serious. It’s in the rhythm and the imagery, and in the freedom of the imagination. I’ve even occasionally written verse into my stories.

Here’s the Jelly Song that can be found in my story Jelly Park (there’s an audio version available via The Drabblecast):

                   Keep your sponge cake,

Fling your flan,

Stick your doughnuts,

Cream and jam,

Leave your custard

In its can

And give us all some jelly!

Jelly is the bouncy treat,

Never runny, always sweet,

Squishy underneath your feet –

Give us all some jelly!

That story, of a woman who falls asleep on the bus and ends up being recruited into the world of musical bus drivers who obsess about jelly, is very Milliganesque, I would say. The poem came first, and inspired the plot. I’ve also written stories based on The Owl and The Pussycat, and on Now We Are Six.

Brains work in mysterious ways, and inspiration strikes at strange moments. I think part of the joy of writing is being able to embrace that mystery, and accept that it doesn’t have to make sense in an obvious way. Just like the best poetry, maybe the sense comes from the rhythm of being alive, and not from the actions we undertake?

Witchcraft in the Harem is available from Dog Horn Publishing.
Thanks, Aliya. And very good luck with the new book!

Dream sequences... novels can be intensely boring, especially if they go on for more than half a page. Listening to people's dreams can also be a little...tiring?

But dreams are also fascinating. The mind free-wheeling, without control or direction, just doing its own thing...where does all that stuff come from?

The other night (I'm doing it now) I dreamt that I went to ride the horse, but I saw him taking off on an orienteering expedition. He had a blue denim rucksack on his back, and was carrying a map. Hmmm.

Now,  your turn (after that, I owe it to you). What was your strangest recent dream (less than half a page, please!).

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Boast post...

My lovely daughter, an ex-nurse who doesn't think she's good at much (largely because she's the stay-at-home mum of triplets; but she also fits in running glee clubs in schools and occasionally presenting on QVC TV) has just painted this.

She's always enjoyed (and been good at) art, but this is her first attempt at oil painting, run off in "about an hour-and-half"). Not suprisingly, a friend bought it on the spot, even though she hadn't thought of selling it.

I think it's amazing. But then I can't even draw a stick man without getting into difficulties...

Monday 6 May 2013

Magpie 167


She lay down on a piece of paper,
Head in blue paint, body in pink.
She splashed her arms around a bit
And cried: "Hey! Mother! What d'you think?"

Her mother said, "it just won't sell, dear.
There's too much trashy art around.
You think you can make money? No, dear.
Get a degree. That's best, I've found."

"But Mum, you said I should have something
'To fall back on' -  won't this do?
I fell back on this piece of paper.
I only did it to please you!"

(With thanks to Tess at Magpie Tales for the picture)

Sunday 5 May 2013

Don't eat the daffodils

).Well, we bought a nice cheap bunch of daffodils from the supermarket, and then I saw the following warning on the label:


This would have been fine, had we not intended them for our evening meal, sauteed in butter, and served with my special Hollondaise sauce (recipe - from an old post - here).

Why do they have to spoil everything?

Saturday 4 May 2013

Every town should have one

Ours is called Pete (not his real name, so he isn't called Pete, but you know what I mean) and he lives very near us.

Pete is...odd. He cannot engage in a conversation, but will direct monologues at unuspecting passers-by if they're unwise enough to establish eye contact. He is like the Ancient Mariner with the wedding guest. And once you've been pinned down, you cannot get away.

Pete is a great upholder of the law. He wages a war against people who park in the wrong place, drive badly, allow their dogs to mess the pavements (this is a great favourite) and in general do anything that falls short of blameless.

He is often hard to understand, so eager is he to get his message across, and his diatribes come across a bit like this:

"blah ** DOG MESS!!..blah .. humph! mess...mind out!!..blah**" etc etc.

 At least you are left in no dout as to where the offending faecal deposit has come to rest (on a pavement somewhere near you, usually).

One day, he was particularly agitated, and I stopped to listen to him.

Pete: WINDOW WON'T SHUT!... blah blah... draught! ...blah...told landlord...HASNT' HAD IT FIXED!!!
Me: well, Pete, you're a carpenter (he is). I'm sure you could fix it yourself, couldn't you?
Pete (shocked): but it's my day off!

One other flaw in this argument (apart from the obvious) is that Pete hasn't got a job.

I am quite fond of Pete. I like characters and unusual people. I often wonder whether Pete is unhappy or lonely, but I suspect he's a lot happier than most of us. A neighbour once phoned me because she thought he "should be put away", and I was appalled.

The world would be a poorer place without its Petes.

Thursday 2 May 2013

I never learn...

...NOT to  buy clothes via the internet!

My "wardrobe" (and here, I mean the place where I hang my clothes;  not my collection of designer "pieces) is crammed with awful mistakes. It happens like this:

1. See item on the internet
2. Think it looks nice, and I won't have to trawl round the shops looking for whatever it is and taking my clothes on and off in cramped changing rooms
3. Deliberate. At langth (I'm not one of nature's rapid decision-makers).
4. Buy item.
5. It arrives. Not quite as nice as I thought, but will it look better on?
6. It doesn't look better on. But not exactly horrible, either.
7. Further deliberation. Maybe item will improve over time (this is ridiculous, since inanimate objects don't tend to do this). Plus, returning items is a bore, and I am lazy (and herein lies the rub).
8. Decide to keep it.
8. Wear it.
9. Hate it.
10. Wear it again (because you can't wear a garment you've paid for only once, can you?)
11. Still hate it.
12. Item languishes in wordrobe, because I've got to keep it for a certain length of time before I give myself permission to dispose of it.
11. Oxfam shop.

PS I have just given a strange grey sweater its second statutory wearing, and can now get rid of it. After all, I've had it all winter, even though I've only worn it twice.

PPS Strange grey sweater, size 12, anyone?