Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Station snapshots

I live near a motorway service station, one that has – contrary to expectation – an excellent reputation and the framed certificates to prove it. We local yokels take it for granted that it will be open 24/7 apart from Christmas and New Year, and it does offer bizarre sights that add to the interest of our peaceful, cheery (insert platitudinous adjectives here) rural lives.

A trip across the petrol forecourt, specially on weekend evenings, is notable for scantily clad personages (I really can’t call them Ladies) wearing pink bunny rabbit ears, fishnet tights and cottonpuff tails as they stagger from coach to loos and back. My daughter tells me they are probably en route to Blackpool or Morecambe for a hen party. I feel sorry for poor Morecambe, but at least they won’t be staying here to scream their drunken obscenities – and that’s just on the outward journey.

One evening last year, when I was driving peacefully homeward past the service exit, I encountered a kilted bag-piper heel-and-toeing along the grass verge with his pipe and drones in full voice. Once I’d shaken myself and decided it wasn’t an apparition, I approved his choice of rehearsal room – the open air. Mind, it was possible that his fellow passengers (or his employers) had forced him to relocate. Confinement indoors with a set crying come-to-battle is a form of torture that even the deafened disco generation might find it hard to tolerate. Bagpipes are outdoor instruments. (Or should that be, The bagpipe IS an outdoor instrument? Someone please tell me.)

The arrival of winter was marked again this year by the lady and gent who walk a team of huskies. They always appear to be northbound, but I could just have missed their return trips. Snow sometimes follows, though I wouldn’t dare to assert that there is any connection. And I’ve never seen them wearing anything red or furry.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Last Night My Horse Became a TV Star

(The Dales Diary on Border TV)

In honour of which I'm re-posting here a piece I wrote while we were awaiting the film crew.


Hello there. You’re early. Not at all, you haven’t disturbed me; I am up and about. I don’t sleep a lot. Even in summer, I’m up before dawn. Life is too short to spend flat out with your eyes shut. Up and at ‘em is my motto.

It’s going to be a fine day, don’t you think? Not bad for winter; no wind, no rain, just a touch of invigorating frost. I think the sun will soon shine in through the window.

Breakfast is served just after dawn at this time of year, so we haven’t long to wait. I’ll walk about a bit if you don’t mind; hunger makes you impatient, I don’t know if you’ve noticed. I know they can hear me, so don’t worry, they won’t be long. The floor vibrates a little, and I think it must be audible in their quarters, so there’s no need to shout for room service. They’re pretty good to me here; they know my likes and dislikes, and quite often they’ll produce something really tasty. You know how being sharp-set makes all food taste just wonderful. Oh, yes, I’m afraid I’m always on a diet. I’m sure you know the feeling; it’s all too easy for the tum and bum to start expanding when you don’t work out in the winter. They do a nice line in fruit, fibre and cereals, and even though I’ve always eaten a wide range of vegetable foods they’ve introduced me to a lot of new things. Some are quite exotic, like melon, and sweet potatoes. Even after Christmas is over, it’s fun seeing what might appear next on the menu.

No, I don’t have any eating disorders. My only trouble is that if it’s there I eat it; so I suppose it’s for my own good that sometimes, when I’ve eaten one portion I just have to wait for the next. Ah well. I see nobody’s been to feed those sheep yet; they’ll be hungry too, poor things, and they’re worse off, being out there in the frost. On the other hand, the sun is up now and the grass will be thawing for them, what there is of it anyway. At least they’re getting some warmth after the chilly night. The sun’ll be round to my window soon. I’ll enjoy that. I sunbathe as often as I can, don’t you? The sun does you good; it makes vitamin D and keeps you healthy.

There’s always plenty of grub here and it’s the best quality. They’re a bit slow bringing it this morning. I’ll look out of the window, if you’ll excuse me; no, there’s still no-one coming. What to do to pass the time? How about a drink? Yes, I think so. I admit, I’m quite a big drinker; one has to keep a lovely body hydrated, and being so active, I use a lot of water. I’ll have a good deep drink right now to stave off the hunger pangs. Ooch, that’s cold on the stomach; it fairly makes your lips curl when there’s a touch of frost about, doesn’t it? I’ll walk round a bit more to settle it and warm myself up again. Do you like the way I fling my hair over my shoulder as I stalk about? Wish they’d give me a mirror in here. I’m sure this great black mane of mine is tangled. It’s so long and thick, I really need help to comb it out. What – you think it suits me like this? How kind. You should take a photograph of it. Men do admire it a great deal, even though it often hides my face. Notice my mobile, teasing mouth; and my very long, dark eyelashes too. I’ve been told that my eyes are admirably expressive. They are a lovely brown, aren’t they? Wide set, large and clear. No, I don’t need kohl; this black-pencilled outline is quite natural. You can be quite sure, darling, that I’d use it if I needed to! I make the very best use of assets like these. I can do things nobody else would dare. Trespass, greed or theft – one bat of my eyelashes, one seductive turn of the head – trust me, I’ve done it and been forgiven.

I may be allowed outside today, you know. That would be good. I’ll take another turn, if you wouldn’t mind stepping back out of my space. I don’t want to tread on your toes. It’s cosy in here really; I ought not to fret at confinement. The weather in winter can be appalling so even if they let me out I’d probably be desperate to come back in! The bed’s changed regularly and everything’s tidied twice a day. People pop in for a natter and I’m always glad to see them, whether I’m working or not. Next door they’re doing a barn conversion so there’s lots of activity. I like to feel I’m part of things. When I’m out there I always offer them my help. I am curious about their tools, though I’m not so good at using them; but then building is hardly my real purpose in life! It just helps to pass the time until the new season opens. I get plenty of work then to keep my mind engaged.

Are you taping this? You sly dog. It shows a professional attitude on your part though. I’ve been done before, you know; local papers and Radio 4. Dylan Winter - do you know him? - quite fell in love with me. You can always tell by that note in their voice when they say my name. I hope the builders get the yard cleared of rubble before Luke Casey and the film crew come next month.

What else can we talk about to keep my mind off food? Well, I could tell you about the offspring, I suppose: I have two, one of each gender, what they call a pigeon pair. Yes, I admit, they do have different fathers; lovely fellows both of them. Both of them quite famous in their own right, too, though I didn’t realise it at the time. Love at first sight? Oh yes indeed! My taste ran to blacks as you know, but both of the youngsters take after my own colouring, and pretty nice-looking they are, if I do say it myself. They’re grown up now and very fit and lively. They’re both working, and quite independent. They send me news from time to time through the staff here. I had cards from them at Christmas.

What’s that? Lonely, me? Not at all. Let me explain – I can see you’re not comfortable with the idea of me being alone here. When I first arrived, I had a companion, in the next room over there. He was all over me at first, as though he couldn’t believe his luck; went quite off his feed, poor boy. I’m afraid I ignored him while I found my feet and learned the systems here. Was that hard of me? Uncaring? I don’t know. If you don’t look after yourself, who is to do it for you? Anyway, it didn’t take more than a day or two for his ardour to cool. After that he turned out rather domineering; been here years and thought the place was his own, I daresay – good looks can cause a good deal of jealousy, can’t they? He moved away just over a year ago and I hear he’s doing OK, but really I don’t miss him. There’s nothing quite like being the only girl around, you know. When you’re on your own, you get all the attention; the press calls and the photographers – yes, OK, you took that hint quite beautifully. Shall I pose in this shaft of sunlight by the window? How’s that? Warm breath curling into steam; very atmospheric. Darling, you WILL Photoshop me if they don’t come out quite perfect, won’t you?

AH! Look. Here’s the dinner lady now. She’s a bit late – I think I mentioned that normally breakfast is shortly after dawn – but what can you expect? You can’t get the staff these days. My word, I AM hungry. What is breakfast going to be today? Come on woman, tip it out and let me at it. Ah, lovely oats again, embellished with apple peelings and carrot sticks. And a nice generous slab of that sweet smelling hay. Excuse me turning my back on you, but I just have to eat. You could help by filling up my water-bucket, by the way, while she goes for the wheelbarrow.

Are you leaving now? All right. Thanks. So nice to have met you. I’ll look forward to reading your piece.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Carry a big stick

Wild Fell ponies are stand-offish as a rule. After all, life out on the margin of the farm business has its own characteristics, mainly involving childcare and feeding; and on the whole it is peaceful. Walkers, on their way to who knows where, may attract the ponies’ interest from time to time, but so long as the ponies are not hand-fed on the common land they don’t expect food. Instead of pestering people, the boss mare generally moves the group steadily away about their own business.

Not all ponies are as distant as Fells though, and the “no hand-feeding” proviso often doesn’t hold good. On the Caldbeck Commons, Shetland type ponies, including stallions, have been turned out for so long, and so petted by visitors, that they are a definite hazard. They shove their heads into open windows of parked cars to demand food in a most ill-mannered fashion and if you deny them, they will snap and kick.

A few years back I heard a story of horses doing serious damage to a car in a similar situation. I happened to be at a friend’s house, when a nervous middle-aged lady came to knock at the door.

“I need to find out who owns the horses on that place called Sunbiggin Tarn Pasture,” she said. “I have to claim compensation through my insurance company, but I can’t find out who owns them.”

This wasn’t a very promising opening, but since she was determined to tell her story, my friend invited her in. She wouldn’t sit down, she was very upset and not at all coherent, and she didn’t have a clue about horses; but she was one of those people who feel they haven’t told a story until they have repeated everything twice, so one way and another we got a good feel for what had really happened.

There are two cattle grids that secure the road, onto and off the Tarn Pasture. The lady, driving alone in a small and immaculately kept car, came gently across the Pasture up to the cattle grid, and there she paused in the face of the mixed group of horses and ponies. They stood completely blocking her way over the cattle grid. She was afraid to get out and chase them, because there were so many of them – and from where she was sitting inside the car they all looked rather big. The horses, in their turn, thought the stationary car would contain people, who would give them food. This is not as silly as it might sound, because that end of Tarn Pasture is a picnic place where they had been given titbits before. Horses, like elephants, never forget, especially food. So there was one frightened lady inside, and a dozen greedy horses outside.

The leading horse stepped forward and began to bite at the car. So did some of the others. The ones behind believed the ones in front were getting something good to eat, so they began biting and kicking each other. The ones in front kicked back, no doubt with added spite at having been cheated, as they saw it, of their expected treat. Soon there was a noisy, dangerous melee going on round the immaculately kept little car.

“I was screaming by then,” she said. “They bit off the wing mirrors and the door trims, and they mashed the front wings, and the radiator grille, and the bonnet. It’s going to cost me over a thousand pounds to get the damage put right!”

My friend clucked and made sympathetic noises. “And were you all right? did you manage to chase them off in the end?”

“No, somebody, a farmer, came along from the other direction. He chased them off for me so I could drive over the cattle grid and get away. Oh I was in a state. And my car!” She trembled over the memory; but then perhaps she noticed us looking at the evidently undamaged car out in the street. “I’ve had to borrow one from the garage, mine just isn’t fit to drive.” She stiffened suddenly and went onto the offensive. “So I need to find out whose horses they are, don’t I? My insurance company says it has to deal with the owners to get my costs paid for.”

He shook his head. “Well, they’re not my horses,” he said; “you see the landowner just lets the Paster off for the summer. It goes to the highest bidder through the Auction, so it’s not always the same person each year.”

“Mr So-and-So said they would be yours,” she insisted.

“No,” he said perfectly calmly, “I don’t use Tarn Paster, I never have done. I have rights on Tebay Fell, do you see? So I wouldn’t need it. I’m very sorry to hear of all that damage, but I don’t know whose horses they would be.”

I think she was about to launch into the tale a third time, as though that would convince him of her urgent need for information, but he managed gently to edge her to the door. Eventually, still gritting her teeth bitterly over her terrible ordeal, she got into her courtesy car and drove away. My friend stood quietly at the closed door for a moment, then he dropped heavily into his armchair and he began to laugh. We both did, we couldn’t help it. The picture of the town-bred driver and the greedy posse of horses was just too silly to resist.

At last he wiped his face with his hand and said, “I suppose somebody eventually will know whose horses they are, but I don’t, and if I did I wouldn’t tell. Well, let that be a lesson to her. If you’re going into horse country, don’t feed the natives. Walk firmly, and carry a big stick.”

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Did I do right?

I was reviewing a poem the other day which brought back a memory I had completely forgotten. Usually reminiscence is pleasant, but I can’t say so this time. It took me back to when I was still at grammar school, in the little village-turned-commuter-town where I was born and brought up. I suppose I was sixteen or so; or at least, old enough to go to the library on my own on a dark winter evening.

I must have had the twelve-year-old fox-terrier bitch with me. Her name was Chispa, Spanish for “Spark” for the star-mark on her forehead. Chispa accepted that if I took her to the library she must wait patiently, with the leash tied to a hook in the entrance lobby, until I came out. When this incident opens, in my mind’s eye I am walking through Mayer Park; in those days, dog walking in parks was not frowned upon and one didn’t have to “scoop the poop” behind them. I would not otherwise have gone that way to the Library, after dark, when the nearer way, along the street, was also better lit.

It’s odd how memory layers information. The Library at that time was in an old farmhouse. It had been bequeathed to the community by Joseph Mayer, a local industrialist and philanthropist of the 19th Century. Although my grandmother’s maiden name was Meyer, having been born back in the 1890s to a German/French father and an English mother, Mayer was no relation to my family; the similarity of name was pure coincidence. I remember outside on the Library wall there were plaques in ciment-fondu, which depicted scenes from Proverbs: Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding. Mayer had donated not only the farmhouse in which he used to live, but also the Hall he built next door, and all his collection of books which formed the nucleus of the original library. The house had been extended in the 1960s to accommodate the growing demands of the book stock, and I was familiar with all its ins and outs because my mother worked as a librarian there. I (with or without Chispa) was always welcome behind the scenes. I looked forward to spending an hour among the shelves, choosing something to borrow, then walking home with Mum and Chispa.

So there we were, the old dog and I, walking through the dark Park. We were following one of the broad paths, under the bare horse-chestnut trees. The Library extension was on our right, and on our left a laurel shrubbery which we didn’t walk in because of its dense foliage and tripping roots.

It was quiet, with only the sound of occasional passing cars on the road ahead and Chispa’s claws click-clicking on the tarmac beside me, accompanying my clacking heels. I probably had my hands in the pockets of the grey wool coat Mum made for me; she often told me off for spoiling its line. Although the evening was dark and cold, we were at peace with the world. I had my eye on the orange of the street lights and my mind on the warmth of the Library.

Then I heard the cry. I can still hear it. It came from the shrubbery. One crack of a twig, a rustle of leaves, and that cry of fear. It was not a child, not someone playing a game. It was a gasp and a cry from a girl of my own age. I stopped. There was no way to see through the bushes. I listened. There was only a crack of another twig, then silence. The leaves were dark, and the spaces under the branches lay thick with night.

“Hello? Are you all right?” There was no reply. “Hello?”

I stood there with my heart thumping. I was conscious of danger but I simply didn’t know what I could do. I wore glasses and knew my short sight to be a very vulnerable point. I couldn’t see anything among the shrubs, didn’t know my way in there, couldn’t drag the old dog after me in among the laced branches, didn’t know who was in there apart from the girl. I also think I was aware of the fragility of my new nylon tights compared with the dense nature of a laurel bush, and that I currently had no money to buy more. Not even a few pennies for the public telephone.

The local police station was a mile and a half away. How handy it would have been for a police “Z” car to go by, but it didn’t.


I walked away rapidly to the Library. I took the dog right indoors with me, while I looked for my mother. After five minutes or so I found her, somewhere in the back corridors, and I poured out my breathless story.

“Do you think we should call the police?” I finished.

My mother was tired after a long day on her feet.

“No,” she said shortly. “She probably didn’t get anything she wasn’t asking for.” And the topic was closed.

I don’t remember the walk home.

I don’t remember anything reported in the local newspaper. I was not forbidden to go to the library on my own, and I think the caution that I developed about dark shrubberies was entirely mine. I never heard of anything having happened to a young girl, that dark winter evening in Mayer Park.

But forty years later, I still wonder what I might have prevented.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Driving Club

It's one of the well-known facts of the Millard household that if Father goes to buy a new car, we can all guess correctly what colour it will be.

This would be less surprising if he ever actually bought a genuinely new one with all the options of specifying preferences, but none of the family - me included - has ever thought it a good deal to lose several thousand pounds simply by driving a completely new car out of a show room. The newest car our household has ever claimed was six years old, and three years later I am still driving it.

Looking back over the years (and there are more of those than I care to count) we have had an assortment of high mileage, low cost cars. They included the two and a quarter ton caravanette in which we took our summer and weekend breaks (and did the shopping), until it quietly succumbed to old age sometime round its 27th birthday. It then spent another six years as a children's play house. We had a Triumph Dolomite (or its nearest neighbour whose model name I can't now recall; a 1300 perhaps?), and a long, long series of Vauxhall Cavaliers, Belmonts and Astras. Finally, too, I have to admit to my husband's MG Metros, all dubbed "Pogo Sticks" by me (I hated them) and by my daughter (who learnt to drive in the first one). He referred to them as "Rust Buckets" but nevertheless bought three in succession until, with MG and Rover having both gone out of business, the second-hand supply finally ran dry.

Out of thirty years' worth of vehicles, I can only think of four we owned that weren't the same colour; we had one blue, one red and one silver Metro, and one blue Cavalier. Ah, and also the retired, up-on-ramps Lotus Elite that hasn't turned a wheel in five years and is, somewhere under the dust and swallow droppings, fibreglass red. But as that doesn't go anywhere it doesn't count. And neither does the Rover 400 that I borrowed for six weeks till I bought my present car. It was a shade of green probably described by Rover as "British Racing", but it became known as the Tarnhelm because when you were in it you were, apparently, invisible.

You are working out from this what colour I'm talking about, aren't you?

The last of the Metros (the silver one) failed its Ministry of Transport road-worthiness test last week, so the hunt was on for a replacement to get my husband to work. There being no Metros still knocking around, the field was wide open; would it be another trusty Vauxhall? A Ford? Or even something foreign? He spent hours poring over Auto Trader, finding suitably aged and priced beasties that were within a reasonable distance of us. As we are not in Manchester or Liverpool, this last requirement narrowed the field considerably. Then he'd sit there trying to relocate the adverts because he hadn't marked them or turned over the page corners or even written down the page numbers.

By last weekend he still hadn't phoned anyone about any of these cars and the next Auto Trader was now out. We were back to the local newspaper.

Saturday morning: would I cash a cheque for him with the greengrocer? I duly did so, noting the sum was conservative.

Sunday morning: he announced that we (I loved the "we") were going to go and look at an 11-year-old Peugeot, 13 miles away. In our terms this is nearly on the doorstep, our nearest neighbour being a quarter mile away and on the other side of the river. I brought out the Astra and we set off. My husband doesn't talk much when driving or being driven. I used to think this was due to a) concentration on the job in hand or b) terror at being driven by me, but now I know he's just ticking off the farms we pass and tallying the things he remembers from when he used to deliver fertilisers, feeds, hay or straw to them, or collect their annual wool clip. It makes for absentmindedness about such mundanities as where we are actually going; besides, there is a sort of belief in spousal telepathy that assumes if he has thought about something, I automatically know what that thing is and should not need spoken instruction.

Luckily I did know where we were going, having ascertained this beforehand, and I got us there quietly and safely. The last time I'd been to this village, it had been with my daughter, and we had brought home in triumph a very pretty lightweight carriage for our Fell pony; a vehicle of the one horse power kind which I'd known about for years and coveted from the moment I saw it. When the original owner had asked if I knew anyone who might like to buy it, there was only one possible answer. It has the very strange characteristic of being attractive even to people who know nothing about carriage driving; they walk up to it on a show field, when it's just sitting there waiting to be put to the pony, and they stroke it, which is quite bizarre to watch. It doesn't get used much, but I still adore it. Anyhow, that's how I knew where I was going: carriage driving.

"Where do we want to be, exactly?" I asked as we entered the village.

"We're looking for an elderly Peugeot parked on the roadside. And I would say," he added, "that that's it there."

So I pulled into a small parking space just opposite, and he got out to start poking round the potential purchase.

I didn't need to ask its price tag; I knew how big the cheque was that I'd cashed. I didn't need to follow Graham round the car and peer at the adequate levels of tyre tread, or under the bonnet at the clean engine, full radiator, and correct level of oil; but I did, and amused myself by lifting off the charming mouse nest from on top of the air filter. (We had been warned that the car hadn't been used in the last few months.) We didn't disturb the contents of the car itself, though, which included a large golf umbrella, a portable television, two folding walking sticks and enough scrap paper to build a small house.

My husband went along to knock on the door of the converted barn where the owner lived; he eventually appeared in shorts and sandals, his thin legs and bare feet apparently impervious to the biting wind. The crate of empty brown beer bottles by the back doorstep perhaps accounted for his inner glow. Producing the keys, he started up the beastie and offered to let my husband take it for a spin round the block. I made small talk with the owner while Graham disappeared down the road and when, in a few minutes, he came back, we moved indoors to discuss price.

It was a foregone conclusion that he'd buy it. The owner made one proposal, Graham offered the amount of cash we had brought, and the deal was done. I sat through the ensuing search for the registration document, and his daughter's emptying of the car, and did my bit by trying to entertain two of the three small grandchildren. However, as the boys were very young, and dummy users to boot, I think the sheepdog actually had more to tell me.

How did I know my husband would buy the car? Well, quite apart from having the initials of the carriage driving club as its number plate (I shall buy it from him when he eventually scraps the car), the Peugeot was, you guessed it, white.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Under the influence

News today of the tidal surge in the North Sea and its flood potential reminds me of the Great Flood of Carlisle in January 2005.

It also brings to mind a local furore about the alleged baleful influence of the Cursing Stone of Carlisle; erected in a local subway to celebrate the Millennium, this is 14 tonnes of polished granite with an incised copy of a comprehensive curse, which had been proclaimed on the local “Border Reivers” in 1525 by Gavin Dunbar, the Archbishop of Glasgow. But more of this later, when I’ve told you about the storm.

My husband had gone to work well before dawn, to deliver fertiliser with his 24-tonne wagon. Living as we do on a Northern rural hilltop, high winds and lashing rain are nothing unusual, but he says, looking back, that the weather when he left home was calm. I was snoozing in bed around 5 am when I began to be disturbed by the sound of the wind. It grew, and grew, and I woke fully to realise that the crashing noises mingling with screaming air meant something very dangerous was happening. As I huddled under the bedclothes, the crashing was studded with clanging, and something heavy hit the stone wall just below the bedroom window, so hard that the old house shuddered. I dismissed right then any thoughts of going outside. I stayed in bed and listened to the gale until day broke.

The electricity had been cut off. However, the wind and rain had eased a little, so I decided to go out and feed the ponies who were in the adjoining stone stable block. I dressed and went downstairs and opened the back door.

Well, exit that way was impossible. A thirty foot pine branch (the heavy “something” that had hit the house) had been hurled over the top of my Transit-van sized horsebox from the other side of the yard. It had crashed through the perspex roof of the passageway and was hanging over the outside loo. Other branches and a sheet of roofing tin blocked the steps up from the back door to the yard.

I retreated and went out through the front door, on the sheltered side of the house. At the bottom of the field, the beck ran at twice its normal width. The fenceposts had vanished in the flood and all the riverside trees stood waist-deep in angry brown water.

I covered my mouth and nose with my hand, and braced myself to go round the end of the barn into the battering of the rain and wind. I hung in their grasp for a moment like a kite poised to take off, then forced myself round to the stable door. Something must have hit the roof hard, because all the slates were askew, but the door was shut and the rafters and battens had held, and the ponies, though nervous, were unharmed. I picked my way through the debris to the feed bins and back, and gave up any thoughts of shovel and muckbarrow. Later, perhaps, when the wind died down a bit more.

Once I had fed the dog and the ponies, I started to take stock. The clanging noises of the dawn explained themselves: all the twelve-foot long corrugated roofing sheets from the hay store lay, twisted, among the trees, and down the yard, and over the roadside fence in the field a hundred yards away. The fallen pine branches in the yard paled into insignificance when I looked through the driving rain and saw that in the wood seven magnificent spruce trees had been snapped off, as though a giant hand had seized a tuft of grass and wrenched it; the trunks were split and twisted at ten feet from the ground, and the tops cast away, one perched on another to make a 40-foot T, while a dark and tangled mass of wood and broken stone blocked the river bridge. Thank God our little road is a quiet one; between flying steel and falling wood, the pre-dawn hours had been lethal.

I dragged away the branches and tin blocking the back door steps, and went into the house to dry out and make some breakfast.

Lack of electricity is no great hardship to our remote household, because power cuts have always been a possibility in winter. It is only forty years since “the electric” was provided to this area; we are always prepared to manage without it with candles and matches, torches, batteries and fuel. (In fact with the tonnes of wood that had been felled in the last few hours, we were going to have more fuel than we could comfortably deal with for several years.) The Rayburn stove was fairly sizzling from the draught in the chimney, and the bottled propane hummed through to the gas burners, so breakfast was no trouble.

Although the radio batteries hadn’t been renewed for some years, they didn’t fail me; Radio Cumbria came through loud and strong. Over the next two days the BBC staff at Carlisle – stranded by floodwater themselves – kept the county abreast of the storm damage, warned of impassable roads and informed those flooded out where refuge centres were being set up. They deserved medals as big as dinner plates for their cheerful endurance. You couldn’t blame them for making the most of the funnier stories that appeared: for instance, who could identify the goldfish that had been found swimming in the penalty area of Carlisle United’s football pitch?

Warwick road and much of Carlisle was flooded six feet deep; Hardwicke Circus and its underpasses became a lake, with traffic lights up to their necks in dirty water. Gangs of Council workers armed with chainsaws spent the next month snarling their way through hundreds of country roads blocked by fallen trees.

2005 was a dreary year for Carlisle. Hardly any of the flooded houses were habitable again in that time. In March, certain foolish remarks by Councillor Jim Tootle (you couldn’t make it up) made national news: “A local council is to debate whether to remove a huge stone from the city because it is thought to be cursed. The 'Cursing Stone' in Carlisle was made to mark the millennium, but it's being blamed for a string of bad luck that's met the city since. Fires, floods, foot and mouth disease and even a famine of goals for Carlisle United have convinced locals that the stone has to be moved or destroyed.” (

Those of us who laughed sardonically at the idea are now vindicated: the stone remained, all 14 tonnes of it. The 2007 foot and mouth outbreak didn’t reach Carlisle, we haven’t had any more floods, and Carlisle United leapt through two divisions in two years and from being relegated to the Conference League they are now topping Division 1.

Under the influence? I don’t think so. East Coast, keep your pecker up and don't throw away any stones.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Drunken mice

Comedy hour strikes .....

The mice had been out drinking.
Their tails wove in and out.
They staggered up the piping,
and fell off down the spout.
They reached the airing-cupboard
and nested in the sheets,
they peed upon the bedspreads,
on towels wiped their feets.
Then leaving several pellets
of shit upon shelves (upper)
they hiccuped, belched and farted
and went to look for supper,
for as you know when drinking,
though lager fills your belly,
it also makes you feel as though
you’d eat a docker’s welly!
They fancied Ruby Murray,
but nothing could they find,
for in a decent bathroom
a curry’s naught but wi-ind.
So gnashing sharp incisors
and scraping needled paws,
they set about a drunken search
to find that bedtime course.
And when I rose at seven,
and flicked electric power
to heat the flowing water
and give a nice hot shower,
I found the mice had feasted
behind the cupboard door.
They’d shredded paper wrappings
and dropped them on the floor:
they’d punctured all the toothpaste
and then to top their tope
they’d guzzled anti-frizz shampoo
and eaten half the soap.
Then finally, hung over,
they’d made themselves at home
and sprawling bloated fast asleep
were snoring shaving foam.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

I wonder where she went

The Internet is a strange beast. We learn so much that is intimate about other people on sites of mutual interest, yet because of their specific focus we often learn only one area in depth and the rest, such as their personality, circumstances and society, is seen only by reference.

A fellow writer brought this to my attention this morning. We both post pieces on a well known writers’ forum. There, over the past few weeks, an occasional poem has popped up on the theme of lost love and broken hearts. (I can hear you snorting now – isn’t this what poetry is for? What’s so special about teenage angst? But bear with me.)

The writer in question is not an English speaker by birth. Her poetry is not yet good, but she must be bright because already she is trying to manipulate rhyme in this foreign language. Only, in this case, her poetic angst isn’t even teenage: she is twelve years old. It is worrying that already she writes of broken hearts and disappointment and berates her own stupidity. Is her "heartbreak" an abstract, playful testing of her own emotions, or is it concrete and based on actual experience? How can we know, from halfway round the world?

Posting only every few weeks, she evidently doesn’t get to use a computer all that easily. Her country of origin is in the Far East. What can she know of Western social standards, and what can we know of hers? We can guess, and what I guess is not comfortable, because I don’t like the idea of a bright twelve year old girl being in situations that her childish poetry seems to imply. Her poems have evoked firm responses, from kind, responsible British members, used to British social structures and British laws: they advise her, “enjoy your childhood, pursue your school studies and forget about men until you are an adult.”

My first instinct, though, is to worry: would she understand or be frightened by our advice? But given the nature of the medium, my second thoughts are less innocent: is this really a twelve year old girl posting? I remember looking up her profile and being jarred by the idea of a twelve year old describing herself as “cute” (I forget the exact term but it certainly had an odd connotation). Perhaps a childish knowledge of English uses terms without being aware of undertones. That makes me wonder, too: is her writing persona really a front adopted by someone quite different, possibly adult, perhaps not even female? Childish knowledge of English does not have to mean the writer is a child.

I'm only a little reassured by finding that another young foreign forum member says she is a classmate. I still wonder if her writing is sending a call for help, a message in a bottle bobbing on that great sea of anonymity, the lure and the danger of the Internet.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

New ball(joint)s please

Background for those who don't know me: I have recently had surgery, to resurface my left hip.


I needed a new battery for my car, because the old one had been on since I bought it in 2003. It wasn't holding charge any more when the car stood, as it did post op, unused for weeks on end. My husband in the meantime swapped the horsebox battery onto the car so I could get about once I was allowed to drive; but obviously, I still I needed to replace that battery, nonetheless. So I asked the garage to get me one.

When I called in yesterday to collect, I parked outside and went in, where Chris, the owner/mechanic and much battered ex-rally driver, greeted me. He went to stand beside the wall, where I recognised a battery sitting on the floor.

He just sort of stood there and said, "Here you are."


I limped over and said, "I'm not lifting heavy things just at present."


He said, "I'm not supposed to be lifting anything. I'm on Light Duties."


I said, "And I'm signed off work completely, which is why I'm here on a weekday and not a Saturday."


I'd forgotten that next week he's due to have some screws re-aligned, which have given way over the 2 decades since he smashed up his hip joint in a rally car crash. He'd forgotten that I had been in for surgery in the past six weeks. Stand-off.


I should have reversed the car into the bay and got close enough to lift the battery into the boot. As it was, Chris did pick up the battery and carry it over to my car. Then, while I paid the bill, we had a practical and entertaining chat about hospitals and joint surgeries.

Given the nature of orthopaedics, the garage floor was quite a suitable setting.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Pack rat

This is going to be a rant. I feel it coming on. In fact I am so angry I can hardly hit the right letters on the keyboard – it’s taken me twice as many keystrokes to get this first paragraph written as it would normally do. And me an RSA level 3 girl.

It started with the phone call at breakfast time, and I’m not going to bother disguising names to protect the innocent.

“Who was that?” I asked my husband.

“Tony. We’re working at his girlfriend’s place this morning. She wants her lawns laid, now that the drains are completed.”

I didn’t get up in a bad mood. Honestly I didn’t. I had no intention of blasting out a trumpet call to battle. But.

Every building on our place, bar the single section of one in which my pony sleeps in bad weather, is silted up with an accumulation of “one day it’ll be useful”. There is no wall that does not have its complement of things leaning against it; no space into which you could actually put anything without major reorganisation.

I have booked a firm of slaters to come and renew the very rickety roof on the stable range, of which the other box is – you guessed it – also full of “one day it’ll be useful”.

“Oh? Barbara wants her lawns laid? I’d quite like some buildings emptied.”

He began to detail where MY few items in use could be moved to; inconveniently; and ignoring all his own pack rat accumulations. I interrupted him.

“I’m going to put all that in the container at the top of the yard,” I said.

It’s not a building, but it is a dry, clean, almost empty space. I was also under the firm belief that as I had bought it, it was mine.

“Oh,” he said blithely, “but I talked to Tom the other day and I’m going to borrow his tractor and loader at the weekend to move the container so it can be a dog kennel for people who come to stay in the barn conversion.”

And that was the point at which I blew.

“And how is it you didn’t mention that to me? I’d quite like to have a space that’s MINE. Something that’s not half full of old carpets, oil-soaked fenceposts, lumps of scrap iron where the dog gets his rope stuck, and a ton of fertiliser with its sacks rotted off so you can’t move it. Something that doesn’t leak when it rains.

“And I wasn’t referring to MY belongings – I meant yours – like your Dad’s tools that you never use, and parts for cars that you scrapped twenty years ago.

“Oh, but Barbara wants her lawns laid. Barbara wants her drains done. Well FUCK BARBARA, that’s all I can say.”

It wasn't a particularly eloquent argument, I know, but maybe my vehemence got through for once. He didn’t answer. He went off to work, very quietly. For Tony, and bloody Barbara and her sodding lawns.

I think he’ll be making his own supper tonight.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


This is more of lyric than a poem - being based by David Trotter on the tune of the Londonderry Air. He intended to sing it at a hunting song competition, in the year when the Hunting with Dogs bill was much in dispute. On the night he was not well enough to sing, so asked me to take it on instead. I adapted it considerably so that it was easier to sing. This doesn't necessarily work on screen, so if you don't know the tune, well, just pass this one by.

Oh, country friends, the final horn is sounding
Across the lake, and down the wild fellside.
Our quiet land is crowded with offcomers;
How can we stand, against an urban tide?

Beware, beware, the bureaucrats are coming
To take our sport and country life away,
The final horn is calling from the wild fellside;
United we must stand to keep them held at bay.

The city man, who buys a home for holidays,
Out-bids the shepherd with his modest wage,
Who sees his children waiting for a council house,
And turns away, embittered by his rage.

The supermarkets work against the farmer;
Their buyers grin and take us all for fools;
We can see DEFRA stacking up the paperwork;
The farm is drowning in a sea of rules.

Our way of life is being taken over,
Each year they pass new laws upon our lives;
Westminster pawns and European bureaucrats
Must be defied, or we shall not survive.

The countryside marched into London City
And walked its streets with humour and good will.
Now that once more we’re forced to fight the bureaucrats,
We’ll use their tools to cheat them of their kill.

Beware, beware, you bureaucrats! we’re coming,
You cannot take our country life away!
We bid the horn that calls the Lakes to waken –
The hunt’s afoot – the horn is sounding: “Gone Away!”

David Trotter & Sue Millard, Lunesdale & Ullswater Hunts, 21 November 2004

Monday, October 29, 2007

One leg longer than the other

Now I know you are all dedicated followers of health issues: non smokers, fat-reducers and possibly even closet vegetarians; so let me share my secret with you. Go on, let me.

Given that some hospitals are now denying surgery to patients who they consider are aggravating their own ill health, you’ll know that a reduction in Body Mass Index (BMI) is something very desirable. If you have a BMI over the current “goalpost” max settings, your chances of getting NHS treatment are becoming a little slim (pardon the pun).

I have recently achieved an unexpected reduction in my BMI.

Some of it is entirely down to me; I’ve spent nearly a year limiting my intake of fatty or sugary foods, upping my vegetables and fruits, and taking longer walks. I’m now 17 kilos lighter, and have a BMI that is 6 points lower, than at this time last year.

However, in the past couple of weeks I’ve also discovered a neat trick that augments the effect: my BMI depends on which leg I stand on to be measured.

On my right leg, I’m 1 metre 61 centimetres tall. This gives me a BMI of 34.4. On my left leg, however, I’m 1 metre 62 centimetres – which gives me a BMI of 33.9. Neat, yes? Half a point shaved off just by standing on one leg.

As soon as the hospital repeats the resurfacing operation on the right hip, I’m told I’ll “grow” back to the same height on both legs! When the surgical team told me that resurfacing would be my best option, they explained that because my bones are strong and thick, they have only a small inner space; this meant that a full joint replacement would have allowed me only a slender prosthesis with a small bearing-head, but for the same reason resurfacing was the perfect solution. I just smiled smugly. You see, I’ve told the weight-critics for years that I have heavy bones.

Ah … now I think this is where we came in; I suppose my BMI can’t rely on surgery every time. Would you class it as a catch-22?

Oh well. Stay off the chocolates and buttery shortbread, and try not to bite your fingernails.

Black de Char

This tells the tale of how Willy and Chris invented a new breed of sheep.

Jennie, who keeps rare breeds, stopped to chat as she passed by Willy’s yard. It was a hot day during clipping, and the men were easing off from their morning’s work, ready for lunch. Among the newly clipped sheep was one that took her eye: its fleece was grey – a delightful, soft smoky colour. Other than that it looked rather like a Swaledale.

Jennie took a long look, admiring its colour. Then she asked what it was.

“It’s a foreign ‘un, a Black de Char,” said Chris, Willy’s son.

“It looks good,” said Jennie, seduced by the French name - something similar to a Bleu du Maine or Rouge de l’Ouest perhaps? “How many have you got?”

“We just have the one, at the moment like,” said Chris.

Willy added, with a grin, “ – but she’s got twins. There’s a tup and a gimmer, so we might breed a few more.”

“What’s the wool like?” she asked, thinking of showing her discovery to the wool growers’ co-operative she had just joined.

The men looked sideways at one another, and puffed at their cigarettes thoughtfully, waiting to see how Chris would respond.

“Come and feel it,” said Chris, leading her down the dark and greasy shed to the heap of newly rolled fleeces.

“Lovely shade,” said Jennie enthusiastically as she approached, envisaging sweaters, perhaps even a fine jacket, of that delicious pearly grey.

When she put her hand into the fleece she found it was harsh and gritty, and her hands came out smeared with black. "URGH!" she said loudly.

Outside there were smothered noises – whether of merriment or of coughing, it was hard to tell.

The old ewe and her twins had been sleeping in the nice dry ashes of a bonfire.

Read a book

small enough to put in your pocket
available even when the electricity fails
doesn’t need batteries
don’t have to wait for it to boot-up
play at any level you like …

go backward or forward in time
learn from the ancients as well as the moderns
meet people you’d never get to know
feel emotions you’d never experience …

teach your kids …