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.

Wildlife in Hidden Places

One of the books I’ve had on my shelves for a while now (purchased during a long-ago-feeling trip to London in July last year) seemed perfect to wile away some winter evenings with. Field Notes from a Hidden City tells the story of the wildlife, in particular the birdlife, in Aberdeen over the course of a year. That granite city is not all unyielding stone and shipping, plus by reliving her summer months, I was able to keep reminding myself as I shivered under a blanket, that it would come round here again – always hard to believe in early Feb.

Now, I don’t share Woolfson’s fondness for all creatures. For example, I really don’t like pigeons, but I do have a greater tolerance of rats (thanks to an early reading of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh) than most people I know. However, I won’t hesitate to trap a mouse. These are not endangered species but ones that positively flourish, hoovering up our crumbs and waste, testing their teeth on our wiring, and I make no apology for it. However, reading her eloquent passages on the previously unremarked beauty of a pigeon’s eye or rat’s gait, I’m more likely to question my instinctive reactions than before. And that’s what every good book should do – make you reconsider yourself.

“In wild animals, violence is not purposeless. (We don’t behave like ‘wild animals’. If we behave badly, we behave as badly behaved humans.) There is always an explanation, even if we don’t appreciate or understand it. What we find difficult is to be witness without judgement.”

And despite my best efforts, I had to skip the passage about spiders. Look, I can admire their cunning and strategy for survival and a dew-beaded web is more beautiful than any diamond necklace, but frankly the descriptions of spidery appearances were too much for my phobia, so I clipped the pages together and moved on to the next chapter.

Where I gelled the most with Woolfson was over her love of corvids. Magpies, crows, jackdaws, rooks. These are so often irrationally seen as harbingers of bad luck, bad news, doom to those who see them and forget to chant the rhyme, cross their fingers or walk backwards over a footbridge. One of the things I miss most from our previous address is my early morning walks past the rookery, watching them wheel and dive above the trees, shout hoarse greetings to one another or race through the sky, screaming with fury at an inopportune buzzard. I have seen a fledgling magpie, feathers like velvet, the blue flash of the wings unsettling in the gloom, and I am as quietly upset as she is when the late-fledgling jackdaw dies.

“In the evening’s heat, the swifts scream over the garden. Towards darkness, we take the jackdaw from his box and hold him and stroke his feathers. He seems content. Bec puts him on her shoulder and as he sits there, his eyes grow heavy. We know that it isn’t the night-time weariness of a busy baby bird. He folds his head under his wing and when we put him in his box, we know that it is the last time we will. “

Woolfson is a skilled and gentle narrator of the year. She takes the truths we hold (grey squirrels bad, pigeons filthy dirty things, rats even worse) and holds them up to the light, carefully pointing out the holes before suggesting there might be another, equally valid way of looking at things. She has the scientific papers and books to back her up as well; this is no woolly do-gooder scattering universal love with lentils, although she does not fail to be sharp when called for, angry in the right places at our obtuseness, our insistence on paving over everything and then being surprised when the birds stop visiting but the floodwaters keep rising.

I still don’t really like pigeons though.

“Days later, I see something high in the branches of the large cherry tree in the next-door garden…it’s a grey squirrel, apparently asleep, huddled in the rain on the top branch of the tree and as I watch it, I think of it all again; of how, as humans, we feel free to treat others, both human and not, and of the ways we find to explain to ourselves what we do, and the ways in which we present and elevate our condemnations or our judgements. I think of the dangers of separating the lives of animals and men, believing them to be irreconcilable or subject to different standards; of assuming righteousness, of the consequences of words once spoken that we can never recall.”

The Vikings are Coming

Or rather, I’m going to them. A trip to IKEA is on the cards for tomorrow. Whilst I only need a lamp, set of shelves and a saucepan, I can fully expect to come back with enough tea lights, wooden boxes, scatter cushions and weird cooking utensils to see me through any possible apocalypse in Scandi-approved style.

I’m suspect my Viking ancestors would spin in their funeral boats at this version of a Norse invasion, but then they had no time for speech bubble shaped paper clips, multi packs of clip frames or baking tins in the shape of horses (although, actually these are really cool and will definitely end up in the trolley). DRÖMMAR Baking tin, set of 2 IKEA With Teflon®Classic non-stick coating which makes food and pastry release easily.

There will be meatballs. There will be surreptitious sniggering at the couples arguing about which set of bedding they can stand to have on the bed without one of them going to sleep each night with a lingering bitter resentment colouring their dreams. There will be a small amount of trolley rage as I navigate around the 500th person stood in the aisle with no apparent realisation that they may be in The Fucking Way.

Hopefully, this time there will be no need to resort to bungee cord to hold the boot closed on an unexpectedly large purchase. But you never know.

Daydreaming

Of getting the paint out to create yellow-hued doors and splashes of sunshine.

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Of wading through warm shallows with red painted toes and time on my side.

Tuscany’s Elba Island is home to many gorgeous beaches, but Sansone might just top the list.                                                                                   (Tuscany, although I don’t mind finding myself somewhere equally nice. Never let it be said that I’m fussy.)

Of the day this book is available in paperback; I won’t be leaving the house until I’ve finished it.

Of silly-but-awesome kitchen equipment that will make me smile as I ladle out yet another warming and wholesome soup.

Nessie Ladle

Of a garden filled with daffodils that nod and dance, rather than mud and grass and muddy grass.

William Wordsworth, please do the honors:    I wander'd lonely as a cloud  That floats on high o'er vales and hills,  When all at once I saw a crowd,  A host, of golden daffodils;  Beside the lake, beneath the trees,  Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.  [...]  They flash upon that inward eye  Which is the bliss of solitude;  And then my heart with pleasure fills,  And dances with the daffodils.

Of finally finishing my crochet blanket. This may take a little longer than March to arrive. Especially when pesky cats keep me company.

Of wandering around this exhibition with the Teen who, I feel, should always be encouraged to reach for the moon.

Of Amsterdam. My head is full of Amsterdam and planning my first ever solo holiday. Scary and exciting and new.

Colorful Amsterdam, Netherlands

As we approach the arse-end of the year (February – ugh, I loathe February and it’s misleading hints of spring) and I tire of casseroles and stews and trying to find new ways with pearl barley, I need to be reminded that sunshine, birdsong, blossom on the trees, some other vegetable than swede and fewer than 4 layers of clothing before I leave the house is just a few short weeks away.

(Images found on pinterest via 1. homestoriesatoz.com; 2. cntraveller.com; 3. animicausa.com; 4. panoramio.com; 5. gutenberg.org; 6. pinspopulars.com)

Sunday Summary

A quick round up of things that have happened, caught my eye, made me smile, or just set me thinking.

A course in which I learned to make a proper, museum-grade tissue paper scrunchie (yes, there is a proper technique which ends in a scrunched wad of tissue paper that doesn’t unravel) and pad out a mannequin.

This way of dealing with worries that otherwise keep you up at 4am – and some gorgeous Grand Canyon pictures to boot.

This incredible jewellery designer from the State. Being a practical romantic, I’m very taken with her designs. Found on Pinterest (yes, I am on there under my occasional-shop name of Poppycorkhill).

The incredible ad for This Girl Can had me smiling and secretly singing Missy Elliot to myself all weekend. Even the Teen thinks it’s a pretty cool thing … and she’s a discerning judge.

That I will get in my own way when I’m doing yoga. But I don’t care. Even if my vision is momentarily blocked for half of the session.

That there is nothing, but nothing, as satisfying, morale-boosting and happy-making (albeit shallow) than buying a pair of jeans a size smaller than you needed a month ago.

That when returning to crocheting my ripple blanket (as seen on Attic 24) after my wrist injury, I really should read the pattern again. Will I be redoing the past 6, slightly off-kilter rows? No. No I will not.

My friend and I may have just created #MannequinMonday. A celebration on Twitter of truly astounding (and hilarious) museum mannequins. This needs to be A Thing. Cue misappropriation of Manic Monday by the Bangles.

Working my slow way through the Penelope Fitzgerald biography. I’m not sure she and I would have got on but her strength and intelligence is awe-inspiring. Finished The Bleeding Heart by Marilyn French. A feminist classic that still contains food for thought in its depiction of a year long love affair that brings truth and passion to its protagonists.

That a week on trustfunding.org will make you squiffy-eyed and reveal an incredible amount about the vagaries of human nature. So many trusts, so many random conditions.

That it is possible to go for a country walk without a faithful dog accompanying you. Possible, but oddly lacking. It was good to get my boots muddy again though.

Next week: I become a qualified first aider! Certified to tell you to stop making a fuss, t’is merely a flesh wound. My staff are looking pale already.

**photos from a recent walk along the Greenlink to a hitherto unknown community orchard, full of carved benches, stone lined ponds and twisty apple trees. I do love a community orchard.**

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A Goodbye

My improbably named, feather-tailed-feather-brained, pad pawed, wolf-imitating, caramel hearted, grumble sleeping, hairy stinky barky, loyal-oh-so-loyal mutt.

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Stream-paddling, rabbit and squirrel chasing, car singing, postman hating, snow dancing, sofa stealing, speed eating, floppy eared, crimple furred constant companion.

Strider

We walked everywhere together. You snored at my feet, worried when I cried, laughed when I did. Rolled on your back making growly noises at your own paws. Refused to come when you were called.

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I had to make the hardest decision last week; the house and my heart feel empty. Now, when I walk, I still see you just ahead, looking back to check I’m still following. I am.

My Year in Books

It’s that post-Christmas, pre-New Year lull where, replete with chocolate orange and too much Prosecco, jaded from one too many Facebook posts of Christmas trees, the mind starts wandering through the pages of the past twelve months, wondering where the hell it all went and if it was really as horrendous as your exhausted body is telling you.

So as I sit, under a blanket on the sofa, having lunched finely off tea and cold stuffing balls picked direct from the plate in the fridge, I have my book diary in front of me and it’s telling me exactly where most of my year went: in the pages of other lives.

A grand total of eighty nine (I think I did some other things this year too) books were devoured, poured over, considered, fretted about, put to one side, taken to bed and accidentally sat on. The dog trod on at least two, I dog-eared countless pages, and the Teen quietly plucked one (How to be a Woman) from my hands on the grounds that if I didn’t stop reading, I’d hyperventilate.

There was a blissful period in Autumn where every book I picked up seemed tinted with gold. They carried me superbly away from myself and I had to reluctantly tear my eyes away whenever the real world intruded. Interestingly, those six novels were all written by women. They challenged and enthralled in equal measure.

So here is my list of books that have made me laugh, weep, think, love and rage against the world (my favourites have links* go look them up, go read them…they’ll change your life, I promise):
January: Dracula, Unpleasantness at the Bellona, Eat Pray Love, The Brontes

February: Winters Bone, Jane Eyre, Gossip from the Forest, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon

March: Life After Life, A Walk in the Woods, An Italian Affair, Carpe Jugulem, Harnessing Peacocks

April: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, Married Love, Pies and Prejudice

May: Possession, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, Johnny Reed’s Cat
June: Ted Hughes’ Letters, A Fair Maiden, Touchy Subjects, Making it Up, The Road Through the Wall, Extra-Virgin, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead

July: Handful of Earth, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Neither Here nor There, Ordeal by Innocence, Fanny Hill, Taken at the Flood, A Pause Between Acts, Offshore

August: The Brontes (different author), Ammonites and Leaping Fish, Lunch in Paris, Murder on the Links, Fludd, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, Family Album, A Book of Silence, Claudine and Annie, Nothing to be Frightened Of

September: The Chemistry of Tears, A Murder of Quality, An Education, No Fond Return of Love, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, How it all Began, As I Walked out one Midsummer Morning, The Thirteenth Tale, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Mom & Me & Me & Mom, Dear Life

October: Digging to America, Engleby, Killing at Badger’s Drift, To Love and be Wise, Singing Sands, A Shilling for Candles, Between Friends, Lasting Damage, I Feel Bad About My Neck, That Part was True

November: Miss Mapp, Aunt Margaret’s Lover, Don’t Tell Alfred, Burial Rites, The Tortoise and the Hare, Belman and Black, Love in a Cold Climate, We are all Completely Beside Ourselves, Stranger on a Train, Housekeeping, Another Life, Mapp & Lucia

December: Notes from a Small Island, It Could Happen to You, Queen Lucia, The New Moon with the Old, Lucia’s Progress, The Pure Gold Baby, How to be a Woman, Death on the Nile, Mystery in White, Strong Poison.

Taking this time to look back, I can see my predilection for inter-war genteel crime dramas, thoughtful women authors and the Brontes (like that was news to me) guided most of my choices. Currently by my side, I have the Penelope Fitzgerald biography, The London Train, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, The Years (it’s time I read more Woolf than Mrs. Dalloway), and Lost for Words. On my phone is a long list of books that I’ll track down throughout the year: as the Teen and I are discussing getting rid of the telly, and the library is within walking distance, I might actually manage to work my way through it.

So now I’m curious. What have you read this year that’s stayed with you, haunting your days? What have you gone around shouting about and pressing into the hands of nearest and dearest (or random strangers)? Or even, which book would you never touch again and would happily erase from memory?

*none of the links go through to an Amazon page. Seriously, go to a proper independent bookshop. Visit the library. Save these places from disappearing – lives are infinitely richer with them.

It’s beginning to look a lot

Oh I very much like Christmas indeed but in a lower key way than I used to. Which is only right. There’s nothing worse than a 38-year-old jumping up at 4am to run downstairs screaming ‘presents! PRESENTS!’ before consuming her own body weight in eggnog. I may be doing that inside, but one does try to maintain some semblance of dignity on the surface (difficult to do with flashing robins for earrings). Besides I’d only fall down the stairs and there is nothing less Christmassy than a neck brace, no matter how much holly you stick in it.

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These days it’s more about the long-awaited opportunity to curl up during the long dark nights, warm under a blanket, glass of red to hand and a box of Quality Street slowly turning my bloody sugar to syrup, reading new books (chosen from the pre-selected list I’ve prepared for those buying my books – my family get a list. They know not to deviate from the list after the year my forced ‘Maeve Binchy, why how simply lovely’ turned Frosty the Snowman to stone) and wriggling my toes in new socks.

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There are gentle days spent catching up with family, and genteelly riotous nights celebrating with friends. Less likely to hammer the Jaegerbombs and then dance till dawn (although I do really miss dancing till dawn) than we used to be, it’s still surprising how much wine we can pack away. And cheese. And chocolate peanut butter cups. By the time we realise bed is needed (and a large glass of water), the entire world has been righted – it’s always a small sad surprise to find, the next morning, that world leaders have not acted on our suggestions to put fairy lights on all their ceremonial robes because that would bring about world peace.

Boxing Day is mine-all-mine: a day of pure and unadulterated selfishness where I do nothing more for other living beings than walk the dog. As soon as I can, it’s back to the warmth of my house, the smell of M&S goodies slowly baking filling the kitchen, and the unparalleled joy that is Toby Stephens in Jane Eyre lighting up the telly light in the corner with some overblown Victorian masculinity. And because it’s mine all mine (the Teen is with her Dad), nobody fights me for the last profiterole. Which I’d win anyway.

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Yesterday our sort-of-tree went up. Really it’s a collection of twisted willow branches that bend and sway alarmingly when anything heavier than a feather is attached to them. Yes, they have travelled from the old house to the new with us (My Dad: why am I packing dead sticks into the van? Me: for entirely valid and not at all deranged reasons, can you fit the broken watering can in too?)

The sort-of-tree came about two Christmas’s ago when I realised that there was no longer a car big enough to carry a real tree home in, no longer another pair of arms to pick it up and no longer a second income to buy the bloody thing. Plus, I wasn’t long single and it occurred to me that new traditions were called for in the aftermath of my throwing all the old ones out. So I swung off some branches of the twisted willow (the garden tools went the way of the old traditions) till they gave in and they’ve served as our sort-of-tree ever since.

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As a result, all the heavy baubles are now displayed in a wooden bowl (actually a 19th Century cheese press – yes, I know, get me) on the fireplace for fear that putting them on the tree would recreate the Great Toppling of 2012. All the usual (light) decorations are up: everything glittery or shiny, the tiny wooden snowmen, the tin one-legged Father Christmas, the paper stars, the light-as-breath ribbon. Most importantly the slightly-creepy, very-battered dancing polar bear that was my Nan’s when she was a girl, has taken his usual tinsel nesting place.

Small cat stands underneath, occasionally batting at something irresistibly turning in a slight draught. The Radio Times has been dog-eared with choices (Mapp and Lucia? Oh happy happy seasonal viewing!) Presents are slowly piling up, awaiting the patchy, crumpled, over-sellotaped application of wrapping paper. Cards have been written and even posted on time.

And in other news, my wrist appears to be almost healed. A cautious return to crocheting has finally begun.

Taking the Wool to the Max

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It’s fair to say that I am quite often at my very happiest when late Autumn rolls around. There is the gently, not-yet-scarily, looming prospect of Christmas. It is cold enough to warrant the additional layer of a blanket on the bed, or on the sofa, or in the chair, or, to be honest, any damn place I find myself wanting to layer on a blanket. Or two. Stews and soups and pies are back on the menu. Best of all, I am not expected to any gardening, whatsoever.

The weather obliges with fogs and mists that bead my hair and coat. Sunbreaks through clouds at odd angles and unexpected times, turning the very air golden. Leaves of such gorgeous colours, I want to wear them. Frost-rimed mornings that etch my surroundings with chilly silver-white. The river is high and muddied, swirling debris along at truculent speed.

 

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Happiest of all the days are those when I can wake up, wriggle my toes against the cotton edge of my duvet, full to bursting with glee at the thought of a day all to myself, to fill with walks, cooking, reading and crafting. Crocheting, to be precise; my newly learned skill that, until recently, I was indulging in every moment I could, in the midst of woolly blanket-making happiness.

Back in August, I’d found the pattern on Attic 24, brought the wool, deciphered the instructions and looked up the stitches I didn’t know on YouTube. And then I set too. Hooking with newly obsessed glee and quite indifferent to the odd twinge from my wrist.

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As I watched the blanket grow from under my very fingers, I was aware that the pains in my right wrist were also growing in intensity and frequency. So I strapped it up and carried on crocheting. And then I woke one morning and couldn’t even hold a pencil. Slightly worried now, I stopped for a couple of weeks, watched the dust grow on my woolly pile and fretted.

That was at the end of August. It is now December and under doctors orders, I am still strapping my wrist up and avoiding as much fine motor work with my right hand as possible. Trying to open jars with my left hand. Getting my colleagues to open parcels for fear of slipping with my left and stabbing myself in the eye, as happened when I was cleaning the bath, only with a cloth, not a pair of scissors. Writing as little as possible. And, above all, absolutely utterly completely No Crochet.

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What I have essentially done is given myself RSI. Crocheters wrist, like housemaids knee but with no pervy lord of the manor checking how well I’ve polished his fender. When people ask I tell them it’s an extreme crochet injury. Taking the wool to the max baby.

The Teen is now no longer getting a blanket for Christmas. She is suspiciously okay with the news.

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Photos taken on a recent frosty morning walk. The patterns made never fail to fascinate.

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