Day 234: Vale of the Deadly Nightshade

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A Journey into Scotland … Part 3

The rumour is that they built Barrow Town Hall the wrong way round. It’s an impressive building and one that would cost many millions of pounds to build today. It took four years to complete, including an extra year when it was discovered that the clock tower had to be demolished and re-built as the contractors had been charging for quality red sandstone and were in fact using much cheaper materials. The plaza is to the rear of the building and, though impressive in its own way, abuts a dreary car park and a square of some of the town’s more modest buildings. Even the Imperial Hotel has seen better days. The rumour is ill founded in fact, but quite truthful in reality. The town hall is one of the best municipal buildings in the north of England and yet its finest aspect is largely wasted and what people take to be the front (as it fronts the main shopping area of the town) is nothing like as inspiring. The building  overlooks the docks and shipyards that made the town famous (though it had been the discovery of iron ore that made the town prosperous). Is the building back to front? From the point of view of the original architectural plans, no. In many other terms it most certainly is.

Barrow Town Hall (Rear View)

I pedal along Duke Street and turn right at Ramsden Square. Sir James Ramsden served several terms as Mayor of the town and the staue in the centre of the square was unveiled during his lifetime. I’ve always quite liked it; the weathered green statue works well with the well tended garden and the impressive collection of buildings. (I regret to say that the Lakeland Laundries which was not an overly impressive building in itself but which blended well with the trees in front has since been demolished and the whole area now looks out into a modern urban blight of a retail park).

Barrow Library was a treat in the sixties. Downstairs were the books and a rather fierce librarian of the old school. It was upstairs that drew me every time. A  tatty and weather beaten stuffed albatross had to be said hello to, and then I’d wander slowly among the huge models of ships that had been built in the town. The skill and accuracy of the models themselves said an awful lot about the quality of Barrovian craftsmanship. They are superb. Many of them are now in the  splendid Barrow Docks Museum which is worth a day out of anybody’s time.

I cycle slowly along Abbey Road which was then the main artery of the town. Past the Evening Mail Building and the Abbey Baths where I learnt to swim. They were  bombed in the war but were thought worthy of rebuilding. They’ve since been demolished, as has the ABC cinema where I saw Carry On films and was swept away by Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments.

Once past the railway station, Barrow becomes much greener. The park is lovely. Well laid out and always well planted. There are some fine hotels along Abbey Road. I used to wonder who would come to Barrow to stay but the shipyards were among the most important in the world an arguably still are. When people came from abroad to stay in Barrow they were often very high ranking people indeed.

In the seventies the Argentinian navy bought a number of Barrow ships. Senior Officers were brought over for so long, to be involved in the project, that they brought their families. We had one boy in school who soon picked up the most basic Anglo Saxon elements of the language and taught us a trick or two about football. He brightened up what was otherwise a distinct lack of ethnic diversity at the time. The same ships were involved in the Falklands conflict some years later being used against the country that built them.

There are four places where I wouldn’t mind having my ashes scattered (after I’m dead). Westerdale Moor in North Yorkshire, Scarborough beach, a little unknown limestone valley in Derbyshire and Furness Abbey. The first three are places I have discovered during my life and are places where I feel more alive than almost anywhere else. They are also places where the flying ashes of a thoughtful soul won’t do too much harm or cause too much fuss. The latter is a place of stunning beauty and is only a few yards from where I was born.

All of England’s monasteries are in remarkable locations; Furness is perhaps the best placed of the lot. It’s only a mile or two from the centre of an industrial town and yet the setting is not only heavenly (from both a spiritual and purely aesthetic point of view) but is also almost completely hidden. You could spend days marching all over the peninsular and never find it. You can get to within a hundred yards without ever suspecting it is there. That is, if you don’t follow the signposts. At school we were told that the soldiers sent by Henry VIII to pull down the stones failed repeatedly to locate the church. I have found no corroboration for Mr Whitney’s version of history but I still choose to believe it.

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The railway line runs by the side and until the fifties actually boasted its own station; surely one of the most perfectly situated on the entire British railway network. Wordsworth visited the abbey while the railway was being constructed and saw how the atmosphere of the place affected the workmen. At rest they fell philosophical; either contemplating higher things in spirit or simply higher things. The engineers of the nineteenth century marvelled at the skills of the monks of hundreds of years before them and how they raised the arch of their abbey church, so high and so magnificent. The railway line runs past the cottage where I was born. I used to wave at the guard and he used to wave back at me. An enormous cross section of my life is contained here; poetry, history, railways, architecture, faith and the happy accident of my being born in such an enchanted place.

WELL have yon Railway Labourers to THIS ground
Withdrawn for noontide rest. They sit, they walk
Among the Ruins, but no idle talk
Is heard; to grave demeanour all are bound;
And from one voice a Hymn with tuneful sound
Hallows once more the long-deserted Quire
And thrills the old sepulchral earth, around.
Others look up, and with fixed eyes admire
That wide-spanned arch, wondering how it was raised,
To keep, so high in air, its strength and grace:
All seem to feel the spirit of the place,
And by the general reverence God is praised:
Profane Despoilers, stand ye not reproved,
While thus these simple-hearted men are moved?* 

Enchantment abounds. There are more ghostly sightings here than almost anywhere else in the county. Murdered monks feature strongly. Well, the visuals are so striking! If you can’t manage a murdered monk then a woman in white is always a good bet, especially if she’s mourning the loss at sea of the lover she was kept from. Failing all of these you could always go for the traditional headless horseman; this one with the added cinematic glory of a monk’s habit. The fact that one of the outbuildings has been converted into The Abbey Tavern for centuries and that the line of landlords were noted for the quality and strength of their ale may have helped with a number of the sightings. There is no getting away from the fact that it is a haunted place. The stillness is remarkable, the sound of birds is clear as crystal on one side of the abbey grounds yet no birdsong is ever heard on the other. I came into the world in this place of grace and great beauty. I’d have no objection to my remains resting here for all the years following my death.

Rose Cottage

 

 

*At Furness Abbey: William Wordsworth June 21 1845

 

Day 233: Le Gloire de Mon Enfance

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A Journey into Scotland …. Part 2

The times I spent on Walney Island with my auntie and cousins together with the two years living on a Furness farm were the Pagnolesque periods of my childhood. In his novels Marcel Pagnol captures the beauty and freedom of growing up surrounded by the wonders of nature with the freedom given to young boys to explore the Provencal countryside. They are by no means idyllic which is why they rise above most memoirs of childhood. They show spite and petty jealousies, meanness, boasting and pride that in its provincial way gets close to a charming sort of hubris. What you also get is the revealing of an observant eye and mind; a curious hunger that grows on what it feeds; and an unquestioning love affair with the natural beauty of the world.

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I, in my own small way, found this on the beaches and sand hills of Walney and the high fells of the south lakeland. On the former I’d walk for hours in deep conversation with my one day older cousin as we grew in our knowledge of birds; first discerning the difference between a redshank and a sandpiper, a guillemot from a red throated diver. We knew there were natterjack toads on North Walney but I can’t remember if we ever saw them. We saw lizards and slow worms and warblers and blackcaps, whitethroats and chiffchaff. At the other end of the island were the gulls, the gannets, the terns. That was a good walk. Walney is nearly eleven miles long and there and back required a day, a packet of sandwiches and an apple or two.

Hindenburg Over Barrow. Photo credit. NW Evening Mail

Hindenburg Over Barrow. Photo credit. NW Evening Mail

And we’d sit on the beach and he’d tell me about the military defences. That a German invasion was prepared for; one that would come through Ireland. Barrow was targeted by the Luftwaffe. Some say that preparations for bombing the shipyards were being made as early as 1937 when the Hindenberg Zeppelin flew low and slowly over Walney and the docks. Certainly the bombs rained down in April and May 1941 and many Barrovians died. As well as Britain’s most important shipyards, Barrow was also home to the world’s biggest steel mill. This was a town where night had always been joint labourer with the day. I can’t imagine how you would black out a steelworks.

All along the shoreline he’d show me pill boxes and gun emplacements. There were two forts on Walney and we explored them both. I didn’t know they were only twenty years old. The word fort to me meant the US cavalry, or medieval knights. They were good places to play and explore. I’ve never been the brightest in the class but I’ve always had an insatiable hunger to find things out. I was a nature lover from the start and armed with a collecting jar and a pair of cheap binoculars I became something of a naturalist. A lifelong love of history, geography and the natural sciences was fostered on those seaside walks. Was there anywhere else in Britain where the three came together so naturally and my cousin used all of that one extra day of life to inform me of what I didn’t know.

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I arrive at Barrow railway station from a train that has taken me back a dozen years. The bicycle has changed guards’ vans at Birmingham and Manchester and Carnforth and together we pedal down Abbey Road, passed the Lakeland Laundry and into the docks. Over Barrow Island and across the Jubilee Bridge and onto Walney.

I’m well looked after at my auntie’s. I love the house. I’m twenty eight at the time of this visit, and have rarely been there for fifteen years. Before that it was something of a home from home. Many of the happiest times of my childhood were spent in this house. We have tea and talk of those days through the evening. In the morning we stood in her back garden, with mugs of tea, and looked beyond where the ironworks had been to the most glorious view of the Duddon Valley, Scafell and the Langdale Pikes. You could even make out the hills that surrounded the farm where my inland and upland explorer found succour.

I was nervous. I was going to cycle to the north of Scotland and back and the very first pedal turns were about to be made along very familiar streets. All the streets around here were named after northern rivers. I had many rivers to cross before I’d get back home.

Just along from the view of the lakes was something new. The docks had always been dominated by the cranes but they were no longer visible. In their place quite the biggest building I had ever seen now dominated the Barrow skyline. The Devonshire Dock Hall had gone up with indecent haste once the decision had been made to replace the Polaris Submarine with giant Tridents as Britain’s nuclear threat or defence. There is nothing beautiful about the structure but my, it is impressive. No Hindenburg was going to get a sneaky view of how Barrow men made submarines in the 1980s. I head straight towards it.

Credit Lindal and Marton Community Web Site

Credit Lindal and Marton Community Web Site

The channel is full; it’s high tide and it makes for one of the glorious boating sights in the country. All sorts of craft bob at anchor, while the remains of industrial Barrow lines the northern shore and the elegant, purpose built houses of Vickerstown give a more residential feel to the Walney side. Lights flashing as I approach the bridge allow me a quiet rest and one of the treats of being here (provided you are not in a rush). The Jubilee Bridge is hauling itself open. The whole roadway is lifted into the sky to make way for a passing boat. Fears of invasion were such that the bascules were left open every night during the second world war so that anyone landing on Walney wouldn’t be able to get across to the shipyards.

The whole area around the docks and Barrow Island have changed as much as they have stayed the same. Black sheds that always made the area a little forbidding for me as a child have gone and the massive new submarine hall gets even bigger as I ride alongside it.

And on past Craven Park the scene of many of the happiest Friday nights I had experienced as I fell in love with the sport of rugby league and the Barrow team who I followed all the way to Wembley in 1967 as an eight year old. It seems somehow smaller and less glamorous but I’d still stay for an extra day if the team were playing at home. For me, at that time Barrow was the big town. It was to me then as Manchester and London became. When I lived there it was still a part of Lancashire. It was  a real Lancastrian industrial town with its low terraced houses and huge factories. If you mistimed your journey and got caught outside Vickers as the shift finished you could be there for twenty minutes or more as literally thousands of shipyard workers poured forth through the gates. It seemed quieter now but every brick of every building brought memories flooding back.

I had a pretty glorious childhood and much of the best of it was spent in Barrow and on the Island of Walney.

 

Day 232: Tomorrow We Enter the Town of My Birth

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A Cycle Tour of Scotland in 1987 … Part One

 

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This is where it all began.  A winter’s night in 1958. Three miles down the road my auntie was giving birth to my cousin Bill and by the time I arrived, shortly after midnight, my grandmother was two grandchildren to the good between dusk and dawn.

The cottage was much simpler then, more artisan and smaller. The garden was given over to vegetables, the large side window wasn’t there and neither was the extension where the roof rises, but there was a barn. The latter was demolished by a runaway lorry crashing down the embankment in the 1960s. I think the lorry driver escaped but the barn didn’t.

I’d always wanted to go back to the places that made me but I was either too busy with other things or simply lacking the motivation. Once I’d decided to make a sojourn to all the houses I had ever lived in I had some new decisions to make. The first was how was I going to travel. The most obvious way was by car, but two thousand miles by car is unappealing and I wanted to enjoy this journey. I also knew that by the time I’d driven more than fifty miles in a day I  stopped taking an interest in where I was. And then there is the problem that seeing the world through a car window is not a good way of seeing the world.

I considered walking it but gave it up on simple grounds of cost. I couldn’t afford to go that long without earning some money and I couldn’t see any way of earning money on a walking holiday other than by busking and a guitar was a bulky piece of luggage to strap to an already full rucksack. There was always a possibility that the urban dwellers en route could be cheered into parting with the price of a meal and a campsite. I was less sure if the villagers and outlying farmers would be so welcoming of a hiker pitching up at the farm gate and bursting into a rousing chorus of The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

Simon and Tamsin and baby F 3

I’ve always associated Scotland with trains (blame WH Auden) and wondered about a railway journey. After all my main Scottish destination had a mainline station (in fact a terminus). This, in the end was the argument against. I couldn’t see why I shouldn’t simply get a return ticket to Thurso and be done with it. By then I’d begun to be tempted into a more thorough exploration of Scotland. If I was going to travel that far then it seemed a wasted opportunity not to see Loch Lomond and Loch Ness, the Western sea ports and the Cuillin Hills. I wanted to re-trace the journey I could vaguely remember as a five or six year old in the back of a big old black Wolseley and I wanted to cross Rannoch Moor and travel through Glencoe.

Simon and Tamsin and baby F 2

And then I thought of a bicycle.

It wasn’t a thought I held onto for very long. I’d been on plenty of long rides but I’d never done anything on this scale. I didn’t have any panniers and had no idea how they attached to the little frame of a bicycle. I went to see my friend Jon and he said that cycling was the only way to do the journey. He’d cycled around Norway and Finland, Poland and Germany. As a twelve year old he’d loaded bags onto his bike and spent his summer holidays pedalling all around the Cornish peninsular.

“You see more when you’re on a bike, you go fast enough to get there and, if anything goes wrong, you can always bung it on a train. Plenty of trains in Scotland.”

Jon was someone who did things. I’d visited him in his shed where he was busy making a replica of a Viking long boat from green timber. Not something for display. This was something that gained the interest of Scandinavian academics. When he finished it he  sailed it in the Exe estuary.

Busking came in handy. I’d just qualified as a teacher but really didn’t know if I wanted to go into the profession. I could get a job in a school but there were precious few other jobs around in Devon at that time. So I returned to the pitch outside the back of Marks and Spencer, where I’d busked enough money to keep me on my teacher training course. Two days earned the price of a set of panniers from the Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne fans among the Exeter shoppers. Two more days earned my train fare up to Barrow and the three days following allowed me to put enough into the bank to draw a frugal expenditure for three and a half weeks. I had two commissions as a songwriter to write songs for a Huddersfield production of Don Quixote (Proper Job Theatre Projects) and to write a score for a dance project to raise awareness of deforestation in central Africa (Dance Stance). Both had secured me the promise of Arts Council grants which gave me some future money to negotiate an overdraft against if things went badly wrong. A fifteen hundred mile pedal would give me plenty of time for working on lyrics and melodies.

Packing the bags was  a scene from Three Men in a Boat. This was my first time and I’d made a list of everything I was sure I was going to need. Jon and a couple of other newly qualified teachers came round to help me and soon cut down the list to a point where it was  almost physically possible to attach everything onto a bicycle just so long as you had no intention of ever moving the thing.

“Are you really going to need five shirts?”

“Are you taking food? Don’t they have shops where you’re going?”

“I’ll lend you my Sig bottle for your paraffin. Save taking all that.”

And so the provisions that had covered the sitting room floor were whittled down and packed away. Beer was drunk to celebrate and wish me good cheer and a fair wind.

It was either the end of September or the beginning of October. All of my fellow students from the last year were safely inside their new classrooms and planning their first mortgages. I was pedalling a red German bicycle resplendent in blue panniers from Lancashire towards St David’s Station in Exeter. I had a wallet full of cash and a ticket to the town of my birth. I was going to cycle the main roads and country lanes of my life and I  was very excited.

 

Day 231: A Younger Man Sets Out

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Some photographs from some future blog posts.

In 1987 I qualified as a teacher and found myself unsure of whether I wanted to spend the next thirty years teaching. Instead of applying for jobs, taking my only suit to the dry cleaners and attending interviews I played concerts with a group of dancers wrote a musical score for a Yorkshire production of Don  Quixote and set off on a journey to visit everywhere I had ever lived. This journey would have been something of a world tour of the north of England had it not been for an exodus of Barrow engineers up the north of Scotland around about 1960 to build the Dounreay Nuclear Power plant. This relocation of family life meant a few years living happily in Thurso and starting school under the rules of a Scottish education. It also added a thousand miles to my trip.

I was living in Exeter at the time I made the journey. It was the first of my long distance bike rides and like all the others was done at a time in my life when I needed to make some pretty big decisions about my future. I’ve just unearthed some packets of photographs that I took along the way and, while I can just about remember where each photograph is, I want to write up a little blog account of the journey. Any notes that I made appear to be lost so it will be some snaps and a twenty seven year old memory. If you are a follower of my travels I hope you enjoy this jaunt; if not, there’s always going to be lots of pictures of food on Saturdays.

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This is the farm above the town of Ulverston (about a thousand feet above) where I think I was happier than at any other time in my childhood. If I ever became unexpectedly rich I think I’d like to move back there.

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Or even here. This is the cottage in “The Vale of the Deadly Nightshade” where I was born on a winter night in the late 1950s. Also in the photograph is a German bicycle that took me round this adventure before being stolen from outside a Huddersfield police station. I can’t remember too much about actually living here but my parents kept the cottage until the late 70s and I spent a number of happy summers here. It is only a few hundred yards from Furness Abbey and is almost as old. In 1665 it was the centre of a plague story that rivals the more famous one in Eyam. Cloth was delivered to this house and brought along with it the fleas that wiped out half the population of Dalton in Furness.

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These photos have been scanned with a hand (wand) scanner which I’m just getting used to. Bought essentially to save me making copious notes in libraries it seems to do quite a decent job with older photographs. This shows a much younger me a quarter century in advance of the fashion for well grown beards (I didn’t take a razor on the trip), standing in front of a waterfall in Glencoe. My attitude to special cycling clothing hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. The person who took the picture was a fellow traveller. We shared tea and cake and an hour of each others stories before he continued his way up the glen and I headed for the sea. We never met again. I have no idea what he was called. For one hour of our lives we were firm friends. This is one of the joys of travelling.

Once I’ve completed my Scottish journey (I don’t envisage anything like the 110 posts it took to tell the story of the more recent trip) I want to bring my travel writing up to date with a thorough exploration of the towns and villages of the East Midlands. I intend 26 portraits of an A to Z of towns. Research is already well under way even though I haven’t (by any means) finalised the list of towns I’m going to visit. Below are a selection of photographs of towns I’ve made little reconnaissance visits to over the last couple of weeks.

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Quite a nice collection. To give some idea of how difficult the choice of towns and locations will be is that all of these photographs are from places beginning with A,B and C and I’m not altogether sure I’ve even visited the places I want to do for A and C. This is Baslow church. I’m not over keen on Baslow from a human point of view but building wise it is magnificent for so small a place.

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Is it a toll gate? I’m not sure. It’s in Baslow so I wouldn’t put it past the locals to charge you for crossing their bridge. (Locals in Baslow means they’ve lived there for over four years).

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Baslow again and once again top marks for the way properties have been renovated.

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Chesterfield’s most famous landmark.

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The town hall at Chesterfield has been likened to the Stormont buildings in Ulster. I know there is some connection between the two but don’t as yet know what it is.

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Two shots of Chesterfield town centre. Somewhere in my assorted (certainly not sorted) paperwork I’ve got a picture of Buddy Holly in the market place. If I stick with Chesterfield I will have to find it.

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Barlborough church.

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The war memorial at Barlborough.

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Ashby de la Zouch castle and below church. If I choose Ashby do I do it under A or does it fill the awkward Z slot?

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Planning permission has been sought to turn this water tower into a home. I’ll leave that one to the Ashby planners.

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Frank Matcham’s peerless opera house in Buxton. It’s even nicer inside.

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My favourite park in England. The Pavilion Gardens in Buxton.

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Ecton Hill copper paid for the Crescent at Buxton. I’ve never seen it without some major renovation scheme going ahead.

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Picture perfect English village. This one is Alstonefield.

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And three shots of Bakewell to finish off. The church. One of the original pudding shops and a collection of coffins, Derbyshire style. I like the way the person who laid the recent flagstones preferred cutting around them rather than lifting them.

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Day 230: I Saw Good Strawberries in Your Garden There

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Mostly Concerning Food

 

There were good strawberries on Chesterfield market, and good value too. I bought a kilogram for £3 and an awful lot of oranges and mineolas to make up a fiver. Chesterfield has a good market for fruit and vegetables and the stall at the top corner has had at least two generations of loud voiced traders barking out, “Seven seedless oranges a pound. Just a pound your oranges.” It either attracts or repels depending on your mood but there is no disputing the quality. This stall-holder must be right at the front of the queue at the wholesale market in the early morning.

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I take a perfect cauliflower and a bunch of asparagus both of which practically smell of the field they grew in. That vital period of field to table is much shorter if you go to a good market than if you use the supermarket route. Within 24 hours all bar a few oranges have been cooked and either eaten or turned into jam.

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I like making jam. It has that lovely combination of history, simplicity and family. My grandmother made jam and so did my mother and her sisters. I’m sure great grand parents did but I’ve never traced the family back that far.

It’s all so simple and full of good feelings and delicious smells that fill the whole house.

It’s been a long time since I’ve made strawberry and it’s late by the time I set to. I simply halve the fruit once I’ve trimmed the tops. Then they go into the jam pan with the same weight of sugar. You can get special jam sugar but I’ve never found it worth the fuss and always use granulated. I can’t resist adding the juice of a lemon because I always add the juice of a lemon to jam. It’s partly tradition, partly that cooking with lemon makes me happy and partly that I have never bought jam better than the jam I make so why change a winning formula?

Bring it to the boil. I don’t bother mashing the fruit (I rather like finding a substantial piece of strawberry in my jam) and I stir occasionally. Spotting the setting point is the skill or knack. I use well chilled saucers. I have a sugar thermometer but I don’t use it very often. My advice is to err on the side of too runny. If you let it go too far you will have produced a strawberry toffee that is almost impossible to get out of the jar.

The whole process takes about 40 minutes and I’ve got two and a half large pots of strawberry jam all nicely jarred by bedtime and ready for my breakfast toast.

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Before I get to the jam and toast I use the asparagus. I poach the eggs and the asparagus in the same water; the asparagus for five minutes, the eggs for less than three. The toast takes three and the sauce is the remaining cheese sauce that wasn’t used when the market cauliflower became my all time favourite dish; cauliflower cheese. The breakfast is even better than the supper dish. I used to think that cauliflower cheese needed a rasher or two of bacon. Not true. Bread and butter is the perfect accompaniment; and someone you like a lot is the perfect company.

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It’s been a while since I made bread. Discovering a good bakery in the village has both spoiled me and denied me the opportunity of doing something I simply love doing. I don’t abandon the bakery entirely. I buy my bread flour there (and it is fabulous) and I buy my fresh yeast there as well. It is years since I’ve used fresh yeast and I want to punch myself. Instant yeast is pretty good these days but it isn’t as good. Fresh yeast is also easier to use.

Another benefit of fresh yeast from our bakery is that they haven’t gat a scale and two ounces paid for is often nearer six ounces in the bag.

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One day last week we see a mature couple sitting on the bench on our dog walk eating rather good looking pizzas from their cardboard boxes. Domino has just opened a branch in the village and we thought we’d save ourselves some cooking. The sun was shining, the garden felt inviting, we’d got cans of coke in the fridge for when Charlie and David come round. It is the first time I have ordered pizza from a well known firm and (unless someone tells me they have connections with organised crime or are ripping down the rainforest (both of which are all too possible)) it won’t be the last. T has Vege-Roma and I have Anchovy and Jalapeño. It is the start of five hours in the garden eating, drinking fizzy pop and reading in the sunshine.

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One of the reasons I gave up the pay-roll and started working for myself is so I can take off all the sunny days as holidays. I’ve started very well.

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Chesterfield also served us up a decent vegetarian cooked breakfast. It’s up one of the many little alleyways that add such character to the town centre and gave us good cheer as well as well cooked mushrooms and eggs.

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Hot rolls very rarely last long in our house. These are exceptionally nice. The flour from the bakery makes brilliant bread. The fresh yeast rises well and you can just about taste it in the bread. The bakery is good; these are better.

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A simple snack.

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The fresh yeast rises better and faster than dried or instant yeast. The end product is much superior as well.

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Mind you, the bakery has no competition from me when it comes to iced cream buns. I used to want a cigarette with my morning mug of tea. I think I must have been a bit stupid in those days. Cigarette or cream bun? No contest.

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Devilled mushrooms on toast to an original recipe.

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An instant devilling kit.

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Thursday sees us back at the bakery for elevenses. I have the eclair, T has the doughnut.

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In his book on the history of Italian food John Dickie asks the question of what would have happened if the thirteenth century peasants had realised just how wonderfully well pears goes with cheese? The peasants grew the pears and made the cheese and sold them to buy the tiniest scrap of meat. The aristocracy in the meantime were eating the cheese and pears. Marx would have something to say about it. I simply indulge my passion.

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The challenge is simple. To find out which goes best with cheese; pears or celery. I eat for quite a while and consume more than my share of all three and conclude that I’ll just have to try again some other time.

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On Good Friday I’m up early to make hot cross buns. I’ve never made them before and follow Paul Hollywood’s recipe. At least I do for a while. He’s a heck of a good baker but his recipes are too fussy for me. I also cannot keep stopping to read  the next bit. At the end I compare what I made with what he wrote and would be prepared to give him a 50% credit for the end product.

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They are superb. Four of us sit down to tea and not many hot cross buns survive the meal. It’s the start of the Easter weekend. We’ve got one child (hardly a child, he’s 24) back home and the other two coming round with partners. Plenty of good food on offer and the end of the Lenten fast. I’m rather looking forward to it.

 

Day 229: And Then Like My Dreams

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A Review of And Then Like My Dreams by Margaret-Rose Stringer

This book is a life story, an odyssey as all good life stories are. It’s the story of a person who met another person and found in that person everything that was missing. Questions became answers, doubts became certainties. But it isn’t a quaint romantic tale to be narrated above the love theme from Romeo and Juliet. This is a true to life telling of what it is to find yourself through finding someone else. How two became one and the one was so much greater than either. How the two found a greatness in the rightness of their relationship and in the humanity of the other.

9781922089021_ATLMD_WEBAnd it is a unique and individual story which at the same time reaches out to all of us. In the particular lies the universal. I read it sometimes as a sympathetic observer, sometimes with a detached empathy and oftentimes with fellow feeling.

It’s a poem, a love song and all the more special for being all the more real.

Those of us who have found purpose and possibility in life by meeting the right person, and have had the sense to realise their great good fortune, will find something rather special in these pages. It is more than a love story and it is more than an autobiography. It manages to paint a picture of what it is like to experience the ups and the downs and the going nowheres. It paints a picture of the everyday as well as of the occasions to be celebrated and you realise that it is in the beauty and honesty of the everyday that you discover the remarkable.

Margaret Rose Stringer portrays neither herself nor her husband, who she called Stringer (a touch that I find delightful) as saints. I like the volatile young Aussie woman who is liable to give back as good as she gets and often in a choleric outpouring that, while being blunt and to the point, was nonetheless not lacking in poetry. One minute I’m being charmed by the decency of their joint outlook on life and the next minute I’m being equally charmed by her ability to crumple a TV presenter in half a dozen lines variously referring to him as a moron, idiot, cretin and fuckwit. There’s a good leavening of grit in with the pastoral and I laughed aloud and cheered her on.

It would be hard to include spoilers in reviewing the book. I couldn’t steal thunder from the descriptions of their daily living and Margaret Rose (M.R.) herself tells you what is going to happen in the opening pages. She starts the book before the time she met Stringer and ends the book after Stringer has died. The decline in his health is painfully and truthfully drawn. You get the sense of caring as well as the feelings of inadequacy that we have when someone we love is dying. It’s moving and human. M.R. understands life and is able to bring that sense of truth to the pages of her book. There is no melodrama here just great decency, huge sadness and moments of sparkling delight. 52

There are times when things are going well. Both of them have important roles in the Australian film industry; M.R. as a continuity director and Stringer as one of the most respected stills men in the business. They have lean times when the lack of money impinges. But they always feel their richness in each other. They see through the good times and the bad with equal devotion and a shared sense of humour.

I love the attitudes. They don’t agree on everything, in fact they are very different people. The attraction is every bit as much the attraction of opposites as it is of the emotionally identical. On religion she is fiercely reactive to her strained Catholic upbringing, he, while resolutely atheist, is accepting and benign. On music and travel they are hand in glove and the chapters where they go off in search of Europe and opera sweep the reader along with them.

I’m of the same baby boomer generation and this story captures the times and the spirit better than any equivalent book I have read. We see inside the making of films as Australia becomes a major player in movies. We get a real sense of life in Sydney and Melbourne (and to a lesser extent, Perth). We get a feeling of what it was like to be young in the sixties and seventies and to grow older (together) throughout the great changes of the late twentieth century. But above all you get an important story well told. A story with its share of heartbreak and hardship but a story that transcends both and leaves you with a very warm feeling indeed.

I would have liked to have met Stringer. I can’t help feeling we’d have quite a lot in common. I’m pleased to say that I am coming to think of M.R. as a friend and I feel an altogether better man for having read her remarkable book. If you haven’t already done so, I suggest you give it a go. If you can, get the paper version as the electronic one comes without photographs and the pictures are a treat in themselves.

 

http://margaretrosestringer.com

Day 228: Reviewing the Situation

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Being Mostly about Books

A friend recommended Goodreads and I joined and used it and occasionally still do. I wanted to count up how many books I’d actually read, which turned out to be an approximate task, as I simply cannot remember the names of a whole pile of books that presumably should be filed under unmemorable. And I wanted to collect together some thoughts of my own and was soon writing review after review of books I had enjoyed. Because I’d enjoyed them the reviews tended to be favourable. They also tended to be favourable because I’d taken a “National Gallery” approach to much of my reading. I wanted to read books that were regarded as being exceptional. To see exceptional paintings, the National Gallery is a very good place to start. I started to read my way through the Penguin Classics and through the Everyman Library. There was no intellectual snobbery going on. I went in search of excellence and found I liked what was there. I became more immersed in every aspect of Père Goriot and Le Grand Meaulnes than I ever could with the works of Jilly Cooper and Erich Segal. When I came to review these books I found it very hard to give less than 4 stars.

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And so the friendship requests started to arrive. Some from established authors whose books I had treated favourably and many more from unknowns. I had no policy on internet friendships. If someone said they wanted to be my reading buddy that was OK with me. And then came the next set of requests. “I’ve self-published a novel and wondered if you’d be prepared to review it. I’ll send you a free electronic copy if you would be so kind”. And I’d say “Oh don’t be daft. I’ll buy a copy and review it gladly” I genuinely had an altruistic urge to do my bit as a minor patron of the literary arts.

And then I’d start to read…

And they were awful…

And I had this dilemma. What do I do? Do I tell the truth and upset someone I had allowed to call themselves my “friend’ (I was aware that the term had taken on a new ‘internet age’ meaning but was still reluctant to cause offence). But these books were practically unreadable. Do I make a mockery of a growing set of critical reviews by saying they are better than they are and risk other people thinking, “Well this man who likes Hemingway and Hesse thinks this book is very good” and actually buying the bilge on my recommendation.

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For a while I settled for a compromise and gave them 2 stars more than they deserved which meant that they either got three stars or, more often two. It caused a cessation of any communication with the authors who clearly had expected more. In the end I cleared out all friendships with people I didn’t know personally, and even a few of those, and have ignored all requests since then. I used to have a hundred or more reading companions and now I’ve got two, that I know and trust, and I like it better that way.

And then I started blogging. Now blogging is different once you get to know it (I am only just beginning to start to commence to uncover the mysteries and secrets of this world). You write your piece and are grateful to have it read and you read a piece of two in return and then you read another piece that you really like and you follow that writer/blogger. And slowly to find yourself following and being followed by a bunch of people you have a shared experience with. People whose work you like and people who like your work. It’s more than a mutual appreciation society. It is so many different things to so many different people.

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For me it’s a sounding board for ideas and a forum and a listening audience. A way of instantly seeing my scribbles and jottings displayed in a professional way and available to an appreciative section of the world. I started because I wanted to write but have slowly sifted through an acreage of the genuinely awful, the distinctly dubious and the utterly and dangerously insane to have found myself among a group I am beginning to think of as friends in the pre-internet meaning of the word. It’s the sort of friendship you strike up when you get sent away on a three day course; based on an enjoyment in what the course is about.

And they aren’t all writers. My daily readings and viewings take in some first rate photography, genuinely funny and insightful cartoonists, poets, painters, reviewers, philosophers, historians, hikers and cyclists, pontificators, practicing religious folk and dedicated atheists. And that’s just the shortened version of the list.

There were a number of reasons for beginning this blog and the main one was to find out what this phenomenon was all about; how it worked. In my book the best way to find out about something is to have a go at it and then to teach about it. (I’ll leave the teaching part out for now). And every day I feel I have got to know it a little bit better and every day it becomes just a little bit further from any pre-conceptions I had.

And I found a friend from Sydney who has inspired, badgered, nagged and encouraged me in my travel writings and has been darned good company for a number of months now. She’s not the first friend I found from Sydney; my wife was born in that city. It’s a city I intend to visit one day. It seems to come up with rather fine folk.

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And this friend had written a book and I decided to buy a copy of this. Being snowed under with reading projects, (Since retiring from payroll work my life has got a whole heap busier), I left it on one side until I could devote the time to read it properly. All the time a little fearful that I was about to embark on another friendship straining read.

And then I started it … no cliff-hanger …. and it is wonderful. I finally get the chance to write a review (or two, there will be one going on Goodreads) of a book written by someone I encountered over the internet where I don’t have to pretend. And Then Like My Dreams by Margaret Rose Stringer is an exceptional book and tomorrow’s blog will be entirely devoted to trying to do it justice.

Day 227: Reading My Way Out

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Mostly concerning Books

I left school a terrible dunce. I got good grades in English and English Literature though. Partly down to a good teacher or two and partly down to the fact that I’d discovered the pleasures of reading at an early age. I just hadn’t discovered that many good books.

My mother read but I can’t recall a single conversation with her about the books she read. My father wasn’t a reader. He claimed to have only read one book and that it was green. At other times he’d claim his sole literary achievement was Lorna Doone. There was a flaw in the believability of his claim. He was just too good at quizzes. He could identify any Shakespeare play or Dickens’ character from the tiniest quote. He could manage most of Henry the Fifth’s St Crispin’s Day speech and was apt to confuse Polonius’ advice to Laertes with his own fatherly advice to his three boys.

Some time after leaving home I took him on a walking holiday in Swaledale and we spent several days recalling his Yorkshire childhood over fells, camp fires and pints of beer. He’d excelled at school but left at fourteen to learn a trade. Sport consumed most of his spare time but one day his bicycle hit a car sending him spiralling over the handlebars and going an awful long way to putting an end to himself, and by logical progression, an end to me as well.

Toothless from that day on, his recovery was slow, painful and boring enough to necessitate the drastic action of actually reading a book. In fact during the eight weeks he was laid up he read his way through the complete works of both Dickens and Shakespeare which constituted the entire library of his and his friends houses. A near photographic memory held onto an awful lot of those works until Alzeimer’s wrought its cruelty.

After that he read the occasional book on engineering or biography of a favourite rugby player. His stock of literature was from those two teenaged months. Oh, and he was a devoted reader of a decent newspaper throughout his life.

I’d been lucky. A primary school teacher read us some Victor Hugo. I’d come across Tom Sawyer through a children’s television version and had had to study Henry the Fourth part One and To Kill a Mockingbird for O level. It wasn’t very much in numerical terms but it was quite something as a set of keys to explore books from. A girl I knew gave me a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and I read it cover to cover and thought it the most wonderful book imaginable. I’m still fond of it but it’s slipped down a peg or two in my rating over the years. Once I’d enthused about it, she gave me Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Suddenly I wasn’t  an unqualified school-leaver but a rebel without a cause, a ‘beat’ off in search of George Shearing’s piano playing. I never got far with the search, forgot about the teenage anxt and search for the freedom of travelling for a while. I was too busy making very little money doing dead end jobs Monday to Friday and spending the surplus in Huddersfield pubs on Friday and Saturday. I did continue to read though.

I took an unlikely liking to Jane Austen and would sneak off for a toilet break with a copy of Emma in my warehouse coat pocket. When working for a bus company I’d travel to work while poring over the pages of Thomas Hardy while my fellow travellers digested the Daily Mirror and reached for a packet of Embassy for the first good cough of the day. Strange to think that people used to smoke on buses.

It was while serving petrol at a Leeds Road filling station that I encountered Franz Kafka. There was something quite fitting in his terrible tales of injustice and imprisonment either in a labyrinthine legal process or in the body of a beetle while I was trapped in a job that offered mindless subservience, repetition and a frightening level of urban pollution (my neighbours were a major trunk road, a huge chemical works and a dye works based on the Silesian model.)

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Once I’d graduated to being a caretaker at Huddersfield Polytechnic I had access  to a phenomenal library (it may not compare with the great libraries of the world but it was twenty times the size of any library I had ever seen). Also I had the brains of the lecturers to pick and that led onto my own discovery of Dickens. I mostly worked an 8-4 shift but would vary this with what were known as “earlies” and “afters”. I liked “afters”. I didn’t finish until 10.30 but from six o’clock onwards there was the occasional door to open or lock and several hours of undisturbed reading. It wasn’t unknown for late working fellows to pop in to see me with a bundle of suggested titles. I think I became something of a pet project for them. Let’s get the caretaker into College.

It couldn’t last. I detoured into Stoke and found that the worst part of production line work is that you simply cannot read. I was cheerful and chatty on the shop floor where time dragged like a penance. In the canteen I was left quietly in a corner where I discovered that the terrible grind of mindless work in the Potteries had given Arnold Bennett the material for some of the greatest books in the language.

I couldn’t take more than a few months of that and found a job up in North Yorkshire as a relief warden for the Youth Hostel Association. It was perfect. Half the time I was posted to big hostels where the staff were fantastic company. The other half found me looking after tiny out of the way buildings. I read and read. In Haworth I was the only person I knew who had read any Brontë novel, let alone most of them. In Selby I devoured Trilby and William Boyd and Tom Sharpe. In Malton I read Patrick White and Emile Zola. In York I forgot about books and went skating on the frozen river.

It had all been leading up to returning to full time education. I felt a huge need to be among people who read, and was lucky to end up in Manchester. There the student age was older. There were quite a number of us who wanted to find out those things we’d missed out on when we were at school, and were determined not to waste the opportunity. (We were also there to down a few pints courtesy of a grant provided by the British tax payer (a debt I believe I have now repaid though my own contributions to the exchequer)).

I left school at sixteen something of a dunce; few qualifications, little ambition and no drive. The only thing I had going for me was a love of reading. I read voraciously and every one of those books was a rung on the ladder from doing what I was told to do, to doing what I wanted to do. And what I want to do is read.

Day 226: The String Section

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Mostly Concerning Music

It’s funny how a song will come into your mind. Laurence used to play a lovely version of Arthur McBride and the Sergeant on the guitar. He knew his stuff did Laurence and could play an awful lot better than he let on. He did several versions. I can’t remember the provenance of most but he spoke very highly of the one that Paul Brady had made popular. Laurence used to drop the tuning down to drop D and though this shouldn’t have been too difficult to follow it was enough to freeze my brain. I could imitate the melodic roll alright but I was beggered at remembering the adjustments I had to make for the chords.

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Laurence has been dead for over a decade now which means (he was almost exactly ten years older than me when we met in Manchester) that I am now older than he ever managed to be. And I’m suddenly reminded of the song. Must be twenty five years since I even thought of it and there it is dancing its jig in my brain and demanding to be sung.

I’m a better guitar player now than I was then but I don’t practice enough. I play it til my fingers bleed alright, but if you don’t play too often that doesn’t always take long. And then I don’t play it again for a month or two.

I’ve taken to leaving the two guitars I play most often (I’ve acquired 8 over the years) in places where they invite me to pick them up and have a sing. In recent years I’ve added a ukelele, a mandolin and a bass guitar into the collection. When another singer comes round I’ll play them until bedtime. But I’ve been writing a lot recently and those Thursday night and Sunday morning sessions don’t happen anymore. I wait until David come home from University and then we sing like old timers. He’s coming back on Thursday for Easter. Maybe that is what put me in mind of a song.

Paul Brady. Pic Myriad Artists.

Paul Brady. Pic Myriad Artists.

I saw Paul Brady play. It was actually one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve ever gone to. T and I went along to the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter and he gave us two hours of some of the best arranged songs I’d heard. It was during the mid eighties and he was borderline big time and was becoming as influenced by the over blown production techniques of the time as he was of traditional music and good old acoustic guitar singer song writing. He played an awful lot of very well made songs but he didn’t play Arthur McBride. I made up for the omission by singing a clumsy version before bedtime.

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Youtube is a wonderful thing. You think of a song and then you think of a particular version of a song and then you think of a particular performance of a particular version of a particular song and you can watch and listen to it at the click of a button. Having been reminded of just how good Paul Brady is and of what a good version he sang I get out the guitar and try to emulate. It doesn’t work on drop D, but I start to get somewhere by simply playing around with how I play the chords up the neck. It’s a lovely mixture of musicianship and nostalgia. If I can be bothered (disciplined enough) to work on it for a day or two I’ll have a song worth playing. I print off a lyric sheet and take it downstairs where I expect the other guitar to be. It isn’t. No mystery. I’m at an age where things often surprise me by being where I left them. But the mandolin is there.

I only know a handful of mandolin chords but a simplified version of the song only has a handful itself. It is after all a folk song. The whole idea is that they were played and sung by people who played and sung for the pleasure not the cleverness. And I begin and, to cut the story short, it sounded fantastic.

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The mandolin is brilliant for all of those rolling jigs and reels and the melody line plucked single (double) string stuff but it really comes alive when a strummer gets hold of it. Steve Earl on Copperhead Road, Mike Scott of the Waterboys, Levon Helm bashing out the opening chords of Evangeline. There may be no guitar but I settle down to a session of solo playing accompanied only by alternate mandolin and ukelele. (If a guitar’s strings start to cut into tender, underused fingers, then a mandolin does times ten. No wonder some call them the cheese grater. The uke is nylon strung and is almost balm to the pads after a clatter through The Rolling Stones Out of Time. Mark Wallington wrote a lovely book a couple of years ago about a middle age frustrated rock and roller who goes on a wayward tour of Britain performing at open mic nights on the ukelele and bringing the house down with Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Little Richard numbers. Not to be outdone on the frustrated middle aged bit at least I launch into a rather lovely ukelele version of Rave On. I have the undivided attention of a dog and a cat. The fact that it is feeding time doesn’t enter into it. You don’t come between a true musician and his audience.

Photo Credit Mark Wallington

Photo Credit Mark Wallington

The mandolin again and I think of trying Copperhead Road but give up after a few introductory chords and slip seamlessly into an impromptu version of My Old Friend the Blues. By the time I get the the higher register refrain I’m in seventh heaven.

Photo credit The Daily Loaf

The singing goes on. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s brilliant medley of Somewhere Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World requires me to run off chords and lyrics but as soon as I begin to intone the introduction (an octave lover than the original and nowhere near as sweet) I’m carried away by the arrangement.

And so the morning pans out. Tim and Jeff Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jake Thackray, Joni Mitchell (Both Sides Now sung in the style of George Formby), George Harrison (himself a devoted advocate of the ukelele) all get the four (eight) string treatment. My fingers bleed, my voice goes hoarse. Once it goes hoarse I move onto Merle Haggard and George Jones.

It was unintended and improvised throughout but this was one of the most enjoyable sessions I’ve had. Once we had two cats and a dog I had at least one cat to play ice hockey with the plectrums and to sprawl across the song sheets. David will be back home at the weekend and a good sing will be in order. I’ve got a few arrangements he may never have heard before.

Day 225: Cats and Dogs and Birds

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We’ve always been a five. At least that’s the way it seems. I can’t very much remember what things were like before we had children and though I remember them coming along and becoming who they are one by one and enjoying every moment of it, I can’t really remember being a father of one or even of two children. I seem always to have been the father of three and I like that very much indeed.

And now all three live their own lives away from home and that is very nice as well. Particularly nice on a week when we are likely to be re-united for at least part of the Easter weekend.

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Bonnie was left behind when her previous owners left the street. She was literally starving to death so we took her in. She was very old, and suffering. We gave her a good final year.

Their places seem to have been taken though. We still seem to be a five. Three children have been replaced by two cats and a dog. If I’m keeping a food diary of the years then they shouldn’t be missed and neither should all the animals and birds who live in the garden.

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We’re lucky to have a rather lovely cherry tree in the centre of our garden. Behind it are some conifers which I’d probably remove if they weren’t both home and refuge to at least two dozen birds. Sparrows and wrens nest in there. So do robins. Blue tits, great tits and coal tits (chickadees), feel safe feeding from the food we hang out, if they have a sheltered safe haven nearby. Chaffinches, gold finches, green finches are also regular visitors. Wood pigeons, collared doves, starlings, sparrows, dunnocks and blackbirds can also be seen daily. A song thrush comes to pay us a call at least once a week and a mistle thrush is an infrequent visitor. We can go weeks without seeing a long tailed tit and suddenly they swarm into the garden. I’ve seen as many as thirty in the tree at one go.

Hedgehogs find their way into this quiet little haven. The garden is hardly busy and the area around the garden has become something of a nature reserve. There are shrews in there. Foxes patrol the local paths in the early hours and grey squirrels raid the bird feeders. Some see them as vermin. I see them as rather successful opportunists.  I bought a squirrel proof feeder but it didn’t take them long to find a way to get at the peanuts.

I’m not an expert on butterflies but I plant butterfly friendly plants and shrubs. I’ve seen gatekeepers, peacocks, red admirals, tortoiseshells, cabbage white, orange tipped and no end of little brown fellows. I keep meaning to become better at recognising them but instead have remained happy just to sit and watch them.

The garden is neat enough to enjoy sitting out but it is designed to be as wildlife friendly as we can make it. We don’t use weedkillers or pesticides. It’s quite simple to grow flowers together that attract natural pesticides. Planting candytuft and marigolds attracts lace wings and ladybirds. These keep down aphids and the birds and the hedgehogs do a pretty good job on many of the other pests. If you sit out at night then we have no shortage of bats in the neighbourhood and these are friends of the natural gardener.

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Percy birdwatching.

Neither of the cats go out of the house. Stewart will venture into the garden to nibble grass but returns at the first sign of danger (such as a car door shutting a few hundred yards away). Percy would be off and out and we’d never see him again. He’s afraid of nothing and wouldn’t think twice before walking in front of a car. He’s got acres of room in the house and gets his hunting kicks from sitting on the window sill and watching the birds through the glass. Most of the time he is entranced. If, however, there is a wood pigeon out there he is immediately into the crouch and pounce positions. It’s almost like watching a cat playing on a Wi.

 

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I can’t have a feature on the animals without one of Bella. The wisest of all our animals. She helped Bonnie settle in. A very kind dog.

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If you leave a bag or a box you can expect it to have a tenant within minutes. Usually Percy, but not always.

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A very patient patient. Even a cut paw didn’t slow her down for long.

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On the beach at Hunstanton with the sky the sea and Lincolnshire meeting in the background.

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Sometimes we sits and thinks an sometimes we just sits.

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These two will chat away for hours. Stewart seems to be the pedagogue and Jolly the student.

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When she does lie down (which isn’t often) it is like she has been felled.

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My camera isn’t up to wildlife shots. Here’s our visiting squirrel.

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Frances and Steven’s cats; Minnie and Jazz.

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There is only one rule when Percy is around. Leave nothing unattended.

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She’s a thorough bred sheep dog and would have made a very good one. She spends her whole life herding and looking after the rest of us.

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Stewart is very fond of a dripping tap. He’ll sit by one for hours in the hope that you’ll turn it on. If you oblige he walks off.

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Stewart and Jolly have become very good friends. They even have dinner together.

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Stewart enjoys a snooze at the top of the stairs.

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Cherry blossom. The best of all the spring blooms.

The real highlights of our lives are when the children come home, but in the meantime we have enough dependents to keep us on our toes.

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