Thursday, 24 February 2011

Not a daffodil in sight yet, thank God!

I'm sitting there in the Appleby Manor Country House Hotel, contemplating dinner and wondering what kind of wine I would like. That's my new Italian designer dress. The three days away was my Christmas present from my daughter and my birthday present to her. It's a good hotel, it has views of the Eden Valley.It snowed while we were there. We had a big room, lovely wine and food. The place was built by a prosperous local solicitor, I think probably in the Victorian period. It makes a lovely hotel.
The shoots of daffodils were just coming through the grass. The snowdrops and the crocuses were out but that was all and it was bitterly cold. I love going away in cold weather so that you can sit in front of the fire and read. We did venture out, we went to Lucy's of Ambleside where they have probably the best cakes and puddings in all of Cumbria.Also we went to Dove Cottage. I have never been before. I've been past it when I was hiking and I've see the Wordsworth graves but I hadn't ever been inside before and since my daughter hadn't been there either we decided to call in.
And there I discovered that William had gone to France as a young man, had an affair and the woman had had a baby. He came home and married Anne and lived out his life and  ...  I was really upset. Does even Wordsworth have feet of clay? Not that I've ever rated him. All those poems about the bloody countryside. I know, it's crass and they're full of meaning and besides you should judge a poet by his work. But it put me off. It was daunting to know that Wordsworth was just like every other lad, all his thoughts in his trousers. So much for daffodils.
I did enjoy the story of Sir Walter Scott, climbing out of his bedroom window in the mornings so he could avoid his breakfast of porridge and going to one of the local pubs for a slap up breakfast. Apparently the Wordsworths ate porridge twice a day. How boring. We saw pictures sof Coleridge - was he the one who left his wife for Anne's sister?  Another not so nice poet.  And Southey who apparently took on the wife and children. And Charles Lamb and his sister. It  all looks so cosy and sounds so interesting but really it was just a horrid little house in the middle of nowhere with dark rooms, tiny bedrooms, no running water, no comfort. We went back to Appleby ( which by the way has a wonderful Saturday market and a proper old fashioned butcher where the butcher doesn't have already cut chops in the window but actually cuts them for you . We bought homemade lemon curd which we had sampled at the hotel). We had lots of wine and chocolate and local speciality cheese. We could have had porridge but I think old Bill Wordsworth had dented my appetite for such things. The only fluttering and dancing in the stiff cold wind was us running back to the car park and contemplating the fire in the big hall of the hotel. I didn't like coming home. I felt like a spoilt child being deprived of all the goodies. There are no daffodils in Durham yet either, so there.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Thirty is the Cruellest Age

My daughter is thirty in March. I couldn't imagine why she was getting so worked up about it.
'I loved being thirty,' I bragged.  'That was the year we built a house, I had you and I had my first novel published.' 
God save us all from our mothers. I must have been having a good day and neglected to say that we were broke, I was pregnant, her father was mending cars in a back street and we were living in a caravan.
  She has an almost impossible job, I gave up impossible jobs, I could never do them, has been living with her fiance for a year and they have moved into their own house with all the usual problems and now they have a huge mortgage which they may still be paying when they are on zimmer frames.
I have just read a wonderful book by Virginia Nicholson called Singled Out which is about the million surplus women left after the first world war. They made huge strides ( well, some of them did. Some poor bitches ended up poverty stricken, looking after dreadful mothers for thirty years or typing away their lives and living in hideous bedsits). The huge strides the women before her took meant that my daughter's generation feels it has to be good at everything. Being good at everything, as we all know, is bloody hard.
Between then and now nothing has gone forward in some ways. We still don't get paid as much as men. Women still think they should be thin and beautiful forever. They spend their lives worrying about what they weigh and what they look like, they have a terrible time trying to find the one decent man in a hundred miles who isn't afraid of commitment and actually wants to have a child or two but they still do nearly all their domestic chores, they hold down bastard jobs so that they can have houses full of expensive furniture ( because everybody does ) and meanwhile they feel inadequate. How can so many clever talented girls feel such pressure?  Because society, the newspapers, television and general life makes them over achievers.
At thirty they think they should have children. 
You take on the seesaw of their lives, worrying in the night about their welfare, terrified that somebody is about to clean them out on the M6, watching as they crash through the world trying to make sense of it.
I could kill the men who have been unkind to my child, I hate the fact that her father died when she was seven and left me to try being both parents to her.
She is beautiful, charming, intelligent.  She is good with people, a wonderful manager, she bakes a mean lemon cake and can make beef carbonnade brilliantly even though she doesn't taste it because she is a vegetarian. She cares about other people, has raised thousands of pounds for charity.
In other words she's a woman of her generation, brought up to expect everything while knowing that it's impossible.
So I wish her well, my child and the women of her generation as she reaches the hardest year of all and I think of the happiness she has given me over the last thirty years, the good memories. We went away this weekend. I drove us to Windermere on the Friday and gave the map into her hands. She's been reading maps since she was seven  and always knows where she is going. I wish her an easy road. It's been anything but that so far for her. To her and to all the other thousands of women about to become the hardest age of all, I wish them joy.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Paddy's - the best taxis in town

Some time since in a land far away I had a very bad evening, Actually, it was more than a bad evening, it was a bloody bad three years and I was fed up. I had a friend who was similarly afflicted. She was having the worst time ever. And we went into town and had a drink and then she said the immortal words,
'I have some brandy at my house.'
Now I love brandy. I never drink it. I gave up drinking it when I decided how much I liked it, otherwise I would have been whiling away my afternoons in a sweet blur which wouldn't do at all however much inclined I am. I come from a very upright family. I'm not kidding. We have stained glass windows in one of the local churches dedicated to various people within the family.You can't get much more upright than that.
So, as I was saying, I was having a very bad time and the brandy was expensive and we had a lovely evening.
I felt great. The trouble was when the brandy bottle was empty I couldn't stand up. Very odd somehow. So she said she would call me a taxi.
We always call Paddy's. They are reliable. They are on time, helpful, lovely.
 I fell over when I went outside.This I think was to be expected. After that I don't remember a great deal.
I do remember waking up in the morning. Rather like Paddington Bear with his wellingtons, I was still wearing my trainers. My trainers are lovely. They are Merrills and they are grey and pink but I hadn't ever been to bed in them before. Also I still had my coat on.
I didn't have a hang over. It was only when I tried to get out of bed that the difficulties started. Going to the loo was all I managed that day. I didn't even venture down the stairs. The following morning I was fine.
The second part of this story begins some time later when I was going to a very up market do at the castle. It was one of these lovely outdoor affairs with lots of champagne and the like and I was going with friends.
I ordered my taxi. I saw it arrive. I went outside.
A very large man got out and looked at me and I looked at him and I smiled politely and I thought is there something the matter and then he started to laugh. He didn't stop for quite a long time and when he did he said,
'The last time I saw you love I was carrying you in your front door,'  or something to that effect. I was so taken aback I can't remember the words and he started laughing again.
'Eh,' he said, 'it's a good thing you only weigh eight stone. I had to pick you up twice.'
Well, I don't weigh eight stone but he's big and didn't  notice.  I'm too old for embarrassment. I laughed.
We went to the do after he dropped us off. Coming back we decided to pick up a taxi in the market place and lo and behold there he was again, laughing like mad and telling all his mates that I ripped his shirt off his back.
I said 'you should  be so lucky' but for days after that every time I saw certain taxis the drivers were all waving at me.
I don't suppose they would read this. They're northern men through and through, they're not demonstrative and I wouldn't like to embarrass them but Paddy's are officially the best taxis in town.

The Day the Toilet Died!

My new loo, oh the excitement!!

Last week it was one of those times when daft things went wrong at home. I had my daughter and her boyfriend plus his brother coming to stay. The very day they were coming the downstairs lights gave up as soon as I switched on the pretty green chandelier in the dining room so I called the electrician and he promised to come early Saturday evening otherwise we wouldn't be able to see.
On Saturday night it was blowing a gale. Slates and masonry were blown off the roof and I have two dents in the bonnet of my car to prove it.
On Sunday my almost son in law broke the downstairs loo. The poor lad. The first time he came to stay he got oil on my expensive silk cushions. The second time he washed his hair and water poured through the hall ceiling.
'He did what?' I said as my daughter tried to explain about the loo.
I keep a lovely bottle of perfume in there for people to spray flowers into the air.  He had knocked this down the loo, broken the porcelain and cut his hand trying to get the damned perfume bottle out. The perfume bottle of course was fine.
'Next time I come to stay maybe I should just stay in the car,' my almost son in law said sheepishly. I didn't like to point out the car is almost new.
The electrician came in the middle of the DVD of Avatar and I need a new chandelier.
I had to wait until Monday to call the plumber about the loo and the roofer came and tut tutted over the roof.
On Tuesday Howard came and swept up all the mess and masonry.
On Wednesday the lads came with ladders to repair the roof
And on Friday the plumber came and we now have a new loo downstairs which thankfully looks exactly like the old loo.
Next week the electrician is coming back to put up the new chandelier and hopefully mend the wall lights in the sitting room. Never again. Wall lights are a menace.
Also, the engineer is coming to service the central heating boiler and if there's anything wrong with that I shall leave the area. Forthwith.
It's the detail that gets you, the time and expense involved. Fingers crossed nothing big goes wrong.
As for the car, the poor thing has so many dents now I only noticed when I went to drive somewhere. And it isn't going to the garage. I shall be eating cabbage permanently at this rate.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Games People Play

When does passion become addiction?  What do you do now that you could give up tomorrow without regret?  Chocolate?  Red Wine?  Cinema? I once, for my health's sake, gave up coffee, tea and alcohol for several months. I was very depressed at the time. The giving up of stimulants was part of a fight to become well. My mind threw various horrifying symptoms at my body.

I had no symptoms at all when I got breast cancer. The tumour in my breast was large but right behind the nipple and even the specialist couldn't find it. Luckily I was forty nine and had my first mammogram. Nobody knows how long the tumour had been there.

We got the old old story again last week. More women are getting breast cancer because they are self induglent fools, sitting at home on their fat arses all day and drinking bottles of red wine. I am a woman therefore I am to blame.  Crap, I say!

Is a man blamed when he gets prostate cancer?  Very often people who smoke get lung cancer. Many of them don't of course and people who don't smoke still get it. It's a question of guilt. Get your body up out of that inertia and scrub the kitchen floor and mind you don't enjoy anything, you stupid person.

I'm addicted to red wine, chocolate, my daughter ( ah, but that's love), and my work.
I have a passion for writing but then I get paid for it. When you turn your passion into work perhaps that is the greatest self indulgence of all. Would I write if I didn't get paid for it?  You bet I would.  Look at this. Few people read it and yet I do it. Is it then indulgence?

I have become addicted to spider solitaire and at the weekend I learned to play Street Fighter on Playstation whatever it's number.  I could become addicted to that. I was Cammy, with a figure to die for, shedding forty years in the process and gaining a long yellow plait and huge blue eyes. A woman who could kick in a man's head with ease. You can't think how often I've longed to do that. I was powerful.  I kicked ass and anything else within reach. Gosh, it made me feel better.

It gives me a tremendous guilt trip to knock off the minutes playing computer games. I love classical music and spend money going to concerts. This would be seen as culture whereas computer games as pointless indulgence. I don't see there's any difference. They both make me feel euphoric.

As a child I loved reading. As a writer I measure it like it was mathematics. Is the plot any good, could she have used a better phrase, a better word? Does the ending work?  Is there too much flashback?
Dear God, my passion has turned into criticism and that really is work.

I once read a definition which said that work was something you did when you would rather be doing something else yet when I rang up to obtain my old age pension this week they assured me that I had worked for thirty nine years.

Teaching I found hard work. Dusting and ironing also. But writing?  That's pure self indulgence and I've  been lucky enough to get paid for it.

Now I'm off to play spider solitaire. I'm trying to polish off level two this week and move up the really difficult level three.  I suspect I may never master it and will be found dead at ninety nine, slumped over a computer with my hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds still in a nasty muddle. Rather like life really.

The only thing I don't want to be addicted to is smugness, that awful pit which sits on the shoulder or most of us as we get older, waiting for the opportunity to deprive ourselves of the things that make us feel good. That really would be one passion too far. In the meanwhile I know what it is that I love about writing. It's because I've never figured it out, because the levels are endless, because it gives you a wine and chocolate high and because the result makes me feel ecstatic.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Bradshaw's Britain

Michael Portillo is going around Britain by train, on BBC2 every evening at 6.30p.m., taking his copy of Bradshaw's( who was the original rail traveller) guide with him. I wish he'd asked me. What a nice guy.  He's a much better television presenter than he ever was a politican. Also I think he likes the job he does now and I think the people he meets like him. He's open and friendly and genial despite the posh accent which he so obviously can't help. And he is so self effacing. I loved the bit where he went to the business where they make blue stilton. He watched the girl as she flipped the tall cheese so easily to turn it over and confided that he couldn't even flip an omelette.

He stays in hotels which have lovely views and often a history, places Bradshaw has recommended and  he got so excited when he travelled on the first piece of railway in the world, between Stockton and Darlington. What a thrill railways were then and how sad that there is very little pleasure left for ordinary travellers with dirty overcrowded trains, limp sandwiches, tea from cardboard cups with a teabag in them. We are treated like cattle.  The toilets are vile, the big stations are filled with fast food outlets.

Several years ago I took the Pullman from London to the south coast and had lunch on the way and then the Orient Express to Venice. It was the most expensive holiday I ever had, five days in a gorgeous hotel and then the trip back. We ate dinner going through Paris. We slept on the train and drank hot chocolate in bed. We had champagne in the bar car. On the way back it snowed in the mountains and we stood there and watched as the train sped north.

I used to love the Edinburgh to King's Cross. From Durham it's about two hundred and fifty miles and can be done in three hours.It's a direct train so you don't have to lug your baggage around, you just sit there and read or in my case write. I bribe myself with coffee or little bottles of red wine and am safe and cosy against the bad weather.
Durham station nineteenth century viaduct

And coming home, into the station high above the city, I've descibed it many times in my books, is wonderful.
I once said to one of the Geordie staff who used to be always on the Great North Eastern Railway as we pulled in,
'It's the most beautiful view in the world,' and he said loyally,
'Aye, pet, until you get to Newcastle.'

The best part of all my journeys is coming back. That's what I write about, people coming home and I think of all the people who don't come home, the soldiers most of all, dying in foreign countries and never returning to what they love so well. How many of them have set off from Durham Station over the years and been watched until the train is out of sight by the people who love them?

Michael Portillo is in Scotland this week and admitted that until a few weeks ago had never been to Loch Lomond. I couldn't imagine that either. I spent many happy days fishing in that area. Bradshaw thought it was the most beautiful of all the lochs but then they are all the most beautiful when you are there. Why don't we get a boat and go fishing, Michael and I will show you how to catch pollock? They swim around under the boat in the moonlight, silver flashes beneath the surface and all around you are the bonny bonny banks when the sun has long since set beyond the mountains.
Durham Station
view from the station