Taking our skis for a walk

Méribel Mottaret, January 2016IMG_3622

It wasn’t a day for going out on the slopes. Wind, heavy snowfall, mist – more the conditions for reading a book than being outdoors.  Then the wind dropped, the snowflakes became smaller and visibility increased. So we decided to dig out our cross-country skis.

For those who know little about this sport, it belongs to a different world from alpine skiing. The skis are light and long, have no steel edges and were developed in Norway to torture other nations. The bindings fasten to the toe of the flexible boot and the heel is free which means the skier, unless of Norwegian extraction, has little control.

We learned this type of skiing when we lived in Norway years ago and while never experts, became competent. However, like a little-used language, such skills wane with time. We have our own kit in France but we had not used it for years. No problem, we thought. We set out for a nearby cross-country area. The radio had reported the trails were groomed and there is nothing like a well-prepared track. It holds the ski in a straight line and makes the required stride-and-glide motion easy.

There was some old wax on the bases of the skis from the last time we used them. Waxes are specific to temperature and we had no idea what the conditions were at the last outing. Ski-waxing is a black art – in our case, more a dirty grey one – and many hours can be spent getting it right.

‘Let’s just go with what’s on there,’ Tony said. It was the easy option.

Fifteen minutes later, we were still trying to get our boots to attach to the bindings, partially seized up with lack of use. I succeeded but then had to remove my skis to help Tony who was struggling. When kneeling beside him pushing his foot down failed, I tried standing on the toe of his boot. This finally worked and he was shod. Putting my own skis back on was more difficult the second time and while I was trying, our Dutch neighbours walked by. We’d see them on cross-country skis a couple of days earlier and had smiled to ourselves – not mocked, just smiled – at their wobbles, lack of speed and minimal expertise. After all, hills and the Dutch are not normally associated. It was now their turn as they grinned and walked on by.

Finally, we were ready. We had a small hill to go up and that was no problem. We had plenty of grip – the wax was great. However, once on the flat we realised we had both grown. The snow was building up under our skis to a depth of around 3cm. Platform shoes were once a fashion statement. Skis are not fashion items. Clearly we had the wrong wax – one for warmer conditions – and could barely plod let alone glide. To make things worse, the perfect tracks we’d been hoping for had filled up with new snow and were little more than indentations. Skis off and scraper out. We removed as much of the grey sticky stuff as possible and gave the skis a rub with a special cork block.

Suffice to say putting the skis back on was no easier the second time. Our Dutch friends waved cheerily to us. They saw us only when we were stationary.  Our efforts gained us a marginal increase in speed but not enough so we had to go round the same wretched procedure again. The air was turning blue. At the third time of trying we made progress. I had some glide – more than Tony, which did not help matters. Our outing lasted two hours; we skied for around thirty minutes.

All was not bad, however. There were some positives:

  • We didn’t fall over
  • We used plenty of energy – mostly nervous – and got some exercise
  • We gave all our best swear words an outing
  • We thought better of our Dutch friends
  • Our skiing could only improve

Although maybe we’d have been more sensible if we’d simply read a book.

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Riga on a Whim

My ears tingled for the forgotten hat; my feet cushioned the cold and the cobbles in my warm boots. It was winter in autumn colours.

We’d gone to Latvia’s capital, Riga, on a whim. No planning, no weeks of anticipation. Sometimes that’s the best way. We stayed in the old town, a compact area where it was easy to walk everywhere, chasing the narrow strips of sunlight between the tall buildings for a few warm rays. We sought out the ornate Blackheads House on the town square, wrought-iron tracery on its roof like Christmas trees, a legacy from the past. We wondered at its name – a reference, it seems, to an old symbol of a blackamoor’s head rather than a skin disease. Then the Three Brothers, wobbly, tall houses, centuries old. No shortage of places to point the camera.

Riga is a patchwork of designs and cultures, a city of churches and open spaces, designer shops and craft markets. In spite of its troubled past with occupation by Swedes, Russians and Germans, it has a comfortable feel. We heard Latvian and Russian in almost equal measure; maybe the enmity of the two nations is fading. And we were often welcomed in English. A friendly place where a beggar – there weren’t many – showed us the way into a church.

We ate well. Local food was hearty rather than haute cuisine. Riga’s famous Black Balzam drink tasted better than the guide book told us although a late afternoon glϋhwein in one of the quirky bars slipped down more easily. Early evening was picturesque, the gentle light glinting off the copper domes of the churches, cockerel weather vanes piercing the blue sky.

The city woke late. We wandered the early streets, discovering the squares and parks where golden cascades fell onto neat lawns to be raked industriously into mounds, a child’s delight. It felt safe; a minimal, kindly police presence, pairs of officers with truncheons but no firearms we could see. Soldiers guarded the freedom monument, against what we don’t know, and marched ceremoniously in front of it. By late morning, there was a bustle to the place which continued late into the night. As darkness arrived so did the music. Sounds of Elvis from a live band in a restaurant, street entertainers of all kinds: accordion players, saxophonists, a talented opera singer, an ancient woman playing a more ancient zither, her high-pitched tremolo vibrating the air. All earning our small change in this city of modern cars, smart trams and trolley buses.

Another day we left the old town behind to visit the Art Nouveau area. Here there are wide boulevards, magnificent well-restored buildings and an air of affluence. Our necks became stiff from gazing upwards. The Russian Orthodox cathedral was a gold assault on our senses, gaspingly ornate, in perfect condition. Too many museums to visit in our three-day stay. But we came away knowing more than when we arrived.

Going away on a whim is good.

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!

On Stubbornness

…as a mule, goes the saying.  Inflexible, pig-headed, obstinate, a failing in one’s character. Not a compliment. On the other hand, there is sticking-power, resilience, never giving up.  Now those are more positive.

We are a family of stubborn people. If we believe in genetics, it’s mostly my fault.

When my daughter, Anna, was nine, she and I had huge rows about piano practice. She would play her piece once and claimed she was done for the week. I remember screaming at her, ‘If you’re this bad now, what will you be like as a teenager?’ (Actually, much better – her teenage angst came early). We called her stubborn but recognised that one day we would call it strength of character. We do.

Stubbornness leads to the desire for high standards, not to accept second best.  My husband, Tony, is now adept at intercepting burned cakes as they head for then rubbish bin and pans of lumpy custard about to be thrown across the kitchen. (He hates waste, especially where puddings are concerned.) Actually, I don’t need to do everything well. I’m happy to be a poor cyclist and accept I have no sense of direction. But where it matters, it matters.

I have to win at Scrabble. I am a terrible loser. A series of losses (and I admit, they happen) sends me into a serious decline. But I stick at it.

Recently, my ‘resilience’ was tested. Tony and I walked half of the ‘Coast to Coast’ path, from St Bees in Cumbria to Kirkby Stephen. (We’ll complete it next year.)  On the second day, I had a bad fall. I toppled backwards, knocked Tony over and we both rolled off the path for a couple of metres, stopping just short of a stream. It could have been thirty metres and I would not now be telling the story, stubborn or not. I hit my left knee on some rocks but I could walk so nothing was broken. As the pain increased and the knee swelled and stiffened, I realised I was in trouble. The remainder of the day is a blur. This was Day 2 of 7. A long-planned adventure we both wanted to complete. I could not let either of us down and I knew that if I gave up, Tony wouldn’t continue.

My knee was bruised and double its usual size. I dosed myself with ibuprofen and paracetamol and plastered the knee with pain-killing gel.  Stairs were difficult but I was still moving the following morning. Armed with my medications and a hefty dose of bloody-mindedness, I carried on.

By the end of the week, my leg was purple from mid-thigh to my toes. But that only increased the sense of elation when we reached our goal. As we popped the cork on a bottle of champagne, I toasted stubbornness.

One last thought on the subject: while I know the stubborn traits in my family – the children and possibly grandchildren ­– may be due to me, I am not totally responsible. Perhaps stubborn people marry equally stubborn partners. I say no more.

Thank You for the Music! (With apologies to Abba)

I sang in my junior school choir at the age of nine. There were four criteria for selection: a reasonable voice, good behaviour, the ability to learn the words and regular attendance. I managed three out of four and my poor voice hid behind a happy smile. The choir was large so I got away with it but that was the end of my musical career.

It amazes me what a good ear the world has. Almost everyone I know sings or plays an instrument. Doing neither, I feel like an outcast, someone with a missing gene. My parents could sing, not brilliantly, but a song was recognisable, they could both hold a note. My brother sang well. How did I miss out?

It was when I reached senior school that I realised the extent of my misfortune. I remember the dreadful embarrassment I suffered when we were occasionally required to sing alone. There was no pleasure in it. I would rather have given a speech in assembly, written a ten-page essay or run a mile. Anything rather than sing.

What is enjoyable entertainment to others can be a nightmare to me. The word ‘karaoke’ makes me go cold. No amount of alcohol, consumed before, during or afterwards, can improve the experience. Miming is not an option and although everyone says it doesn’t matter how well anyone sings as it’s just ‘a bit of fun’, it matters to me. I’ve heard and cringed at dreadful performances – I realise there are a few others in the world who are unmusical – and don’t want to be one of them.

To compound my problems, I married someone who has an even worse voice. He cannot tell when he is out of tune which, in a way, is fortunate for him. I can hear when I sing badly. Our poor kids were really damned before they opened their mouths. Our youngest son has inherited all our musical talent; his voice is worse than either of ours. He has married the musical daughter of an opera singer and a professional clarinettist. His mother-in-law believes that anyone can sing if they find their pitch. Well, she believed it until she met my son. She is working on him. So far, without success.

I do sing occasionally with the grandchildren. I can manage ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ when no-one else is about. George, at three, even enjoys it. However, once the grandchildren reach an age when they can tell me to shut up, they usually do.

It’s not that I want to sing brilliantly. Just adequately would do. I’d also love to play an instrument but my mother protected me from such torture. The thrill of playing Scott Joplin on the piano or blasting out a melody on the saxophone will never be mine. I suppose I would always have been out of tune.

But in spite of my failings, there is something I can provide to the world of music; something that all musicians need when they perform. They need an audience. I am consistently good at appreciating others, applauding and cheering. Where would concerts be without folk who enjoy music and are there to listen? I went to the Proms last week – no embarrassment, just pleasure. That is my ongoing contribution to the musical world.

New Year’s Resolution in July!

New Year’s Resolution done with five months to spare!

When my family got together last Christmas, Jessi (my daughter-in-law) said we should decide on our NYRs for 2015. I didn’t have anything specific but knew it had to be about writing. ‘Do more writing’ was too vague, ‘Get my novel published’ too aspirational, ‘Write every day’ too challenging. So she provided me with one. She said I should start a blog. I’ve been deliberating on this ever since. I know it’s what writers do – at a Writing Day I recently attended, I was in the minority being blogless – and I do consider myself a writer.

So what should the blog be about? I decided a good place to start is to write about writing.

I love writing. It’s an addiction. I leave the normal world, go deaf to everything around me, and plink away at my laptop. I prefer to write in the evening – well, late at night to be exact.  I like to sit in my study, at my desk, with darkness coming through the open curtains. My writing paraphernalia surround me: notes, scraps of paper, pens and pencils in an old mug, copies of ‘Writing’ magazine, books and silence. I’m a poor typist but that’s fine as my fingers are not frustrated by my rate of composition. I can no longer write more than a few sentences on paper. I change so much as I go along it becomes illegible within minutes. The joy of ‘cut and paste’ and ‘delete’!

I regret not having turned to writing sooner. I didn’t spend any real time on it until I retired. Although I wrote the first line of a novel in my teens – and then the next few hundred words in my twenties – it never got beyond that. My excuse was lack of time. What rubbish was that! We all have time – it depends on how it is prioritised. I found time to look after the kids, cook, do the washing and ironing, clean the house (well, not much), go to work. Perhaps I could have sacrificed a few dirty clothes and an unironed shirt to the muse! But that’s history and I really have no excuses now.

I’ve also learned that writing is not all about English grammar, spelling and punctuation. I learned all these at school – well-taught in my day – so I assumed that meant I could write. These are the bricks and mortar, but a solid wall is not the same as a beautiful house. So although I have a (deserved) reputation for being nit-picky, I do know that creativity is a skill beyond putting a good sentence together.

And another thing – some of my family and friends may have noticed a distinct thickening of my skin. This is an essential prerequisite for any writer. Rejection is commonplace. I can live with it although would prefer to live without it.

The house is quiet. I think I heard my husband call from upstairs, ‘Do you know what time it is?’ I can see my reflection in the dark window-pane. My coffee has gone cold. But my brain is alive. I’ll pay for it when I can’t get to sleep.

And I’m still not sure if I actually agreed to that New Year’s Resolution!