Saturday, 19 December 2015

I Write A Present

Travel Advice

For Anna Dreda to celebrate her birthday, 
and wth thanks for her many kindnesses


The decision about whether or not to set off
in the first place, whether to sit it out, to wait
for better weather seems ludicrous
in retrospect. 
                         Three inches of snow either
disappears into grey by lunchtime, or expands
to make things impassable.   A tree might stand,
or fall, laden, across the tracks.
                                                          
So, I’m sitting here remembering, by turns,
the sorrows of the ones who told me so,
as they waited to drag me out of the ditch
before I’d even set off,  
                                          and the kindness
of the ones who say, "Snow falls, and it melts,
and in any case, a tree can become logs,
a landslide can be shovelled away." 




With love from Liz xx



Saturday, 12 December 2015

I Prepare For Christmas

Last week, rather than going late night Christmas shopping, I went to watch my son play hockey.  He has played ever since he was allowed to give up rugby, but before Tuesday last, I'd not made it to a game.  

To reach the pitch at Lilleshall National Sports Centre I had to walk along a dimly-lit path.  It was the irregular, precise percussion of ball on hockey stick, rather than a guiding light, which told me I was heading in the right direction.  This sound is slightly higher, tenser, more intact somehow, than the sound of croquet ball on mallet, or cricket ball on bat. 

When I joined the other three spectators on the sidelines, I was amazed. Under the brightness of the floodlights, 22 young men zipped around a perfect emerald surface, aiming passes which arrived at their intended destination.  The speed the ball traveled was unbelievable, and occasionally painful.  They took injuries in the stomach, on the back, all with little complaint.

These days, hockey pitches are made from synthetic turf.  The one at Lilleshall, as you'd expect, is of international standard.  It looks immaculate - level, smooth, flawless.  Nothing like the pitches I learnt on when I attended South Hampstead High School in north London.  This was a land-locked school with very little outside space: we managed one-and-a-half netball courts, but for hockey were transported in a navy blue minibus to Regent's Park.

The best thing about the hockey pitches at Regent's Park was the view of the mountain goats who'd occasionally appear on rocky outcrops visible above London Zoo's fencing.  I'm think we sometimes saw camels too, but I might be making this up.  In all the years I traveled to those leaden, lumpy pitches, I didn't play a single full game of hockey.  We'd be sent to run up and down, round and round; we'd practise passing - balls flying off at angles; we'd bully off, dribble around obstacles; we'd play multiple games, in parallel, across the width of the pitch.  I never got the hang of the rules, and now the rules have changed.  There is no bullying off.  Corners aren't corners, nor are they taken from the corners.  The fiberglass sticks can be raised above waist-height, as long as this is done safely.

Watching my son bathed in light, strong, confident, shouting encouragement to his team from full back, I felt all a mother could hope to feel about her son.  There he was, in the full flow of his gifts: youth, strength, vitality - masterful, and loved beyond measure.  


Saturday, 21 November 2015

I Embrace A Plank


Meet Plankie.  This is  a head and shoulders shot, but he extends down quite a long way.  Plankie was my son J's childhood creation and friend and we came across him again this afternoon when his big brother, G, needed something longer than a ruler.  I gave him a long overdue hug.

Seeing Plankie again made me come over all warm.  Warmth was a feeling I also experienced at The Land Of Lost Content in Craven Arms last Saturday.  This museum is dedicated - unashamedly, extravagantly and recklessly - to nostalgia, much of it tat but none of it worthless.  I recommend that if you visit you go, as I did, with a close friend of similar age with whom you feel able to utter, without embarrassment, over and over again, "Oh, I remember this / that / those!" whether you're referring to stuffed budgies in cages, electric typewriters, Donny Osmond mannequins or Zoom lollies.

J's determination to love Plankie against the odds for all these years moves me.  Back when Plankie was new, he made a rigid bedfellow and a reluctant traveller.  Planks, even ones with faces, don't easily sit upright in cars.  Much of the content in the LOLC is also rigid, yellow and slightly off-centre, but my companion and I were determined to embrace the unlikely experience of it all, and if you get the chance, you must go (though it's closed in December and January).

Although older and a good deal taller than Plankie now, J's affection for him is still clear.  I like this loyalty to the absurd, to fun, to the apparently worthless.  I will always relish ability of those who can find joy in anything - who can draw a lopsided smile onto any day of the week.

http://www.lolc.org.uk/

Sunday, 8 November 2015

I Keep The Score

No one was more surprised than me when I won 4-1 at badminton today.  Admittedly, for three of the games, J only used backhand shots.  This was because Malcolm from the Tuesday club set this for him as homework.  This Malcolm-imposed limitation gave me a considerable advantage, one I exploited by placing shots to J's forehand.  Long-gone are the days when I held back from using the full panoply of tactics learned over 40 years at the net.  At 6'3", J doesn't need any favours from me.

Usually our scores creep up fairly evenly.  1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, etc.  When we get into the higher numbers, I add an extra challenge to our game by turning some of our scores into dates.  18-15, for example, is the date of the Battle of Waterloo.  Or, as I've recently discovered, the date of publication of the first geological map. 12-15, Magna Carta, is topical in this its 800th anniversary year, as is 14-15, Agincourt.  18-12 is our favourite score: "Overture," we chorus whenever it occurs.  "Battle of Borodino," I sometimes add.  We are too evenly matched to have scored the Battle of Trafalgar (18-05), but today, thanks to Malcolm, we hit a new range of dates in addition to old favourites.  Here are some of them:

10-16 - King Cnut begins his reign
12-04 - Capture of Constantinople by the 4th Crusaders
13-07 - Wm Tell supposedly shoots the apple off his son's head  (another chance to shout, "Overture!")
16-19 - First Thanksgiving, Virginia
19-15 - Sinking of the Lusitania
20-12 - 'lympics

Friday, 30 October 2015

I Receive Unlimited Texts

Apparently, I have the capacity to send unlimited texts on my phone contract.  This, in fact, means that I can send 3,000 free texts per month to my 3,000 closest friends, or 3,000 texts to my only friend.  Anything else would involved keeping count, complicated maths and possibly involve me in exceeding my unlimited limit.  If there is one thing I am determined not to do, it is to incur extra charges.

Having said all that, I received two unlimited texts yesterday whilst I was in Glasgow visiting the School of Art with my son. They made me smile in broad daylight.  I know they were unlimited texts because until my sons are 18 they aren't allowed to manage their phone contracts, so I have 3 phones in my name, giving me a potential limit of 9,000 free unlimited expensive texts per month.

The reason that these two texts felt unlimited was that they gave me unlimited pleasure.  Never in an unlimited month of free Sundays could I have imagined I would receive the following messages:

Can you also bring my fur and my hat     and
We are underneath Donald Dewar









Monday, 26 October 2015

I Invent A Term

Back on the municipal court in the growing dusk before the still surprisingly early GMT sunset, J and I were practising Ball and using Ball terminology.  J achieved several Swishes from far out, one preceded by a Rainbow - a perfect arc of a shot.

"That was a Brick," J informed me, as my shot ricocheted directly back into my hands having hit the rim square on.  

"This terminology, " I said, "is why Ball is cooler than netball."   

"And other reasons."  J lobbed the ball.  It bounced off the backboard, onto the rim and out. 

"Wooden Cow," he stated.

"Wooden Cow ...?" I asked.

"Nah. Wouldn't Count.  Wouldn't count in netball because there'd be no backboard." 

Fifteen minutes later, one of my shots bounced off the backboard, onto the rim and out.

"Wooden Cow,"  I said.

"Yup, Mum - one of them."


Tuesday, 20 October 2015

I Collect A Commendation

Whilst I was with Threesome on the Edinburgh Fringe in August, performing in Sweet Thunder, A Show in Three Layers, I heard that I had been highly commended.  I found this out at about 11pm, and although I was in my room in my pyjamas, I rushed downstairs and surprised my cousin with a hug.

The mission of the Bridport Prize is to "encourage emerging writers and promote literary excellence through its competition structure."  Well, it's succeeded in encouraging me.  My poem, Michelangelo's David, was chosen from over 7000 entries from 78 countries to be highly commended by this year's judge, Roger McGough.  It even beat the other two poems I had entered.  The Lucas clan, family of my longest-serving friend, says that I am now eligible to use the strap-line Internationally Acclaimed Poet on my website.

Being recognised as a poet is as essential to me these days as being recognised as a mother -  it's no coincidence that I write more about motherhood than any other subject.  It took me years to come out as a poet - I remember very clearly when I was about 8 showing my family a poem I'd dashed off, and declaring that this was to be my life's work.  I don't think I spoke loudly enough.  There followed rejections by the school magazine and decades in the poetic wilderness, until 2011 when I won the Roy Fisher Prize.

Poetry competitions have been kind to me since then, enabling me to put myself in a position to be recognised and to recognise myself.  Of course, I've entered quite a few without winning anything, but that simply makes success, when it comes, all the sweeter.

My longest-serving friend's mother was my companion at the prize-giving last Saturday.  Her support for my endeavours has involved her in lengthy conversations over piles of paper and cups of tea, intrepid train journeys via South West Trains and Arriva Trains Wales, and lost luggage, so she was my first choice of guest for the big occasion.  When I went up on the stage at Bridport Arts Centre last Saturday afternoon to shake the mighty Roger's hand, he asked me, with a twinkle in his eye, how my Italian is getting on. 


Michelangelo's David

I didn’t plan for this, queueing with my sons,
i miei figli, for the Galleria dell’Accademia
to see Michelangelo’s David.
We’re in Florence, Firenze, Italy, Italia.
I’ve brought no food, no drink, no pack of cards,
niente, not even an Italian phrasebook.

Half an hour and just ten feet along it’s:
‘Whose idea was this?’ and the danger of feeling
this queue’s a mistake we needn’t have started.
But, given time, we become more fluent,
take it in turns to drift in and out to buy focaccia,
pizza, tre gelati, un cappuccino, limonata, acqua,
discover we’ve learnt these words without trying.

It turns out this is why we are waiting:
for loose-limbed time leaning on walls,
leaning on each other, playing with words,
playing with our hair, making it up as we go along.
We’re unsure of the scope but discover that love
can be translated into time in any language.
David’s the perfect excuse for being here
in Florence in the sun on a Wednesday in April -
for trying out being together in Italian.

I miei figli, i miei cari figli, my beloved sons:
this is, after all, my point. Passing time with you
is all, tutto, enough, basta. And look, guarda!
Even our shadows are smiling.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

I Shoot Some Hoops

It was a beautiful autumn afternoon: mellow, the sun maturing, the trees loaded with bright leaves, each one a flower - to mix my Camus and my Keats.  Even on the municipal basketball court, not known for its beauty, it was a beautiful afternoon.

My younger son and I were shooting some hoops.  I used to practise scoring goals in netball when I was his age, but Ball is an altogether cooler sport.  It has an immense vocabulary: a pass becomes an Assist when it leads directly to your team mate scoring.  A Swish is a ball which goes through the hoop without touching the rim. A Chucker is a player who makes frequent and imprudent shots.  A Granny shot is an  underhand shot taken with both hands.  A Toilet Bowl is a shot which circles round the rim - it can go in or out.

My son was on form, scoring repeatedly from way out.  His current aim is to jump high enough to perform a Slam Dunk.  He's not far off.  A few more centimetres of growth, some extra leg muscle and, well, there'll be no stopping him.

As for me, I achieved my own Ball nirvana this afternoon. For a laugh, I attempted a Prayer - a shot very unlikely to make it - from five metres out, facing away from the hoop.  I chucked the ball in a Granny shot back over my head.  I turned round to see the ball go through the hoop, and my son's broad grin, "Wow! Swish, Mum!"

Thursday, 8 October 2015

I Chair A Meeting

Using the excuse of National Poetry Day, I opened the Programme Management Board for the BA (Hons) Social Work Programme with a poem: The Road Not Taken.  I suspect this hasn't been done in a PMB before, but no matter.

Robert Frost's poem is about decision-making, and, if I had to justify reading it at 11.00 am in work time, I'd say that social work is about trying to work out with people in a variety of contexts and in a variety of circumstances what are the better decisions.

As with all very famous poems, it's easy to think there is one right reading of it to be achieved - that it would be possible to take a wrong turning and come to a false conclusion.  Perhaps that ideal reading would be what Robert Frost intended, but he himself is reported as having called the poem, "very tricky."  I incline to Roland Barthes' argument in Death of the Author, which is, loosely, that author and work are separate, and therefore a poem can mean whatever it means to you, dear reader.

I'm not sure exactly what my colleagues made of this poem this morning, but their response was positive, and we went on to accomplish all our tasks in good humour, and we finished on time.  I am confident that the decision I made to read a poem, rather than to take the more well-trodden path of not reading a poem, is one I won't regret.

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Saturday, 3 October 2015

I Visit A Museum

I never expected to see a bottle of Carlsberg in a a glass case in a museum, but wandering around the Cultural Quarter of Northampton on a break from Cinnamon Press's 10th Birthday celebrations yesterday, I chanced on the museum and  its surprising exhibit.  There wasn't just one bottle, but a bottle on top of an unopened box of bottles.

Later, in order to enter the Carlsberg website in my quest to find out that the lager has been brewed in Northampton since 1974, I had to enter my date of birth to prove I am over 18.  I could probably have found out the 1974 information from a label next to the display in the museum, but  I was too surprised to look at the time.

The Beer Hall in the museum is not as extensive as the Shoe Hall.  As soon as I saw this I remembered Northampton's reputation as a centre for shoe-making.  When my son was at the height of his English Shoe Phase, I looked into taking him on a day trip to the factory shops in Northampton.  The Phase passed before I could get my act together, and he has since moved west and over the Atlantic into his Sneaker Phase.

On display in the Shoe Hall were all sort of things I wouldn't want to put on my feet, and not just because they were the wrong size: fetish ballet shoes; thigh length Kinky Boots; tiny Polish Kierpce style shoes singled out as the Shoes of the Month; leopard skin print shoes once worn by Corrie's Bet Lynch; a cabinetful of high heeled shoes with the mis-spelt advice in font-5-inch that the key to success for walking in heels is to "practice, practice, practice." And so, "What are you waiting for!"

As I marvelled at the range of shoe and beer-related souvenirs in the gift shop, I felt a certain relief that I live in a town, albeit half the size of Northampton, with a museum that doesn't feel the need to put a pack of Shrewsbury biscuits in a display case in a Biscuit Hall, and where the museum gift shop is able to offer a variety of (mostly dignified) Darwin-related paraphernalia.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

I Interpret Two Portents

A spider woke me at 4.30 am or thereabouts.  It was a large Shropshire spider, or rather, it is a large spider as it's still around somewhere, lurking.

I know it is a spider because when I turned on the light (clipped to my bookcase as my floating bedside shelf isn't really up to the job) it was hanging from a thread, abseiling onto my face.  That's what woke me - the light brushing of its feet on my cheek as it tried to find purchase.

I am not afraid of spiders, but this one was a surprise too far and I swore and batted it away, and woke up much more completely than I wanted to and thought of Robert the Bruce. I then thought of Alfred burning the cakes and wondered whether there was a new link to be made between Bruce's spider and Alfred's cakes.

In an effort to get back to sleep I turned on the radio.  The presenter was thanking Joan for phoning in to comment on the lunar eclipse. All thoughts of sleep exited stage right, and I leapt out of bed.

At the time of the solar eclipse earlier this year I was about to go out and have a Health and Safety approved look at the sun, when the phone rang.  It was Gary, from North Wales Police.  By the time we'd finished discussing some rather interesting points about Wrexham's status as a Dispersal Centre, I'd missed the entire celestial drama, so I've had eclipses somewhere in the back of my mind ever since.

I unlocked the back door and went out into the garden.  The grass was wet under my feet.  Beyond the washing line, the moon was full save for a bite out of its bottom right hand corner.  I just made it in time.

These portents, coming so close together, can only mean one thing.  Term starts in full today, and it's going to be a good one.



Saturday, 26 September 2015

I Dress For Radio

Once a month, I set my alarm on a Saturday morning.  This would be a hardship but I set it in order to get up in time for a radio appearance. Being a part-time optimist, I never set my alarm quite early enough and this morning I left the house with a list of poetry events happening in Shropshire in October, a poem by Keith Chandler, wet hair and dressed from neck to shoe-top in maroon.

I love listening to the radio. It's a cliche that I think I first heard in Educating Rita that "the pictures are better on the radio". I grew up in a television-free house and I craved stimulation and information.  It came via Test Match Special, Capital Radio's Saturday morning Hit Parade, Woman's Hour, PM at 5PM, The Men from the Ministry and Hancock's Half  Hour.  When I graduated, I wanted to work in radio, but I didn't have the confidence to apply.

In common with many of the good things in my life, I am on Ryan Kennedy's show because of poetry.  A couple of years ago, I gave a reading as part of a fundraiser and Sam from Radio Shropshire, who was covering the event, liked my stuff.  He said he'd find me a regular slot if I wanted one.  Of course I said yes please.

There's a fashion blunder I've come to know about courtesy of my sons called 'double denim'.  This is shorthand for the mistake of wearing denim jeans with a denim jacket.  This morning's double maroon outfit is not a good look, and my hair dried to a frizz as I was chatting to Ryan about October's poetry events.  None of this mattered.  The pictures conjured by Keith's poem Next Week to School were in no way impeded by my lack of style.  The last lines are a gasps of longing and loss:

They're going to burn the stubble, Look!
Edges of the field turned back.
A bat shape frantics down the lane
as if to pick up something lost.

In my bones a sense of frost
and to the west pink in the air
as if tomorrow were on fire.


Keith Chandler - The Grandpa Years.  Available from Fair Acre Press
http://web236.extendcp.co.uk/fairacrepress.co.uk/books/the-grandpa-years/






Saturday, 19 September 2015

I Play My Flute

Jeremy Corbyn's commitment to invest in the arts includes the aspiration that every child should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument and he asserts that this will make Britain happier.  In support of this noble aim, I got my flute out of its case this week.  I can testify that this made me very happy.

The reason for my happiness was not that I found myself to be as good as I was in my prime in 1981.  What I'm in now, as far as flute playing is concerned, is my twilight.  But my younger son, who is on the ascent, agreed to accompany me in a rendition of Handel's sonata no. 5 in F major for flute and piano, and my elder son offered to throw in some bass riffs on his cello.

It's hard to analyse exactly why a substandard performance of Handel not at his best and recognisable to no one but ourselves should have been such fun, but not everything is measurable.  Corbyn's instinct to take music out of its traditionally elite preserves is a good one.  Not every child will want to take him up on it, should he ever get the chance to enact his dream, but I think every child should have the chance to turn him down.

  






Sunday, 13 September 2015

I Follow A Recipe

My new year's resolution was to try out 12 new recipes in 2015.  I seemed to have got into a risotto-shaped rut, so on new year's eve, in the company of good friends, excellent steak and claret, I felt the urge to make a commitment to extending my range.  Unfortunately, this commitment was witnessed.

It's now September, and on the NRT scale of 0-12 that represents 'New Recipes Tried, I remained at 0NRT until Friday. I'm now at 2NRT.

A few Christmases ago, I was given 'Real Family Food' by Anthony Worrall Thompson.   Confused about whether this book is about real food or real families, I've barely made it past the front cover.

The one time I did venture into the book, I found Mr T's House Rules at the start.  These include: "No salt to be added to food at the table, except to chips", "Never walk past the fruit bowl without helping yourself to at least one piece of fruit", and "Your mother is not your servant".    He finishes with: "Always remember you can't change yesterday and you don't know what tomorrow will bring."  As rules go, AWT's seem eclectic and intimidating and I didn't make it past them to his recipes.  

The House Rules I was brought up with were the Ten Commandments Plus Non-Optional Middle Class Socially Determined Table Manners.  We thanked God for our food without taking his name in vain, without coveting our neighbour's slightly larger helping or planning to make a graven image out of our mashed potato.  We tried not to put our elbows on the table and never, ever licked our knives.

This weekend, in a bid to keep my resolution, I went back to 'Real Family Food' and skipped past the rule list.  I avoided all recipes with the words 'mini' (too fiddly) 'My' (no need to explain) and 'risotto' (pointless).  So on Friday evening I found myself making Sweet and Sour Sausages.  The word 'Sausage' guarantees my sons' approval.  Anything which requires unsalted butter and cider vinegar must be heading towards sophistication.

An hour later, we sat down to sausages and mash with a topping of what can only be described as Tomato Ketchup Plus.

This morning, I tried again - was tempted into making Mary Berry's Sunday Best Chocolate Fudge Cake.  Although we haven't started it yet, it looks like all the other chocolate sponge cakes I've ever made.  It'll probably be eaten by sundown.

I have decided to award myself 10 bonus points on the scale retrospectively, for the ten varieties of risotto I have invented over the years.  I think this ability to be flexible about rules, to walk past the fruit bowl with nonchalance, and to go cheerfully round in culinary circles are some of the things that make us a real family.






Wednesday, 9 September 2015

I Remember My Stepmother

Your Smile

Like a sheet shook out for drying
your smile lifts the world by its corners,
shrugs off the edge of cold
the way an April day washed in rain
can refresh everything,
melt what's been sorrowful,
clothe the earth in the hope
of amethyst and gold: of a new flowering.

Rest in Peace, 8th September 2015





Friday, 4 September 2015

I Cry For A Stranger

I caught the 4.35 from Wrexham this afternoon. It was a peaceful journey - the early autumn sun coming softening through the windows, suggestion of a fine weekend.  I shut my eyes, enjoyed the lull of being carried to the train's gentle beat towards home after a late night last night, a full day today.

As we were drawing into Shrewsbury station, passengers stood up, but the the train stopped awkwardly, only three-quarters of its way along the platform.  We waited for a few minutes, shifted our feet, sat down again, the doors still closed.  The guard came down through the train, obviously in a hurry.  We waited a bit longer.  I suppose we all wondered.  Someone kept pushing the 'open' button on the carriage door.

When the guard reappeared, he looked upset.  He opened the door, asked us to alight.  

"Don't look left," he said.  "Walk straight ahead."  I knew something awful must have happened.   I didn't look.  I wanted to pay that much respect.

I don't know who died, or why.  The Shropshire Star online news has reported him or her simply as a fatality at this stage.  

The sun, the hope of the evening.  A fatality.  A loss.  I'm not sure what to make of my sadness.

Friday, 28 August 2015

I Belong To A Troupe

Just after Easter, 2013, Jay Walker, Deadbeat Poet and I were driving from Church Stretton to the world famous Wenlock Poetry Festival when Jay announced she'd booked a free venue for the Edinburgh Fringe but didn't yet have an act.

"I'll come," I said.  I didn't have an act either.  "Deadbeat," I asked"why don't you join us?"  I'd heard his amazing poem about dinosaurs.  "Okay, mum," he said.  That's how I became Someone's Mum.  By the end of the day, we were Threesome.  It seemed a hilarious choice of name, to us in the not know.

Three months later, Deadbeat (showing the wisdom of the very young) had left us for fresh pastures, and we'd been joined by Ms Beeton.  Ms B had a baking act - this was a novelty to add to two sets of dramatised poetry.  We met for the first time the day before our show opened in a long-suffering cafe and rehearsed madly all that afternoon.

By the end of those first four shows, we'd become a troupe.  I'm not sure exactly when that happened - maybe it was the moment Ms B was down to her smalls whisking cake batter when an intoxicated man lurched in off Leith Walk hoping to get a closer look, which he got, along with a marvellous Beetonesque ticking off.  Perhaps it was the first time Jay recited her poems to all us the way through, and we heard the strength of her voice and the depth of her experience.  Perhaps it was when I introduced Roy, the floppy lion with a heart of gentle resignation, to play the role of my son in my act, The Seven Rages of Woman.

Being part of a troupe has meant warmth, laughter, multiple microwaved chocolate sponge cakes and growing understanding and friendship.  It has meant shrieking together with joy and surprise when getting 2 x four star (out of five) reviews.  It has meant rushing out to buy last minute butter or cocoa, making up lines, having our minds expanded, trusting each other to show up each time.

Over the past two years, Threesome has appeared twice in Coventry, at the Fifth International Dietetics Conference in Manchester and twice in Shrewsbury - a total of 13 lucky shows, the last five of which benefited hugely from the input of our director, Carol Caffrey, and her suggestion of the title Sweet Thunder.  For me it's been the experience of a lifetime, and I am deeply grateful to Jay and Ms B for every last morsel of it.

We went back to Edinburgh for another four night run last week. We didn't know it'd be our last.  In fact, we've had two enquiries for further bookings. We didn't know on our opening night, when we added to the range of our experiences the joy of performing to twenty teenagers who got everything we have been trying to do straight off, that we were counting down to our finale.  But that decision has been reached like all the others - spontaneously, with love, laughs, cake mix, and hope for our solo careers.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

I Steal A Book

I am in Edinburgh at various festivals.  The main, official one to see (so far) Juliette Binoche in Antigone (superb script and use of wind machine), Max Richter in Recomposed (a wonderfully playful reinterpretation of Vivaldi's Four Seasons); the Fringe to see (so far) Robert Harper in To Kill a Machine (scarily good at a scary part in a wonderful production), Carol Caffrey in Music for Dogs (go see her if you're here and you  haven't), Adams' Writers Group in Adams' and Eves (I nearly died from pride), some random comedy in a pub on the Royal Mile (a necessary Fringe experience); and the Book Festival to see (so far) Andrew McMillan read in the dark (totally awesome) and Jonathan Edwards read in the light (more on this now).

My Family and Other Superheroes is Jonathan's wonderful first poetry collection.  It's an unas-suming over-suming book.  I mean it name drops like crazy - Evel Knievel, Gregory Peck,  Ian Rush and Sophia Loren jostle with the Edwardses in understated, perfectly pitched narratives.  Like that's normal in Wales.  I have admired this book, but I didn't mean to steal it.

I've never stolen anything, except 50 pence from my brother when I was nine and desperate for sweets.  I took it from his moneybox.  Two days later, sick from Spangles, I withdrew 50 pence from my Post Office Savings account and placed the coins on the floor under his bed, so, though he'd missed the money, with any luck he'd think it was an accidental spillage rather than a crime.  So, I've never stolen anything really, if you overlook beer mats and Biros, until Friday last week.

At the end of poetry readings, there are often book signings.  I already have Jonathan's book, but I wanted a signed copy.  So I decided to buy another.  The system was: get the book signed, then queue separately to pay for it.

I probably don't need to tell you that I was so star-struck after Jonathan and I had chatted and he'd signed my book (I sneaked a look straightaway) with 'lots of love' that I walked out of the bookshop without paying for it.  Interacting with talent always sends me a little high.  That's what I would have told Them, if it had come to that - my plea: momentary detachment from my prosaic senses.

It didn't come to that.  A blast of Edinburgh evening air, the patter of coins at the bar I was passing, the parental voice which won't quite leave my head: something jolted me into a gasp.  I rushed back to the paying queue.  Paid up.  Tried to pay too much.  Slunk out, relieved to have paid for what is worth paying for - the cost of producing pages which speak truth, good humour, warmth and the courage of a writer.


Thursday, 13 August 2015

I Commute By Tube

For the past three weeks, my eldest son has been travelling to his work experience placement in Spitalfields from Stockwell and I started him off on this adventure by travelling with him for the first couple of days.

I'd forgotten what a full-on sensory experience travelling on the London underground at 8am is, something I did every day as a schoolgirl.  Back then, my life began when I came across TS Eliot's The Wasteland.  I met a poet (whatever you think of him otherwise) who understood the reality of my daily encounters with the hordes in this unreal city,  Until then, I'd felt very much alone with my discomfort.

On these journeys, what I've found most noticeable is not the famous lack of conversation and eye contact (this I remembered), not even the proximity, in the morning or early evening crush, of alien armpits and buttocks, nor the noise of the trains and escalators, but my re-connection with the fug of bodily and metallic heat.

Each change from the Northern to Central lines at Bank has felt like a premature menopausal episode:  I've endured whorls of heavy warmth, the descent of particles of dirt into every pore, red-faced sweat and the overwhelming desire to return to base for another shower.

The London underground is an amazing feat of public transport, and after twenty or more years in Shropshire, I always enjoy looking around at the diversity of people who use it.  Coming back on the Northern line this afternoon, after treating my son to lunch, a group of eight or so children were in the same carriage, swinging from the bars, dancing to their own music in the aisles, unconcerned about the usual rules of subdued dress code, absolutely no talking or smiling, about the looks of disdain from other passengers.  I thought them wonderful to be so free, so far underground, and I told them so.

I'm glad the tube is no longer part of my daily commute.  There's a madness about it - the multiple streams of people, the ubiquity these days of tiny headphones, and the peculiar need for tall people to bend slightly to fit the shape of the train if they're wedged in too close to the doors.



Thursday, 30 July 2015

I Ask For Help

I have had to call a plumber, and I'll call him Sam.  The replacement of flexible hoses to the bathroom sink is a step too far for me.

It's not easy to ask for help with plumbing, especially when one has set oneself up as something of an expert buyer of washers (however unintentionally), and especially as plumbing has a reputation for being expensive.

One of my dear friends pointed out to me recently that I'm not very good at asking for help.  She's right. It's a common fault of those of us in the 'helping' professions that we find it hard to be on the receiving end.

Sam's obvious skill and extraordinary toolbox have been a revelation.  I realise that I have just been playing at plumbing.  And it's fair to say that no one has yet asked me to help them to change a washer.

Friday, 17 July 2015

I Plan My Send-Off

I am perfectly well, but this week I said goodbye to my friend and colleague Harry Prankard in a joyful celebration of his life, and it's got me thinking.  His wife, Sylvia, organised it exactly as he wanted: I heard new-to-me stories about his life and by the end I enjoyed a sense of connection with him through the music he'd chosen, the tributes paid, and the photographs of him carefully put together in films by his daughter.

Making a will is an important gift to those we leave behind.  Whilst this statement sounds like an advertisement for legal services or a charity hoping to benefit from whatever resources we may have, it's an important truth.  I've made a will (and yes my beloved sons, it's all going to you) but it doesn't include any wishes about how I'd like people to say goodbye.  So here goes:

Wishes For My Send-Off

Plan it for whichever day is the one you'd most like to skip work
and in whatever place suits you, at any time after the first bus has arrived.

Can it be casual? Could it be a point of no stress for no one, anyone?
I doubt that, since any setting of place and time results in organisation,

but as close to that as it can be, so that if the bus is late, or the car won't start,
if you have to hurry back for a coat, it's no matter, since it won't matter to me.

I'll be free already, you see, enjoying roses and fresia whatever the season,
chatting to Bach about my younger son's playing of his Chaconne, fascinated to see

what my eldest son has run up for my final wearing on that machine we share,
anticipating raised highbrows at the reading of Mary Oliver's Wild Swans,

feeling the poems written for me, spoken by friends, wondering whether the secret
of my tattoo has made it out of the box, and whether it's the cause of the smiles

on the faces of those I love, love, have loved so fully that I won't mind whoever
comes out of my past, of the closet, of the woodwork or the blue for this one last time.

I won't mind not being there only as thought, as the choices I am making, writing down,
wanting to let you know now, for then, how the world offered itself to my imagination.



Saturday, 4 July 2015

I Hoover Up Pink Feathers

It looks like I've been hosting birds of paradise.  I've been finding pink feathers everywhere, and just when I thought I'd caught the last one, another appears.  The feathers come from a boa - a prop used by my alter ego, Someone's Mum, in a performance of Sweet Thunder on Thursday evening.

Hoover is one of those trade names, like Jacuzzi or Escalator, which has a solid place in language.  I've just Googled Hoover and found this definition - 'to suck something up as if with a vacuum cleaner'.

I've been sucking up feathers, but, vacuum or not, it isn't easy.  Barbs on feathers are covered in barbules which act like tiny hooks on the carpet.  Linoleum would've been an easier surface to clean.   I nearly resorted to getting out the Sellotape, or some of the ever-resourceful Jay Walker's (Lucy Aphramor) double-sided sticky tape, and using this as a means of capture.

In the show, the pink feather boa is given to me by the gorgeous Ms Beeton (Amy Godfrey) as a symbol of allure.  It's a device to allow me to dispense with my pink rubber gloves, to transition from overstretched cleaner (equivalent to Shakespeare's Nurse) dusting 'the world's stage', to lover (Shakespeare's Mistress).

That the boa has been shedding ever since is an irony Carol Caffrey (Director) hadn't anticipated when she had the brilliant idea of using this and other pink props.  In the end, I've had to get down on my hands and knees to pick reluctant pink scraps off one by one.


Threesome will be appearing in Sweet Thunder, a Show in Three Layers at this year's Edinburgh Fringe.  Details here:
https://edinburghfestival.list.co.uk/event/487296-sweet-thunder-a-show-in-three-layers/



Sunday, 21 June 2015

I Remove A Thorn

On Monday, I climbed up a cliff.  Or rather, a very steep bank rising up from Newgale Sands in Pembrokeshire.  My longest-serving friend and I had just started what has become our annual Camping-in-Wales holiday, and having caught an early bus from St David's, and ambled along the beach under cloud, we were taking a short cut back to the Coast Path and our walk back to Caerfai campsite.

As it turned out, it wasn't really a short cut: just a more direct - as the crow flies - route.

Sticking to the path is often a good idea, but sometimes it's great to go off-piste.  On this occasion, it involved scrambling at times over loose shale, at times amongst pads of gorse and bracken.  In order to maintain balance, I often had to grab onto the gorse and bracken. There was a moment when  I didn't think I could go safely either down or up, and that was when Helen offered me her hand, and helped me further up. We made it to the top, and I came away with a thorn in the middle finger of my right hand.

In the New Testament, St Paul refers to a mysterious affliction as his 'thorn in the flesh'.  When I was growing up, my parents used to speculate about what this metaphor represented.  My mother claimed it was Paul's mother-in-law.  My father, some sort of unspeakable recurring temptation.

I've been conscious of this splinter at various moments all week when my finger has been under some sort of pressure.  On Tuesday, I put on my reading glasses and tried to get it out using tweezers, but my skin had already started to heal, and I couldn't reach it.  This evening I had more success using a sterilised sewing needle.

The walk from Newgale was glorious.  At midday, the sun came out and it didn't go away - just moved across our shoulders, leaving its mark in interesting tan lines.

There's nothing like being on holiday on a Monday. There's nothing like unexpected sunshine in Wales. The occasional discomfort I felt from the thorn for the rest of the week was a reminder of adventure; of fresh air, freedom, trust and good fortune.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

I Accept A Compliment

Walking out of the sports centre after badminton club yesterday evening, my younger son and I were chatting about our games.  Normally, we play a few games as a doubles partnership, but last night we only had one game together.  In the first game of the evening we had trounced the opposition in a few minutes, so we had the rest of the hour to discuss.


"I played pretty well today," I said.


"You're the best woman player," he said, "no question."


"Well ... I dunno."  I felt self-conscious about his compliment - hoped none of the other players had overheard.  I'm not sure he's right, and I'm nothing if not pedantic.


"There's no doubt," he went on.  "In fact, you're an honorary man."


I felt myself suddenly in deep water.  We have a history of banter about gender politics, and I knew he knew that he had, as it were, pushed me off the edge of the pool and was standing smiling looking at me as I came up for air. 


There is only one sensible choice to make on finding oneself in deep water. 


"Thank you," I said, and relaxed, enjoying the feeling of floating on his admiration.






Sunday, 31 May 2015

I Stroke A Hedge

I trailed my fingers through a beech hedge as I walked home earlier, then retraced my steps to run my hand though it again.  The leaves were still (just) young, tender: at the bright stage.  They felt soft, feathery, light.   I particularly like this moment in the hedge's year.  Soon, the leaves will have stiffened and darkened: assumed a tougher and more mature posture.

The clever thing about a beech hedge is that, even after the autumn frosts, it retains its brown leaves. Through the winter, many of the leaves cling on, so, though deciduous, it provides all-year-round cover.  

The clever thing about a beech hedge is that the old leaves only drop off as the new ones push their ways through.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

I Indulge In A Paradox

It's a month till my annual camping trip with my longest-serving friend, Helen.  The trip marks the anniversary of the start of our 50th year celebrations and therefore their end, allegedly.

Some of the pleasures of camping are unavoidable, and are largely to do with shedding - shedding walls, ceilings, fridges, the internet: baring body, mind and soul to the considerable elemental forces of a field in Wales.  Some of those pleasures are, however, to do with acquisition - particularly, the acquisition of new equipment which allows campers to camp-lite.

It's a paradox, but camping shops are full of sleeping bags, tents, roll mats and cooking equipment all lighter, more compact and streamlined than the ones you already have.  You need to buy more to have, to carry, less.  The technology is alluring, and helps to leaven memories of soggy, heavy, camping without integral groundsheets, under canvas, on camp beds.  My worst ones concern being a camp leader in a wet August in Cornwall.  With slugs.

So yesterday, I popped into Millets for the third time in three weeks.  Inbetween my visits, I've been thinking about what I can justify spending on new cooking equipment.  Trangia, the Swedish ultralight camping stove specialists, have been seducing me with their impeccably designed stoves,  mini-stoves, non-stick pans, kettles and mess tins.  I have been imagining extending my camping recipe repertoire beyond various forms of risotto into scrambled eggs, friend eggs, poached eggs, coffee.

Millets clarified the situation for me yesterday by having most of these items in their sale.  And by offering me an extra 15% off if I buy them in May.  There's nothing like saving money to induce a flurry of spending.


Wednesday, 13 May 2015

I Plant A Plant

I was planting some cowslips that my longest serving friend's mother gave me from her garden when it struck me that I was planting a plant.  I started thinking about this satisfying state of affairs.

I have subsequently become a little obsessed with words that exist both as nouns and verbs, and which can be used in the same simple sentence.  There are quite a few of these, but top of the list so far for me is 'pod' which - in addition to leading me to think about bending to pick peas in a summer garden, then podding them, eating them raw - can also be spun through 180 degrees and remain itself.

So far, my thoughts have led me in this circle:

I drink a drink
I request a request
I dance a dance
I risk a risk
I touch a touch
I kiss a kiss
I whisper a whisper
I promise a promise
I wave a wave
I text a text
I drink a drink

I realise all this has very little to do with cowslips.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

I Kill A Bird

On my way home today, I was driving into town - no more than 20 mph - when I noticed a bird flying in on the extreme right of my peripheral vision.  Its arc was wide and in a moment it had flown down and in towards the underside of my car.

Everything about this death seemed soft: my foot on the brake; the bird's low flight; the quiet thud of its body - bone and feather - against the wheel arch; the flurry I saw in my left wing mirror.  Even the scale of this loss -  perhaps a thrush? - seems soft, against all the other losses.

All evening, I've felt a blur of regret, a sense of what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls "cloy" in his devastatingly beautiful poem, Spring.  I've felt the ache of gratitude for all the life of this blustery Mayday - for "all this juice and all this joy", for the "rinse and ring" of it.




Sunday, 19 April 2015

I Solve Most Of My Problems

I was chatting on the phone to a friend (one of my best) this weekend, and she was telling me how she'd failed in a situation she was describing involving the unexpected arrival of a More-Than-Annoying-Person.

"Did you lose it?" I asked.  "Did you run around screaming?  No?  Under the circumstances, you did well not to break the law."

The problem is, we concluded at the end of laughing, that we both routinely set ourselves standards which are not only unattainable, but also unnecessary.

According to Wikipedia, a source I can now (having resolved to lower my standards) consult without shame, perfectionism is a personality trait characterised by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and .... [yawn].  The next sentence says something about unattainable ideals.  Well stuff that.

"So," I said to my friend, with the conviction unique to hypocrisy, "your standards are far too high.  Lower them.  If, say, your benchmark was in this instance, 'Deal With Annoying Person Whilst Avoiding Criminal Activity', you'd have reached it with, dare I say it, room to spare.  Instead of feeling like a failure, you should be proud of yourself."  She had to agree.  

Taking my own advice, I am spending this evening with a glass of wine, busily lowering my standards all round. 




Friday, 17 April 2015

I Review A Performance

I’ve been to Rome – did I tell you?  It amazed me.  Whilst I was there, I mislaid my duties for a while – it wouldn’t have been a holiday otherwise.

I missed doing several loads of washing, I missed quite a few meetings, and I missed April’s Shrewsbury Poetry @ Eat Up which included one of the few available performances of Standing for a Seat featuring the Triumvirate of Paul Francis, Ian Lakin and Steve Harrison.  So this evening, after a day of meetings at work, and dressed in cleanish clothes, I popped down to Much Wenlock for a showing at the Priory Hall.

Standing for a Seat opens with Steve’s poignant poem in which he recollects ‘the first time’ (that he cast his vote).  He’s right.  It’s a big moment – a coming of age, a rite of passage, a transition into adulthood which only makes sense in the remembering, with the benefit of hindsight.
 
Next we were teased with the non-appearance of Dave C. before Paul’s satirical tribute to Russell Brand – Russell is a movie star, and we’re his backing band.    The musical theme was made a reality by Ian and his first song, with its lyrical nod to Bob Dylan – Hard times, they are a-changin', was sung in his rich and easy-on-the-ear voice.
 
What then followed was a well-informed tour in five parts through some familiar and less familiar political history and commentary.  For me, the highlights of the 45 or so minutes of poetry and song included Steve’s vivid imagery – his idea of our ballot paper Xs as penciled kisses hadn't struck me before, and the thought of my folded ballot paper amongst many, poured out like fish to be counted and sorted into species is simply beautiful.  Ian’s songs are lyrical and feature interesting chord transitions for the discerning musical palate.  I particularly enjoyed his anti-London-focus song which recommended: Let’s all move to Birmingham, it’s really quite large, They’re building a John Lewis, there’s no congestion charge.   Paul’s sharp commentary also took me to new places – the real split in politics, he argues, is not between parties, but between those who are daft enough to give a toss, and those who aren't.  The thought of A little touch of Tony at the polls sent a shiver down my spine whilst his Verity poem, delivered without script, is a tour de force.
 
I know from speaking to university students that there are many political virgins out there who have never used their hard-won right to vote.  They would do well to see Standing for a Seat.  It might prompt them to make this May 7th, however confusing an experience it might be, their first time.

Next Show -  Victoria Hall, Broseley, Friday May 1st 7.30pm


Saturday, 28 March 2015

I Anticipate A Holiday

In preparation for my Roman holiday, I've just Googled, 'What do Romans do?'  The first result starts like this: 'Some things Romans did for fun were horrible.'  Having watched Russell Crowe fighting his way to a dubious and vengeful moral victory in Gladiator yesterday evening, I couldn't agree more.  

The next result of my inquiry discusses the Roman invasion of Britain.   This makes me remember that I've never visited the site of the fourth largest Roman city in Britain, Wroxeter.  Wroxeter is just outside Shrewsbury, where I've lived for over twenty years.

The third: 'Your stay in Rome is all about your state of mind.'  I'm still thinking about that one.

The original saying which prompted my search: si fueris Romae, Romano vivto more ...  When in Rome do as the Romans do ... has been attributed to St Ambrose, to St Augustine, and to other purveyors of such wisdom.  If I follow this advice, based on my experience as a Londoner who's never been to Madame Tussaud's, I probably won't visit the Sistine Chapel, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, or even the Coliseum, arena for many of the horrible things Romans did.

What I might do is sit around in cafes with my sons, anticipating a bowl of pasta, noticing the latest trends in Italian fashion, imagining Keats, here but dying, drinking 'a beaker full of the warm south', enjoying dolce far niente - the sweet Italian art of doing nothing.







Tuesday, 24 March 2015

I Laugh Out Loud

On our way to badminton this evening, my son and I were catching up.  Whilst we were discussing school, Aled Jones told us that the flute concerto we had been listening to was by CPE Bach.  Carl Philipp Emanuel was the fifth child of JS Bach.

“It must have been hard for him,” I said, “following in his parent’s footsteps.”

“Yes.  Big shoes to fill.”

“Is that how you feel?”  I asked, with a wink in my voice.

He looked puzzled.   Blank even.

“Oh … you mean you!”

“I got a good review of my poetry last week in a magazine.  The reviewer called my language ‘Larkinesque’.   Do you know who Larkin was?”

Pause.

“D'you mean Shane Larkin of the New York Knicks?”

Still laughing!

Monday, 16 March 2015

I Launch A Website

There are quite a few things which I have intended to do for a while.  It's been 5 years since I updated the photo albums, for example, and I still haven't learnt how to tango.  Learning to tango was my new year's resolution for 2013.  I did 'phone the Shrewsbury tango club in May 2013, but they said I had to come with a partner, and I haven't got round to that bit yet.

I've been meaning to create a website ever since I heard that it was essential for any writer wishing to be published to do so.  It's about profile and presence, apparently.  It makes perfect sense.

The problem is, I've always been good at being distracted.  At primary school, I spent a lot of time staring out of the window watching the London planes grow their leaves.  As a teenager, I lay around in the chaos of my teenage bedroom on Saturday mornings reading just one more chapter of whatever novel I was into.  Once, at the height of my first Thomas Hardy phase, my mother came in and commented that my room looked like a jumble sale.  I told her I'd intended to tidy up but that Bathsheba had just met Sergeant Troy.  I can still hear her next words: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions".  

Sources suggest that it was Virgil who got the ball rolling with this particular source of guilt when he wrote in the Aeneid that "the descent to hell is easy".  Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that "hell is full of good wishes and desires", and John Milton, in Paradise Lost, fanned the flames of fear by commenting: "Easy is the descent into Hell, for it is paved with good intentions."

There are different ways of interpreting this proverb, but none of them are comforting.  The implication is that getting into hell is as straightforward as leaving your clothes lying around on the floor. Hell was a serious business in our house, and I felt my mother's words as a sentence, instead of an expression of simple frustration.  And we know what happened to Sergeant Troy.

Even now, whenever I put something off, even goals I've set for myself, I feel my feet slipping a little.  So, when I launched my website at 11pm yesterday evening, it felt as if I was, at long last, getting more of a grip.  





Sunday, 1 March 2015

I Bend The Rules

As part of our ongoing fiftieth birthday celebrations, my longest-serving friend Helen and I decided that we would take a photograph each day of February.  Here are my 28.











































Wednesday, 25 February 2015

I Study A Photograph



I started at South Hampstead High School in 1975 and left in 1982.  This is a photograph of my form in our first year.  We were called Upper III 13.  Our form teacher was Mrs Audigier.  On our first day, she taught us to pronounce her name by writing 'Mrs ODJ' in white chalk on the board.

We had to sit alphabetically and I can still remember the names of every girl in the class, from Jacqueline and Rebecca to Suzanne and Victoria: we were together, more or less, for five years, until we were reorganised in the sixth form.

The year after this photograph was taken, Gina became seriously ill.  I remember our headmistress, Mrs Burgess, coming to tell us that she had died.  We were in the middle of a Geography lesson.  None of us learnt a single thing from Miss Smith during the rest of that lesson.   Lucy died the year after we left school.  These losses are some of the hardest I've had to try to understand.  They colour my feelings about my school years with sadness.

I hadn't seen this photograph for forty years until earlier this week.  What I had remembered about it is that I was sitting slightly apart from the rest of the class and I looked grumpy.  I remember my feelings of shame when the proof came back from the photographers and my parents didn't want to buy it.

When I look at this photograph now, I see beautiful girls with eccentric potential.  We aren't lined up neatly, and we don't care.  I see myself as fierce and resentful.  Instead of feeling shame, I feel proud of my young self's containment and her survival instincts. I remember the warmth I felt towards Emma.  I see Noele in the back row, who I hardly knew then but with whom I was to develop a long-lasting friendship.  And I see Madeleine: the beautiful, wild American girl who friended me out of the blue on Facebook this week and reconnected me to this part of my life - Madeleine, from whom I first learnt about Sigmund Freud, about star signs, about trick or treating, about glamour, about other ways of framing the world.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

I Pop Some Corn

The usual score in my weekly badminton games with my son has shifted from 2 games all to 3 games to 1.  This week, after the game, he gave me a hug and said I shouldn't worry because everything has a tendency towards decay.

When we got home I claimed the sofa space and did one of my favourite things - watched a film in the late afternoon.  I paused it after five minutes having decided to go the whole hedonistic way and make some pop corn.

For me, the two main pleasures of popping corn are hearing the mini phut phut phuts of kernels hitting the pan lid as they turn themselves inside out, and then trying to guess, from a period of silence, when it's all over.  There's a tendency for a few kernels to wait until they see the light of day, then to make a bid for freedom, bursting into hot, fluffy missles which arc softly up, out, then down onto the kitchen floor.

The transformation of a layer of hard seeds on the bottom of a pan into a fluffy mound of polystyrene-textured explosions via the addition of heat and a well-fitting pan lid is always an expected surprise.   This time I used toasted sesame oil to heat the popcorn and it turned out to be a good variation.  

Apparently it's a drop of moisture inside each kernel that makes it pop.  It goes something like this: as the kernels heat up, the water expands, turns into steam and mixes with the soft starchy layer in the middle of the kernel to form a sort of boiling gloop which then breaks through the tough shell when it's heated still further.

After the corn had popped itself, I sprinkled it with caster sugar and ate the lot whilst watching Bill Murray's top class performance in 'Broken Flowers'. The film beautifully resists the tendency to round off a story neatly.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

I Iron My Blouse

I have given up on some aspects of ironing.  Some of my best friends iron their socks, and others iron nothing at all.  Whilst I can't subscribe to either of these extreme positions, these days I can justify an unironed pillow case as easily as I can drink a glass of red wine, but a crumpled blouse is still beyond the pale.

As a history student in the 80s, I took a module in 14th century Irish history and I was delighted when I found out that The Pale is not just a metaphor for a boundary but was an actual boundary delineating the area around Dublin identified as the true extent of English rule in the Middle Ages. Whilst the whole of Ireland was supposedly under English rule as a consequence of the 12th century Norman invasion, The Pale was (in places) physically marked out by fences and ditches as the area in which this rule was influential, an area which diminished over time.

The amount of ironing I do has shrunk over the years.  It has taken me a while to retreat from the ideal standard my mother set.  She had a particular day for washing (Monday), and a day for ironing (Wednesday).  When Granny came to stay she helped out by doing the ironing.  But she did it sitting down, which always looked too casual, almost enjoyable.  It probably was, as she also smoked Woodbines and never put more than two pence in the church collection.

Now, the thought of having a whole day delineated as a washing day or an ironing day has a certain appeal.  I would like to be in control of my clothes to that extent, instead of hurriedly ironing a blouse before going to work as I did today.

Granny used to say that heaven for her would be days spent weeding and nights spent in a bed with freshly washed and ironed sheets.  I know what she  meant.  There is something exquisite about the feel of pressed cotton against my skin.

Monday, 19 January 2015

I Conduct An Experiment

In the interests of science, and of my son's soon to be birthday, I want to find out whether cookies baked from frozen dough taste as good as those baked from fresh dough.  In order to know this, I am conducting a controlled experiment.

According to Wikipedia (a source I use when my students aren't looking): "a controlled experiment often compares the results obtained from experimental samples against control samples, which are practically identical to the experimental sample except for the one aspect whose effect is being tested (the independent variable)".

This evening, I have made a batch of cookie dough - chocolate chip - and so far I have baked 12 and I am waiting for a further 6 to be ready. That makes 18 cookies which I hope is enough for a few to make it through to tomorrow evening.  I have frozen the remaining dough - enough for six cookies - which I will unfreeze tomorrow, roll into balls, press with a fork and bake.  The independent variable in my experiment will be the frozen nature of the dough.  Or rather, the unfrozen nature of the dough. Or rather the once frozen nature of the dough.

On my return from work tomorrow, and before badminton, I'll make a pot of tea, sit down and compare the cookies baked from freshly baked dough with the cookies baked from once frozen dough.  I will do this by eating one, then another, being careful not to muddle them up.

The problem is, because the cookies baked from fresh dough will be a day old by tomorrow, another independent variable (one-day-oldness) will have been introduced.   The other problem is, I have to eat one first, and then the other, introducing another variable (order-in-which-cookies-are-eaten).  It will also be a Tuesday.  And I might fancy Earl Grey.  And we will be a couple of minutes of light nearer the equinox.

I seem to have backed myself into an uncontrolled cookie-filled corner of multiple independent variables.  Ah well.