August 31, 2008

Hurricane Gustav

Tonight’s other entry is the standard silliness.  But I wanted to say to anyone watching the skies, from home or from wherever they’ve evacuated you to . . . and whether or not you’re distracting yourself on line by a little light blog-reading and have any clue that there’s another fragment of immaterial support coming your way . . . we’re thinking of you.


Good luck.  Candles lit.  From where I’m sitting, Gustav is due to make landfall in a few hours—probably about the time I’m going to bed.  I’ll turn the radio on last thing and see if there’s any news.


Good luck. 

The poor old Wedding-Guest


The new web site was supposed to have been turned on by tonight at midnight and . . . doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.*  So I was going to post my FAQ answer to this question:


Q: What do you do with your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?


. . . as an explanation why the web site wasn’t going to get turned on by tonight at midnight (Blog/Webmom can only set up what I send her), and I did know this particular answer was kind of long, even in a FAQ full of rather long answers, but I’ve just copied and pasted it now and it’s . . . uh . . .

 It’s nine pages long. 

I’m not sure, can you get arrested for this kind of excessive behaviour?  I am reminded of the poor old Wedding-Guest:


He holds him with his glittering eye—

The Wedding-Guest stood still,

And listens like a three years’ child:

The Mariner hath his will.


The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone: 

He cannot choose but hear;

And thus spake on that ancient man,

The bright-eyed Mariner


. . . For about 200 stanzas.


Me Mariner.  You Jan—I mean Wedding-Guest.


So, hey, I’m going to get two entries out of it.  Tonight.  Tomorrow.  Having tomorrow more or less off will give me a little more time to get on with the rest of the FAQ.**


I admit that a lot of the following will look pretty familiar.  You can read me ranting about Not Enough Time and Doing Too Much nearly every flapdoodling day here on the blog, and furthermore all I’ve done is rewrite the out of date bits of the old FAQ answer.  But for anyone goofy enough to have read the old, shorter FAQ answer all the way through, the changes may prove instructive.  Somewhat depending on your definition of ‘instructive.’


* * *


Enter this answer at your own risk.  In fact it would be quite a good idea, before you come one word farther in, to leave a letter propped on the mantelpiece telling your nearest and dearest where to come looking for you if you get lost.  Not only do I do too much, I like talking about it. 


So the basic deal is, I don’t have any spare time, probably because I don’t have hobbies, I have obsessions. I don’t much like the word ‘hobby’ — as soon as you call something a ‘hobby’ it seems to me it loses all substance, all value, and becomes just something that sucks up some hours. Eating chocolate chip cookies or (re)watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a hobby (not simultaneously however: the human nervous system can only bear so much stimulation); cooking and gardening and bell-ringing and riding horses and playing the piano and practising homeopathy — and reading — are something else. (I’ve even been known to embroider pillow-cases and shirt- and cushion-fronts.) But can you have more than one, say, avocation? That sounds a little pretentious. So does Personal Enrichment Programme.  I do a lot of stuff with my time besides write books. A lot of the voluntary stuff (ie paying bills or going to the dentist are both necessary I suppose but not what I would call voluntary) also… feeds me. Feeds the person I am, which includes the writer who writes books and has a web site with a FAQ, and now an endlessly hungry blog.


(The last time I updated this, the list of obsessions included running and fencing:  if I have to choose, I’ll take homeopathy and the piano over running and fencing.  But I don’t have to like making these exclusionary choices.   My fencing teacher now lives in Burma or Singapore or some other exotic elsewhere, which helps, although I’m sure there’s a fencing club around here.   And I still have fantasies of running again—aside from every Sunday morning on the way to service ring at the church—although even if the ME let me, my knees probably wouldn’t.)


I feel however that my main problem isn’t that I’m an obsessive, it’s that the stupid day refuses to be any longer than twenty-four hours, week after week and year after year.  (What are our scientists doing, that they haven’t knocked a hole in this wall yet?)  There are quite a few other things I would be obsessive about too if someone would invent the tesseract soon, please. Photography. Rose breeding (as opposed to just growing phalanxes of the things). I’d probably breed carnivorous plants too, just because they are weird and fascinating. I have several waterproof cachepots of carnivorous plants big enough to take on house flies—the tallest sarracenia is as long as my arm, with pitcher-mouths as big around as a 50p piece, and a bright lime green—and one of my favourite sounds is that of trapped flies buzzing furiously in the throats of my beautiful pitcher plants as I walk past the kitchen window sill at the cottage.  I’m an ‘all critters are siblings’ wuss about most things—yes, of course I fish spiders out of the bath—but houseflies, mosquitoes (and rats) are the enemy. I rotate my carnivores, so none has to stay indoors too long.  They’re sun lovers.  (I also have a Venus flytrap so small it probably has to ask the pansies it usually sits next to for help when it tackles a gnat.  But it’s three years old and still producing infinitesimal fringed dumpling-shaped traps, so it’s eating something.)           


I’d take up sailing again.  (The tesseract has to bring a larger bank balance with it.) I’d have learnt to work on the MG myself, instead of girding my loins to sell her (sob).   I’d like more time for drawing—I’d like any time for drawing—and I’d like the excuse to buy some new watercolours;  I suspect the last lot have shrivelled up solid. I might conceivably take French lessons, since it’s French I theoretically learnt in school, and I am deeply embarrassed at being another of these self-centred English speakers who don’t feel they have to learn anybody else’s language. But I’ve never gotten very far doing anything on guilt and good intentions alone, so I’d have to turn out to like it, and I can’t do grammar and conjugations (shuuudder) in my own language.


I’d like to finish learning to knit. I’d like to learn to make clothes, with buttonholes and zippers and belt loops and all those exciting things, but my inherited sewing machine was previously owned by someone who did know how, and I was so demoralised knowing it despised me that I gave it away when we left the old house to someone with whom I hope it has a rich and happy relationship. I’d like to be able to make an origami crane that didn’t fall over. (Origami is very obsessive.) I’d like to learn pottery-making and silver-smithing and how to polish and set stones. I’d like to learn blacksmithing—swordsmithing!—and farriery, but my back wouldn’t take it even if my tesseract would.  And I would ride every day.  Twice a day.  I would start doing yoga again.  Once upon a long-ago time I could do headstands and the splits (not together).  I could also do a Sun Salutation that didn’t change every time I did it because I kept forgetting how it went. 


I would certainly read more. A lot more.


However I am taking piano lessons again.  I wasn’t going to.  I absolutely wasn’t going to.  The piano wasn’t just on but was indestructibly welded, with auxiliary bolts, onto the ‘I’m not going to get round to it this life, it’ll have to be the next life’ list.  (The list itself is made out of case-hardened steel, to make it both highly resistant to tampering, and utterly impervious to sad, bitter tears.)  When we moved out of the old house I gave my baby grand piano to a local school with a pang more of lost dreams and opportunities than of any practical reality.  I even thought I was more or less resigned to not having a piano around the place any more, reminding me that I’m not playing it. 


Then I started bell ringing again, because what is now my home tower is a relatively short stone’s throw from my cottage, and I’d lasted about six weeks after the house move, listening to the bells, before I was on the phone to the tower secretary asking if they’d take a recidivist ex-beginner.  I’d had to give bell-ringing up when the ME knocked me down and sat on me, and one of the things that’s never quite come right again is a tendency to RSI.  Starting bell ringing again made my hands hurt.  I’m just not going to sit around squeezing a tennis ball, which is one of those physiotherapeutic clichés.  (Boooooooooooring.  I know.  I did it after I broke my hand.)  Hmm, I thought, piano players have strong hands.  So I went out and bought a cheap electric keyboard and started playing scales.  One thing led to another.  I’m now the insufferably proud owner of an 1897 Steinway upright, and composing, gods help me, which wasn’t even on the long life list.


I’d take voice lessons again if I could find a teacher with a fabulous enough sense of humour to take me on:  that really was on the long list (with the drawing, the knitting, the French, the fencing . . . ) but it has developed a certain painful irony lately.  My favoured form of composing is setting poems or reworking folk songs, which involve, you know, words.  (The word proclivity carries through apparently.)  And both my piano teacher and my husband insist that if I’m going to write songs I have to sing as well as play them.  There’s perhaps some excuse for my piano teacher, who is a self-confessed sadist anyway, but the poems I’m setting tend to be Peter’s, and he should have a sufficient sense of self-preservation to say Okay, if you must set them, very well, but for pity’s sake don’t sing them.




My first serious discovery of life outside books had been horses and horseback riding, when I was nine years old and living in Japan where my military father was posted. (Of course I’d been reading about horses for years.) I took my first riding lessons from some Japanese ex-cavalrymen who had set up a riding school for us occupying round eyes; in hindsight I wonder about this, since this was the very early sixties and WWII wasn’t all that long ago, but at the time it all seemed friendly enough, at least until your horse refused the fence again because he knew you weren’t so sure about it yourself, whereupon the air got, I think, pretty blue, but since it was in Japanese you didn’t know for sure. The ex-cavalrymen belonged to the ‘put them on a horse and make them jump things until they fall off and then put them back on and make them do it again’ school of learning to ride, which was exciting, but rather alarming, and I was a nervy, easily frightened child. Obstinate (I did keep getting back on) but nervy and easily frightened. (I am a nervy, easily frightened, obstinate adult). I do still have a blown-up photo poster of me at eleven jumping a horse named Shadow over a decent sized fence — which is to say I am somewhere on top of him and he is going over the fence and my hands could have released better and my hard hat is sitting on the back of my head and wouldn’t have done me much good if I’d fallen off — which proves I got that far anyway. I didn’t actually learn to ride until twenty years later, taking dressage lessons, but that’s another story.


I hesitate to mention this because after years of stumbling into philosophical and/or financial holes and making wrong choices I feel rather superstitious about it, but I am presently riding at a very nice yard indeed, with nice normal (well, not too normal) people and a terrific owner who also gives riding lessons.  Deep in the Hampshire countryside too, so if you don’t feel like schooling that day you can just go out on a hack.  Divine.  This is what all those pony books when I read when I was a kid were about (no, not the BLACK STALLION, but all the Monica Edwards and Pullein-Thompsons), and here I am in one at last.


I started cooking pretty young too. I have always liked to eat, and once you figure out how, you can have exactly what you want by making it yourself (one of my better memories of an extremely unpleasant adolescence is making cakes and pies to Saturday morning cartoons), and you may find that half the fun is diddling around with a series of recipes till you achieve your aim via your own adaptations and evolving marginal commentary. Although despite the Betty Crockers and Joys of Cooking and Julia Childs and Delia Smiths and so on it still seems to me there’s a huge credibility gap between the pages of most cookbooks and the hasn’t-a-clue, um, boil water?, learner. Knead your bread till it’s the texture of an ear lobe? A vivid image but not one I can recommend as practical. Bread making books go on too much about kneading anyway. (They can’t all be in the pay of the bread-making machine industry.) Almost nobody points out that if you let your sponge do most of the work you don’t have to. (Although I actually enjoy beating the bejeezus out of bread dough. It’s an excellent counterpoint to long hours at your desk.) I love baking generally. My husband and I observe a strict turn and turn about in the bread making but all the cookies and desserts and puddings and sweets are my territory (he does usually make the Christmas pudding but then I’m busy making acres of Christmas cookies and moaning).


Gardening was an accident of circumstance. The last summer I lived in Maine it had sort of semi occurred to me that there was, you know, um, earth out there and I could probably grow something in it. My little house was pretty heavily shaded by lilac hedges and an enormous maple tree, and the soil was the standard Maine granite bedrock with a few crumbly bits on top to mislead the unwary, but it still could be done. I put in a few snapdragons and carnations, bought from the straggly on-sale table at the local garden centre, and watched in fascination while it took them really quite a surprisingly long time to die. Maybe I was on to something here. Then Peter, my gardening-mad husband, happened unexpectedly, and I found myself plonked down over here in southern England in the middle of a two-and-a-quarter-acre southern English jungle. The longer version of this story is somewhere else on this web site — the essay on how I wrote Rose Daughter [link to come], which is a longer version of the afterword in the book itself (both leave out the fact that Peter’s first fiance’s gift to me was a pair of secateurs, so his protests about my not having to take on gardening to please him may perhaps be viewed with a certain benign suspicion) — but the point is, there I was, sink or swim. I swam.


I’m still swimming, although we left the old house and the two and a quarter acres several years ago.  Peter suddenly began feeling his age, and decided that his idea of growing old gracefully was living within walking distance of the shops.  So we moved into town, into (ahem) a range of little houses with little gardens.  I’m now conducting a scientific experiment in growing the optimum number of roses in the minimum amount of space.  (Pots as a layering device.)


As you will have gathered by now I am a dilettante obsessive, which is probably the worst kind. I didn’t need any more interesting occupations to bore my friends and loved ones with (Peter, so far as I can tell, cannot be bored with conversation about gardening and gardens, although I’m still trying) but my butterfly mind will keep flapping.


To Be Continued . . .


* * *


*Soon though!  Soon!  Really!


** Tonight I’m going to play hooky and compose something. 

Hot mist and fog

 I seem to be strangely tired.  I have no idea why.  I rode this morning*, rang a wedding this afternoon**, and went to a birthday party this evening***.  And in between I’ve walked hellhounds†, did a little writing, and rebuilt the falling-down bits of the Great Wall of China.  I shouldn’t be tired so easily.††

Well, the weather isn’t helping.  We still aren’t being vouchsafed any proper sunshine††† but it’s gone all thick and heavy and glutinous.  You have to wade through the atmosphere, and beat it back with your fists, from which it resounds with a noise like something squishy out of Lovecraft.  The tower was like a steam bath last night at practise‡ so I got clever today and wore shorts and one of those little strappy camisole tops which I ordinarily wouldn’t be caught alive or dead in‡‡ which as soon as Edward announced that we were going to ring a method was a very good thing because I could feel myself starting to glow a bright cherry red like an electric fire turned up high.‡‡‡  The problem with wearing clothes to sweat in (or lack of clothes to sweat in) for something like a wedding is when the wedding party doesn’t get the flipping heck out of the churchyard promptly so when you come down you have to mingle. §  Feh.

I’d better get back to the party.

* * *

* Connie’s been reading the blog.  She’d obviously read what I wrote about that other grey horse–the glossy, perfectly turned out grey horse–and felt she had some honour to uphold in the Four Legged Spraddle stakes.  We also had a Very Unpleasant encounter with one of those horrible minimotorbikes, from which I wish we could have escaped with a mere Spraddle.  We were out with Liz and Caprice and Caprice is no help on these occasions.  I also have a slight intolerance problem in that I see no reason why minimotorbikes should be allowed to exist.  I was already not in a good mood, however, after another encounter the hellhounds and I had had about two hours before.  And adrenaline rockets are tiring.

I wonder, when we run out of Big Apples, if I try to go back to Small Apples, Connie will be cross with me again.  She has attitude about apples.

** And Edward, the ratbag, because he had six really good ringers plus Leo and me on tenor and treble, decided to ring a long touch of Grandsire instead of something easy like call changes.  And I hate ringing badly for weddings–I crawl home a wreck of my former self when I’ve rung badly for Sunday service,  and when it’s a WEDDING I get so wired in prospect my teeth just about chatter.  It wasn’t too grim–despite a few wandering moments from the treble–but the adrenaline rocket expenditure was high.  And the ringing down in peal was brilliant, if I say so myself.

*** Which in fact I’ve promised to go back to, since it’s set to run into the small hours, and since this is my Semi Detached Neighbour at the cottage I might as well.  Peter suggested I might want to stay at the mews tonight–Third House is much too close to the cottage to be much help, and furthermore Third House has its own Saturday-night neighbour problems–but the truth is the hellhounds have never spent a night away from the cottage and life with hellhounds is challenging enough, I think I’ll pass on this one right now.  The truly alarming hazard is service ring tomorrow morning if I get to sleep at 5 am.  However I was over there for about an hour earlier and had a couple of glasses of Pimms which the fellow pouring kept insisting was mostly ice and fruit^ an if thish enfry is makking lesh sensh than ushual, hum, I haffn’t had any Pimmsh in yearsh and theoretical knowledge of itsh insith- insith- insidi- its shneaky habitsh getsh kinda like bloodlessh over time and dishushe. 

^ but where has the fruit been.

† I’m still so angry about this that when I took hellhounds out for their second walk today I started brooding about it all over again.  This morning we were coming back down a lane toward town and saw a woman and her dog coming toward us, at that point still at some distance.  And I saw her bend down and take the lead off.  I almost shouted, Don’t take the lead off!!, but I get so tired of being a lunatic. . . . And despite the fact we were still pretty far away, the dog instantly ran straight for us, barking and snarling, tried to take a chunk out of Darkness as he whipped past, and then turned around and tried to do the same for Chaos on the return.  The stupid bloody woman is busy bleating, no, Gyp, bad dog, bad dog!  –Oh spare me.  Gyp now stopped in the middle of the path, daring us to come any closer, and the woman came sauntering up and said, Oh, it’s all right, he’s only nervous.  I said, in my mildest tone, Look, my dogs have been jumped so often that this one–indicating Darkness–is beginning to show signs of defensive aggression, and she said, oh, yes, that’s exactly what happened to us!  I thought your dogs were off lead so I thought I’d better let mine off too!  –She thought what?  Among other things she needs glasses.  I could see her taking her lead off, and mine are bright red and blue and you can see them in the dark.  I’m sorry, she said, in that I’m-not-sorry-at-all brisk tone of someone trying to prevent someone else from making a fuss.  And, gods help me, I didn’t make a fuss because . . . I’m so not good at moderation.  I could either do what I did, or try and kill her.  I’m now sorry I missed the opportunity to kill her.

†† ME, go away!  You are deeply unwelcome here!  And I told you they’re advertising the perfect position for you on Betelgeuse!  You should go check it out!

††† Our sweetcorn this year is pretty well a bust because August has been pretending to be October.  Sweetcorn is one of the things that gives life meaning.  I don’t know how I’m going to get through the depths of January without having had the setting-up-to-withstand-tribulation of the sweetcorn season the end of summer previous.

‡ And we all rang like we had hot mist and fog for brains too.

‡‡ Aged crones shouldn’t show this much skin.  We scare the horses.

‡‡‡ Electric fires usually have protective guard rails in front of them.  I’m just standing there, making my bell rope smoke.

§ At least the bride and groom were making their getaway in a car^ instead of a horse and buggy, so there were no horses to frighten in the immediate vicinity.

^ And some car too, even as ridiculous wedding cars go

Mme Isaac, lV

img_0285.JPGHey, what else do I need to say?

Mme Isaac, lll

img_0323.JPGWell, I like a nice hot vivid get-you-by-the-throat pink, and her fragrance is as powerful as her colour.  When I have twelve or fifteen of these great big roses out all at once–and a big one is almost as big as one of Sunshine’s cinnamon rolls–if I leave the kitchen door or office window open, I can smell her indoors.  It doesn’t get any better, I feel.

Next Page »