Monday, 25 December 2017

Happy Christmas

 I'm up alone on this Christmas morning waiting for the rest of the family to emerge.  The presents are wrapped, the fridge is full and, for the first time in months, the house is clean and tidy. Our kitchen extension is complete at last. Santa has filled Kate's stocking though she's no longer up at 5am to open her presents. Still I'm enjoying the peace this morning and happy to be having a quiet Christmas at home after all the chaos.

Happy Christmas to all!

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Books of the Year

I haven't written a book post since March so instead of my usual The Year in Books entry I'm going to do a summary of my reading year in the way they do in newspapers.  I've been inspired to do this because I've signed up to a blogging workshop next Sunday run by Simon Savidge who writes a book review blog called Savidge Reads.

So here's the list.  I've decided to give each a mark out of 10, according to how much I enjoyed them..

On Kindle:
The Light Years: Book 1 of The Cazalet Chronicles Elizabeth Jane Howard  9
Hard Times Charles Dickens   (Reread) 6
Thomas and Mary -A Love Story Tim Parks  6
History of the Rain Niall Williams (Reread) 9
O Come Ye Back to Ireland  (NF) Niall Williams   8

Bookclub Choices
A Spot of Bother Mark Haddon         7
Four Letters of Love Niall Williams   6  (My choice)
The End of the Affair Graham Greene 5
The Underground Railroad Colson Whitehead 9
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine Gail Honeyman  9
Good Me, Bad Me Ali Land  7

From library/school/own bookshelves:
Bad Dreams Tessa Hadley (Short Stories) 7
A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled Ruby Wax  5
On Writing Stephen King 9
The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini (Reread) 9
The Essex Serpent Sarah Perry 8
The Road Cormac McCarthy 8

Waverton Good Reads
The Things We Thought We Knew Mahauda Snaith  7

I've recently been taking part in The Waverton Good Read. Every year since 2003 the residents of Waverton, a village not far from Chester read novels published in the last 12 months and make an award for to the one they judge to be the best.  I don't live in Waverton, but have been allowed to take part.  It's great as I get to read new hardback books for free.

Listing the books like this reveals quite a lot to me about my preferences.  My favourite kind of book is a family saga with strong characters I can identify with and a good plot.  If I was to nominate my top read for the year in terms of sheer enjoyment it would be The Light Years - The Cazalet Chronilces.  I'm looking forward to reading the other four books in the series. Eleanor Oliphant made me laugh out loud. I'd like to think that other Eleanors in the world would have a similarly happy ending but I suspect they won't, which is why the ending is a little unconvincing hence 9 out of 10 rather than full marks.  I do enjoy a book with humour and Eleanor's observations about office life are hilarious.

The 'best' books here are The Underground Railroad and The Road, both of which were very powerful but actually not great bedtime reading because of the horrors they relate.  You can read the Simon Savidge review of The Underground Railroad  here.  I read The Road because we are using it as a coursework text for A Level.  It is a bleak account of the attempts of a father and son to survive in a world destroyed by the effects of climate change.  Very powerful but not easy to read with only glimmers of hope through the portrayal of the father/son relationship.  I suppose these are the 'best' books because they are ultimately more memorable and have something to say.

I'm now reading another Waverton Book 'The Pinocchio Brief'  which is a kind detective/court drama, not my usual kind of thing.  Bookclub book of the month is 'Surfacing' by Margaret Atwood.  I'm looking forward to this as I've read quite a few Margaret Atwood books and always enjoy them.  I also would like to try a Stephen King novel as I read his book 'On Writing' and found it fascinating.  I reserved a copy of 'The Stand' through the library but it's an expanded edition which is over 1000pages so I think I'll return it and read the original.


Saturday, 4 November 2017


This little girl turned 18 last weekend and yesterday passed her driving test.  It seems no time since I was organising her 5th birthday party, where the photo above was taken.  I'm sure she won't be happy with me publishing this picture of her with a mouthful of jam sandwich, but I think she looks so cute.  Where does the time go?  At present she is making big decisions about her future.  She has visited universities in Sheffield, York, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Warwick.  I went with her to some of the open days and was amazed by the way universities are now selling themselves and competing for students. As we were looking around both Warwick and York, Kate spotted Andy Burnham with his son who seems to be interested in the same kinds of courses as Kate. She was very excited about this but not brave enough to talk to him.  I hadn't spotted him in his casual gear and no one else seemed to recognise him either, even though he was presumably surrounded by A Level  students of history and politics. We also had a look at Oxford and Cambridge, as she'd been encouraged by teachers to consider them. That was an interesting experience - I liked getting the chance to look around - there were some beautiful gardens - but the comment from a girl showing us around Christ's College in Oxford about being allowed to play croquet on the lawn in summer kind of illustrated how far away from any kind of student experience elsewhere these colleges are. And they seem to eat their meals in halls which look like Hogwarts.  Her UCAS form is now in and she's applied to study History and Politics at York, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Sheffield.  She's had some offers so now she just needs to get the grades.   Exciting times but hard work ahead.

She certainly seems to have had more advice than I did when applying for university.  I felt I ought to do some kind of vocational course as people kept asking me what I wanted to do.  I insisted at that stage that I didn't want to be a teacher.  I like books, I thought, and so applied for some librarianship courses, changing my mind after the form went in as a helpful careers' officer said he thought librarians were bitchy( !!!!! I'm sure he didn't use this word but this is how I remember it)  and I would be best to do a more general degree in subjects I liked and then a postgraduate course.  This left me with only a couple of options.  I had an offer from Queen's in Belfast and one from Salford over in England.  I thought I might like to go to England so I chose it first, not having a clue about where it was or anything at all about it -  I'm not sure there were open days then.  I couldn't even say the name properly. I didn't real expect to get the grades they were asking for so it was a bit of a shock when I headed off on the ferry to Liverpool, then a train to Manchester and found myself in Coronation Street. It was a bit grim in Salford (it was the 1970s) but I didn't really mind as I was too busy enjoying myself. I'm not sure I made a wise choice but it turned out fine in the end.

Other news since my last post ( I only seem to manage about one  month) is that our building work is progressing so we hope to have a new kitchen for Christmas.  The old one is now completely demolished.  This has made life difficult this week as we only have a microwave to cook with and are existing on ready meals and toast.  But at least we have hot water and central heating again now the boiler is operational.

That's it for now.  Need to go and vacuum up the layer of dust left all over the house after builders' knocked out a new window yesterday.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017


Newcastle, Co Down 

September has been a busy month. Back to school and routine again which I like... for a while.  Now as the nights draw in and it's getting colder, I'm longing for the lazy lie-ins of summer.  Today, Wednesday, is my day off so I thought I'd add a post here.  My posts this year have been so infrequent that I'm in danger of giving up altogether. It's not that I don't have time or that I have nothing to say - it's just laziness really.  This morning I'm going to rejoin the weekly creative writing class I attended last autumn in the hope that it will encourage me to do a bit more writing.  Since my course in Ireland last year I've been meaning to start a new project but again haven't got round to it.  I borrowed the Stephen King book 'On Writing' from the library and he advises setting a fixed amount of words to achieve everyday.  I'd have to set the target low - 500 maybe. Surely I could manage that?  I have managed a bit of self-discipline recently on the exercise front so now need to extend it to my writing.

So a quick round up for the record of the last month or so.

Summer ended with a visit to Northern Ireland with husband, leaving teenager and dog at home.  He completed the 'Lap the Lough' cycle event with his brothers-in -law while my sister and I returned to Ballyronan to visit family there.  On Bank Holiday Monday, which was damp and cool in NI, while the sun shone in other parts of the UK, we had a day out in Newcastle, County Down.  My sister couldn't believe I'd never been there.  We had lunch in the 'Percy French' bistro of the swanky Slieve Donard hotel.  I didn't know who Percy French was. It seems he wrote the song about the Mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea.  The words of the song were  printed on the wall of the restaurant:

Oh Mary, this London's a wonderful sight
With people here working by day and by night.
They don't grow potatoes or barley or wheat,
But there's gangs of them diggin' for gold in the street.
At least, when I asked them that's what I was told
So I just took a hand in this diggin' for gold,
But for all that I've found there, I might as well be
Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

Newcastle is a pleasant enough little seaside town with the mountains providing a dramatic backdrop. but the beach is very poor compared to those on the North Coast.  We drove back via the Spelga Dam, but it was too wet to do much walking in the Mournes that day.

In the 'Percy French' I had a very nice fish soup accompanied by Wheaten Bread. Inspired by this, I did a bit if baking back in Chester, trying to recreate the taste of home.  My fish soup was Cullen Skink - not Irish but Scottish but it was very nice indeed.

I'll sum up the rest of September in list form:

1. The builders are making progress with a little delay because of the rain.  We should have a kitchen extension with a roof soon.
2. Because of the building we have no central heating and have already been lighting the log burner.
3. Kate has been writing her personal statement for her UCAS form. This was hard going for everyone. More on this later.
4. I took advantage of some free personal training advice at the gym and was doing quite well in the summer months, following the routine she gave me.  But I'm lapsing a little now.  I'll keep going with the Zumba classes. Yes I do look ridiculous, but I don't care.
5. Work is easier this year now I have a new colleague running the English department and I'm enjoying it again.

That's it for now.  Do have a book post mentally written so hope to get round to that soon.




Friday, 25 August 2017

End of Summer Catch Up

The long school holidays are coming to an end now and routine will be back soon.  I'm ready for this now, a bit restless and also keen to escape the noise and disruption at home. Work has now started on our downstairs kitchen extension and this is the view outside the back window.

As I write this the builders are filling the large trench with wheelbarrows of concrete from a lorry parked on the road - tough work and it will take them a long time.  Over the past few days I have developed huge respect for the two men who are here all day.  I've watched them demolish the existing porch, fill several skips with rubble and dig the foundations.  They had a mini digger to help with the digging but otherwise it is just hard, dirty and fairly unpleasant physical work. Despite this, they are friendly and uncomplaining. Makes me feeling guilty about moaning about my own work, which is really very enjoyable most of the time, especially when viewed from the perspective of the summer holiday.

The last few weeks have been fairly quiet and uneventful.  I've been attempting to improve my fitness by going to the gym more often and after writing this I'm off to Aqua Aerobics which is a bit of variety.  I'm not that keen on treadmills and machines and prefer classes, my favourite being Zumba, where I generally make a fool of myself but don't care much as it is good fun. We had one evening out to another Storyhouse production - 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in Chester's Grosvenor Park. I'm always wary of rain on these occasions but luckily it was a lovely clear evening if a bit chilly: we were prepared with blankets.   Another excellent production, really inventive with the fairies being represented by...... cut-off red rubber gloves waved around.  Sounds crazy, but it worked. The ending was really magical as the skies darkened and the lights came on.

Theatre in the Grosvenor Park
We also had a day trip to Anglesey mainly  to pick up Kate who had been staying with a friend on a caravan park there.  En route we called in Caernarfon where I'd never been and had a walk around the pretty town and the outskirts of the castle - couldn't go in as we had the dog with us.  Then we had a leisurely drive around the Anglesey coast, stopping for lunch by a beach in Rhosneigr.  Wales is so beautiful - we should explore it further. I've resolved to take more advantage of all the the lovely places to visit nearer home n the next few years.

Husband and half of dog at Caernarfon Castle.  

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Summer Outings: Dunkirk and NGS visits

I'm trying to get back to my habit of weekly blogging. No excuses really as I have lots of time at the moment with three more weeks of summer holidays before we return to school.  I'm making the most of my time of this year, mixing the usual list of household tasks with more pleasant activities.

On Friday evening we went to see Dunkirk at the local Vue, paying the extra for the IMAX which promises a better experience because of the bigger screen and superior sound quality as recommended by the reviews.  It was worth it: I felt completely 'immersed' in the action as Mark Kermode described in his review, with the sound of the gunfire seeming to come from below us.  This isn't my usual kind of film - I prefer more dialogue and usually dislike nonstop action - I despise Bond films for example.   Kate had seen the with a friend just on a standard screen a couple of days before us and she said she felt she was there and didn't notice the time passing when she watched.   The big draw for the younger female audience was Harry Styles, who plays one of the young soldiers, trying desperately to escape and behaving in a fairly ruthless and unpleasant manner while doing so.   Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance also appeared, though there were no real star parts as there were three interlinked stories and the action shifts from one to the other.  This was sometimes confusing but I didn't get so lost that it was frustrating.  I also usually object to blood and gore and I suppose this is where the director Nolan made compromises in his attempt to capture the reality of the soldiers' experience. Although there were plenty of explosions, gunfire sinking ships and dead bodies, none of them were badly mutilated, so the film was awarded a 12A.  Go and see it if you can before it finishes on the big screen.

A totally different outing this weekend was a trip to another garden.  I've got the little yellow booklet provided by the NGS, the National Garden Scheme, which arranges for people to open their gardens to visitors for charity.  Every Sunday this summer I have tried to visit one of these and this week it was Abbeywood, not a private garden this time but somewhere which is a wedding venue.  But one of the best gardens I visited was actually walking distance from home, a small suburban gardens which backs onto the railway and was absolutely packed with plants.  Abbeywood was full of dahlias which used to be popular when I was a child in NI, but fell out of fashion for a while.  Now they are everywhere - B&Q had rows of colourful pots when I went there the other day.  We also went to Eaton Hall, home of the new Duke of Westminster, who is 26 and apparently the 9th richest man in England. The garden is open for charity four times a year and is very impressive.   I loved the rose gardens - there are four with different colour themes and the kitchen garden.  I'd dragged Kate along that day, promising cake and she was less impressed, thinking it disgraceful that one family has so much wealth. Here are some not terribly good phone photos which will give you an impression of the gardens I have visited.  The first four are from Abbeywood, the others Eaton Hall.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Summer Outings: Julius Caesar at Storyhouse

It’s been a year since we moved into our new house close to Chester town centre.  I do miss being close to the countryside and my more peaceful garden but this is outweighed by the fact that we can now walk most places we want to go.  This summer holiday I have been taking advantage of this more, going to all sorts of events in Chester, which I may not have bothered with if I had to find a parking space first.
So in the last couple of weeks I have visited our new library/theatre/cinema Storyhouse on numerous occasions. I dragged slightly reluctant Kate to see a performance of Julius Caesar (Guardian review here - Chester doesn't often get a mention so I feel quite proud.) Kate enjoyed it in the end and so did I.  I sometimes feel a little ashamed to admit that I don’t tend to enjoy performances of Shakespeare’s plays much, but this was an exception, probably because I have never taught it. It began in the auditorium outside the theatre where the audience formed part of the crowd greeting Caesar as if he were a victorious politician.  Echoes of Donald Trump. Then we all took our seats in the theatre and watched him address the crowds.  I also liked the scene where Caesar does his morning yoga routine while his wife tries to persuade him not to go to the senate on the Ides of March. .  It was all modern dress and Mark Antony was played by a woman which some people in the audience didn’t like.  I thought she was very good, and especially convincing in the scene when she changes the crowd’s response to Caesar’s death through her powerful speech. The performance has now transferred to the open air theatre in Grosvenor Park.  I’m not sure how they will recreate it there without lighting and the clever device which provided blood for the murder scene by dropping it from above.

I've also been to a poetry workshop at Storyhouse and an exhibition of modern art in the cathedral. But I'll keep these to another post.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Family Holiday in Barcelona

Last week my daughter Kate and I were in holiday in Barcelona, or to be specific, Cabrils which is 30 minutes away from Barcelona.  We spent the week in a lovely villa in a quiet (or at least until we arrived) residential area with my sisters and their families.  For a few days the whole family, including all of Kate's 10 cousins, were there, with the exception of my Paul who couldn't be persuaded to join us: he doesn't like flying, the heat or, to be honest, large family gatherings which last more than an evening. 

We had a brilliant time. The villa was a perfect location for a family gathering - it took some time to find a place that would accommodate all of us.  It was very impressive with chandeliers and a grand piano as you can see from the pictures below, but affordable since the cost was split between five families. There were eight bedrooms and three bathrooms and plenty of space including a shady balcony where I spent quite a lot of time reading and catching up with sisters including NZ sister who we haven't seen since our last reunion. I'm not keen on lying in the sun. In fact, to venture out at all in Spain I have to cover myself in a layer of factor 50, as I burn so easily, and then top than with a layer of Jungle Formula insect repellent. And I still got bitten - we all did. I had the best bedroom with a balcony and a huge painting covering one wall, not because of my status as the eldest sister, but because I wasn't bothered about air-conditioning and this room had a fan instead.

The view from my bedroom window
The painting covering one wall of my bedroom

Meanwhile the kids, big and little, spent most of the week in the pool.   The small boys enjoyed using the woggles as weapons on their 22 year old cousin. The older ones played games involving pushing each other off the lilo and an inflatable crocodile until the early hours of the morning, making so much noise one evening that the neighbours complained. There was also a table tennis table and cousin Callum organised a family table tennis tournament.  I went out in the first round, losing by one point to sister Sylvia, a good job  too as she is very competitive would not have been pleased. The tournament was won Dean, one of the older nephews, in a tense and closely matched 5 set final against his brother Callum, which we all watched one evening after dinner.

The view of the pool from the shady balcony.

Kate, warming up for her match against NZ cousin Will.

We were also fascinated by the family of baby falcons at the villa.  It seems they had fallen from the nest but the mother was still feeding them and we were advised to leave them alone as interfering or feeding them would cause the mother to abandon them. They were huddled together and looked rather forlorn when we first arrived, especially the one with a damaged leg.  But they gained strength and by the time we left some were able to fly up to higher walls.  The injured one, who eleven year old Hannah named Stevie, seemed to get stronger too though still wasn't flying.  Hannah checked on him every day.  I think this is Stevie in the picture below.

Shopping and cooking for up to 20 was a bit of a challenge but luckily we had champion BBQ expert, Simon with us, occasionally assisted by the other brothers-in-law. Living in NZ where I suppose imported food is pricey, Simon actually enjoyed going to the supermarket and was amazed by the range of food and drink available and how cheap it was. Thanks to him and sister Diane, who at one in her life was a restaurant manager, huge quantities of lovely food appeared every evening with very little effort from the rest of us beyond a bit of table laying and washing up.  One evening we had this spectacular paella which tasted as good as it looks.

We spent most days at the villa but did go into Barcelona one day.  It was too hot to walk around much so after a fairly unpleasant visit to a very busy McDonald's in Place Catalonia to get lunch for the children, we took a bus tour round the city.  Here's my one wonky phone photo of the Sagrada Familia which is like no other church I have ever seen.  We also drove past Nou Camp, Barcelona's football ground.  The younger nephews went back there the next day for a longer visit and a tour of the dressing rooms etc. We also had a day at the beach in Vilassar de Mar, with the kids enjoying the huge waves as it was quite breezy and a bit overcast that day.  I was pleased as it meant I didn't frazzle.

Both Sylvia and I celebrated our birthdays during the week and so, on the day of my birthday, us five sisters and Kate went for a meal in a shady restaurant in Cabrils, the nearest village to the villa.  The meal was nothing special but we did have very good strawberry mojitos to start and enjoyed our more peaceful afternoon out.  Here I am with my mojito wearing the necklace Kate bought me for my birthday.

So certainly a different kind of reunion than the last one I wrote about two years where we were on the beach in Portrush.  I was a bit sad we weren't in Northern Ireland and so were some of my sisters but the NZ cousins were keen to see a bit more of Europe and have a holiday where it didn't rain quite so much.  And everyone certainly enjoyed themselves. 

Monday, 5 June 2017

Catching up

...with myself and the blog after a very busy half-term. I've been off work for the last week for the half term holiday and it's been good to get on top of things in the house and garden as well as just relax and forget about work for a while. The period running up to exams is always a bit frantic,  I can't escape it totally though as I have teenager revising for AS exams at home, bombarding me with facts about Henry VIII or teaching the dog about the parliamentary system. She finds it useful to say things aloud and the dog seems happy to sit on a chair beside her so she can improve his political knowledge. Wonder how he would vote?

While she has been busy revising, I've been doing the garden; in particular planting up my raised bed.  It's a bit late - took a while to get round to buying the topsoil and filling it.  Feeling a bit responsible for husband's bad back which flared up after this.  And this weekend he did the Norwich 100 ride, managing to finish despite sore back .

Another exciting diversion in a rather dull work-filled  month is the opening of Storyhouse, Chester's new theatre.  We've been waiting for this: it's disgraceful that a city the size of Chester with a large number of tourists has been without a proper theatre for over 10 years.  But eventually a plan was agreed to transform the former Odeon cinema into this new space which would house not just a theatre, but also a cinema and the town centre library. 

It was worth waiting for because it is an absolutely fabulous place,  The building has been restored and extended with a central area, the Kitchen, a welcoming book-lined café, which doubles as a performing space.  The library is over three floors and is not locked away in a separate section but in the shared space.  This means it is much more accessible as you can borrow and return books on Sundays or in the evenings. It's already improved library usage - apparently hundreds of new library cards were issued in the first week it opened.  There are private spaces in the library too - reading rooms with lovely old armchairs. I'm impressed with the décor - the furniture has been chosen to reflect the Art Deco style of the building so instead of standard dull municipal library furniture there are lots of old unmatched chairs and quirky touches like a bowler-hat lamp and this peacock statue. It has proved very popular with kids from school to revise in and I don't think many of them ever visited the old library.

The theatre itself has been designed so that it can be transformed from an 800 seat proscenium (the Touring Stage) to a 500 seat thrust (the Storyhouse stage). The opening season features the local company whose artistic director is Alex Clifton. They have been successfully staging open air productions in the park for years now.  We went to see the first production 'The Beggar's Opera' on the 13th May, a couple of days after the opened, and enjoyed it very much. Inventive, cleverly written with lots of local references, and full of music and entertaining performances. I also went along to some the events at the Women of the World festival which was held there a few weekends ago.. And later in the year we can book to see shows like 'Footloose' and 'Blood Brothers' at a much more reasonable price than in Liverpool or Manchester.  I've already visited many times and this week I'm planning to see 'The Secret Scripture' in the cinema.  And all of this is just a 10 minute walk from our front door.  I am very happy about this.

This morning as I write this the news again is grim, just weeks after the horror of Manchester at the MEN.  Having been at concerts there myself with Kate when she was 10 or 11, it seemed very close to home.  Living in the UK now, I feel a bit like we did in Northern when I was growing up in the 1970s and car bombs and shootings were a regular occurrence.  We got on with things but were on edge as every week or so there was news of more devastation and death. Just horrible - I was shocked to see armed police on the streets in Chester on the Races weekend after the Manchester attack.  I've never seen that before.

So on we go, getting out and making the most of the life we have and not thinking too much about what might happen next.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Kiltumper Writing Weekend

Two weekends ago I travelled to Co. Clare in Ireland to participate in a creative writing workshop run by Booker nominated writer, Niall Williams. It was a wonderful weekend in so many ways. The sun shone, a rare occurrence in this part of Ireland, as you will know if you read his book 'History of the Rain'; the company was good; my B&B was excellent and Niall was an inspirational teacher.

I've been looking at writing courses like this for years and have always been too busy, too reluctant to spend money on a holiday just for me or too scared to actually go ahead, thinking everyone would be much cleverer, better read and confident than I am.  There were 13 of us, 12 women of varying ages and backgrounds and one youngish Australian man.  The group worked well together even though no one knew each other beforehand. I'd resolved in advance not to read out anything I'd written in front of the group but in fact it was fine and I did share my work because Niall treated everyone the same and the focus was always on the writing itself not on the writer. In creative writing classes I've attended before there has always been a competitive feel to the proceedings. Here it was collaborative. We completed an exercise: some of us read our work while the rest of the group and Niall listened attentively. Then he asked questions. For example could we see the character introduced in the writing? He doesn't go in for vague faint praise but specific advice - 'That works'; 'Take that sentence out - it isn't needed'; 'Use that piece of dialogue later in the piece'.

The course was held in the primary school near the village of Kilmihil in Co Clare. Niall Williams lives near here in the townland of Kiltumper with his American wife Christine in a lovely house and garden. We returned there each day for lunch: delicious soup, homemade bread and salads and she provided us with cakes - brownies and lemon drizzle for afternoon tea break.

I stayed in B&B, the Blue Ivy, Spanish Point (named after the ships of the Spanish Armada which were wrecked here) on the coast 20 minutes or so from Kilmihil with a friendly family in a house with amazing sea views and fantastic breakfasts. On the Saturday evening I went for a walk on the beach with some of the other women on the course.  I've never visited this part of Ireland before so that was also part of the pleasure of the weekend, though I never did get to the Cliffs of Moher, the main tourist attraction in the area.  It was a fine evening; the tide was out and the beach was quiet and beautiful, framed by cliff tops dotted with primroses,  a clean wide damp stretch of sand with an occasional stream running through it. One deep one blocked our path but we crossed it precariously on wobbly stepping stones worn smooth by the sea which comes right up to the cliffs when the tide is in.  I enjoyed  finding out about my companions on the walk and why they'd chosen to do the course. Two were like me, mothers of teenagers, interested in writing but also making time for themselves for a change. Others were more serious about writing and had had work published.  I got to know one of them a bit better as I'd given her a lift to Kilmihil each day in my hire car; she is a really talented writer and has given me lots of advice. We've exchanged email addresses and hope to keep in touch. 

Now, two weeks later, I'm immersed in coursework marking and exam preparation as usual. But it was a great weekend which I enjoyed very much.  And I may even put some of Niall's good advice into practice over the summer holidays this year.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

In Bruges

We've just returned from a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands, repeating the route we took two years ago when husband first did the Amstel Gold cycle challenge. Last time the weather was glorious; unfortunately this time it was cool most cloudy and he cycled his 125km in the rain on Saturday morning. This time we didn't stay in the luxury apartment we booked last time but all three of us squeezed into a rather grotty and overpriced hotel room where Kate and I spent the damp Saturday morning, her revising for AS exams and me marking mock papers.

But, despite the weather, it was a good trip.  En route we caught up with relations, calling with youngest sister and catching up with my aunt and uncle who now, by chance, live in the same area.  We also had Easter Sunday lunch with my cousin and her family who live outside Brussels in a beautiful spot with a fabulous garden, conveniently situated just off the motorway.

On the way to Valkenburg, where the cycle event took place, we had a day in Bruges.  Or Brugge its official name, as the town, in the Flemish part of Belgium, now seems to have left its French identity behind and all signs are in Dutch. I've been here five times in total and love this city - the Venice of the North they call it - with all the canals and beautiful buildings.  It's nearly as busy as Venice now too. This time there were many parties of Japanese tourists.

We visited Bruges 13 years ago and at the time I had joined a creative writing group.  For the class I wrote a description of Burg Square in Bruges.  I'm trying again with creative writing: next weekend I'm going to Co. Clare in Ireland for a weekend writing course with Niall Williams who wrote 'History of the Rain'.  I'm excited and terrified in equal measure.

This time we eat in the same café on Burg Square, admiring the building which looks like Sleeping Beauty's castle, which is apparently the Old Town Hall, while sitting on the enclosed heated terrace to avoid the cold wind.  Kate was 4 when we sat here last; she's now 17, dressed in denim and Converse, black eyeliner flicks like quotation marks at the corner of each eye and a square paper bag from Mango at her feet containing her latest purchase. In our family of three, alliances often shift.  Her father dares to ask what she has bought - we'd left him behind to visit the shops. She cuts him dead; I answer for her, 'A black cold-shoulder top'.  The irony only strikes me later. Then outside a dog they admire walks past and allegiances shift again. We revisit the new puppy conversation.  It had been selected in secret one day when I was at work.  A female German Shepherd. She's even given it a name: Luna.  They are trying to wear down my objections.  I stand firm, turn my back and return to watching the people in the square.

Blinkered Black Beauties trot across the cobbles, their drivers carrying knotted whips we hope they won't use. Cyclists weave around the tourists on foot who glance briefly at the buildings and then turn their back to take selfies. Some carry their phones on sticks like weapons. The sun is shining and the shadow which divided the square into equal rectangles when we arrived is advancing towards the other side as evening approaches.  A family group of orthodox Jews in traditional dress, black and white with hats adorned with fur cross the square.  They look striking among the other tourists in their dull uniform of brown and black quilted jackets.  Back inside Kate is checking her phone to see how many likes she has on Instagram for her picture of the Sleeping Beauty building.  She eats goats' cheese salad and drinks iced tea, her tastes now more sophisticated than the four year old we brought here in 2004 who just wanted chips.

I'm reminded of a poem by W. B. Yeats 'The Wild Swans at Coole'. He revisited the swans nineteen years after the first time and reflects on how his life has changed.  'All's changed' for us too since we first sat in Burg Square 13 years ago. Though I'm not quite so gloomy about change as Yeats is...

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Watching the News

So this is a post I mentally composed a few weeks ago and never got round to writing. Two reasons for this: firstly the ever present list of things to do at school and home which get in the way and secondly and, more importantly, my reluctance/fear about touching on topics which might offend people I know or other readers or unleash unwanted attention and comments from unfriendly strangers.  But here goes anyway and apologies in advance if you are offended.

My daughter Kate, now 17 and studying History and Politics for A level, now watches the news regularly (in addition to her usual diet of Vampire Diaries and Made in Chelsea).  Recent news events have provoked a lot of discussion and now, instead of just accepting my explanations and opinions as she used to, she challenges me and I find myself rethinking things.  This happened a couple of weeks ago after the death of Martin McGuinness and this BBC news report about how he made the journey from IRA commander to Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland. I'd talked to her before about events in Northern Ireland and my experiences of growing up there in the 1970s, but even so she was shocked by the news report and surprised about McGuinness's IRA background.  She remembered how a good friend of our family, a second cousin, saw her husband, a member of the security forces, shot dead in front of her as they returned from a night out. This happened up the road from her Granda's house in Ballyronan.  Martin McGuinness was the MP for Mid Ulster for many years - you'd see his smiling face on election posters around the village.  My own feelings about him remain mixed.  Kate's initial reaction was clear - it is wrong to kill innocent people what ever the cause.  I agree, but kind of admire McGuinness for moving away from violence. My feelings are echoed here by Colin Parry, father of Tim, the 12 year old who died in the Warrington bomb.

A day later Kate and I watched the news together again - this time the terrorist attack on Westminster.  She was upset by this, explaining that it was because she had been on that bridge by Westminster several times herself so it seemed more real.  Some of those injured were students on a school trip to the Houses of Parliament: she'd been on a similar trip, meeting a local MP and touring the building last year in when she was in year 11.  Again her question was why. What can the man who carried out this attack hope to gain? Apart from notoriety. I had no answers this time. I heard an intelligence expert on the Today programme say that there is an urgent need to work with the communities where the attackers come from and tackle the root causes of radicalisation.  Otherwise these things will keep on happening. No amount of security measures is going to stop someone who is prepared to use a car as a weapon.  As I write this, a similar incident has just occurred in Stockholm. It is hard to see an end to it. That's what we used to say in NI. 

More horror on the news this week with images of the chemical bomb attack in Syria. I covered my eyes; I couldn't bear to see the images of children injured and dying. Kate told me off, saying I should watch; that we shouldn't turn away from the horror. We need to know what is going on in the world.  We also had a discussion yesterday morning about where the American response to the chemical weapons attack was justified. No simple answers to this one either.

I'm going to finish this post on a more positive note. The photo above were taken by Kate on our Mother's Day visit to Ness Gardens. The magnolia trees were in bloom. Terrible things happen in the world and we can't avert our eyes. All the more reason to value precious time with family, count our blessings and enjoy glorious spring days like this one.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Year in Books: March

I've read quite a lot recently.  Nothing I've loved really but for the record, here's the list:

1. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
I chose this after watching the documentary about the Bronte sisters at Christmas.  Anne was considered the less talented one, apparently.  I quite like this book, though the device of the letters is a bit clumsy.  The narrator switches halfway through and there is a rather sanctimonious, moralising tone which can get annoying. It seems clear that Anne was using her brother Branwell to inspire her characterisation of Huntington, the debauched husband of the central character, which, if the drama is to be believed, didn't go down too well with the rest of the family,. Good plot if slightly telegraphed plot with a happy ending.  As I have said before, I prefer books to have a proper plot.

2. Solar Bones Mike McCormack
It was hard work following the plot of this one as it's written without a single full stop. That was a bit annoying at first and I'm not sure whether this structural device (English teacher speak) added much to the novel. It's the story of an engineer, Marcus, living in small town Ireland and, actually, I warmed to him as the narrative is basically a stream of consciousness so we can sympathise with his anxieties as a parent of an artist daughter who achieves success by painting with her own blood and his smartarse son who is currently jobless, very hairy and working his way round Australia. There's also a lot about engineering which interests me a little since quite a few members of my extended family are engineers of one kind or another and there's probably some extended metaphor going on if I were to look closely.  I didn't realise until the end that the whole narrative is framed by the fact that Marcus is dead.  This is not a spoiler as, if I were not so dim,  I would have realised the significance of the references to All Souls day in the opening sequence. He's back as a ghost observing and the last part of his life.  It's on the blurb of the print edition but, as I read it on my Kindle, I didn't know.  Husband reading this one - his Kindle purchase, not mine though his appear on mine for some reason,so will be interesting to see what he thinks.

3 A Boy Made of Blocks Keith Stuart
Another one of those books which explores autism (Curious Incident, Rosie Project etc.)  I picked it up in the library and read it quite quickly. The writer reviews video games for The Guardian and the novel is loosely based on his own experiences with his autistic son and how he connected with him using Minecraft which is, as far as I can gather, a game where you build houses etc. on the computer.  It was ok: there was too much detail about the game for my taste and the plot - marriage breakdown due to central character's failure to deal with his grief for his brother - was a little thin.

Olive Kitteridge Elizabeth Strout
Who is the writer of the moment. Top of the best seller lists, Booker prize nominated for Lucy Barton is Missing, which I haven't read, and Pulitzer Prize for Olive.  This is my book club choice and I did admire the writing and characterisation but in the end was disappointed by what promised to be a good book at first . Olive, retired maths teacher married to Henry, is quite a character and she holds together the narrative which is basically a series of loosely connected portraits of people living in a small town in New England/  No real plot which I found irritating, especially in the final chapter which doesn't include Olive at all but a character who was only briefly referred to earlier.

This month I'm going to finish The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and some more books by Niall Williams who wrote History of the Rain which remains my current favourite book. You can read my comments on it here.  I'm rereading it and have also borrowed Boy to Man from the library. I've also chosen Four Letters of Love for my bookclub choice - it's my turn.  The reason for all this Niall Williams reading is that I have booked to go on a weekend Writing Course he is running in Ireland during April.  I'm very excited about this as I have always wanted to do a residential writing course, but am now very anxious as I'm afraid other people will be proper writers and not sloppy bloggers like me. 

Post illustrated by an irrelevant photo taken in Amsterdam by my daughter.  One reason for my lack of recent blogging is that I spent my half term on a school trip in the Netherlands attending, for the third time, a Model United Nations conference in Zoetermeer and taking my daughter too. It was a brilliant experience and the students I took thoroughly enjoyed it, but it has left me behind with other things. I've blogged about MUNA before here.

Linking again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees

Saturday, 11 February 2017

In Praise of Cousins

I have mentally composed this post over the past few weeks and only now finding time to write it.  This morning have been woken early by the sound of retching dog. Got up and chased him outside, but it was too late.  Clearing up doggy sick at 530ish on a Saturday morning is not fun.  But I'm wide awake now and so will use the time profitably to catch up here.  Life hasn't been much fun recently: work dominating and quite stressful; my broken arm still causing me pain; and further stress because the dog has had an operation to remove a large lump from his abdomen.  We were worried it was something nasty but it seems it was just a fatty lump, a common thing in middle-aged dogs apparently.  But it was horrible as he was so miserable after the op.  And it cost a fortune and is unlikely to be covered by insurance.

But back to the main subject of my post.

In Northern Ireland when I was growing up I saw my cousins often.  I have 20 first cousins and, as most of them lived within a 5 mile radius of our home, we visited each others houses often.  Whole families of cousins would sometimes come for tea on a Sunday afternoon and mummy would make a salad and we'd maybe have coffee cake and apple creams or a sponge flan with jelly and mandarin oranges set in it.  After tea, while the adults talked, us children would run riot, playing wild chasing games or putting on 'shows' in the sitting room.  Sometimes this ended badly - I remember one occasion when we broke the china cabinet - yet these wild afternoons are some of my best childhood memories.

During the summer holidays we would, as children, take turns stay for longer periods at our cousins' houses.  This was great fun: we played all sorts of dangerous games, my favourite being the construction of a 'ghost train' tunnel in hayshed at the Derby cousins' house in Ballynagarve.  It was terrifying but exhilarating to crawl through the precarious structure we'd made with bales of hay piled high at that time of year.  And my cousins' parents were a little more relaxed about certain rules so we got away with things we weren't allowed to do at home.  I remember riding back to the farm with my cousins on the top of a tall load of hay bales on a trailer being towed by a tractor for a couple of miles on a public road. Again I was scared and a bit guilty, as I knew this was forbidden, but such a lot of fun.

One set of cousins, on my Dad's side, lived slightly further away in Maghera.  Again we would take turns to visit, usually just one of us at a time.  I liked going there as Auntie Joy was one of my favourite aunts, really kind and lovely.  I have some good memories of visiting there too: they had geese in the back yard which was exciting for us, especially being chased by the gander.  I remember going out on the tractor with Uncle Roy; he'd let us ride beside him sitting on the wheel mud guards, another thing that was banned at home.  And I remember helping to stack the turf that they burned in the range cooker.  I love the texture and the smell of turf burning; it always reminds me of visiting these cousins. I don't know whether it is still used for fuel these days in Ireland; no one over here in England has ever heard of it.

These memories came flooding back to me recently when I heard the news that Uncle Roy, one of only two of my uncles who is still alive,  had died last October.  Unfortunately I didn't hear about his death until a few months later - my cousins were too exhausted and busy to call - and, as neither me nor any of my sisters live locally, we're out of touch with local news. I've now written to offer my condolences and will visit when we next visit Northern Ireland in the summer.

I count myself blessed to be part of a big extended family.  While other friends and acquaintances have come and gone over the years, my cousins have always been there.  Although I see some more than others, mainly those who are closest to me in age and who were among my best friends as a teenager, I am always pleased when I get the chance to catch up with them as we did when we had a cousins' party in Ballyronan in 2015.  My cousins were a huge support to us in the difficult times when our parents were ill and a source of comfort when they died.  I am sorry not to have been there to offer the same support to them.

My Kate is an only child but she is lucky to have many first cousins, 16 in total.  Unfortunately, due to a family fall out on my husband's side, she has never met some of them and has lost touch with another.  However, she does see quite a lot of the cousins on my side of the family, including those who live on the other side of the world.  This summer the NZ cousins are visiting the UK again and we have planned a family holiday, booking a villa outside Barcelona for all five families.  It's looking like all of the cousins will be there, even the adult ones.  We're very much looking forward to this family reunion.

Kate and her cousins during last reunion in 2015
Sister and cousins in Portrush July 2015

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Recent Reading

Inspired by Christina's account of her December reading, I thought I'd write a book post, something I haven't done for ages.  I've read a few books recently which I really enjoyed and thought I would share these with you though to be honest there was a period in September/October when I wasn't reading very much at all.  I don't worry much about this - reading is pleasure so I don't set myself targets about numbers of books to read a year or anything like that.

For my bookclub in November I read ' A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry.  It's quite a chunky book -600 plus pages - but was written so well that you don't really notice this.  It is set in 1970s India and follows the difficult lives of three men and one woman against a background of political upheaval.  It's very sad but wasn't a depressing book because of the characters' resilience and how they usually find ways of dealing with all difficulties they face. There's a huge cast of eccentric characters - in one review I read, Mistry is described as a kind of Indian Dickens. I can see what this reviewer means. At the bookclub meeting we all loved this one - very unusual.

I have also read several very average books.  My husband read and recommended Sebastian Faulks 'Where the Heart Used to Beat'. I was a little disappointed - I never really warmed to the central character and was unconvinced by the big love affair which is central to the plot. The war scenes were well done though - he'd done his research - but it was too obvious rather than feeling integrated within the characters' experiences. Then there were a couple books from the best seller lists.  'Versions of Us'  Laura Barnett and 'The Trouble with Sheep and Goats' Joanna Cannon, neither of which was very memorable.

Another more interesting read, again a bookclub choice, 'The City and the City' by China Mieville was hard work to read, not enjoyable as such,  but it was worth persevering to unravel the complex plot which was half detective story, half sci-fi. There are two cities and two communities which overlap 'geotopically'. However the residents of each city must not interact and must 'unsee' each other otherwise they will be in trouble with Breach, the ruthless secret police force for the cities.

In January, I'm planning  to read Anne Bronte's 'The Tennant of Wildfell Hall', having ignored this particular Bronte in favour of her sisters until now.  I watched the BBC drama on Boxing Day - I've forgotten the name- was it 'To Walk Invisible' ? - and this has renewed my interest in this forgotten sister.

I'll also be dipping into my lovely new cookbook  'Home' by Trish Deseine - a Christmas present from NZ sister. It's a beautiful book full of recipes and pictures of Ireland. I'd bought a copy for her birthday last year after hearing a radio review and said I'd like one too. The photography is stunning and the writer includes stories of growing up in County Antrim as well as featuring Irish chefs. The recipes are a familiar mix of old favourites like wheaten bread and buttermilk scones which I don't really need a recipe for and the sort of traybakes that my mother used to make for coffee parties in the church hall.

And a bit of more general news - my new year hasn't started too well as I've managed to chip a bone at the top of my arm having fallen over a duvet left on the floor by one of the teenagers who stayed on New Year's Eve. I didn't know I'd broken anything until five days later when I finally got past the receptionist who'd initially fobbed me off with a physio appointment next week, and saw a GP who sent me to A&E. Spent over 5 hours there watching all the little dramas unfold in front of me - NHS at its best and worst - possible stroke patient waiting for ages but then being treated with real compassion when he was seen.  I have to wear this collar and cuff thing and have a 'virtual appointment' tomorrow - someone from orthopaedics will ring me having looked at x-Ray. So can't drive. Or do much housework. Silver lining etc...

My New Year wardrobe accessory - a lovely piece of pink foam!

Happy New Year to all - I'm planning to post more frequently this year so keep reading.
I started blogging regularly about books because of the Year in Books posts by Laura at Circle of Pine Trees which you can read more about here.  I'm aiming to join her by posting one a month about my reading.