Friday, 17 October 2014

Of Mice and Men

Mice have featured more than usual in our lives this week. Mice in the wrong place, that is: house mice (Mus musculus) in one of the cupboards in the kitchen in which we keep food to be specific. I have a very soft spot for mice but I am not entirely sure they would have been very welcome even if they had been field or wood mice (Apodemus sylvaticus to remove any confusion) which I find much more attractive.

Years ago, when we lived about a thousand foot above sea level on the cliffs to the south of Boscastle (on the North Cornish coast) we were having a new five bar gate put in. The holes for the posts had been dug by a chap from the village – the usual three foot deep and about six inches in diameter but he did this by hand using only a crowbar and a spade with a very narrow blade shaped a bit like a hand trowel. Nowadays the usual tool is a power auger on the back of a tractor.

These holes were covered with bits of slate held down with stones to keep small animals out but the next morning we found two dead dormice in the bottom of one of them. The problem with these little creatures is that they have to eat a great deal to keep going as the smaller you are the more body heat you lose and so the more calories you have to take on board to keep going. It is probable that these two died of hypothermia.

Anyway, since I hate killing things unless there is a very good reason, I use live traps and then let the little critters go some place away from houses.


This is the live trap I use. There were two mice in it and I am about to let them out on our way from Dartington to Dartmouth where Marcia was to sign books in the community bookshop (more on this below). Also below is a short video I took this morning showing the one we caught last night eventually trotting odff into the blue yonder.


Just before we left I received an email from Naomi Bates who lives in Australia. Attached to that was this picture of a lizard - a blue-tongued lizard or Tiliqua scincoides scincoides to be precise. 


Then, to our great surprise, as we walked from the car park in Dartmouth there, on the path, was a slow worm, Anguis fragilis, which is also a lizard even though it looks like a snake. We have one in the garden at Dartington but I don't see it very often and have never been able to take a photograph.

Years ago - and many more than I care to think about, we lived quite near to Christopher Robin Milne, the son of A A Milne and the muse for the books that featured Pooh, Piglest and the other inhabitants of the forest. At that time he owned the Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth. In due course he sold the shop to Rowland Abram and one of his assistants was Andrea Saunders. 

Then, as happens, the bookshop closed down and Dartmouth became yet another town in which there was no place to go and browse the shelves and chat to the staff about books.

Andrea Saunders with Marcia in the Dartmouth Community Bookshop'
Not for long. It was decided that the answer was to create a bookshop that was run by the community on a not-for-profit basis and that the right person to run it was none other than Andrea with over twenty-five years of experience of the reading habits of locals and tourists alike. I am delighted to say that this project is a great success - in part due to the fact that there are so many people willing to work there on a voluntary basis. What is especially encouraging is that, while other bookshops are closing, this one is planning to expand into a small courtyard at the rear of the shop.


This is a wonderful model - and you can read all about it on their website - and I do hope that other communities take note and see whether or not they can create something similar.

video


Obviously this chap has a nautical owner. Two leads: a red one to attach him to port (as above) and a green one to starboard.




Friday, 10 October 2014

A Tale of two Claires

Titles are difficult - finding a title of a book and then writing the blurb that goes with it seem to be almost as difficult as writing the book in the first place but this title came to me and now you can see why.


The Claire in the top picture has been working at the book shop at Roman Gate in Exeter for as long as Marcia has been writing and so they have known each other for a very long time. In those early days the shop belonged to Dillons (a book store-cum-chain with an interesting history - next week, perhaps?) but it is now one of the Waterstone outlets.
The other Claire, who works in Exeter, is already known to some of you: she takes photographs of moths which she sends to me in the hope that I shall know what sort it happens to be and which I put up om this blog.
What I wrote last week about neonies was misleading although I didn't realise that at the time.

This matter of the use of insecticides is never as simple as it sounds and it could well be that the EU has this one wrong and the UK was right to vote against the ban on neonicotinoids. Th EU argument is that this insecticide damages the pollinating insects that we need – this decision was based on laboratory tests that exposed bees and other pollinators to far higher levels of neonies than they would experience in the field and at those levels it was, not unsurprisingly, lethal.
Marcia with our old friend Peter Kingsman - to whom Indian Summer is dedicated - having a moment in the Bedford Hotel in Tavistock.
The main need is for something that deals with insects such as the flea beetles that can and do destroy the very plants that produce the pollen on which the bees live – crops such as rape – and, crucially, flea beetles have become resistant to pyrethroids (the insecticide that was to be replaced by neonicotinoid) with the result that over half the crop here in the UK failed before coming into flower. This resulted in less food for the bees: many colonies have raised fewer progeny and are in serious danger of being unable to make it through the winter. Thus the ban on neonies has effectively halved the bee population in areas where they rely on farmers to provide them with their food. Isn't life complicated?

My Friday blog is not the place to explore this subject in detail but I thought I ought to put the record right. As I remarked above, this subject (like fracking and a few others) is never simple but there is one common denominator: the debates about them tend to create a lot more heat than light,

As a result, I have been thinking about pollination quite a lot since last week and especially about the way in which plants spend so much energy in producing flowers designed to attract insects. Nature, in this case, is truly profligate as the following photographs demostrate.


There seems to be a parallel here between nature putting huge energy into producing a display that has a fairly short life and writing. It takes Marcia about a year to write a book – and then there is the work carried out by her editors, the copy editor, the production team, distribution network and the booksellers. How long does it take to read one of her novels? Certainly less than a week. The argument gets rather muddled because there are, of course, many thousands of readers and many of those readers read each novel quite a few times.


It has taken about five years to finish Marcia's Willett's West County which is utterly ridiculous when you consider that we are talking about a very slim volume (just over a hundred pages) where about 25% is taken up with photographs. I just hope some of you will enjoy reading it when it comes out. All the files have been delivered to the printer and publication day will be 30 October. This last week has passed in a bit of a whirl as I was determined to finish everything before I went to bed last night. Very pleased to say that I managed to achieve that but everything else went by the board.


One of the casualties has been the garden. It would have been good to have finished “putting it to bed” for the winter while the weather stayed fine but that just didn't happen – the Indian Summer we have been enjoying broke with a vengeance shortly after Indian Summer was published. I blame Marcia.

Sadly I have no idea what this chap is called but there is something about that solid - even stolid - stance of these terriers that always appeals to me. "Come on world," they say, "I'm ready for you!"




Friday, 3 October 2014

The Indian Summer Ends

Why the title? Well, the weather is breaking and now we are about to be plunged into autumn,


May I say how much Marcia and I enjoyed reading your various comments last week. She is, of course, thrilled to feel that she has created characters that readers feel are real (and, being Marcia, never fails to be amazed when people say so). Anyway, just for fun: any thoughts on the way that Honor Trevannion coped with the various predicaments that life strew in her path?

Marcia signing books in the Totnes Bookshop and, below, with Cliff Shephard the shop's manager.
The moth I showed you last week is known as Angel Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa): my thanks both to Joy in Delaware and, on this side of the Atlantic to John Lockwood in Warwickshire for identifying it for me. The adult is no problem but the larva are generally considered to be a garden pest as they feed on a wide variety of foliage and flower buds. So there you have it – do you value your plants more or the occasional and rather delightful moments when you see the adult in all its glory? The Royal Horticultural Society suggests either torchlight sorties during which you remove the larva by hand (and then what?) or using a chemical pesticide. Personally I am rather against using pesticides: in part because it seems simply wrong and in part because you don't know who is harmed by them (including, of course, people).
While Marcia was signing books, this immature herring gull was enjoying a spot of lunch just up the road. Was he stealing some cat's lunch or had someone put this out for him in a cat bowl?
Which leads me on to think about the role of insects generally in our lives – a role that I fear is somewhat overlooked. There has been a collapse in the bee population here in the UK. This matters as bees (and other insects) are vital for the pollination of many of our crops. It seems that the decline started in the 1990's with the introduction of neonicotinoids – a group of pesticides. Although there is no actual proof that these are directly responsible for the population crash, the timing must make it real possibility.

It is, of course, always tricky to be sure as to what causes what since that was about the time when in the UK we started to introduce a more intensive form of agriculture which included monoculture which destroyed many habitats that were bee (and other insect) friendly.

Back in the spring of 2013 the European Union banned the use of certain insecticides – but was that a wise decision? Ignoring any feelings we may have for the insects themselves, it is, I suppose a matter of balance. On the one side is the loss of potential food as a result of damage caused by insects – on the other is the loss of pollinators such as bees resulting in lower crop yields. I am glad that the EU imposed this ban and rather ashamed that the UK voted against it but I think that says more about me than anything else.

Causation: a very interesting subject and one that crops up when Marcia and I are talking about whatever it is we are writing about (be that her novels or some of the hacky stuff I am working on). It rather matters and I suspect that not taking causation seriously enough is the cause of much that is written that doesn't quite work.
The other day we visited the Two Bridges on Dartmoor because Marcia had a feeling that her new group of people might meet there. It was a fruitless trip as it happens - she drew a blank. Meanwhile the hotel's little flock of geese appeared and one of them plonked itself down in a way I have never seen before - so I took his (or, of course, hers as the case may be) portrait.
Why, to take a recent example, did Tristan behave the way he did? Well, by the time we get to the end of Postcards we know the answer to that question. The important thing is that Marcia knew from the outset what made him what he was and so he was, throughout, a fully rounded character. Thus it is that she (or we) delve back into the history of all the people that appear on the page (and quite a few who don't but who would have been an influence on those who do).

This applies not only to the people but to the landscapes as well. I have often mentioned that Marcia will 'see' a given location which will include certain objects – a certain sort of house, plants, a view, a river and so on – and then we have to try to find out why such objects exist where they are placed. In the end (and this is another of those mysteries) it will come together and everything ends up making sense. Getting there, however, can be fraught.

It's a bit like that when I'm writing what I think is best described as 'cod history': chatty and informative but with no pretensions to be taken as serious history. The intention to give a feel of a certain place over a given period of time. First of all, of course, it has to be honest (which means accurate) but after that it all depends on why the history is being written. This is in my mind, of course, because I have just finished the Dartmouth book and am starting on Marcia Willett's Tavistock. Although I have often written and talked about the history of Dartmouth (and a few other parts of Devon including Dartmoor) as it happens Tavistock has not been one of them so I am starting from square one.
Since I expect that most of you are now into Indian Summer, I thought you might like this picture of Haytor.
Going as far into the past as I can I discover that there is a suggestion (I have yet to find definitive proof of this) that there was an earthwork about mile to the north east of the centre of the town which would seem to be about four thousand years old. At the end of the day this earthwork may or may not be mentioned in the book. If it is, it may be no more than a sentence and certainly no more than a couple of paragraphs.

Meanwhile, this small hill which seems to have been built by human hands will occupy my thoughts for some time as I trawl through all sorts of information in books and on the internet in an attempt to answer three questions which are dominating my thoughts at the moment: who built it, what was it and why was it built? All of which is, of course, summed up in one word: causation.

As I write this, Marcia is doing something similar as she probes into the past, the present and, indeed, the future of some of the people occupying her mind. One thing is for sure: unlike my people, none of them will bear the labels of Briton, Celt, Saxon or Norman.

This extraordinarily charming chap answers to the name of Leo. He is a Dutch Partridge Dog – a breed unknown to me. It seems that they are far more popular in the US than they are here in the UK. Having read up what I can about the breed I am sorely tempted – but I shall have to fight the temptation as we really have decided that there will be no more dogs. Honestly. Probably.




Friday, 26 September 2014

Let the signings begin

There had been some rain overnight.

With my gardening hat on, this was a very good thing. For weeks now we have been lugging watering cans around. My habit of keeping the garden as colourful as possible by using pots which are moved about in rotation doesn't help.

With my husband-of-a-novelist hat on, it was not quite so jolly. Today is day one of the signings (yesterday having been publication day) and it would have been more cheerful if the sun had been shining when we woke up. The plan was that at 9.30, Chris (the Random House rep for the South West) would arrive to take her off to Kingsbridge (Harbour Book Shop) and then bring her back to Totnes for this afternoon's session. These two are our most local bookshops and so this is the easiest day.

Down for breakfast. Marcia is just serving up the porridge.

'Have you written the blog?' she asked. There was a long silence.

'No.'

'Are you telling me that you forgot all about it?'

'Yes.'

'So what are you going to write about?'

'No idea.'

And, if I am honest I still have no idea. It has been 'one of those weeks' with a number of things colliding and so making sensible and cohesive thought rather difficult.

Marcia picked the last of the sweet peas. Back at the Hermitage the last was in October but not here this year. What I don't know is whether this is because we have had such a long and sunny summer with no rain (although I have kept watering them) or because we are about five hundred feet lower which means generally warmer. For the record, I sowed the first of the seeds for next year's plants a few days ago.
Marcia is in full flood with her new characters and is desperate to find out where they meet and so on. On Tuesday she disappeared to drive off on her own and then, on Wednesday, she wanted me to go with her on another trip during which we found the location of the main house in the story and then discovered that one of the places we had visited before and Marcia felt would be important probably isn't. However, late on we had another couple of ideas but it was too late to investigate them properly so yesterday she set off again – only to draw a blank in both cases.

Found this guy on the car the other morning. He (or she, of course, as the case may be) is rather splendid. Haven't had time to identify him (so all ideas welcome).
'Isn't it odd,' she remarked. 'You just can't make characters go to places you want them to unless they want to as well. It's silly really. Why can't I just tell them what I want them to do?'

I think the answer to that question is that she creates such full and rounded characters that they do have very strong personalities of their own and then cannot be persuaded to do anything that is out of character.


Marcia and I walked around the gardens here at Dartington Hall the other day. All very autumnal now.
Meanwhile, I have been finishing off what was intended to be an ebook – only to find that it just doesn't work the way I wanted it to. The technology for including lots of photographs, illustrations and so on in ebooks is very new. Sadly the results are really not that clever. Anyway, come Thursday and I was convinced that we had to return to 'plan A' – a printed version rather than an electronic one. The result was that I spent yesterday tweaking the book so as to prepare it for the printers (a job I finished late in the evening) and, as a result, I completely forgot to even think about the blog.


The schedule now is straightforward. As soon as I have finished this I shall print off a copy and over the next couple of days that will be proof-read. With any luck I shall be in the printers on Tuesday and then we shall have a better idea of when it will be ready.

If I am honest, I am quite pleased. It may be possible to republish it as an ebook at some future date but really I feel this is better as a 'proper book'.

Barney may look a bit fierce but he's just a real softy.
We had an intense love-in after I had taken his photograph.








Friday, 19 September 2014

A Storm Tossed Coast

This week we decided to drive down to the coast. Two reasons: Marcia has been making a few tiny changes to the book in production (that is the one that will be published in 2015) and wanted to check to make sure that these were right and I needed a couple of photographs for this seemingly never ending saga on books about Marcia's books. It seemed logical to combine these two requirements and so we set off for Dartmouth and across to Torcross in order to meet the first part of the job and then on to Lannacombe just the other side of Start Point so that I could do my bit.

Even now, after all these years, I am astonished at how thorough Marcia is: in the past I have said that if she records that such-and-such a flower is out on such-and-such a day at such-and-such it is because she has been there and seen it with her own eyes. Well, here she was being thorough once again – not that she needed to bother as her memory had proved to be absolutely spot on.

In so far as any of Marcia's books are set in a given time (and most of them are although there is no direct reference to exact dates), this book is set in the autumn of 2013 – and finishes just before Christmas. Then, in the following February, storms hit the south coast and caused a great deal of damage not only to property but to many businesses in the area.

This was the first time we had come down to the coast since those storms (to Dartmouth, yes, but not along the coast) and there is still ample evidence of those 'extreme weather events' as our politically correct weather forecasters insist on describing them – a very bad habit that has been taken up by the media generally. A gale is a gale, a storm is a storm, the tail end of a hurricane is the tail end of a hurricane and heavy rain is, well, heavy rain. Still . . .


We stopped briefly in the car park in Torcross line where we, too, enjoyed ice creams. It is interesting to remember that when I started driving the road was slightly to the seaward side of this car park and had to be realigned inland after heavy storms in 2001 undermined the road's foundations. Well, the same thing happened again but this time, fortunately, it was only the car park that suffered. Last year the cars nearest the sea would have been parked facing the beach. Now the authorities have had to lay temporary wooden barriers to keep vehicles away from the edge, parking parallel to it. This problem is not going to go away and we can expect further damage to this shingle bank (for that is what it is) until, one day, it allows the sea to break through into the Ley behind it. This is not a question of “if” but of “when” and the best estimates are all placed in this century.

Then we passed The Boathouse. You may remember that I mentioned this place in my last blog of 2013 and showed you some pictures of it and the people who work in there.


Well, this is how it looks today. Having been battered by the waves – all the windows were broken and the seas surged into the building – a week or so later there was a devastating fire which left the property a total wreck. As you can see, it remains shrouded in scaffolding and canvas. It is hoped that they will be able to open in time for the 2015 season.


Much the same happened back in the 1970's when almost all the properties facing the sea in Torcross had to be rebuilt and a new sea wall was constructed which, or so it was thought at the time, would make sure the same thing never happened again.


And so to Lannacombe which has also changed completely. This was the cove that inspired “the cove” in Second Time Around. Here we have Marcia standing by the stream that runs down over the beach – a stream in which she played as a small child. So far so good.


Here we see that tons of large boulders have been piled at the top of the beach in the hope that they will take most of the power out of the waves. If this fails the house and, of course, the business operated from it which includes bed & breakfast and a camp site, will have to be relocated.


Meanwhile this photograph shows where the sea ripped away part of the cliff – where you can see the unweathered red sandstone. The South Coast Footpath runs just above it and it would not take more than another small cliff fall for that to become unsafe. Clearly the path could be rerouted but it would be a very expensive operation. My guess is that if there is further damage, the path between here and Start Point will be closed and people will have to walk inland which will be a long and rather boring detour.

However, despite all we had a very happy time revisiting these old haunts: haunts much alive with a number of Marcia's characters. Perhaps one day she will revisit the cove and find out what happened to the people living down there during the storms of February 2014.


Meet Martha – sometimes called Martha Tydfil – who also answers to the name of Monkey (that best describing her character).  

Friday, 12 September 2014

Morris Dancing in Dartmouth

May I start for apologising for the fact that I just did not find the time to reply to you comments last week. Must try and do better!

Many years ago, I found myself working alongside a chap called Ken Hudson. His spare time seemed to be divided by two very different activities. He refereed football matches (and there are few sports more popular than soccer in this country) and he was a member of the Dartington Morris Men – a Morris Side that is (as the name suggests) based in Dartington – (and there can be few activities less popular than Morris dancing in this country).

My friend Ken Hudson, left, with Robin Springett with the Royal Castle in the background.
After a while we both moved on as people do and we lost touch. That was about twenty-five years ago. Then, a week or so back we received a lovely surprise: a letter from him. Ken is still a member of the Dartington side but I have yet to ask whether he still referees the odd soccer match. I will next time I see him.

Adam Garland
Nobody really knows when Morris dancing as it is now practised started but there are written records dating back to the 1400's which mention them and then there is this from the mouth of another member of the Dartington side, Christopher Farr.


'According to hear-say in the Cotswold village where I was brought up (Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire) Morris Dancing first came to England in 1367 when the dance was brought back by troops in John of Gaunt's army after the battle of Najera, which is in Northern Spain.'.


This could well be the case (and some say the name derives from 'Moorish dancing' – Spain had been occupied by the Moors from about 700 ad until the mid-1700's and their influence is evident to this day both in architecture and culture. However it started, it is a tradition with a history of over five hundred years.


The Dartington Morris Men follow the Cotswold tradition (there are other slightly different traditions who practice different but similar dances) and so are member of The Morris Ring which is an association of the sides that follow the Cotswold way. The boss man in Morris Dancing is known as the 'Squire' and so it is that the top man in the Morris Ring carries that title. The Squire of the Ring serves for two years and then hands over to someone else over two events. The first is a feast during which the old Squire gives his successor the Chain of Office and the Badge. The second is a ritual during which the outgoing Squire dances himself out, the incoming Squire dances himself in and then receives the Staff from his predecessor.
On the left a retired rocket scientist (Jim Gailer) with a retired tree surgeon (Peter Metcalf). And what do they have in common?
They are both members of the Wessex Morris Men
Now it happens that Ken is the Squire of the Dartington side and another member of that side, Robin Springett, was the Squire of the Ring and his two year term was up last week-end. The Morris Ring members descended on Dartmouth for the week end: the feast was held on the Saturday evening and the second part of the ritual – the hand over to Adam Garland from the East Suffiolk Morris Men – took place on Sunday in the Royal Avenue Gardens.


Marcia and I toddled off down to Dartmouth to watch the proceedings and to enable me to take some video. Click here if you want to see that video.


Most countries have some form of traditional culture and most treasure it – but in England it is far from treasured. During one of the lulls, Marcia was chatting to Anthony Frost, a cabinet maker from Sherborne who belongs to the Wessex Morris Men, and they were wondering why that should be the case. In Ireland, Scotland and Wales the old traditions are being kept very firmly alive and it would be nice to think it was the same in England: perhaps it will become so once again.

Marcia with Anthony Frost
Final thought: everything comes out in a book sooner or later. I will leave you to brood on that.



Two dogs for the price of one this week. Please note: these are not just any old blog dogs - they are Morris Men Blog Dogs.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Requiem to a tree

We all know that when the wind speeds get up above about fifty miles per hour that we can expect damage – and especially to trees.

It is rather unfair to dig up the past, but those of us who watched the weather forecast on 15 July 1987 will remember a comment from Michael Fish who was presenting the programme.  'Earlier on today,' he said, 'a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you're watching, don't worry, there isn't'. Later that evening we were hit by a violent storm with gusts in excess of a hundred and twenty miles per hour tearing down power lines – and toppling trees many of which caused serious structural damage to buildings as the fell.

This is the earliest photograph of the tree that I have in my collection. It was taken by my sister-in-law in March 2004.
One odd outcome that followed that storm was that, over the next few weeks, the emergency services were sometimes overwhelmed by the accidents to people who, either because a tree was causing them problems or they decided there were opportunities to make a fast buck, bought themselves chainsaws to saw up the timber but, lacking experience, injured themselves – often quite badly.

Early April, 2014.
All of which brings me to the fact that what one does not expect is for a tree to fall when there hardly a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky. It has happened twice to my knowledge although I did not witness the actually fall in either case.

The last photograph I was to take of the tree, June 2014.
The first time was when we lived in Avonwick and a beech tree growing in the bank beside the lane than ran down the side of the house split in half, one half remaining upright and the other falling across the lane, blocking it but causing no injuries. We had had a period of dry weather and one of the local farmers told us that the rooks had deserted that tree a couple of years before. 'When rooks desert a tree,' he said, 'you know it's in trouble and the best thing to do is to have it down quick as you can.'


Then, the other day, the same thing happened to a pine here in Dartington. Again nobody was hurt. Anyway, the pictures tell the story and, as you can see, the tree is being sawn up. The smaller branches have been chipped and the chips used to create a soft bank over the steps leading to the rough area below down which the larger parts of the tree will be rolled by hand to where heavy lifting equipment can be brought.


Meanwhile I have news of another literary festival. This is on a completely different scale to Ways With Words or any of the other literary festivals. For a start you can attend the literary events (which take place during the day) free of charge although it will cost you five pounds to go along to the village hall and take in a couple of hours of musical entertainment in the evening.


The key to this festival (this is its fifth year) is that it ends up in a village hall. Quote from the website: 'The Charmouth Literary Festival is very much a village affair and we want you to enjoy a day of words and music in a relaxed easy manner, having the added advantage of being located in a beautiful place by the sea. Bring a picnic lunch if you wish, come with a friend or come alone and enjoy a literary day with a little night music.' Anyway, since I rather like the idea of small festivals of this sort, I thought I would tell you about it.

This wire-haired dachshund (a breed both of us love and one we are tempted to try out even though we have said 'no more dogs') answers to the name of Brian - unless, of course, he has other thoughts in his mind in which case . . .