Thursday, 26 December 2013

Things I made for Christmas

I don't make a traditional Christmas cake.  Previous attempts haven't been that successful - no one at home likes it except me and I can't really eat a whole cake myself. So instead we have started our own tradition of making a house cake.  We started off with gingerbread houses (see below for the 2011 one) but again I found that most of the cake was thrown out when the sweets had been eaten off it.  (Small boy nephews and niece did a good Hansel and Gretel job).  I don't like wasting food so we invented our own version using Mary Berry chocolate cake baked in a tray, cut into layers and then built up using butter cream with After Eight mint roof tiles and mini roll chimney.  Doesn't look as good and it kind of collapsed not long after the photo was taken.  But Kate and I had fun making it.  And we've eaten most of it.

I also made my sisters' Christmas presents this year.  I've talked before here about writing a memoir and when Dad died I kind of got on with it.  I enjoyed writing about our childhood in the 1960s and 70s, looking at the old photos and remembering.   I used Blurb bookmaking software and was impressed with how easy it was and the results were good even though I used photos of old photos rather than scanning the images in. Yesterday of course they opened the presents.  Although all four of them cried when they read the dedication, I think they liked it.  The picture on the front shows me and my sister aged 3 and 2 outside our house in Ballyronan in 1962. 

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Cold Callers at Christmas

Cold callers, those strangers who turn up on the doorstep or on the phone offering their services or flogging their wares, aren't usually welcome here.  Part of my husband's job involves protecting vulnerable people from unscrupulous callers who con them out of money by fixing things which don't need repair or distract them and then steal their purses.  So he is always wary and often rude to any stranger who rings the doorbell.

So it was a good job I answered the door to the first cold callers we had last weekend, an elderly couple offering me a copy of Watchtower and drawing my attention to its message 'Do we Need a God?' I was polite; accepted their magazine but affected a busy, distracted manner to avoid engaging in further discussion. My faith in an eternal being, who could sort out the mess in this world and provide a happy afterlife for the chosen few, has long since evaporated, despite many years of Sunday school as a child.

Then on Sunday afternoon we had another caller.  A teenager on a bike carrying a green bucket.   Struggling a bit with his words, he offered a 'pay what you like' hand car wash. My first reaction was to send him packing: he looked a bit dodgy and might be checking to see if we were in before pinching something. But it was nearly dark and freezing; he had a nice smile and didn't look much older than my daughter. She was sitting in the warm on the other side of the glass watching 'Nativity' while simultaneously stalking her schoolmates on Facebook.  It was a real 'no room at the inn' moment.  So I got him a bucket of hot water and let him loose on my grubby car. Not much cash in the house: I'd spent it all on buying presents of chocolate from Thornton's for Kate's friends which they don't need or want much.  We managed to gather up £4.88, some of it in 5ps.  He was pathetically grateful.  And he'd removed a layer or two of grime from the car even if it wasn't exactly a professional job.

Am questioning my motivation for including this in my blog.  Am I trying to portray myself as some kind of Samaritan in a world full of greed?  No - I'm as selfish as the next person, walking past the Big Issue seller with only a glimmer of guilt on my way back from Thornton's to meet husband in Costa earlier that day.  But the whole Christmas greed thing does start to get to me at this time of year. The queue outside the Pandora shop on Sunday morning snaked right along the street. Past the doorways where it's not unusual to see a homeless person sheltering in the streets of this affluent town.  My first cold callers were right.  We do need a God. But where is he?

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Christmas Pinks and Blues

Inspired by beautiful skies and glorious photographs taken by Mairead in her blog As I Roved Out,  I got the camera out early one morning this week.  Can't match the quality of her photography but thought I'd share these pictures.

Pink and blue is also the colour scheme for our tree this year though I'm not that fussy really and we add things that Kate made at primary school too.  And love my little flying goose which I get out every year.

Happy Christmas to you all.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Christmas Carols with the Songsmiths

I haven't really felt much like preparing for Christmas this year.  I'm missing dad and as we are staying at home, it may feel a bit lonely with just the three of us.

But one thing has helped  me feel a bit more positive has been taking part in several performances with my choir, The Songsmiths.   Christmas is our busiest time and we've performed at three events in the last couple of weeks.  The first event was the Tree of Light Service organised by the local hospital for people who have lost friends and family.  It was a bit of an emotional occasion and I was doing fine, singing all our prepared choir carols, until we all sang 'Away in  a Manger'.  Must be the association with childhood.  I wasn't the only one who got a bit tearful, so it didn't matter so much.  Good to remember.

We also sang on the bandstand by the river in Chester last Sunday for the Santa Dash,  in aid of a local hospice.  Loads of people dressed in Santa suits waving as they went past. Then there was a charity carol service in a local church for the Countess of Chester Babygro appeal.  We enjoyed singing and our audiences responded positively too.  Our repertoire ranged from 'O Holy Night' to 'AWinter's Tale' by David Essex. Other favourites include 'Hallelujah' and 'Let it Snow'

It's a lovely choir - not too serious.  We have words, usually, rather than sheet music and our talented leader works out harmonies by ear.  We are loosely divided into Highies, Lowies and Tune.  I sing Tune, the easiest option of course.  I have no illusions about my musical abilities but absolutely love singing.  You can find us on You Tube by looking up Songsmiths, Chester.

Tonight is choir Christmas night out so I'm going to put on my new sparkly jumper from M&S and join the others for some food and wine and a bit more singing.

The Songsmiths performing for the Babygro appeal last year 

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Remembering Jim Ferguson

Just over two weeks ago on Saturday 9th November my father, Jim Ferguson, died.  He'd been in hospital after several weeks of illness but was on the mend we thought: sitting up and out of bed; doing the Mirror crossword again and asking for chocolate as his appetite was back.  Everyone who'd visited said he was on good form.  So it was a shock for my sister who lives in Northern Ireland when she was called by the hospital in the middle of the night and told to come right away. By the time she arrived he was dead - a heart attack.  Not wishing to call her me or my other sisters in England in the middle of the night, she shared the news first with the only sister who was awake on the other side of the world in New Zealand. When the phone rang here at 720 am I knew the news wasn't good. And now back in Chester two weeks later I'm still finding it hard to believe he isn't there on the other end of the phone asking for help with tricky crossword clues.

So all five of us sisters and our families travelled back to Ballyronan for the funeral,  assembling for a sad occasion this time after our last happy reunion there for Dad's 80th birthday.  In Northern Ireland funerals tend to be much bigger than those I've attended in England. Before the funeral there is also the wake where people from the local community come to pay their respects.  So Dad was brought home in his coffin on the Monday evening and we put him in the room which once was Ballyronan Post Office.  So many people came: aunts and uncle and cousins who moved furniture and bore gifts of food and extra kettles, since it is the tradition to provide tea and buns for those who visit.  And then other people from the village and the surrounding area:  those we knew well; old faces from our childhood and some we didn't know at all.  Older people and  younger; Catholic and Protestant; members of the Orange Lodge and a local SDLP politician, whose father was an old friend of Dad's.  For everyone loved Dad and he had time for everyone - the back door was always open and people would turn up in the yard to ask for a favour or just come in for a bit of craic.  Many of those who came had stories tell about Dad. We found some old scrapbooks Mummy had kept: pictures cut from the Mid Ulster Mail of them at Woods Bowling Club dinners and him with his prize-winning bullocks. We talked; we cried but at times we laughed too.  It did really feel like a celebration of his life.

As is the tradition the coffin was carried through the village on the day on the funeral, the local shop and post office closing as we passed as a mark of respect.  Two of his older grandsons, aged 18 and 21, helped carry the coffin, and we walked behind.  Kate's first funeral and now her last grandparent has gone.  Little Anna aged 4, the youngest grandchild from New Zealand, came too though she didn't understand what was happening.  She said as we walked, "What's in the box? It looks very heavy." She was right Dad was no lightweight, but still men were queuing up for a lift of the coffin, another way of showing respect.  Later, perhaps grasping what was happening, she said so simply what we were all thinking, "I don't want Granda to be dead.'

Later in the week we began the grim task of sorting the farmhouse.  Dad had lived there all his life and nothing has ever been thrown out.  There are teasets which they'd received as wedding presents; unused sets of cutlery; Sunday School prize winning books belonging to my aunt.  My wedding dress, Mum's wedding dress.  My sisters and I approached this task in different ways.  Right now I just want everything to stay as it is - for a while at least.  But some of the others wanted to get on with things and that's fine with me. Whatever happens we won't fall out about it - Dad wouldn't want that.

So I came back to Chester with just one thing I wanted.  On the wall when we were small was this scroll dedicated to the memory of James Ferguson, my grandfather's brother, who died aged 21 in the First World War. My father was christened James in memory of him.  It always fascinated me, even before I could read the words We also found the medal commemorating him in the china cabinet among the teasets and the Whimsie animal figures we collected as children. On Remembrance weekend it seemed fitting to remember this James Ferguson too.

The big house on the corner as you go into Ballyronan is empty now we've all gone back to our own homes. The stove in the kitchen, the heart of the house, is out.   We'll light it again when we return in the Christmas holidays.  But home will never feel like home again.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Birthday Celebrations in a Giraffe Onesie

My daughter, Kate, turned 14 this week. In addition to most of the contents of Boots, she requested one more sensible (and warm) present - an animal onesie from Primark.  I choose the giraffe, always my favourite animal from our visits to Chester Zoo when she was little.  Here she is blowing out her candles on Monday, posing with the usual teenage Facebook expression.  Last  night,  the celebrations continued with 10 of her school friends in a local Italian restaurant.

I can hardly believe she is 14, an age that I recall being very significant - a kind of limbo when you are no longer a child, but not an adult either.  It doesn't seem so very long since they were wheeling me back to the ward with her in my arms and asking me her name.  Kate, I said. Not Katie, too girly..  Chose the name because Shakespeare tended to use it for feisty, strong women.  She's on her way to living up to it.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Blue skies in Barcelona

Half term and we escaped the autumn wind and rain for a couple of days, taking a short break in Barcelona. In summer, Spain is too hot for us Celtic types with our fair skin;  however autumn sun and temperatures of 22-25 degrees suited us fine.  So we enjoyed exploring La Rambla, the Old Town and the Port area. Didn't really do museums - teenager not keen - or see any of the Gaudi buildings.  But lots of eating tapas, exploring the markets and people-watching.  And a guitar music concert in a building which was decorated like a wedding cake.  Will let the pictures do the talking today.

The Square near our hotel: slightly dodgy area.  Husband lagging behind us with bad ankle was approached by lady offering him a good time!

Walked to the beach.   Teenager soaked her sore feet in the sea.

Colourful market stalls.  So many varieties of mushrooms.

The ornate ceiling of the concert hall.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Rainey Endowed School 300th anniversary celebration: '50 Shillings and a New Suit of Clothes'

I returned to Northern Ireland at the weekend to attend a concert at the Grand Opera House in Belfast which celebrated 300 years of the Rainey, the school which I attended in
Magherafelt.   My sister, other members of my extended family; and some old acquaintances from my time there in the 70's were singing in the old pupils' choir.

It was a wonderful occasion.  The show was produced and directed by former pupil Ashley Fulton, a very talented young man: he also wrote four original songs for the production and came up with idea which provided a kind of story framework for what otherwise would have been a random collection of songs.   Other talented ex-pupils returned to take part: actress Laura Piper read Heaney's 'Station Island '; accomplished musician Rhoda Barfoot played the violin and Ian McLernon, who has been in West End shows, performed several of the solos.

The title for the performance comes from the will of Hugh Rainey who founded the school back at the beginning of the 18th century.  He wanted a school to be built to educate eight boys from the local community who would otherwise have few opportunities.  Their education was to be Christian its ethos but not linked to any particular creed.  (This has continued until the present day - the Rainey was an integrated school even in the 70's - there were many Catholic boys in my year, though few girls as they went to the local convent school).  When the 8 boys had completed their time at the school they would be given 50 shillings and a new suit of clothes before they were sent out into the world.  Ashley Fulton had seen a copy of the will displayed in the school and it gave him the ideas for the production. 

The songs he wrote and those he selected to be performed by current and old pupils' choirs shared the theme of love of home along with the desire to move on and make the most of the opportunities education offers.  There were a range of old favourites: 'Danny Boy', 'Bridge over Troubled Waters',  'To Feel the Rhythm of Life', 'Time to say Goodbye'.   And then that rather sentimental song from  Mamma Mia, 'Slipping Through my Fingers'.   I wasn't so sure about the bit where current pupils in uniform sat on stage with suitcases gazing wistfully into the distance while the choir sang.    Presumably they were meant to represent the boys leaving with their 50 shillings and new suit.   However, they looked a little uncomfortable and I am sure were suppressing giggles.

I gatecrashed the cast after-party so I could catch up with a few people I had not seen since I left school 35 years ago.  A very strange experience.  Those, like my sister,who were able to take part in the performance really enjoyed it, returning to the Johnson Hall for Saturday rehearsals and renewing old friendships.   A wonderful experience for all who took part and for the appreciative audience.  And a fitting tribute to a great school.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Chester Mystery Plays at Liverpool Cathedral

Saturday nights have been a touch dull recently.  Too much watching of 'Strictly' and 'X-Factor'.  'Strictly' just about tolerable, thought the formula is a little tired now, but 'X Factor' unbearable.  Especially with Nicole Schistherface.  So planned an outing this week - to Liverpool for a meal out and a bit of live theatre.

Other family members not terribly keen when I told them of my plans - a trip to the cathedral in Liverpool to see a revival of the Chester Mystery Plays which we missed in the summer.  It only comes round very five years and I was sorry to have missed it when it was on, because I wanted to support several of the amateur cast who I know, including the young actress who played Mary.  But atheist husband and wannabe cool teenager not desperately thrilled by idea of spending Saturday evening watching Bible stories, no matter how impressive the staging.  Bribed them by arranging a meal first.  Very good pre-theatre menu in Bistrot  Jaques. And so, full of Steak Chasseur, we headed for the cathedral.

I hadn't been in the cathedral for nearly 30 years when the grumpy one took me there when we were courting.  Perhaps his atheist views not so strong then.  Or was it just the architecture which impressed him? It is a beautiful building and provided a stunning backdrop for the production, with the steps and the upper level being used cleverly to show the route to heaven.  The audience were seated not in pews as I expected, but in rather uncomfortable folding chairs.  And I was sitting in close proximity to a man who had a rotten cold and kept sneezing revoltingly into his handkerchief. Yuck!

Despite this I enjoyed the performance.  There was a huge cast of local people from Chester, from children of about five or six, to pensioners.   All the musicians were amateurs too.  The whole thing was put together by Mr Chester Theatre, Matt Baker, who I think also wrote the score.  If I wasn't such a lazy blogger, I'd link to his Theatre in the Quarter Company and check this.  But I am lazy and  inept at such technicalities. He appeared on stage too on a couple of occasions, playing a piano accordion with gusto in the pub scene.  A very talented man who contributes hugely to cultural life in Chester.

My favourite scene was the arrival of the animals onto Noah's Ark, with the children in masks; the crocodile looked about 5 and snapped his jaws with great enthusiasm.  The children also made an excellent job of recreating the Garden of Eden, complete with bird song and animal noises.  I also liked  the scene where Mary, dressed as a waitress, admits to Joseph that she's in a bit of trouble.  Mary sang beautifully, but unfortunately the huge space meant that we didn't hear her so well.  I was surprised she didn't have an individual mic like the Angel Gabriel, dapper in white suit, who performed a Sinatra Style number when telling Mary of his plans for her. Another scene recreated the Chester Races effectively: children in racing silks riding on shoulders while hidden by the roaring crowd.  And lots of  girls in posh dresses rather worse for wear, just like in town after race day. No surprise then when quite a few of them end up heading for hell in the next Judgement Day scene.  I was a bit bothered that Eve was led off to hell while Adam makes it to heaven.  Is that what happens in the Bible?  Blame the woman then.

There were also some very moving scenes, such as the one pictured above where Herod kills all the children. The tiny bundles were unfurled to show flags: a message for a world where tyrants are still killing children.  I was also close to tears in the scene where Jesus's body is taken down off the cross.  The music was very powerful at this point and added to the poignancy of Mary's grief.

So what was the verdict from my companions?  Teenager quite impressed with the staging and she recognised a few of the cast from various drama productions she's been involved in so she was quite happy. Husband less so.  But then I haven't always been that keen to stand drinking lager from a plastic glass in venues which smell of stale beer and sick to watch some of the bands he likes to see.  So it's payback time.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

To Autumn - Seasons of mist....

Hasn't it been a glorious autumn?  Spent yesterday in the garden, raking leaves, doing a final pre-winter tidy up and enjoying the late sunshine.  And a long dog walk with a friend down a local road lined with old oak trees.  I've never seen so many acorns - and such large ones. And berries and glorious shiny conkers.  So instead of words (too weary) here are a few autumn images for the record.

This blog is turning into a kind of country diary - hard to believe I started writing about fashion in January. So it'd be Country Diary of a Poo Bag lady then as that's what I'm usually carrying on my walks.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

'Live' Theatre on a Shoestring: National Theatre's 'Othello' at Cheshire Oaks


On Thursday evening I went with a couple of colleagues and our A Level English Literature group of 9 to see the production of of 'Othello' which was playing at the NationalTheatre in London, but also being broadcast live in cinemas around the country and abroad.  We gathered at the local Vue cinema, where the usual cinema-going audience seemed to have disappeared to be replaced by a rather older, more sedate group of people.  Few sales of buckets of popcorn or gallons of coke, though Ben and Jerry's did well.  Our group reduced the average age of the audience significantly. (Well maybe not me!).  The event was hugely popular - they sold two full screens, it seems, and we had to rush to find a seat when doors opened.

I have to admit my expectations were not high: televised theatre productions I'd seen in the past had often been disappointing - static camera pointed at the stage mostly.  But this was a fantastic experience as they have improved the way they film the productions so that you can see the actors up close in some scenes but then aerial shots allowed a view of the full set.  And presumably this was done in a way which did not distract the live audience. We could hear the reaction at the National and at times the cinema audience responded in a slightly different way, laughing, perhaps, because we could see a character's facial expression in more detail.  One of our student's boyfriend, who is at drama school in London, was in the audience there and she felt her experience was as good as his as he was in the cheap seats, far from the stage. It didn't feel like film and the only time the illusion was shattered was when it came to the end and the audience in London reacted with applause.  Some of us did too even though there was no one but the Vue ice-cream sellers there to receive it.

And the production of 'Othello' itself was excellent. It was set in a modern day army garrison with one scene showing a drunken brawl between the soldiers. I liked Rory Kinnear as Iago, sounding a bit like Phil from East Enders, in contrast to posh Cassio, who was a kind of Prince Harry figure getting into trouble by drinking with his men.  The scene where Othello (Adrian Lester) overhears Cassio talking of the hankerchief is set in a toilet: he hides in a cubicle.  All of this worked well and showed how the play remains relevant today.  Adrian Lester was a strong Othello though I feel his descent from self-control and love for Desdemona to totally irrational behaviour and murder just happens too fast.  But that's the play I suppose.

I've never seen the play before, but I had read it and taught extracts.  So I knew what was coming and remained dry-eyed at Desdemona's demise.  Behind us someone was sobbing: one of the grey-haired theatre buffs we'd seen queuing up, I assumed.

No - it was one of our students.  You see they've only just started studying the play and they didn't know what would happen.  And this 17 year old girl was deeply shocked by the way Othello treated Desdemona, from the first casual slap to the bedroom scene when he murders her despite her desperate pleas.  She was still crying as we left the cinema; others in the group admitted they'd also been close to tears.  Although sorry to see her so upset, in some ways I was pleased that she's been moved so much.  She'd responded to the play as Shakespeare had wanted his audience to respond the first time it was shown. She'll remember this, probably the first live Shakespeare she has seen, for a long time.

All this for £10 a head.  Thank you, National Theatre.  I want to see their production of 'War Horse'.  It's coming to The Lowry in Salford at Christmas.  Tried booking tickets last week - husband Christmas present I thought.  £50 a head.  Too much.  So I am now waiting to book tickets for the 'live' cinema performance on 27th February.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Longing for the 'sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care'

4am and insomnia again.  At least this time I've taken the advice given in all the books and got up after half an hour of sleeplessness instead doing what I did this time last week: lying there making mental lists of things to do.  I'm drinking tea though, not milk or any of the other vile concoctions that are supposed to aid restful sleep.  And instead of writing this I should be doing something repetitive and boring until I feel tired again.  Like knitting.  But I haven't got the patience for knitting.  There's always the ironing.....

I've tried all the remedies for this middle of the night wake up which leaves me zombie-like and grumpy the next day.  I've had some success with herbal remedies - valerian, hops and passion flower tablets from Boots.  But last night's red wine probably spoiled their effect.   Could try the Paul McKenna hypnosis tape, I suppose.  (You will follow the rules of sleep....). Hasn't worked for me as I don't follow the rules.  No wine, no tea, no reading in bed - no fun.

One remedy that does work is Nytol - not the herbal one,  the one you have to ask for at the pharmacy which is basically anti-histamine.  The full dose of two tablets taken at bedtime does the trick.  But then I wake up with a dry mouth feeling dreadful even after a full night's sleep.   Even half a tablet  works.  Or a Piriton has the same effect.

I used to worry about not sleeping but recently have learned to live with it.  More time for reading and middle of the night blogging.  Off to bed to try some alternate nostril breathing now.  Or other yoga relaxation techniques.  More nonsense which doesn't work.  Only an hour or so left before teenager starts banging around anyway.  Takes her two hours to get ready for school.  Madness.  Like Macbeth I'll probably 'sleep no more' tonight.  My 'ravell'd sleeve' will remain unknitted.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

One year on from our 9/11

8.10 Tuesday morning; 11th September 2012.  In PJs, my day off and Kate getting ready to leave for school.  The phone rang...a voice I didn't recognise, a stranger. He'd barely said a sentence before fear gripped me.  Husband; accident, on the road to Whitchurch. Did I want to come down there? Asked could I speak to him.  Not at the moment...  Confused. Kate had picked up what was happening and was crying. I didn't know what to do next.  This wasn't the way these things happen on TV.  No police or ambulance drivers to tell me what to do.  Just this stranger.  I asked his name - Matt. It struck me then why he wasn't waiting for the professionals.  He thought Paul wouldn't make it.

 Looking at the car you can see why he thought that.  A heavy metal crate had fallen onto it from a lorry.

I was shaky after the call but put on a brave face for Kate. Phoned a good friend and neighbour to drive me. The phone rang again.  Matt.  Better news. Ambulance was there and fire brigade- they were cutting him out and taking him to hospital.  Sent Kate to school and went to the local hospital to wait.  And wait.  Staff in A&E unhelpful and uninformed and lacking in any empathy.  Said they were expecting a 'RTA', though. Could I take a seat?  Sat there among the sprained ankles and minor injuries.  It all felt unreal. Felt detached, watching myself as if in a soap opera.  Tried not to think about how life might change but my mind running away visualising future scenarios.  How he said he wanted the Hipsway song at his funeral.  Waited and waited.  My wonderful friend still there. 40 minutes passed and then we heard the ambulance outside.

Swung from terror to near elation in seconds.  Ambulance driver smiling and saying it looks worse than it is; Paul talking to me saying he was OK.  In contrast to those in the front desk, staff on the A&E ward were wonderful.  They let me hold his hand as they picked bits of metal from the huge gash on his head and then sewed it up.  23 stitches and a scar which beats Harry Potter.  Scans and X rays revealed no life threatening injuries but there were compressed discs in his spine.  Not much fun, but he'd be OK - eventually.

 Last week, one year on from the accident I was very proud to see him achieve the goal he set himself a month or so later.  He completed a charity cycle ride from London to Brussels for the Alzheimer's Society, raising over £900.  It wasn't easy and his back injury continues to cause him problems, but he did it.

Writing this meant reliving the experience.  But it's good to remember.  I stared into the void but then got my life back.  And it's precious.  I remember too the kindness of that stranger Matt.  I'm not sure I'd have been brave enough to make that call.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Goodbye summer!

Summer has ended abruptly here in the North West with a wet and miserable day yesterday and a chilly one today.  Have even lit the fire this afternoon.  The weather, the darker evenings and the return to work this week has left me feeling a little low.

Time to look back then on a wonderful summer before routine fully establishes itself.  No major holidays abroad, just our week in Cornwall and then several visits to see family and friends.

This summer I:

Visited my sister in Sussex and spent a day Brighton, exploring the Lanes and vintage shops with our teenage daughters.

Had a day out in London on the same trip.

Revisited Camden Market in London after a gap of around 25 years.  (Used to go their on Sunday mornings years ago to listen to jazz in Dingwalls)  Loved the Turkish lighting stalls and one of the desk lamps is on my Christmas list.

Sampled the food from the many ethnic food stalls on Camden market.

Then, in complete contrast, went to Harrods and travelled up the Egyptian escalator to the sound of an opera singer performing 'Land of Hope and Glory' live

Joined another sister and her young family in Northern Ireland for a family get together on the August Bank holiday weekend.  Took the children to a Princesses and Pirates day at local National Trust property Springhill.

Supported my husband and two brothers-in-law as they took part in 'Lap the Lough', an event where 2000 participants cycled around Lough Neagh.

Attended the 100th birthday party of a neighbour in Northern Ireland in this beautiful garden Although a little confused, she certainly enjoyed the occasion, entertaining her guests by singing and playing the mouth organ.

Went on daytrips locally here in the North West.  Got together with old friends from primary school days. Kids got muddy on Manley Mere adventure trail and another day we had a very breezy walk on the beach from Hoylake to West Kirby.

Hired a pedal boat on the River Dee in Chester and sat back enjoying the sun with a friend while our daughters did the hard work of pedalling.  And squealing loudly.

A memorable summer.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Blackberry Picking: a tribute to Seamus Heaney

The blackberries on the cycle path where we walk the dog are finally ripe and as I ate the first few last week I remembered the lines from Heaney's poem, Blackberry Picking

Late August,given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine, summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

And now he's dead.  I was very sad to hear the news, having loved Heaney's poetry since first being introduced to it by a wonderful English teacher in the early 1970's. He read us The Early Purges, which is about kittens being drowned on a farm and it contained the line 'the scraggy wee shits', which of course scandalised and delighted our class at that time,  Like Heaney as a child I lived on a farm in South Derry, so I recognised  the things he wrote about: gathering potatoes; picking blackberries.... and kittens being drowned.  Poetry had been mysterious and distant until then: I hadn't realised it could be about things I knew about.  In some ways it was this experience that set me on the route to my career as an English teacher.

So now I introduce Heaney's poems to the classes I teach: he's been on GCSE syllabuses for many years now.  Although few have much experience these days of collecting frogspawn or picking blackberries, the poems still  resonate with them, a  favourite being Mid-term Break, Heaney's early poem about the death of his 4 year old brother Christopher in a car accident.  

In 1995, I wrote to Seamus Heaney and told him about how I loved his poetry. I described my memories of growing up in Ballyronan which is about 6 miles from Toome and how much his poetry had influenced me when I was young.  I was taking a group of 'A' level students  to hear him speak at a conference in London on the 17th March that year and cheekily asked him if he'd like to join me for a drink to toast St Patrick.  I didn't really expect to get a reply as I'd sent the letter to Faber and Faber, but I did.  He not only wrote me a letter, but phoned me up to apologise: he was already committed to lunch with others that day. I thought it was my dad on the phone - he sounded just the same with his South Derry accent. And then when we were at the conference during the break there was an announcement asking me to come back stage.  My students were very impressed: my 15 minutes, or 5 seconds, of fame.  

And so I met him.  He was a lovely, modest, genuine man.  We talked of home: he knew John McGlone in the garage across the road from us and how his wife is from Ardboe, not far from Ballyronan.  I was a bit overwhelmed and didn't really say any of the things I should have said. And I couldn't stay long, being in sole charge of a group of students.  Even so this was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. 

When I left that school in 2001, my leaving present was a copy of Heaney's latest collection, Electric Light with a signed dedication from Heaney. This is a very precious possession.

 I'll leave the last words to Heaney.  This is from Clearances which he wrote after the death of his mother:

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet's differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Like a butterfly...

More butterflies.  In my last post at the end of July I was thrilled to have spotted one solitary peacock butterfly.  So it made my heart sing to find this buddleia bush covered with dozens of peacocks and tortoiseshells in the back car park of the school where I work a couple of weeks ago.  (I'd gone in to pick up results - holidays coming to an end.)  I will definitely have to plant my own butterfly bush: it certainly deserves the name.   Not great photos - my ancient Blackberry really not up to the job.

I've been wondering as I come back to blogging about my affinity for butterflies. Perhaps it's because, like butterflies, I flit about from one thing to another never staying still for long but enjoying the moment. This can be a problem: things are left unfinished; I don't always focus: I do too many things at once.  So the garden which I was so enthusiastic about in spring is currently neglected, with pots unwatered and the veg plot empty now the lettuces have all gone.  And though I've made progress with the memoir (9,000 words at present) I didn't achieve my goal of 500 words a day in August.

Yet, like the butterflies, I'll come back again to the things I love and I've now accepted that this is how I am. So this is how the blog will be - like a butterfly, I will continue to flutter about from fashion to fiction, recording my family life and whatever else is currently absorbing me.

I'm also delighted to have acquired a couple of new followers.  Welcome - I hope you'll indulge my butterfly-like wanderings and keep reading.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Proud as a Peacock

A brief post as I've resolved to do 500 words of my memoir writing project every day in August and need to avoid distractions.  Pleased with myself as I have actually done this though have decided to leave weekend days out.

Did want to share this beautiful peacock butterfly I saw this morning on my dog walk route.  Counted butterflies and logged them on the Big Butterfly Count website.  My tally: 10 small white, 4 green veined whites, 6 gatekeepers and this one glorious peacock which posed perfectly for me.  

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Blogging Break

Somewhat disillusioned with blogging so taking a break in August to pursue some other writing goals.  Will be back with a relaunch in September in an attempt to get some more (or any) readers.

Happy holidays!

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Birthday Blues in Ballyronan

I've been in Northern Ireland this week visiting Dad.  Took the camera and snapped away as usual for the record.  And could now put together another 'happy' post with what I gathered.  But...
that wouldn't be a true reflection of my week because the reality was not that happy at all.

This week Dad had his 81st birthday.  A year ago on his 80th we had a big celebration.  All his 5 daughters and 11 grandchildren ages 3-20 gathered in Ballyronan, a rare occurence since we are scattered widely around Britain and beyond.  It was wonderful - the extended family got together in a local hotel.  A friend who was was in a band provided the entertainment.  Clever crafty sister created a cake reflecting Dad's love of crosswords and included all the grandchildren's names; I wrote a poem about his life; Kate and her cousins did a dance.  Unfortunately this year's birthday wasn't so happy.

Dad has always remained optimistic in the most difficult of situations. And there have been a few of these.  But this week he was as low as I have ever seen him.  His legs have let him down: one arthitic hip and an infection in the other leg have left him almost immobile, struggling to shuffle between the bedroom, bathroom and kitchen with the aid of a zimmer frame.  He's in a lot of pain with his leg. And he can't even do his crossword properly anymore as he has cataracts growing on his eyes so can't see the clues. He conceded defeat after a recent fall and the infection and has finally agreed to have some help beyond that provided by kind friends, neighbours and members of our extended family.  So carers now come and help him wash and dress each morning.

It breaks my heart to see him like this.  It seems no time since he was hoisting bales of straw for the cattle on his shoulder and whistling as he went about his work on the farm.  And barely a year ago if we arrived on a Sunday, he'd have cooked a full roast dinner.  And a trifle for pudding. 

The carers I saw last week were without exception kind and compassionate.  It's not always the same one but the lady I saw a few times was lovely - chatting away to him as she worked about her family as he told her about us.  Yet it's all so undignified.  She called him 'pet'.  He hates feeling this useless and is frustrated and unhappy about his situation.  He's hoping that the hip replacement that he's on the list for will improve his mobility.

It wasn't all bad.  He has a mobility scooter which helps him get out of the house.  So we went up and had a look at his garden which is tended by another cousin.  Leeks and beetroot doing well.  So were the scallions (or spring onions to you English people).  Plenty of tomatoes in the greenhouse, but none ripe yet, but he was cross as his lettuces had been eaten by rabbits.  And a blackcurrant bush heavily laden with ripe fruit, unlike my barren bush at home.  I picked some and made a pie.   And we took a trip to the marina, Dad, me, my sister and Kate.  We walked to the 'lighthouse' and through the woods.  He bought us Mr Whippy ice creams.

View of Ballyronan Marina from Dad's house

I'm not much use. I'm not comfortable doing the physical care and too far away to help with everyday stuff.  So I tried to help by cooking him proper meals with local new potatoes.  Put some in the freezer. For his birthday I made a rhubarb tart the way mummy used to do it.  Memories of better times.

My Rhubarb Tart
He's lucky I suppose to live in a community where people still look out for the elderly who live alone.  I suspect I won't be so lucky when it's my turn. Found myself checking out my pension this week after another birthday brings me closer to the age where I can claim it.  Like dad I'm wondering where the time's gone.