Friday, 19 December 2014

Resting on your laurels - and ivy.

First of all may I thank all of you who have left comments on the blog ,sent me emails or messages through social media. They have all helped keep me reasonably cheerful so that I only shout at Marcia on rare occasions.

I am so glad that you liked Marcia's short story. As some of you might have guessed, this was later expanded into one of the Willa Marsh novels: Facing the Music. Although out of print in English, this is one of the novels presently available in French – it is published by Autrement, a literary publishing house in Paris. Autrement, having run out of novels written by Willa, is now publishing some of those written by Marcia but under the name of Willa Marsh since that author has now quite a considerable following in France and has had some very nice reviews in, amongst other French papers, Le Figaro.

Time to bring you up to date on the health front. As far as the anaemia is concerned, the blood count is slowly rising and I am just beginning to feel a lot better as a result, although I am told it will be another four or five weeks before I am back to normal. What happened, though, was very unexpected. Coming to the conclusion that there was nothing I could do for a while, I decided to just go with it and relaxed. The immediate result was that I slept for more or less the whole time for the first few days and even now am sleeping over ten hours a day. I must say that this is doing me no end of good and for the first time for many a long year I have enjoyed doing nothing very much apart from reading and thinking.

When you think about it, it was high time I had a holiday – and therefore high time Marcia had one too but that isn't on the cards just at the moment.

The last time we went away with nothing in mind but to relax – no thoughts of where a book may be set, of what fauna and flora might be around, of what photographs we need to fill gaps in the photo files – was about eighteen years ago when we spent a couple of nights in a hotel in Ilfracombe. I think that when Marcia finishes the book she is writing we would be wise to think about going away for a week or so and just chilling out.;

Our bedroom window looks out over a field which rises up so that the hedge, with its trees, is silhouetted against the sky (see above). When I first 'took to my bed' not all the leaves had fallen but today they are no more than a memory. I love it when the tracery of bare branches stands out against a dramatic sky – be it a glorious clear blue as it has been for the past two weeks or storm-wracked.



Not that this outline is devoid of all leaves for some of the trees carry a heavy burden of ivy. Ivy raises many questions: in some places it is considered to be a pernicious weed (for example it is, I believe, illegal to bring it into or to sell it in the state of Oregon) but it has its benefits.


I am not sure of the figures but well over a hundred species of insects and birds drink (if that is the right word) ivy nectar and the berries, despite being slightly poisonous to humans, are an important winter food source for a number of birds. Meanwhile, of course, it provides birds with shelter in winter as well as numerous nesting sites in spring and early summer.



It was, however, directly responsible for the loss of a large holly tree that grew in our last garden. The poor tree had become so overgrown that there were far too few leaves to sustain it. My guess is that as a result the roots had suffered because in a moderate gale the whole lot came crashing down.


No chance to get you a blog dog this week: perhaps that idea has now run its course (but I am always happy to post photos of your dogs and other pets if you want to send them to me – see top of the side bar to the right for details).

Friday, 12 December 2014

Rooks

This week with Roddy still in bed, I decided to post the very first short story that I ever wrote and hope that it will make up for the lack of photographs – and no blog dog!

My very best wishes to you all. Marcia

* * *

I saw a rook today with a straw in its’ beak and my heart gave a little upward leap of joy and hope. Then, all at once, I was back in the past hearing Elizabeth Drake saying, ‘Oh, no. 1 hate the autumn. Dank and cheerless, dark nights and winter ahead. So depressing. 1 love the spring, new life, re-birth. I’m an Easter person.’
Even now, thirty or more years on, I feel the little thread ox shame worm through me: that little hot flush of horror that comes when remembering that of which one is more than a ,little ashamed.
I was so young. That’s one of my excuses. Nineteen, twenty, I can’t remember now, perhaps old enough to now better, Anyway, my father had decided that I was quite old enough to get a job and earn some money and, though my mother and I protested, he insisted that daughters didn’t stay at home any longer, writing letters and arranging flowers and that it would be good for me to be independent. In spite, or because, of an expensive education, nothing readily rushed to mind. Perhaps my father suspected that my efforts weren’t totally whole  hearted for, one day, he returned from his game of golf to announce that he had arranged an interview for me with the Managing Director of a very large furniture store in the nearby town. My father had been playing a round with the Chairman and somehow my problem had cropped up. My problem! 1 liked that. I’d been quite happy pottering about, following up leads from my girlfriends which had unluckily come to nothing. There was nothing for it but to go.
At the time, I remember, 1 was quite surprised to be offered the job: assistant in the China and Glass Department. I knew nothing of the retail business, though I recognised a few names such as Crown Derby and Wedgewood. If I had heard of the Old Boys Network 1 didn’t apply it in my own case arid naively imagined that the M.D. liked me and saw my potential. The department was a small one and included lampshades, wall-lights etc. The window-dresser, an elderly man who wore very floral ties and would appear at regular intervals to collect up items for his displays in the ‘dining-rooms’ and ‘bedrooms’ and ‘sitting-rooms’. He had to sign a book to show that he had taken them: two Doulton figures, a set of Waterford wine goblets, a table lamp and shade etc. etc. Off he would go with his little assistant, a shy boy of about sixteen with an acne-ridden face arid floppy fair hair, clutching things or pushing them on an expensive tea-trolley.
‘Do be careful!’ Elizabeth Drake would cry. Her tone suggested, quite accurately, that she resented anything being carried out of the department. So did I but for quite different reasons. If a customer wanted to see anything that was out on display I was the one who had to get it, toiling up and down the stairs  staff weren’t allowed to use the lifts! too stupid!  and round the endless acres of carpeted floors until I found the little .Doulton figurine stuck on a bedside table in a corner of the Beds department 1 would seize it and go hurrying back  the customer might get fed up with waiting, mustn’t lose a sale  often with Mr Dickson, that was the window-dresser’s name, leaping out of the woodwork at me to ask what I was doing. Perhaps be mistook me for a shop-lifter, his eyes were, after all, very weak and his spectacles had very thick lenses.
Elizabeth Drake. 1 can picture her quite clearly. I thought her old, well, middle-aged but she was probably no more than thirty-eight. She was very fastidious. Her shirts, plain and simple, were always immaculate, her skirts, practical, were newly pressed, her shoes, sensible, were highly polished. She wore the minimum of make-up, just enough not to shine, and her dark, short hair was always in place. I could never imagine her being passionate, with, frantic At least, not in the beginning.
She was my boss, the manager and buyer of the department and she was the only member of staff who treated me as an ordinary person and, not, as I realise now was the case with the others, as a friend of the Chairman. Uh, they knew all right. I don’t know how. Certainly not through me, it never occurred to me to mention it, but they knew. Everyone was charming to me. Slowly I got to know the people in the other departments and slowly I came to realise that they all, without exception, hated Elizabeth Drake. Even now 1 don’t really know why. 1 think she committed the cardinal sin of letting them see that she felt herself superior to them, Well, she was. There’s no doubt about that. Apart from one or two little secretaries and some girls on the switchboard there were only two other female staff: Mrs Jenkins, who was the receptionist and sat behind a huge bar sort of arrangement on the ground floor, and Mrs Steed.
Mrs Steed I can see her, too. Fat, fair and forty, dressed to kill and with a bubbly charm that disguised the thinness of the brightly painted lips and the calculating coldness in the pale blue eyes. This is with hindsight. At the time I was flattered by her friendliness. As tar as I could tell she was employed mainly in bolt Furnishings but helped out with anyone who was short staffed, strutting between departments on high-heeled shoes, her ample bottom tightly encased. in short skirts admirably chosen to display plump calves in shiny stockings. She was very popular with the men. She and Mrs. Jenkins were often to be seen, heads together, in corners or in the staff-room canteen, well, they called it a canteen. It was a tiny room, tucked away on the top floor, painted a depressing green and furnished with some small tables and a few chairs, a grubby cooker next to a little sink and a supply of china, spoons etc. The staff had to supply the milk and coffee and anything else that they wanted to consume, The management would never have got away with it in this day and age but they were perfectly happy for stall to go out of the building for coffee breaks and lunch as long as they were back in time, so no-one much minded.
Elizabeth Drake always went out. Brisk, looking neither to right nor left, pulling on her gloves, she would leave the department, descend the stairs and, by way of the staff entrance,  staff were not allowed to use the main doors! too stupid!  vanish into the throng outside in the town. Once she’d gone one or two of the staff would gather together and the whispering would begin. In the early days I was left well alone. Perhaps no-one quite knew whose side I would take and what I might say to a higher authority. Anyway. The chief whisperers were Mr. Baxter from Carpets, Mrs. Steed and Mr Griffiths. Everyone called him Griff and he was the manager and buyer of Soft Furnishings. I thought he was the funniest man I had ever met. He had spent most of his life working in the London branch of the company and had only recently moved to the provinces. He could smell out the people who came into the store to avoid the rain or waste time and was brutal to them. I remember him advancing on a woman who had been roaming about for some time, She’d already been round the China and Class department and had moved into soft furnishings. The departments were next door to each other and I watched him approach her.
‘Can I help you, madam?’ he asked. He had a peculiarly menacing smile, I remember. He never opened his lips. His silvery hair was plastered to his skull and he always wore a pin-stripe suit. The woman was now riffling half-heartedly through a pile of bedspreads. She straightened up.
‘No, no thank you,’ she said. ‘I’m looking for a friend.’
‘Well, you won’t find her in there, madam,’ he said.
I remember hiding behind a display cabinet to stifle my laughter. We had lots of laughs together when Elizabeth Drake was out. He was always asking me questions about the department: how were our sales, figures for the month, our budget and so on. When Elizabeth Drake found out she was furious.
‘And I suppose you tell him everything,’ she exclaimed bitterly.
By this time I was used to her antagonism to the staff and her dislike or my overtures of’ friendliness towards them.
‘Hardly,’ I said, ‘1 don’t know any of the answers.’ Nor did 1 care, Perhaps that was implicit in my tone because she managed a smile.
‘I suppose not. It’s just none of their business,’
Fine. Didn’t bother me either way. She and I got on very well. She always called me by my surname, I remember, like at a boys’ school.
‘Come on, Beauchamp,’ she’d say. ‘Get the duster out.’
She’d pull my leg about being privileged.
I remember her saying to me, ‘I thought that the first time I saw you attempting to put a lampshade into a paper bag I’d die laughing. Have you ever been asked to do anything useful?’
I used to 1augh with her. Didn’t bother me a bit. And anyway, it was perfectly true, We had some pleasant moments but, even in the early days. 1 was irked by her attitude of isolation, the feeling of ‘them and us’, that the department was an oasis amidst the infidel. I was young, light-hearted, the job wasn’t that important. I wanted to laugh with Gritf and Mr. Baxter, gossip with Mrs Steed and Mrs Jenkins. I realise now that she was worth the lot of them put together. She had fine ideas, a high moral-tone a sense of duty and with the unerring shallowness of youth, when I chose, I chose Mrs Steed and. Grill,
Mrs Steed. had a boyfriend, It was Griff who told me and. it came as the most dreadful shock. 1 had had a sheltered upbringing and. was still naive enough to think that married women didn’t have boyfriends. Grill had great pleasure in telling me. He was that sort of man. He enjoyed shattering youth’s illusions, discrediting his friends and making it all sound great fun arid perfectly normal. Hindsight, again. At the time I thought that I was being treated as one of the lads and belt grown-up and important. Mrs. Steed’s boyfriend came into the store one day. Boyfriend! He was thirty-five it he was a day! I shook my head, mentally, in disbelief. Still, it was all great fun, lots of jolly jokes and laughs and, apparently, Mr. Steed knew all about it and was perfectly happy. So, I joined in and was introduced. Needless to say, Elizabeth Drake was at lunch.
‘Where’s the gorgon?’ I heard the boyfriend say ‘Gone to Mass?’
I have to admit that I laughed with the rest. It was the first I’d heard, though, of Elizabeth Drake being a Roman Catholic. 1 recalled a conversation we’d had about abortion, She’d. been unusually heated. about it, saying that it was a crime, murder Well, of course, if she was an RC that would. explain it.
It was about that time that we had the conversation about spring I has told her how much I loved the autumn, the colours, the woodsmoke and Christmas at the end of it.
‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘I hate the autumn. Dank and cheerless, dark nights and winter ahead. So depressing. I love the spring, new life, re-birth. I’m an Easter person. Wait ‘till you’re older, Beauchamp, you’ll feel as I do,’
‘But Christmas,’ I pressed her. ‘Surely you like Christmas?’
Her face closed. ‘I hate Christmas,’ she said. And that was that.
Time passed and my birthday arrived. She gave me a little leather bound book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. She’d written on the flyleaf. It was a quote about friendship and values. I can’t for the life of me remember it now and I’ve lost the book, At the time I was more excited by Mrs. Steed’s present of some silk stockings.
As the time approached for her to take her holiday she became agitated. She went off to see the M.D. and came back looking grim.
‘I asked him to let me leave you in charge,’ she said, ‘but he won’t, He says you haven’t enough experience. Mrs Steed’s going to be in here with you.’
I opened my mouth to say, ‘what fun!’ and shut it again. She spent all day putting things away and locking drawers and leaving me with endless do’s and dont’s. Mrs. Steed came into the department during the afternoon to see if she had any instructions for her. Dislike crackled tangibly between them, beneath their icy politeness and I could see, just round the corner, Griff rubbing his hands and smiling to himself, I left with her that evening and wished her a happy holiday.
The next two weeks were carnival. The department became a place of fun and laughter. Mrs. Steed’s friends dropped in, including the boyfriend, and other members of staff stopped off for little chats,
‘You see it doesn’t have to be like a mausoleum,’ Mrs. Steed said to me on more than one occasion. ‘You poor girl we really feel for you, you know.’
I said things like, ‘oh, she’s not so had, you know,’ and ‘she’s OK. really,’ but they wouldn’t have it and I began to feel that perhaps, after all, I was rather hard done by in having such a stiff, unfriendly stickler, for a boss.
When Elizabeth Drake came back it was like going back to school after the holidays. She went through the department from top to bottom, checked for dust and then settled down to go through the figures. Members of stall gave me little winks and nods of sympathy and I felt as though, somehow imperceptibly, I had moved from her side to theirs. Her behaviour didn’t help, she was cool and stilt and wouldn’t talk much about her holiday. She set me to completely change the department round, no doubt to throw off any lingering memory of Mrs. Steed, and I was hard at it all day.
‘Shame,’ whispered Mrs. Steed as I passed her going out to lunch. ‘Miserable old cow. We had such time, didn’t we?’
‘Shame,’ whispered Grill. ‘Pity she didn’t drown on her holiday. Janice Steed should run your department.’
‘Shame,’ mumbled Mr. Reed who was an alcoholic and worked in Beds, He used to chew garlic to disguise the whisky and the result was very interesting. He was often to be found sleeping it off in one 01 the big wardrobes in his department and snoring gently. He’d rather enjoyed the party atmosphere in our department during the last fortnight and had brought his hip-flask along.
I definitely began to feel hard done by. A few days later Anthony Lachlin strolled into the department. He was the chairman’s son and I’d known him forever.
‘I couldn’t believe it when I heard,’ he drawled gazing round with eyebrows raised in disbelief. His glance rested on Mrs. Steed and Grill, peering from Soft Furnishings and Mr. Baxter hovering at the edge of Carpets. He nodded at them regally. ‘My dear Caroline, what are you doing here.’
‘Daddy thought I ought to get a job, It’s all your father’s fault,’ I said crossly
He burst out laughing and Elizabeth Drake raised her head and gazed at him coldly from her desk in the corner. It was a huge old-fashioned wooden thing with plate glass almost to head height.
‘Shut up,’ I whispered pulling at his sleeve, ‘I have to work here.’
‘Not for much longer, 1 hope,’ he said. ‘Everyone’s over fifty by the look of it, Dreadful collection of old fossils. What can father have been thinking oft Well, never mind, I’ve got a splendid idea. A friend of mine’s trying his band at an antique shop and he needs an assistant. Much more your thing.’
I walked with him to the top of the stairs and then, to my horror, he kissed me on both cheeks in full view of all the first floor staff.
“Bye, darling,’ he called as he descended the stairs, ‘don’t forget, eight o’clock on Saturday.’
Elizabth Drake met me at the entrance to the department.
‘I really must protest, Miss Beauchamp,’ she began, loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘at your using the department as a place to entertain your friends.’
Now this was really unfair. Apart from Anthony only one or two of my friends had ever been into the store. These had taken in the hushed atmosphere, the ‘old fossils’ and the deep gloom generally and fled. I always met them outside in the town. What she was referring to were my mothers’ friends who, in town for some shopping, would descend with shrieks of joy, ‘Caroline, darling, your mother told us to be sure and look you up. Now, do you get commission? Oh, goody. Come on Connie,’ or Mary, or Jane, ‘let’s buy a little something to swell the coffers.’ then they’d swoop round picking things up and putting them down whilst Elizabeth Drake nodded frostily to them room behind the plate glass. The problem was that nearly all of them were account customers so there was nothing she could do and, after all, they’d always buy a little something and rush off with it calling goodbyes.
I apologised. Sullenly. I could feel waves of sympathy emanating from the rest of the store and old Mr. Dickson came over specially to say that he wanted to change the window display and could I help him carry some things as his boy was away. Grudgingly she said I could and I went with him gratefully.
Things didn’t really improve and, when Anthony told me I could have the job at the antiques shop if I wanted it, I jumped at it, I went at once to the MD’s office to give in my notice. He seemed reluctant to take it. He looked tired and worried, his fingers pressing constantly on a point just above his waistline at the front. On his desk stood a glass of milk.
‘I wonder, Miss Beauchamp, if you’ve given it long enough,’ he said. ‘I can understand that it’s not too exciting for a young person of your age but soon you’ll be able to start learning how to buy . He droned on and on . . .
At last, when I really thought that he was not going to accept my notice I said, ‘To be honest 1 really don’t want to work with Mrs Drake any more. We’re not really compatible.’
He sat up straight then, ‘Ah, so that’s it,’ he said. ‘Well, of course, we’ve had complaints before. Well, if that’s the case you can leave it to me. Mrs Steed can run the department. You get on very well with her, don’t you?’
I stared at him. ‘Yes, but that’s not the point . . .’
‘Don’t worry, my dear.’ He stood up and came round the desk. ‘I’ll get it all settled. She’ll be no loss, I assure you.’
‘You don’t understand,’ I began, but he was hustling me out or the door.
When Elizabeth Drake appeared in the department later I tried to hide. She seized me by the arm, her race was red, her eyes watered and her mouth was stretched into an ugly shape.
‘Why did you do this?’ she cried. ‘We’ve got on very well. Why did you say you couldn’t work with me?’
‘I didn’t,’ I tried to free myself, shocked by her appearance. ‘I didn’t actually say that. I’m leaving anyway. It’s nothing to do with you.’
‘Will you say that? Will you come with me now and say that?’ She was dragging me towards the stairs, oblivious or the interested stares. I was hot with shame and embarrassment. I knew that I had done something dreadful.
‘Please,’ I begged her, ‘please wait. I will go. Be calm.’ But she wouldn’t listen, Mr. Harrigan, the Assistant Manager was coming down the stairs and she flew at him dragging me with her.
‘Miss Beauchamp says that it’s nothing to do with me,’ she cried to hum. ‘She’s prepared to go now and say so. It’s all a mistake. Please . . .’
It was dreadful. I wondered how on earth she could contemplate continuing to work there having exposed herself so completely to her enemies. Mr. Harrigan hustled her away and presently appeared and suggested that I should go to lunch. When I came back she’d gone. No sign of her was left behind and, in her place, was Mrs. Steed, triumphant at last, The place was agog. Rumours raced round the departments. Elizabeth Drake had gone mad, hit the MD, had fallen on her knees and begged for mercy.
‘White as a sheet she was when she left,’ reported Griff, smiling. ‘I watched her. She passed right by me,’ How he would have enjoyed it.
‘So that’s that,’ Mrs. Steed could barely hide her exaltation. How well I had played her cards for her. ‘Let’s tidy up a bit, shall we?’
I left anyway. I went to say goodbye to Mr. Harrigan. He was a gentle, quiet man with a limp and had been patently distressed by the scene on the stairs. I told him how sorry I was, how it had all been a hit of a muddle, It made me feel a bit better to say that. Less guilty.
‘Poor woman.’ He shook his head. His mild gaze roamed the middle distance, ’Such a tragic story. Her husband is an invalid, you know. He was knocked down by a drunken driver one Christmas Eve, The child was killed.’
‘Child?’
His gaze returned to me. ‘She told me once but no-one else ever knew. That’s how she wanted it. I shouldn’t have mentioned it but she’s gone and you’re going anyway. Don’t tell anyone else please.’
I said again, ‘Child?’
He sighed. ‘Yes, She had a child, He was two or three, I think, After the accident it was found that her husband would never be able to provide her with another. It was a dreadful grief to her. She has to work to support them, now.’
He turned away and began to pull himself up the stairs with his odd salting gait.
‘Mr. Harrigan,’ I called after him. ‘Where did she go? Can you give me her address?’
He looked down at me and shook his head.
‘Well, she’ll be in the phone book.’
He shrugged. ‘She worked under her maiden name,’ he said and went on his way.
I searched for her for weeks. When I’d done all the stores I tried cafes. No luck. Lime passed and I got married. Some years later, when I’d almost forgotten, I was pushing my second child through the China and Glass department of a large store when I saw her. She looked relatively unchanged to me. There’s not a great difference between the mid-thirties and the mid-forties. I watched her for a bit and then went up to her.
‘Hello,’ I said. After a moment she smiled, coolly, warily.
‘I looked for you,’ I said, ‘I wanted to apologise. Can you ever forgive me?’
She smiled again. ‘Ill try,’ she said. And then she saw Freddie, Her face lit up. ‘You have a child,’ she said and came right round the counter to look at him. I felt my throat constrict.
‘Two, actually,’ I said. She crouched beside him arid he stared at her stolidly, thumb in mouth. She looked up at me. ‘I have a son, too,’ she said. And her face blazed with love and pride. I stared. She touched Freddie’s cheek with her finger and stood up.
‘I couldn’t get another job, you see, so we decided to adopt. You get all sorts of help and allowances. He’s started school, now, so I’m working part tame.’
I swallowed. ‘I’m so glad. What’s his name?’
‘Andrew. So you see, it worked out very well.’ Her smile, this time was warmer, ‘I forgave you long ago, actually. When Andrew arrived.’
I nodded words were difficult. ‘So you don’t hate Christmas anymore?
‘Not any more. But I still like spring best.’
I never saw her again. But it all came back to me when I saw the rook with the straw in his beak,
I wish I could find that book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, though.


© Marcia Willett 1995




Friday, 5 December 2014

Hitting the buffers

`Time to be totally honest – to let everything hang out.

Although I didn't know what was going on until Monday last, I knew there was something wrong with me (and I suspect that after reading last week's blog you too knew all was not well). Ever since I had a heart attack in 1998, I have suffered from angina (the sort you get when you really overdo things but that settles down very quickly when you stop being stupid) and a few alarms and excursions when the old ticker plays up and then you have to sit back and let nature take its course which it does fairly quickly.

However, at the end of October I had a serious moment and was forced to flop into a chair. Naturally I thought this was another of those heart moments and assumed everything would settle down quickly. Not so and I had to spend the rest of the day doing nothing at all (which I find rather difficult). Next day and there were important things to do – and somehow they all got done even though it included carrying eleven boxes of books. By the evening I was shattered.

There were still some things that I had agreed to do the next day (and a blog to write) and again I got through.

Thankfully there was nothing urgent to be done over that weekend and I took everything very easily – confident that come the Monday morning all would be well. But it wasn't. From then onwards instead of feeling better and better I was feeling worse on a daily basis. So it was I went to the doctor last Monday (probably three weeks later than I should have done).

It turns out that I am seriously anaemic – blood count on the floor at 6.8 when it should be over 14 – which explains everything. At first it seemed that I would have to go to hospital for a blood transfusion but then that idea was shelved – the thought of the drive down and then the usual fight to find somewhere to park the car was too much to contemplate. Instead, I promised to take the tablets and to do almost nothing for a few weeks – with the proviso that if I start to feel any worse we hot-foot it to the hospital without delay.

Somehow, and I have no idea how she did it, Marcia found the time to travel to Sidmouth where she was dropping in to meet some of her readers.
(Photo by Chris Smale, the lovely Transworld representative)
I must say that my doctor and all the others involved at our health centre were wonderful. I was seen at ten past eight, had some blood taken at half past ten and the results were through later in the afternoon. I am sure all will be well but I am afraid that this week there will be none of the usual photograghs.

Meanwhile poor Marcia had a filling fall out of one of her teeth and had to undergo treatment yesterday. Her dentist of the last twenty years or thereabouts, Malcolm Bruce, has virtually retired from the practice in order to teach so it was time to put her faith in someone else. As it happened that someone else had been trained by Malcolm himself and all was well although the whole procedure took more or less an hour.

So, what with one thing and another neither of us has got much work done. The copy editing of the next book, the title of which I can now reveal will be Summer on the River has arrived and working through that will be my first job as soon as I am up to it. This story is set in the area covered by my Marcia Willett's Dartmouth with some of the characters living or staying in Dartmouth and one old friend from Forgotten Laughter now living in a cottage at Torcross. I can promise you that working on that manuscript will be a great pleasure. Incidentally, I understand that this book will be published a little earlier next year – probably in August – as it opens during Dartmouth's Regatta week which is at the end of that month.


A quick SOS to my boating chum Roger means that this week you get two dogs for the price of one. Hos Jack Russell, Tilly, staring at her best boy friend known as Chester. Many thanks, Rog.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Greenhouses and gulls

Last week I welcomed autumn - this week it feels as though it would have been more appropriate to have welcomed winter. The temperature has plummeted and we have had our first hard frost. As I mentioned last week, the greenhouse suffered in the wind and that means everything was exposed to that cold which is a pity. I had sown a few things in late autumn (notably sweet peas) with the idea that they would be that much ahead come spring. Well, we can forget that idea and now need to take some decisions regarding that greenhouse.

Working on the principle that you would not wish to see pictures of a damaged greenhouse, I thought I'd offer you photographs of three Dartmoor Tors taken at this time of the year.
Being honest, it is way beyond economical repair and is there any point? When we moved in I had no idea of just how that corner of the garden would be hit by the wind. I should have realised. There are two 'internal' hedges in the garden which I assumed were there for decoration or, possibly, to make parts of the garden more private. Not so. I am now convinced they are there to protect the house from those winds but, as I am sure you will have guessed, the place where the greenhouse was erected is on the wrong side of one of those hedges and the other one is not long enough to offer it much protection. We both feel that we need something more sturdy but the question is what. Cheap - well reasonably cheap - would be to take down what is left of the greenhouse and put up a polytunnel. I have been trying to find out how sturdy they are and it seems from what I have read that these are actually sturdier than greenhouses.


Well, we shall see what will happen. The polytunnel should be here next Friday and then it will have to wait until Ben (who helps us in the garden) can find time to come and put it up. I shall keep you informed.


Meanwhile in the field behind the house there is something very odd going on. Two herring gulls are behaving as if they are intending to breed. We are, of course, quite a long way from the sea but you will always see gulls in Totnes (at the head of the tidal part of the River Dart) and there is a small flock that comes up here most days. Now, there is nothing unusual in that – they forage in the fields for whatever they can find – but a flock of herring gulls is just that: a group of gulls in which there is usually a typical ‘pecking order’ but in which the individuals tend to keep themselves to themselves getting quite cross if any other bird invades their personal space.

One of these two gulls on the lawn a few weeks ago.
Not so the two in the field. It seems they want nothing to do with that flock which, in any event, rarely comes into that particular field although it does visit the fields below the house. Added to that they are displaying most of the time and often touching (although I have yet to witness any mutual grooming). To make things even odder, neither appears to be at all submissive to the other – in other words a part of their usual display (where the hen bird crouches in front of the male in the hope that he will (a) not attack her and (b) will regurgitate some food for her to eat) is just not happening.


It is, I suppose, possible that they are muddled as to the time of the year or that they are two very mixed up youngsters (but in their adult plumage so not that young) engaging in a bit of experimental behavior. Perhaps it is just as well that we do not know the answers.
This chap was in the market place and you couldn't really see him against a very muddly background so I did away with it.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Hello Autumn

The River Dart upstream of the weir.
The autumn has arrived here on the River Dart and at Dartington Hall with temperatures dropping (but not that much) and some periods of nasty cold showers. Worst of all has been the wind which has been quite something - even though all the photographs here were taken on very quiet and still days.
We are now well south of Totnes/
If you walk down the path at the end of the lane, passing a couple of fields on your left which were planted with barley this year and are now lying fallow, you will find yourself on the banks of the River Dart. I would like to suggest that we all boarded a boat and I took you down the river but that is not possible: not far down stream there is a weir which maintains the water level above it. Once it provided a constant flow of water through a mill leat which fed Totnes Town Mill. Now there is a plan to build a small hydro-electric generating plant alongside it. Today it means your journey must begin on foot.


There is a delightful path that runs alongside the river which will take you down to the weir where you will find me waiting to pick you up in a nice safe work boat (of the sort that Roger uses when we go out together so that I can take photographs). Obviously I am assuming that we have agreed the time because it needs to be just about at the top of the tide.

A glimpse of Greenaway where Agatha Christie once lived.
The river winds a bit and I am not sure how far the journey is in terms of miles but it will take us about an hour and a half to reach the mouth of the river. Then as we head out to sea and clear the Mew Stone we shall see, away on our left to the east, Berry Head topped with a tall edifice that looks for all the world like a chimney. It’s not – it is called the ‘Day Marker’ because it carries no light and was built about two hundred years ago to make it easier to find the entrance to the River Dart. I have been delighted to see it on a number of trips.


All of which is only of interest because the other day the wind speeds as recorded on Berry Head exceeded 90 mph and some of the gusts when they hit us here were not far short of that. Thankfully no more trees came down near us but there was some damage done – our greenhouse took a battering and is in need of extensive repairs.

And here we are, back at Dartington Hall again.
But, wind or not, we are seeing some wonderful colours now. They do not compare with those you living in Canada will be enjoying but I am sure you will agree they are pretty gorgeous. Oddly, our native sycamore – a close relative to the Canadian Maple – offers no real visual delights in autumn: the leaves just turn a dull brown as the wither and fall.


This time last year we were without a real fire and we really did miss having one. Not so now: there is a cheerful fire in the sitting room in front of which, as soon as I have posted this blog, I shall sit as I enjoy a toasted tea-cake and, of course, a cup of tea.



All of which is making life very difficult for Marcia. In the other world in which she is presently spending most of her time it is late in spring with the result that when she decides to pay us mortals a quick visit she is shocked to find that nothing looks the way it should. 

These two whippets, Jet on the left and Minnie, belong to a budding young photographer called Thomas Freeman. They are seen here playing on the beach known as Slapton Sands near Torcross.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Boats

As some of you probably know, for most of my life my main physical activity has been messing about in boats. Usually these have been small sailing boats, sometimes motor boats of various sizes. Shortly after Marcia and I were married, I decided to take a bit of a plunge into the unknown. At the time I was writing a column for Yachts and Yachting which came out on a fortnightly basis – but was not providing enough to enable us to live. Then I signed a contract to write a book with David and Charles (a publishing house that has, I fear, gone the way of all flesh). This meant we could just about get by but the question was, how?

Well, the answer was to go afloat and spend the best part of the next year on our forty foot ketch – a very old, very rotten boat that needed a good deal of tender loving care to keep her afloat. The book was written in the tiny fore cabin on a triangular desk that at its widest was about thirty inches with a depth of about the same at which point it had no width at all.

It was great fun and despite many interesting moments I think neither of us regretted it – nor will either of us forget the first bath we had when we eventually went back to living ashore. It was at about this time that I started to write and present a short (fifteen minute) slot on Radio Devon all about what was happening in the sailing world. Some of the people I interviewed for that were extremely interesting – and some were disabled.

As a result, two things remain important to me: giving young people the chance to experience what it is like to be afloat and giving disabled people the opportunity to enjoy sailing.

Tony Sutton on the steps of the Himley Hall Sailing Club's cluhouse.
One friend of mine, Tony Sutton, is presently Commodore (the title given to the boss of all sailing clubs) of a very surprising sailing club. 

The lake with the hall in the background.
This club sails on what is known as “The Great Pool” in the grounds of Himley Hall, which stands on the site of the old manor house, once the home of the Lords of Dudley (and the place that Charles I spent the night before the battle of Naseby). In the 1740’s, this house was demolished (as was the entire village of Himley complete with the church) and a great house built. 


It was ‘Capability’ Brown who landscaped the gardens around the house which included what was then called ‘the great lake’. In passing, I suppose I should mention that the village and the church were rebuilt at the same time – but at a discreet distance from the house.

The clubhouse - and this is what Tony has to say about it. "Our clubhouse was the Earl of Dudley's boathouse and the very building where Edward, the Prince of Wales, and Mrs Simpson started their love affair. Older members say that they carved their initials into the ceiling beams but they have since been covered over with plasterboard. I keep meaning to find out where they did the carving. remove a sheet of plasterboard and put a sheet of glass in its place.
Then, after the second world war, the property came into public ownership (it is owned by Dudley District Council) and is used for a wide variety of events, conferences, weddings and so forth – and the great lake has become the home of Himley Hall Sailing Club (only being a modest bunch they call it a pool and not a lake). Certainly in terms of water surface area they must be one of the smallest clubs in the country and it would be difficult for them to be further from the sea as they are situated bang smack in the middle of the Midlands of England.


Having said that, they have a well-earned reputation for introducing youngsters to the water and in training them in all the things that matter when you are afloat. Indeed, the club is a recognised Royal Yachting Association training centre. My very best wishes to them: may they continue for many years to come.

Bruce in his natural habitat: on a boat - any boat - on the River Dart.
Then there is another friend, Bruce Symes. We used to sail together on the River Dart in years gone by and the greeting in his last Christmas Card says it all. ‘Still sailing – but very slowly’. What the card failed to say is that Bruce is heavily involved in ‘Dart Sailability’ which owns boats which have been modified to enable disabled people to sail in them and has hoist facilities for them on the pontoon at Noss on the River Dart where these boats are moored.

Manning the Bosun's Locker stall to raise money for Dart Sailability.
All of this costs a great deal of money and Bruce’s ‘thing’ is called ‘Bosun’s Box’. The idea is that they collect all sorts of boaty bits and pieces (even boats!) which they then sell – after refurbishing or whatever as required – at auctions and on eBay.

One of the fleet of boats owned by Dart Sailability out on the river.
So it is that while I spend most of my time hitting the keys on my computer there are two friends who are really doing things that are so worth while. In a world where there is so much going on that makes us want to weep, it is good to read about people who are doing something positive for their fellow men. I give you a toast: Tony and Bruce.



The blog dog this week answers to the name of Jago. Probably. Sometimes. When it suits him.


Friday, 7 November 2014

Beetles

Today, I fear, we are into zoology and in an area that I know is not one of your favourites: beetles.
It really has been an incredible year weather-wise. All our tubs and borders had 'gone over' and Marcia had given most of the plants in them a haircut. Then, suddenly, they were all in flower again - and the sun was shining - so here are a few November photographs from the garden.
When I was a boy, I suppose I was about fourteen at the time, I convinced myself that I was going to become a beetle expert and so I asked people for books on beetles when they wanted to know what I had in mind for my birthday. This was the first time I had expressed an interest in insects of any sort and so I received An Insect Book for the Pocket by Edmund Sanders which I though was rather good as I already had A Bird Book for the Pocket by the same author. Indeed, I have them still – the latter a poor over-used and battered edition whilst the former could well be described as “used but in excellent condition”.



The reason is simple: the official list of British Birds (which is maintained by the British Trust for Ornithology) has something in the order of 600 species (the figure changes as the list is kept up to date) and Sanders limited his collection to the more common of these. This degree of complexity fell within my abilities (only just but . . .).


The companion on insects however was a very different kettle of fish (not, perhaps, the happiest of phrases to choose in this context). As Sanders says in the Preface, ‘The “Books for the Pocket” hitherto issued in this series aim at describing all species as are of reasonably common occurrence in Britain. This meant about 200 birds, 50 beasts, 70 butterflies and 850 flowers. The insects present a totally different problem and nothing of the sort can be attempted’. An understatement if ever there was one. I was soon to learn that there are over 22,000 insect species living here of which at least 2,000 are beetles.

Clearly I was intended a bird watcher and not a bug hunter. Even so, I was tempted to buy a copy of Beetles in Colour by Leif Lyneborg when it was published as a part of the Blandford Colour Species. Here we are at least in the world of the possible as it restricts itself to the most common 475 species: possible is not the same as simple and I remain almost entirely ignorant when it comes to beetles (despite the fact that if I happen across one when ‘going equipped’ I am unable to resist the temptation to take its photograph).
Standing in the corner of the porch is my old hiking stick which has a leather wrist strop as you can see. Flying all around and sitting in ones and twos all over the house were the Harlequins but this little collection caught my eye and this picture shows how different they can look.
All this is simply because we here, on the Dartington Trust estate, were engulfed in huge numbers of beetles last week as they turned from pupae to adults. This lot are not all that welcome: they are the notorious Harlequin Ladybird (because their colouring is very varied) or, more properly, Harmonia axridis. In the US they are also known as the Halloween Lady or the Multi-coloured Asian Lady Beetle. Their larva are the ones that do most of the damage to other insects since they are rapacious carnivores who will eat anything – including both the larva and adults of their own species – not that their parents are much better.

Since they spend about a week as a pupa, I was surprised to see one of the larva walking down the stick. He (or could it be a she?) is out of focus - sorry about that - but was hurrying away and I only managed to get the one shot.
This is one of those examples of man interfering in nature: they were imported into the US from Asia in order to control aphids (especially on soya). As it happened the first introductions failed to become established but then the population exploded: these ladybirds have now colonised most of the globe which, if we are honest, they would no doubt have achieved without any direct help from us. With so much international trade and so many people travelling from one country to another it was bound to happen one day. Still, they don’t do much for our native ladybirds and other insects: gardeners in particular are always looking for ways of controlling them and so are housewives as they have a habit of hibernating in soft furnishings and curtains in particular. Me? No, I just take pictures of them.



The dogs are Eddie and Teddie. Like many spaniels who have been brought up properly, they proved to be incredibly obedient, alert and totally at one with the boss. Having said that I suspect they are as mad as teeth. I say that because all spaniels are as mad as teeth although some (Springers for example) are madder than others (such as Clumbers).