Monday, November 29, 2010

There is no such thing as a free lunch (continued)

My brother Pete rang yesterday and asked about our narrowboat holiday. He thought - from my blog post - that it had been awful. But it hadn’t. It hadn’t been awful. We had a great time.

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There is more to narrowboating than the quality of the boat. I love being so close to the open country, waking up and stepping out on deck and being part of the still morning, seeing the mist rising from the quiet canal,

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the sun coming over the horizon through the bare trees, the pure reflections on the water as we travel along, the slowness of the journey so I can soak up every last view of the landscape before it changes, the simplicity of the life – the choosing of where to moor, and the way a walk to an unknown village in search of milk and papers and little unexpected treats – like the best pork scratchings in the world that I found at the village store in Wrenbury - that such a simple trip becomes an adventure.

(I lead a sheltered life. I hardly see a packet of pork scratchings from one year’s end to the next. And now I have finished the last of the packets I bought from Wrenbury, my life is drab.)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Real life

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one's own, or real life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one's real life - the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one's real life is a phantom of one's own imagination. This at least is what I see at moments of insight: but it's hard to remember it all the time. C.S.Lewis

Thursday, November 25, 2010

There is no such thing as a free lunch

The narrowboat was advertised as a “premium” boat, but when we got on it we wondered why.  We kept saying to each other “But it was very cheap, and it’s fine for just a week, isn’t it?” We had fun, despite the gearbox packing up half way through the trip, making us come home early.

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From my journal-

Sunday November 21st 2010, 7 a.m. The Llangollen Canal

In bed under 3 duvets, and on top of the seat cushion from the dinette, which itself is on top of the mattress to give the bed a smidge of springiness, and I am wearing pyjamas, bed socks, a thick Aran sweater, greasy hair and varifocals. The engine is loud and throbbing, and the whole boat vibrates: we have it turned on right now to make the heating work. It is dark outside. I have just finished off my packet of pork scratchings, which I gave up eating last night because in the quiet of the cabin on the silent canal, the crunching was too loud. It’s pretty awful to be eating pork scratchings first thing in the morning, but this barge lowers one’s standards. There is a putrid stench in the bathroom, which they know about because they have left a vapona in there to combat the smell. it does not combat the smell. When you are playing Scrabble, waiting for your tea to cook the cooker secretly cuts out, so that when you have totted up your final  score and gloated because you got 600 between you (a minor gloating because 700 would be so much better) you take your cheese and lentil savoury and baked potato out of the oven and find it uncooked and lukewarm. I have been reading the Grapes of Wrath about poverty and hardship in Dust Bowl Oklahoma and migrant life in California in the 30’s. If there were a narrowboat in the Grapes of Wrath it would be like the one we are on.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Home again

You’d think it was spring in Cheshire, where we went on the narrowboat -

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We had five fine days, sometimes with sun, and we had lots of fun.

Here are some pictures to give you a flavour.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Holiday reading

I am taking:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – because it is a classic that I have never read, and because I know I can read Steinbeck, as I read Cannery Row when i was in California.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – because I read it last November and found it so encouraging. It is a story of hope, and Spring (the season of hope) and the book is the perfect antidote to long dark nights and bleak weather.

Old Friend from Far Away (The Practice of Writing Memoir) by Natalie Goldberg – because Natalie Goldberg is my creative writing guru in the way that Bodmyn Corner was Sally Howe’s creative writing guru. And if you don’t know who Sally Howe is, you’d better read Plotting for Beginners.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cut price hols

Do you remember our love affair with narrowboats this spring? Well, ever since then Dave has been devouring copies of Waterways World and ogling narrowboats on the net. On Tuesday he told me he had found we could hire a boat this Friday for a third of the price that it was in the spring.

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Hmmm…I wonder why that could be…she said, stroking her chin.

Could it be that in late November the weather is wet, cold, windy, foggy and frosty, and the days are only 8 hours long…Hmmm…maybe…

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Whatever! We are going tomorrow. I have been shopping, cooking, packing, and wondering whether I can bear to be away from my tenor sax of a whole week. I don’t think I can. So if you are walking down by the canal and you hear someone practising “My funny valentine” on a mellow saxophone – it will be me.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Carpe diem

The house is empty and sad.

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Dave is driving our US family to the airport. Here is the little one…

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According to Isaac, Lux may have been here for only six days, but she has spent 7% of her life in Derbyshire. There is a message there, but it’s way too early in the morning for me to frame it for you. You’ll have to work this post out for yourself.

All that is left behind – apart from the memories and photographs - is Wendy’s jacket. She will be mad.

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Although, I rather like it…

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You know when celebrities are asked twenty questions, of which one is “What would your super power be?” and so many of them say “Flying” ?

I would say time-travel. If I could time-travel I could pop over to San Francisco just for the afternoon, any time I wanted. I could go and babysit for Isaac and Wendy. Wouldn’t that be great?

Monday, November 15, 2010


In spite of this delightful little person (my granddaughter, Lux) dancing in my kitchen…

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I was feeling disheartened tonight, so I turned to this poem, which I always find encouraging.


Sometimes things don't go, after all, from bad to

worse. Some years, muscadel faces down frost;

green thrives; the crops don't fail, sometimes a man

aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war; elect

an honest man; decide they care enough, that they

can't leave some stranger poor. Some men become

what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go amiss;

sometimes we do as we meant to. The sun will

sometimes melt a field of sorrow that seemed hard

frozen: may it happen for you.

I don’t usually quote a living poet’s work on my blog, as I don’t approve of stealing copyright (I don’t subscribe to the current common view that artistic content should be free – how are writers supposed to eat?) but the poet specifically says it is all right to quote this poem on a personal blog.She does, however, prefer not to have her name quoted along with the poem, as she says she hates the poem.

It was fascinating to read on her website what she has to say about it, how people frequently abuse it in all kinds of ways, and how incensed she feels when people change the words. Oh how I agree with you – unnamed poet.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Strung out

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I am so tired I can’t go to sleep. My head has been a maelstrom of people and cooking and conversation, and I have been lying here gazing at my music stand and wishing I could play my sax to calm myself down. But it’s midnight, everyone is in bed, and the sound of the sax travels as far as the end of our lane.

The only thing I have found to chill me out is to flick through a TOAST catalogue. I love the things in TOAST but they are so ridiculously expensive that I only ever buy T shirts in the second round of the sale. The current catalogue contains Christmas presents, such as a pair of silk velvet lavender bags for £14.50. Oh, come on! A Christmas tree decoration for £9.95. Are you kidding?

But I have done some serious ogling of the silk velvet dressing gown in kingfisher blue on page 67 – a “mere” £175.

Now I’m going to creep into the kitchen and make some cocoa. Why am I sleeping on my study floor? Because with the American wing of the family staying, and an English member of the family who declines to be named occupying the spare room, Dave and I decided that Lux and her tired parents should have our room, and that Dave should sleep on his study floor, and I should sleep on mine. Yesterday we had an email conversation from our respective studies at half past five in the morning. It was fun. (We may be provincial but we know how to party.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Five minutes peace

A member of my family who declines to be named: I am going outside for a fag and when I come in again I’d like you to tell me something interesting.

Me, (hastily assembling a cheese flan and leek and potato soup for the expected guests): I am like Maris in Frasier.

A member of my family who declines to be named: What?

Me: You know that bit…

Frasier: By the way, where's Maris? I haven't seen her all night.
Niles: She's on your bed.
Frasier: My bed?
Niles: Yes, she's asleep under the guests' coats. She exhausts easily under the pressure to be interesting.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Writer’s Voice

In between playing my beautiful, newly acquired tenor sax – sooooh mellow – and clearing space for mattresses and babies, and rushing around shopping and cooking, I am reading a Joanna Trollope novel – Second Honeymoon. She writes good quality commercial fiction – accessible prose, interesting dilemmas for her characters, page-turning. It is the kind of book I look forward to picking up again because I want to know what happens. I need something easy to read at the moment, and this is just what the doctor ordered.


I have remembered that Joanna T has a strong voice, and every so often it is a voice that gets on my nerves. This is a personal thing and should not be read as a criticism of her writing. Who am I to criticise JT?

No, but I am reading happily and then I will stumble over a sentence. The construction of it is uncomfortable, and I will then rewrite it in my head – in MY voice. It is usually a sentence of dialogue, and it is the position of the bit outside the quotes which bugs me.


‘But,’ Rosa said, gesturing wildly. ‘I’m not going to stop you! I’m not going to get in the way of your - rediscovering each other. If that’s what you want-’

JT so often has one word and then a bit outside of the quotes and then  returns to the quotes, and I so often find it objectionable. I would arrange it thus -

‘But I’m not going to stop you!’ Rosa said, gesturing wildly. ‘I’m not going to get in the way of your - rediscovering each other. If that’s what you want-’

JT does the same kind of thing where dialogue is not involved and i also don’t like it. I hate the construction of this sentence - it gives a very particular JT flavour which annoys me, but I would have to think hard to tease out exactly why:

Thinking this was not, Matthew found, at all comfortable.

If you are a writer, you will understand why the exact construction of paragraphs and sentences can feel so important. If you’re not a writer, you may think this is nit picking. And just in case you’re wondering, I look forward to reading JT again tonight.


Monday, November 08, 2010

I’m sorry

I’m sorry not to be blogging at the moment, but last Wednesday, Dave and I went to Nottingham and brought home a new saxophone. It’s a tenor, and the sound is sooooooh mellow, I want to play it all the time. And I mean, all the time. I don’t want to blog, I don’t want to write, I don’t want to clean the house (so what’s new, there?)

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Ah, but I need to clean the house because my American family is coming over to stay. Do you want to see the latest photo of Lux?


98 days

Friday, November 05, 2010

When you have nothing to say
just drive
for a day all around the peninsula ...
Seamus Heaney

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Wednesday, November 03, 2010


Friend: You haven’t talked much about Zen lately. Are you still reading your books about it?

Sue: Not since I stayed at the San Francisco Zen Center. It rather put me off. But I still like the ideas – acceptance, going with the flow, being immersed in the moment.

Friend: It’s so odd that you should be attracted to it. You’re the least Zen person I know.

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But I think of learning to walk on my slackline as a kind of meditation, or maybe it’s my practice.

(One day I will get to grips with Zen. If someone reading this can explain “practice” to me, I would be very pleased.)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Less is more

I just don’t like long books, no matter how much I like the writing. That’s another reason I gave up on Alone in Berlin. I have given up reading Franzen’s Corrections three times, though I enjoyed what I read, and it is on my list of things to attempt again.

When I read Star of the Sea on my California trip, I got to the stage of thinking – “Oh come on, get on with it, you don’t need to go on and on!” I broke off and read Cannery Row as an interlude and then went back to finish the O’Connor book.

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I cleared out some stuff from the attic last week, and brought down a draft of Plotting for Beginners to give to my grandchildren for drawing on the back. (The Bodleian said this was OK.) This was the draft from which Jane cut 15,000 words in one morning, so Fallada and O’Connor and Franzen are not the only ones who can get carried away and spill out words like water from a tap. It was after Jane did her drastic cut, that we found a publisher.

I like simple, pellucid prose, pithy and concise.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Given up

I have given up reading Alone in Berlin. I’ve read half of it – that is 300 pages of attention - and that is enough for me. Yes, it was undoubtedly a “good book.” But after a difficult day, my soul requires some softness, some laughter, some warmth.I need encouragement, not bleakness and violence. I am a wuss. So bite me, blondie. (Oooh, I do like that expression.)