Monday, 30 August 2010

Emily Dickinson - The Soap Opera ( or how to put off beginning your novel )

I have this theory about biography, that it's all a bit leechy, people living off dead people, appealing to the worst in us, making us dig into the lives of other writers, artists or whoever and coming up with conclusions which have very little to do with the person themselves. Go to the work if you want to find the person.
Having said all that I must confess to being fasinated by Emily Dickinson. When I was eighteen I spent a lot of time in Amherst. I can't remember caring one bit about the Dickinson family. I had much more important things in mind, like romance and Amherst College and how to get the bus there from Troy, New York where I was at school.

I decided that I wanted to set the beginning of my new novel in New England and it seemed easy to do research through reading about Emily Dickinson. Big Mistake. I did not realize that the Dickinson family stories read like Coronation Street and how interested I would be. I could now lecture on Emily Dickinson.
Research is like that, for a month or two you know everything there is to know and beyond that the knowledge fizzles out because you are on to something else.

There are several very good biographies of Emily Dickinson. I was amazed to see them all. My knowledge of her consisted of knowing that a) she was a very good poet b) she was reclusive and c) she lived in one of the prettiest towns in the world.

All I wanted was some background for my story. Now I am hooked.  I understand there is another biography coming out this year though what on earth there could be left to say I have no idea.  But since everybody has a theory, or several theories about her life and her family here goes. I think Emily Dickinson had such a fantastic inner life that she was bored by the life of the small stuffy college town and was quite happy to sit upstairs writing her poems and not having to deal with it.

She would have been much better off in New York where she could have gone out and not been known by anybody and been able to work freely. Of course she wouldn't have had all the tremendous dreadful background that made her work what it is so there you are. You can argue round and round about her and how exciting it is and it serves one very useful purpose - it stops me from writing my book.

One useful tip when trying to get started - I went to a dreadful concert last night, achingly, mind numbingly boring and so my mind went off and beyond the banging of the music I thought of two good ideas and dashed home to note them down. Only the fact that I was with a friend and had no notebook or pen stopped me from doing so in the middle of the concert. 

My daughter says this is the height of rudeness but I have actually done it. I once went to a concert on my own and somebody was playing a harpsichord. Now I have nothing against the harpsichord but it really was dire and in between each piece he gave us a ten minute talk on the next. And I wrote the whole way through. I was hoping they would think I was doing a review. So it isn't just good music which inspires me but obviously any at all, which is something of a worry now I come to think of it.
 My friend, Norma once said,
'Beginning your novel's hell, the end's hell and the bit in the middle isn't so wonderful either.'
I think I shall go back to reading Emily Dickinson until the next concert.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Barns and Bouquets - Liz's Tea Party

My friend Liz lives in a converted barn in the beautiful countryside of County Durham. She is Chairman of the Ferryhill, Sedgefield and District Flower Club and last week on yet another gorgeous summer afternoon she provided tea and cakes in the courtyard within the walls of her house for friends and members to come and make merry.

 It rained only a few drops, not enough to frighten off anybody and we tucked in.

Liz has the kind of garden you would expect of somebody who adores flowers and she and her group sometimes provide and arrange the flowers in Durham Cathedral and if you've ever been in you know how wonderful these are.

 I have never met anybody who didn't care for either flowers or gardens or both and this flower club is for all those people who enjoy flower arranging and for those who just like flowers so that's all of us then.

The club is affiliated to NAFAS, The National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies and is one of 50 similiar clubs in the Northumberland Durham area.

There is an annual membership fee but if people want to go and see what the club is about they can pay a visitor fee.

The club meets on the third Wednesday of every month except August in the Parish Hall at Sedgefield at 7.30p.m.

They have monthly demonstrations carried out by local and national experts. Sometimes they have fund raising events and they go on trips to stately homes and gardens.

The tea party raised   £334.34 in two and a half hours for the club so that was good going, Liz and her ladies dashing about with big pots of tea and tiered cake stands ( borrowed from my sorop. friend Barbara for the occasion, pictured above with Helen, one of my CAMEO friends).
Friends, flower club members - everybody contributed.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight - The Tempest at Durham Castle

Ariel, delighting the audience

There can be nothing better than to spend a summer's evening with friends, having champagne and nibbles in the garden at the castle, watching an outdoor version of a Shakespeare play while the sun sets grey and pink beyond the buildings and Will's words are spoken into the sharpening August night.

The last of the evening light

 The odd leaf fell as the play proceeded, a reminder that here in Durham the summers are short. People put on their jackets as the light faded and the sky cleared.  Pigeons, disturbed, perched on various buildings to watch and small bats could just be seen, darting through the air.

Packing up chairs, rugs and rubbish

The magic in The Tempest matched the magic in the place, the clock striking the hour, Palace Green and the cathedral floodlit as we left. Bliss!

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

My Life in Cars

It was only when I was having my usual Monday lunch this week with Joan that I realized that everybody is not as obsessed with cars as the Gill family. Joan says, that like her dad, she regards it as something to get her from A to B with as little trouble as possible.
On Sunday, unlike most women in the area, I went to the Morris Minor Owners Club gathering at Stanhope. It was a lovely day and all the cars were done up and shiny and their owners were standing around proudly, ready to talk. Oh, was I happy?
This is one of the loves of my life, my black six gear Mazda MX5. It's eight years old and has dents in almost every panel. I call it Jeeves, yes, we have names for our cars. And of course like the world famous gentleman's gentleman it is efficient, suave ( I like to to think it is, anyway! ) and takes care of me.

My daughter until recently had a peacock coloured Mazda called Morgan but Morgan has gone to the great garage in the sky and been replaced by something so different I gasped when I saw it.  She has bought a Nissan Qashqai. She's calling it Quentin.  When she took me to see it, black, gleaming and very large and talked to me about how it could come with diesel so it was cheaper to run, how you could see everything because it was so high up, how good it was in snow and how much room there was in the boot I thought, heavens, my kid is an adult!  You can tell an adult by the car she drives. My car fits me, one other medium sized person and a few groceries. Oh, and my sun hat.

This is one of the minis on show at the weekend. My first car was a mini.  My boyfriend, Richard, was a bit of an expert on these matters and so off we went, my dad said I could have £150 to spend and Richard managed to knock the bloke down to £125 so we got to spend the rest of it on getting it to the road. I was so excited the first time I drove it up a hill and on a motorway.  It was green. A Morris traveller.  My mother had one of these when we were small children and she could get us and our friends inside whenever she wanted to take us out. She could also get in weeks of groceries.
My dad had an Austin Sheeline, a great big silver ship. When we were small children we could all sit on the floor in the back the better to go over the bumps in the road. I can remember standing up in the back hanging on to the seat and watching the speedometer as my dad urged this great car up to a ton. A hundred miles an hour isn't heaven but it's somewhere close. We could stand on the running boards while he went very slowly and cling there for a little way up the road.
This is the ultimate in sports cars, the 1949 MG TC.  In our family we had MGs like other people had hot dinners, but nothing like this. The first sports car I ever had was a blue MG Midget when I was twenty two and had just got married. I  can remember screaming around roundabouts, sometimes twice, just for the fun of it.  It had tremendous holding ability. My sister had a yellow MGB and I had it later. My mother had various MGs including an orange MGB GT and then a green and gold one which they brought out to celebrate however many years of MGs it was at the time.

Richard began building, mending and looking after cars generally when he was very young and we had a silver and blue mini, a black and gold one, a white Ford which we called The Owl Hunter as its headlamps were always reaching for the sky instead of searching the road. We had a black mini van with our name on the side and he once bought for my birthday a beautiful yellow Scimitar with its long bonnet and automatic gears.  It used to hesitate for a second when you put it into drive and then go whoosh! Since then I've had many cars but I'm proud to say that I never bought a single one for some sensible reason, it was always the colour, the look, the engine, the little fat tyres or the lovely black leather seats.

Do other people have special cars that they love or childhood memories associated with them or perhaps romantic memories.  I remember once sitting in a beautiful blue Ford which went so fast that we used to call it  Roadrunner, above the ( fairly ) bright lights of Bishop Auckland with a very nice young man and it was a lovely dark night and the lights were twinkling and he turned to me and I waited for him to say the magic words and he said,
'Did you know that the price of bricks has gone up?'

How's that for romantic? To be fair he was building a garage at the time!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Secret Garden - Sharon and Howard's Plant Nursery at Whitworth Hall

Howard and our president, Maureen

God loves a trier and Sharon and Howard have made their dream profession of running a plant nursery come true. Having been turned down by many people with suitable venues and also from Whitworth Hall once - the letter got into the wrong intray - they applied a second time and their perseverance and passion paid off, they now run their nursery in the Walled Garden at Whitworth Hall,
Sharon, explaining about old apple trees

Durham Soroptimists were invited to go there and have a tour and talk this week and fifteen people gathered on a perfect evening and in the lengthening shadows Sharon and Howard told us about how they had acquired the place, reglassed the greenhouses and are now setting about turning the walled garden into a nursery where old kinds of plants will be brought back  including up to a hundred and fifty different kinds of apples. 

Nurture is the key word, they grow everything themselves - unlike the many supermarket type places where the plants are bought in. 

The gate open into Lady Margaret's garden which was supposedly made for her by a lover.

You can get plants at Sharon and Howard's nursery you don't see in many other places, which is part of the fun and you can walk around and take in the scent of oregano ( laden with bumblebees as it is in flower ), lavender, rosemary, lemon balm, see the beds where different kinds of apple will eventually flourish, taste figs and peaches in the glasshouses and choose from the many plants ( it proved almost impossible for some of us that evening and we kept dashing about changing our minds! ) to brighten our own plots.

Glasshouse with Sharon and Kate

Pat, Alwyn and Margaret gathered at the old well which is going to be a magnificent fountain in time.

I met Howard a couple of years ago when I got his name and telephone number from a friend and he came to cut the hedges in my back garden. I wanted him to cut the grass but only if he would take my lawnmower home with him as I had nowhere to keep it, the shed having recently fallen down. Who else would house one's lawnmower??

He also introduced my garden to chicken manure pellets, particularly pungent after rainfall but miracle worker for the good of the plants. He said, 'how would you feel if you never got fed?' 
The walled garden at Whitworth Hall is one of those special places where magic can really happen and it did on Monday evening, while the sun shone, the plants thrived and later we walked through the deer park, the deer so obligingly looking up and posing for photographs and fifteen of us walked into the bar and ordered various meals.  They didn't know we were coming but within half an hour we were sitting in their glorious conservatory, the deer and sheep only just visible in the gloom, eating fish and chips and watching the blue lights which came on to brighten the scene.

The money made from the evening ( which was Sharon and Howard's idea, they gave their time free and gave ten per cent of sales ) will go to our President's charity, and help people who have leukemia and we will have happy memories of August in the walled garden.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

CAMEO Old Friends and New

When I was ten I went to school in Durham. It was a huge upheaval, I think my parents had thought of having me board there - I had read all the books about boarding schools and imagined feasts in the dorm! I was desperate to go. Also we lived in a small mining town and boredom has always been the greatest threat to my well being. I have what must be one of the lowest boredom threshholds in creation. In fact Durham High School didn't have boarders any more. I was gutted.

School was not one of the best experiences of my life. I felt like the writer who talked about all those years his teachers had stolen from him. I'm sure if you want to be a doctor or a solicitor or anything professional like that school is useful but for me after I learned to read, write and add up I felt that I hadn't learned a single thing that was of any benefit to me.

My sister felt the same, which is strange are we are nothing alike but she wanted the outdoor life and horses and all I wanted was to be left in my bedroom teaching myself to type on the old black Underwood my father had so briliantly bought for me when I was ten. It was one of the best presents I ever had.

For years I was resentful of my schools but in fact it was a very good schooling for a writer. First of all I went to school in the village along with everybody else, then I went to private school along with the daughters of businessmen, professors and so on and then I went to boarding school in upstate New York and all of it has been useful for my work.

After I moved into Durham City five years ago I met one of the girls I had been friendly with at school, Mary.  Mary is all those things a friend should be and more. She puts herself out for everybody, she makes friends everywhere she goes. She is the eternal optimist, the person who takes you for coffee when you're low. Mary knows when you feel low - she certainly does when I do. It's as if she has an extra instinct for these things. Mary saves me from myself.

She started the CAMEO group. I think first of all it was people she had taught with and then it grew to include others.It means Come And Meet Each Other and of course Mary thought it up.
She also introduced me to the Soroptimists which has become very important to me. I now cannot go down the street without meeting somebody I know and a great deal of that is because of Mary. She brightens my life.
This is Kay who was also at school with us. She keeps people in touch with one another and the school.This is us in Brambles Coffee Shop at the garden centre at Shincliffe where we meet monthly and often see one another in between. Left to right is Helen, who loves gardening and has given me several beautiful plants for my garden, Liz Gill wearing pink and daisies, Mary, Joan who loves sailing and is also very generous and Liz who is part of Mary's family and runs a flower arranging club.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

England's Last Wilderness - Rookhope and the land beyond


When the newspapers start up about the top end of Weardale over to  Alston they call it 'England's Last Wilderness'.  I quite like the idea, it reeks of romance and screaming warriors. There is a wonderful book by John Marsden, photography ( breathtaking ) by Nic Barlow, called The Illustrated Border Ballads and in it a ballad called  The Rookhope Ryde.

The book is all about the raids made along the borders when the reivers would come down and steal cattle. It is a huge and complicated history. Rookhope was very often on the receiving end of such raids and by other Englishmen too and the ballad tells the story of one particular raid, it's told in verse and I wish I could hear it sung or recited.

My family on my mother's side is from that area, I had cousins who lived in Rookhope and I can remember going to see them when we were small children. My uncle ran a haulage business from there. The story was that when he was a young man some relative died and left him a small amount of money, less than £40 and he started up a business. Of course forty pounds was worth more then but even before the second world war it wasn't that much but he managed.

He had a fleet of lorries which ran up and down the dale. They were green and were ERFs. My uncle always wore an ERF badge in his lapel.

My dad had lorries but only two and they didn't have his name on them. We were mortified that my uncle's lorries did and my dad's didn't.  One of my earliest memories is of travelling with one of my dad's lorry drivers. He was called Albert Golightly and his family came from Eastgate. I used to go with him when he took the lorry out on deliveries on Saturday mornings. I can remember being lifted into the cab and when I was bigger scrambling up the wheel arch on to the high seat. You can see everything from a lorry. It makes you feel powerful and the warm rumbling noise of the engine is bliss.

Some time ago I wrote a book about cars - well, actually about people and their relationships but the cars figured big time. I love cars, wagons, buses, motorbikes - anything which has an engine and takes to the road. My book was about the man who invented a family car, and the other man who rallied the car and about the girl they both cared for. It was a novel which was very dear to me because all my life we have been involved in cars. My dad used to work for the Ford Motor Company in Dagenham, my mother, my sister, my daughter and myself all had sports cars. I still have a little black Mazda MX5 and tear about with the hood down even on the coldest days.

I love motor racing, I used to go to Oliver's Mount in Yorkshire and watch the motorbikes when I was young. Agostini used to wear white leathers and Barry Sheene did wheelies coming up the final stretch and the smell of Castrol GTX, it means more to me than chocolate!