Foreign affairs


So, after five years of domestic bliss, my housemate is abandoning London and moving back Germany. She’s going about it an interesting way. Her friends back home keep making ‘jokes’ about how they’ll have to help reprogramme her, purge off that Englishness etc. Nothing more guaranteed to raise her hackles, of course, but as her hackles rise, so do my eyebrows. See, when I moved back from Ireland, I got rid of a lot of stuff. She’s doing the opposite, and mostly because of that awful Englishness that will have to go. You know those weird square pillows they have in France/Germany/Italy? Chances are you have happened upon them in a hotel/hostel/hellhole [delete according to budget] and wondered how the natives use them when surely the oblong shape favoured across these islands is the more practical. It is. The natives reportedly spend time each night folding, punching and plumping to get the optimum (oblong) shape. So Carina, spotting the quicker way, is returning to her homeland with Brit/Irish pillows and cases to match.

This I can understand. Less easy to fathom is the acquisition of the fire surround. See, in Germany they don’t have fireplaces, and when one has seen a fire surround used as a novelty bookcase in an interior-design magazine in the UK, one is all too prone to setting one’s heart on recreating said effect. Not me, obvs. I couldn’t give a rat’s about interior-design effects, certainly not enough to seek out, purchase and then collect a solid oak fire surround from East Finchley, on my own, by tube. It was far bigger than she expected, but the gentlemen of London rose to the occasion magnificently, helping her up and down stairs, on and off tube trains, across roads etc.
Her last Prince Charming was a strapping Polish bloke who collared her at her home tube station and declared that wherever she was going, he wasn’t going to let her carry it one step of the way. What a sweetheart! Off they walked, he carrying the mighty oak, she wheeling his bike. During the inevitable chitchat, conversation turned to the date of the fireplace – 1930s. Second World War, PolishBloke said dreamily. He wished he’d been alive then because he would been in the army and would have made it his business to shoot loads of Germans. Awwwwkward. Even worse when he asked where she was from. ‘Holland,’ she said brightly. She couldn’t bear to embarrass him after he’d been so sweet, she later admitted.

When embarrassment is worse than death, yeah, you’ve probably been in England for too long.

I don’t like August. Dunno why, but I’ve never liked it. Perhaps in the past it was the sense that the school holidays are slipping inexorably away; certainly the weather’s never as good as you hope. Everyone’s away so there isn’t even the onslaught of work to buffer the greyish, what’s-the-point gloom. And the news isn’t helping. Jihadist beheads reporter; Hamas executes ‘informers’; Nigerian girls remain missing. Gawd.

Still, I read this piece by Michael White Continue reading ‘I don’t like August’

Have you ever wondered what happens if you use hedge clippers to cut their own cable? Please don’t say I’m the only one who has felt their teeth judder to the tune of a power tool and asked themselves, a bit like Father Dougal, what it would actually really feel like if you trained its blades onto its vital parts. In the event, nothing. You look away for a split second, laughing, and the motor cuts out instantly. No blue flash, no sticking to the ground, no being thrown backwards through the open front door. What happens is that you stare appalledwise – first at the severed insulation and shinily exposed wires, then at the amount of overgrown hedge you still have to cut (90 per cent). Then you apologise sheepishly to their aghast 85-year-old owner who thinks you’ve probably just seen the face of God, and fetch the shears.

Luckily for the shears/unluckily for the hedge, I have the arms of Hercules – another interesting discovery made in the course of a few days’ jaunt to Pembrokeshire, courtesy of a very dear friend who was renting a cottage with her two ridiculously adorable sons. After several days of wondrous walks, glorious swims and hothousing more freckles than is surely advisable, I picked up a tennis racquet at a nearby friend’s house and discovered to my joy that 30 racquet-free years have not dimmed my talent. I’m just exactly as awful as I ever was and tennis is just as much fun. Fun for me, I should say. Less fun for the unshakably charming host who smiled politely as I waved at the next-door field as an explanation for where at least one of the balls might be found, and less fun for the blameless small boy ambling about his four-year-old business on the other side of the net from my flailing serve.

But yes to Pembrokeshire. Yes and double yes. Apart from an apparently endless round of country fairs, hog roasts, art workshops and talks on church architecture, there are walks that will take your breath away. Red sandstone to the east, leaving softer cliffs buckled and gentle; limestone to the west, producing stacks and arches and sheer drops with seagulls wheeling dizzily far below. Gormenghast and Lord of the Rings, but with the occasional tea shop.

And the train to get there! At Swansea you are decanted into a two-carriage train that takes you to 1935. You trundle through people’s gardens, past their potting sheds, past families having picnics. You toot and stop at lanes that cross the railway but are too small to merit a level crossing (which will give an idea of the velocity of your trundle). Passengers wishing to disembark at the quieter stations have to request it of the guard, who’ll do a head count and have a word with the driver. Passengers wishing to embark from these same spots are sternly enjoined by signs on the platform that they must “Please signal clearly” to the incoming train so that its asphyxiating pace – that of a stout spaniel, at a guess – can be slowed in time for the Titfield Thunderbolt to hit its mark.

So now I am entirely in love, although Pembrokeshire may have to wait for my return. The box of OS maps grows fuller, the weekends more heavily pencilled with words like Lewes, New Forest, Faversham and Hereford. And as an aside, there is an urgency. News of a former colleague’s appallingly sudden death last week; a near miss suffered by a dear friend six weeks ago; a friend’s baby who only lived for two days in May. It pushes you to eat life in great bites, to drink in beauty, to bottle laughter, to dance A LOT more often and to gloat that yes, one will always be the greatest tennis player to cut a hedge-trimmer’s power cord this afternoon in south London.

World events, eh? I’ve just come back from a trip overseas and those world events, they just have a way of biting you in the arse. Not that I’ve been helping Uighurs towards autonomy, Christians out of Nigeria, or pretty much everybody across the border into Kurdistan. Nope, I’ve just come back from Ibiza, where for a while it looked as if lucky Johnny Spaniard may have had to put up with my fretful dependence on shady spots for a while longer because of Johnny Frenchman – or more specifically, Johnny Air Traffique Contrôle.

L’histoire de la lutte? Something about pensions, comme toujours, though I imagine it’s been beefed up with a hefty stir of guff about the French way of life being undermined by erm, modernity. But thanks to capitalism vs la France profonde, one of our number was forced to stay for an unscheduled extra night. He seemed considerably less pleased with the situation than we were, responding to ‘Yay! Simon!’ with tight smiles and ill-concealed anguish about his toppling tower of work back in Blighty, but despite our tactless delight, he made it away about 18 hours later.

In fact, this year had a good bit more coming and going than usual. Another of our number had pitched up after a three-week yoga course somewhere else on the island. The course sounded hilariously awful, with its progenitor and chief beneficiary emphasizing the importance of ‘karmic yoga’ – an essential element of yogic practice, apparently. She took it to mean carte blanche to bully her suggestible and high-paying clients into weeding her garden, cleaning her house, doing the laundry, taking out the bins etc – crucially for no payment – in order to enrich their spiritual Tikka Vindaloo Masala. 

Around the dinner table jaws dropped with admiration at tales of this woman’s exploitation of her ‘students’ – a loose term because it seems everyone else’s karmic yoga took precedence over her own, inasmuch as she shirked almost every opportunity provided, and paid for in advance, by her houseguests to actually teach the poor sods. So they all ended up teaching each other.

The plan was that Alice was then going to test her teaching wings by taking a few classes around the pool with us as her guinea pigs. Good luck with that. Mixed ability is the polite term for her motley crew; I’d forgotten to bring any yoga garb so would have had to prance about in my pants; we all drank far too much every lunchtime to risk even touching our toes and the pool was practically a not-on-your-nelly area as some kind of malfunction left it greener and murkier every day. In fairness, Alice did manage to squeak one past the guardians of indolence: the two leanest members took to the mats on the first morning, while the rest of us lolled about, dreaming up excuses to see off any future threat of activity.

The only two who did manage regular exercise were the little girls – aged four and two – who didn’t know each other beforehand but swiftly forged their allegiance through sandcastle building (after the standard-issue quibbles over exciting bucket and boring spade) and tempered it hard as steel by bedtime avoidance. Lily, the elder, was negotiator and battle-toughened rebel leader, while Bo had speed, lightning reflexes and total faith in her commanding officer. Bedtime rolls around. Lily, master tactician, can read the road ahead: the moment the vagaries of Hide and Seek put both players in the same room, beside the grown-ups, battle is lost. And so it happens. Two small, breathless pyjama’d figures are suddenly within reach of outstretched adult arms. Lily, channelling Mel Gibson in Braveheart urging the fight for freedom, howls a heartfelt: ‘Run, Bo! Run!’ And Bo, channelling Mel Gibson in Gallipoli, does. Unforch, things don’t pan out so well for Mel in either, and history repeats itself here. Scotland gets squished, the cute one in Gallipoli buys the farm and Lily and Bo are fast asleep within 10 minutes of capture.



Did I use nasty chemicals to poison the slugs? No. I felt too guilty about messing with the garden’s organic credentials. Did I even use Mother Nature’s methods, like salt, to kill them in some ghastly frothing mucus soup? No, I’m too yeller-bellied for that too. Nope, I spent an hour picking up the little blighters one by one, putting them in a bucket, carrying them up the garden and releasing them into the compost bins with a ‘Godspeed, and eat all you can.’ Pfft. Useless mass murderer I am. The result, unfortunately, remains Slugs: 1 million; Crops: zero, but hey ho.

The last couple of weeks have been spent looking for a new housemate. Actually, it’s only been a week, but if you add up the dread beforehand, and accept that time drags badly when you hear yourself say ‘Erm, gas hob, electric oven’ for the fourth time in one afternoon, then yeah, it actually feels like three months. The doorstep yielded the usual grab-bag mix of you-look-nice versus I-find-you-obscurely-frightening, but we finally struck gold and eagerly await our newbie who moves in at the end of the month.

The delay is officially to enable the landlord to give the place a wash and brush-up, but it also gives us time to do the same, by which I mean through the kitchen and bathroom cupboards. After years of two people cohabiting with a floating third, the shared areas have definitely accrued peculiar products of unknown provenance. I’m guessing some of the bilious mouthwashes, rancid pastes, sticky jars and part-flattened tubes will turn out to be the property of some long-gone housemate, products that we have carefully wiped and put back for years without realizing they were already orphans when Twitter launched. ‘No! I thought that was yours’ will be our watchword. Say farewell to the tahini, the mace, the mushroom ketchup, the fish sauce, the minced garlic, the beef jerky marinade and the pickled walnuts. And say hello to a dustbin that smells like a slum drain.

This morning, before work, I delivered two more courgette seedlings to my garden partner’s doorstep, ready for this evening and my return, when I shall plant them out in the big wide world. As I walked up the street with them, their long, hothouse-attenuated arms and lily-pad hands waving zanily with each of my strides, I noticed I was scowling. Why?

It’s surely impossible to walk down a London street past commuters, bearing comedy-looking plants without looking cheery, and yet I caught my expression in a shop window and it was thunderous. The plants themselves seemed so excited about their new home but I realised that my face was shaped by my heart, and it was heavy with guilt. Without slug pellets, I’m surely taking them to their death. These lovely, lovely plants I’ve raised from seed. Oh, God, the rage. The rage and the sorrow.

But soft! Who goes there? Call me Lucrezia Borgia, but there’s a small twist of slug pellets secreted deep in a pocket of my rucksack. Look to your households and bar your doors, there may be foul murder this night…

Organic matter


Oh, this rain! It has at least usefully told me just exactly how unwaterproof much of my walking gear has become. The Berghaus that got drenched on Easter Sunday; the boots that caught the attention of the dog and carried me across Northumberland, both are provably unable to cope with hour after hour of rain and swishing through long, sodden grass. Yesterday I carried out the same experiment with a different jacket. It was very waterproof but features a hood of such poor design that the water trickled down my face and, by then warmed to unnoticeability, flowed on down my neck until I unpeeled at home and found my front was wet to the waist. Bah.

Today I was supposed to be enjoying more of this unseasonal grey chill at my nephew’s school open day. He was due to row in the parade of boats but, during a rehearsal the other day, another boat was caught by the current and smashed into his crew’s, catching his hand between them. Seven stitches in his writing hand later, he is looking forward to his AS level exam next week. He’s going to be one of those special kids in a side room, with his own invigilator and a stopwatch, to let him take time off if his hand hurts too much. This is glamour beyond my ken. Such a risk-averse, unsporty and swotty kid was I that no way would I have been nursing any kind of injuries beyond something caused by slipping on spilled food as I hastened my waddle to the lunch counter.

Anyway, the school decided that the river was too swollen and they couldn’t afford any more bashed-up students, so they cancelled the parade of boats. Since this was the centerpiece of our day, my brother called the gathering off, and thus it was that I swapped a cold, muddy riverbank for an attractively warm and dry office.

More plans changing: a trip to my garden partner last night was postponed as the rain drilled on and on and on. The plan was to take round some seedlings/infant plants – courgettes, cucumbers and lettuce – that I’ve raised from seed ready for planting out. This will be the third lot of vegetables I have nurtured for Phyllis’s garden, only to have them eaten completely by slugs. In my own garden the yield is high, thanks to slug pellets, but Phyllis’s laudable insistence on the organic method (the buggers even ignore copper tape) means that absolutely nothing beyond hairy, sharp-tasting tomato plants survive. However, my will is broken and yesterday, for the first time and safely over the phone, I uttered the phrase ‘slug pellets’. Lettuce hope that from this small seed sprinkled on the breeze, Phyllis will come round to my way of thinking and let me give up on beer traps, human hair, copper tape, picking them out by hand and hoping for the bloody best. I’ve had enough, bring on the big guns.


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