Monthly Archives: June 2012

Pink against the blue

An abundance of roses have burst out of the hedges

Voices have been raised in complaint against the weather. Not enough rain, too much rain, too much wind, too much cloud; but all of them have their good points. Hoover and I I walked out one fine summer morning and saw how the hedgerows are decked out in fine array. The fields, too, are littered with flowers, irrepressible poppies peering over the heads of fattening wheat, egged on by buttercups, competing with hogweed that lack wandering pigs to keep it under control.
Poppies buttercups and hog weed

Poppies bring a blush to the wheat fields

The farms lie tranquil, drawing breath after the lambing season and gathering strength to prepare for harvest. Now is the time for holidays and our neighbours have been in France enjoying a rest and welcome warmth.
English Summer

Nothing but the sound of skylarks above us

With time on their hands some of the farms have been trimming the old tracks that we walk. Hoover was delighted and skiped ahead of me, checking in each gap for rabbits and deer. I chased after her, my pockets stuffed with biscuits to tempt her to stay close at hand. It is hard to resist these beckoning paths and our walks recently have dived off in all directions as more of these paths are cut and we explore further afield.
The old drover's road

Who could resist the opportunity to see where this leads?

At the cross roads we had a dilemma; the path we know and love, tended and cared for… Or the one we take less often.
Hoover struggles through

Hoover enjoys scouting ahead

We took the road less travelled, walking with our hands above our heads to avoid the deer ticks which feel no compunction to keep to deer. I have become adept at taking them out of Hoover and Shadow, but have to persuade Jay to take them out of me. Preventatively, I wear well covering clothes and walk like some prisoner in an old fashioned western, with hands well above my head. We enjoyed the vetches and campions. Seeds of cow-parsley, already forming, tickled our arms. Hogweed nodded at head height and our passing scattered puffs of grass pollen that wafted visibly in the breeze. After a pause to admire the view across a field while Hoover returned from checking out a deer trail we met Dave. He is in training to walk Kilamanjaro, clocking up 500 miles at speed, and overtook us briskly, disappearing down the track, swallowed up by undergrowth. I wondered if we might see him when we hit the road, climbing the hill to the next village across the valley, but he is long gone from our vision by the time we hit tarmac.
Hoover avoids the traffic

Hoover avoids the traffic

As we rounded the corner and came into the village again we met Leon walking his puppy, a border terrier who is full of energy and curiosity. Imp bounced like a small, brown, india rubber ball, first at Hoover, then at me, then at the world at large.
“I’m trying to wear him out,” said Leon. “But he spends all his time investigating things. We’re aiming to walk down to the farm and back. Reckon we’ll be lucky if we’re back before nightfall.” A car passed us. “Like Picadilly on this road today,” he muttered. Imp bounced, Hoover circled round him, I laughed.

Gertrude gives me the eye

Quick growing horns sprout in opposite directions.

For the last few years I have been concentrating on writing for children. First I wrote a two book series of short stories all based on a dog and her family. The stories are scattered with line drawn illustrations. Children seem to love them, but I have decided that I need to re-think them so that they are more in the voice of the dog; so they are on hold.

In the last year or so I have been concentrating on a new series which starts routed firmly in the present and then develops into time travel, backwards. I am half way through the second book in this series.

And now I have discovered a competition for writers for children. There is a set theme, though the story is up for interpretation. The prize is not big in financial terms, but there is the possibility that the winning entry may be promoted for publication. I am very tempted. There is no point in entering unless I really try hard to write my best effort. But there is a penalty to winning; if what I write is good enough, it may be that I have to then concentrate on this new book and abandon what I am currently working on and in which I am deeply involved.

Do I give up the opportunity to enter the competition? Or do I try, and risk having to shelve something that I feel is good and have been told by critical readers is well worth persevering with? Of course, if I don’t win, then I don’t have to give anything up, but maybe that is telling me something too. I have paced about the place these last few days, taken Hoover out for soggy walks, muttered and accosted poor Jo as she was trying to shear her sheep. I have got no useful work done beyond pondering the story for this competition. And my mind is full of old clichés, mottoes and proverbs. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Through hard work to the stars. Try, try and try again. He who asks, doesn’t get. He who doesn’t ask, doesn’t want. – My Grandfather used to say that and, for some reason, it comes to mind, even though I’m not asking for anything; except that someone look at my work. If at first you don’t succeed… Rosie used to attach that saying to sky diving, and maybe there is a bit of me that feels that this is somehow similar. Maybe sky diving isn’t for me.

Yesterday, after much sog and dismal weather I looked up to see that the clouds had evaporated and blue sky reigned over us. Hoover and I went out for a quick fix on the hills. Poppies are bursting out all over the place; brilliant sparks of vibrant determination.

Poppies skirt the wheat

Poppies skirt the wheat

And by the time we were walking up the old drover’s track everything seemed clear. Hoover skipped about, and the larks, who had been silent for the past couple of days rose, singing invisibly above us. I was fairly sure I knew what I was going to do. There is something about watching Hoover’s eternal optimism; her confidence that this next person really does want to be her friend, and will have a biscuit to prove it; that this thing she has just discovered really is the source of smell she’s been tracking her entire life; her absolute trust.

The drover's road

Following the old track is easy

I came home full of confidence. I understand the story. I can see the boy at its centre with absolute clarity. I know his name.

When I took Hoover out for her night walk I looked up at the stars. There they were, brilliant in the darkness, and I felt sure I had the right answer.

But this morning the sun had gone; the sog was back and my confidence has slithered away. As Hoover and I trekked up the track behind the church, the ewes and their lambs had gone to a far corner of the field where they lurked in the shelter of a wide spreading oak. Instead Rambo was on patrol. He butted at the fence. The horns that he presents are even longer. And more convoluted.

Portland Down Ram

There are more twists to these horns than I was expecting

What should I do?

A place to write

The Quiet Zone – a regular place in which to write.

The choosing of names is a tricky thing. How much does a person’s name affect the bearer? How important is the name of the people we write into stories?

I was reminded of this again the other day when I read Richard Ford, author of ‘Canada’ recently published, commenting on finding himself ‘seated on a park bench on a glorious spring afternoon going fruitlessly through the alphabet, hoping to pluck up a letter – like a leaf under which there might be the right name.’ So many times I have started a story with a character progressing happily forward only to find that his or her name has to change and as a result find that the whole character changes too. A little boy who started off as Jos has now become Josh and suddenly he’s also rather good at noticing small details.

In the book I am working on at present although I was fairly confident about everybody’s individual name, I simply couldn’t find the right family name. It is rarely likely to be mentioned, but I needed it; I needed to know who they were en masse. I’d tried short names and long ones, ones with foreign roots and ones with strong English roots – they live in the south downs in the 17th century. I was getting nowhere.

Research was coming along well. I had no problems with the principles of the story, where I am aiming, the back story etc. All that was falling into place, but still I couldn’t find the right surname. I had churned through all the family names of people I knew, friends, children I had taught. Still nothing worked.

Sitting on the train, rattling back down to Dorset after a day in Surrey, I had reached the stage where most of the commuters had off loaded. Basingstoke had taken its fair share, and more had gone at Andover. The train splits at Salisbury and we were down to the last remnants, waiting to be shaken into the west country night. The woman sitting opposite me had heaped her shopping bags onto the seat beside her. Hoover was curled up beside me and I had my laptop out – I find trains are good places to work. I was still tearing at my brain, trying to find this missing name.

I looked out of the window – blank darkness rushed by. I stroked Hoover – the Curly family? The Darke family? Mr and Mrs Hound? I looked over at my fellow passenger as she read her book. She had a lovely face; one that showed plenty of experience, yet remained beautiful. There was something in her that spoke of kindness, compassion and yet she would never be pushed around. In a few years time she would be just like the grandmother, a key character in my story.
“Excuse me,” I began. She looked up. “Would you mind me asking your name?” A slight frown creased her forehead as she put her book on the table between us. Hoover popped her head up to see if there were any biscuits on offer.
“Why?” she asked, very reasonably. “I don’t think I know you.”
“No! Not at all!” I exclaimed, before explaining my dilemma. She laughed.
“Milborne,” she said. Perfect.

I never did find out her first name, but that wasn’t a problem, I already knew it – Patience.

Ray Bradbury

We were getting dressed this morning when we heard the sad news that Ray Bradbury had died.

When I first met Jay I was already an avid reader, but had read almost no science fiction. Jay had won a scholarship to Oxford when just 17 and would soon be going up to read French and German. I was a little in awe of his understanding of literature and when he said that I had to read Ray Bradbury, I did as I as told. Jay gave me Dandelion Wine. I have it beside me as I write. On the front page he has written ‘So much, and less than ways I love you.’ Under the title it says ‘Ray Bradbury’s story of a haunting and almost fantastic childhood that will make the very marrow in your bones turn cold.’ Jay had crossed out the word cold. It was one of the first of many changes that he wrought in my life.

If there were a category of amazing fiction Ray Bradbury would be at the top of that list. His writing has inspired me and many of the children to whom I have read his stories. This spring as we sat through the final stages of the drought and longed for rain I remembered his short story ‘The Day It Rained Forever’. I cannot count the number of times I have stressed the importance of caution in labelling people; tell a child he is lazy and you can bet he will be, or that she is naughty and she will find ways to show just how naughty she can be. Telling that same child that he, or she, is wonderful and amazing has wonderful and amazing consequences. I have read The Referent to every class I have ever taught.

We had a holiday in Spain once, staying in a small house in the middle of a wide and dusty plain. It was an oasis of green surrounded by a high lush fence of bamboo beyond which we saw little. Several days into our holiday, in the darkness of night, sitting out to enjoy the wide heaven’s offering of stars, we heard the unmistakeable roar of dragons embroiled in distant battle; deep growls of fury tore across the calm, shrieks of dismay and protest followed in their wake before they disappeared into the far blackness. The children were frightened, but we read them the story of men tilting at dragons from another world and then next day we discovered the railway line far across the plain. Safe in the knowledge that the dragons were tied to their rails we all slept sweetly thereafter, waving the occasional nonchalant hand as they hurtled by beyond our vision.

And today I heard him speaking about how he met his wife. He described how he had met her in a library; she had helped him find a book and they had shared a supper and he found her wonderful. She gave up her riches to marry him, a penniless writer then, and huge happiness was their reward. He encouraged others to follow in his wake.

Jay smiled at me across the room. We were little more than children when we got married. We had nothing. Then we had a little, but now we have everything.

Thank you, Ray Bradbury, for being a brilliant and inspiring writer. Long may there be people whose lives are enriched by your fiction. We have been lucky.


Steady rain all day has led to that utter delight- a fire in June!  

Hoover bagged centre spot, right in front of it, as the rest of us lazed about the place, reading books and papers.  The garden soaked it all up and you could almost feel its delight.  The French Beans I planted last weekend are just pushing their bent heads through the earth, the spinach and beetroot are also just showing green tips.  What more could we ask for?


Explaining the rules

Getting ready to thunder down the track.

We celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in grand style and great vigour. It had been decided that we would have old-fashioned fun of the kind enjoyed in 1952. This involved music, song and dance and also races. Judy asked me if I’d like to help run the children’s games.
“No,” was my smart reply. I have spent years working with children and now write for them. I think I was hoping that this was going to be a day off. Judy sounded disappointed.
“Well, if you can’t find anyone else, I’ll help out as back up,” I agreed. Tom says that this is where I went wrong. At this point they stopped looking for anyone else. My name was on the list.

Can you put small children into sacks these days? Are you allowed to use real eggs or would a risk assessment decide that the resultant risk of salmonella poisoning would be too high? Bob had resolved that one with his offer of rubber eggs, but Hessian sacks are hard to come by these days. I pondered putting children into heavy duty plastic sacks.  How many would put them over their heads and suffocate? How many parents would complain that the sacks had held fertilizer first? Had they been my own children that would have been fine; it would have been my risk, but could I take that chance with other people’s children? When I discovered, on Friday evening, that no-one else had been willing to take control of the races, I dug out the sewing machine and some old calico.

Lots of children were away on holiday, but, to my disappointment, not enough to cancel the races. When they were announced it instantly became clear that everyone wanted to join in. I abandoned Hoover and my camera to Jay’s tender loving care and dug out the equipment. Geoff came and knelt behind the five year olds.
“Can I join in too?”
“Under 12s, not over 21s,” I replied. Geoff is in his 60s.

We started with relays of sack races. Shoes were abandoned with glee.
“I’m eight!” declared a five foot beanpole.
“Really!” I grinned. “You’re in with that lot, Ben,” I told him, putting in with the other 12 year olds. The little ones had to be helped into their sacks. Anxious mothers checked that their children weren’t disappearing out of sight under the calico. I explained that jumping was the only permissible way, and runners would be disqualified.

8-9 year olds sack race, with the 10 and up team boosting their egos whilst waiting their turn.

Once the rosettes had been handed out we had come to the egg and spoon races. The little ones took it very seriously, pacing themselves and wobbling down the track, eyes glued to their eggs. The older boys were keen to be allowed to turn their spoons into catapults, or to create other inventive ways of carrying them. Girls became reluctant to join in. I explained that only eggs that made the journey on spoons would be winners. The girls decided that they could manage that fine. Jay discovered that the button that turns the camera off is very close to, and easily confused with, the button that takes the photograph. Hoover bounced, tried to help and made friends with a visitor from Weston-super-Mare.

Keeping the egg under the spoon is the tricky bit

The wheelbarrow races gave a chance for eager parents to get in on the act. Practice runs showed that the biggest hazard was that parents could crunch their wheelbarrows into a heap, somersaulting over the top. One father decided that the easiest way was to drag his daughter after him on her back. By now I was rather enjoying it all and glad that I’d been bulldozed into taking part.
“OK! Hands behind the line! Are you ready?”

The tiny, wee children wanted a race too; so there was an under threes stagger. Someone was rather frightened by so many people all around him, so he ran via his mother’s arms, his face buried in her neck. Who cared if it was trying to rain? And anyway, it never actually managed to.

During a break for more music, tea and cakes beckoned – you should try Sarah’s apple and maple syrup cake – I’m going to get the recipe. Hoover sampled the paper napkins and I had to rescue them before they disappeared down her gullet. Whilst we munched and supped we inspected the children’s royal illustrations. We admired Richard’s aspirant drawing of King Richard The Third, and Elise’s enthusiastic 500 toothed Queen.We staggered out planning to head for home.

“It’s the adult games now,” Judy told me as I headed towards the road.
“I’m not doing that!” I protested. “Childen’s games at a pinch,” (I wasn’t prepared to admit how much I’d enjoyed them.) “Not adult games!”
“But there’s no-one else.”
“But I’ve given back the markers to Bob,” I told her, pleased with my excuse.
“Never mind, I’ll help,” she announced.
“But you’ve just had a hip operation; you should be resting,” I reminded her.

Five minutes later the adult races were announced. Hoards of adults came paired up for the three-legged race.
“Can you tie me up!” chortled Nick and Dan.
“Us next!” called Carol and Laura, as I warned Pete that he needed to take off his boots if his partner was wearing flip-flops. Judy went to mark the end of the race standing to one side with the Union Jacks in position where Bob’s conical markers had previousy stood.

The racers thundered down the track, beer slopping out of glasses held aloft. Cameras clicked, voices cheered. Judy, waving her flags, decided to leap into the centre of the track to mark the end as Nick and Dan raced towards her. Nick went left, Dan went right, their legs were tied. Judy went down like a ten pin under a bowling ball, as the flags arched through the air in graceful curves.

Reluctantly she agreed to let someone else hold the flags to mark the end of the wheelbarrow race, but she was still cheering, despite the ice pack held to her nose.

Going at some pace!

How many wheelbarrows can you race down one track?

Where has the path gone?

Hoover is walking ahead of me on the path…

We started off with good intentions. As the Chair of Vice on the Parish Council – I had hoped for footpaths or planning, but found myself deposited into vice so that there is someone to run meetings when the Chair is away – I had a planning application to check and then hand back to the Chairman of the council. We set off along the back path and found to our considerable surprise that, not having walked it for tow or three days, hefty rain followed by radiant sun had brought energetic growth. The footpath had vanished. Hoover disappeared into the blossom to see where it had gone and re-emerged with bridal confetti scattered all over her back.

We battled our way through to the stile, emerging to join children heading down towards the school where they gather to be collected by the bus. Bob, the headmaster of the village school, popped out of the Village Hall.
“Have you seen the displays for the Jubilee? They’re amazing! I’m taking the kids in to see it later” Judy has been collecting coronation memorabilia and has made a display for everybody to enjoy at the street party on Sunday. “There are all sorts of scrap books made at the time. Fantastic!” These I had already seen. They are rather splendid and clearly made with great dedication at the time from a huge array of magazines.
“Actually, Bob, I was wondering if I could borrow something for the street party?”
“Of course, of course!” Bob is always ready to help out.

I emerged soon after with a box of rubber eggs and wooden spoons, a neat stack of markers to help organise races and a promise of bean bags and hoops to arrive on Sunday morning. Bob had also told me that most of the children from school were going to be away on a variety of holidays. He only had 7 available to come to join the singing presentation that the school were doing. Hoover was entranced by the rubber eggs and jumped about hoping to surprise one into her mouth. I spotted patriotic fervour sprouting by the road sign outside the school.
Red, white and blue.

With the egg and spoon race tucked under one arm, race markers swinging in the other hand and the planning application grasped firmly as well, Hoover and I carried on via the site of the proposed new barn and from there up onto the hills and along the ancient tracks. The chrome yellow patchwork of the past month has faded to green with only the occasional blush of yellow tickling the edges of the fields. Wheat is sprouting, a haze of brilliant green tops that soften the grassy spears making the fields look like huge duvets tucked around the dozing earth. Hoover chased rabbits, darted futilely, but optimistically, after swooping crows and inspected crushed grass where deer had slept the night. The birds were missing the sunshine of the past week or so and only the larks were still entranced with the sky.

Out on the hills

Far in the distance we spotted friends on paths the other side of sweeping fields. Merlot was dancing through the hedges looking for games, Mazie was running in circles round Sue. Hoover thought about joining them, but decided they were too ahead and returned to check my path for hazards instead. So much running had made her thirsty and she dived through the hedge for a drink from the old cattle trough and returned, dripping cheerfully, to nuzzle my hand.

An hour or so later the application was dropped off and we headed home to make sacks for the sack race, and ties for the three-legged race, to investigate 17th Century medicine a little further and to see what difficulties Mossy was going to have to sort out next; ready to get on with a day that had started so well.