Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Pedicures and Porcupines

I have been to a spa for a pedicure. This is a first in my life, and contrary to all expectations, I enjoyed it. Picture the scene: a candle lit room, soothing music playing faintly, and a billabong footbath. Warm soapy water with bits of herbs floating about my feet, which were then dried by a person kneeling before me. Onto the beds, blankets over me, a fragrant pad over my eyes and I’m in the dark while someone massages my head. The fruity, orangey smell I chose for the treatment hovers in the air.

It would, at this point, be very easy to fall asleep, and I’m told some do. The room is silent but for the music, and I’m warm and cosy under the blankets. Then someone peels back the covers from my feet and leaves them exposed to the cool air. At once I wonder what will happen next. The blindfold pad is still over my eyes, remember.

My foot is firmly grasped and covered in warm oil, then washed and work begins on my toes. It is a this point, as my cuticles are probed, pricked, poked and generally whipped into shape, that I think what a good torture scene this would make in my work in progress.(wip) I must remember this if I ever want Matho tortured. The horrible anticipation of what is to happen when you can’t see, and then the pain…

Not that I suffered any pain. Far from it. All was serenity and warm honey and hot towels, then the rasp to take away the hard skin which made me giggle as my feet are ticklish. The last bit was all about painting my nails a luscious crimson, which I’d already picked out before the treatment began. When I finally removed the eye pad and swung my feet to the floor, I felt like a new woman. And my feet are so smooth, I am amazed.

On the way home, we saw a car parked in the middleof the road. The driver was taking pictures of a porcupine, so of course I got out and took pictures, too. He - the porcupine, not the driver, - trundled across the grass to my feet, at which point I got up from crouching position for fear he was after my newly painted toe nails! He looked like our hedgehogs, except for a more bristly set of quills. A cute little thing. I hope he goes back to wherever he came from without getting squished on the road.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Retail therapy Ozzie style

Shopping in Woolworths in Forster this morning. The fascination with Australian products continues and vegetables continue to impress not only with their size and vigour but with the price! Contrary to when we came here four years ago, the exchange rate is not favourable to British visitors, but is very good indeed for Australians travelling to the UK. I have to remember that 1 Australian dollar is equal to about 63p in Sterling, and then guess the price of spring onions that are three times the size of the ones back home.

There’s a store called Bunnings here that is a dead-ringer for B & Q back home. It has the same senior citizen staff in red uniforms, and the layout of the aisles is exactly the same. Granted they have more bug zappers than we do, and a far greater selection of outdoor lights, barbies and pizza ovens, but hey! Otherwise, they’re siblings.

Great excitement watching whales cavorting in the bay this afternoon. Dick was having great fun and we watched him – opinions are divided as to whether he was one whale or two. One, says Helen.

Because today is my birthday we’re celebrating in fine style tonight. I opted for prawns – and here, wouldn’t you know it, they are giant prawns! David and Bill will barbecue them, and we’ve punnets of huge strawberries, Helen’s made a crème brûlée and Bill’s providing the Moet & Chandon. Yeeha!
(I intended to post this on Monday but unfortunately - or fortunately, whichever way you look at it, I got distracted by the prawns! Sorry!)

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Writing and Dolphins

Berowra Waters
Moved back to Forster for a week, perhaps a fortnight. Sun bright, warm wind, whales are spouting in the bay and multicoloured parrots fly by the balcony. I’m concentrating on my writing for a day. I checked off my e-mails this morning while sitting on the balcony dressed only in shorts and tee shirt. In contrast, I hear it is snowing back in England, but can’t quite believe it.

There is a whisper of work planned for today. A fence needs oil/varnishing – no one can decide on the correct term, except to say that we are not painting it! It’s a six-foot high fence, and there’s a lot of it. The younger elements of the party think it’ll be a breeze, and done by lunch time. I harbour severe doubts over this time scale, but we shall see. There are four of us, after all.

I am slowly getting back to writing. There has been so much going on (incuding a second visit to the Cloudy Bay Fish restaurant where we drank the Pelourus as well as the Sauvignon Blanc on the excuse that it is my birthday next week) that I haven’t done much on my two wips, but I’m ready to start on chapter 24 of Matho’s story. Not that I know what’s going to happen, which is worrying. This is the first time I’ve been writing without an outline plan to follow, and I don’t think I’ll ever try it again as the writing flow, if I dare call it that, slows while I puzzle over the next happenings. I fear that sometimes I’ve gone off-line a wee bit, and there will be some major cutting when I get to a second draft. But it’s all part of the great learning curve that is fiction writing!

I finished The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t think I ever realised when I read Chocolat that there was magic afoot, but it was a long time ago. Peaches for Monsieur le Cure didn’t feature it much either, but Lollipop Shoes is full of it. The writing style was a real pleasure, and I should study it for what it can teach me.

DH has just popped in to tell me there’s a pod of dolphins in the bay and people are swimming with them! Wow! Must go see!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Berowra Waters and Quality

Back into Sydney on Tuesday to pick up a telescope which we’ve decided is the ideal house-warming gift for people who have a beachhouse with a view in every direction. If they’re lucky, they’ll spot whales travelling up the east side of Australia, and perhaps dolphins or sharks closer in shore. There was a heart stopping moment on the beach when ominous triangular fins approached a surfer, but a more knowledgeable onlooker assured us they were dolphins, and nor sharks.

I was hoping to find the same didgeridoo player on Circular Quay this year, but so far I've not been lucky. The sound echoes all around the Quay, and you just follow it to the source. Qualty of playing varies, but the one I'm looking for is good -it's just a pity I don't remember his name! try this as a sample: Click

Yesterday we took the car down to Berowra Waters, which turned out to be a stretch of water that links, several miles away, with the sea. The road down was single-track and hacked out of the side of a cliff, so not a good journey for those who suffer from vertigo, though the steepness of the drop of was obscured by masses of very tall, very straight trees. Foliage seems to flourish only in the top section of the tree, so they’re very different to trees back home.

There’s a ferry at the bottom so on we drove and were gently ferried across to the other side where there is a restaurant, a shop and lots of power boats tied up in the marina. We ate our sarnies, fed two ducks and generally nosed around watching boats come ashore, pick up supplies and move off again. Some young lads had trouble with an engine that refused to start. It was very quiet. Fish jumped, herons fished and the sun was exceedingly hot. We debated driving further, enticed by the road sign that said Wildlife Crossing, but checked the map and decided against it. Distances are something else here.
NB There's a small book here entitled Writing a Novel. Glancing through it I noticed this in the first chapter:  "Quality is the indefineable mystery of writing, the relationship between words, which is as much the product of the space between words as the words themsleves." It goes on: "A good writer is someone who can see quality in the world and can somehow translate that onto the page." Something to ponder in a quiet moment while I wait for the man who checks house alarms to arrive.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Sydney 2012

This just so not Australia! It is pouring with rain, and the wind is horrible.
View from restaurant

This week I’m in Sydney, which, contrary to popular opinion, is not the capital of Australia. That honour goes to Canberrra. We arrived last night, so this morning we climbed aboard the 9.39 train from Berowra into the city, which takes about an hour because it stops at every station along the way – all nineteen of them, with wonderful names like Warrawee, Mount Kuring-gai, Turramurra and Pymble. The trains here are double-deckers, and have seats that face forward or backward depending on your choice. Thunder clouds followed us all the way south into Sydney but it was still fine when we rolled into Wynyard underground station, we headed for George Street and out into the heart of Sydney.

Market St
We had business to conduct, and my new shoes had given me blisters so that had to be taken care of (Bought a box of Bandaids) before we found our way to the spanking new Westfield Centre where Gucci and Prada inhabit the ground floor. We went upstairs and found the food hall on floor five, then searched for the Cloudy Bay Fish Restaurant. Took some time, but find it we did and thoroughly enjoyed our Fishcakes with home cooked potato chips and salad. Anyone who loves Cloudy Bay wines must seek out this place, for all the Cloudy Bay wines are available – a glass of Sauvignon Blanc 2012 for thirteen Australian dollars.

Then it was off to David Jones – one of my favourite stores. Two floors - and they are huge floors – of men’s fashions. All colours, all styles, including one horrendously trashy Elton John type jacket with sequins flashing. Next to it was a black and white checked suit which – surely - only a chef would wear. Then on to the three, or is it four? Floors of womenswear. I restrained myself, I swear it.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Port Macquarie

Road trip today. From Redhead to Port Maquarie via the scenic route. It's a good thing D & H have a 4 wheel drive because today we turned off onto an unsealed road - to you and me, a dirt track. One vehicle wide, but fortunately not riddled with the pot holes we encountered in the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus. Very tall trees on either side, sudden vistas of green fields and smallholdings, then the trees close in again. A twisting road, winding always up, up and up again, with drop offs on either side perhaps hundreds of feet deep and filled with rain forest trees. 890 Metres to the top, so that's near enough 900 times three, say 2,500 feet. On a downhill bend we came across a motorcyclist coming up, and missed him by a hair's breadth. He would be eating our dust for long way up the hill!

Port Macquarie, when we got there, is a very pleasant place, but the heat was tremendous. We searched for table in the shade, and were unlucky; they were al taken. So the four of us clustered around one end of a table that had some shade, and enjoyed a leisurely lunch with plenty of ice cool Tiger Beer on the side.

Thursday, 18 October 2012


view from the balcony

I have complained at odd times on this blog about people in the UK using Americanisms in speech presumably because they think it makes them trendy or cool. Well, it seems the same thing is happening the other about. If you click on the Click, you’ll see some examples of Americans using British expressions. I haven’t quite clued into the Australian equivalent yet, but give me time.

We went supermarket shopping this morning. To my mind there’s nothing more guaranteed to make you feel you are in a different country than gazing at supermarket shelves and seeing strange looking vegetables with even stranger labels. I have to say that the said vegetables, crazy-looking or not, all look bursting with health and freshness. Most of them are grown in Australia. I also looked at the clothes in Kmart because I wanted a warm sweater for the cool mornings, but all I could find were “sweaters” in cotton and nylon mixtures in such a fine weave you’d hardly know you were wearing it. No doubt they’re common in warm climates, but they wouldn’t do the job back in northern England! I found what I wanted in the men’s clothing store across the way, and a third of the price. Colour me happy.

I certainly didn’t need any extra layers yesterday. We repeated our walk along the beach for breakfast at the beach café, and at nine in the morning people were surfing. The sun was beating down and strolling along at the edge of the surf soon got tiring. By the time the café was in sight, we were gasping for a cold drink and a sit down. Coming home was worse, because the sun was stronger than ever. The last mile was up hill and through the Koala reserve, which at least was shady, (no Koalas on view) and then open grassland burned to a crisp in many places. ‘There’s the house,’ we gasped in relief as it came into view and we staggered on as if we’d just survived trekking across the Great Australian Desert.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

It's different!

It is very peaceful here. Or it would be if the people who live in the farm behind us, who sold the land around us to the property developer, were not utilising their profits by digging a swimming pool. Workmen here start at 7am, have a brief lunch break at 12.30 and start again until three or later. We’ll see what time they stop today. Yesterday it was almost six pm.

Yesterday we drove out in Helen’s car and found the local shopping complex, where we bought a few staples, and headed down to the beach we visited on the first day. This time we resisted Bacon butties, settled for coffee and walked around the “town.”  Bowling clubs are strong here in Oz, and the Blackhead Bowling Club promises Fish n’ Chips on a Thursday night. We may well come back and try it. Houses are so very different here. Brick is not common as a building material, and rooves are often painted corrugated steel or unpainted zinc alloy/aluminium coated steel. Fences come in shades of pale green and cream, look as if they are plastic and click together.  Streets have no two houses the same, and big, expensive houses are crammed into little plots cheek by jowl with their neighbour. Yet there is land a plenty. Some do have large acreages attached, but they are on the outskirts, or the country. Here it’s called “the bush,” and we know from watching Neighbours that every trip into the bush ends in disaster. Just look at this You Tube video - Click We spotted horses wearing canvas coats when it is warm enough for them to go without, and were told it is probably so they don’t get sunburnt.

This morning we walked Diamond Beach again, and from the look-out point spotted some whales blowing and breeching far out to sea.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Australia October 2012

Since my last post I’ve travelled to Australia to visit family, and am now happily ensconced in a newly built beach house three and a half hours north of Sydney. Glorious! We arrived late on Friday night and woke up on Saturday morning to wonderful views of mountains and beaches.

The trip out was simple and fast. We flew Emirates Newcastle to Dubai in seven hours, had an hour and fifty minutes in Dubai airport which looks like a must-see for anyone with retail therapy in mind. I bought my favourite Guerlain perfume and enjoyed a cup of coffee before we scrambled onto the next leg of the flight – 13 hours to Sydney. We slept for a good six hours, and since we arrived, we’ve not yet suffered any jetlag, and don’t think we will now.

Saturday morning, with David and Helen as our guides, we walked south along Blackhead beach and sampled egg and bacon butties in a beach side café, and fell into conversation with some locals. They picked up on our accent right away. You can say the simplest sentence, and the words are the same, but all the vowel sounds are different to ours. There’s a moment of hesitation on both sides while the ear attunes….

Next day we walked north along Diamond beach, with the distant headland as our target. Sad to say we gave up two thirds of the way, and ducked through the dunes to a holiday resort for a much needed cup of coffee. Came back exhausted, and waved goodbye to David and Helen, who have to go back to the big city and face work while we linger here enjoying ourselves.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Carlisle Castle

In 1092 William II (Rufus) built his earth and timber fort as part of the strategy of wresting Carlisle and the border country from Scottish control. Thirty years later Henry I visited the town and paid for a 'fortified castle and towers'. During the next decade the city walls were built and construction began on the stone keep.
Part of the Outer Gatehouse defences
The keep was completed by the Scottish King David I who occupied the castle from 1135 until his death in 1153. In 1157 Carlisle came under English control once more, and has stayed there ever since. In 1163 Henry II built a stone outer curtain pierced by a new southern gate.* A waterlogged moat in front of the south curtain wall added extra defence. Access across the ditch was by a stone bridge. The parapets are modern, but the lower part of the bridge is medieval. An earlier timber drawbridge rested on stone walls.  Henry visited the castle again in 1186 when he commissioned a new chamber for his personal use. In 1216 King John's barons rose against him, Carlisle sided with the northerners and the city welcomed the Scottish army led by Alexander II. The castle was captured and Maunsell's Tower, William de Ireby's Tower, and the tower over the inner gate were destroyed and not rebuilt.
*The outer gatehouse was also known as de Ireby's Tower. The Gatehouse was substantially altered between 1378-83. Residential quarters for the Constable of the castle were here,  as a key administrative, financial and judicial centre for the county. In the west tower of the outer gatehouse there is an anteroom - now used as the ticket office and sales area - the steward's room with a garderobe, a gaoler's room with a garderobe, and a windowless dungeon. A mural stair leads to the first floor where there is a kitchen, with a door leading to the barbican walk, and a service area. The reconstructed solar lies above the service area. Above the passageway is the hall where there are remains of a large hooded fireplace.
The hall
The portcullis housing can be seen in the wall recess. Below the solar are two rooms, probably used as a prison, and a garderobe. The castle became the headquarters of the Warden of the March and also continued to accommodate Cumberland's sheriff. In 1378 work began on the rebuilding of the outer gatehouse to provide suitable lodgings for these magnates. So when my characters are inhabiting the Gatehouse, the room s were already 166 years old! In 1430 funds were again made available for Carlisle's defences and a good deal of this money was spent on cannons.
In 1538  Henry VIII's reign was under threat from Catholic Europe, and defences were required against Scotland, always the backdoor into England. Work on Carlisle began in 1540. In 1541 Stefan von Haschenperg replacing the keep's medieval battlements with gun embrasures. He backed the inner bailey walls to the north and west with ramparts wide enough to carry guns, and built the half-moon battery.
To the west of the inner bailey lies the large outer bailey. A ditch, originally waterlogged, separates the two baileys and provided additional defence for the inner bailey. Protruding into this ditch immediately in front of the inner gatehouse is the half-moon battery built in 1542. It comprised a double row of guns; at ground level cannon fire would have raked the outer bailey, whilst below a number of square openings allowed defenders to fire on assailants attempting to cross the ditch. So sir Thomas Wharton, Matho and Meg had all better know about these things!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Carlisle Castle

Entering the Gatehouse
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the area, Carlisle is at the western end of Hadrian’s wall in modern day Cumbria, only fourteen miles from the present day border with Scotland. Strategically placed at the northern end of a steep bluff, overlooking the confluence of the Rivers Caldew and Eden at the northernmost tip of Carlisle city centre, the castle has seen 800 years of continuous military use. So close to the Scottish border, it functioned both as the first line of defence against marauding Scottish armies and as a focal point for English military campaigns against the Scots.
Portcullis, Outer Gatehouse
As early as AD 70, there was a turf and timber Roman fort, known as Luguvalium, where the present castle stands. Excavations located parts of the west and south defences of this fort, including a waterlogged and remarkably well preserved timber gateway. In the second and third centuries, the fort extended as far south as Abbey Street and Castle Street. After AD 330, there is little information to be had, though crudely built stone structures dating to the late fourth century have been found on the site of the present day fort's barracks.

The existing castle is built upon the central and northern half of the Roman fort, and I’m recording this information because the castle features in my story!They say William II built a timber and earth construction in 1092 and thirty years later Henry I gave money to fortify the town with 'a castle and towers.' The siege of 1217 damaged it badly but the Scottish wars of Edward I meant that repairs were necessary, and by 1290 they were completed.
The old building work (as opposed to Victorian interventions) consists of two lengths of Carlisle city wall adjacent to the curtain walls of the castle, the towers and outer gatehouse, with the bridge over the moat, and an inner ward with its gatehouse, keep, ditch, and curtain walls. The Main gate was rebuilt circa 1380, and from 1422, Carlisle became the centre of the Western March and sums were allocated to ensure that Carlisle was defensible. The inner gatehouse (or Captain's Tower) went up mid-C14 and the Tile Tower in 1483 (when Richard III was Lieutenant of the North and in charge of Carlisle.)


Monday, 8 October 2012

Horses for Courses

Carlisle - Gatehouse
Here's a link you should read - a Guardian critic who adores Mantel's writing. Click
I know reading is a subjective thing and all sorts of prejudices come between the written word and the readers' eyes, but in my view Mantel is a cut above other writers of historical fiction in this country today. You may disagree with me, and I haven't even read Bring up the Bodies yet, but I have just finished Gregory's Lady of the Rivers (the one about Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford) and it makes an interesting contrast to Wolf Hall.

Gregory's prose is workmanlike, journalistic even; she explains clearly, but there is a distinct lack of originality in the way she strings her words together. The sentences are smooth, but in no way lyrical. Her style works, no doubt about it; the stories are told, her sales are phenomenal and people wait anxiously for the next new work.

But Mantel's prose is so very different. Lyrical, yes, thoughtful, yes, and certainly original. Anyone who looks for literary skill as well as a good story, will enjoy Mantel. Those who simply want a good story, without frills and not requiring them to think too much, will no doubt prefer Gregory. Horses for courses? Of course. We all know what we like, and why.

I went on a trip to Carlisle last Thursday, which is why pictures of the castle are featuring on my blog right now.  I'll talk about the castle in my next blog.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Pruning life and work

Carlisle Castle Keep
Spent yesterday pruning cotoneasters that have shot up this year and are scratching the new paintwork on the garage. Everything has grown as if there's no tomorrow this summer. Must be all the rain, and I suppose it hasn't been cold. I hate chopping things down, but in a relatively small garden there comes a point when the plants take over the neighbours' gardens, destroy the fabric of our buildings, or they come down. It's just as well we did, for we found loads of alder shoots and, left untended, they would grow into sixty foot trees.

We'd already had to disentangle a clematis that had joined forces with some unknown shrub across the back fence - together they were on a take-over bid on the apple tree and the neighbours's shed. Next we'll have to fight our way in among the brambles and hack them back. The crop we got from them wasn't very good this season, and our little apple tree produced not one fruit. It has been a bad year for fruit, so I expect the prices will go up accordingly soon.
When we took the pathetic branches to the Household Waste re-cycing plant (commonly known as The Tip), everyone else had been doing the same thing. The skips were full of discarded and uprooted greenery, some still with brave little flowers showing their faces to the sun. Made me wonder if someone will come down from on high and prune us one day. Also made a good analogy for editing a work in progress. Get rid of the rampant greenery, and leave the beautiful flowers. Ha! The trick, obviously, is in recognising the difference between the two!

Thursday, 4 October 2012

News is a good thing?

The year is turning down towards winter, and television news does nothing to lift the spirits. Full of doom and gloom; killings, abductions, funerals, missing people, and gloomy economic forecasts. It seems we get nothing else. Surely there must be some good news in the world? I cannot be alone in finding the continual drip of disaster lowers my spirits and leaves me despondent and cynical.

It makes me wonder if 24 hour news is A Good Thing. A decade or two ago, we got the news at 6pm and 9pm and then it really was news. I  listened to snatches of the early morning news on Radio 4 as I got ready for work, but then it was over until the end of the working day. Now it's blasting out all day and most of the night. Fine for shift workers, I grant you, but news presenters must feel they are on the same kind of wheel people put in the cage with a hamster or pet mouse. Endless repetition of the same facts all day long and sometimes spilling over into the next day. Viewers like me groan, but at least we can get up and walk away, do something more interesting. Pity the poor news reader, tied to their chair.

There's also the tendency to make news if it doesn't exist. Those slots have to be filled with something, after all. I'm so tired of these tacky interviews with neighbours and sweetie-shop owners when a child goes missing; they tell us nothing. Likewise asking head teachers to speak to camera about a child who has died - they're so unlikely to say anything really meaningful. One wonders if they actually remember the child as an individual rather than a paper report. They stick to the platitudes, of course; I'm waiting for the day one of them defies convention and says Well, he was a little devil and I told him he'd come to a sticky end. I expect I'll wait a long time.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Ballet Autumn

Autumn is here. Our heating comes on in the morning now, a sure sign that the overnight temperature is dropping into single digits. The Virginia creeper is a deep, dull crimson until the sun hits it, and then it is wonderfully scarlet. Ideal for brisk walks in the woods.

I went into town yesterday afternoon to see a live transmission from the Bolshoi Ballet Theatre in Moscow. They were dancing La Sylphide, and it was worth the effort. But what surprised me was how busy the Gateshead Metrocentre and Newcastle city centre were - both were absolutely buzzing. I had thought that because it was Sunday there would be silent streets, closed shops and I'd feel lonely. Not a bit of it!

Hardy souls sat around outside drinking coffee - probably becuase they're smokers and are not allowed to smoke inside any building - and the UK climate is rarely conducive to sitting around outside unless you want frostbite. Others rushed around in family groups. It seems retail therapy has become a family activity. It's a far cry from the days when Sunday was a day for worship, everyone went to church and no shops opened. At least that way everyone had a quiet day and went back to work on Monday rested and refreshed. Now it seems there's no down time; no time to take a quiet breath and review the week that's just gone by. In many ways, it's a pity. But on the other hand, it is so convenient to be able to do what you want when you want. If a quiet Sunday is your thing, no one is stopping you - enjoy it!

Taking a Risk

  Poised on the cliff edge about to take the leap! No thoughts of suicide - oh no! Or perhaps only in terms of covers for my e-books. I am a...