Sunday, 27 October 2013

Half term, in all its wonderfulness.

It's half term. Some of you will be girded for a change in routine; others will wonder what the fuss is about.

When I was at school, life was punctuated by terms, and half terms - there was general agreement that holidays were wonderful and school was dreary, and I'm not going to nitpick that now for of course it's not as simple as all that.

Then I went to university. We didn't have holidays any more; we had vacations - which are much more grown up. But terms were also wonderful, partly because the learning was interesting (at last) and partly because being a student in the late 1960s was just the very best thing to be.

I went to work. Suddenly there were just seasons. Interruptions were confined to Christmas and Easter and a week or so in the summer (taken to fit in with others who had children - which never bothered me. I didn't need to fight my way to Cornwall on the M4 in August, and they did.)

Then I had my own children. Terms were time when I could juggle work and home more easily - but came with their own stresses, like homework. (I was pretty rubbish at homework when I was at school myself; by the time my own children had it I was useless.) I loved school holidays - I'd take as much time off as possible and play. There were never enough time for playing.

The children grew, as children do. Life returned to its seasonal fluctuations; I recognised that winter is not my best time of year and so began to go walkabout when the nights are at their longest. No longer would I notice terms, nor half terms ...

But now I have grandchildren. And this half term, three of them are coming. Some of you know of the six-year old - he is bringing his twin brothers (aged two), and his mum. Where will we all sleep? Have I bought enough tins of beans, sausages, ice creams? Will my neighbours bang on the wall when we make too much noise (that's very unlikely, as I have wonderful neighbours)? Will we lose a child playing hide and seek in the garden (that's quite likely)? Is the river too angry after the storm for us to play in it? Have I sharpened the pencils, got enough rough paper, thought of a story or two?

Oh, how wonderful it will be!

You'll understand if I'm not around for the rest of the week - I have much more important things to do. It is, after all, half term.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Today, I'm not here, I'm there.

It's my day to blog with Authors Electric, so I'm not going to repeat myself here.

I've had a thought or two about writing magazines, so to pop over to the wonderful Authors Electric blog here and let me know what you think.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

What a noisy world we live in!

I should qualify that - here in the UK, even in a market town, silence is rare, and precious. Even if the traffic is quiet, there is wind in the trees, the occasional dog, the radiators ticking, someone passing my house and running her stick along the railings. Mothers dragging their children to school. The slam of car doors. The drone of a passing plane (especially irritating if it's a microlight). Petrol lawn mowers.

Some - such as the passing police car or fisticuffs from lads coming home from the pub - I could live without.

But others can interrupt me any time and I'll stop to listen and smile:

Children playing. I can hear the children at the nearest school if I stop and listen when they are out to play. The cries and laughters from children's playgrounds are the same the world over. I remember waking one morning in Laos to the same joyful cries - and felt both a twinge of homesickness and delight at being where I could hear Laotian children all at the same time.

The mistle thrush that wakes me in the summer as the sun rises. I'm not good in the mornings but always I forgive this little bird. Many times - when I've been in 'less developed countries' (I don't like the term but you know what I mean) - I've been woken by cockerels. I have mixed feelings about cockerels. By the time they're crowing many local people are up and about, women in the fields and men ... too often the men are playing cards, but sometimes they're doing useful things with machinery. But the point is that local people are already into the day while this lazy tourist is still abed. The cockerel rebukes me. But, at home, my mistle thrush sings me back to sleep.

Music (almost all music. There's some very modern classical music that I struggle with.) Music does wonderful things in my head, and I'm not sure I can put it into words. Some makes me tap my feet, or swing my shoulders - and I'm not even aware I'm doing it. Some makes me join in a sing, in spite of myself. And some will make me cry - though I've no idea why. But somehow it reaches parts of my brain that are nothing to do with thinking, and that makes me feel wonderful!

Some accents - a strange one, this. I've no idea why some accents whine like musical saws (you know the kind - they appeared in music halls and are so screechy you want, briefly, to hide till they stop talking) while others are compelling. Last weekend, the waiter with his French, 'Voila' was enough for me to know I'd listen to him to reading the phone book. Tom Conti (do you remember him?) - I could listen to him reciting anything, listening to the music of his voice and paying no attention to the content. I read somewhere that the language of Dante was taken as the national language of Italy when the country united in 1848 because it was the most beautiful of the dialects available - and I get that, for I can listen to it without caring I don't understand a word.

And soon I'll be bombarded by new sounds. Cuban Spanish, Cuban children, Cuban birds, Cuban music ...

What sounds make you stop, listen, be glad you woke up today?

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Imagine this ...

Following on from my last post (you missed it? I won a night in a luxury hotel!) the main review for my lovely hotel will appear on Silver Travel Adviser. As you might see from that, I had a wonderful time. Plenty of fluffy towels and pampering.

In that review I comment in passing on the wonderful jacuzzi - imagine, if you can, a metal cradle, big enough for a man to lie in. It is composed of just four pipes, side by side, slightly bent to accommodate a body-shape, with small holes in. A bit like a large, curved, cake rack - with holes. At one end there is a head rest, and at the other somewhere to perch your feet. 

Now - submerge this contraption in warm water. Does it look inviting? No - it looks like some sort of contraption the torturers might use. There is nothing comfortable about lying on metal pipes. Not even in warm water.

Next, press the switch - and the bubbles begin. Not polite bubbles, these. Rather they are great jets of bubbles, through every whole making the water foam so that you can barely make out the metal frame beneath. Even so, that rack looks less than uncomfortable. Grit your teeth and lie down ...

And it's wonderful. Those jets of water, so fierce you almost float in them, are aimed at exactly those places on your body that hold the tension: the back of your neck, across the shoulders, your lower back, even the back of your knees. It is like being pummelled with water, a water-massage, leaving your body feeling surprised and so wonderfully relaxed that you have no choice but to flop about on a lounger like a beached whale until hunger sends you to dress for dinner.

For, yes, I scrubbed up. It was worth it - the food was wonderful. I had bream, and it tasted of the sea - fresh and wonderful, and must have been bought at the market by someone who knows about fish. And to follow: a dessert that just called itself 'chocolate' (I didn't need the details, just 'chocolate' was good enough for me). All served by a lovely French waiter who was blissfully unaware how my friend and I loved his accent.

And then it was time to go home. Back to my jacket potato and cheese, but oh I never thought I'd have so much fun lying on a cake rack!

Sunday, 13 October 2013

I'm not really here, I'm somewhere posh!

Well, who'd have thought it! From time to time I've pottered around on a website for older travellers - the forum is fun and they have useful info about places to go and how to get there. Go and have a look here - and then come back, because I need to explain why I'm lounging in luxury.

As you may have seen, they have competitions and winners go off to wherever, and write a review for the website when they get back. And I've won a night in a luxury hotel near Bath - which is where I am now. I spent Sunday pottering about the city, pretending to be Jane Austen, that sort of thing. (The best summer entertainment is in Victoria Park, watching anyone who hasn't met a deckchair before trying to put it up - there's not so many tourist in the park in October!)

I'll tell you about the hotel in due course, but must write the review for Silver Travellers first - that's part of the deal. Besides, I'm writing this before I go - so this is an anticipatory post.

And it feels strange, heading for luxury. It'll take my suitcase, not a rucksack. I'll need respectable clothes for dinner (yes, I do have some, not eaten by moths). The bathroom will be full of smelly goodies. There will be fluffy white bath robes and slippers. Tea will come in proper cups and saucers. There are views from all rooms across green fields and trees. There is a swimming pool, and sauna. And tennis courts and a golf range.

It will be ... different. I'm used to making myself at home in places that are, well, rough and ready (the tiny room with no windows in Kuala Lumpur probably the worst), and have had to make friends with unlikely visitors (my rat in Laos). I don't look for dirt behind the toilet. If I'm clean enough and safe, that's fine with me. The point is the travelling, and the people I meet, rather than where I lay my head.

So, this time, will I lie back on feather pillows and feel at home? Will I fill the bath with bubbles? Will I sit in the sauna, swim in the pool? Of course I will - and what wonderful fun it will be!! But will I know myself?

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Roll up, Roll up ...

The fair is coming to town ...

Every year, on the two Saturday each side of October 11th, the Fair comes to town. My lovely High Street is closed at midday on Friday and the trucks roll in. They spend all afternoon banging and screwing and throwing bits of kit about, and somehow the street is transformed into a fairground. By Saturday it is full of children and balloons and thumping music, strobe lights, the smells of old cooking oil and fried onions. Which brings out the child in me - it is rather wonderful.

This year I took a trip along the street last Friday afternoon, while the whole thing was taking shape. And began to see some of the problems faced by the men (it is always men) putting these rides up. For our High Street is on a slope. And the rides have to be horizontal ... and so they must devise safe, secure ways to make sure everything stays upright.

Some are secured by a game of Jenga:

This looks a little sturdier, I'm sure it will be fine once it's checked with a spirit level:

I couldn't work out quite how the helter-skelter was kept upright - but it wasn't blowing in the wind, so it must be fine:

And this ride - which is one that throws everyone around until they vomit - relies on some interesting poles:

At the end of all that - don't you just want to:

Sunday, 6 October 2013

One story, two tellings.

There was a little drama near when I live the other day. Enough to surprise my polite market town. Three men, chased by a police car and helicopter raced along the High Street and ended up crashing in the side of a wall. Nobody was hurt - though a few were shocked. The three men were taken into custody without any more drama, and the car removed. The only damage - a couple of stones broken on the stone steps leading to the church. It made the front page of the local paper, and there was chatter outside the supermarket, but it soon died down.

The impact on the traffic was, well, you can imagine. I was on a bus, trying to get home, with no idea what the hold-up was. I had a book to read, so wasn't bothered. But the kids on the bus, with their phones, knew all about it. I've no idea who took the first message, but the knock-on was wonderful.

Of course, they had to ring home to explain why they might be late. Their conversations went something like this:

Mum, I'm going to be late. No - don't be like that, it isn't my fault. No, it really isn't my fault. There's been a highjacking in town - I'm on the bus, but nothing is moving, we're all behind barricades ... the place is crawling with police, the sky full of helicopters, there are hostages ... loads of them ... guns, I'm sure I saw guns [we were well over half a mile away] .. all this screaming ... no, mum, I'm fine, don't worry about me, but the police suggesting there are spies, terrorists ... bombs under the Town Hall ... we're lying on the floor of the bus ... Al Qaeda ...

At the time I had no idea at all what was going on, and so could not tell if there was any truth underlying all these wonderful fantasies. We were simply stuck on a bus, going nowhere - with no information. But what fun these kids had, creating their own stories. I'm glad they weren't true, of course - but what great imaginations they have. (Maybe they should be writers!)

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Lessons from a Literature Festival

Many thanks to all those who encouraged my Spanish efforts, in my last post. I am doing my best - honestly!

Last weekend, when I wasn't struggling with the language, I spent some time at the Literature Festival held, as some of you know, in the lovely market town where I live. And what fun it was, devoting time to bookish things. (Actually, I devote nearly all my time to bookish things anyway, but this time I did it with other booky people. And wonderful it was, too.)

I'm not going to review everything I saw - that would be tedious. But I've come away with a thought or two that might, just, be useful to remember when we are all famous. Some of it I knew anyway - from public speaking in my former life (I did lecturing and other learned stuff as part of my Child Protection work). But knowing something and seeing it work in practice are so very different. So here are some reflections.

The event that really didn't work was an interview with a writer who has been around for decades. I won't give names - maybe she and her interviewer had a bad day. But I felt she had no real idea what the purpose of the interview was - she had no new book to promote, no clear story to tell, and so fell back on disconnected anecdotes. But the real blame (for want of a better word) lay with the interviewer, who was unprepared. She had no list of questions, no idea of where she'd like their discussion to lead - so she said things like, 'You must tell them about the time you ...' as if she were prompting a recalcitrant student. She fluctuated between obviously floundering as she tried to think of something to say - and so suddenly asking something unrelated to the previous discussion, or interrupting because she had an idea and maybe it would fly away if she didn't use it soon.

It was the best illustration I've ever seen of what happens if you're not prepared.

This contrasts with Claire Tomalin, who spoke about Dickens and Queen Victoria. She had mislaid a page of her notes - and spent about ten seconds riffling through her papers and then carried on from memory. She knew - and loved - her subject, and she was fascinating, prompting equally fascinating questions.

And the star - Jackie Kay. She is a real presence on a stage (I'm not sure we can learn that - it's something some people just have), spoke with confidence and humour and compassion. She makes a point of never speaking ill of anyone - which is a huge achievement when writing a memoir. And I felt this was not simply a device so she could look compassionate - for instance, her birth father refuses to have anything to do with her (though she sees her siblings), yet she is still able to talk of him without resentment. She seeks to understand rather than pass judgement. She spoke about being adopted, about her race and sexuality, with such refreshing openness - she's the sort of woman you'd like to live next door to. The hour passed too quickly, and we all left wanting more.

So the big lessons - to share with any of my followers destined to win the Booker Prize - know your stuff. And make a point of being kind. (Can it really be that difficult?)