Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Rooms For Reflection

Friday: West Wales.
With relatives in and out on hospital on both sides there are pressing reasons for a trip to the south. Mil and Dil are missing Tom but Mil isn’t up to travelling at the moment and Ma’s been sounding a bit wheezy on the phone so I’d like to make sure she’s all right too. A couple of phone calls later we’re collecting things together for an early start the next day.

Saturday: Epsom
We’re at my Auntie Joanie and Uncle Sid’s for a quick visit and it occurs to me that their modest living room is one of the constants in my life, a container of so many memories. I’ve ‘twisted’ here as a very little girl amongst a sea of adult legs at one family party, drank my first Snowball at another and spent years aching to be like my glamorous and sophisticated older cousins. It’s a merry, vibrant room with the satisfying patina of long, deeply entwined lives. There are small plastic tubs filled with dolly mixtures and liquorice allsorts and other little treats on one table, a huge complicated jigsaw is a work in progress on another, there are puzzle books half finished and crosswords to be solved.

Of course it’s not just my memories that fill the air; images of the sea line the walls and there are many photos, reflecting not only my uncle’s service in the merchant navy but also that of other family members who’ve served, or continue to serve their country at sea. With prompting Uncle Sid shows us his medals, including the Atlantic Star and the Arctic Emblem, tiny symbols I think, for such a dangerous and difficult time.

Auntie Joanie is philosophical about her own trials; every day this week she’ll be receiving radiotherapy for what she and Uncle Sid call ‘a bug in the head’. ‘Well, you’ll be getting the best care from the best people,’ I tell her. ‘No,’ says my uncle. ‘She gets that from me.’

Sunday: Cheam
We’re at a Chinese restaurant with Ma, my stepsons and their girlfriends. In the aftermath of two painful and difficult divorces (is there such a thing as a pain free and easy divorce?) I would never have believed that this day would come but we’ve made it. We’re meeting Stepson Two’s girlfriend for the first time and she is Gorgeous with a capital G and a complete delight as well. Ma enjoys herself immensely.

Monday: Worthing
I’m trying not to eat the sweet new peas and tender baby broad beans in the colander in front of me before they’re cooked. We’ve picked them from Dil’s allotment this morning along with fresh mint, green garlic, and thumb sized carrots. Aren’t new potatoes exciting, too? I love watching the earth to see what jewels are waiting to be uncovered. Tantalizing smells of roast lamb and rosemary fill the air and when we sit down to eat it feels like a banquet. What a lovely way to celebrate being together.

Tuesday: Cardiff Bay
I’ve thought about the past, the present and now, sitting on a beanbag on the floor of an otherwise empty flat with my lovely daughter, Lily, it’s time to think about the future. After a year of living in a house worthy of ‘The Young Ones’ Lily is moving in with her boyfriend and they’re renting a brand spanking new flat with views across the old docks, the sea and the Mendips in the distance. We’re waiting for Russ to arrive with boxes to unload then we’ll be off to Ikea for bits and pieces. Here’s to Lily and Russ with every good wish for their first home together.

Painting is 'West Pier, Brighton' by Tom Tomos

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Feeling Groovy

Saturday 14 June
Tom and I have now recovered from the Great Wormery Evacuation. My brain has managed to wipe out the memory of the terrible smell, so I no longer have to plug my nose with Vick to erase it, and the noxious fumes from the compost have died down sufficiently for us to be able to venture out into the garden again.

After all the excitement I find myself a bit fidgety. Whilst I am extremely happy not to be doing my previous job, I did used to enjoy walking through the town in my lunch break, watching all the faces, seeing what was new and absorbing different influences. It’s quite easy to settle in a groove here and sometimes you have to push yourself a bit to get out it. Tom has some paintings to collect from Art Matters in Tenby, which offers us the chance of an excursion, a gallery to view and a chance to catch up with the lovely Margaret and John who run it. Margaret shows me an autobiographical short story she has written which leads us into a discussion about the wrongs and rights of plundering your own life for copy. For me, it’s trying to strike a balance between aiming for emotional integrity without seriously p*ssing off those I care about.

Some of the paintings we have collected have to be delivered to another gallery. We arrive just in time for the opening of a new exhibition and my heart sinks at the invitation to ‘come in and have a glass of wine’. Tom, like me at Hay, is in his element but there are gorillas out there with better painting skills than me so I always feel a bit of a misfit with this particular group. Confronted by too many mission statements and self-conscious grooviness, I am severely tempted to numb the pain with drink but hold back for fear of expressing my full and frank opinion and being placed in the naughty corner for evermore.

Sunday 15 June
With a virtuously clear head I am off for some LSD or long, slow distance. I’ve been gradually building up my weekly mileage through shorter runs but have fallen into the habit of running like a mad eejit going faster not further. Beating my time is satisfying but only long runs will build up my stamina for a half-marathon. I dig out my heart monitor and keep everything nice and steady only once surprising myself when a freak reading from a power cable suggests that I ought to run straight to A&E.

In the afternoon I am lolling around on the sofa feeling virtuous when Tom suggests a brisk walk in the hills. Is he joking? No, he is not, but, what the heck, it’s a lovely day and I can wear one of my new hats. I’m not a hat person at all; Lily can put a dustbin lid on her head and look glamorous but not me. However, when Ma was up and we were poking round the indoor market in Cardigan I spotted some Fair Isle berets on the knitting stall, made to a secret recipe by the lady on the next-door fabric stall.

Anticipating my usual danger-to-the-community look, I was taken aback to find a hat I could actually wear so I bought it. Unfortunately Ma was also taken aback to find a hat I could actually wear and since she is a demon knitter she immediately decided I needed a few spares. Just in case I grow a few more heads, I suppose. Miffed that the lady on the fabric stall wouldn’t divulge her secret beret recipe, Ma has been back home trying to crack the code. When Rose came up recently I took delivery of the first batch of Ma’s cloned berets. And do you know what? They’re really good; beautiful autumn colours with a very vintage feel, very ‘Edge of Love’.

So Tom and I trek the hills and arrive at one of the viewing points; it’s a wonderful day, crisp and clear. We can see Snowdon to the north, the Devon hills to the south and the Wicklow Mountains across the sea and one of Ma’s berets is keeping my hair out of my eyes. How perfect is that?

Painting is 'Lobster Pots off Caldey Island' by Tom Tomos

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

What Lies Beneath

Thank you for your concern about the dark clouds over Hotel H, they involve people who are very dear to me and that’s all I can say but your kindness is much appreciated.

As well as fears for others, we’ve been beset by general worries; slow progress on the boat engine has put Tom in the doldrums whilst I keep looking at the Great Green Monster in the garden, aka, the oil tank, wondering how much more of our budget it’s going to devour. With chores building up after our run of visitors I decided that sitting around worrying wasn’t doing me any good so I’d start tackling the backlog, beginning with the garden.

Inspired by Wizzard’s composting blog,( - why can't I get the script prompt to work?) I took the plunge and decided to get to grips with the wormery. Now a wormery is fine and dandy at the beginning; it arrives pristine and shiny with a little bag of bedding material and your very own compost worms. You simply put the lot together and let it settle for a week before gradually building up the amount of kitchen waste you add. After about eight weeks you can start tapping off the liquid and that, dear reader, is your first shock.

I remember shortly after moving here, one lovely sunny day when I’d thrown all the windows open, suddenly being hit by the most mephitic, eye-watering stink which sent me scurrying for cover. The farmer opposite was dredging his cowshed, although he may well have uncovered the pit of hell as well. Imagine that on a slightly smaller, wormier scale and you get the picture. Worm wee really smells. And they do a lot of it. Much more than I can use. In addition to wee, the worms produce compost; some wormeries have chambers to help you decant the layers – mine doesn’t. Recently it’s become a huge, bloated bin swarming with fruit flies and, having sought advice from Wizzard, it was time to face the inevitable.

Tom and I moved the wormery to the middle of the garden where we hoped the neighbours wouldn’t think we were waging germ warfare on them and lifted the lid. The house martins went berserk eating all the fruit flies whilst Tom and I started forking out the horrible, smelly, caramel dog-poo coloured contents. If there is ever a lesson in reaping what you sow this was it. All the instructions that come with the wormery? They’re there for a reason! They don’t tell you to avoid excess moisture content and add lots of shredded paper for fun but because it’s essential if you don’t want to find yourself up to the elbow in evil slime. The don’t tell you to chop up woody stalks to give you something to do but so you won’t have to extract ancient, stinky stems of old cabbage and cauliflower that has been marinating in worm wee months later.

With cries from Jeremy and Tracy next door about the sewage smells wafting in their direction and mutterings from Tom that he’d attended sweeter-scented post-mortems, we finally managed to harvest our seam of useable compost, turning the rest of it over with plenty of shredded paper and calcified seaweed and sticking it back in the freshly washed bin. I can’t say that what we dug out was exactly teeming with worms but I’m hoping that the ones who’ve made it this far will appreciate their spring clean and turn what’s left in the bin into something a little more user-friendly.

And finally...
I’ve resumed work on an idea for the next novel which I started last year before the rewrite of FTT. The working title is 'Make, Do and Mend' - what do you do to set right a terrible mistake?

Painting is 'Orange Rope' by Tom Tomos

Friday, 6 June 2008

Making Hay with Honno

'In Her Element', Honno's featured book for June.

May’s seen Hotel H heaving; we’ve had the Fat Boys (five days), Lily and Boyf (long weekend), Rose and New Man (Five days. Very nice, Rose. You can keep him. Yes, Lily, Rusty is lovely too) and Stepson One and Girlf (six days). It’s wonderful to see everyone but I was very glad to have the chance of an outing last week.

When I received an invitation from the lovely people at Honno asking me to join them at the Hay Festival to celebrate 21 years of publishing, I was thrilled but a bit apprehensive about my credentials for mixing with the hip and happening. As a Hay novice, the event was smaller than I’d anticipated, even, at first, a tad disappointing; I wandered round in a bit of daze worrying that I wasn’t ‘getting’ it. But once I’d parked myself on a bench to absorb the atmosphere I started to see beyond the clich├ęs, the Boden catalogue families, and designer wellies, organic chocolate and worthy ice creams. Look a little closer, listen to snatches of conversation and Hay’s simply about folks enjoying books.

Naturally, the highlight for me was the Honno event. I couldn’t find it at first and stood around where I thought I was supposed to be wondering where to go until someone spotted my invitation and directed me to the VIP section! Do they mean me? They surely did! Even better, they were expecting me and by the time I’d been given a name badge and a glass of wine my VIPness had gone straight to my head and I couldn’t stop grinning. After all the hours spent alone applying bum to seat in my study it was a complete contrast and a real joy to be celebrating with everyone involved with Honno.

Honno was started in 1986 by volunteer founder members working from their homes and supported by people keen to see publishing opportunities for women in Wales. It was a real privilege to hear founder members Rosanne Reeves and Luned Meredith and long-standing member Eurwen Booth talking about those early days. Thanks to their efforts I can now hold a book in my hand with my work in it and my daughter, Rose, who worked as a summer volunteer with Honno, went on that same year, to fulfil her aim of a job in publishing; we’re just two of the many women who have benefited from what they begun.

I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to meet other Honno authors like Paula Brackston and Carol King who, like me, contributed to ‘Strange Days Indeed’. Lindsay Ashford, who has had four books published in five years, and was short-listed for the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year 2006 still sounded as thrilled about her success as new writer, Lorraine Jenkin, who is enjoying accolades from her fellow dog walkers for the publication of her novel, ‘Chocolate Mousse and Two Spoons’. Do check them out at the Honno site, in fact, do have a look anyway; there’s a wide variety of beautifully produced, inexpensive books to choose from.

I left the Honno party feeling exhilarated and inspired and as I walked through the crowds something strange was happening. People got out my way and kept giving me speculative glances. I wondered what was going on until I remembered I was still wearing my name badge. No, sorry folks, I’m not a real VIP but I certainly enjoyed pretending to be one for an afternoon.

On the subject of books, I bought a slim volume of poetry at Hay by another Welsh publisher, Pont Books, an imprint of Gomer Press. ‘Poems of Love and Longing’ has become an instant favourite, especially Chris Kinsey’s beautiful and moving sequence of poems about her greyhounds. There a couple of clouds on Hotel H’s horizon, bad and sad news, just part of life’s cycle, so this book’s been a bit of a comfort read lately, something to turn to before going to sleep. I’m glad that I didn’t resist the impulse that made me pick it up.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

The Ballad of BT Broadband

It was a Saturday morning
and in the mid May rain,
that BT Broadband left our house
and didn't return again.

At first we tried to shrug it off;
it happens all the time.
It comes back when the sun comes out,
or sheep roll off the line.

The junction boxes warmed and dried
but Broadband came there none.
'We'll have to ring BT!' you cried,
'Good luck,' I said. 'Have fun!'

We made new friends across the globe,
performed all kinds of tests,
until they said they'd send a man,
'Oh yes,' we cried, 'that's best.'

Flaxen-haired and pierced of lip,
he came with his computer,
'I fixed the outside line but now
there's trouble with your router.'

Our BT friends played hard to get
and made us sign new contracts,
'Please connect me soon,' I begged.
'Just get me back in contact!'

Five working days I waited,
my brand new hub was due.
The parcel company disagreed,
'We've never heard of you!'

At BT it was Groundhog Day,
'What seems to be the issue?'
I slowly lost the will to live
and sobbed into my tissue.

Kind stranger, should you pass this space,
and on my absence ponder,
my lines are down, my lights gone out
- I'm lost in the blue yonder!

Hurray! I'm back... for now! With grateful thanks to Donny at BT who heard me weep and wail and DID SOMETHING!!