Saturday, October 30, 2010

She was a cracker

Helen Willis

It is two years ago today that my mother died. We were so lucky to have her as head of our family, and for so long, too. We miss her badly.

I started to write a post about her, but a list of all the things I valued about her would be so long, that I would still be sitting here writing in my pyjamas at dinner time; and anyway, you have your own mothers to think about. I hope you are/were as fortunate as me.

Here is her obituary, which appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times:

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.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


It’s all very well broadening my cultural input, and reading books I wouldn’t normally read, such as a novel based on a true story about German resistance to Fascism in the second world war… I mean, OK, it’s well written, and I suppose it’s interesting, but I really DON’T look forward to getting into bed with my hot water bottle and Alone in Berlin. I really don’t.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Winter blues and the 1950s wholesome upbringing

Well, what a good job it is that I am NOT a diva. If I were, I’d be stamping my foot and saying “Why the hell did no-one but Lyn of Australia comment on my post yesterday? All those readers and only one comment. Well, they can all stuff it!”

Fortunately, I am not a diva. I shall carry on, unabashed. (I like that word.)

Dave: What time are you going to the pictures?

Sue: I’m leaving here at half past five.

Dave: Oh, it’s a late one.

Sue: No, it’s an early one.

Dave: I thought you were going this afternoon.

Sue: I never go to the pictures in the afternoon. i don’t agree with it. I might possibly go in the afternoon in February, when I am so fed up with the winter I feel like slitting my wrists.

Dave: Maybe if you went earlier in the winter, you wouldn’t feel like slitting your wrists in February.


At 5.30 yesterday I set off to see Mary and Max. It is an animation and I hate animations, but it is an award winning film, plus, I am trying to broaden my cultural input. If you want to increase your understanding of aspergers syndrome, I recommend the film. It was subtle, intelligent, and perceptive.

Some people in the cinema also thought it funny. I did not. The only time I laughed was when Max said: “When I was young, I invented an invisible friend called Mr Ravioli. My psychiatrist says I don't need him anymore, so he just sits in the corner and reads."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Freshening up

There’s a lot more space on this blog now – that’s what it feels like to me. And I can post big photographs, so you can enjoy them more. I like the new dispensation.

But Dave doesn’t like it. He thought it looked classy before. And professional. He liked the photo of me as the header. He thought that the space down the left hand side of the screen gave people room to breathe, with the subtext that there’s room for the reader on this blog as well as the writer. He definitely liked the old blog better, though he did think I had too many pictures on it.

But I like pictures. My sight is my most valued sense. I appreciate the world through my eyes. I feast on the world with my eyes. I sit on the couch in my study with the garden behind me, and the garden in front of me, and my desk at the side, and I think – I LOVE my pretty room!

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It’s pretty even with Dave’s scooter living in here.

Isaac helped me to change the blog. Thanks, Isaac. I need to write posts that he finds interesting, not merely from gratitude, but because every time he tweets about a post of mine, my readership doubles. Gosh! What to write?

I did say to him that I had asked my regular readers why they come to my blog, What do they want to read? and that apart from Jacob Naylor (his comment is on my last but one post “It’s hard to know”) they had not responded. Isaac said he thought my question had sounded rhetorical. So I will ask again – why did you come here? And if you  knew the blog before last week, what do you think of the changes? Do you think the blog is better or worse? Or maybe format and layout are not important to you…Don’t hold back: I am a writer and I have developed a thick skin. (Though it may not be thick enough to cope with being ignored.)

Monday, October 25, 2010


“Looking at you with your saxophone, I can see how divas are born,” said Dave yesterday.


I may like my music stand taller than usual, so that the slant of the supporting feet is almost vertical, which makes it top-heavy, so Dave has had to attach one of his weight-lifting weights to the bottom, to stop the thing from falling over. I do like lots of light so I need to play in front of the window; I like to play in bare feet; I can’t stand it if my glasses aren’t sitting straight on my nose; and if people want to listen to me, they have to be somewhere out of my line of sight.

Does this mean I am a diva?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

It’s hard to know…

…what this blog is about, and why I write it.

I began it because I thought a writer needed a web presence, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a website. My idea was that if someone read one of my books and wanted to know if I had written anything else, they could find me on the net and get the information they were after.

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So it began as a space with information, with the very occasional update. Somewhen between June 2006 and now, it metamorphosed into a blog. But what kind of a blog? I have no idea. Why, dear regular reader, do you come here? What is it that you like to read?

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I have been lying in bed thinking about how much of my life I cannot share with you. I can’t write anything that might hurt or embarrass someone I care about - and there are a lot of people I care about – and yet the people that I care about make up my life, or rather, they make up a substantial part of my life. Sometimes the whole of my being is taken up with the concerns of my family, and I cannot share them with you, because they are not just my concerns.

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I can talk about my own feelings, such as when my mother died. I could share with you my subsequent grief, and the existential malaise that followed. I can share trivial domestic news and jokes. I can share my holidays. I can share my general musings. But when I am consumed with family concerns, and I can’t share the real stuff of life with you, the blog takes on a patchy and unsatisfactory texture, and it no longer feels like - or indeed, is - the continuing story of my life.

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Sometimes my writing is at the forefront of my thoughts, and I can share that with you, though that has not been possible, lately. I’ve been waiting to hear from the agent who has the manuscript of my latest book (But I told you last year that I loved you) and it is very trying to wait for news that may take months to come. So I have attempted to put it on the back shelf of my brain.

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Sometimes I want to blog about politics, but I resist this for 99% of the time. (Yesterday, I didn’t resist. And here is an occasion when I didn’t.) Why do I mostly resist? Because I used to read the blog of a woman I didn’t know, a woman who lives on the North West coast of the USA. She wrote a reflective and charming blog about her life and her family, and I loved it. Then she started writing about politics as well, and I abhor her politics, so I stopped reading her blog. It was a shame. I allow myself to blog about just one area of politics, because of all issues it is probably the one I care about most – the injustice and brutality that Israel visits on the Palestinian people.

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I changed the header of the blog yesterday because when I go to one of my bookmarked blogs and found they have refreshed the title header, I am always delighted. Or did I change it because I am fed up with my blog? That could be it. I like the photo of me that used to be the header, which is why I have had it up there for so long. But I wanted a change. I am not sure about the sheep.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Cut war, not the poor

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Sorting through old letters is a bittersweet occupation, but this one I found in my mother's collection made me laugh.


Do you have a dog, and do you like taking it for walks in the country?


If you do, then please don’t take it in a field where there are cows with calves. You are likely to be trampled. Cows that are suckling calves are very protective, and often charge people with dogs. My father warned me about this many times. And now someone I love has had this traumatic experience, and ended up in hospital. Please take heed.

Friday, October 15, 2010

October sunshine and shadows

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It’s been my birthday this week, and very nice it was, too, to have it in such a joyful week. Isn’t it a rare and wonderful thing when the whole of the world is rejoicing about something, as it has been about the rescue of the Chilean miners?

As well as lots of other treats, my week included:


made by the young, talented and entrepreneurial Rose Denyer, who makes and sells cakes in the Derbyshire Dales. (The Pink Cake Box. 07585 369258).

It also included ice creams with my grandsons:

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And a saxophone stand from Dave, complete with fake sax made out of wood and tinfoil, so I could see how the sax is meant to sit on the stand (if you see what I mean. Though the real sax does not need clothes pegs.)

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This was absolutely necessary, as I would have tried to put the sax on the other way. I am utterly dumb with anything practical. (I got the bulkhead seat flying home from California and couldn’t work out how to get out my tray for my food, nor how to pull up the little TV screen. And then I couldn’t work out how to fold the tray away, and had to ask the steward.)

But today I’ve been melancholy, missing Ma. It could be the time of year. It could be because she wasn’t here to send me one of her birthday cards in which she stuck a yellow post-it with her message, so I could peel out the post-it and use the card again. Or it could be because I have particular things I want to tell her about my children – things I am proud of - and which I know she would take delight in. I also want to tell her how well I am doing with my saxophone, even though she’d probably wish it was a flute. But I can’t tell her any of these things, so I’ve been pestering my sister Jen with phone calls and telling her instead. She’s very forbearing. She misses Ma as well.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The trouble with tweets

There is more to say about Made in Dagenham than will fit in a tweet.

The film may not be an all time great film, but it was funny, pleasant and enjoyable. It was life-enhancing, in a way that the film about cannibals that was trailed before it could not possibly be. (Why, oh why, would someone want to watch a horribly violent film about cannibals set in present day Mexico? Why would anyone want to make such a film? Why would anyone give it a certificate? Why do we as a society think it is healthy to have such things on screen?) 

OK, rant over. Back to Made in Dagenham. It was directed by the same man as Calendar Girls, but I liked it better, because it was inspiring. The shape and structure of the film was also better. But I want to know how much of the detail is true. I wonder about the subplots: are they there to flesh out the film, or did they really happen?

And if you’d rather have a tweet from my last two days, try this one:

my sax teacher asked why I cut my long notes short, and I said that semibreves are boring

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I keep coming up with tweets, now

Since my first potential tweet the other day, I have been thinking in tweets, God help me. Here is my yesterday in tweets:

8 a.m.

a terrible night – up 4 times to go to the loo. Is cauliflower cheese a diuretic?

11 a.m.

rang the local builder’s centre, and the first thing Stuart asked me was how to spell loquacious. I like my builder’s centre.

3 p.m.

helping son pack his books, including mint copies of my novels, Plotting for Beginners and Zuzu’s Petals. he says he’ll read them when I’m dead.

11 p.m.

Made in Dagenham such a feel-good movie I didn’t want it to end.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Passport photo

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I try to resist having photos of my grandchildren on my blog, I do, I do. But look at this one. It twists my heart.

Will immigration be photographing Lux’s iris, and taking her fingerprints when she comes to see me?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Continued from yesterday…

I went to collect a new falsie from the hospital yesterday, as my old one was split. I wear it because I had a mastectomy ages ago. The falsie I have now is brilliant. It sticks onto my skin, so I never have the embarrassment of it falling out of my bra as I did in the old days, when I wrote this piece…

Who needs reconstruction ?

“The worst thing about your mastectomy, as far as I’m concerned” said my husband, “is finding your falsie in the fruit bowl.” OK, I admit it, sometimes when it’s itching a bit I do take it out and leave it in the receptacle closest to hand. And while I’m not upset by finding such a good friend in unexpected places, other members of the family are not so keen on reaching into the magazine rack for the Radio Times and getting a handful of pink blancmange instead.

We wouldn’t have this problem if I’d had a reconstruction after the mastectomy. It was seven years ago and I feel I got off lightly because I had no other treatment. And although I’ve had occasional cysts - which do make me worry until they are diagnosed and dealt with – I’ve had no recurrence of cancer.

I did originally discuss reconstructive surgery with my breast care nurse, a fellow mastectomee and someone who also shared my sense of humour. She entertained me with the trials of colour matching fake nipples, and with stories of swimming on holiday and being startled at the sight of her freedom-loving prosthesis, having escaped the confines of her cossie and approaching her atop a wave.

But I didn’t fancy implants because I wasn’t keen on having alien bodies inserted into my own body, which with advancing middle age looks alien enough (on those occasions when I’m feeling robust enough to look at a reflection of myself with no clothes on.)

The truth is that I have adjusted to being an Amazon. The only real drag is having my falsie slip out at awkward moments. Like the time I was painting the gloss in our new house while the builder and plumber were in the adjoining room. I was on my knees doing the skirting board when my falsie slipped out of my bra and threatened to fall out of the bottom of my rugby shirt. How could I grab it and hide it before anyone came in, when I had paint all over my hands and there was nothing in the room but a tin of paint, a bottle of white spirit and a grotty old duster?

I don’t feel the need for a reconstruction. I always cared more about having a flat stomach than a big bust, and yearned to be like Audrey Hepburn, not Dolly Parton. Also, I am 53 and have been married forever, and my husband has never been a boob man. Before the operation and since, he has been everything I could have wanted a husband to be. The surgeon was tactful and skilled and all the nursing staff were sensitive, but it did take time to accept my new …well, lopsidedness. Now I am used to being asymmetrical, and having a scar instead of a breast, if neither I nor my husband care, why should I want a reconstruction?

When I asked him about it again today he said “Reconstruction? Isn’t that something on Crimewatch where they make a passing resemblance to a former reality and hope viewers’ imaginations will supply vital missing details?” Then he asked how they would make the new boob sag incrementally over time to keep pace with the old one. He pictured me at sixty as part Lolita and part Nora Batty.

The doctor did talk about alternatives to having bits inserted. It was possible to take fat from the belly, she said, and use that to reconstruct a breast. Now she was talking. I could return to the lost era of the flat stomach. But was a return to the operating table a price worth paying ?

Then I had the idea. Women who have had breast surgery are offered free counselling and plastic surgery on the NHS, on the grounds of helping their adjustment and speedy recovery. If some kind of plastic surgery is going to make them feel better, does it matter what it is? Maybe they should be offered a voucher for non-specific treatment after a mastectomy, so they could have liposuction, or a new nose, if that would improve their body image and boost their self esteem. Maybe I’ll write to the health secretary about it. If the scheme is adopted, I’ll keep the falsie and go for the tummy tuck.

Friday, October 08, 2010


I have tried not be an old fogey in the face of new technology, and Isaac has helped in that, enormously. It’s not surprising: he used to work for Google, and now he works for Twitter.

He first got us onto email, which now I can’t live without. He moved us onto broadband, which makes our life on dial-up seem like an awful bygone age (I can still hear that dreadful dial-up tone in my head, the tone that so often led to nothing.) And he launched me on my blog. So far, however, Twitter has been the fence I can’t leap over.

I feel I am letting him down, especially when Twitter pays his wages, and keeps a roof over his and Wendy’s and Lux’s head. He says “Don’t worry. I know you’ll come to it eventually,” and I think “No, I won’t.” I have enough distractions in my life which interfere with my ability to think clearly, or to simply be quiet and get on with my writing, without introducing yet another one.

And anyway, what is the point in my tweeting when many of my friends don’t even check their email more than twice a week?

I have just read an interview with a successful writer who says that writing is a lonely business and she chats to her other writer friends on Twitter, as you would a work colleague sitting at the next desk. But neither of my writing friends whom I email regularly (and who do check their emails at least twice a day) are on Twitter, so that idea is down the chute.

So in view of this and my lack of enthusiasm for engaging with Twitter, I have to record that yesterday, for the very first time, I wished I could tweet, because I had a doozy. How cool is this for a tweet?

went to the hallamshire to fetch my new breast

Tune in tomorrow for the back story.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

More cultural differences

The American writer, Lionel Shriver, was commenting on the fact that the Labour party chose a new leader who is an unmarried father. She said that had he been in America, Ed Milliband’s advisers would have bullied him into getting married long ago. But she thought it just as interesting that in a television interview he declared himself to be an atheist. She said this “would destroy his political career in perpetuity where I come from.”

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

I love this quote!

Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.                      

Attributed to both Woody Allen, and the theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler

Monday, October 04, 2010

Things I have learned in the last two weeks

1/ Generally speaking (and I am not including Wendy here)  the Americans seem to be prudish about breastfeeding;

2/ Unlike the boring Brits, they have delightfully playful names for some of their baby products. e.g. Butt Paste and Tushy wipes.

butt paste

3/ There is no point searching for John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, because it is now a row of pristinely painted hotels and shops and restaurants -

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4/ Those huge bulbous wineglasses are especially designed for savouring the scents of red wine before you drink it, in that you can hold them horizontal and they will not spill wine on you -

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This was Isaac’s wine I was sniffing above. Wendy and I were trying out the bubblies ( the “Sparkling Flight”), when we went to the Iron Horse Winery in Sonoma County, and it was as enjoyable as it sounds.

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5/ The latest thing I have learned is that when you are sitting in bed at home, reading and drinking tea, and a voice comes up the stairs from someone who is wheeling his bike out of the porch for a ride, and the voice says, “The cat seems to have had diarrhoea in the porch,” this really means “Please will you come down and clear up this mess?”

Friday, October 01, 2010

A different kind of beauty

I was expecting it to be hard to leave the sunshine and the bright blue skies of California, and come back to the autumn climate in England. When I arrived in Heathrow on Wedneday, the sky was a pearly grey with streaks of light, but it was not unlovely. Then when we flew into Manchester, it was raining.  But in the evening here at home, there was a watery pink and grey smeary sunset, and the light of it shone on the cows in the field next door.

So although it is damp here, it has its own kind of beauty, which is subtle, and not the primary colours of California.

And I do have a passion for clouds.

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