About this blog

This is a window into the weird world of Anglicanism, as experienced on a Cathedral Close. Has anything much happened since Trollope's Barchester Chronicles? You will still see the 'canon in residence' hurrying across to choral Evensong, robes flapping, as the late bell chimes. But look carefully and you will notice he is checking the football score on his iPhone as he runs. This is also a writer's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the novelist's life. And it's a fighter's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the judo mat. Well, the agony, anyway.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

WEEK 52--Hot Air Balloon Ride (deferred)

Up, up and away!  I've always longed to go up in a hot air balloon.  What a fabulous final New Thing of 2011, to round off my New Year's Resolution!  We are glossing over the fact that Week 51 is unaccountably missing.  It was Cooking Quail.  But frankly, it was right before Christmas and I couldn't be arsed to write it up.  Also, I was aware that rather too many New Things were already of a culinary nature.  This is because you can do a new thing in the kitchen fairly cheaply.  And it has been the cost of all those fabulous new things that has reined me in on so many occasions.  Seeing the Northern Lights, travelling down the Mississippi by paddle steamer, having my own bespoke fragrance created by Creed.  And going up in a hot air balloon.

Or so I had assumed until our older son gave the chancellor and me a joint 50th birthday present of a hot air balloon trip.  Calloo callay! It has been deferred into 2012 for weather reasons.  Freezing your ass off is a bit of a busman's holiday if you live in a listed building and have run out of prayer books to toss on the fire.

For me, there is something magical about the sight of a hot air balloon.  That teardrop shape hanging in a flawless sky over English hills.  It's part of my childhood.  My heart leaps up when I behold, and so on.  I've noticed that this thrill isn't shared by the public at large.  If you are travelling by bus, for instance, and you suddenly cry out, 'Look!  Look!  A balloon!' people will eye you strangely.

I grew up with a view across wheat fields towards the Chiltern hills.  On summer evenings we would quite often see balloons coming over from the Dunstable Gliding Club.  Silent, then the whoosh! of the burner.  Sometimes they flew quite low.  Once the passengers were offloading sand in attempt to gain height.  Some of it landed in Mr Routledge's pristine garden.  He danced in rage and shook a fist.  The balloonists were too high to interpret this, and waved back benignly from their basket.  Mr Routledge was very proud of his garden, as we four girls found out by chucking bits of mortar into it from our garden across the lane.  He caught us at it and threw it all back.  We cowered giggling in the shed as missiles clanged off the corrugated iron roof.  'Have your bloody rubbish back!' were his words.  Some of his words.

Once a balloon landed in the field over near Pitstone windmill.  We watched from an upstairs window as it struggled like a wounded bird.

And then there was The Borrowers Aloft.  They escaped in a home made balloon, didn't they?  And lived happily ever after in Bekonstcot Model Village, or something.  All these things, like the unforgettable smells that rocket you straight back to childhood (lime blossom, creosote fences) combine to make a hot air balloon ride impossibly romantic to me.  Not forgetting wanting to fly--something I can do in my sleep, with my eyes closed, but unaccountably cannot master while awake.  But next year, next year I'll be up, up and away.

Friday, 16 December 2011

WEEK 50--Buying a Christmas Tree

Well, fancy getting to the age of 50 without ever buying a Christmas tree.  I mention my age quite unashamedly, in an attempt to lure you into saying 'You never are!'  That is the correct liturgical response whenever a lady mentions how old she is.  Be careful not to overdo it though chaps, or it becomes patronising.   I was hailed thus by a youth selling programmes at the theatre last night: 'Evening, gorgeous!'.  Later my older son suggested I respond: 'Evening, smarmy!'  But the moment was long gone.

The buying of Christmas trees is an area of modern life that is still subject to the unwritten rules of patriarchy.  Like the vulcanising of meat on a barbecue, it is something men do.  My father always bought our tree while I was growing up, and so, I realise, the chancellor is the chief tree-buyer in our household.  I go merely go along in an advisory position, and tell him which tree to buy.

This year, in keeping with my New Year's resolution, I decided to go it alone.  I am 50 years old (Why, thank you, you old flatterer!) and I can surely buy my own Christmas tree without male help.  But then at the last minute I decided to take my older son along to handle the manual labour side of things.  He's good company and I've missed him while he's been up at university.  We drove to the cheap Christmas tree outlet at a Farm Shop in Walsall.  This is only cheap if you forget to factor in the petrol.  And if--here's the thing--they haven't sold out of trees.  Apparently there was a rush.  Loads of people have all suddenly decided to buy a tree in mid-December to decorate their house.  It's some sort of festive custom in the UK, it emerges.

So back to Lichfield and off to the Plant Plot.  'We'll just buy one and pretend we don't care how much it costs,' I said.  But flip! (as we say when the chancellor is listening)  SEVENTY QUID?!  'I'll go and do a strip tease for the woman, and you sneak out with the tree,' suggested my son.  'That way we'll probably make money, because she'll pay me.'  But then we noticed that it was only these new-fangled non-shedding blue spruces that are so expensive.  Your old-fashioned traditional Norway spruces were less than half the price.  So that's what we got.  £24 well spent.  And so long as nobody touches it or sneezes within three yards of it, the needles will probably stay attached till the twelfth day of Christmas.  And then it's next year's kindling.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

WEEK 49--A Morning at KwikFit

You will be pleased to see that I have finally caught up with the calendar and we are now in the correct week of the year, Week 49.  This was achieved by quantitative easing.  Quantitative easing is when people high up in finance do something mysterious and then say, There, it's all right now.  I've simply applied the same process to my blog.  There.  It's all right now.

My New Thing for Week 49 was to spend Saturday morning at KwikFit, Lichfield.  The previous day while on the M6 (everybody's favourite motorway!) our car began juddering as though we were driving over non-stop rumble strips.  It was worse when accelerating or going up hill.  A scary little icon began flashing on the dashboard, one we'd never seen before.  I screamed and grabbed the user manual.  It generally says 'If a scary icon appears, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DRIVE YOUR CAR OR YOU WILL SURELY DIE! Make your way slowly to your nearest specialist dealer who will sell you an engine part for £900 plus labour.'  The icon looked a bit like a cam-corder, but according to the book, it was something in the exhaust system.

So at 8.30 the next morning--having phoned and booked a slot, please note--I rumbled off to KwikFit.  At the last moment I grabbed a paperback thriller, and I'm very glad I did.  Three hours is a long time to sit getting cold and waiting for someone to sort out your car.  It certainly gave me time to contemplate the word 'kwik' from all possible angles.  Below is my view:

I'm afraid to say that I'm a complete girl when it comes to cars.  This is why I knew I had to embrace this challenge as a New Thing, rather then let the chancellor sort it out.  The KwikFit fitters (better than whom you cannot, of course, get) asked me a whole bunch of technical car-related questions, like, 'What's your registration number?' and 'Is it the two 2 litre?  Is it turbo?  Is it petrol or diesel?'

I floundered through gamely, but then they began to outline the possible reasons for the juddering.  Here's what I heard: 'Well, it could either be the tssss-shshshsh-chchchhh-crrr, or possibly the crr-tsss-chchchc-crrr-ssssshhh, or maybe the spark plugs.'  White noise--exactly the same as when my accountant is going through my tax return with me.  Obviously, the car then needed chhhchh-shhshhh.  Diagnostics, I believe that translates as.  Diagnostics, as you've probably guessed, is where they put an elf up the tailpipe so that he can scamper through the exhaust system with his tiny silver hammer, testing everything with a Ting! Ting! Ting! and finding out what the problem is.  Obviously it's expensive, because you've got to pay the supernatural creature minimum wage, and that's not cheap, thanks to the EU.

Well, it turned out it was one of the coil packs.  I was shown the culprit.  I frowned at it in what I hoped was  a knowledgeable-looking way.  Bad coil pack!  All that remained was for them to ring their parts supplier for a new one, and all would be well.  Shouldn't take long, they're only coming from Tamworth.

Well, as I said, I'm glad I picked up a book on the way out.  (Thank you, Joseph Finder, for your company in my trial.)  In KwikFit's defence I will say that when the part finally came, they fitted it very kwikly indeed.  I got the impression they couldn't quite believe I hadn't thrown a monumental tantrum.  Perhaps this is why they rewarded me with the promise of a £20  MOT.  That's a whole £10 off.  To be honest, I was rather more interested in another offer I saw advertised on a poster on the wall: 'A VIR FOR EVERY CAR'.  My Latin is pretty rusty, but I think that means 'A man for every car.'  I choose a fireman.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Peterborough Diocesan Conference

Last night I had a nice experience.  I was invited to be the after dinner speaker at Peterborough Diocesan Conference at the Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick.  All diocesan conferences are held there.  I expect its decreed by canon law.  You might think that there could be nothing worse outside of Oxford or Cambridge  than 300 clergy and licensed lay ministers in a confined space, but you'd be wrong about that.  Anglicans make an excellent audience.  How much this had to do with the wine served at the meal, I cannot say.  If I tell you that most people probably had several glasses, this would be misleading, as the Hayes serves wine in the world's smallest glasses.  Thimbles, practically.  Pff!  A mere mouthful.  More merlot, vicar?

I promised someone that I'd post a copy of the Lawyer's Festive Greeting, which I read out.  It was forwarded to me by a barrister friend last year.  (This is not my own composition, by the way.)  Here it is:

Festive Greetings
Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, our best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all.
In addition, please also accept our best wishes for a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2011, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make this country great (not to imply that this country is necessarily greater than any other country or area of choice), and without regard to the race, creed, colour, age, physical ability, religious faith or sexual orientation of the wishers.

This wish is limited to the customary and usual good tidings for a period of one year, or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first. 'Holiday' is not intended to, nor shall it be considered, limited to the usual Judeo-Christian celebrations or observances, or to such activities of any organized or ad hoc religious community, group, individual or belief (or lack thereof).

Note: By accepting this greeting, you are accepting these terms. This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal, and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher at any time, for any reason or for no reason at all. This greeting is freely transferable with no alteration to the original greeting. This greeting implies no promise by the wisher actually to implement any of the wishes for the wisher her/himself or others, or responsibility for the consequences which may arise from the implementation or non-implementation of it.

This greeting is void where prohibited by law.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

WEEK 45--Cooking Moose Steaks

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have realised that I am not going to manage 52 New Things in 2011.  Or not unless I cram rather a lot of novelty into the next four weeks.  Cooking moose steaks was really last week's New Thing.  We had them for lunch on Advent Sunday.  Please notice that these were Deluxe moose steaks, because we all hate those crappy non-deluxe ones.  I bought them at Lidl for £9.99.  A bit steep, but hey, it was a New Thing.  Cheaper than sky-diving.

I did a bit of culinary research to discover the traditional way with moose.  Perhaps marinated slowly in a fragrant combination of pine bark and Norwegian toadstools, then served up on a bed of sphagnum moss?  But as far as I could make out, most recipes treated moose pretty much as beef.  So that is what I did.  There was a nod in the direction of game in my made-up casserole, in the form of juniper berries.  Nothing says 'game' in a casserole quite like juniper berries.  Apart from lead shot, of course.

Well, was it worth it?  Was it delicious?  Will I be serving up my Advent moose casserole for years to come?  Nah.  The verdict round the table was that it was nice.  'Nice' is not a rave enough review to tempt me into a repeat performance.  I need an 'astonishing', or even the silence of cross-eyed drooling bliss.  Moose is basically like a slightly game-y beef.  Unless I was cooking it all wrong, that is.  If you know better, leave a comment.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

WEEK 44--Visit to National Memorial Arboretum

You'll see that I'm running a few weeks behind myself.  But rest assured, I've been doing new things.  Earlier in the month, for example, I visited the National Memorial Arboretum, just a few miles up the road from Lichfield.  To be totally honest, I've been before, but it was10 years ago when it was little more than a muddy field full of saplings.  

This time was able to go and look at the Wall of Remembrance, which commemorates those who have died in the service of this country since the end of the Second World War.  As I walked I kept thinking So many names, so many names! all the time knowing how tiny that number was compared with the incalculable unbearable length of wall that would be required to list the dead of the First and Second World Wars. And then you round a bend and the wall is blank.  Smooth empty stone as far as the eye can see, curving away out of sight, waiting for more names.  It's this that gets everyone.  Ask anyone who's been there, and this is what they whisper: The Blank Wall...

Part of the strength of this monument is its restraint.  There are no panels to interpret this moment for you, no Bible verses, no prĂ©cis of some humanist agenda.  It is left to the visitor to make the connections.  For those attuned to the hope of the resurrection, this may feel like an omission, but it makes the National Arboretum a more hospitable place to people of all faiths and none, as we say these days.  And it is by no means bereft of hope.  There is a gap in the wall, where (if the sun is shining) a ray of light will fall on the centre of the open space at 11 o’clock, on the 11th day of the 11th month.  And somehow the combination of this shaft of light with the empty waiting wall says—when words fail us—all that needs to be said about remembrance.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

WEEK 43--Reading Peter Pan

Never read Peter Pan?  Shame on me!  There is a very very long list of books I ought to have read but haven't.  Being a Grammar School girl I'm riddled with guilt about this.  (I once blurted out to the archbishop of Canterbury that I have never finished a single Dostoevsky novel.  He gasped.)  I chose Peter Pan as a representative of the genre, because without ever reading it, I assumed I knew it well.

That isn't the real Peter Pan in the picture above. This is Disney's Peter Pan.  When my sons were little I got to know the Disney version all too well, being a Bad Mother and in the habit of using videos as a cheap childminder.  The pope himself denounced mothers like me.  I remember thinking at the time, Well, if you'd like to pop round and entertain them educationally instead, that would be lovely, and then maybe I could have a shower?  Yes, Disney's Peter Pan.  Or rather, Petah Pen.  That's my chief memory of it, Wendy swooning about in her nightie sighing 'Oh, Peter!'  Petah Pen, naturally, was American.

If I dig on down through the strata of my memory, I uncover a much deeper layer of Peter Pan recollections.  The very first school I went to was a classic two-roomed village primary school in the village of Pitstone in Buckinghamshire.  Sounds idyllic.  We were dwarfed by Tunnel Cement, with its four, and later five, stacks belching out white dust that left the village locked like Narnia in a permanent concrete frost.  My Dad used to clean the car with steel wool.  I remember a school trip to London one December evening to see Peter Pan.  I can remember bits of it, in that slightly distant academic way akin to looking at old photos.  But occasionally I surprise myself by a memory with real interiority to it.  A pirate sitting on a toadstool chimney and burning his bottom.  Peter trying to reattach his shadow.  The real flying.  I was just five at the time.  By the time I was 8 my extreme short-sightedness had finally been picked up on.  At five, inhabiting a soft-edged world I assumed was reality, I simply couldn't see the wires.  I remember the snow swirling past the coach window in the dark on the way home.

This is what Peter Pan is about.  The real/unreal world of childhood, the blurring of fact and imagination and memory.  And about growing up, of course, and motherhood.  Stage versions of Peter Pan are remarkably faithful to J.M.Barrie's book, but there is a deep unsettling weirdness and brilliance to the text that isn't conveyed by those Christmas productions.  A kind of arch callousness aimed by turns at the child listener and the adult reader-out-loud.  Not something the modern writer of children's fiction would get past agent and editor.

If I'd read this as a child, what would I have made of it?  Would I have resented the role allocated to poor Wendy?  'Wendy, of course, [of course!] had stood by taking no part in the fight, though watching Peter with glistening eyes.'  But she did get to be the only girl in a crowd of adoring boys (tempting prospect to me, one of four daughters)  The only female apart from that cow Tinker Bell.  Who does die in the book, incidentally.  Wendy is shocked to learn Peter has forgotten who Tinker Bell is.  He dismisses her airily: '"There are such a lot of them," he said.  "I expect she is no more."'

There are some children's books that can't be read properly by adults.  If you haven't begun Lord of the Rings by the age of 14 you are probably stuffed, and will never love Tolkein.  But Peter Pan is not in that category.  However academically and distantly you read it through your adult prescription glasses, it will still surprise you with its astonishing splashes of colour, and you will be five years old again, back when everything might still turn out to be magical.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Karate Update--Improving Your Kiai

If you want to know the proper stuff about karate, you are on the wrong blog.  This is karate for the useless flailing beginner.  Couched in these terms, your kiai (pronounced 'key eye') is your scary martial arts yell.  For self-conscious English types, this is one of the major stumbling blocks in the path of getting involved in martial arts, coming behind 'poncing about in white pyjamas' and 'getting hurt'.

In judo you can get away without having a proper kiai.  People will grunt and emit a snarling yell of the kind an ordinary person might make when struggling to lift a freezer.  One of my coaches lets out a cobra-like hiss. Over the years we have come to recognise that this means she is about to throw you with a left-handed o-goshi.  I really don't have a judo kiai at all, even after more than 10 years.  The occasional girly shriek when being hoisted aloft by a large bloke is about as loud as I get.  Well, apart from the common or garden aaaargh that signals another broken toe.  Tuh, broken toe.  We don't even go to A&E with those.  They don't do anything for it, and if you turn up in a judogi they categorise it as self-harm anyway, and make you wait for hours.

But in karate you must have a good loud kiai.  Sensei warned us all very sternly at training last night that anyone with a pathetic kiai would FAIL THEIR GRADE ON 13TH NOVEMBER!  I won't be grading this time, so fortunately I wasn't called upon to demonstrate mine solo and in public.  Everyone's kiai is different.  But what should you shout, exactly?  According to Wiki, 'Modern Kiai are often written by westerners as Hi-yah!Aiyah!Eeee-yah!, or Hyah!'  I quite like the last one.  It sounds quite friendly.  'Hiya!'  Yeah: 'Hiya, I'm about to kick you in the nuts!'

For the first few weeks I experimented.  I ruled out 'FECK!' quite early on, and gradually my vague bleat settled down into something more like 'HOY!'  I see this as a logical extension of something I already felt comfortable with: the maternal 'OI!'  As in 'OI! GET BACK HERE NOW DO YOU WANT A SMACK?'  A speech therapist taught to me shout from the diaphragm rather than the throat, so as not to damage my vocal cords whilst bawling my sons out.  This has proved to be a useful transferable skill.  Your kiai should come from the diaphragm too.

But what's the point, you may well ask.  Again, I direct you to Wikipedia as a good starting place.  You will find several points listed.  Here is my favourite: a well-executed kiai will 'startle and demoralize inexperienced or shy adversaries — especially at close quarters, especially if previously unobserved.'  I may try it out during the Sharing of the Peace one Sunday in the cathedral.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

WEEK 42--A Trip to Needwood Ice Cream

On Wednesday night the female half of the cathedral Director of Music and I cooked up a plan.  Neither of us had ever been to Needwood Farm to buy some of the best ice cream in the country from the very place where it is made.  That's what we'll do tomorrow, we decided.  While our husbands are away.  After all, the weather has been so lovely.  What could be nicer than eating ice cream in this Indian Summer we are enjoying here in the West Midlands?

Well, obviously it rained on Thursday morning.  But we were not deterred.  Here it is, just visible through the mist and rain:

If you're trying to find it, here's the address: Coulter Hills Farm, Coulter Hills, Newborough, Burton-on-Trent DE13 8SJ.  Down a long concrete road in the middle of nowhere.

When you walk into the shop, there is none of the National Trust lavender bag knick-knackery cum coffee shop vibe going on.  It's just a barn selling eggs and ice cream.  There are about half a dozen big chest freezers loaded with different flavours.  After much squeaking with excitement and groaning in anticiplated pleasure, we narrowed the choice down to six.  And bought a tub of each.  I got the butterscotch, the pistachio and the honey & ginger.  My companion bought banana and toffee, hokey-pokey and mango sorbet (to cleanse our palate).  Hokey-pokey, in case you're wondering, is a type of ice cream where you put your spoon in, take it out, in, out, in, out, shake it all about.  And it contains crushed up Crunchie bar middles.

That very evening we had an ice cream binge.  This is about the midway point:

I have to tell you, every single flavour was a winner.  If only the Director of Music and I could synchronise our viewing of TrueBlood, we could have perfected the evening by watching a couple of episodes whilst eating ice cream, but she's half a series behind me.  Never mind.  By Series 4 we'll be ready for another trip back to Needwood to sample their new flavours.  We may yet get our girlie act together.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

WEEK 41--Reading Book IN THE WRONG GENRE by a Favourite Author

Here we go--Shelter by Harlan Coben.   I was very grumpy when I picked this up and began to read it.  I'm a huge fan of Harlan Coben's thrillers, especially the Myron Bolitar ones.  But  Shelter is TEEN fiction.

What is Coben playing at?  I don't want him to write for teenagers.  I want him to write for ME.  Specifically, I want more novels featuring Myron and his psychotic yuppie sidekick Win.  Who is this Mickey Bolitar and why should I care about him?

So of course, I had to read it.  Isn't this what my New Year's Resolution is all about: identifying those moments of middle aged inertia and confronting them?  Spotting my resistance to trying something new, and then combating it?

I should also admit to a vested interest here.  If my current novel ever finds a publisher, this is exactly what I will be requiring my readers to do.  I know there is a loyal band of hard core fans out there who loved my novels.  They will be scowling.  What is she playing at?  We don't want TEEN fiction.  We want more about those characters from Angels and Men. We've been waiting for 11 years!

But back to Harlan Coben's new teen novel, Shelter.  Well, I hoovered it up.  Myron appears as the hero's uncle.  Uncle?  But I thought Myron was an only child.  Where has this brother of his suddenly appeared from?  A bit of hasty back-plotting by the author here, I thought cynically.  I've since discovered that there is a whole other adult novel, Live Wire, which fills in this particular gap, and makes the whole Shelter concept plausible.  Or more plausible.  I expect.  I haven't read it yet.

This just goes to show that even the master-plotters of the genre can occasionally paint themselves into a corner which requires some ingenuity to get out of.  How does Coben go about planning his books?  Maybe I could pick up some tips.  I checked out his website under FAQ.  It was nice to see the old favourites: Where do you get your ideas from?  Are your characters based on people you know?  And there was the frequently-asked plotting question.  His answer: 'I don’t outline. I usually know the ending before I start. I know very little about what happens in between. It’s like driving from New Jersey to California. I may go Route 80, I may go via the Straits of Magellan or stopover in Tokyo… but I’ll end up in California.'

Damn.  That's what I do.  It's just he does it so much better.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Does the Dukan Diet Kill You?

I'm addressing this question because I can see from my secret blogger statistics that people have ended up on 'Close Encounters' after Googling 'Does Dukan Diet kill you?'  Perhaps you didn't know that bloggers have access to this kind of information.  We do.  So the individual who has been searching 'Catherine Fox fart', go and stand in the corner.  The global obsession with Dukan brings quite a bit of traffic my blog's way.  'What happens if you eat pecan nuts on the Dukan Diet?' someone asks.  Another person rather more tersely searches ' Dukan Donut.'

So let me do what I can to field your questions.  Does the Dukan diet kill you?  Well, I'm afraid that if you stick rigidly to it, you will eventually die.  But you will anyway.  Let's refine the question a bit.  Does doing the Dukan diet kill you more quickly than not doing the Dukan diet?  Gosh, I really don't know.  I only have my own case to go on.  I know I weigh around 20lb less than I did before I started.  That's meant to be healthier, isn't it?  But there are risks that must be acknowledged.  Death by falling pilchard tins in Lidl.  Accidental inhalation of oatbran.  It could happen.  Or being murdered by people who are sick of hearing about the sodding Dukan diet.

But what about the long term?  Of course, I may turn into one of those people who put all the weight back on AND MORE, ha ha ha!  Told you!  Yes, I may be worse off in a couple of years time, and the Dukan diet will be to blame.  Nobody says this sort of thing to your face if you lose weight.  They say, 'Oh wow, you're looking fantastic! cow You've lost so much weight! I hate you  Don't lose any more, will you! or I'll sit on you with my big fat arse and flatten you, you twiglet!'  Why is there a hint of schadenfreude in the air when a lapsed dieter resumes their original proportions?

Because we are only human.  And because weight gain and loss is never a simple scientific procedure.  It's never just Eat Less, Exercise More, Lose weight, Sorted.   It's mired down in emotions and image and personal worth.  Plus it's a multi-billion pound market.  It should be about health, shouldn't it?  But it ain't.

That said, I feel good and I can run faster now.  Though I'm nowhere near as effective at pinning people down on the judo mat.  Swings and roundabouts.

And while you're here, why not turn your mind to higher things than weight obsession and self image?  Why not buy my mate Richard Beard's book:
  The one that would have made the Booker shortlist in a perfect world.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

WEEK 40--Hiring a Barbershop Quartet

Last Monday was the chancellor's 50th birthday.  He made me promise not to arrange a big surprise party for him.  I think the idea of coming back from Choral Evensong to discover 200 people hiding under his study table was just too much.  This was a pity, in a way, as the new Head of the Cathedral School had kindly offered to lend me 450 pupils, all of  whom would have been wildly excited at the prospect of surprising Canon Pete.  But the thing to bear in mind is that I have a significant birthday of my own looming and I don't want to turn the whole thing into a nightmare of escalating reprisals.

But it seemed a shame for the day to pass with no surprises at all.  Hence my new thing of the week--hiring a Barbershop Quartet.  This is something I've always wanted to do.  And here they are in the picture, performing in The Olive Tree, Lichfield.  You will notice that the restaurant is empty.  This is because it was fairly early on a Monday night and no other diners had arrived by then.  It is not because they all ran out with hands clamped to ears when the group launched into 'Happy Birthday!'.  The other thing I should point out is that they are wearing very expensive silk ties bought in Venice, not ties from the Friary School, Lichfield.  The quartet was made up of two cathedral lay clerks, one concert violinist and half the cathedral Director of Music (the husband half of the husband-and-wife team, rather than the victim of a tragic accident with a bacon slicer).

Was it worth it?  Yes, yes, yes.  Perfect.  Thank you, chaps.  The chancellor bore it extremely well.  After pitching the right key with an iPhone (that's how modern they are) they sang 'Will you still love me tomorrow?' and 'Goodnight sweetheart'.  Then off they went for a pizza.  We did think about hunting them down and bursting in on their meal and caterwauling the Lamb Evensong responses, but thought better of it.  The restaurant staff were very relaxed about the whole thing.  Possibly they were relieved it wasn't a choral Full Monty act.

If you'd like to hire these lovely talented gentleman yourself, get in touch with their leader via http://www.sarumvoices.co.uk/

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

WEEK 39--Co-Founding a Literary Scheme

This year's dazzling Lichfield Literature Festival included the launch of the Samuel Johnson Young Writers' Scheme.

To be honest, this was all I ever dreamed that co-founding something would be.  Basically, I sat in a room with some very clever motivated people and said, 'Oh, wouldn't it be great if we could set up something for Lichfield teenagers, to encourage them to write?'  I tossed out a few suggestions, and these wonderful people went ahead and organised it.  

I remind myself every so often that there really are folk out there who enjoy organising things, just as there are people who like columns of figures and having conversations with HMRC.  Accountants, we call them.  To me they are like extreme sport enthusiasts.  I don't begin to understand what makes them tick, but hats off to them.

The culmination of their organisational efforts was a week-end of creative writing for a dozen AS and A-level students.  We were hosted by the wonderful Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, http://www.samueljohnsonbirthplace.org.uk/ and were lucky enough to hold our workshops in the very room where Johnson was born (here in the picture--visit them, you'll love it).  A statue of the great man was visible through the window in Lichfield's market place.  How could we not be inspired?  A poet could not but be witty in such a jocund company! (as Johnson never wrote).  On the Saturday it was fiction (led by me); on the Sunday it was poetry, taught by poet Neil Rollinson. http://www.neilrollinson.com/  

Having taught with Neil before, I know that teenagers are inclined to think that poetry is a lot cooler than prose.  Which secretly means they think Neil Rollinson is cooler than Catherine Fox.  So I bought the students jelly babies, to make them like me more.  

The tutors certainly had a good time, and I think the Johnson Scholars (as we've decided to call them) enjoyed the week end too.  Some very promising work was produced, and we're hoping to continue building on this beginning.  Check out the website to find out the official side of this new venture:  

Friday, 7 October 2011

Re-Writing a Detective Novel

This post is just to reassure you that I haven't disappeared or abandoned my (admittedly flagging) New Year's Resolution. New Things will still be embraced.  Hideous personal challenges will be set.  But this week I've been busy revising my novel MS in the light of feedback from a reader.  Or rather, Reader.  Someone official appointed by my agent to appraise the book.

Her comments sounded curiously familiar.  They are almost word-for-word the same ones I heartlessly dish out to my creative writing students. It starts too slowly.  And perhaps it would be useful to write a plot outline.  Just goes to show it's far easier to see the problems with someone else's work than with your own.

This needs to be a short post.  I am composing it in that brief window of opportunity in which you will still be able to hear my own authentic voice, before the Tobermoray single malt the chancellor brought back from retreat on Iona starts speaking.  In rouhgly thirty sconeds.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

WEEK 38--Finishing Writing a Detective Novel

If you are in a nit-picking mood, you could point out that this doesn't actually qualify as a New Thing, because I didn't nominate it in advance.  I have no time for small-minded pedantry of this stamp.  Go away and read the blog of the Apostrophe Preservation Society, if that's the kind of mood you're in.  And yes, that sentence did end with a preposition.

So, New Thing no 38.  You know what, I think that's a pretty big new thing--huge though the whole tartiflette episode was.  Obviously, I've finished novels before.  Many more than I've had published, in fact.  A lot of very kind people have asked me over the years why I don't write another novel.  Perhaps they thought it hadn't occurred to me.  But anyway, a detective novel is different.  Especially if it's a fantasy detective novel.

To tell the truth, I opted for a fantasy setting because I could not be arsed to research police procedure and the entire criminal justice system.  And I think you really have to do that, or your more well-informed readers are going to mutter their way through your book: 'That would never happen!  He didn't have a warrant!' etc.  Plus you probably have to set it somewhere gritty and urban, like Sheffield.  Which would mean visiting Sheffield.  (An observation, not a value judgment.)  The minute you try and set a detective novel somewhere like Lichfield, it tilts into slightly camp comedy of manners.  Deepest clergy-sleuth territory.  And it instinctively wants to be set in the 1920s, not 2011.

So there we are, it's finished.  Waiting to hear back from the agent.  I thought that would feel brilliant.  But somehow I'd forgotten what it's like.  Here's what New Zealand writer Janet Frame has to say: 'When the work is finished and the nothingness must be endured, the self may take a holiday.'  The nothingness.  That's what you feel at the end of a big writing project.  I keep telling the self to take a holiday, but it keeps fretting on, trying to do stuff.  So the self had a migraine instead.  That way the self could take to its bed with a clear conscience.  An afternoon in bed is a mini-break, if not an actual holiday.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

JUDO Self-Taught in Pictures

It's gradually dawning on me that my enthusiasm for judo is not shared by those around me.  The congregation of Lichfield Cathedral, for instance--not a very martial group of people.  Realistically speaking, I'm not likely to persuade them into the dojo for an introduction to The Gentle Way (laughingly so called).

So instead, I thought I'd share one of my favourite martial arts books with you: JUDO Self-Taught in Pictures, by Hubert Klinger-Klingerstorrf (2nd Dan, Instructor of Judo at the University of Vienna).  Published in 1952, 'the object of this book is to instruct the reader in the use of Judo in self-defence.'  There isn't a whole load of dense technical prose to wade through.  Instead the would-be judo distance learner is provided with helpful diagrams illustrating how to defend himself (this is the 1950s, so it always is him) against a range of attacks.  'Breaking a stranglehold whilst on the ground', 'defence against upward knife-thrust', 'defence against a blow from a cudgel'--yes, Vienna was a hard-scrabble place in the 50s.

Here's a photo of the page illustrating 'Defence against Thugs and Hoodlums', with special reference to the garotter:
Sorry it's a bit wonky, I've only just worked out how to use my scanner.  But you should get a flavour, and I hope next time some hoodlum tries to garotte you, you'll know what to do.  Admittedly, Lichfield doesn't have much by way of a grim underbelly.  Gangs of thugs are not generally found prowling the Close, unless you count the Lay Clerks.  Perhaps, more relevant--given the age demographic round here--is the section on 'Defence against Attack with a Walking-Stick'.  Klinger-Klingerstorff cautions that this particular defence should only be employed in extreme circumstances: 'If your pull is powerful enough and takes the Attacker completely by surprise, you could break his neck by this counter.'  Fortunately, anyone attacking you with a walking-stick is unlikely to be very mobile.  This means you will probably be able to employ the most effective martial arts counter of all--running away.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

WEEK 37--Making Tartiflette

Here it is: tartiflette.  Do you know what tartiflette is?  The spell check doesn't.  It offers 'Tartuffe' and 'four-letter'.  I didn't know what it was until I got back from France and Googled it.  We'd driven past a sign advertising 'Paella, couscous, tartiflette.'  From this we inferred it was a kind of food.  Well, three out of four of us did.  My older son told us it was French for cushion.  He has never done French in his life.

Never done French!  At all!  These days there are huge swathes of the school population who don't learn French.  And there are many others who come through GCSE French unscathed by any knowledge of grammar.  Or indeed, by basic French vocabulary, judging by my younger son's French-speaking abilities.

Still, even the combined forces of two grade A O-levels from 1978 (mine and the chancellor's) weren't sufficient to crack the mystery of tartiflette.  Care to hazard a guess, based on the photo?  (No marks will be awarded for 'Dog's breakfast'.)  Here's the correct answer:

Tartiflette is a French dish from the Haute Savoie[1] region of France. It is made with potatoesreblochon cheesecream, andlardons.[2] It is also commonly found with onions.[3] A popular variation of this dish is to substitute the lardons with smoked salmon. The word tartiflette is likely derived from the Arpitan word for potatotartifla

There.  Saved you the trouble of going on Wikipedia.  I also seem to have bollocksed up the formatting.  If you can read this, as the bumper stickers say, you're too close.

Ah, sorted it out.  Back to tartiflette.  My valiant attempt at this 'palliative dish' (as one website oddly describes it) was hampered by a technical hitch.  The Close internet connection went down, so I had to reconstruct the recipe from memory.  I had the right type of cheese, mind you.  Bought it at the co-op after my visit to the mobile scanning unit.  On the strength of this, the chancellor has suggested I rename this blog 'Tits and Tartiflette'.  But I shan't.  Who knows what perverts would start following me?

The rather handsome le Creuset (continuing our French theme) casserole dish in the picture belongs to the precentor and his wife.  I ran across the Close to borrow it.  My own le Creuset pans are too small.  They are blue, though, so they are infinitely more tasteful.  Orange is such a Protestant colour.  I'm shocked the precentor has it in the house, to be honest.  Maybe I'll try and keep it.

Anyway, tartilflette: tasty, in a cheesy potato-y way.  Should have cooked it longer, but the family were getting restive.  If you only bake one cushion this year, let it be this one.

Friday, 23 September 2011

WEEK 36--Visit to the Mobile Breast Screening Unit

A visit to the Mobile Breast Screening Unit.  At the beginning of the year this was not on my Must-Do list, I will admit.  But the opportunity arose, so in the spirit of this blog, I embraced it.  The invitation to go along for Breast Screening, the letter informed me, is sent to all women in South Staffordshire aged 50-70.

50-70?! How dare you.  I'm 49.  It's not the being 50 that bothers me.  It's the being prematurely hurtled into the 50-SEVENTY age group.  To me, still clinging to the last embers of my 40s, 70 is OLD.  Admittedly, in cathedral circles 70 is referred to as 'no age' (as in, 'A stroke?  But how old is she?  70!  That's no age!').  But in cathedral circles I'm still something of a fine young filly.

But I swallowed my pride and headed out across Lichfield to the Co-op carpark in Holy Boley (so called because half the cathedral congregation lives there), where the Mobile Screening Unit was parked.

NB. Just in case you've been confused, 'Mobile' refers to the unit, not the breast.  Breast mobility is an issue, of course, especially for the well-endowed jogger.  (I recommend wearing two sports bras, tethers everything nicely.)  

The South Staffs mobile unit is very pleasant, a bit like a tiny hotel lobby housed in a caravan.  Nice and warm inside.  Perfect for inducing those 'Is it just me, or is it hot in here?' episodes so familiar to ladies in the 50-70 category.  Lots of plush seating and glossy magazines.  Two little cubicles where you sit and wait, stripped to the waist, aiming for nonchalance but feeling like a prat, reading Good Housekeeping.  Or in my case, re-reading a Georgette Heyer novel.  La, Sir Peregrine!  It is too tiresome!  I must prevail upon you to wait outside while I have my bosoms clamped!

After a few pages, I was called through for my screening.  You know the score.  Stand right in the middle, pop yourself on the little shelf, stretch your arm over your head, bend double, turn yourself inside out, here comes the crusher! Aargh!  I'm just going to leave you trapped there helpless and in agony while I hide behind this radiation-proof screen and ZAP you.

No, of course it's not really like that, silly.  I'm a novelist.  I make stuff up.  Here are three things that are worse: root canal fillings, letters from HMRC, walking down the street with your skirt tucked in your knickers.  Get over yourself--these routine screenings save countless lives.  And the whole process was about 5 times quicker than the same malarky in hospital.  Very glad I went along.  Thank you, South Staffordshire BreastScreening Service, on behalf of all women in the 50-70 age group.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

And back to Judo

First judo session today, after the summer break.  Oh dear, oh dear.  You think you're managing to keep fit by doggedly going running, but you're not.  Five minutes of uchi komi (repeat throwing practice, without the actual throw) and you're ready for a lie down.  Happily, this is easily achieved in judo.  Simply stop concentrating and your opponent will ignominiously dump you on your back.  Bingo!  There you are flat on the mat staring up at the leisure centre ceiling, and noticing that the football you first spotted wedged under a rafter 10 years ago is still there.

10 years!  More than 10, in fact.  I was thinking about that today as I approached the small hall where we train, and remembering how I went up to the coach with my small sons in tow and said 'Two new ones for you.'  The coach straightened up and looked me in the eye, and asked, 'Are you coming on the mat too?'  How different my life would now be if I'd answered, 'Are you MAD?  I'm a parson's wife.  Of course I'm not coming on the mat. Do I look like a complete masochist to you?'  Instead, I said 'YES.  If you bring me a kit, I'll come on the mat next week.'  And the rest is history.  (To find out more, read my book Fight the Good Fight. From Vicar's Wife to Killing Machine.)

Good to see the old gang again.  Numbers are down at the moment, compared with 10 years ago.  Why don't more people try judo?  I meet so many women moaning about being overweight and unfit, and how they hate diets and going to the gym.  Of course you hate diets and going to the gym!  These things are boring.  They are like housework.  You spend hours doing them, hardly anyone notices the difference, then you have to do it all over again.  For ever.  But judo is FUN.  (Ignore the references above to masochism and being thrown flat on your back.)  You get fit not by poncing about in yoga pants on a Pilates mat worried you're looking flabby, but as a by-product of fighting people.  

Honestlywhat's not to like?  Give it a go.  You'll be amazed how therapeutic it can be, scragging someone.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Back in the Saddle

Well, not literally the saddle.  Back to karate after the summer break.  And back to some quite startling levels of incompetence.  Forgetting what the Japanese terms mean.  Losing the ability to do separate things with different limbs.  Kicking with all the force of large flabby teddy bear.  Not even an angry teddy bear, a useless one.

An angry teddy bear might conceivably be a force to be reckoned with.  Like Kung Fu Panda.  (My favourite line from that film: 'There is no charge for awesomeness!'  I quote it now and then to my sons, when I've baked an exceptionally fine batch of muffins, or something.  They look at me steadily for a moment or two, then go back to texting their friends with a little shake of the head.  Mum.)

Still, it felt good to be back.  The next grading is on November 13th.  Unfortunately, I may not have been to enough classes by then to qualify.  I need to have attended 25 sessions.  I told sensei it was going to be tight.  He replied that there's another grading in March, so not to worry.  I pondered his wisdom as I walked home.  It doesn't matter, I thought.  I do not have to convert this into some ghastly challenge that I'm locked into and must achieve at all costs.  I do not have to get another black belt before I'm 60, or be forever branded a worthless weakling and a failure.  I could just do karate (gasp!) for fun.

This is a character flaw of mine.  My life is rather nice; quick, what can I do to make it intolerably anguished?  Probably comes from being a northern European Protestant.  And an over-achieving people-pleasing Grammar School Girl, just to compound the problem.  Bad person!  I must address this.  Must have more fun.  Must relax and enjoy life more.  Must stop caring if I look incompetent.

See what I mean?  Dude, think I'm just going to go and smoke a cigar instead...

Saturday, 10 September 2011

WEEK 34 & 35 -- A New Vice; Driving on the Right.

 Well, I assume you all recognise this famous landmark.  Le Mont St Michel, France.  If you are planning on visiting during the tourist season, get there nice and early to avoid the queues.  This year we were in France when the holiday season was almost over, and the narrow streets winding their way up the mount were not quite as packed with tourists.  The coffee was as expensive as ever, mind you.

We've been holidaying in Brittany for the past six years.  I dare say we'll look back on this period as the Brittany Years.  There was an elegiac feel in the air this time; partly because it was starting to feel autumnal, but also because this was probably our last family holiday, just the four of us together.   I'm amazed we've sustained it this long, really.  Many teenagers opt out of holidays with mum and dad after the age of 14, preferring instead to stay at home and trash the house with illicit parties that spiral out of control.

Now then, the new things.  Obviously going to France is not a new thing.  But as promised in an earlier posting, I did smoke my first cigar.  My first tin of cigars, in fact.  A new vice.  Comparable, I think, to drinking a tiny intense espresso in an Italian piazza whilst wearing Ferragamo pumps.  I have a pair of Ferragamo pumps, as it happens.  Got them in a Charity Shop in Shirley.  I'm glad I only spent £12 on them, to be honest, not £250, as they aren't very comfortable.  I'm determined not to be beaten, but so far it's 3-2 to the pumps.  The picture of a cow field shows you the view I contemplated while smoking my cafe creme each evening.

My other new thing was driving in France.  Driving on the right.  Shriek.  The experience would have been even more alarming had the car been a left-hand drive.  I can imagine myself fumbling in panic in the glove compartment for the gear stick each time I approached a junction.  In fact, it wasn't too dismaying an experience as it turned out.  French roads are generally pretty empty.  On the whole, I prefer to be driven, so that I can stare blankly out of the window.  Staring blankly out of windows is part of the writer's job description, and is not easily compatible with driving.  Still, the challenge of driving on the right was there, and I rose to it.  Nervously and timidly, but there we are.  I hope I'm a better person for it.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Dukan Diet on Holiday

 Oh dear, oh dear.  How to combat the temptation to treat holidays as a separate moral universe in which all dietary rules no longer apply.  Especially when you are going to France and will be endlessly assailed  by sights such as these (pictured).  It's not Greggs, is it?  This is top notch patisserie.  Patisserie to die and go to heaven for.  These are the things angels eat, when they aren't playing their harps and debating how many theologians you can fit on the head of a pin.

But hang on a moment--France is the home of the Dukan diet.  Surely I have not travelled this far in the company of Dr Dukan, only to be abandoned to the ravages of irresistible baked goods?  Surely he has some wisdom to share.  I looked up 'croissants' in the index.  Nothing.  He goes straight from 'crisps' (bad: 'full of fat and calories... dangerous if you want to prevent cardiovascular illness and cancer') to 'cruise diet'.  This means 'alternating protein', by the way, rather than what to eat on board ship, or when out on the pull.

So the Dukaneuse on holiday will have to fall back on those good habits instilled by months of following Dr Dukan's advice.  Eat sensibly, exercise, remember your oat bran, forget your escalators, and above all, eat 200 hundred croissants every week while on holiday in France!  I'm sorry, that was a typo.  It should have read, have one day of pure proteins a week.  With a bit of luck you won't come back two dress sizes larger.

I'm supposed to be packing.  I find holidays stressful, to be honest.  Worry, worry, worry.  Passports.  Bow doors of ferry.  Will house-sitter set fire to new washing machine?  Will new washing machine set fire to house-sitter?  The answer is to drink wine and lose yourself in a good book.  Here's a suggestion: Lazarus is Dead, by Richard Beard.  A compelling exploration of the nature of faith and doubt, of how we know the unknowable.  Plus it's funny and the end made me cry.  Enjoy.  With a glass of wine and the patisserie of your choice.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

WEEK 33--Guest at a Civil Partnership

I've lost count of how many weddings I've been to in my life.  Dozens and dozens, almost all in churches of one kind or another.  I've been to a handful of Registry Office weddings, and more recently, non-religious ceremonies at other venues.  This was the first Civil Partnership ceremony I'd been to, however.

Now then, Civil Partnerships are not church weddings.  This is a minefield.  I myself was caught up in a real dilemma here.  After much deliberation and heart-searching, I decided the occasion warranted my best millinery efforts.  So I bought a fabulous hat, wide as a cartwheel,  to go with my charity shop dress.  Then I was told by the best woman that there was a 'no hats' dress code!  Flip, I thought.  (Well, the first letter was the same.)  I immediately sought a special dispensation from one of the grooms.  This was granted, and all was well.  But you see what I mean?  It's a total minefield.

Having been on a lengthy journey from my Evangelical roots, I was able to enjoy the ceremony in an uncomplicated way.  (Apart from the logistics of wearing a cartwheel in a confined space, which admittedly was complicated.)  I'm aware that not everyone is at ease with Civil Partnerships.  A13 year old I know, for example, told me that she found the idea 'Rather unnerving.'  So do many in the Church.  The C of E has not yet found a way to bless same sex unions officially .  Unless you happen to be in the Diocese of Southwark, where I understand unnerving things do go now and then, and you occasionally get the feeling you're not in Kansas any more.

Still, for the friends gathered on Saturday to wish the couple well, it was a supremely happy day.  It always strikes me as a bit odd when people say that Civil Partnerships 'undermine the institution of marriage'.  You could argue that two people publicly committing to a lifetime of faithful love kind of enhances the whole idea.  I'd nominate cheating on your spouse as a more pernicious undermining influence, but there you go.

For those of you wrestling with similar issues to my own, let me just say this: however extravagant your hat, in all probability you will still be eclipsed by the outrageousness of the grooms' gay friends.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

WEEK 32--An Overnight Stay in York Youth Hostel

An old primary school chum, Angela, has just celebrated her 50th birthday in the York Brewery.  Good food, good ale, good company.  It's official--the girl can organise a piss-up in a brewery.  If you yourself have difficulty in this department, get in touch, and I will pass on her details.

A spot of organising was required on my part, too, if I was to be there on the night.  I didn't fancy driving there and back in an evening, so I looked into overnight accommodation.  Don't ask me to organise your brewery piss-up.  By the time I got round to looking for budget hotels in York, everything was booked solid.  So the good old YHA it was.  I have stayed in Youth Hostels before, but never by myself, never booking it myself and all that stuff.  I'm reassured to think that if I am tragically widowed, I will at least be able to go away on a mini break without getting lost or kidnapped or locked out of my room.  Well, there's no real guarantee is there?  I've been locked out of rooms before and had to go down to reception in my pyjamas, tra la la, how hilarious!

Anyway, dorm of 8 bunks, very reasonable price, comfortable walking distance from the town centre.  I arrived and checked in and made up my bunk, as you can see, in a nice verdant duvet cover and pillow slip.  Then I got changed and headed into to town for a mooch and a sight-see, before the bash.

York is the perfect pottering town. Oodles of history, tea rooms and quirky shops.  I had a pot of Earl Grey and a slice of extremely good lemon cake at Georgina's, and later on, an extraordinary liquorice ice cream from a chocolate shop in the Shambles.  Weird, but wonderful.  I sat eating it in a little square listening to the buskers and thinking life was good.  I then meandered to York Minster for choral evensong.  I was late, because they clearly don't know in York that choral evensong is at 5.30pm not 5.15pm.  I'm sure they will rectify this.  After the service I admired the statue of Constantine outside the  Minster, where he appears to be waiting for the nail polish on his right hand to dry before he embarks on his left hand (see below).

With a bit more time to kill I wandered down towards the river.  It rapidly became clear why the hotels were all full: stag nights and hen parties.  I won't detain you with a description, merely pause to suggest that if 'Vomit-Skating in stilettos and half a dress' ever becomes an Olympic event, the Gold medals have Great Britain written all over them.

After the party I was driven back to the Youth Hostel by a kind friend of Angela's, was not locked out, phew, and all seemed peachy, until I crept into my dorm to find a great big Spanish bird in my bunk.  We had a hissed exchange over who's bunk it should be, before I found myself flailing around in the dark trying to make up the top bunk and locate all my kit which she'd moved.  Quite a challenge, after a couple of the brewery's best.  I was pretty grumpy at the time, but it's got steadily funnier since.  After discussion with the nice bloke on Reception as I checked out, I think I know what must have happened.  The cleaners had mistakenly stripped her bed, and she'd come back to find someone had apparently taken it over.  'Unless she's just bonkers,' I said.  'Well, we do get a lot of bonkers people here,' he conceded.

So, how do I rate my first ever solo stay in a Youth Hostel?  Hmm.  Let's just say, I was glad I'd taken earplugs to block out the gentle concerto of snores, farts and smoker's coughs.  Good value, provided you are prepared to take the rough with the smooth, and a cracking breakfast.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

WEEK 31--Lecture on the St Chad Gospels

I don't wish to imply that I've never been to a lecture before.  Heck, when I was an undergraduate, I went to several every term.  I'd sit there with my mate Sue, and we'd see who cracked first and wrote the note which said 'Lunch?'  This meant Norwegian mushrooms and vintage cider at one of Durham's pubs, with the knock-on effect of no afternoon lectures.  That's what happens when students are given grants.  They don't study. In these days of student loans it's completely different.  It really is.  Study, study, study, no pub.  Would my son lie to his mother?

Nor are you to think I'm just scrambling around again for something new to blog about.  I've chosen this for a reason.  I am addressing a syndrome which has no handy name, but which we all recognise.  The old 'living in Stratford and never going to the RSC' scenario.  You know what I mean.  Admit it, you only ever visit the Tower of London when you've got foreign guests, don't you?

Here in Lichfield we have a truly magnificent Gospel Book, which as I may have mentioned before, is OLDER THAN THE BOOK OF KELLS.  It's currently on display in the Chapter House alongside its mate, the Lichfield Angel (a Saxon carving, probably from St Chad's tomb chest), and the star items of the Staffordshire Hoard.  Sorry folks--the exhibition has sold out, but if you're quick, you can still catch it at Tamworth Castle (27th Aug--18th Sept).  I believe there are still free tickets left, but you do have to book.

Obviously, I've often seen the St Chad Gospels.  They still get paraded round the cathedral on High Days and holidays.   But I've never really taken the trouble to learn much about them.  Hence today's lecture.  It was delivered by Prof William F Endres, an expert from the University of Kentucky.  Last summer we had a team from Kentucky over here, digitising the Gospel book (i.e. taking lots of  images with very high-tech equipment).  Prof Endres was here to share some of their discoveries.

A long overdue scholarly book on the St Chad Gospels is being planned, which ought to scotch forever the idea that the St Chad Gospels originated in Wales.  And it is to this work you should turn in due course for a proper analysis.  But here are a couple of things which captured my imagination:  the first is the possibility that the scribes who wrote this exquisite text may have been women.  Another is that some of the ornamentation, which appears to be unique to the St Chad Gospel (a twisted rope motif) bears an uncanny resemblance to the filigree work on some of the Staffordshire Hoard items.  And finally, there are hints that the St Chad Gospel may have influenced the style of the Book of Kells.  (Than which it is, of course, OLDER.)

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Dukan Diet--The Final Phase, Stabilisation.

My 100 days of consolidation are up.  I am now entering the final phase: Permanent Stabilisation. 'Go back to eating what you want six days out of seven, while keeping the consolidation foods as your safety base and platform.'

Ta dah!  This is the point on most diets where you think, yippee!  I'm thin!  I've done it and can now eat like a hog.  This makes about as much sense medically as thinking, Yippee, my broken leg has mended, I may now fling myself back down three flights of stairs with impunity!  We know this, but we do it anyway.

This is why diets don't work.  We go back to our old ways, those slippery paths that led us down into the Slough of Obesity, and bingo!  Or perhaps binge-o.  On goes all that weight again, bringing some chums with it.  But the good doctor is on the alert for his ladies who have battled so valiantly, scoffing their oat bran, renouncing escalators, walking 20 minutes every day in their Parisian high heels, eschewing junk, embracing low fat protein faithfully, once a week.  He will not abandon us to the misery of yo-yo dieting for the rest of our lives.  We must continue to obey him.  And here are the 5 things he expects of us in our newly stabilised life:

Actually, I can't be bothered to type it.  Buy the book and look on page 155.  Briefly, eat the sensible food he's trained you to eat, have one pure protein day a week (he says Thursday, but Thursday is karate day for me and I need my energy levels, so I go for Wednesday), and 'Live your life as if lifts and escalators did not exist'.  And the final measure, he assures us 'is simply a treat: you must stick to three tablespoons of oat bran a day for life.'  Yes, yes!  A treat!  (Stockholm syndrome has taken hold of me, I fear.)

But here's the real question, the only question: Does it work?  Here's the answer: Yes, if you stick to the rules.  That's been my experience so far.  I can get into my wedding dress.  I tried yesterday.  Getting out again was more of a challenge, to be honest, partly because of a judo-related arm injury.  I didn't tap out quickly enough when a large bloke was locking my elbow.  Not tapping out (submitting, that is) quickly enough is a form of judo vanity.  Men don't like to tap out if a woman is strangling them.  It dents their pride.  Or else it's an oxygen-deprivation erotic thing.  I must ask.

Anyway.  The other reason is that the dress is a little more snug than it was in 1984.  This is because I am a little more... ooh, what's the word--hour-glassy? densely packed? muscular? fat?--than I was at 22.  I weigh about 8-10 pounds more than I did then.  I suppose I could have aimed lower, but they say, don't they, that after 35 you have to choose between your backside and your face looking good.  For most of us, perhaps especially clergy wives, it's the face that's more on display.  So the face wins.  Don't get too thin, or you'll look scrawny round the wattles.

Still, my new weight has stayed within 3 pounds of my target.  A variation accounted for by the vagaries of being female at this interesting stage of Project Womanhood.  I keep thinking aargh!  It's all piling on again!  But then it comes back down.  I assume that if I carry on following his rules, this will carry on being the case.  Be sensible, don't be a pig.  Keep active.  Eat your oat bran.

Friday, 29 July 2011

WEEK 30--Buying Cigars

Another genuine first: I have never bought cigars before in my life.  And here's where I bought them.  The Chocolate Box in Walsall.  When we lived in Walsall my sons were always amused by the idea of a sweet shop with a dental practice upstairs.  Were they in cahoots?

I have vivid memories of trips to the dentist in Walsall, before I learnt not to take my small sons with me when I was having a check-up.  I was powerless to repress them with my mouth crammed with surgical steel and latex-clad fingers, and was forced to lie there as the older one ran through his 007 impersonations.  'Do you expect me to talk?  No, Mr Bond, I expect you to DIE! Mwa-ha-ha!' The younger one kept up a stream of observations and artless questions: 'Cool! blood!  Are you going to drill her heart?'  The dentist squeaked rather huffily*, 'No, I am not going to drill her heart!'

But back to cigar buying.  I felt incredibly furtive as I approached the shop.  Was I going to bail out and buy a quarter of aniseed balls, like blushing young men in a bygone era exiting chemists with tubes of toothpaste instead of condoms?  To understand my furtiveness, you need to remember you can take the girl out of the manse, but you can't take the manse out of the girl.  I don't think I've felt this furtive since I was six, and cadged half a tube of coral lipstick from a friend, then hid it under the box tree in the garden.  I still remember the smell of it.

Oddly enough, I have bought cigarettes before, from this very tobacconist's in fact.  But they were a prop for a murder mystery party.  I was a Russian countess, and obviously I needed some pastel-coloured Sobranie cocktail cigarettes to pose with.  I never smoked them.  The cigars I fully intend to smoke (though not inhale).  Hence the furtiveness.  Coupled with that English affliction: the fear of making a fool of myself in a shop by not knowing what I was doing.  Do you buy them by the tin, or by the dozen?  Or do they come in twenties?  Was the correct term actually cigarillos?

Oh Catherine, why oh why, when SMOKING SERIOUSLY HARMS YOU AND OTHERS AROUND YOU?  Basically, because I always feel left out on holiday when the menfolk of my immediate family sit on the balcony puffing their fat cigars.  I shall sit there and puff my thin cigars.  Or quite possibly, let them burn languidly between my fingers.  This is, after all, 'the world's favourite everyday pleasure'.  It says so on the tin. (As far as possible from the picture of a man's throat horribly devoured by cancer.)

Yes, I know I could have bought them in a French tobacconist, but I was consumed by the following possible scenario: me requesting 'Cafe creme' and ending up with a cup of coffee, which I'd then have to drink, because I don't know the gender for cigar, and Grammar School girls don't like to make linguistic blunders; would rather not communicate at all.  I'd then emerge from the shop and have to lie to my family and say I'd changed my mind, because I'd be incapable of admitting my ridiculous tongue-tied English anguish.

I confess, I love the smell of tobacco.  I'm sitting here sniffing the tin.  My current favourite perfume is 'Cuba' by Czech & Speake.  It is not the easiest fragrance to love, perhaps.  You can read the thumbs-down reviews on the perfume website Basenotes (http://www.basenotes.net)  But here's the blurb from the Czech&Speake website:
Inspired by the old town of Havana, its Latin rhythms, smooth cigars, fine rums and exotic beauties, this fragrance bursts into life with the initial top notes of bergamot, lime, peppermint and a hint of rum. Layered with a melange of spicy and floral middle notes, mainly rose, clove and bay, Tonka beans add a subtle softness. The lasting base notes of tobacco mixed with the richness of frankincense, cedar wood and vetiver round off this striking fragrance.
Gosh, I need a little lie down after that.  And maybe a cigar.

*A JKR tribute sentence, there.  (Observed Hermione cattily.)

Saturday, 23 July 2011

End of an Era

Well, it's been a long journey, from the moment when I opened volume 1 and said to my small son, 'I'm going to read you the first of the two books Grandma sent you for Christmas.'  My son replied, 'I don't want you to.  I won't like it.'  I said, 'Well, I'll just read the first few pages, and if you really don't like it, we don't have to read the rest.'  Son: 'I won't listen.'  Me: That's fine, but I'm going to read it anyway.'  He was hooked by the end of page one.  The adventure had begun.  It ended last night, some dozen years later, with a family outing to the final film, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part II.

We were ahead of the game in those early days.  The following World Book Day our son went to school dressed as Harry Potter.  Who are you?  I'm Harry Potter.  Who's Harry Potter?  The following year everyone went as Harry Potter, so my sons went as Asterix and Obelix instead.  They are a classic example of boys who started to read because of JKR.  The books are still there on the shelves, as you can see, read to bits.  Above and below are the grown up books: the poetry, the thrillers, the quantum mechanics.

Book 3 was the first one we went out and bought for ourselves, going straight from school.  Where on earth were the queues at Waterstones?  Did people not know?  Pottermania only really took off at Book 4.  It's book 3 I remember best, sitting on a rug on the lawn one sunny August afternoon, finishing reading it out loud to both sons, now.  I remember crying when Harry's patronus appeared.  I also remember how scary it was, the dementors, and of having to invent anti-Voldemort collects to say at bedtime so that my hyper-imaginative older son could sleep.   And I remember the cassettes, those endless car journeys with Stephen Fry's big voice booming plummily.

Book 4 was the first one our son read for himself, desperate to finish before the curate's sons, beside himself with fury when I got ahead of him by sneakily reading while he was at school.  I have a photo of him at Junior Church, dressed as Ron (hair sprayed red, eyeliner freckles) head bent over his volume.  Oh, the speculation!  Who dies?  Surely not Ron?!  The mean kids in the playground, spoiling it.  How would the series end?  'Then Harry woke up,' was my son's suggestion.  'It had all been a dream.  He was still in the cupboard under the stairs.  He was not a wizard after all.  The End.'

Book 5 was the one where the chancellor scored maximum points for a midnight trip to Sainsbury's to buy a copy on Day One, when Mum had meanly refused.  Book 6, I have no recollection of.  It has fallen, I think, into a black hole in my memory caused by depression.  Book 7 was bought in France, in a shop in Fougeres.  Two copies, as by now there was no way an agreement could be reached between our two boys over who got it first.  This was when we learnt that son 2 could read faster than son 1, heh heh heh.  We have photos of them both nose in book at street cafes across Britanny.  Quite a quiet holiday, that one.

And there were the films, of course.  We've seen them all.  The chancellor famously cried when Neville Longbottom won the house cup for Gryffindor (Kingdom values, the first shall be last etc).  By the final film Hogwarts was no longer recognisable as a hybrid of Durham cathedral and Alnwick castle, places our sons knew well from their early childhood in the north east.  The acting had improved, the special effects had come on.  3D!  Woo hoo!  The end of the last film (apart from the '19 years on' coda) seemed desolate.  The three nearly grown up wizards standing on the wreckage of Hogwarts, alone.  It's over.  We did it.  But there was no reassuring adult presence, no Dumbledoor to explain it all.  It felt like a fitting liminal image for the Potter generation. Your childhood is over.  You are the next generation of grown-ups.