What I did on my holidays – the last day

Today was the most freezing, foggy, dismal day of the winter so far so this is a remedial blog taken from the journal of a holiday in St Lucia in the Caribbean.


“Well this is terrible planning on my part. Sitting by the window, J22 in a 747 with a bag of snorkels, facemasks, suncreams and assorted gifts at my feet, i-touch stowed, I suspect, in rucksack up above.

Captain Sensible’s next to me and a man with a gammy knee in the aisle seat because he has to stretch his knee. He seems to be studying – reading a book which looks like literature but has scribbled notes in the back with instructions such as ‘Re-read 16-22′. His writing is bad but hey I can’t talk. We are in seats with £30 worth of extra leg room. It’s £15 a leg and really they should have charged the guy on the end an extra £15 for sticking his foot out into the aisle.  Ok, maybe reduce that to a tenner for the times when the cabin crew are serving drinkies and pretzels and he has to withdraw his leg to let them pass. But he should definitely have to pay extra. Here I am writing with my knee up and my foot jammed – wedged, you might say – against the back of the woman in front’s arm rest.  But my other leg is stretched luxuriously under her seat. I can even wiggle my toes in my cosy red Virgin sock so I reckon that’s worth £15.

My in-flight entertainment centre is the gateway to a world of entertainment including what looks like a terrible Jack Black version of Gulliver’s travels (his best film ever was Tenacious D) .  I’ll pass on all that. The Gulliver film, admittedly without sound, looks rubbish. I liked Jack Black in School of Rock and the fact that he was upstaged by one little girl with freckles and buck teeth.

My bites – honestly you don’t expect to get bitten by mosquitoes in the bloody departure lounge – are large, red and itchy. I had quite nice shoulders until three hours ago in Hewenorra Airport.

So this morning looked promising – typical last day but good nevertheless. High broken cloud and at least 75 degrees at 9am.  Before the taxi journey to the airport, I snatched a final snorkel near the breakwater on the local beach. Just 45 minutes, good light but not great visibility in patches. Too much stuff in the water. Didn’t see anything new but did see a small eel head popping out of his hole – and then a much bigger eel head – so big that I have to admit, I swam away quickly.

I found whole new clumps of coral surrounded by and hosting loads of life and ventured into deeper waters without fear where much much bigger fish were down in the depths.

I glanced up and found I was much further out along the breakwater than I expected to be – and had five minutes to get back. I found some *real* swimming was required, which surprised and slightly concerned me. Bloody typical if, in the last hours of the holiday, I get swept out to sea! So after some determined swimming, I got past the current and into more settled and familiar waters again. A good lesson in being more aware when in unfamiliar waters.

Had lunch with a purple rain cocktail which tasted deceptively non-alcoholic (rum and blue curacao) and then left. I liked it overall. It would have been a good day for windsurfing but the sea was a little lively so again, didn’t chance it in case I sped out of control across the whole of Choc Bay.


And here we are 1.55am UK time, flying at 36,000′ above the Atlantic. Out of my window I see a layer of broken puffy clouds below and the moon reflected in the nearest jet engine, which looks smooth as slate-grey satin in the moonlight.

It’s all monochrome out there, save for the winking green light on the wing. And this whole miraculous experience is due to Sir Frank Whittle and his incredible new jet engine  – well it was new in May 1941 when the little Gloucester Aircraft Company jet plane made a 17 minute test flight from the airfield at Brockworth, Gloucestershire. “


A bit of video from the bay around the headland – not spectacular visuals but the noises picked up are from humpback whales.

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A comical signature dish

I’m used to watching Masterchef on TV and feeling teeny pangs of failure and regret, realising that “Oh noooo!” my mille feuille didn’t have enough layers or my tarte tartin should have been puff pastry not shortcrust.

To my deep and eternal chagrin, I haven’t yet made a croque-en-bouche and I’m never sure what to do with a whelk.

But unlike some of the contestants who, asked to create their Signature Dish, decide to cook something completely new which, by definition *cannot* be their Signature Dish, at least I have one.

My Signature Dish is a Beano Supper.  It has given rise to more excitement and joy than anything else I’ve ever cooked.

Ever since my tastebuds first went twang to the sight of the words “porridge with brown sugar and cream” and “lashings of gingerbeer” in Enid Blyton stories, I have been bewitched by the thought of literary food.  I’ve recreated many a Famous Five-style picnic with the use of a wicker picnic basket I was given for my 18th birthday.

I wanted to try Just William’s gobstoppers and Paddington’s marmalade sandwiches and Winnie-the-Pooh’s honey (best on hot muffins), not to mention the midnight tuck feasts beloved by the gels of Mallory Towers.

While older members of my family – my uncle Jeff, mainly, get all misty-eyed and delighted if I cook a Desperate Dan Cow Pie, my two boys loved the Beano and the Dandy comics – so the height of their culinary excitement was a Beano supper.

A mould of King Edward potatoes, mashed until with butter and a little milk would stand, well-fluffed, in the middle of a large plate.  Glossy, freshly sizzled sausages would be jammed into the mash mound from all angles, and a moat of tomato ketchup would flow moat-like around the edge of the dish.

What followed was olde-style feasting with forks, very little finesse but a lot of fun.

I’m pretty confident that I’ve got my Signature Dish to myself and you’ll never see one on Masterchef because, face it, no-one ever got a Michelin star for a Beano Supper.


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A shot in the dark





It was achieved by me, in the spare bedroom in pitch darkness, with two box files balanced on top of each other, covered by a black pashmina with a desk lamp behind and a glass of merlot standing in front.

It also involved a Canon700D on a tripod held on my lap as I perched on the bed trying to keep it as still as poss as I had a 2.0 second shutter speed, f5.6 and and ISO of 100.

The colour is more to do with the pink box files than the wine.

So that was my photography class homework. Oh.. and I had to drink the wine.


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Christmess time

You can tell we’ve entered the season of Goodwill, Boundless Bling and Over-indulgence when festive Christmas tree pictures are featured in the newspapers.

Today’s tree was from Bradford-on-Avon where it’s reported that the poor long-suffering residents had to endure a boring tree last year.

What could be boring about a Christmas tree?  Just the natural tree? The spines not sharp enough to keep the attention if you accidentally stab yourself with them? The green too dull?  Pre-war baubles and not enough lights?

I’ve no idea but whatever was wrong with last year’s Bradford-on-Avon tree has been eclipsed by the compleat dog’s dinner that is this year’s tree.

It’s a tree designed to put the “mess” into Christmess and described as “an explosion in a rag factory.”

The shopkeeper who decorated it, Andrew Allen says “We wanted to do something big and bright and something different and eye-catching.”

Can’t fault him on that.

It’s been vertically strewn with garlands that hang down like emergency escape routes for the fairy on the top – only there isn’t a fairy. If there was one she’d be able to abseil down the sturdy decorations in the event of fire.

The colours are red and a terrible eau de nil green. There are also hearts and a few mysterious baubles on the tree which look as though they have been fired at short range at the tree, then fixed where they landed.

It has all the symmetry and discipline of a hurricane.

Mr Allen said “I think it’s easy to criticise and easy to point at something that’s different and maybe something too soon for a conservative town.

“But, the kids love it and Christmas is for the kids. There’s too much misery in the world.”

I can’t help thinking that he should have left it to a  bunch of five-year-olds.

The very *dreadfulness* of the tree meant it was tweeted and facebooked all around the world and back. A lot of people in many different countries now know about Bradford-on-Avon’s tree.

So what did they do? Instead of basking in infamy and dubious glory, the people of Bradford-on-Avon have redecorated the tree, taken down all the gaudy vertical streamers and made it into a dull tree to rival last year’s.

They have ruined my plan to launch a seasonal business called “Shit Christmess Tours” with the Bradford-on-Avon tree as the highlight of the trip.

We could have started opposite my house, where the neighbours run a a thick cable of blue/yellow chasing lights across the top of their garage and then throw it haphazardly over their hedge.

We could have stopped in Bath where I once saw a little Christmas tableau of creatures who had been left out in the sun, wind and rain for about ten years and had completely lost their colour and many of their eyes and then we could have paid proper homage to the shit tree in Bradford-on-Avon.

But the Christmess tree has been dumbed down to the standard of last year’s boring tree, so the Tour is off.

The Mayor John Potter, said it was “a shame” the tree had been altered.

“We’ve toned it all down now. It was rather flamboyant. Perhaps rather too flamboyant for Bradford-on-Avon.”

I rather agree. At Christmess time, we like mistletoe and a good whine.






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I’m sorry I’m not here to take your call…

Repost from long, long ago.. includes one of my favourite memories of mater.



Sorry I’m not here to take your call….if you’d like to leave a message after the tone I’ll ring you as soon as I can.”

This isn’t a blog about answering machines. They are old technology now and besides, it’s been done to death the way you can tell personality types or social status from the kind of greeting message people leave.

The standard BT message, after all, belongs to the traditional reserved middle-class person who takes themselves very seriously and wishes to avoid revealing anything remotely personal.

Not for them the kooky family messages “You have reached the Mad House!!! Rory and Steph must be out doing the taxi service for Adam and Sophie. Either that or the kids have finally left home and we are comatose on Tesco’s Finest chardonnay.”

It’s more about the messages people leave.  Some are normal, businesslike and to-the-point. There are others, of course, where you hear nothing but the Click of Frustration or a long protracted sigh and a muttered “not there AGAIN….”

Best of all are the messages where people treat the answering machine as a mute friend. My machine would record for 30 minutes if necessary, which was just right for my late lamented mumsie.

Her messages were epic; easily as long as our conversation would have lasted had I been there – occasionally longer.

It wasn’t that she enjoyed the sound of her own voice. She always began with vital  information to impart and once in full spate, savoured the freedom of not being interrupted.

Her monologue would ebb and flow as she paused briefly to collect her thoughts, and she delivered those thoughts interspersed with real-time observations about her immediate environment.

Because the phone point was still in the hallway (in its original location from the mid-sixties) mater could answer the door, collect post from the postman and continue her voicemail thread in a seamless flow.

Being Welsh, she was effortlessly articulate and never lost for conversation, especially when no-one else was involved.

“Janie?  Are you there? It’s only me…” she’d start.

“Oh.  (pause)  Maybe you’re in the garden. (pause)  But hang on. Ah.  It’s only 9.30am. Maybe you’re still out with the dog. Oh well. (sigh,  pause….. longer sigh)  I’ll talk to you later.  I’ve been up since 5.30am. Done everything. Seems like lunchtime already. Ray is picking me up at 11.30 and we’re off to Moreton market. Let  me know if there’s anything you’d like me to get?

“Anyway, I only wanted to remind you about Aunty Joan’s birthday. It’s Saturday. We usually just send a card. She never buys anything so don’t feel you have to. We don’t want to start anything now. Anyway, I’ve got her a nice make-up bag. You needn’t get anything though. The last present she bought for you was when you were seven before we left Llanfach.

“Aunty Glad’s never forgotten your birthday. She’s always spelled your name with an extra ‘n’ but I never had the heart to put her right and it’s too late now, forty or so years on. Anyway, it’s not as if you mind.

“I forgot to tell you a horrible black labrador attacked our Buster yesterday. Bloody owner let it off and it came after Buster like grease lightning. I lashed out at it but kicked a tree. My toe’s in agony but Buster had him. I’m still shaking now…”

………and so on and so on.

I especially enjoyed it when she switched into real-time commentary to describe a sudden on-going event.

“Oh!  Hang on. (pause)  I’m sure that’s Ken’s car.  What’s he doing here?  Ken’s car’s just pulled up across the road. He must be back. I told you, didn’t I,  that I saw him leaving with his suitcases three weeks ago?  Josie left them outside. She’d changed the locks by then.

“She hasn’t mentioned she’s expecting him back. Oh dear.  I’d better go over later and make sure she’s all right….”  etc

Absolutely the best voicemails.  They always made me smile.  The prosaic and the funny alongside the drama, the reminders, veiled criticisms, veiled sadnesses, the  uncertainties, the diary dates, the disappointments were all there.  Mater’s monologues could knock spots off anything Alan Bennett ever produced because hers were utterly heartfelt and authentic.

Just occasionally, there would be a gem. Like the day the milkman called.

Mumsie was leaving me a complex message about holiday arrangements (she was dog-sitting for me and needed to know precisely how many pigs’ ears a day would be required for Rolls) when the doorbell rang.

“Hang on. Milkman,” she said, clunking the phone down on the hall table.

I knew she’d opened the front door because of the jangle of the security chain. I heard her trill to the milkman “Hello. Yes. Won’t be a second. I’ll just go and get my purse. I’m on the phone.”

Footsteps to kitchen and back to door followed by prolonged jangling of security chain.

“Oh no.  Sorry about this. Can’t get the chain off. It’s tangled.”

I could hear the milkman’s mumbled voice.

“S’ok. I’ll wait.”

“How much do I owe you anyway?”  More fevered jangling of metal.

“Thirty-six pounds forty-two pence.”


Noisy struggles continued.

“I’m so sorry about this.”

Mater began to giggle apologetically.

“I dont know what’s going on here. I seem to be making it worse. The chain’s getting tighter and the gap’s getting narrower and narrower…”

“This is ridiculous!”  She snorted with laughter.

“I’m so sorry. I can hardly see you now……..I’ll just have to post the money through the crack.

“Can you take it?  Can you see the ten pound note yet?

Milkman, laughing now: “I thought it was a fiver but yes, I can see the edge.  Shall I grab it and pull?”

Mother, giggling hopelessly :  “It’s this stupid chain. It’s got a mind of its own.

“Here comes the second ten pound note…got it?”

The milkman was choking with laughter. They both were.

“Got that?  Here’s the last one…  Coming through.  No, hold on, the edge keeps curling up. I’m trying my best to stuff it through….”

In a lull between hysterics, I just catch the milkman’s voice. He sounds exhausted.

“Tell you what, Mrs R,  let’s call it quits at thirty quid.

“We’ll leave the change until next time.  I can’t take any more of this. You’ve made my morning, though. See you.”

Mother finally regains her compusure and picks up the phone again.

“Oh my god, J. Did you hear that?  That was embarrassing.  He’s usually a bit miserable but we were both doubled up.  Oh dear.

“Right. I absolutely must go now  (said in an accusing tone that indicated that I had been keeping her!!)

“I’ve got to get this damn security chain undone before anyone else comes to the door.”

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Non è Pussibile!

You wouldn’t have thought it was possible, would you, that within a week of Leo’s horrible abcess healing up, he’d have another one?

I wouldn’t but then I keep under-estimating the nastiness of Big Ginge.

I’m already administering eye drops to the Leonine patient at the moment but this morning he’d grown a fat cheek. What with that and his half closed eye, he gave all the impression of being a bit of a toughie… the kind of battling cat who’s fought more rounds with opponents than he cares to remember and is sporting his battle scars with pride.

But I know he’s a complete wimp who cowers and flinches like a great fur-covered lump of trembling jelly under BG’s devastatingly effective attacks, often in our own garden.

This latest injury is a tooth wound from a bite right under his eye.

As the vet said this evening, giving Leo another shot of antibiotics and nonchalantly squeezing more gross green stuff out of the boy’s face “In a fight, Big Ginge has two big advantages over Leo…. “

Yup, because I had Leo’s taken off, poor boy.

But the visit to Derry the vet was both successful and a relief – although Leo didn’t think much of it – and I had a pleasant chat with a young man in the waiting room.

He was aged 6 or 7, wearing his red school sweatshirt and very proud of the sweet little ginger tabby in his cat box.

He brought his cat box, containing wide-eyed Nimbus, over to my side of the waiting room and put it down so Nimbus could meet Leo.

“Your cat is ignoring Nimbus!” he complained  “He’s looking at me not the kitten!”

I told him he was more interesting.

“I don’t own the kitten. He’s my brother’s,” the boy explained.  I liked it that he’d named him after a cloud but the boy hadn’t heard of the cloud – only the kitten.

The boy said he had been teaching the kitten tricks – like walking on the ceiling.

“That sounds quite hard,” I said.

“You just put him on the curtain and he goes up,” said the boy, matter-of-factly.

I told him I’d only taught my cat one trick. The sit and beg.

“How did you do that?”

“With cheese.”

The boy liked the fact that Leo is partial to cheese. He was expecting fish to be a good training aid.

The boy thought for a moment and asked “Does he do anything else? Can’t you teach him to stand?”

He does that a lot of the time anyway , I said. It didn’t seem special enough for a trick.

The boy was getting a shade bored so he upped the ante and announced “Oh I’m teaching Nimbus *millions* of tricks!”

Then Nimbus got called into the vet’s surgery to get his second lot of jabs.

“BYE  LEO!” said the boy, picking up his little cat box and bashing it against the side of the magazine table and then hitting the door jamb as he took teeny, wide-eyed and no doubt a bit worried, Nimbus into the surgery.

His dad, who had been reading a magazine and ignoring out chat, looked at me and rolled his eyes.




Posted in Cats, Current Affairs, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Food photography: my own, personal cheesus

There’s an obvious advantage to taking photographs of food.  This explains why I’ve just had some Jarlsberg, some Cornish Yarg and a small glass of port.

It had to be done to help tidy up the remains of my photographic set.  Now I’m nicely mellow not to say gently matured, I will admit that I really enjoyed photography class tonight.

There’s something exciting about a photographic studio – the selection of lights, the cables running all over the place and the general untidiness with light boxes here, tables there and weird stuff one can only hazard a guess at.

It’s only the third time we’ve used the studio at the college but this time I had a greater command of my tripod and camera and I’m starting to realise things about angles and composition, although I still don’t pretend to be much cop.

My classmate had brought some of her home-grown veg and a little basket so we artfully arranged them ie placed them so they didn’t roll off the table.  I held what looked like a white mob cap over one of the lights to diffuse it a bit and we snapped away.

Then it was time for me to unveil the cheeses. Cornish Yarg, Welsh Brie (it’s unlikely but true) and a chunk of splendidly holey Jarlsberg. When I was buying it, I joked to the woman that I was paying for quite a lot of air.

She replied “Yes – I had a woman here last week who asked me to cut her a piece without the holes!”

Under the hot lights, my own personal cheeses starting to whiff appetisingly and, to be honest the Jarlsberg seemed to be having a hot flush but the grapes remained blushfully beautiful.

Other students had set up their own foodie compositions. There was a row of luscious cupcakes on a long piece of slate sprinkled with icing sugar, a baby panettone on its own and best of all, some oranges and an apple on a display lit from beneath.

The lighting created a whole lot of quite extraordinary effects and reflections which were fascinating. It’s quite amazing how adjustments in aperture and speed can transform an image – and that’s without the added element of moving the position of the camera lens.

It was absorbing stuff and thinking about it takes me back to my first visit to a darkroom back in the days of Rolleiflexes and Mamiyas and Hasselblads.  It was in the Western Daily Press office in Gloucester and the photographer – a very experienced guy called Geoff Benger – showed me around.  I don’t know why they didn’t call it a red room because it was mostly red in there from the bulb hanging in the centre of the room.

I’ll never forget the wonderment of seeing a photo of myself materialising from a blank piece of white paper in a large tray of developer and finally Geoff hanging it up to dry.  It was a world away from taking pics with my Kodak Instamatic and taking them into Boots.










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