Rounding Off

Well now, hasn’t that been a year to make you stop and think. The Teen and I have been through some upheavals: family health, new job for me, new house in a city for both of us, the loss of our much-mourned family pet, entering final year of A Levels for her. We are both now taking some serious breathing space (although the mountain of coursework in her room suggests my break may be more relaxing than hers) before 2016 lands.

This year, Christmas is being hosted by me as we finally live in a house big enough to fit us, my parents, my sister, brother in law and the two small things. We have a dining room! This is the first time in my adult life I’ve had one of these, and it’s a constant battle to stop it becoming a dumping ground. *clears post and papers on a daily basis*

Looking back through my reading diary, I can pinpoint exactly when I started catching the train: the number of books I get through a month suddenly shoots up as I find myself with at least an hour and a half each day with time on my hands and the reality of train travel in England to escape.

So this, patient readers of this long abandoned blog, is my list of Things Wot I Have Read in 2015.

January: Lucia in London, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, London Train, The Bleeding Heart, Waterlog, The Bucket, a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, Field Notes from a Hidden City.

February: Badgerlands, Wind in the Willows, My Family & Other Disasters, Grimm Tales for Young and Old, An Accidental Jubilee, Have His Carcass, Blessings in Disguise, This I Know: Notes on Unravelling the Heart.

March: H is for Hawk, Britain AD, Ordeal by Innocence, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Death Must Advertise, The Morville Hours, Gingerbread, Mrs. Hemingway.

April: Home Fires, The Taste of Apple Seeds, Clothes Music Boys, The Crow Road, How to be Alone, Lady Susan, Turn of the Screw, The First Wives Club, Bad Blood.

May: Hope and Glory, The Gravity of Birds, Murder on the Links, The Thing Around Your Neck, Murder in the Mews, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Town in Bloom, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, Somewhere Towards the End, Elizabeth is Missing, The Secret History.

June: A Slip of the Keyboard, Howards End is on the Landing, Are We Nearly There Yet, The Tiger in the Smoke, In Pursuit of Love, Anything Goes, Love in a Cold Climate, The Best Man to Die, Don’t Tell Alfred, Unkindness of Ravens, Like Water for Chocolate, The Veiled One, McCarthy’s Bar, The Last Cigarette.

July: In the Blue House, Diary of a Nobody, The Invisible Woman, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Perfect, A Steep Approach to Garbadale, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Moving Finger, The Ghost Road, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey, The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, Taken at the Flood, The Years, The Shock of the Fall, The Monogram Murders, Trouble for Lucia, A Murder of Quality.

August: Death Comes to Pemberley, Toast, Ladder of Years, The Second Life of Sally Mottram, The Castle of Adventure, Tales from the City, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, Yes Please, Do No Harm, Unfinished Business, Waiting for Jeffrey, Instructions for a Heatwave, The Thoughts & Happenings of Wilfrid Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals, The Reluctant Bride.

September: Stoner, Notes from an Exhibition, The Man Who Rained, Etta & Otto & Russell & James, A Glass of Blessings, Complete Sherlock Holmes short stories, And When Did You Last See Your Father, What a Carve Up, Appointment with Death, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, A Pause Between Acts, Pale Horse Pale Rider, The Oxford Murders, Thou Shell of Death.

October: Prodigal Summer, Some Tame Gazelle, Heartbreak, The Voyage Out, To Love & Be Wise, Excellent Women, After Me Comes the Flood, A Shilling for Candles, The Singing Sands, It Could Happen to You, F Scott Fitzgerald Selected Short Stories, All the Pretty Horses.

November: The Rector’s Daughter, Quartet in Autumn, Unnatural Death, Gaudy Night, Forgotten Paths, Mystery in White, Wuthering Heights, Angels and Insects, James Lees-Milne diaries 1942-54.

December: The Miniaturist, The Bloody Chamber, Marianne, The Thirteenth Tale, Flight Behaviour, Station Eleven, Civil to Strangers, The Lovers of Pound Hill.

In all, a total of 134, or 2 and a half a week; June, July, August and September saw the papery floodgates open and I could feel myself absorbing words like water on a hot day. Am also pleased to note that my taste for genteel crime novels, preferably set in the 1930 or thereabouts, continues unabated (they are the best to read in the bath). This is also the year I discovered and inhaled any Barbara Pym I could lay my hands on – she is unparalleled in skewering, with pin point accuracy, the painful truths that underpin our lives in the briefest of sentences, whilst doing so with humour and compassion. All those in italics are the ones that I would gladly pick up to reread again and again.

And then there are these. Books so breathtakingly excellent that I loved them to the point of sitting there for long minutes after I’d read the last word, unable to let the book go, but was also seized with a blinding envy that I can’t/don’t write as well as the authors do. Elizabeth is Missing (yes, the hype was worth it), Stoner, After Me Comes the Flood, Ella & Otto & Russell & James, Station Eleven. More than once I found myself deep breathing on a train, trying desperately not to cry (and failing in the case of Stoner which broke my heart), and trying to remind myself that these were all fictional characters.

As if their being fictional should matter. A truly great writer will transcend that barrier between paper and person, and help the reader access a depth of emotion they never previously thought to acknowledge.

Over Christmas I have Lila, The Haunting of Hill House, Middlemarch (for some reason, I have borrowed 2 copies from the library) and A Spool of Blue Thread to read. Happy days.

I wish you all a book-filled, loving Christmas. May your stocking be full of paperbacks of the bestest kind.

Posted in From the bookshelves | Tagged , | Leave a comment

An Entirely Unscientific Life Theory in which I Leave the Door Slightly Ajar

For a long time, I’ve held the entirely unscientifically tested theory that every three to four years something comes along and shakes me from my foundations. Some of these things are naturally occurring disasters … and delights. Birth, death, illness, wellness. That sort of thing.

And some of them are self-inflicted, for better or worse. Marriage, divorce, job changes etc. You know, those *simple* things.

Well, not for nothing did my word for the year turn out to be ‘new’. It would seem that I am due another self-inflicted occurrence for I am in the process of a new Big Something.

After 10 years working where I currently do, I’m off to a Big City for a bigger role and a bigger future than I thought possible twelve months ago.

It’s scary and exhilarating. Terrifying and terrific. At the end of May I will wave goodbye to a team I have known for many years. This place has been where I’ve grown, adapted, survived. Even thrived. And we’ve weathered all the life changes above together. They have been the best team; and, as always with the people you love, I shall miss them terribly.

But. I am so ready for this change.

I think I am ready to let this blog go now too. It may reappear in another incarnation several months down the line when things have settled and I’ve made the transition to city life. Maybe by then I’ll have learned to be more comfortable in heels than wellies, to carry a little (or large) handbag balanced in the crook of one arm whilst sipping on an espresso, to resemble a graceful person rather than an over-enthusiastic puppy.

Somehow I doubt it. And somehow I doubt it will matter.

Posted in Small Adventures Outside the Comfort Zone | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Things I Haven’t Seen but Have Done

Back in the beginning of March, the Teen and I started a bit of an experiment: could we survive two weeks without television without switching on iPlayer every night, bickering or resorting to poking each other with sticks for entertainment? Would we remain vaguely human-like in form and brain, or would we regress into Neolithic grunters, staring into puddles* and banging rocks together?  So, once we were back from my parent’s house, I packed the tv away and waiting for the sky to fall in.

6 weeks later, I’m still waiting.

The space where it used to be has been filled with plants and the cupboard where it is stored now has gradually filled to obscure it. We sit most evenings with the radio on (god bless BBC6 Music and Radio 4), reading, crocheting (me only), revising (Teen only), chatting, doing coursework (both of us) and occasionally switching on iPlayer to watch something (hello Inside No 9 and Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the South) that we really really want to see.

I’ve taken up needle-felting again, with the intention of creating another Brian. But hopefully without the Brian moniker**. Have drawn silly little sketches that will never see the light of day. Attempted the writing I kept promising myself I’ll do. Actually taught myself to be comfortable without a constant dribble of hypnotically coloured hyperbole being streamed into my home. Finally managed to read the entire Saturday edition of the Guardian from cover to endless supplementary cover (except for the sport bit – there are limits) in a day. We’ve adapted surprisingly quickly to not having it there.

What has been odd is the reaction of other people to our decision. These have varied from shock to dismay, incomprehension to outright irritation. Someone called me ‘tight’, assuming I’d done it to avoid the license fee (not true, still paying it in fact). Others have stared and said “but what do you do?”, rather like a royal must quiz one of the common people, as though the human race has evolved purely due to a daily input of soaps, quiz shows and detective series reruns. And some just think I’ve gone mad and the Teen must be suffering greatly under my reign of terror. I’ve been forced into defending a decision that has absolutely nothing to do with how social, free with my money or busy I may or may not be. I thought I might miss it on the weekends the Teen isn’t with me, especially on weekends I wasn’t occupied with friends and plans, but it didn’t turn out that way. One particularly black, weather-battered on-my-own-Sunday, after a grocery run, I came home and thought for a moment before getting back into my pyjamas, getting under a blanket and reading for a straight 8 hours, pausing only to make tea, get food or move myself so bedsores didn’t become an issue.

A great stretch of time with nothing but amazing stories for company is a rare treat.

Yes, there are things I’ve missed. Napping on Sunday afternoons in front of a Miss Marple. Aidan Thingie taking his shirt off in Poldark and rippling his chest like a mermaids tail. Possibly never knowing if Penny and Leonard finally make it down the Big Bang aisle. Coming home from a bad day and just letting the screen soothe me into a catatonic state. However, finding other things to soothe the day or set me daydreaming hasn’t been a problem. Sorry Aidan Thingie but you were always too hairy for my liking anyway. The telly is staying in it’s cupboard.

Added bonus: I’m missing most of the pre-election nonsense that every channel seems to want to force feed the general population. And my soul is definitely infinitely better for that.

Photos taken during an Easter Sunday walk up to an Iron Age hill fort with the Teen (the last time I was here, it was over 2 years ago, misty, with bare branches looming out of the gloom and Dog to keep me company). It was glorious, with a second breakfast of sausages when we reached the top.  2 days later, that pleasing achey pull in my leg muscles reminds me of it every time I move.
* mind you, there is a lot to be said for staring into puddles
** the Teen has christened her Agnes. Sigh. Had been hoping for a more Thor-the-puny-human-slayer type of name, but no. Brian and Agnes it is then.
Posted in This Place Now | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

That There London 

It seems bizarre to describe a trip to London as ‘relaxing’ and whenever I have this week, people have looked at me as though I’ve gone off my tiny little rocker but seriously, that was THE most REEELAXING weekend I have had since Christmas.

Apart from having to get to the station on time and then locate my friend at the other (Paddington) end, there was pretty much nothing else I needed to take responsibility for. Food, tube times, which direction to walk in, which pub to visit, whether the bed was made, the wine was in and the entertainment suitable for two middle-aged souls (a marathon viewing of Spaced, so yes it was): it was all down to him.

And he did the job splendidly. As I knew he would from the very first time I visited him in London and he pulled me out of the way of a speeding car. Now that’s a damn fine tour guide. The only specification I made was that we visit the Grant Museum (see previous post) and that was only so that I could see the Glass Jar of Moles. And I did! See, see them up there with their little snouty noses and shovelly paws. Oh Glass Jar of Moles, I wish I had one too.

In fact, the more we looked around the Grant, the more I realised this was probably my new favourite museum. It’s exactly everything I want from a museum, full of specimen jars and weird things that I’ve never see before. Cow fur ball, anyone? Or maybe a fish doing a cracking visual impersonation of Elvis?

The Grant Museum was established by Robert Grant in 1827 as a teaching museum for the University College London. A highly intelligent and inquisitive thinker, his work influenced a young Charles Darwin. I think I’d have liked to have met him.

There were labels handwritten in tiny, crabbed script, skeletons of wonderful beasts, slides of microscopic creatures, and the occasional sight that was the stuff of nightmares. Big spiders, I’m looking at you. Or rather, I’m turning the corner, spotting you, saying ‘oh shit’ quite loudly and then walking quickly away from that area. This prompted a conversation about warning signs in museums: if we’re now expected to warn people about human remains, should we be warning people about giant nightmare spiders? I don’t think there should be any warning signs at all, despite my arachnophobia.

Occasionally I toy with the idea of getting rid of my possessions (the Russian dolls, the snow globes, the Day of the Dead bunting) and living a paired down life, but the Grant reminded me of why I can’t. I like a plethora of little intriguing things that make me and the people who visit me, smile and get in closer for a better look. I like to be fascinated by a museum and my house is an extension of that.

After the Grant, we made an unplanned trip to the Petrie Museum (seriously, university museums are the best) for a crash submersion in the early days of Egyptian excavations, stopping on the way to admire the street jazz band, especially the young lad playing a tuba that was practically the size of him. An unexpected and joyous thing to hear and witness. Until the song ended and he emptied the spit valve. Bleh.

Years ago, when I was 16, my parents took me and my sister to Egypt: a week in Luxor, followed by a week at the Red Sea. I have visited the Valley of the Kings, ventured down the Nile and seen flying fish leaping in the bow waves of a boat. An incredible, challenging trip that came back to me as we wandered the little space. But I had known nothing of William Flinders Petrie back then: this man excavated dozens of sites during the early 20th Century, selling his collection to UCL in 1913.

Again, a fascinating place with tiny, typewritten labels that spoke of a more innocent time in archaeology and collecting. As always, I found the smaller pieces the most fascinating: the faces, the unexpected details, the colours that are hidden until you get up close and peer through the glass.

But we’d done enough by the time we reached the pots (although I couldn’t help thinking how much my potter friend would have loved that section, telling us all about the composition of the glazes, and how exactly they were constructed). It was time to find the pub.

Both the Grant and the Petrie are free to visit but if you do, please bung a donation in the box, buy a postcard, adopt an artefact, become a friend. As with any museum, money funds research, development and the day to day running. These places are too valuable to lose.

Posted in Small Adventures Outside the Comfort Zone | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Spring is (nearly) Sprung

I’m back in my own home after two weeks looking after my parent’s dogs whilst they celebrated 40 years of being married in Cuba (say what you will, they celebrate in style). After losing mine at the beginning of this year, it was a bittersweet experience but I relished the chance to get my boots muddy walking and laughing at their antics. Much as I love my cats, they do not chase tennis balls or rush to the door when I get home.

Next weekend, I’m taking myself off to London to visit an old friend: we’ll do the one cultural thing (visiting the Grant Museum to see the Glass Jar of Moles), and then devote the rest of the weekend to drinking, eating and drinking some more before I catch the train home the next day. I did request dancing but he looked terrified at the prospect, so I suspect that’s not on the agenda.

To tide you over till I return with tales of daring-do (i.e. I got on the right train at the right platform without looking up, realising I’m at the wrong one and having to perform the Mad Dash of Panic across the station), here’s a Sunday Summary for you:

Oh hooray, it’s March! There are catkins, the promise of bluebells, crocuses under trees and a different smell to the air. And a beautiful article by Robert MacFarlane (still my favourite nature writer) about the unusual words we have to describe the natural world. Now I just have to find a way to use ‘clinkerbell’ in conversation. Warning: contains the information that bluebell is a less used word than block-graph. I don’t think I’ve ever read a sadder statement.


This great article in the Independent reignites the debate around free museums. A much needed one as cuts to the arts means museums are still hemorrhaging staff and resources. Dame Liz Forgan referred to the sale of museum collections as “selling the family silver to buy a sandwich”; once collections are gone, sold into private hands, they are gone for good. Ed Miliband’s “free museums for all” hyperbole is so much piss and wind if he’s not going to promise to undo the damage the cuts have caused.

A lovely exhibition at my friend’s gallery featuring the work of Welsh artist, Aneurin Jones: wonderfully evocative of a landscape and people that are changing and altering every year.


Today, the Teen and I packed away the television and started our two week trial of living without it. Mainly because I realised she pretty much already was (AS exams, stuff on tumblr being more interesting, etc etc) and since Wolf Hall had finished (all hail to the superlative Mark Rylance), I had no interest in switching it only to watch repeats. I can waste my time far more productively than gawping at a re-run of the Big Bang Theory.

This may be more difficult than the time I gave up smoking. Or sugar.

A lengthy but utterly brilliant interview by the Paris Review of PD James.

And, in case you haven’t visited it yet, the fantastic Standard Issue is well worth losing a lunchtime over. It’ll make you laugh, promise.

Have some French cats with attitude till I get back (hopefully, a bottle or two of Cuban rum to the better).


Posted in A Basket Full of Random | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Attack of the seasonal baked goods

My sister is more of an inspiration than she knows. Passionate, loyal, devoted and funny, she has been my bedrock over the past twelve months, and no more so than on an issue that has plagued our family for years, handed down the generations like brown eyes, snooker chin* and a tendency to bronchial lungs.


Oh yes, our stop-eating switches are faulty and our emotional make up means we’ll reach for a cake when we’re angry or upset rather than deal with that is upsetting us. Or we did, until she decided enough was enough and over the past year has rid herself of 3 stone of baggage.

Yes, I know: THREE STONES! That’s 42 pounds no longer weighing her down, and she looks amazing on it.

Families being what they are (ours, at least), that doesn’t take place within the unit without the ripple effect kicking in. So now, in an effort to make this year the year I get my shit together and behave like the bloody adult I’m supposed to be, I’ve also joined her. And it’s scary. And I miss cheese.

And sometimes those damned hot cross buns just won’t leave a person alone.

attack of the hot cross buns

*snooker chin: a chin dimple that my dad says is just right for using as a snooker cue steady. Ironically, I really suck at snooker.

Posted in Adventures in Food | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Reading in Spots

Last Saturday was National Libraries Day which I celebrated by visiting my local library (where, rather shockingly, there were no signs about it), tweeting about it and getting righteously angry about it at a game of scrabble in the evening. On the scale of world-changing actions, mine came somewhere between the “read an article and was mildly outraged” and “signed a petition”. But at least I set in foot in there, walking past the man plucking loose clumps of hair out of his dog’s coat and the girls surrounding their mum wanting to know when they would be old enough to read American Gods. She clutched her 50 Shades rip-off closer to her chest and shuddered.

Half an hour of browsing and six book choices later, I was heading back for home and my current favourite reading spot. My big blue armchair. This has a comfortingly deep seat that cradles me as I read, a handy blanket on the back for when my feet get chilly and is near enough to the radiator to keep it warm. There’s also a table next to it for my mugs of tea, phone and pile of books. It has become ‘my spot’. Dog used to rest next to it, his head on my feet and the arms are wide enough to take a sprawled cat or two. A turn of my head and I can see outside to where the starlings are gathering and shouting in the tree.

I’ve had favourite reading spots in all my houses. When I was very small and the airing cupboard was just outside my room, I’d climb up into it with book, blanket and torch, closing the sliding door behind me so my sister didn’t know where I was and hide away with nothing but oceans of words and a pile of clean laundry to drift away on. Wind in the Willows, the Worst Witch, Wolves of Willoughby Chase and One Hundred and One Dalmatians are forever linked with the smell of Lenor fabric cleaner and the distant sound of my little sister saying “I can’t find her!”

In the last of the parental homes, it was nestled in the corner of my bedroom where the radiator was. Piled with pillows and in a suntrap, it was warm and comfortable. The family dog kept me company, his whimpering dreaming occasionally farting self the only noise beyond the turning of pages. It’s here I read Wuthering Heights, Animal Farm, Ruth Rendells and my first ever Jackie Collins, emerging hours later with popping eyes, blown mind and a desire to wander about wind-battered moors.

Bed has always been a good place to read. Under the covers with a torch when young, sat up against the pillows with tea when older. Although these days, I have to sit up to read: lying down runs the risk of falling asleep and then clouting myself one with a falling tome. Baths too. There is nothing finer than a long hot bath with a damn good book and a glass of wine, the bubbles creaking as you settle against them. Cross-legged on the sofa, or in the open boot of the car during days out. Stood in the kitchen, absent-mindedly stirring pots of dinner with one hand, or perched on the chair in my bedroom, pile of washing temporarily forgotten by my feet as I just have to finish this chapter.

That this knowledge, this endless, continually growing sea of words and information is free (or cheap), is a wondrous thing that crosses social boundaries, breaks down barriers and makes our lives more than a little richer with every visit.

Wherever and whatever you read this month, make it something from your library. This week, I heard a Disturbing Thing: museums and libraries are discretionary services; as far as the government is concerned, if your council can afford to run a discretionary service (no matter how much money they prove they can save or earn from it), they can afford to have their budget cut further. Use it or lose it people, and then, come May, vote these fuckers out.

Posted in In My Library, In which I get slightly on my soapbox | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment