Sunday, 4 June 2017

A new book!

My latest novel - the sixth - is scheduled to appear this autumn, 2017. It's a new departure for me: having so far published independently, this one is published by Instant Apostle. Here's the cover to look out for.

More later!


Saturday, 27 May 2017

A different world

We have just come back from a week-long trip to the Scilly Isles - for non-UK readers, a tiny archipelago 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall. These 5 inhabited islands (and others ranging from small isles once inhabited to bare rocks) are huddled close together and can be seen from each other, except when a sea-mist comes down and blots everything out.  They are also well-known for their bird life, and indeed we saw puffins, razorbills, fulmars, gannets, and the islands' recent success story, shearwaters; plus Atlantic seals and, briefly, dolphins.
Getting there is  bit of a mission: for us a train to London then a sleeper train down to Penzance, and the once-daily crossing on the ferry, Scillonian. When the weather permits, a small aircraft also plies a regular short trip across to the largest island, St Mary's, from Newquay, Exeter or Land's End.

Between the islands small open boats, taking about 40 passengers, bounce across the waves to simple quays, and sometimes they drop you off at one quay and pick you up at another because there isn't enough water: the tides have to be closely observed.

The permanent population of the islands is 2,200; of these 1,800 are on St Mary's, and the remaining 400 are shared between St Agnes, St Martin's, Tresco and Bryher. With so few people it is easy to find yourself the only human in sight.

We had a fine view across St Mary's harbour from our accommodation. Scillonian is moored at the quay, dwarfing the little boats.

The islanders are friendly and welcoming, robust and self-sufficient. They make ice cream from a tiny Jersey herd, keep chickens, ducks and geese, grow vegetables and herbs, and catch fish, of course.
There are numerous fine places to refuel after a strenuous walk. We walked our feet off, sometimes over quite rugged terrain, such that (luckily on the last day) the soles peeled off my  boots (which I have to admit were ancient.) On the uplands the soil is peaty, dark and spongy, supporting chiefly heather and gorse. The bones of the land can be seen where it meets the sea, eroded into boulder-tumbled cliffs by the crashing surf, especially on the Atlantic coast of Bryher. On the other side, and on St Martin's in particular, are wide sweeps of white-sand bays, with not a soul on them, apart from the occasional fishing boat.


On the lower ground there grew plants I'd never seen before, including succulents which often totally engulfed the dry-stone walls over which they scrambled, and echium which towered over our heads; but for exotic plants there was a spectacular setting: the Abbey garden on Tresco, home to plants originating in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico, the Canaries  and other unexpected places, helped by the Gulf Stream which gives this corner freedom from frost.


My favourite place of all, hard as it was to choose, was the tiny, but still used, church overlooking Old Town beach. We approached it from the cliffs, coming down to a rugged bay. It is surrounded by trees and almost invisible. The churchyard, where the founder of the Tresco garden, Augustus Smith, and a former UK Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, are buried, is serenity itself.



Of course island life is dominated by the sea, and the sea provides a favourite sport - pilot-gig racing. Every Wednesday evening the ladies race, and every Friday it's the men's turn.





On our last day we had some hours to while away before Scillonian sailed, and we spent an hour in the small but immensely interesting museum. I was particularly taken with the vivid accounts of the many ships which have been wrecked off the Scillies over the years: no surprise, when you see the jagged rocks and lurking sandbars, especially in centuries before reliable navigation aids. In 1707 three ships of the Royal Navy were wrecked on the Outer Gilstone Rock with great loss of life, including the Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Cloudesley Shovell. His body was washed up on Porth Hellick beach where there is a memorial to him; now he is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Another year

In October I posted some photos of the autumn garden, including the dogwood hedge I have been cultivating on and off for years, when it still had pink leaves. Now it is all bare stalks, but they are a robust red, almost the only colour in what is a rather sombre landscape.



With the trees bare the house can be seen from the lane, showing just how big the garden is. We have had hard white frosts almost every morning, melting off slowly and in some sheltered areas remaining all day. But today there have been blue skies and bright sunshine, such that it's hard to remember it's winter at all. While the weather lasts I've been attacking another bramble patch, nowhere near as long, wide  and high as the one I cleared a year or two ago, hoping that I can root it out before it really gets going with this year's growth - though it seems to me brambles never die down completely. Here's the bramble patch, before I started clearing it. I hope to replace it with a hedge of yellow dogwoods - we have a huge over-vigorous bush from which I have taken a few cuttings and some rooted stalks.





Which leads me to introduce you to my accomplice in these endeavours: my favourite secateurs. They are quite ancient, and for all I love them I don't treat them very well. Perhaps the worst instance is when they fell out of my pocket unnoticed while we were burning a vast pile of garden rubbish, and having hunted for them everywhere I had to conclude they were actually in the bonfire. The next day there they were, half-buried in the mound of grey ash, still warm, with every bit of colour and plastic sheathing burnt away, leaving only the blackened metal - but still perfectly serviceable. The trouble is, they are now very well camouflaged. If I put them down for a moment, especially now when the ground is covered with dead leaves, they are pretty much invisible. The other evening I had to hunt for them with a torch among a pile of buddleia choppings - to no avail. So they spent a night in the frost, and none the worse when I found them in the light of morning!
Like the warrior heroes of fantasy novels who name their swords, I call my secateurs Biter - fanciful, I suppose, but one might argue it goes with the writerly territory. After the latest instance of having to hunt for Biter, my husband wrapped the handles in yellow tape: a beautiful ballgown for a  very resilient tool. When I saw it,  I said, 'So, Cinderella shall go to the ball.' I hope Biter isn't insulted.

Friday, 28 October 2016

France: The autumn garden

These photos need no comment. I took them to remind myself of the colours of October, because when we next come it will all be bare branches.

Berberis

Spiraea
                                    Redbud


 Red oak - tiny tree, big leaves

                                                  Flowering cherry


From the top of the garden, with Rosie

                                                       
                                                        The dogwoods, looking tidier without rampant ferns and brambles
       

                                                                Claret ash





                                                       Peach



 Two deciduous azaleas (my favourite)



 Purple cotinus, scarlet willow, yellow dogwood, and some fabulous fungi.

Friday, 7 October 2016

A feast for ear and eye

Over the past year we have been going rather frequently to the opera. We are neither opera fanatics nor fabulously wealthy, but have a fondness for a musical treat once in a while and have taken advantage of a scheme run by the English National Opera, based at the Coliseum in London, which offers seats for £20. You select the opera you want to see, and the date, and a few days before you go you are sent your seats by e mail. We have had seats in the stalls, in the circle, in the dress circle, sometimes with a very slightly restricted view, but never such that the seating has detracted from our evening's pleasure.
The Coliseum Theatre, a mere five-minute walk from Charing Cross Station, is large and sumptuous, with all the traditional trappings of velvet, gilt and glamour that we expect from an opera house. Here we have seen some wonderful operas, but a few days ago was the cake's proverbial icing: we went to see Puccini's 'Tosca.'


Giacomo Puccini




 This opera has had a special resonance for me ever since I was about twelve or thirteen when my late father came back from helping at the Scouts' bazaar with a stack of 78s. At the time I was barely aware of the operatic luminaries on these records: Maria Callas, Carlo Bergonzi, and Tito Gobbi in the principal roles; but I was soon to find out. We had few other records then, so despite each lasting about three minutes before the next one fell from the spindle onto the turntable with a most unmusical crash, the opera was played frequently, such that I could before long sing the famous tenor aria 'E lucevan le stelle'  in Italian. (Why the tenor aria? No idea, since I was and am a soprano.) Over the years we have seen other productions, including one transported rather appropriately in time from the Napoleonic era where the story is usually set to that of World War 2, with corresponding costumes and sets, dark and foreboding. However the recent staging reverted to the original time and the colours and clothes of the period.
Here there were no great international names, but the singing was ravishing and the orchestra, as always, a tight-knit group of virtuosi magisterially directed. The story, in true operatic tradition replete with tragedy, ill-starred love, cruelty, treachery and murder,  provided the opportunity for heart-breaking arias. But it was the final scene which drew forth from a captivated audience a cross between a gasp and a roar. The set representing the prison of Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome was a circle of stone with  a backdrop view of a star-spattered night sky, resplendent in blue and gold. Following the discovery that her lover was dead,  the grief-stricken Tosca stood on the lip of the abyss. Dressed in a simple gown of pale gold, her dark hair loose, she raised her arms to shoulder-height, and for a moment they looked like angels' wings. Then with a final declamatory, 'Scarpia, in the sight of God!' she fell, almost serenely, backwards to her certain death. I guess every member of that audience knew what was going to happen, but it still had an extraordinary impact. It was an electric moment.

Harvest

These photos speak for themselves: gathering apples and digging potatoes in our French garden, ably assisted by Rosie. Collecting the Braeburns was a truly golden moment, one to savour, with the September sun warming my back, nothing to hear but birdsong, and the acre tidy (though I know all too well how a few weeks' neglect will see my mortal enemies the brambles preparing a renewed assault!)



Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Life in France: the nuts and bolts of everyday

Today has been a good day.
It's often problematic getting anything done here at our rural pile in Normandy, especially when, as is often the case, we are here only for a week or ten days. I have spent many a frustrating hour, for instance, on a mobile phone, with a signal that dips in and out, trying to convince an uncomprehending operative that our  internet and landline really aren't working, and it's not because we are idiots. (On this occasion we were over a year without these necessary things and it was eventually discovered that a cable was down between us and our neighbours, probably clobbered by a cherry-picker on top of a tractor.)
We recently found that our electricity meter wasn't working - like most of this place, it's ancient. Whoopee, free electricity! But as we all know there is always a reckoning, in this case, no doubt, a vast bill. So we rang up and told them. At first there was much tut-tutting - the time was too short. But eventually, several calls later, we had an appointment: between 0830 and midday. Early this morning I had a phone call to say that they would be here between 10 and 12. This gave us a window to hare into town (before breakfast!) and seek out a new drive-belt for our very ancient lawn-mower (mentioned before on this blog, with portrait.) The mower is now 22 years old and held together with fibreglass, screws and prayer. A belt was sourced, and we were told it had been in stock since 2010 and would not be replaced - I guess because the mowers it would fit have all gone the eventual way of all machinery.
Every hour we are here is precious, especially when the weather is fine, so this was a big help. The chaps from the electricity company arrived at 11, by which time my husband was already under the mower, muttering and groaning. Now we have a new meter, and the mowing can get finished - result!
This visit has been fruitful in other ways as well: we now have a handsome  new front  door. The old one was rotten, insecure and draughty, as well as difficult to open, such that we rarely used it.
In addition, I have made great strides with my Work in Progress, novel no. 6.
It's not often that successes outnumber frustrations, but as I write the fragrance of soup made from home-grown leeks is wafting from the kitchen, and on the way to the mower man's this morning I saw three red squirrels.

 The old door, once home to lurking spiders.










The new door.