Friday, 29 August 2014

The Week in Pictures


This has been an odd week. Falling down the stairs was not a very clever thing to do and i am afraid it took a few days before I was back to normal (if my usual state can be described as such).


First thing in the morning on Saturday the light between the trees in the garden and over the fields was rather spectacular. Most of the day was spent doing very little and feeling quite miserable (but rather bucked by the nice comments under last week's blog) so when Marcia suggested she drive us up onto Holne Moor, I jumped on the idea. It was lovely to just sit there and let her take the strain.


By the time we were up on the tops near Combestone Tor (Forgotten Laughter country, of course) the evening sun was creating those lovely long shadows that bring the countryside to life. I love this part of the moor where there are little fields bounded by stone walls - built thousands of years ago using nothing but muscle power - in stark contrast to the open moor that surrounds them.




We went as far as the bridge over the Dart at Hexworthy where we stopped for a cup of coffee. As you can see, the river was running very low but that should not have been a surprise as we have had so little rain. 


Since I had started the day with a photograph of the morning sun shining through trees, it seemed only right and proper that I also took one of the woods by the bridge lit now by the evening sun.


The heather is beginning to come into flower on the moor. This is the brighter and rather larger Bell Heather which often grows in amongst the gorse (we also have the smaller and more muted Ling). When the sun is shining the gorse's brilliant yellow sets off the gorgeous deep red of the heather. We were a bit too late so this photograph is rather muted. Still nice, though.


The dry summer has resulted in the reservoir at Vennford being lower than I have seen it for many years.


Driving down off the moor, the last of the sun's rays caught the tower at Buckfast Abbey.


Tuesday and we had to pop into Totnes to stock up on some food. Clearly someone else had the same idea - a young gull (probably a young herring gull) eating out of a dish with "CAT" on the side. Was he (or she, of course) stealing some offering intended for a moggie or is some kind hearted (if misguided) person deliberately put out food for him/her?


Also in Totnes on Tuesday was the man who sells a production of his own called The Bag Issue. For seventeen years he sold The Big Issue - a weekly which is produced by a group of that name which helps the homeless. Sellers of The Big Issue receive half the price for every issue they sell and are encouraged to use this experience as a stepping stone to finding more permanent employment and a home of their own. Why the gentleman in the top hat no longer sells that one and has created his own paper is a long story. Suffice to say that you do get a bag as well as the latest issue when you buy a copy from him.


When Marcia did the laundry over the week-end she was a touch over zealous: not only did she load the washing machine with our dirty clothes, she included my mobile phone. Now, there is no question but that after many years of faithful service this piece of (once modern) technology was in great need of cleansing. Sadly, however, it was unable to survive the event although we were able to rescue the SIM card. Thus it was that on that Tuesday, I found myself in our local mobile phone shop where Matthew helped my choose another model. It is quite simple but it has two features I really like: it closes (which means no more accidental calls thanks to the interaction of keys and mobile in my pocket) and it has a big screen which I find easier to read. Thank you Matthew.




While we were sitting outside The Brioche drinking a post-shopping cup of coffee, a car pulled up alongside us and this little person was left inside - agitation in every pore. The photos were taken through the glass so are not very good but I hope you will agree that three pictures are worth three thousand words.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Pride Goes Before a Fall

Every now and then we have to make important decisions. For both Marcia and me these are moments we tend to dread – we both have enough imagination to see all the things that can go wrong with whatever route is under consideration. In the end, of course, this leads to inertia: the 'do nothing' option becomes increasingly attractive. At these times we start talking about 'sins of omission and sins of commission'. Would one rather be found guilty of the former or the latter?

Once again - there are no photographs that belong in this blog so . . .
On Tuesdays there is a flower seller in Totnes market. It is one of two sisters who grow all the flowers themselves in a wonderful old walled garden. Marcia loves bunches of cut flowers and far prefers the simple ones in season to the exotic. Here she is treating herself to just such a bunch.
Before tackling that subject properly bear with me as I wander down a small by-way. Have you ever thought how odd it is that there is only one 'm' in omission but 2 in commission? It seems that omission comes through late Middle English from the Latin 'omissio'. Commission meanwhile comes to us via Middle Enrlish and Old French from the Latin 'commissio'. This is an entirely unsatisfactory answer but it does have one advantage: you can't blame the English – it was clearly the fault of the Romans.

Not very much to say about this one except it was taken in La Fourchette.
Back to the decisions we have taken not that long ago. As you may know I have been working on some books which deal with 'Marcia Willett's West Country'. The first of these, Marcia Willett's Dartmouth' is essentially finished but how to publish it has been up in the air for some time. Obviously the initial intention was to publish them as 'coffee-table' books with lots of pretty photographs and so on. The problem with that route is that the books would then be extremely expensive and neither of us felt over happy with that. So we decided to explore the ebook option. In part this has been driven by the number of people who we know now read ebooks – most of them on a Kindle. Having costed this out and come to the realisation that it would then be available at about the same price as a standard paperback, we decided to go for it with one important proviso: that I could master the required software and publishing requirements of a book which will still have quite a lot of pictures and a few maps.

At least once a year we have lunch at Turtley Corn Mill where there are a number of free range birds who add a certain something to the occasion. We have been here before, you and I, but I don't think I have put up a photograph of one of their peacocks. Why once a year? Well, we have a friend who lives nearby and we have got into the habit of lunching together in order to celebrate our various birthdays.
This is a major step up from publishing simple text books (books containing nothing than text – not textbooks which are something quite different) which art I have already mastered using a format known as epub..

Illustrated books of this sort are new in the ebook world and rely on a new format called epub3. The software arrived about a fortnight ago and I have been on an extremely steep and very muddy learning curve – the sort where sliding backwards is far easier than scrambling up with finger nails dragging in the ooze. Probably my fault, really. The very best software comes with a full range of support from the suppliers – come down the price range to something that is really just as good in technical terms and you soon find out why this is far cheaper. There is no meaningful technical support at all – you are on your own playing with this and that until it all falls into place and you finally hit that EUREKA moment.

You may remember that there were a lot of problems with the weather damage to the front wall of the medieval building in Totnes' High Street in which the shoe shop 'Conkers' is housed. I put up a picture of it shrouded in scaffolding and tarpaulins. The work is now finished and the result is very satisfactory. Note the gargoyles on the key stones over the windows - one of which appears below..
Thus it is with great pride that I can announce that I think I have cracked it (but won't be sure until the first book is finished, uploaded to Amazon and then downloaded again – keep all fingers crossed). Doesn't mean the book will be available tomorrow as it has to be properly formatted and so on but we are talking weeks and not months.


And then, on Wednesday, I fell down the stairs. No bones broken and nothing sprained but plenty of bruises and I was pretty groggy throughout Thursday. So there you have it – pride goes before a fall.



Meet Guinness. For those of you who do not live in the UK I should explain that Guinness is a drink which started life in Ireland (and the Irish are good at this sort of thing) and migrated to the UK. I have no idea whether it has arrived in the US or south of the equator and so I apologise if I am telling my grandmother how to suck eggs. Anyway, the thing is that Guinness is a very dark stout which has a very white head when poured. Thus the black and white theme runs through many Guinness advertising campaigns and this ten-year-old Tibetan Terrier when a puppy was pure black and white. Time, however, has brought some grey into the equation (as many of us know it does). He remains, however, a delightful character.

Friday, 15 August 2014

To Marcia

This week's blog is really not so much about Marcia as to Marcia.

The time for frolic is over – you have a book to write.

Ways With Words was great fun and I am so very glad that you enjoyed listening to so many of your fellow authors and doing so through the eyes of a writer. Apart from anything else, we had great fun when you came home afterwards and we talked through what you had heard, the questions that had been asked and the answers that had been given.

Since there are no suitable photographs to go with this week's blog, I am asking you to indulge me. I know that bugs are not your favourites but here is a fly sitting on the table in the garden in front of my Sony Handicam.

These chats confirm me in what I felt all those years ago when I acted as an usher for this festival: many authors when they appear in public get between their readers and their books. I am convinced that your decision to eschew festivals was the right one. Better by far to let the books speak for themselves – it's what they are good at.

And here he (she?) is again in close up. My, and what big eyes you have!

There are no such things as universal truths when it comes to talking about writers and especially novelists. Within the world of fiction there are so many different genres and even that is a simplification: some novelists are supreme story tellers (Mary Stewart is one example) and some story tellers can make the characters jump off the page while others succeed because the story is so fascinating that the characters are almost secondary – true of “who dunnits” (which is not to say that writers working in that category people their books with cardboard cut outs).

Gardeners will, I am sure, sympathise - green fly on the roses. Grrr.

Some novelists are superb at tackling issues (Joanna Trollope being such a one) and, of course, there are those who set their books in the past and enable us to feel that we really are there living in that place at that time (Helen Dunmore and Hilary Mantel spring to mind).

Whilst talking about historical fiction I would like to mention two authors who stand head and shoulders above all others in my particular favourite area: the Royal Navy in the late 1700's and early 1800's. They are C S Forester and Patrick O'Brien. Now I feel terribly guilty because I have left out some who run them a close second (such as Alexander Kent – the pen name of Douglas Reeman who, under his real name writes about the second world war, as does C S Forester) but it would be tedious to mention the names of all the writers whose works I have read and enjoyed.

Wer were looking for the location of the next book when we came upong this stick up on a bank beside the road. It is about  four foot long. Did it come from the model village at Babbacombe? Probably. Why is it stuck out in the middle of nowhere? No idea.

Some create a magical and fantastical world (as does David Mitchell) and then there are genres that in general terms I do not read and know little about such as sci-fi.

Then there are a few who tackle writing differently: they enter into the minds and souls of their characters, into their joy and pain, their hope and despair. The story ceases to matter – what matters is how the people (they are no longer characters for they have become friends) cope with whatever it is that life throws at them. Such novelists are rare – yours is the name I would put in brackets when thinking about them.

The Dartington Summer School was a different matter and I know that you found some of the concerts you attended extremely moving. Listening to music has has changed so much during my lifetime. Now we have the very greatest artists available to all of us on CD's or on various bits of technology such as iPlayers that listening to second-rate live performances is not always an entirely rewarding experience (and that is true no matter what music we are talking about). But, and this is a huge but, as I know from my own experience, making music with others is a profoundly satisfying experience and most of the people at the festival were not just “audience” as they were at Ways With Words but performers as well: music makers listening to other people making music and making music for other music makers. I am sure that is why you found some of the performances so emotionally charged.

Another passion of mine, corrugated iron. What a wonderful example this is!

You are quite right: the “feel” at Dartington was very different during these two annual events. It would be difficult to know which one I preferred. There was always a great buzz during Ways With Words but it was very much driven by the audience – the “performers” gave their talk, listened to the questions, answered the questions, signed the books they sold after their talk – and then left. During the Summer School there was a different buzz: the performers generally speaking were around for most of if not all of the festival, the average age was far younger (although some were far from young) and many people were walking around carrying their instruments.

So, at risk of repeating myself, the time for frolic is over – you have a book to write. I will stick my neck out and make a prediction: it will be your best to date.

I have a thing about collies. They are probably the most intelligent of all the breeds that I have had (although my cairn terrier ran my collie cross a close second and they were, probably as it happens rather than anything else, very good friends). This chap, patiently looking at his master while the silly man in front of him keeps clicking away with his camera, is known as Nahuel.



Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Birds, Bugs and Flight

One of my brothers-in-law worked with this guy and put me onto his site. If you love birds (and most who look at my blogs know that I do) you really will be in awe of these photographs.





Birds, Bugs and Flight: I guess you have to start somewhere, so I'll just ...: I guess you have to start somewhere, so I'll just share a few pics from this month - so far... At the RSPB Burton Marsh reserve on 1...

Friday, 8 August 2014

Normal?

The week that was has been a completely off the wall. The exact opposite of normal. Now, as you all know, this is entirely Marcia’s fault. Left to myself I would live a perfectly reasonable in which nothing ridiculous happened and life would be staid and proper. Not when you live with the company I keep.

We are in the very early stages of a new book revealing itself. Whispered conversations only partly heard, shadows with figures who dissolve when you turn to look at them and feather-light touches on the shoulder. Thoughts of plots fleet past, leaving behind the thought that they are utterly silly, impractical, risible even. Meetings between characters are seen – but are they true or is this one of those convenient but unlikely coincidences much favoured by story tellers?

Everything is very vulnerable and fragile: it is all very frightening and we know from bitter experience how difficult it is to hold onto these fleeting impressions and there are two ways in which they can be utterly destroyed.

The first is to talk about them. In fact Marcia refuses to mention any of her ideas to anyone apart from me and even then there comes a moment when the discussion turns from being productive to utterly destructive. Now, after thirty books (including those she wrote as Willa Marsh) we both recognise the signs and change the subject in time. It was not always so. There have been quite serious problems when, usually thanks to talking too much, something that would prove to have been very important indeed is put aside. Only when the book is nearly finished does Marcia realise that a certain strand or even character glimpsed in the early days and then ignored has to be brought on board. The last time this happened, this character made a ‘first appearance’ in the first chapter and had to be woven into the whole book so that the seams were undetectable. It says much for Marcia’s professionalism that only two people knew anything about this: her agent and me. Nobody else noticed but that was thanks to weeks of hard work and so this time (we always say this) we are determined not to let it happen again.

The second is that intrusive force that cannot always be ignored that some call real life (but which, to Marcia at least, is the opposite – her places and her characters are far more real to her than what goes on around us). Last week ‘real life’ forced itself upon us. This again was all Marcia’s fault – Wednesday was her birthday and all of her friends wanted to have a part in that and I include here all those who so kindly wished her well on Facebook. 
Probably the most exotic floral tribute was from one of Marcia's nephews who sent her this wonderful orchid. They are supposed to be very long lived but with our track record when it comes to pol plants . . . 
The strange piercing noise that her mobile makes when it received a new text filled the air from first to last, people kept arriving with flowers and the sun shone. 


So it was that we found ourselves sitting in the sun, two glasses of wine to hand, as Marcia opened her present including two knitted mice (about which I refuse to comment – the photo is all you need other than we understand that one is called Quentin and the other Clemmie).

Unfortunately her sister Bridget was unable to come down for Marcia’s birthday as her husband had a hospital appointment on that day (he will be having surgery on a knee early in October) so they arrived to spend yesterday with us. Luckily the sun shone on Dartington and we had lunch outside the White Hart.

Arum maculatum, otherwise known as Cuckoo Pint, growing in our garden. These berries are extremely poisonous as they contain oxalates of saponins which are, or so I am reliably informed, amphipathis glycosides. I felt your week would be incomplete without this information.

Anyway, guzzling these attractive fruits in excess will certainly land you in hospital so it is fortunate that they don’t taste very nice.

All of which meant that for two days Marcia had to turn her back on those whispers, shadows and other revealings. It would have been worse had Tuesday not been a very productive day and now, as I write, she has drifted off to her own particular Narnia to pick up where she left off.

Also in the garden, the lovely old rose that clambers over the fence from next door has been attacked by these voracious little fellow. Heads down sucking all the goodness out of the plant. Sorry, little greenflies, you will have to go.
Only two problems with life next week. One of our favourite charities, the Rowcroft Hospice which runs hospices here in the south west of England, is running a ‘book sale’ week in order to raise funds and various authors in the area agree to give talks and to meet and greet people in the shops the charity runs. On Tuesday, Marcia will be in their Totnes shop from 10 am to noon and is looking forward to meeting any of her readers who happen to be in the town on that morning.

The other is that the man calls on Friday to service the boiler. Essential if Narnia is to be warm this coming winter.


I shall fill in those two hours taking a few photographs of dogs for the blogs. Stocks are running down. See you next Friday.

I can't tell you how much I hate going shopping!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Silence and sacbuts

Yesterday, as the sun was sinking in the west and a gentle breeze was stirring the branches in the oak and ash trees in the garden, Marcia and I were sitting at the table on the lawn being totally unhealthy: I with a bowl of cheese flavoured crisps from Tyrells (which should earn me a few free samples but won’t), Marcia with some of her favourites – roasted peanuts but they must be dry roasted – and both of us with glasses of wine to hand.

Then, as so often happens, the wind dropped and it felt as though the whole world was holding its breath. A pigeon ceased his (or her, of course) relentless cooing and then there was absolute silence. It couldn’t last. A few minutes later the air was filled with the distant sound of medieval instruments: shawms and sacbuts, lutes and cornetts. Only at Dartington could this have been the case. The Dartington Summer School is in progress and there had been a master class held in the Great Hall. Some of the students gathered outside to play together and the sound travelled gently and sweetly to us through the evening air. It was a magical moment – then the sun dropped behind the trees and one of the steam engines on the South Devon Railway announced it was leaving Staverton Station by emitting that eerie shriek that only a steam whistle can produce: the magic was shattered but not forgotten.

Then two things happened this morning which are both far from being magical. The first has some upsides but I am not sure about the second.

Number one: it is raining. After days of wonderful sunshine it really is not at all nice especially as Marcia has to drive to visit her dentist (routine check up – nothing frightening). The upside to this one is, of course, that the garden will be delighted (can a garden be delighted?). Oh, and I shan’t have to water everything this evening. Definitely two upsides.

Number two: a response to an old blog – the one titled “Unusual Dartmoor” – which was posted up in May 2013. It read thus: “The pictures of the Alpacas are actually of our Trekking Llamas although I will concede there is one Alpaca there. Secondly it is private property and you didn't have permission to be in the field. I am assuming you were in the field to get the shot of Jazz the llama by the hay rack, We operate strict Bio security which is why there is a padlock on the field.”

I'm not sure this really tells us anything but . . . The field in which the camelids were grazing is about 350 yards long and I suppose Jazz was about 150 yards away. Turn your back on that field and walk away, bearing left, and after 560 yards you come to the village of Leusdon. Some time ago, I set up a camera on a tripod to take a series of photos of which the above is one. The church is about 1,400 yards away and Buckland Beacon (that rocky outcrop on the horizon) about 3,100 yards away.
This made me rather cross. I am grateful to be told that these animals were llamas and only one was an alpaca. I must admit that I am far from expert when it comes to camelids. However, this was a public comment so I feel it is reasonable to reply in public.

The writer is also far from expert: the photographs were taken from the field gate while I was standing on the open moor. This might not have been possible using an old Kodak Box Camera but things have moved on since then. His (or her, of course) assumption is wrong. I think why I am cross is that I am a countryman through and through – which I would have thought was pretty obvious to anyone who reads what I write (even my political blogs make reference to fact since I do not know how cities work having never lived in one. Thus what I write is inevitably distorted and I think readers have the right to know that).

Unless there is a public right of way across a field under no circumstances would I go into one with stock unless there was a good reason so to do – such as a sheep on its back. The owner of a field is perfectly at liberty to padlock any field gate – even one where there is a public right of way in which case there must be some other means of access such as a stile. However, to say that this is being done for the sake of bio security is not very clever. A person walking in off the open moor is as likely (or not) to bring in disease as are badgers, foxes, birds, rats and rabbits. Rant over.

Marcia has been having fun with men this week. That is not to suggest that she doesn’t have fun with men every week but I am not always on hand to photograph these goings on.


The other morning she went out to start her car and – nothing: the battery was flat. Could I find our jump leads? No. I haven’t seen them since we left The Hermitage so that came as no surprise. Thus it was that we had to fetch out the RAC (once the Royal Automobile Club) and this arrived in the form of Eddie.


Then some goodies arrived by post carried by another eternally jolly chap, Andrew Hyne. People are often surprised that we know the names of our postmen but if you have been following this blog over the years you will know this is always the case. Do you remember Pete the Post when we were at The Hermitage? If I remember rightly there was a photograph of him up on a blog some time ago.


Finally our blog dog this week is an eight-year-old brown Newfoundland called Tia.










Friday, 25 July 2014

An early autumn?

Under last week’s blog, Jeanne from Oklahoma said, “We are experiencing record low temps with rain and mist. Absolutely wonderful weather - in mid July!!! Usually we have triple digits with drought so you can imagine how much we are enjoying this break. It's so unusual, it's almost spooky, but I am still enjoying it.” This left me thinking about the weather here because I think I detect something odd this year.

Like the other plant pictures here, this was taken late last night (hence the use of flash) so we can see exactly how things are going.
Hazel nuts - and someone has been nibbling.
Before I go any further, a quick thought. Nancy (from Charlotte, also in the USA) is far more knowledgeable about plants than I am – I shall rely on her for a logical explanation of what I have been seeing and photographing if, indeed, there is one.

Rosa Rugosa hips
The spring was a bit of a blur as we were preparing to move during March and April. There was little point in doing anything positive in the garden we were leaving apart from making sure it was reasonably tidy. We did not have access to the garden we were going to until it was rather too late to do all the things that are needed early in the year to ensure a productive season. Worse, in some ways, I was distracted from the more natural things – flora and fauna – and so was not as aware of the way last spring panned out than I would have been under normal circumstances.

Blackberries in the hedge.
The first realisation that things weren’t quite normal was that the blackbirds seemed to be nesting later than usual and then I began to suspect that for some reason everything was holding back by a week or so. But it is what is happening now that I find most interesting. We are still in July and yet when I look around me it seems that many plants have fruited early and already beginning to take on a look of early autumn. That is not to say that they are beginning to take on their autumn colouring yet but that there is that slightly tired look that I associate with late August. Indeed, and I do not expect most people to agree with this, for the casual naturalist August is the most boring month of all. The birds stop singing and are seen far less frequently and very little comes into flower. But, stop and listen for a moment. Can you here any birds? Quite – and we are still in July.

The beech tree by the front gate is looking very autumnal.
Is that this year's mast or left over from last year?
Actually that isn’t quite true. Although we are some way from the sea the River Dart (which we could see from the windows were it not for the trees and shrubs that grow on its bank) is tidal less than a mile away and we are often visited by gulls: herring gulls in the main. They fill the air with their strange cries as the wheel around the house in the late evening. And then there are just one pair of pigeons who pop in and out and sit in the branches of the trees in the garden cooing gently to each other. And that is that: no thrushes inspiring the evening air, no blackbirds pouring out their rattling challenges, no warblers warbling or sparrows chirping.

This small tree/large shrub is coming into berry. I have no idea what it is and so I am relying on one of you to tell me. It is probably something quite common and I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself. We'll see.
Am I right? Has nature somehow started this summer late, rushed through it at breakneck speed and is now already beginning to tumble into autumn (or fall if you prefer)? If I am, why? Any ideas, Nancy?

There are always many charities that appeal for our support. Both of us rate very highly those who provide terminal care for people and one such is the Rowcroft Hospice. This charity, which operates only in South Devon, cares for nearly two thousand people each year. From Saturday, August 9, to Friday, August 15, they will be running a Summer Reading Campaign to help them sell books that have been donated to them. Marcia will be helping with that campaign. She will be in Rowcroft’s shop in Totnes from 11 am on Thursday, August 12, when she will be giving a short talk and enjoying a chat with other supporters. She hopes to be meeting as many readers as possible but totally understands that some of them (such as Jeanne and Nancy) might find getting there a bit difficult.


And there he was. Sitting on the driving seat and daring all and sundry to come and start pinching things. Buddy may not be that big but he knows he’s bigger than everyone else.


PS We would both like to send our best wishes to Traudel who is due to have an operation next Monday. May it happen this time and let us hope for a totally positive outcome.