Cracked in the Head?

 

 

‘Un enfant est fragile. Mettez-lui un casque.’  ‘A child is precious. Use a safety helmet.’ Illuminated signs in the Trois Vallées ski area in the French Alps exhort parents to take care of their skiing children. And I’ve yet to see a small child without one.

But what about adults? Aren’t they breakable too? There was a time only children or racers used such protection, it being considered either unnecessary or pretentious for ‘ordinary’ skiers. I thought that when I learned to ski in the ’80s in Norway, so shunned a helmet. It was unfashionable. But those were different times.

This week the slopes were busy, it still being half-term in parts of France. There were many ski lessons and the red-clad ESF (Ecole de Ski Français) instructors were everywhere. I heard on the local radio that it takes five years to train an ESF instructor. You’d think there would be time in the five years to mention safety helmets.  None of the instructors wears one. No exaggeration. None.  These people are role models. Children look up to them. Adult skiers follow them off piste and down black slopes.

A few evenings ago, a group of ESF instructors put on a demonstration of their skills – synchronised skiing, jumps and acrobatics – for our entertainment. It was impressive and great fun. I spotted just three or four instructors wearing helmets. They cared about their skulls when doing back-flips. Presumably the others were already cracked in the head. Fortunately none of the falls was serious.

What is it with skiers in France? Probably around half of the adult skiers I saw this week wore helmets – better than it was, but still poor. In Austria and Switzerland, the percentage is nearer 90%. In Norway, it’s almost unknown to see anyone on the slopes without a helmet. A helmet won’t protect you from all injuries – Michael Schumacher was wearing one when he had his accident – but anyone with any sense tries to minimise danger.

Helmets cost around 100 euros, less in the end-of-season sales. It’s paltry compared with the cost of a ski holiday, insignificant if skiing is your livelihood.  And what price a head? An expert skier friend was hit by a snowboarder and knocked out for a few minutes in spite of his helmet. He’s sure he’d have lost more than consciousness without it.

There are now multiple opportunities to do a head-plant, with snow parks proliferating everywhere. You can take off over huge jumps and reach high speeds going down skier-cross courses. Great fun but risky. And even if you avoid such risks, busy slopes bring collision dangers.

I’ll wear my helmet.  An adult is precious too.

 

 

 

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G is for…

 

‘They do everything together. Lovely to see friendship like that.’

My parents were delighted when Graham bought a house next door to David.

‘How lucky they were it came up for sale!’

Mum had a close affinity to David, an avid traveller who loved the mountains, just like her. David planned all the trips while Graham took the photos. Not photos, slides. Much better reproduction, they agreed. They had slide shows and Mum and David recommended places in Switzerland and Austria to each other. David and Graham went on holiday together every summer. It was the highlight of their year. Their journeys were legendary.

I liked David. He was chatty and sociable whereas Graham retired into the background. But he was okay. We invited them both to our wedding and they came.

I was upset when Mum said David wasn’t talking to his parents any more. She didn’t know why. She’d tried asking his Mum, Auntie Beryl – not a real aunt, but every older lady was an aunt in those days – but had got nowhere. ‘Don’t like to pry,’ she said, ‘so I didn’t press the matter.’ None of us could understand why such an easy-going, likeable character like David would cause a family rift.

I was an innocent. We were then. I knew little about the world. I didn’t ever consider their friendship was more than just brotherly affection. Took decades before realisation hit me. Mum never knew. She wouldn’t have believed it if someone had spelled it out.

How sad they had to buy neighbouring houses! I never saw a single expression of intimacy, never a touch. A secret, fearful life. They were teachers; they couldn’t risk their jobs. It was illegal in the early sixties; they couldn’t endanger their freedom.

But they did do everything together.

D is for…

 

Don’t get in my way. Don’t fight with your brother. Don’t jump in puddles. Don’t leave anything on your plate. Don’t make a mess. Don’t play in the street. Don’t get dirty. Don’t leave your toys everywhere. Don’t answer back.

Don’t fence me in.

Don’t read under the bedclothes. Don’t bounce on the bed. Don’t chew bubble-gum. Don’t say naughty words. Don’t pick your nose. Don’t scratch your bottom. Don’t run in the woods. Don’t climb trees. Don’t do anything dangerous. Don’t talk to strange men. Don’t give me that look.

Don’t eat the daisies.

Don’t stay out late. Don’t argue with me. Don’t bring that boy home. Don’t grow your hair long. Don’t paint your nails. Don’t wear tight skirts. Don’t wear short skirts. Don’t embarrass me.

Don’t go breaking my heart.

Don’t diet. Don’t go to coffee-bars. Don’t go to pubs. Don’t plaster your face with make-up. Don’t waste your money. Don’t lie. Don’t keep secrets from me. Don’t believe everything your friends say.

Don’t let me be misunderstood.

Don’t read ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink too much. Don’t behave like that in my house. Don’t disappoint me. Don’t give me that look.

Don’t cry for me, Argentina.

What happened to ‘Do’?

Do have a good time. Do bring all your friends home. Do be independent. Do take a few risks. Do discuss things with me. Do read widely. Do be positive. Do remember contraception. Do enjoy life. Do make your own mind up. Do be happy.

Even – Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid.

Don’t look back in anger.

Don’t think twice, it’s alright.

 

I found them later on.

Don’t stop me now.

B is for Bragging

Six of us, travellers in France, thrown together at a guesthouse. It turned out Alice and Alec lived ten miles from Brenda and Bob. The ‘A’ and the ‘B’ team; we two were alphabetical and geographical misfits.

‘My God! We’re practically neighbours! You don’t sail, do you?’ Alex bellowed.

‘Actually, yes. Have a 38 footer.’

‘Mmm, our boat is smaller. But we do have a second one, a clinker-built job.’

Bob changed tack. ‘Damned good food at the boathouse.’

‘We prefer our local gastro-pub. The one with a Michelin star.’

Brenda jumped in. ‘I dislike sailing. I renovate our lovely old house with its half-acre of land.’

‘Land? Into gardening?’ Alice’s eyes sparkled. ‘I grow all our veg now I’ve retired from Harley Street. Must use our acre.’

The ‘B’ team preferred to buy local organic produce.

Touché.

‘We’re joining our son in Provence.’ Brenda continued. ‘He needs a break – such a stressful job. He’s a partner in a large law firm.’

‘Really?’ Alice grew two inches. ‘Our son is a hedge fund manager in the City. Earns millions – but I shouldn’t mention that!’

‘Being a Harley Street doctor entitles you to boast.’

Alice had a fit of coughing. Her husband explained she had been secretary to a consultant oncologist.

In the fidgeting break in conversation, I mentioned our next stop was the ancestral home of Josephine de Beauharnais.

‘Before she married Napoleon.’ Nobody seemed interested. ‘So it’s an early night. Maybe we’ll bump into each other again.’

‘Who knows? Perhaps at that Beauharnais place, eh?’ Loud, dismissive guffaws.

‘Well, it’s possible. The place is for sale and we’re putting in a bid.’

Four pairs of eyes fixed on me; smiles vanished.

We left the room and waited. Silence. Then four clamouring voices.

Sometimes you have to lie.

A is for Agatha

I’m a collector of Agathas.

I met my first, an elderly lady, when we were stranded by snow at Chicago airport. My business ticket gained me a hotel room. She tagged along and although her economy ticket (not cheap, she protested, she’d saved a year for it) won her nothing, she ended up as my companion. I took her to dinner, then breakfast and escorted her back to England. I thought I’d have to take her home as no-one met her but a steward took pity on us both.

The next was in New Zealand.  She drowned me in information at a Bed and Breakfast. ‘Call me Aggie,’ she said but as I barely uttered a word, I had no occasion to call her anything. ‘So lovely to chat. So interesting.’ My husband had quietly disappeared, insisting I was better than he with overwhelming women.

The Agatha syndrome struck again in Madeira. We were having a pre-dinner drink when a dowdy couple came into the hotel lounge. Being Brits, we’d spread out to avoid the invisible barriers we’d all erected around ourselves. I nodded towards the newcomers and she shuffled delightedly towards me. I heard about her purchases, her favourite designers and saw her new shoes. When I said I was dreadful at buying clothes, she offered to take me in hand; and, by the way, her name was Agatha. I never found time to shop with her.

The following evening we went to a concert. The loud enthusiast beside me told me it was her eighth visit to the island and she always attended this event. I could have left immediately, I learned so much about it. Afterwards, her husband said, ‘Good as ever, Jean.’

Jean? Had I misheard? She had to be called Agatha.

***

This was published in the Mar/Apr/May 2016 issue of Mslexia

Cheesy – or what?

I am addicted. Not to anything as commonplace as cocaine or Facebook. My problem is cheese. It is a life-long problem and, I have to admit, not one I want to resolve. If I think of the edible pleasures in life – chocolate, wine, fresh bread – I could give any of them up before I could abandon cheese. A fridge devoid of cheese sends me into a panic.

I’m aware, of course, of the dangers: high cholesterol, many calories. So I suffer low fat cream cheese, even like it. But there have to be treats. Proper, strong cheddar that makes your mouth tingle; creamy, unctuous blue whose taste lingers long after it has been swallowed; aged Red Leicester that fills your mouth with flavour.  I could go on like a magazine article.

Actually, that not far from the truth. I recently pitched an article to ‘Berkshire Life’ on local cheeses and had it accepted for the December issue. A special cheeseboard and Christmas go together. It was an excellent idea for a cheese addict – not only did I visit several artisan cheesemakers and learn about their processes, I met some fascinating people and tasted some delicious cheese. I came away with free samples! My husband who once claimed, many years ago, he didn’t eat cheese, came along as an enthusiastic photographer (and fellow taster – I think the tastings persuaded him into photography!)

Cheese attracts interesting and varied folk. I interviewed an ex-microbiologist (good background for cheese-making) and a Baron, a guy whose distant ancestor was a general in Napoleon’s army. For many artisan cheese makers, it’s a second career – one that seems to be as addictive as eating it is for me. They all search for the next refinement in taste whether it is a rival for stilton or an exotic truffle-flavoured creamy white cheese using cows’ or sheep’s milk. I was happy to assess their efforts.

I shall have to stop torturing myself – writing about cheese is not enough. I can feel the call of the fridge. Now what will it be? A piece of Barkham Blue? A nugget of mature cheddar? I salivate at the thought….

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Brain Power

Winning article in the Scribble ‘Why I write’ competition:

I like words. There are loads in my head. I like the way they cascade onto the page. Sometimes a boulder blocks them and has to be removed by a glass of wine or two.

Or a run in the park. Or simply by a sleepless night, spent thinking.

I like the way words follow each other and inadvertently sometimes they rhymes.

I like the colour of adjectives: the noisy purple ones, the whispered cream ones, the silent white ones. And active verbs transitively being and doing, and living and dying. And rhyming. Again. I like solid Proper Nouns, upright citizens, not messing frivolously and promiscuously with adverbs.

I feel tactile words, smooth, bumpy, velvety. Especially velvety. Sensory onomatopoeia. And joyous words and melancholic ones. The sadness of tragedy. And greetings and partings. Adieu, adieu. And beginnings and endings. He arrived and then left forever. I like the control I have over them. I can choose whichever I want and put them in any order. Well, not any order. I like to write proper English.

Then there’s the sentence, coming to a full stop. Actually I prefer the semi-colon, more subtle in its pausing. I touched him; he touched me.  I like the satisfaction of a phrase well said, the feeling that the whole is far better than the sum of its parts. A good, solid wall is more than a collection of bricks. Of course, they don’t all have to be my own work. I like the thrill of reading something by a master of the art, soaking up the nuances and the expressions, storing them away, hoping I’ll be able to adapt them to my own style and so improve my writing.

And I mustn’t forget correct punctuation. Not just the fun of ‘eats shoots and leaves’ but the creation of a shape. Punctuation marks are the clothes pegs on which good writing hangs. Yes, I have been accused of being nit-picky but I can live with that for the joy of seeing a properly used apostrophe. And should there be single or double inverted commas? What about dashes or parentheses? I envy the Spanish with their inverted question mark or exclamation mark at the beginning of a sentence as well as at the end. How sensible is that? Or should I say, ‘How sensible that is!’ It all depends on whether I want an exclamation mark or not, a precious tool, not to be used to excess.

I love writing at my lap-top. I like being able to shuffle my work around without the eventual, inevitable illegibility of the paper and pencil. There is nothing more annoying than not being able to read what you have written. Good or bad, you can’t improve it if you don’t know what it says. And writing better is what it’s all about. I look back at pieces written months, years ago and realise I am writing differently now. And I hope the difference is an improvement. Practice makes perfect – whoops! Must avoid the cliché! Writing must be original; there are enough word combinations without resorting to hackneyed phrases.

Sometimes the loud words shout at me. Noisy thunder in my head telling me it’s time to get creative. A commotion, a din, a roar.  I’m most impressed when it’s a hullabaloo.  Or, if this doesn’t work, the persuasive ones mutter discreetly that I’m wasting my time on trifles and need to knuckle down. A gentle murmur. What a lovely word that is – murmur. I must try to use it more often. Occasionally, I’ll invent a word but there has to be a good reason. There are so many words already.

I have some special words. I like them simply because I like them, the feel of them on my tongue, the sounds they make when read aloud and maybe the images they conjure up: twilight, languor, euphemism. Putting them in a piece of writing can be a challenge and maybe I like them because they are rare. Delicious words are easy to use; who doesn’t revel in gorgeous, exquisite magnificence? I like horrible words, too. Repugnance and malevolence sound repugnant and malevolent, just as they should.

Words are tools; full stops and commas are helpers. Writing is putting them together in a private, imaginative world where anything can happen. It’s the work of my mind, something original, something that has never been said before. Sounds grandiose but it’s true. Writing allows me to be unique, maybe clumsily, maybe ineptly, but unique. I experience an addictive, adrenaline rush. It’s a pleasure only a writer knows. I know it. I know it especially late at night – my best writing time. I get lost in my own world, sitting at my desk with the curtains open, the silent darkness outside shielding me from interruptions, my notes and scribbles beside my laptop, a collection of pencils and pens in an old coffee mug next to my files and books. I don’t notice the minutes or hours. I don’t eat. I don’t hear ‘Isn’t it time you came to bed?’

That is when the noisy and the peaceful, the delightful and the rude words cooperate: nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs working actively and passively, pushed along by commas and colons. They form phrases, link into sentences, divide into paragraphs. Then they recruit their friends: metaphors and similes, irony and bathos and provoke me into using them. Characters emerge and start to talk to me. They can be hard to tame, willful and insistent on having their own way. They twist my plots and sub-plots. Eventually, I create a story or maybe we create it together. Perhaps I’ll get it published; perhaps I won’t. It will take many more sessions before it’s ready to go anywhere. But that’s the joy of it. I continue to write in my head long after I’ve shut down the laptop. It’s a recipe for insomnia. I’ll pay for it the following day.

So why do I write? Well, I need to do something with all these insistent words in my head, fighting to get out!