Wednesday 27 February 2008


* = The Beach This Evening - an acronym shamelessly pilfered from Elizaphanian (you can see Sam's TBTM and TBTE Mersea photos collected together here ).

Tuesday 26 February 2008

Fiction Flirting

If Music be the Food of Love and Literature is All About Sex - which must be truths almost universally acknowledged - then Bill Coles, author of The Well-Tempered Clavier , together with his publisher, Tom at Legend Press might be onto a winner with their new wizard wheeze:

Fiction Flirting

(A little late for Valentine's day but, then, these are MEN we're talking about here, so I don't think we should be too surprised about that . . .)

Anyway, the idea is that instead of becoming all tongue-tied and awkward and shy when you spy the man/woman of your dreams - down at the chippie, or the gym or wherever you generally hang out looking for lurve - you simply slip them a copy of your favourite book (Bill's The Well-Tempered Clavier is, coincidentally, the recommended choice) and, hey presto, your dreams will all come beautifully and passionately true!

Well, that's the theory. It's still in its 'research and development' phase at the moment, but that's where you can get ahead of the game. Bill and Tom are looking for Guinea Pigs. Well, each to his own, I suppose. They are also looking for some up-for-it, book-loving, singles who will take up the challenge and help to discover whether Fiction Flirting might actually become the New Speed Dating.

You don't even need to buy the book you give away to the object of your lustful thoughts. As Bill explains:

We’ll provide the books. We’ll provide ample coaching. We’ll provide the stickers to glue inside the front cover of the book (so that your swain can eventually track you down via Gorgeous Networks, our dating agency partner).

And all you’ve got to have is just that little bit of chutzpah to chat up that beefcake at the bus-stop; that doe-eyed dreamer in the corner of the cafe; that wistful houri delicately applying her lipstick in the library … get the picture??

If you too would like to find love and are not averse to having your picture in the papers, then do get in touch …

I'm not sure whether many of my regular readers of a Certain Age (not to mention marital status) will be eligible for Legendary Guinea Pig status, but - it could be a bit of a larf, so if you fancy giving it a whirl, you can find out more here.

Sunday 24 February 2008

Oh! So it's not just me, then!

East coast sea glass

As I've mentioned before, I'm a slightly obsessive picker-up of sea glass . I always have been, but since living so close to the sea, it's become an almost daily ritual. It doesn't seem quite right coming home empty-handed - and in fact I rarely do.

Were that priceless commodity - time - more readily available to me, I'd really love to learn some basic jewellery techniques, so I could wrap some of my finds in silver wire and turn them into ear-rings and necklaces. Until the relentless daily round eases off a little, however, my sea glass sits about the house in large glass dishes.

I wish I could lay my hands on my copy of Anita Shreve's heartbreaking novel Sea Glass , so I could quote a few passages in which she precisely captures the essence of my own fascination with these elusive, evocative shards. Rubbish from ages past transformed by the waves into gemstones of infinitely subtle hue. And with a tactile quality which is difficult to describe to anyone who hasn't walked for miles distractedly turning a piece of sea glass over and over between their fingers. It's addictive stuff.

Jeweller Gina Cowan sums up the history and attraction of sea glass on her seductive site.

Absolutely ages ago I promised to post a photo of a beautiful twisted piece I'd found. Here is it - though it's not easy to show its intriguing shape to best advantage.

Here's the haul from yesterday's walk (above).

And when I grabbed a bag to stuff with scarves, hats, water, tissues etc for this morning's session at the rugby club, I noticed a clinking sound in an outer pocket which turned out to be a handful of sea glass collected on the beach at North Berwick on this day last October.

How lovely to discover it again - though it made me yearn to rush up there and walk along that craggy shore, which could hardly be more different from my own portion of the eastern coastline. I've just been looking at some stunning photographs of the landscape around Berwick Law and wishing my life away.

And yet, who knows, perhaps some of the the well-worn sea glass washed ashore on Mersea began life as bottles dropped into the sea hundreds of miles further north.

Or maybe my North Berwick jewels had made their way from Essex to Scotland over the decades (even centuries) and I have simply brought them home.

We'll never know. But it's fun to dream.

Saturday 23 February 2008


Quelle surprise!

England 24: France 13


Time for a drop of vin rouge, je pense.

Truly scrumptious . . . &c, &c

An exciting parcel from Green Chair Press arrived in the post during the week, all the way from California: my copy of the latest issue of the journal Ampersand, together with two of Susan's lovely hand-printed broadsides:

'Poem Fragment' from Christopher Morley's nostalgic poem 'Smells', which I loved when I first read it on Susan's blog and reproduced it here.

And 'Etc' - a pleasing arrangement of ampersands, printed from wooden blocks. As regular readers will know, I've Got a Thing About Ampersands. And for very good reason, too, in my view.

So, an altogether scrumptious delivery, which brightened up a trying week.

(images © Green Chair Press)

A blustery day

Me 'n' My Boy enjoyed a brisk and bracing walk along the shoreline. It was much windier than we'd expected (hence the Extremely Bad Hair Day self-portrait below) and, though the kite-surfers were out in force, there was hardly anyone else around - which is unusual for a Saturday.

We stopped for a restorative cup of tea and hot chocolate respectively, sitting on the step of one of the 'Barbie Beach Huts' (newfangled prefabs in pastel colours which I'm afraid slightly offend my pro-higgledy-piggledy olde-worlde beach hut sensibilities, though I'm sure they're jolly nice inside).
Then back in time to catch the second half of the Wales v Italy match - a comprehensive thrashing of the Italians by an unstoppable Wales, which was rather depressing, though I have to admit there were some pretty thrilling tries. (I never enjoy it when Wales win at rugby because I just can't stomach all the gloating the next day - and you know who you are, and I'm not going to listen, OK?)

And if that was bad, then how much worse to see Scotland go down so dismally to Ireland. Oh the gloom. And minority (of one) gloom, as well, because the rest of the family, sporting genuine Irish genes as they do, were cheering on the winners.

So I'm all geared up this Not Very Super Saturday for a hat-trick of disappointment, since I can't really imagine that England will repeat their World Cup win over France.

I'm very much wishing now that I'd opted for the concert I'd been toying with going to instead.

Oh well. If it all gets too much, I can always read a book . . .

'Read to pieces' (. . . and Literature Is All About Sex)

There’s a phrase in the 1889 NYT review of Mrs Leicester’s School which I love: ‘read to pieces’.

(The reviewer was lamenting the fact that children’s books from the early nineteenth century (being comparatively rare) did not survive very long at all.)

How many books have I ‘read to pieces’? Not many, I think, although some of my favourites have become comfortably dog-eared over time.

As children, my sister and I were taught always to be very, very careful with books. Books were precious and should always be handled with care. This was not because they were particularly scarce – in fact, looking back, we seem to have had many more books in our house than a lot of people we knew – but simply because they were worthy of respect. To draw in a book (other than one designed specifically for the purpose or those which, like Annuals, invited completion of quizzes and joining up of dots between the stories) was a cardinal sin, and one I would never have contemplated committing.

There were some crayon marks on the endpapers of my copy of Peter Rabbit, but this shocking desecration had, it was explained in disapproving tones, been committed by The Very Naughty Child who had owned the book before me (namely my cousin Terry – who turned out jolly well in the end, considering).

(The Very Good Girl and the Bad, Scribbling Boy)

Despite all this early repression of my creativity, I did finally - and joyously - learn to 'express myself' in books. In this I was shamelessly encouraged by the fabulously inspirational Eng. Lit. teacher, Mr Curtis (or Robin, as we were daringly allowed to call him), who arrived when I was in the Lower Sixth.

‘Buy your own copies of these set books’, he said, ‘and then you can write all over them’. And so I did. And so I did. And how! D H Lawrence ( The Rainbow); James Joyce (A Portrait of The Artist at a Young Man ); Wilfred Owen (Complete Poems ); Shakespeare (Antony & Cleopatra, Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, but we got through several others as well); Chaucer (Canterbury Tales); Arthur Miller (Death of Salesman) - I still have my paperback copies of all of these and, while they may not have literally been read to pieces, they were so scribbled-on with a pencil that in places the paper is laced with holes. Especially The Rainbow, which completely took over my life for a term or two. I have never actually dared to re-read it. I feel it would be inadvisable. Too much like meeting up with a former boyfriend - far better to leave the memories intact than to re-visit with the ‘benefit’ of what passes for wisdom and maturity. I fear it would spoil everything.

There were, if I recall correctly, eight girls in my Eng Lit tutor group and just one hapless boy. Poor chap. The school was short of space, so A-level English lessons were held in one of the physics labs – all stained and burned mahogany benches (with inset sinks and gas taps) and tall stools to perch on.

In our first lesson, Robin - who could only have been a decade older than his pupils but he seemed tremendously worldly and sophisticated - climbed aboard one of these benches, lay down on his side, propped up on one elbow, loosened his tie and announced, languorously: ‘Right, then. I’m going to be teaching you English Literature for two years, and we need to get one thing straight right from the start. Literature is All About Sex. So we’re going to read about Sex and talk about Sex a lot in these lessons. Now I’m not going to be embarrassed about talking about Sex and I suggest that, if you want to get the most out of these lessons, you should not be embarrassed talking about Sex either. OK?’ And thus we began.

It’s often remarked that one will meet only one or two truly inspiring teachers in one’s educational career but that their influence will last a lifetime. This is certainly true in my case, and Robin Curtis was one of the two. Had it not been for his encouragement of one pathetically shy 17-year-old with very little self-confidence, then I’d never have gone on to a degree in English.

(Photo of my old school by Andrew Smith )

And there was something else about Robin, too, which makes me remember him often. We had a really very good school choir and orchestra and we were working on Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs. Several teachers sang in the chorus, so it did not seem particularly surprising when Robin turned up for a rehearsal.

What did surprise us, however – and made me at least go helplessly weak at the knees and nearly faint (oh, the susceptibility of youth!) – was when, as the opening bars of the orchestral accompaniment swelled, in came this fabulous, rich baritone voice in controlled but thrilling crescendo: ‘Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise without delays . . .' (if you’re not familiar with the piece, you can listen to the opening here ). Robin had been a Choral Scholar at Cambridge, and his contribution to the musical life of the school was as memorable as his recumbent teaching position, as he read aloud from D H Lawrence while his adoring pupils sizzled and blushed in the gloom of the old physics lab on many a long, hot summer’s afternoon.

Friday 22 February 2008

Too bogged down . . .

. . . with work this week to write any posts. Hope to catch up over the weekend. Meanwhile, here are some dull, muddy and thoroughly uninteresting pics from a very brief dash to the beach and back yesterday.

Sunday 17 February 2008

A weekend of blue skies

The Definition of Love

I had stopped bothering to watch Lark Rise to Candleford these past few weeks - it had begun to annoy me too much. Anachronism-spotting was proving far too unchallenging and joyless, and the last time I sat in front of it, I merely fell asleep with boredom.

However, tonight it happened to coincide with my feeling the urgent need to put my feet up with a restorative cuppa and I ended up seeing it. Two good things emerged from the general soup of toshiness: (1) Julia Sawalha - who really is quite wonderful to watch, and (2) The Definition of Love, by Andrew Marvell (1621-78), which I regret to say that I don't remember having read with intent since I was at school.

How silly it is, I often think, that we study at 13 or 14 poems (and plays and novels) which we cannot hope to understand until life and love have bashed us around a bit.

My Love is of a birth as rare
As 'tis for object strange and high:
It was begotten by despair
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone.
Could show me so divine a thing,
Where feeble Hope could ne'r have flown
But vainly flapt its Tinsel Wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended Soul is fixt,
But Fate does Iron wedges drive,
And alwaies crouds it self betwixt.

For Fate with jealous Eye does see.
Two perfect Loves; nor lets them close:
Their union would her ruine be,
And her Tyrannick pow'r depose.

And therefore her Decrees of Steel
Us as the distant Poles have plac'd,
(Though Loves whole World on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac'd.

Unless the giddy Heaven fall,
And Earth some new Convulsion tear;
And, us to joyn, the World should all
Be cramp'd into a Planisphere.

As Lines so Loves Oblique may well
Themselves in every Angle greet:
But ours so truly Paralel,
Though infinite can never meet.

Therefore the Love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debarrs,
Is the Conjunction of the Mind,
And Opposition of the Stars.

Friday 15 February 2008

A departure from the Muddy Island

Regular readers will notice a departure from my usual range of subject matter today!

I took the day off work yesterday and went by train to north London with my Boy. For a chap whose every spare moment (spare, that is, when not engaged in some rugby-related activity) is spent either making model WWII aircraft, or reading books about WWII aircraft, or playing WWII aircraft games on the Playstation, or watching The Dambusters, The Battle of Britain, 633 Squadron or The Memphis Belle . . . a trip to the RAF Museum at Hendon was long overdue.

My grandfather was stationed at RAF Hendon in 1933. I was taken to the museum when I was roughly my Boy’s age, and have a few rather dim memories of it. What I do remember quite vividly, however, was falling completely in love with the Lancaster Bomber. Looking back, this was a mighty strange phenomenon, since my other true loves at the time were dogs, ponies, birds and the works of Enid Blyton (this was a few years before David Cassidy came on the scene!).

Though I knew that my Boy would be in total, unquestioning Boy Heaven for the duration, I was interested to discover how the older, wiser me would react to walking amongst these relics of war, in which the young men of Britain, the US and Germany had actually sat and flown and fought and tasted terror and taken the lives of others. How would it feel to stand beneath that Lancaster once more? I doubted I'd feel that surge of romance which swept over me aged 10.

The museum has been completely revamped over the intervening years and is now huge and light and everything a modern museum should be. Above all, the word which kept springing to mind was ‘sensitive’. There was nothing there that jarred with my girlish (or motherly) sensibilities, and there was nothing that encouraged a ‘ker-pow’ attitude amongst young visitors, either. The sole emphasis of the ‘interactive’ section is on aerodynamics, the science behind aircraft design and pilot skill. Not fighting.

In the ‘Bomber Hall’ and the Battle of Britain display, ‘enemy’ aircraft stand side by side in silent dignity, a witness to amazing feats of both engineering and human bravery. And there's a quiet (but for Elgar's Nimrod) area with a memorial to the Battle of Britain 'Few'.

There are ample reminders of the meaning of war. This re-creation of an airfield chapel, for example, in which one can imagine those who had perhaps never previously felt any religious impulse, sitting in contemplation, fear, thanksgiving, shock, grief . . . maybe just a moment's 'peace'.

The ‘local interest’ aspect of this display struck me forcefully. On 31 August 1940, Pilot Officer Gerard Maffett took off from Martlesham Heath, Suffolk in this Hurricane, P3175, as part of a formation sent against raiding German planes. The Squadron claimed several Messerschmitts but lost two Hurricanes, one of them was P3175. Pilot Office Maffett was killed when his parachute failed to open in time as he bailed out at low altitude. The remains of his plane lay where it fell at Walton-on-the-Naze until it was recovered by volunteers from Colchester in 1973 and given to the RAF Museum in 1977. The parts have been preserved, but not repaired. ‘This provides a good insight into materials used to construct a Hurricane’, says the display board. ‘Provides a good insight into the death of a Boy as he fell from the East Anglian sky’, was the thought that haunted me when gazing at this awful twisted stump of a once-beautiful machine.

Did I ‘enjoy’ seeing the big, black Lancaster again? Yes, I confess that I did. I found it deeply moving. And ‘beautiful’. It is a beautiful and absolutely awe-inspiring thing. It was my Boy’s favourite exhibit, too (and it must have been difficult for him to choose from the hundreds of other ‘favourite’ planes on display), and we found ourselves gravitating towards it again several times during our visit.

That and its neighbouring shiny, silver US Flying Fortress. These bombers are vast – much bigger than I'd remembered. And yet the spaces in which the crew sat are absolutely tiny and cramped. Almost impossible to imagine the physical discomfort of being a rear gunner, for example (quite apart from their appalling vulnerability under fire).

And this particular Lancaster survived something like 124 missions – the second-highest number ever survived by a Lancaster. Considering the odds of its having survived even one mission, that is hugely impressive. And yes, of course, I know what those bombing raids did to Germany and to innocent Germans, and I take no pleasure in that at all, and it didn’t make me come over all frightfully British and gung-ho or anything, but it did make me feel pride in what the boys (some not that much older than mine at the time) who flew these colossal machines achieved and sacrificed.

I really would recommend this museum as a fabulous, thought-provoking place to take children (especially boys between the ages of 6 and 86).

Mumsy tick-boxes:
Admission - free!;
Loos - plentiful, spacious and clean;
Food - excellent, both child- and adult-friendly, hot and cold, clean cafes, friendly service, unhurried, not extortionately priced);
Gift shop - huge, well stocked and enticing, so avoid if on strict budget (which I had intended to be, but came out laden anyway . . . ho hum . . .);
Easy to get to – straight up the Edgeware branch of the Northern Line and then 5 mins well-signposted walk; plenty of parking too.

We filled seven hours there without even trying (and, remember, I am not even interested in bloomin’ aeroplanes!). A return visit with a friend (and possibly grandfather and uncle too) is planned for the Easter holidays.

After delays at Liverpool Street, we finally got home around 9.30 and I retired, footsore, to a long, hot, fragrant bath, with the book I'd hoped to finish on the train but barely started, and thence promptly to the Land of Nod.

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Drabness descends

No pretty sunset today . . .

. . . A uniform, drab greyness descended on what had been a fine, clear, sunny day.