Thursday, October 29, 2009

Letting God off

Despite what I said yesterday, I am more or less resigned to never seeing my mother again. Whether I am resigned to the concept of death itself is another matter. Generally I think it's a bad idea, though in my mother's particular case, she was so very tired that I've decided to let God off.

I took the photo below, a month before she died. It was a happy occasion: we were having afternoon tea - at enormous expense - at the restored Art Deco Midland Hotel in Morecambe. (This was the same day that my clever sister Jen took the picture of me that heads this blog.) I had a new camera and was trying to take a photo of my mother. She didn't want me to, and I said "Come on, mother, let me take your picture - I'm not always going to have you here." She sat still, then, and smiled. She was completely matter of fact about dying, and perfectly ready.

She was a cracker.

Helen Willis 1917- 2008

Helen Willis was a well-known resident of Wensleydale, whose life was not marked by outstanding professional achievements, but whose influence was profound. She was like countless people who live quiet, modest lives but whose loving nature and strength of character are appreciated by their family and many beyond.

She was a long-time member of Leyburn Quaker Meeting, serving the meeting in a number of different offices. In 2003, aged 85, she attended a peace demonstration against the Iraq war. For her 90th birthday, she held a garden party to raise money for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance.

She was a prize-winning bridge player and a talented craftswoman. Her intellectual curiosity was insatiable and wide-ranging, and included nuclear physics, mathematics, engineering, astronomy, education, code-breaking and architecture. In her early eighties she went on a 24 hour winter trip into the arctic circle to see the Northern Lights. In her late eighties, she learned to use email to correspond with her large, far-flung family.

Born near Bedale, Helen Barron was an identical twin and was educated at Ackworth Quaker School, where she combined mental acuity with extraordinary physical vigour, qualities that she maintained throughout her life. She captained both the hockey and cricket teams, and gained a 1st class Instructors Certificate of the Royal Lifesaving Society. She was also Head Girl.

She then graduated from the Rachel MacMillan Training College for Nursery Education. She played hockey for Kent while at college, and later played for Lancashire.

She was called up a month early to her first teaching post at Hunslet Nursery School in Leeds in August 1939, to help evacuate the school to Bramham Park, the home of Lord Bingley. For the first few weeks, the children and teachers lived, worked, played and slept in the ballroom. She was on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

She worked as a nursery teacher until her marriage in 1944 to Fred Willis, whom she first met at school. They set up home in a farming community of conscientious objectors at Holton Beckering in Lincolnshire. After 18 months, the couple moved to north Lincolnshire, on Fred’s appointment as a Farms Manager. There they brought up five children.

After a spell in Derby, the couple moved to Aysgarth in 1972, and played a full part in village life, with Helen particularly making sure to welcome newcomers and include them in local activities.

Mrs Willis laughed easily and bore difficulties with casual fortitude, refusing to be cowed by any adversity. She was self-effacing and talked little of her considerable achievements, but was ambitious for others, giving encouragement, support and praise in equal measure.

She was an indefatigable maker, producing craftwork of grace and vigour until shortly before her death. Her making was carefully matched to the tastes and interests of the delighted recipient, who recognised not only her skill, but the love which had gone into the making.

Mrs Willis died on 30th October, after a brief illness borne stoically, with her usual dismissive disdain for her ailments.

copyright: Darlington and Stockton Times

Too long

My daughter just called. She wanted to talk about her Gran: she misses her.

She misses her Gran. I miss my mother. So do my sisters and brothers. We all miss her. We miss you, Ma. Tomorrow you’ll have been gone a year. Don’t you think that’s long enough?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A bag I don’t like

It is exactly a year ago today that I got back from an overseas trip and rang up my mother to see how she was, and she told me that she wasn’t well. Two days later she died.

Oct 09 024

This knitting bag is the one she kept small projects in. I’m using it to hold the pair of socks I’m knitting. My mother made the bag out of a fabric that was typical of her taste. She liked oranges and browns and she loved paisley patterns. I don’t like paisley, I don’t like orange, and I don’t like brown. I keep looking at the bag and thinking – Well, I could copy the neat design to make myself a bag out of a fabric I like. But it wouldn’t be one my mother used every day, one I saw on her sofa whenever I went to visit. So I guess this bag – which to my eyes is unlovely - will be staying right here on my sofa.

Monday, October 26, 2009


I can do several unaided steps on the slackline so far and here is the proof:

Yeah! The record this morning is 7 steps. It is much much harder than it looks. My son... will attest to this.

For those of you with Kindles

Did you know that Plotting for Beginners – an intelligent, funny holiday read - is available in a Kindle edition ( as well as in book form) in the USA? Click here.

Here are just a handful of plaudits…

"funny, quirky, different, refreshing, and spot-on with its observations" The Guardian

"dangerously addictive" BBC Radio

"buoyant and charming...hilarious bursts of verve and wit" E Online

"wonderfully funny...enormously satisfying, well-written and perfectly-plotted" Trashionista

"amusing and unpretentious" The Times

“Charming, intelligent and side-splittingly funny” Lynne Barrett-Lee

“Witty and astute. I loved it.” Chloe Ashcroft

Friday, October 23, 2009

For my brother, Pete

My brother Pete read my post about my trip to NYC and commented on how succulent the pastrami at Katz’s Deli looked. So just for you, Pete – here is a video of a Katz man doing his stuff. Keep watching: it gets better as it goes along.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ah, the restorative properties of Neighbours

Bad news, or exhaustion after a difficult day – so many ills can be banished by watching 25 minutes of Neighbours. My ex-pat friend El, whom I traumatised with a maggotty mouse in the afternoon, responded eagerly when I suggested a glass of wine, a bowl of crisps and a shot of Neighbours at teatime. She’d watched it for years before emigrating. That she was hopelessly adrift with the current plot-lines made no matter. A quick resume following the opening credits and we were away.

There was a heated conversation going on in the coffee shop and three teenagers appeared on the sidelines.

“Who are they?” whispered El.

“Three orphans who live next door to Paul Robinson.”

“OK,” she said.

Aficianados of Neighbours receive lightning expositions of unlikely scenarios with an accepting and a cheerful heart.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Headless corpses redux

Oct 09 022

I’d noticed a faint musty smell in the back porch since I got home from NYC, but hadn’t been able to work out what it was. Then yesterday, I went in there to get some hiking boots for an ex-pat friend who was visiting, and who wanted to be re-acquainted with the glories of the Peak District.

“Here you are!” I said, dropping the boots on the floor in front of her.

"Eurrrh!" she yelped, as a ball of fluff dropped out of one of the boots. She backed up against the far side of the room, and squeaked “What is it?”

I wasn’t wearing my reading glasses so was spared the full horror of aforementioned ball of fluff. She crept forwards again and saw it all too clearly - a decomposing mouse, infested with maggots.

Given a choice, I’d prefer to find headless corpses on the door step.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Oct 09 020 I had no idea what hard work it is to balance on a line. I am addicted to the slackline and did four half hour sessions on it yesterday. Last night I slept really badly because every tiny muscle between my waist and my knees was aching. I don’t care! I LOVE my slackline!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Two nations divided by a common language


I was wallowing in my ultra-comfortable bed, enveloped in soft white Egyptian cotton sheets (oh what luxury) in my Manhattan hotel, and it was 4.30 in the morning – must have been jet-lag – and running through my head like a mantra was  “Oooooh, I would kill for a cup of tea.” So I picked up the room service menu and leafed through and found the tea and thought – “I can afford that,” and then saw this text at the bottom of the page:

Please note a 5 dollar charge per delivery, 17% gratuity, 2% administrative charge and 8.875% New York sales tax will be added to your check for your convenience.

Does “convenience” mean the same in the USA as it does over here?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My favourite things

I loved my weekend away in New York: it was interesting and fun, and the best thing was spending time with my family -Isaac -

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and Wendy – though the poor thing was ill for most of the weekend -

sue and wendy at flatiron

and my friend Ella.

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My favourite things on my Brooklyn Day with Ella were Katz’s Deli – you remember Katz’s Deli from When Harry Met Sally

New York Oct 09 026

Just take a look at that pastrami on rye, that split pea soup and the Celray soda – yum!

New York Oct 09 028

walking across Brooklyn Bridge to NYC…

New York Oct 09 007

and visiting the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side where we saw, amongst other things, how a family of six immigrants lived in 1873, in 3 tiny rooms, two of which had no windows.

I also had my first ever pedicure…

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OK, I have to come clean – those are Ella’s feet. They’re prettier than mine.

My favourite New York sights seen with Isaac were…going up the Empire State Building and seeing the fabulous Art Deco interior…

and the stunning view…

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and visiting Ellis Island, where twelve million immigrants were processed on their arrival in America.

The exhibits in the museum moved me to tears.

And lastly, I was seriously impressed by Grand Central Station…

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I had some tasty food…that pastrami on rye I mentioned…

Katz pc

a lovely meal out at Rye in Brooklyn with Ella and Mikal – thanks, you two;

and my birthday meal – thank you Isaac and Wendy – at Smith and Wollensky’s. Filet mignon…mmmmm. When you live with a vegetarian and most of your family is vegetarian and you’re a carnivore yourself, it’s a big treat to go to a place whose advert says “If steak were a religion, this would be the cathedral.” My father would have approved (bless his knife and fork.)

My Happy Return

sue as statue 1

I had a wild time in New York, but it was sooooh lovely after too many hours in transit to drive out of Manchester in sunshine under a blue sky, and over the hills with the autumn colours and the views of green, green Derbyshire, and arrive back home to my sunny, quiet house and to find my desk snowed under with birthday cards and presents and a giant orchid that Dave had “…gone out and spent money on!”  (his words.)

Also in the garden was a present from my daughter Zoe and son-in-law Brian – a slackline - with securing posts from Dave (which took him a whole day to make safe and firm.) What is a slackline ? Imagine Man on Wire but with a bouncy polypropelene tape, rather than a tight rope.

And here I am on my birthday trip.

New York Oct 09 139

Eventually I shall be able to do it without the aid of the yard brush, though I don’t aspire to these heights.

(Me as the Statue of Liberty above was the card that came with the slackline – thank you, Brian.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bring on NYC!

I should be asleep by now but I'm too excited.

My holiday lists

Is this too much to slot into one and a half days in Brooklyn?

  1. Go to one of those delis where you have a plastic box and fill it up with stuff from a huge display and then get it weighed and pay for it.
  2. Eat a pastrami on rye sandwich.
  3. Did you ever see that film (one of my very favourite rom-coms) Crossing Delancey? In that film, there is a Jewish guy who sells pickles. He fishes them out of barrels with his bare hands. If there’s anywhere like that now, I want to go.
  4. Visit the library where Francie Nolan went, from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
  5. See some brownstone houses in Brooklyn Heights.
  6. Walk on the Brooklyn Bridge.
  7. Hang out in coffee shops, watching people and making up their backstories with Ella (my good friend and talented writer.)

Is this too much for 3 days in NYC?

  1. Ride on the Staten Island Ferry
  2. Visit the Guggenheim
  3. Go to the top of the Empire State Building
  4. See Grand Central Station
  5. Hang out with my son and my daughter-in-law while drinking a margarita – one of my very favourite composite activities when I’m in the USA, whether it’s NYC or San Francisco, Denver or Mendocino.

p.s. The taxi is coming tomorrow at 5.15. a.m. so this may be my last post for several days.( woo-hoo!)

p.p.s. AArrgghh… almost forgot to pack my Yorkshire tea bags.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Laughing in my sleep

One of my lovely brothers rang the other day, worried, after reading my post The Unvarnished Author. But since I wrote it, and Shafia – a reader I don’t know and have never met – wrote such a sympathetic comment, things have felt easier. It’s been so hard keeping up a public pretence of feeling OK. I hate pretending, and now I don’t feel I have to.

Dave said that I was laughing a lot in my sleep last night. I just wish I could remember what was so funny.

If you want a good laugh, look at the ad below. Click on the link and scroll down to the one called "My First TV AD" and watch it, and then click on "Specials," and watch the one called simply "Bloops." I love those crazy meerkats.

My Tv Ads | Compare the Meerkat Shared via AddThis

Monday, October 05, 2009

This week’s tasks

1/ Stay cheerful.

2/ Stave off the foul cold that is trying to leap from Dave to me. I need to keep my distance and take Aconite.

3/ Practise my saxophone.

4/ Pack for New York.

Yeah! You heard me, baby! I am going to New York on Thursday for a long weekend, and I’m beginning in Brooklyn. 

I’ve never been to either before, and I’m very excited. It’s a huge birthday treat.

(Careful readers will note the absence of punctuation in that last sentence, rendering it purposefully ambiguous.)

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Helpful quotes

I said I’d been doing lots of thinking and talking to people, and in doing this I have come across Joseph Campbell. He has a lot of helpful things to say. Here are two of them…

“Find a place inside where there's joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.”

“The way to find out about happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you are really happy — not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what is called following your bliss.”

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The unvarnished author

aug 09 070

I thought I’d dealt with death when my father died, 7 years ago. But now I find that I didn’t, and I think that’s because when he died, my mother was still here as a backstop. Backstop in the sense of being between me and death, and backstop in that I could rely on her as a support and an unshifting rock.

It’s almost a year now since she died, and I hope I’m over the worst of my grieving for her – the tears and the instability – though when I’m tired I still have an unremitting ache to see her. But anyway, I’ve lately been faced with death itself, I mean the idea of death, the fact of death. Yes, I admit it’s rather late in the day to be thinking about death, and realising that I will die some day, but I’ve always been a late developer. I had an idyllic childhood, I didn’t grow up until I was 45, and I’ve been told I have a Pollyanna disposition, so maybe that’s why it’s taken this long for existential angst to overtake me.

I’ve often felt in the last few weeks as if I am floating alone and untethered in a vast black empty space, as if everything is pointless and life is pointless. I have never felt this way before, though there are people close to me who have felt like this all their life. Now I understand.

I’ve been wondering whether or not to write about this on my blog (see post Headless Corpses). I’m basically an upfront kind of person and it’s sometimes a huge strain, and feels dishonest, to put forward a public image of a happy, bouncy author when often, at the moment, I actually feel pretty desperate.

When the world is full of disaster and suffering – in Gaza, Zimbabwe, the earthquake zone in Indonesia, to name just three examples - one doesn’t want to be self-indulgent. But then again, I think it’s important to be honest about personal difficulties, because it can be helpful to other people. That’s one of the reasons I used my personal bereavement journal in Zuzu’s Petals. I wanted, amongst other things,to encourage people to make the most of their elderly parents while they still had the chance.

So there you are. I’ve come out and told you.

So bite me.

( I have loved that expression ever since I heard it on Friends, but it may be rather rude. How is a Pollyanna to know?)