Friday, October 31, 2008

A Bientot!

The French have gone and the silence is deafening; Maman, Daddy, fourteen year old boy G, ten year old boy D ( the one who expects my demise any time soon but seems quite content I’m still here) and five year old E, a little girl with soft curly hair most of the way down her back. Now they are back in France – the boys preparing for a chess tournament.

This time they spoke to me in English voluntarily and I was impressed. I asked them what they liked about England and the parents joined in:-

1 Marmite
2 Cornish pasties.
3 Sausages and bacon.
4 Jacket potatoes
5 Pub meals.
6 Better value clothes.
7 Animal documentaries.
8 Shops where the boys can play video games whilst the parents do boring shopping.

The things they didn’t like:-

1 Young girls looking ‘tatty’.
2 The closing of public conveniences.
3 The profusion of unnecessary traffic cones.
4 The weather – gales, torrential rain and hail stones interspersed with some sunshine in the space of an afternoon.
5 Traffic – they had a nightmarish journey returning on the M4.

We had an early celebration for MTL’s birthday at a Chinese restaurant of which they are fond and of which there is a shortage where they live. We had a charming server but couldn’t decide his/ her gender and then the teenager pronounced her a girl because ‘Granny Pat called her dear.’
One night – at their request - we had a meal of sausages, bacon, Cornish pasties and baked potatoes – by no means our normal fare although we did throw in vegetables. I have to admit it was very tasty and I didn’t realise how delectable pasties can be. Fortunately we have stores of dark chocolate because they like to eat it with bread or a plain biscuit – a sort of pain au chocolat I suppose.

I shall miss the little girl sneaking up behind me when I am at the computer and giving me a loving kiss. It will soon be her birthday ant they bought a gold princess dress with tiara for her party. As soon as they got back here from Taunton she pointed out that the black security thingy was still attached. It was impossible to remove without tearing the dress and the local shop didn’t have the correct equipment so there was another trip to Taunton. At least the shop re-imbursed the petrol but it’s worth looking out for that happening.

My DIL is very helpful and stripped all the beds for me so I can’t ignore them till the next visitors and we are festooned with sheets and towels. At least there is sunshine today so I had better get on with it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008



It’s the same old story: beautiful girl – no better than she should be with a brother as a pimp, falls in love with a penniless student and - motivated by greed, becomes a rich man’s mistress. We know it will all end in tears and it does. The student is persuaded to cheat at cards, is denounced by the rich man who shoots the brother and discards Manon. As an illegal prostitute she is deported to New Orleans, is raped by the Gaoler and, overcome by the heat, anxiety and the journey, dies in a Louisianan swamp in the arms of her lover.

I had always imagined Manon as an experienced courtesan so was flummoxed when she first appeared as a pure, innocent young girl. Still - within a trice she was in bed with the student and before you could say sugar daddy she was seduced by a fur coat and jewels and had swanned off with the rich man.

In act 2 there is a very funny pas de deux with the brother Lescaut who is drunk as a skunk, and then poor Manon suffered a costume malfunction. Her dress of many layered gauzy skirts dropped one, which trailed interminably round her exquisite feet. It was so moving to see her handed from one powdered, bewigged male to another, with such gentleness and care, to protect her from tripping over the dread trailing skirt - I didn’t breathe until she slipped into the wings and returned almost instantly minus the offending layer. One imagines heads will roll in the costume department.

The ballet is by the late Kenneth Macmillan and the haunting music by Massenet. It was a very large orchestra – seats had been taken from the auditorium to make space and they were superb.

The sets were simple but effective; in the second act there was a fug effect suggesting cigar and cigarette smoke so real you could almost smell it. It seemed to be done with lighting. The swamp mist in the third made me wonder if dry ice had been used. Whatever – it worked. The English National Ballet is a bit of a misnomer as only one member of the cast had an English name but then the great Alicia Markova was really Lillian Alicia Marks and the divine Margot Fonteyn was Peggy Hookham.

The ballet was at the Bristol Hippodrome and we found a coffee place close by, to tackle the cross word until it was time for lunch in an Italian restaurant near the theatre. We didn’t want long trails in the uncertain weather. The restaurant was full of children (half term?) and students and we couldn’t believe the amount of times some of them went up for seconds – which they were allowed - MTL noticed with awe that one boy took hi plate up seven times. It was a most popular place.

The amazing photographs are uncredited – I couldn’t find any names.

Programme designers please note small print on red paper is virtually unreadable

Monday, October 27, 2008



Dancers and costume sketches from the English National Ballet's production which we saw in Bristol. As you can imaagine I'm up to my eyes with our French family visitors so will write about this later in the week.
Happy Monday!

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Costume sketches
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Saturday, October 25, 2008

That was then…
I was chatting to a young friend about the American elections and he recalled visiting his uncle in Washington in 1986. He had time to spare whilst his uncle was at work and he walked in a park and sat at a large bench. He lit a cigarette and realised that he was being watched by the other occupant of the bench – a black man. Mike (not his real name) offered him a cigarette and the man said,

‘We don’t do that here.’

Mike asked why not and the black man said,

‘Because you’re white and I’m black.’

Mike said he was English and offered him a cigarette again, and this time the man accepted.

They chatted and the man told him he had fought in the Vietnam War and when he returned he couldn’t get a job and ended up joining a gang. He showed Mark a hideous scar on his leg from an axe wound he got in gang warfare. He said he was waiting for the soup kitchen to open which did a mean peanut and jelly sandwich and offered to take Mike along but it was time for him to meet his uncle. The whole experience obviously made a deep impression on him. I was surprised that this would have happened as late as 1986.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Quoth who?


‘If cats could talk they wouldn’t.’ Nan Porter.

‘Biologically speaking, if something bites you, it’s more likely to be female.’ Desmond Morris.

‘Sex hasn’t been the same since women started enjoying it.’ Lewis Grizzard.

‘What and awful thing life is. It’s like soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface. You have to eat it nevertheless.’ Gustave Flaubert.

‘I hate women because they always know where thing are.’ James Thurber.

‘You know that look women get when they want sex? Me neither’ Steve Martin.

Some Quotes from Stephen Fry’s new book ‘Advanced Banter.

Stephen Fry
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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Last of the summer wine?


The forecast was good on Saturday, so thinking it could be the last day of our Indian summer we decided to drive to Bicknoller. Rain came from nowhere but by the time we got there the sun was out and the Quantocks were in their autumnal russet glory. We were going to have lunch at the village pub and as usual got lost in the narrow lanes. Once there we walked through a bar, past an inviting looking room with a fire then into another bar which was milling with people, who seemed to be looking at us askance.

MTL ordered me a glass of medium dry white wine and we were amazed when the bar tender gave him a bottle and said there were glasses on the tables.

Realising there was something amiss I asked if we could have lunch in the room with the fire. The barman looked thunderstruck and said this was a private party and they weren’t serving lunches. I forbore to suggest that perhaps they should have a notice on the door instead of the one saying lunches were being served and indicated to MTL that we should scarper without further ado as we still had to find somewhere for lunch.

Both Crowcombe and Stogumber were within reach so MTL chose Stogumber. We were warmly welcomed at The White Horse and in spite of the flower- circled back terrace chose to eat indoors as the weather was erratic. I remembered playing skittles there when I used to belong to the TWG and being very shocked when a member of the committee cheated by putting her foot well over the line. Our lunch was good – especially ‘Pam’s plum crumble’ served by ? Pam in a very pretty blue and white blouse which she had bought from Sainsburys, and which didn’t need ironing.

On the way back I tried to find the store which sells small wooden off cuts which our gardener wants us to buy and varnish for plant markers, but my directions were too vague. We called at the nursery to get pansies and stocks for the pots which reminds me – as soon as the rain stops I must plant them. And I ought to do the lawn before Thursday when the gardener comes and when we shall be in Bristol at the ballet.

Has anyone any experience of Cloudmark? It’s an anti spam thing and I seem to have downloaded it thinking it was a freebie when it is on a 15 day trial. After which – if I keep it I pay - but I don’t know how much yet. Or if it is worth while when I already have Norton?

No room at the inn!

I thought lunch here would be nice. Silly me!

The Quantock's autumnal glory.

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There is also a very pretty sitting area behind the pub

Lunch inside.
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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Think on!


Thanks to Gyles Brandreth for pointing out the following message from the Armenian/ Americam writer Willian Saroyan, who wrote during the Great Depression:-

‘Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.’

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Chit chat

Did you read about Fatboy – the moorland pony who gorged himself on rotten apples which were fermenting, got a bit squiffy and fell in a neighbour’s swimming pool? The pool owner awoke to a resounding splash, went to investigate and thought the Beast of Bodmin was in her pool. It took the Fire Brigade two hours to rescue Fatboy with the help of harnesses and straw steps. It seems drunkenness and obesity abounds in the UK but at least his fat helped to protect Fatboy from suffering from exposure. It reminded me of when we had a cottage by the canal in Yorkshire and a small blonde boy with glasses used to ride a white horse - we dubbed him ‘The Milky Bar kid’. We were astounded to hear both boy and horse had fallen in the canal but maybe it was those dratted apples again. Happily they were rescued without ill effect.

I haven’t done any work on my book for weeks but Araind Adiga says discipline is the thing and writes each day from 5am to 7am because that it is the only time it is quiet in New Delhi where he lives. He knows what he’s talking about as his book ‘The White Tiger’ has just won the Man Booker Prize – so it’s nose to the grind-stone for me.

It seems so quiet now having just had two days of tree loppers and hedge cutters. We can see the church tower again and are looking pretty immaculate. A neighbour remarked she was sad to see the profuse hanging fuchsia gone, which was completely blocking one entrance, but we know very well that it will be back again all too soon, it’s that kind of garden.

We had our flu jabs yesterday so if you fit the category don’t forget - it does seem to work. We have our French family coming over in a week’s time so I must try to get the inside of the house to match the outside. I’m going to be busy

P.S. It is early but I find I have just mistakenly published this on Story teller’s Blog. I think I have deleted it and will now try again.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Having a Nervous Breakdown.


That’s what we called it when I, aged 10 couldn’t stop crying. F Scott Fitzgerald called it ‘The Crack up’ and wrote in 1936:

‘Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work –the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside- the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within –that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick –the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but it is realized suddenly indeed.” you can read the whole piece here.

Last Sunday Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor called it both cracking up and a nervous breakdown in a television programme where he gave a frank and honest account of his experience. Eight years before he worked for Blair he crashed after habitual heavy drinking. He found the crash terrifying and was convinced he was going to die. He also suffers from bouts of depression and thinks it is important to say openly he suffers a mental illness. The shame and stigma made life for him a waking hell but he gained strength from hearing about other’s experiences and he hopes his story may shed light on the problem.

Being in Fleet St there was a culture of heavy drinking – it wasn’t recognised as a problem and pubs were all around. Two of his friends didn’t realise there was a problem but admitted he was obsessive and would smoke over three packets of cigarettes a day. His partner Fiona agrees he is obsessive, and gets bored very easily which contributes to mental instability.

Alastair sees the breakdown as a positive experience but realises it was horrible to live with and wouldn’t have blamed Fiona for walking away. He changed his job which was a mistake and increased his drinking to relieve stress and tension. On a trip to Moscow he was very hyper and was drinking vodka for breakfast. The pressure made him drink more which made him work harder. He became irrational, refused to accept criticism and said it was like the Cresta run – down hill all the way. He would fly off the handle and go berserk. He was picking fights to escape criticism.

He flew to Scotland to do a profile on Neil Kinnock and began to lose control and behave abnormally. Patricia Hewitt remembered he was like a mad dog; she found him very hyper with his mind not stopping and getting masses of ideas. Pat had a sister who had had a series of breakdowns, became an alcoholic and died in 1990. She recognised some of the signs in Alastair. When Alastair was driving in a car he would notice signs which seemed to give him messages ‘ Head quarters’ ‘Private car park’ He felt his head would burst and just wanted to speak to a loved one. He couldn’t reach any of them by phone which increased his feeling of isolation.

His mind felt like a plate of glass and trying to get it on an even keel only made it worse and it shattered. A dinner for Kinnock was going on, pipes were playing and he felt everyone was looking at him oddly. He thought he was being tested to survive without any support. He could hear voices in his head and thought he was going to die.

He had feelings of persecution and paranoia and could hear every fragment of conversation which was telling him to get rid of his worldly goods – money and passport. Two men approached him – one of whom was a police officer. They asked him why he was here and he didn’t know. It was a mystery to him how his mind and memory worked- he heard he was banged up and in a fight.

He was put in a police cell and Fiona was told later he was close to having been taken to Barlinnie- the infamous prison. He revisits the cell and remembers the noise and music he heard and the fear and panic as he tried to think rationally. He had been asked if he wanted a drink and asked for their finest champagne. When he was asked if he was alright he saw it as a political question.

Patricia Hewitt vouched for him, Fiona was phoned and realising there was something terribly wrong went with her father to Scotland. The word on the street was he’d gone bonkers in Scotland. Friends were allowed to take him as long as he was hospitalised. He had never had private health insurance as he didn’t believe in it and when he saw the BUPA signs tried to leave but was persuaded they were just advertisements.

He remembered it was room 115 and when he revisited it a nurse remembered him. They had given him something to calm him and he was worried by the red and blue buttons near his bed; red was good but blue was bad. – more right and left - politics. When he saw Fiona and her father he burst into tears. He was close to his parents but they ‘had stuff going on’ and he didn’t want to bother them.

Asked by a doctor how bad was his drinking he said about 16 pints a day and a bottle of scotch which in his environment didn’t seem excessive. He then realised that drink had played a part and that he had a drink problem and he would stop drinking for 6 months. Alastair was looking for a solution so blamed the problem all on drink. After the episode he was very subdued and fell into a deep depression. He couldn’t face returning to London so went to stay with friends in Cheltenham.

He found the depression less frightening than the breakdown. In an act of friendship he was offered his old job back but at the lowest level which increased his depression. Even his nearest and dearest couldn’t understand his depression and it just maddened him trying to explain. They went to France for a holiday but he found the depression just goes with you; he said it’s like being dead and alive at the same time and takes a toll on your loved ones. He resisted getting help and wouldn’t admit he was mentally ill

He found the maxim ’one day at a time ‘ helpful and visualised it as the cricketer Geoff Boycott hitting the ball ’Thwack’ one day over, ‘Thwack’ another day over. A doctor told him he was like a pressure cooker where the steam had not been allowed to come out- there was no safety valve and he had used drinking as a safety valve. He had never been happy about taking drugs but sometimes took anti- depressants and they ‘did the trick.’

He spoke to journalist Sally Brampton who found she was waking up each morning at 3.20 precisely. When her doctor prescribed anti- depressants she was outraged – she didn’t do depression, but the pills didn’t work as she had resistant depression and sadly she was still suffering. Alastair said re alcohol he had the occasional drink but had never got drunk since the breakdown. He was told by a psychiatrist that he was surprisingly guarded and difficult to fathom.

Alastair re-assessed his way of life – accepted his obsessive ness and learned to live with it. Since he and Fiona had children he has known real happiness. He feels he has been through hell and back.

When he went to work for Tony Blair he told him all and Blair said if Alastair wasn’t worried he wasn’t.

‘What if I’m worried?’ Alastair asked

‘I’m still not worried.’ was the answer.

Pat Hewitt thought he had found ways of coping – without drinking and with all the physical exercise he does. She had found that nothing could be as painful as dealing with the death of her sister but the experience had made her stronger.

A psychiatrist said he wanted to be loved and sought perfection and that perfection was kinked to depression

Fiona worried when he was faced with the stress of the Iraq war and the tragic death of David Kelly – it was a horrible period but his family who adore him, got him through it. He still gets depression but knows that it will end and his hope is that other sufferers will gain comfort from his story.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

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Keeping fast company.


When we first moved to Somerset in 1985 Ian Botham was just resigning from the Somerset cricket team. He was a test team cricketer and had been a Test team captain. He holds the Test record of the highest number of wickets but was always controversial. Once he was hit in the mouth with the ball but just spat out some teeth and carried on. He had a period when his behaviour was not good and the tabloids had a field day.

Whilst a cricketer at Taunton he broke a bone in his foot and visiting Musgrove hospital he happened upon some sick children and learnt they had leukaemia and were not expected to live. He and his wife Kathy gave a party for these children and were devastated at their next party to find none of them had survived. They started to raise money to make the children’s last days as happy as possible and later decided to raise money to try to find a cure – hence Leukaemia Research and Ian started walking, his first: 900 miles from Land’s End to John ‘o Groats. He has been walking ever since and has raised more than 12 million pounds. In the eighties there was a 20% chance of surviving now there is an 86% chance and Sir Ian {the Queen knighted him for his sustained work for charity) has declared that he will keep walking until a cure is found.

Friday dawned bright and sunny. We were given t -shirts and told to be at Taunton cricket club at 11am to register and then the walk would start at 12 noon. We were there by 10am as we feared parking would be difficult so were the first to arrive. We were offered a banana, a healthy nutty crunch bar and a bottle of water. I asked a nice looking woman what was the estimated time of our return, after the walk.

‘Well, Ian does it in an hour.’ she said cheerfully. Actually she was Lady Katherine – Ian’s charming wife.

We sat in the sun for a while but it was quite chilly so we warmed up in the car with a crossword.

Ian from early morning was doing interviews with press, TV and radio;, visiting Musgrove Hospital and Marks and Spencer’s - the donors of our goodies ( hence the perfect bananas)so we eventually left at1pm. He strode in the field, with his retinue and without breaking step whirled off on the walk.

Typically I was up a flight of stairs in order to get a shot of him so had to run (I never run) to catch up with the stream of walkers.

The pace was unbelievable and I realised if I wanted to keep up I should concentrate

like mad not look round, not speak and not stop. So my camera, my goodies and my phone remained untouched in my rucksack throughout. The reason I was frantic to keep up was the directions were so complicated I knew I would get lost on my own.

We hurried alongside a river through pleasant countryside unfamiliar to me. A man with two black spaniels overtook me and his fleece said he had 2 new knees. Even when he stopped to pick up his dog poo, he still overtook me. I did wonder if his knees were motorised. There was one brave man with a hefty toddler on his back and still there at the end of the walk. Two ladies in front of me had a dear little puppy with such short legs they carried it most of the way. At last we were half way and now walked beside a canal where people would wave and say ‘Well done!’

I caught up with a great- grand mother and we – ever so slightly slowed the pace so we could talk. Her son had been diagnosed with leukaemia in his fifties but was surviving with the help of white blood cells from his sister. We started to relax and enjoy the walk especially when we were told we were almost there. In fact we did 4 miles in an hour an ten minutes. That’s an hour and ten minutes. We weren’t the last – not that that mattered a damn, and the icing on the cake was when Sir Ian Botham’s mother hung a medal round our necks.

It’s now Sunday and I can just about move normally again. I’m so glad I did it but that’s the end of the fast lane for me.

The best part - Mrs Botham senior with my medal.
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Taunton cricket ground

Taunton cricket ground

Some of my fellow walkers

Sir Ian in dark glasses - now I have to run to catch up.
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Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Rock Georgeham

The conservatory at the Rock - sans grapes

My favourite chairs.
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Fremington Part 2


The next day – against his better judgement I persuaded MTL to drive us down the farm track. It was full of pot holes and instead of going straight to the river Taw, snaked round curves and bends with the road surface deteriorating by the yard. It was a very bumpy ride and not having a 4 x 4 MTL was worried about his oil sump. There was no way to turn round so we had to continue – at a snail’s pace - until at last there was space by a gate, so I left himself to try to turn round and I walked, following the track – determined to see where it led to.

How deceptive that view from the bedroom window had been. At last the track ended on a deserted beach; everything was shrouded in sea mist and I could just make out a ghostly looking ship aground on the shore; no sign of the Quay in that visibility. Back I went to the car and admitted MTL had been right all along. We went inland for lunch but as soon as we got back to the cottage I walked down through the fields – right to the Quay this time. Of course there were cars and a car park and I discovered that out on the main road from the cottage, the next turning right was a narrow drive to the quay and café. I walked back up it just to make sure. The café looked great and was immensely popular. Fortunately I discovered it was closed on Monday so we planned to have lunch there on Tuesday.

It was well worth all the palaver and we had delicious sea bass caught by their own fisherman. I wish I could remember the name of the wine – it was special to them and all I can think of is Bacchus. The café is on the Tarka Trail, about 2 miles from Barnstaple and 4 from Instow and after pottering about the Quay I decided to do as much of that part of the trail as possible during the week.

There was lots of useful information in the cottage and one inn they highly recommended was the Rock at Georgeham. Henry Williamson, who wrote ‘Tarka the Otter’ started his writing life there when he bought a cottage to heal himself after WW1. He named it Skirr Cottage after the noise the barn owls made in a space under the thatch.

We drove up to Croyde and then on to Georgeham where the Rock Inn lived up to its reputation – in fact MTL deemed it a gastro pub. I’m a bit like the princess- who- could- feel- the- pea –through- mattresses, about seats. I damaged my coccyx in the fifties when an over eager photographer balanced the chair I was sitting on, on the edge of a table with predictable results I particularly abhor those foreshortened pews you sometimes get in pubs, which I find excruciating. The chairs in the conservatory at the Rock deserve a mention: they have a Mackintosh look and are bliss to sit on.

I wondered if the vines in the conservatory were real and MTL said no there were no grapes. However the waiter told us the grapes had been picked the night before and they were going to make their own wine.

One day we drove to Instow for lunch at the Boathouse. I had always wanted to try it but whilst we stayed at the hotel there wasn’t the opportunity. After a good lunch we parted company; MTL to drive back to the cottage and I to walk the four miles back to the Quay and then up and up to the cottage. We ate out at a different place every day and didn’t have one duff one – and there are still more to try out should we go there again.

On the last day we went to The Cedar’s Hotel and our waiter was a dead ringer for Rob Brydon – so every little thing he said seemed enormously witty.

I almost got as far as the bridge in Barnstaple but the weather was lowering and it was a very lonely part so I called it a day. There was a bit of excitement though; I came to a bridge with steps going up to a track, thought it looked familiar and walked until I came to the cottage – it was the dreaded pot-holed track and I had cut out the Quay and the long haul up through the fields. Yay!

Just past the ship was where I emerged f rom the farm track to see the Marie Celeste:)

What is it about creeks - I just love 'em.

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Sometimes there were as many as 4 helicopters - both civil and army, which seemed to be chaperoning me.

The famous cafe.

Spot the birdie?

Lug worms?
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The Boat House - see the Vespa?


A tunnel on the trail

Pretty bridge
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