Sunday, November 21, 2010

People Day

It's a plane. Hung by it's tail from the ceiling. It's art. Is it? Tate Gallery confuses me. Turner and Constable I get, even Lucian Freud and Picasso, but a dead jet? Dead confusing! But that was only part of my day. Delight at the original Flatflord Mill, intrigue at the changing syltes of Tuner, and cold disinterest at a 10 ft canvas painted a single shade of blue. Art? Of course, just not for me.

I'm being a bit previous though... because my unplanned visit to the Tate was about the third along in the things I wanted to share with you.

First off I had two reasons for being in Lonond:an interview and an event, both for the latter half of the day. But time was on my side so I headed off at midday to take things at my leisure. Formally suited and booted, I made a big mistake. I wore my new boots. The mile walk from home to the station informed me rapidly of my misjudgement.

Slow train to Kings Cross, read my bit - exciting (if old) adventure novel. Goold old Colin Forbes! At Kings Cross I stood and waited for a Circle Line train. My boots reminded me to sit down. To my left was a young man, his short blond hair sculpted in the manner of a Longleat maze. He wore a bright white bomber jacket and a beard that Scooby Do may ahve mistaken for his master's.

He was noticeable. He came over to me and asked about trains to Tower Hill. Two give-aways that he wasn't local - one, his accent and two, he had spoken to a fellow passenger on the underground! I explained the workings of the Circle Line and prevented his boarding a train for Plaistow. I also admired his hair. "Only four quid! Took two hours." He was a bright, cheery young man. We continued to talk (whilst other passengers backed away, made insecure at this unusual behaviour - communication!). He was down from Hull (originally from Goole), visiting his mum as a birthday surprise. No luggage, he'd buy what he needed. He briefly mentioned football - but I dismissed any Northern stereotypes from my brain. He said he liked racing. Horses? I asked, no - dogs. Greyhounds? No - whippets. I didn't know they raced whippets (was unaware of this at the time: safe to click, honest). "I race them against the gyppos" he explained. "Won £600 off one dog, that's how come I'm here. Now I can buy mum a present." He also explained that he came by train as he was banned from driving. Here we are - Tower Hill! Your mum will be pleased. And your eight brothers and three sisters and numerous nephews and nieces.

Opposite me then, after my companion had disembarked, were two men. One was so neat and prim as to make Lionel Blair look scruffy. Perfectly manicured hands, sitting neat with legs together and pointed shoes level; perfectly coiffured grey curls and - yes - mascara. He was talking with his travelling companion, at rest his mouth a slightly pursed smile as if he had a secret.

His companion confused me. Perhaps 30, huge, long black dreadlocks, do-rag and a leather biker (but an expensive one) jacket. Very well turned out, smooth milk chocolate hands, fine skin - fingers didn't look rough. I could not fathom the pairing, but as St James's Park was nigh, I had to abandon my musings.

Too early for my interview, I hunted for somewhere to sit and prepare. I walked in the general direction of my destination and chanced upon a huge crowd of Firemen on their way to the Houses of Parliament. Outside, the firemen were gathered waiting for an audience with the Prime Minister, drums, whilstles and chants filling the slowly chilling air as the sun slipped behind the skyline.Opposite was an ancient medieval building called the Jewel House (left). I crept into the small coffee shop of this ancient building and inside were four firemen, sipping hot drinks and talking. "not outside, lads?" I enquired. They had got cold waiting for the PM. He would come out to them, rather than have all those people go inside the Houses of Parliament (and all the associated security). I ordered a hot chocolate. Here to see a Minister? they asked; no, for an interview I replied, not politics. Wishing me luck, they departed for their media circus to be drowned in the echoes of Big Ben and cameramen.

I read my CV again (the one I sent in application), read the job description again and prepared some questions and examples that I could use in the interview then went in search of the venue. Success! But more than an hour early. I wandered on and, serendipitously, found teh Tate Gallery just a few hundred yards on.

I don't get the planes. My eyes enjoyed the galleries, my feet didn't though. A sore-footed hour later I returned to the Pizza Express. Table for one please - but I am expecting someone. As the place was nearly empty, my words were heard. A man in the corner stood and called my name. I was early - he was early - and he was also about six foot six!

I think I interviewed well. I hope so. Did I know the consultant he mentioned? Oh goodness yes - and I was very tactful. I described the consultant as professional, knowledgeable and 'somewhat insular in some of his views'. Giles, my interviewer, agreed. I will hear after two weeks whether I have a second interview or not. We shall see.

My next rendezvous was with my friend Lin from Holland, over for the annual social event of the Romantic Novellists Association. I was delighted to be invited by her to accompany her, and I did. We met up (along with another of her UK friends, Kate) at her hotel and then headed for the Institute of Mechanical Engineers which was the event venue.

"Wine, madam?" Yes please! Strangely I didn't stay with Lin for long - I was soon chatting with Fiona and her friend Alan. "My mum used to make hats just like yours for the Beverly Sisters" I commented. (Note: she may have even made these hats"). Ah! Common ground. She knew them, and from our conversation, probably knew my mother and father. Show biz folks, you see.
Alan was very tall, her neighbour (not her husband) and he spoke with a soft, lilting Galway accent *sigh*. I talked to more people, drank more wine (though it was a cash bar, I didn't seem to buy any drinks). I met Charlotte and Sophie and one man (one out of perhaps the whole five men there) said "How lovely to see you!" gave me a big hug and kiss. To my sadness I didn't see him again that night. I had no clue who he was (but a little digging about on websites has revealed his identity to me - no, I have definitely never met him before!). After many nibbles and lots of interesting chats, polite clapping at meaningless (to me) speeches, I found myself once again with Lin plus Fiona and Alan. Lin had to leave but Fiona provided more drinks for myself and Lin's friend Kate.

Time came for us to go and Fiona asked where we were going. Kate was off in a different direction to me, and I was headed back to Kings Cross. "We can share a taxi" said Fiona and the four of us (Fiona, Kate, Alan and I) squeezed into a black cab and headed for Kings Cross. We had a real laugh in the taxi, chatting about I don't know what. I was in such a good mood. I was dropped off at about 10.30 in good time for trains home. As I walked towards the platform, our family friends were standing at the coffee bar. "Do you want a drink?" Nicole said. Yes please... hot chocolate.

They had been to see Bill Bailey as a birthday treat for Nicole and had a great evening. We chatted away on the train and I gave Guido his birthday present. His birthday had been weeks before, but I'd bought a lovely book for him at the Tate Gallery and the opportunity was too fortuitous to miss.

The best bit was that when we arrived home I got a lift back from the station. My feet, which had been trying desperately to get my attention all evening, were most relieved.

A people day - when everyone I spoke to from the lad on the train to the blind lady looking for the bus stop to the people at the social right up to my friends on the train home - had been in a positive mood. Or was it just me?

Photo credits: Jaguar picture from the Tate

Jewel House - can't find, sorry!

Black cab:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A lovely day out

Last weekend I took my son back to Uni in Wales and stayed overnight, planning a leisurely journey back. It was very leisurely indeed! A five or so hour journey took me all day because I went the 'scenic route' as my father would have called it.

First stop was the town of Lampeter which I had a little wander round - but it started to rain so I hit the road. Trusting the sat nav (which has never taken me the same route twice as yet) I headed for home and my first, unscheduled, stop was Raglan Castle. I just saw the sign and thought 'why not?' and drove up to this magnificent edifice. I took lots and lots of photos, but strangely my camera went on strike and only saved a few.

I had a quiet wander round the castle - by now it was not raining and the autumn sun lit the colours of the trees and cast long shadows on the castle walls.

Further on I drove, enjoying the autumn leaves. The sat nav decided for some reason to take me back via Gloucester (having arrived via Bath) and - realising where I was (I do hate the disconnection with route that these automatons engender, but I was travelling alone so it made sense) I thought a quick diversion to Minchinhampton would be in order. And - travelling through the centre of Gloucester and out the other side, I once again visited the little town near where my family lived many generations ago.

I had visited the town with my family some 40 years ago, but had no memories of it save the grave of some relatives which I had in my mind because of a photograph my father took. I knew what to look for and found the church. Exploration brought me quickly to their tomb - my ancient relatives who lie beneath now crumbling marble. Sad to see how it has deteriorated, but I may be able to salvage the words on the tomb from the earlier photograph for they are nearly completely obliterated by time now. They are the ones surrounded by the little iron fence.

There's more information on the town here - Minchinhampton - it's very picturesque. I wandered around the town enjoying the old buildings and the feel of the place. I then headed off home, along roads lit by autumn sun and then enjoying a red sunset. A day with no pressure, no time limit, just A to B at my own pace. A very nice day indeed.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Two performances

And I learn that I can't tiptoe in cowboy boots across a wooden floor.

Sunday night I was the support act at Hitchin Folk Club, to the amazing Mr Dave Swarbrick. Swarb (as he is affectionately known by those who know him and those who don't) played amazing violin - no mean feat given his physical condition. He entertained with stories about the history of many of the tunes and chatted a little in between numbers, but mostly he just played with incredible dexterity.

I'm not a great one for violin on its own, and I must admit that I lost the thread of some of the tunes, and also found that violin without accompaniment does not fully sate my personal tastes, but it was still a good night.

My performance was obviously ok - for the first time ever I got whistles of appreciation! I sang a new song which I finished with. I'd only written it on Friday, but the audience seemed to like it. Maybe it's not always the quality of the song, but the quality of the performance. I certainly put my heart into it.

I sang a few songs of my own, and a couple of covers. Interestingly enough I had a discussion with the audience (I talk to the audience quite a bit) that I never thought I'd have in a folk club: 'do you want Snow Patrol or Eric Clapton?'. A vote was had and the show of hands was in favour of Eric. I sang 'Wonderful Tonight' but insisted that, as my music partner was absent, that the audience sing the guitar riff. It atually worked wonderfully - with a soft 'hm hm hm hm hmmmm, hu hm hm hm hmmm hm hm hm...' adding a lovely cadence to the song. Must try that again sometime.

After I had introduced Swarb I tried to creep back to my seat across the back of the hall... that's when I learned about my boots and the floor.

That was the Sunday night. On Monday, I had a very different performance to make. A poetic recital. I don't think I've read poetry out loud since I was at school, but considering it a 'performance' was fine, and I think I read it OK. It was the first time I've ever had any 'duty' whatsoever to perform at a funeral.

The funeral was of a family friend, Pamela Page Smith, who died aged 87 last month. I've known her my entire life, but then again - as is often the case - I discovered yesterday that I didn't really know her at all.

I learned a lot about her life; she used to be a BBC Concert Painist as well as a music teacher. Being a friend of my mother's, I guess we had a different kind of relationship, but in the late 1970's my mother and I did live with her and her husband for a short while. She put us up when we were 'between houses' shortly after my father died.

The interesting thing at the funeral was that many, many people subsequently mentioned when they lived with her and Erwin, her husband (departed 1993). Though she had no children, it seems their house was always open to visitors.

She left me her guitar (a nice classical) and mandolin. The mandolin is a lovely round-backed one, which used to belong to Erwin. He played violin and mandolin, she played piano (and a bit of guitar). What a musical, amazing pair they were in their day. I've never actually owned a mandolin before - believe it or not. I think it's time I learned to do more than strum a few chords. This one has a lovely tone.

So I have memories of them - musical memories. I often think of her at the piano and it was lovely to hear one of her pupils play at the wake afterwards. What a legacy she has left - thousands of people learning to play the piano. That's quite something.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Philip Dwight Sheppard

Hi Phil

It's sort of hard to write you a letter when I don't know where you are - so this is my 'into the ether' letter to you.

There are times in your life when you love your brother, and times when siblings fight like cat and dog. When young we did have our fall-outs (I still remember the plasticine airplanes with pins in the end, and I'm sure you remember me hitting you over the head with a cricket bat), but mostly - it's having a friend who has shared some of your earliest memories.

We are still living in the same place, so you know where we are. I know you were last in Cornwall, and we did try to find you a couple of times, but without success. I guess I want to talk to you now because when old friends pass away, it does make you nostalgic.

Pam passed away last month at 87! Not bad going, eh? She didn't have a great time the last few years, but Sally regularly went to visit her and stayed in that huge house in Temple Fortune. Pam was born in that house - I know she wanted to die there, but they took her to hospital with a stroke and then after two weeks pneumonia got her. Yet another one who went into that particular hospital in London and never came out. I seem to have quite a collection of friends/relatives who make that their last stop.

She was born in that house, and never moved out though I'm sure lots of people would have rather seen her in a care-environment than struggling with those stairs and that kitchen in her less-mobile years. There is still the huge piano, I guess her cousin, Evelyn, will have to work out what to do with that! It must be in the will somewhere. It was a Bechstein, a lovely huge great thing.

She did play almost up to the end - but when she couldn't play properly any more it upset her so much she stopped.

Quite a few of our senior friends and family have passed away since we last talked - and it's been odd not to have you at the funeral. Angela went into hospital for a heart op (which she didn't come out from)a few years back and on the trolley going into theatre she said 'I could make a nice cocktail dress out of this' whilst looking at her hospital gown. That was SO Angela!

But this isn't a letter about telling you all the folks who have died (there have been plenty, but that's not surprising at our age, the next generation up are slowly filing out).

The kids are growing - in fact I can't call them kids any more. Alex is 19 and off to Uni. He's going to Lampeter where Phoebe went. And Mel is 16, studying for her A Levels at 6th form college.

Life is, as ever, full of changes. Shave the Monkey are doing another reunion next year (just two gigs in February), I'm playing with my music partner in Tu still, and hoping to get together with another guy to add bass to his rockier gigs at some point. If only I can find the time!

Well, time to start work now so I'll add more to this later. Maybe one day - you will actually read this. In which case, hey Phil, I miss you.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Situational Awareness

On the train the other day I sat next to a man who had a huge iPad out, preparing slides for some talk he was giving. He was talking to his companion opposite and said 'I hope it won't be more than 40 slides'.

40 slides?!! OMG... death by PowerPoint! And, sad to say, as I sneaked a look out the corner of my eye, I could see all his slides filled with text.

You can picture it, I hope. A room full of people watching the screen, trying desperately to read blocks of text and totally missing whatever he was saying. And the best bit?

Oh the best bit was when I noticed the title of one slide... 'Situational awareness'.

If you have a chance, watch this YouTube, and you'll know exactly how to murder your audience with nothing more than a set of slides...

Cartoon borrowed from With acknowledgment to Alex Gregory of The New Yorker.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A writing exercise

Here's my contribution following this evening's Royston Writers' Circle task. I was given a character description (the female lead below, with some pretty specific characteristics) and a setting (village fete). I didn't quite stick to the script, but I did get both in. Here goes!

The Bitch, the Pitch

Chantelle rolled out of bed to the sound of Chris Evans on Radio 2. "Bloody hell..." she muttered to herself. She hadn't used the radio setting on the alarm since Rudy had left!

She fumbled with the snooze button and buried her head under the pillow. In what seemed like just seconds, the radio perked into life again, playing some ancient 80s type trash. Just because Rudy had been into retro didn’t mean she’d have to put up with this shit anymore! Pulling herself upright in bed she twirled the radio dial… Capital. Oh well, better than that annoying twerp who’d first woken her.

She looked about the room: matching cool pastel shades, matching runner and cushions. Time for a change! At lunchtime she’d run over to that new shop in Regents Street just a short dash from the office.

After careful consideration she dressed herself in a Stella McCartney suit – her favourite outfit for impressing new clients. But then she paused, looking at the fabulous effect in the mirror, she realised that she’d worn this combo before when first pitching for the account. Oh no... with a groan and a cup of rooibosh tea in one hand, she returned to the wardrobe to make a new selection.

After 20 minutes on her hair, another 15 on her makeup and the wasted time changing outfits, she knew she was going to be late. Thank goodness it was only a ten minute cycle ride to the office. Ah – but today she wouldn’t have the time to change and do her hair again if she cycled and she didn’t want to go by tube – she always felt so grubby when she travelled on the underground. Tangled in this dilemma, she only just remembered to unplug her iPhone from its charger and throw it into her Louis Vuitton bag before racing out of the flat.

Without ruining the effect, she breezed into the office at ten past nine, a pleasant blush on her cheeks from the brisk walk. Mind you, her Jimmy’s had killed!

“Hi Chantelle,” Natalie on Reception welcomed her. “It’s ok, they aren’t here yet.” Chantelle blew a grateful kiss and tripped to the lift. A quick visit to the ladies, make sure all looks good stiil, and then to her office.

At 9.20 she turned on her laptop and waited impatiently as it slowly went through its own morning routine.

“Good morning Chantelle.” The firm voice behind her was not unexpected. She turned round with a radiant smile.

“Good morning Ben. All ready for the big meet?” Hah! She’d got in first, score one! A mental high five with herself would have been appropriate, but she didn’t have the time.
“Yes. They are here. Are you ready?”

“Of course.” She said, grabbing a file and a memory stick from her desk. Everything had been ready since 7pm last night.

She followed Ben into the boardroom, thinking – but not saying – that those socks just did not go with his suit or shoes. He opened the glass door and, in a show of gallantry, waved her in first.

She put on her best client smile and walked in. Already seated round the table were her new clients. Her heart skipped a little beat as her eyes met those of the handsome politician before her gaze slid over the rest of the entourage. She sat down and Ben began the pitch.

He was good, Ben, if a little sharp. Sometimes his attempts at humour shot wide, but his overview of the agency and their PR successes with some rather ‘difficult’ situations, as he tactfully put it, was impressive.

The politician shuffled in his seat, his side-kick almost squirming, as he waited for Ben to stop grandstanding and let them get to the matter in hand.

“And now let me introduce you to Chantelle, she’ll be...”
“Thank you.” Mr Politician said quickly. She felt a slight tautness in her throat and swallowed any option to speak.

“We want you because you are good at these things.” Said Jones, the right hand puppet. “And this is a very delicate, sensitive issue...”

The politician glared just hard enough for Jones to go quiet and turned to Ben and Chantelle.
“Let me explain,” he began quietly with menace and authority making his voice the most compelling she had ever heard. Her heart beat a little faster.

“I was caught screwing the deputy head-mistress of my daughter’s school behind the bike shed at the annual school fete. Now – tell me just how you are going to turn these photos..” and he threw an envelope onto the table with ‘The Sun’ postmark clearly on the front, “into a positive PR story?”

Bear in mind this story was written straight, in about 25 minutes, and I haven't edited here. I got a laugh but I also got the mock complaint that I am an 'actress' and I guess a lot of the fun of the story was in the telling. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the story, short and silly as it was.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Falling for Henry

Red hair, good looking, athletic, young, doesn't say a lot and loves to be hugged. Who wouldn't fall for Henry? Well both Carol and I did on our weekend visit to Eastbourne where we met him.

Around 30 years ago Carol and I first met at Carnation Foods, in East Finchley. We were both in the marketing department for petfoods - specifically Go Cat and Go Dog (as well as some other dodgy stuff like marrow meal and a liquid slop for sick cats). We had a high time in those days, when corporate responsibility probably extended as far as 'how much wine should there be with the directors' lunch today?'.

So - thanks to certain on line social media - five of us got together again to relive old days and just find out how old we'd all grown. Carol and I, who have remained friends throughout the intervening years, drove down to Eastbourne on Saturday morning. We went the 'scenic route' which included as many road works as we could possibly find!
Three and a half hours later, in drizzling rain, we reached the seaside. Well, we reached the brand new harbour complex where Mike (my old boss) and his wife Linda now live. With Henry.

Norman, who we also used to work for, had already arrived when we turned up at Mike and Linda's. Norm has the dubious honor of being responsible for two out of the five times I really lost my temper in my life! He's mellowed, shall we say? I guess so have I.

We had a pleasant lunch and caught up a little on 'old times'. My! The things that the bosses did that we didn't know about! And it's funny how they've forgotten the dart board and rowing machine in the store cupboard and the lunchtime Scrabble games.

Mike showed us the sights of Eastbourne - taking us to Pevensey Castle, the old church at West Ham, the pier, and then driving us over to Beachy Head. However, the drizzle which was by now solid cloud, meant we couldn't even see the side of the road, let alone any views. Henry came with us. The love affair began...

We went back to the house and had a lovely lunch, and awaited the arrival of Mark, the other team member who had managed to attend this extraordinary meeting of the Pet Foods Division, Carnation Foods, 1979-81. Mark duly arrived an hour late, which is not that late for him we are told. We caught up on some stories about Nick (you weren't there, but we found out lots!), Chris, Reg and Keith and started, bizarrely, a body count. The more stories we told, the more people we knew who were now dead. By the end of a delicious curry cooked by Linda, we were up to around 78.

The evening continued with some wine, a trip to the station (to return Norman to London) and a bit of music. Many, many years ago Mike, Bryan and I had played in a band together: 'Mike Mucous and the Membranes'. We sang a little, played a little, but mostly we talked.

At around 1am we headed for bed. Carol and I shared a room and talked a bit longer, of all things about our fathers. But in the morning - the sun came streaming through the window and there was no way either of us could sleep in.

At 7.30am Sunday morning we were both wide awake. By 8am we were up, dressed and heading out the door with Henry. We didn't know the area at all, but Henry did. He took us straight to the beach, then along the harbour, all round the marina and then back to the house. We had no need to worry, he knew exactly where to go. I think that's where he fell for Carol - when I went back to the side road to deposit the duly delivered bag of litter, he stayed by her side until I reappeared.

We didn't exactly kidnap Henry, he came with us willingly enough (one sight of the lead and he was ours!) but when we got back to the house, Linda and Mike had gone to the beach ('where's Henry?' the usual walkers kept asking them?). We set out again to meet them coming back.

The weather this morning was fine and warm, a beautiful blue sky creating the most amazing backdrop to the beach and the scenery. Mike and Linda took us out for a drive - first into Eastbourne where we parked Carol's car (explanation later) and then on, in theirs, to Beachy Head.
This time the views were spectacular! And, of course, with approximately one suicide per week, we upped our body count considerably (by now we were counting friends of friends, and would have even accepted third party referrals if we could only get above 100!).

Beachy Head is beautiful - why do people choose this place to end their lives? I guess it's not just all the media coverage and the history it has of suicides, but also the fact that it is a beautiful place to make your exit.
After the trip to Beachy Head we drove to see the Wilmington Long Man. He's a bit like the Cerne Abbas Giant, but without certain distinctive features.
After that we were dropped back in Eastbourne and went to visit Carol's relative, Robert. He lives (at the weekends) in a beautiful apartment in a 1930's Art Nouveau block at the posh end of town. In his 70's he is very active and still working. He's a researcher on British government and Empire documents. I'd never met the man before but we spent a lovely two hours with him.
Heading home we went the 'other way' and saved a whole hour on the journey back! I really appreciated Carol driving - and enjoyed arguing with the SatNav (as I always do). It was a lovely weekend, full of talk and good food and good company. The lovely Henry, though, stole both our hearts.
To see more photos, visit my Facebook page

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Bad dreams

Mostly my dreams are just colourful - but last night they involved terrorists, murder (I can still clearly see the side of a child's head split on a bullet exit) and earthquakes.

I started out with another person to get a drink (I was thirsty in reality, later got up and had some water). I knew it would be alright for us to go out as we weren't in uniform.

We came to the shop which was by the border. The shop shook and trembled, foods falling off shelves - we could see this through the huge glass sides. The other person in my dream was no longer there, but I was surrounded by a border terrorist group. They would not let me go. The leader of the group said I could not go as I had seen their faces. They were young, not more than teenagers really.

They were camped out between the pillars of broken buildings. They were just heating up needles ready for torture when I woke from that part of the dream.

I had my water, went back to sleep. Then my dream included the child being shot - in a darkened room. Trying to escape from the terrorists and someone else, an older man, being shot in the chest, but this time a small wound as the gun was against his chest in a fight.

So, given that I like to analyse dreams sometimes, what might this mean? I don't know. I think it is not very nice. It's now nearly 2pm and I still can't shift the images from my mind.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Having not played much music recently, this week was a blast - two opportuinties to play and enjoy myself!

The first was on Monday night at a pub in Waltham Abbey. The acoustic evening is run by a nice guy called Keith and I surprised him by turning up to play - for the first time in about six months. I was on my own as my music partner now works in London and can't do weekday gigs, but I didn't mind.

But, there I was, in a rough (almost London) pub, on my own. OK, I know Keith, and a couple of other musicians to smile and wave at - but that was about it. However, the last time I had played I had briefly chatted to one of the bar's locals. A gentleman we shall call 'Mr F'. I remembered him from last time - a tough guy, probably about 60, with grey hair and a criminal record (he'd told me before that he'd been inside). He was a man no one messed with - he has a reputation.

He remembered me, and was the most charming, polite and careful companion for the evening. He didn't want me to sit on my own, asked me to join him at the bar along with Bear (who was a very tall and quite large guy). We chatted quite a bit, about different types of music and the like, very amiably.

Keith sang his songs, then one of the others got up with a cut finger so he karaoke-d his way through some pub standards. Another lad got up and sang my favourite 'Hey There Deliliah' as well as some other good standards. So, noisy, pubby type music - but when I got up to sing, I did my usual quiet folksy stuff. They listened. Keith said to me 'you want someone to hear you, whisper'. He was right.

At the end of the evening Mr F saw me out to the car, carried some of my gear for me and gave me a polite and friendly peck on the cheek goodnight. We'd had some interesting conversations where I'd learned a bit more about his life. He was a man who had lived violently - where survival was directly related to strength. But the interesting thing was I saw something different, I saw a man who looked back on his life and wished that he could have done it differently. Maybe I am wrong, but even if the hard nuts of Waltham Abbey are afraid of him, I felt completely safe.

Last night (Thursday) I played at the Corner House in Cambridge following a quick plea over Facebook. When I got there the pub was quiet, but soon two other performers arrived too (Meg and Mark). Oh, and about five other people in the pub including the barman, the sound engineer and his girlfriend. We three musicians chatted easily, all different but it was very amiable.

I was due to go on first at 8.30 but there was still hardly anyone there. Mark suggested that we wait a bit longer as he had some friends coming - which we did and they duly arrived. So I managed to perform my half hour spot to a slightly fuller room than I first feared. I nattered with Tim and Cheryl, two of Mark's friends, and then more of his friends came too - and earlier he'd moaned how no one came to see him. 'Can't be a prophet in your own land' I said, when he told us how he played to packed houses in Manchester and Liverpool.

My performance was, again, very folky - but I actually got them singing choruses! It was a lovely atmosphere, friendly and - due to the lack of huge numbers - quite intimate. After my performance Meg went on - she has a lovely voice and writes fun, quirky songs. After Meg was Mark and I thoroughly enjoyed his performance. He engaged the audience with engaging casual chat, and sang some really nice songs.

So, all three of us were singer/songwriters with guitar. But the combination of the three styles was actually complementary - working excellently together. The audience were appreciative and the evening relaxed and pleasant.

I couldn't find Meg's myspace page, but you can hear Mark here:

The Corner House is a nice venue - with a mix of clientele and nice food (I'm told) and a good place to play or listen to a variety of music. I certainly enjoyed my evening there.

(PS: photo is not taken at either of these two venues, but I didn't have any appropriate ones)

Monday, August 23, 2010

I'm not a burglar

I do have strange dreams - picture this, I'm in my dressing gown in a house in New York. I've broken into the house as I need somewhere to stay with two other people (one of whom is a friend's daughter, and is about 10 years old instead of her actual 15). And my cat Toby (who has in fact been dead around 15 years).

I'm in the kitchen looking for something to eat when the owners of the house come in. "I'm not a burglar, this is a banana". I say, holding up the banana. The owners have children, four boys I can tell from their family photographs, but they are older and the children left home.

The family are understanding, and wait while I go and get things packed so we can leave. We need to find a vet though. The cat needs to be treated.

The whole story is very vivid and I can picture the people, the cat, the banana... I guess it's no wonder I wake up so tired!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Trains and stations

This morning I was reading a book on the train. I was on a chapter called 'attention' and I thought how the many things I'd noticed about the trains and my journey go unremarked except in my skull. There's no need to share my observations, but there's no harm in paying attention.

Today I was on the 'Buddah' train. This particular train, when idle, makes a soft bell-like noise similar to that of a wooden mallet being gently tapped against the side of a brass prayer bowl. It's quite a restful noise compared to the rest of the squeaks, groans and grinding noises it also makes.

I was on a singing train the other day. In London, the underground train made a squealing noise as it hurtled down the tracks that was light and musical as opposed to harsh and irritating. I christened it the 'singing train' in my mind. You don't talk to people on the underground (well, sometimes I do and I am always amused by the look of panic on their faces). But on this journey, I remember, I was talking to a family from Hungary who had enjoyed a tremendous day in London. They were glowing with fun and delight and the daughter, who was about 15, enjoyed translating for her happy parents and siblings. So, sometimes talking on the underground does work; but I still enjoy freaking out the regulars occasionally by offering a small mote of conversation.

Each morning when I get on the commuter train to Cambridge there is a woman I have known for 14 years. She steadfastly ignores me - has form the first friendly smile I gave her when I knew she was on the same commuter run as me. I don't know why. Perhaps I committed some grave offence, perhaps she'd just like her mornings quiet, and to herself please. Either way that's ok with me, I enjoy the opportunity to read in the bright morning sunshine, lulled by the rocking (and sometimes belling) of the train.

When we get to Cambridge there's a struggle to get past the bikes stacked at the doors, some folding some not. Then there's the sheep-like trail as we head from the platform to the exit, funnelling through the 'dip' (exit gates) dutifully and emerging into a crowded main hall. It's not a big hall, and not always crowded, but most mornings it's a throng of people headed into London or to Kings Lynn, or arriving at Cambridge.

Then I walk up Station Road towards my place of work. And the faces coming towards me are a mix of excitement (off for a day out?) and panic (my train leaves any moment...) and intense concentration (I am a commuter, don't bug me!). Sometimes I notice odd things about people.

For example, the impossibly muscular calves on that woman walking ahead of me - and her nice black skirt and... total lack of hips. Long blonde hair, feminine walk, but in a hurry. She stayed ahead of me. And the cyclists who think that riding on the narrow pavement is safer than the road. Well, it's not safer for the pedestrians. The confused tourists who don't understand the bus stops (actually, they change so often no one understands the bus stops any more). The tall, incredibly student looking guy who, when he turns around, is probably at least 40.

Cambridge is stuffed with youth and life. There are hordes of language students chattering away in various tongues, all 'cool' with eachother and their temporary displacement. There are business people in suits (and some really bad mixes of stripes!) and the wonderful eclectix mix that is Cambridge - from floppy hats to sandals, kaftans to kilts. You will, if you stand at Cambridge Station long enough, see just about every kind of person it is possible to imagine.

So my day starts out with a visual and auditory feast. Perhaps that's why I like to delve into my book. But more often than not I'll be distracted by the view as we trundle along - watching the fields turn from green to gold, from gold to brown, and eventually to white (when the winter comes). Being a commuter is not so bad.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Tiger Day

Yesterday was the 12th birthday of a captive tiger called Amba. She was born in captivity, probably the descendant of circus animals. She shares her enclosure with a male tiger called Rana. They are the most amazing, beautiful and impressive creatures ever!

The reason we (my colleague and I) were there was for Shepreth's 'Tiger Day' - a day spent celebrating these amazing animals (and Amba's birthday) but, most importantly, raising funds for work with tigers in the wild.

Shepreth rehomed the tigers from Paradise Wildlife Park, several years ago, and though locals were somewhat dubious at having these huge predators in the neighbourhood at first, they have proved to be a great attraction. And seeing them - who can but be moved to want to preserve this wonderful great cat in it's native home? The nice thing about Shepreth is they are not only a visitor attraction, but they are active in conservation work in the field too.

FFI work with tigers in Sumatra and Becca, from Shepreth, had spent five weeks out there recently. She didn't see any wild tigers, even though she was with our top tiger team (the rangers do an amazing job out there, protecting the tigers from poachers and protecting their habitat from illeagal logging and agricultural encroachment). Rob, however, my colleague who went out for a week earlier in March, saw one more or less on his first day!

I think I'd like to see a tiger in the wild - provided there was suitable distance or protection; those teeth are huge! Whilst the environmental enrichment (hide the tiger food) programme was underway in their enclosure, the tigers were briefly locked into their night dens. We were situated right next to one of the dens and could look through the window at the tiger. He would often come up to the window and look out at us, just inches away (reinforced glass, of course).

There were a number of events, most of which we didn't get to see as we were on our stand (actually a little table under a kindly loaned gazebo - it rained and rained!), and I got to meet wildlife vet John Lewis who was a very interesting guy to talk to indeed. I first saw him on Monkey World on TV many years ago - but his main interest now is big cats. He's invented a field anaethstics kit (probably a much better technical name for it than that) and soon he's going out to work in Russia.

I asked him if he'd ended up doing wildlife veterinary work by accident or on purpose - he said as he'd started out in zoos, it was a natural progression. He also mentioned how many children die because of rabies, and how veterinary care of domestic/working dogs could so reduce this. Simple things we can do that could change the world. We didn't talk for long, but he covered a lot of ground in a short space of time.

We had a successful day, lots of visitors, a very happy child who won our toy tiger, and some really good contacts. We talked to one of the keepers who'd been out in Africa and found a human foot in a wellington boot the morning after some lions visited. He doesn't like lions so much... but the little mountain lion at the park purrs as soon as she sees him (or is it the green uniform = food response?).

It was a different day to working in the office - spending the day next to tigers, talking to people about our charity, and watching kids look in awe at these beautiful cats. Oh, and at the end of the day, there was a kerfuffle over at one of the monkey enclosures. Some bright spark had put his posh mobile phone out really close to get a good photo (over the barrier) and smart monkey thought 'oy! I'll ave some o that' and grabbed said fruity mobile phone (which did not taste as delectable as the fruit which gives it name) and chewed it up.

The phone-owner was furious (but insured), the phone was retrieved (broken), but more to the point, the monkey was ok (the batteries are poisonous).

All in all, a successful and pleasant day, despite the rain.

Click here to see some great tiger pictures

Click here to sponsor Becca on her 'Tiger Swim'

Top photo of tiger eyes (C) Fauna & Flora International

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Broken dreams

To 'break a dream' is when someone says something to you that makes you recall a forgotten dream. This happened to me this morning, but only regarding part of a dream.

Let me tell you a bit about the dream first of all. There was a man with no shirt on, half his body sun-tanned, laying on a wall by the river. He fell into the river where he was already swimming. The two versions of him became one, and then he turned into a mer-man. He swam down the river, obviously confused at the transformation. He was curled by the bank.

I was looking down into the water, from a height. The wall above the river was maybe 20 feet high. But then I was also in a small rented flat with two metal beds, one atop the other. Behind the bed were sweets and other rubbish on the wooden floor that the renter had not cleaned up properly. I know, because I pulled out the bed to look, then put it back again afterwards. Outside the window, a big wide double doors window, was a path and then immediately a lake. A nice view from the bedroom, but no privacy. Children walked by and we thought that it was a shame you couldn't cordon off your piece of path to the lake.

I went into the sweetshop to buy some sweets. It was old fashioned - wooden display units at child height.

But the bed was towering high - and I was swinging on the metal edge, knees folded over, encouraged by someone - a women (a pop star even) who watched me as the edge of the bed became a towering structure from which I could swing out over the river. I swung deeply forward over the river, and back again. And the most amazing thing about the dream is not the detail or the colour - but the sensation of swinging. That heart swooping rush you get when swinging on a rope, or a trapeze (though I've never done that) or dived off a high board. That adrenalin high that is part fear, part excitement.

The sensation was very physical, and I realised after the first copule of swoops that I could actually enjoy the rush.

Now to the breaking of my dream... what I had forgotten (with all above details still fresh and visual in my mind) was that I was also learning Polish in this dream. Sat in a cafe with a young man, who was - I think - going to teach me to speak the language.

And this morning, my friend sent me a text saying I was 'not Polish enough' (I won't explain) and so I remembered that part of the dream.

All this must have taken long, interminable seconds between the alarm going off and me waking. But the sensation, the physical sensation of swinging, was very powerful indeed. I enjoyed the dream - the colour, the variety, the incongrouous nature of all the different parts. And the sudden remembering of one part of it, that had slipped my mind until an innocent text arrived.
What did you dream? Can you remember? Have you had very physical (clean answers only please!) or emotional dreams? Do please post a comment, I'd be interested to know. You can post a comment anonymously, you don't have to belong to Blogger to join in.

Photograph courtesy of

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Curious Tiger

(C) Carolyn Sheppard.

I feel the earth beneath my feet, damp and soft. It smells warm and familiar – comforting. My claws sink into the ground and I move quietly through the forest. I am not hungry; only yesterday I ate very well indeed. But today I want to walk through my domain and mark my territory.

I tread softly, for I sense a change. There is a tang in the air – a smell I do not recognise. I stand still and listen, my whiskers twitch forward, my mouth slightly open, my ears attuned to every crackle and creak. Standing still, I am invisible. Small birds and animals fly and scurry round me. They know who I am, and rightly fear me. That which is ahead of me is new, unknown, and I am cautious.

I am also a curious tiger, and instead of avoiding this uncertainty ahead, I move steadily forward. My presence is undetected, I am sure. The heavy forest air brings me scents I know and many that I do not. It is the unknown, which draws me.

I enter a small clearing and smell wood moke scented with the ripeness of burnt flesh, and of many other things I do not recognise. I am intrigued. I move closer and see a small fire in the clearing, but not fleeing through the forest as it may do on dry, dangerous days. It is controlled, restrained. I look carefully about: next to the fire is something I have never seen before. It smells of rotten plants. Next to that, is the monkey.

I call it a monkey for that is what it most closely resembles. It is decked in something that is not fur and does not seem to be a part of it. It smells of plant, and of bitter things that make me open my jaws widely so that I may detect their taint more clearly.

My ungoverned movement has given me away - the monkey has seen me! It stands with a strange stick in its hand as if in defiance. Puny creature! I lift my head – the stick exudes its own unique odour: It smells of wood, of the caves, and it the air about it tastes hard and sharp like the red rocks in the mountains.

The monkey is afraid. It waves the stick hesitantly in my direction and I can taste the odour of fear. This is reassuring; the creature is not so foreign, it fears me. Yet as well as fear there are many other smells and tastes that cling and cloy my senses – that of the creature itself, and many more that surround this strange animal. I decide that its signature is as distasteful as if it has dived into every kind of excrement it could find.

I gently pad a little nearer. The monkey sits down upon a rock, but has not stopped glaring at me, or pointing its stick - as if that might stop my progress! Its pale skin is damp, slick with sweat – in its fear. This is as it should be.

I do not wish to eat the monkey. But I am curious. I have heard of these creatures in the forest before. I have smelled their flesh-burning fires. I have tasted them upon the wind before. Like most, I have avoided them. But this is just one, on its own.

I move closer. The monkey is now shaking, trembling beneath my gaze like a found calf. Its legs have a very fine fur upon them, and each hair stands on end at my approach. Still it points the stick at me. Now I am nearer, I detect something else – further pungency from the stick: it stings my nose and I twitch in disgust. The stick smells hot, and it smells cold. It smells … of death.

I am now near enough to kill easily. But first, to try and understand this creature, I lick its nearest leg with my long rasping tongue. I can taste it completely now: Piss and sweat, strong, natural odours, combined with a myriad of other strange tastes that are sour and rancid. The creature shivers. It does not look nor sound like any monkey I know. I do not think it would be good to eat.

I look into its eyes, trying to fathom exactly what kind of creature this is? It has the tang of carnivore, yet is rank. I do not understand - as I look into its eyes I see nothing – no connection, no life behind its small, frightened white and blue eyes. It is almost like a dead thing. If I look at any other creature, or they look at me, we see that we are one. We know that whether we are predator or prey, we are all part of the same. We all know what we are and where we belong in this world. This creature – this upright, smooth skinned, foul tasting monkey – does not have a place.

With its acid taste lingering in my mouth, I yawn (for effect, I admit), and the creature waves its death stick at me again. At any moment it may fall back off its rock, its thin legs waving skyward – that would amuse me. But it does not. It just keeps watching me with those dead eyes. Bored, I turn my back on the thing – it is not worthy of my time or my interest.

I walk away, swaying my tail in contempt, letting the monkey see my strength and power. of course, it does not understand, it does not realise that I have given it the gift of its own life. that gift is a waste - I am sorry for such a thing that does not belong to the world.

My curiosity is satisfied. I move on, knowing that such creatures will not warrant any further investigation should they ever cross my path again.

Written in 2007. If you like tigers, then check out Fauna & Flora International and their work with the Sumatran Tiger

Earth Wake

Here's the first chapter of one of my short stories.

Captain Jamieson jumped down from the ship, his feet crushing the long, spiky blue grass as he landed. He scowled as he looked around and spat out a wad of well-chewed tobacco.

“Welcome, Captain.” Ricard looked at the shining, foamy brown lump the Captain had spat, which now slid slowly down the broad leaf of a low growing bush.

The Captain saw where Ricard was looking and had him sussed in an instant. An Indij-lover. He’d met a few on different planet hops – where they go ‘native’ and forget just who they are working for.

“Come this way.” Ricard led the way to a clearing. In the middle stood a sturdy hut that looked like it was made of mud, sticks and grass. This was Ricard’s home on the planet –in fact (since the first contact team had left) it was Homeworld’s planetary embassy. Ricard smiled to himself, thinking how unimpressed his visitor would be with the local facilities.

Jamieson spat again, the small blob raising a puff of dust as it landed on the dry, yellow earth. “Summary.” He barked as they entered the hut.

Ricard turned on the solalight with a wave of his hand. “Highly evolved society, good natural resources, simple balance of nature equation.” Ricard knew that the Captain would have had a full briefing already, what else did he want to know?

“Can we drill?”

A silence hung between them. Jamieson assumed Ricard’s reticence was his indigenous-loving attitude.

Ricard saw the greed and exploitative streak in Jamieson and didn’t like it. “No.” he said.

Jamieson snorted. An ‘I knew it’ type snort. A tiny dribble of brown liquid ran from his nose into his grey moustache.

Ricard’s stomach clenched in revulsion. Even though Angolican tobacco wasn’t carcinogenic, the habit of chewing or smoking the stuff still disgusted him.

“Why?” said Jamieson deliberately.

Ricard let out a huge sigh. “Geo. The ground isn’t stable.”

“Evidence?” Jamieson said.

Ricard had already sent reports to Homeworld that he knew Jamieson would have seen, but he also knew they would just consider his reasons ‘excuses’. “No solid evidence. “The locals talk of regular earth wakes…”


“No… earth wakes. No matter how often we ask or whatever the context, our translator says they definitely call them ‘earth wakes’.”


Ricard was beginning to feel irritated by Jamieson’s brusque manner, but he had expected no less from Homeworld. Despite thousands of trans-world treaties, one way or another they usually found a way to exploit new planets and tap into their natural resources. No matter how carefully phrased to protect the indigenous species, planets usually ended up in a sorrier state for their alliance with Homeworld Federation.


I need to work on the rest of the story - it's finished,just needs polishing. Any comments welcome.

The most excellent illustration is from Kellie Kougioulis - found here:

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Georgia on my mind

What do you think of when someone says 'Georgia'? The songs? The American state? The ex-Soviet state? Well, it's the latter on my mind for this post.

The other day we had a 'download' at work from one of the guys who works out in Georgia. He works with the Tusheti people and the local Government organisations and NGOs to help preserve some of the most amazing wildlife.

They have bears, wolves, jungle cats, lynx and tortoise as well as an amazing array of bird and plant-life. Gareth works particularly on the carnivores (them what has sharp teeth as detailed above). The project, funded primarily by the EU and in partnership with local NGO, NACRES, is designed to protect some amazing rich habitats near the Caucasus mountains and in the south-east.

Of course Georgia was in the news most recently because of border disputes and political 'chest puffing' (I would say willy waving but that's not very PC) that has resulted in conflict. But the Tusheti shepherds still have to take their herds of sheep from the lowlands in the winter to the mountains in the summer - and still have to feed and care from them and protect them from the carnivores that live there too.

It's a challenge - especially as the deconstruction of the USSR has meant that the support infrastructure has disappeared along with the Russians. Part of the work Gareth and the team out there are doing is to help the shepherds with veterinary care - reducing disease in dogs (so it doesn't get transferred to wildlife) and increasing herd survival rates so that loss to predators is not such a great impact. One of the things Gareth is trying to raise extra funds for is salaries for vets who can work in the mountainous and arid regions of this extraordinary landscape.

So why am I writing about it when there's perfectly good information all about it on the FFI website? (here ) Simple - the one thing that is missing from the information on the web is the passion and knowledge that individuals like Gareth share when you meet them in person. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to hear first hand the stories of the conservation work these folks are doing all over the world.

He told us how hard the wolves are to trap, so you can't do accurate research on them, and how hunting, poaching and over-grazing are serious issues. He also had some amazing photographs (I've chosen one of his bird photographs, well, I would, wouldn't I!)

I have to say my geography has improved too!

Photo: Hawfinch, (C) Gareth Goldthorpe - check out more of his work on Flickr

Monday, June 28, 2010

In the pink

My girls did the Pink Ribbon run yesterday - it was an amazing day weather wise.On the way back after seeing 1,000 people dressed in pink I saw a swallowtail butterfly on the heath - first time I've ever seen one. It was too quick for me to photograph, but I found this one from the RSPB so you can see what it looks like.

Photo credit: Swallowtail Butterfly at one of the few sites in England that they breed. © Copyright Janet Richardson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Friday, June 25, 2010

An Odd evening

Well, not that odd really, but I like playing with words. We had an event last night at the Middle Temple in London. This amazing place is the haunt of the London legal profession (part of it, anyway). I was given a potted history by one of the nice gents serving us wine:

The land was given to the lawyers by King James I on condition that they kept teaching law there. When Queen Elizabeth I came to visit she wanted a table that she and all her entourage could sit at, so the hugest oak was found and floated up the Thames (which originally came right up to the buildings) and a table was made that is 26 feet long - all from a single tree.

There is so much oak in these old buildings - you can't really see it that well on the photo above, but the ceiling was amazing - huge swathes of black oak.

Unfortunately I didn't get to learn much more (but if you want to know more, just check good old Wiki: but then I was there to work! It was a garden party, with two wonderful speakers. The first talked about his discovery of a unique species of butterfly, the second was the excellent Mike Dilger who not only entertained our guests, but also drew in passers by (who I made sure got some of our leaflets). He described himself at one point as 'Bill Oddie's researcher' only he used a word to replace researcher: the word is usually applied to a female of the canine species.

It was all very good natured, and in fact Mike's ex-boss was present. Hence the cheesy photo of me and Bill. The important focus of the evening was conservation and all those present that I talked to were interested and engaged. Even three guests who had actually come to the wrong event went away with membership forms... it's the killer instinct in me!

There was a most wonderful guitarist playing for us too, the gentle sounds of his gorgeous Taylor guitar adding the perfect backdrop to an English Summer evening.

The train home was packed - I sat next to a man with a cricket hat in his lap. Once I'd had a brief look through my photos, he talked to me. He had been to the cricket, watched MCC beat Kent. Now he was on his way back to Cambridge, to his daughter and his four year old grandson who has cancer. Doesn't life like to give you a 'perspective nudge' at just the right times?

I've lots more to blog - an evening with Stephen Fry (my friend Heather says I am too posh to talk to these days, but honestly she knows me better!) and lots more on my trip to Arizona. I must start to write again - I miss the simple act of playing with language to tell a story. Even if no one is listening.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Arizona Travels - episode 1

Here I am back in Arizona again - it's been two years since I was last here. This time I came in a warmer time of year - I say warmer, it's 98 Deg F as I write! Well, outside, I'm in the shade inside of course, with AC and cold drinks on tap.

Actually the heat has not bothered me at all, I've covered up in sun cream and worn a hat and cool clothes, always had plenty of water and my asthma has been absent! This climate suits me (mind you, not sure how I'd cope in the summer as the temperatures soar above 100...)

Nadine's house is in San Tan Valley, to the south west of Phoenix. It's an hour to downtown along the freeways, and round here it's pretty much scrubby desert with houses and towns plonked in the middle of it all. Nadine's yard (garden to you and me) backs on to a golf course and there is a metal rail fence so you can see the golfers as they play. You hear 'shucks' (or words to that effect) as they thwack the ball off to the next tee, you hear '*&*&*' when you hear a whack as the ball has hit some house, and lots of happy chatter as women, men and children send their balls off on the appropriate trajectory down the course.

Golf courses here are green - but only green in patches. In between it's coarse desert - yellow brown dirt with the odd seguaro cactus, mesquite tree and some other little bushes. Dashing about between the sparse vegetation are the ground squirrels - dust coloured rodents who live in little holes in the non-green golf course. They are driven to dive for their holes not only when speedy golf carts shoot past, but when the shadow of the Harris hawk flies overhead or a rather ardent grackle (like an all-black magpie) gets a little too close.
So, sitting in the garden alone I see lots of things - including the little brown lizards who scoot along the walls and, when they reach a sunny spot, stop to do little push ups to keep their bellies from burning. There are quail who wander past, verdin (little greenish birds) and finches, mourning doves and white winged doves too. I could sit all day in the yard just watching.
The multi-coloured golfer is, of course, the most amusing of these creatures, but I do prefer the wildlife.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Improbably Nimble...

Improbably nimble... that was a description offered during a conversation about some Morris Men. Not, as it happens, the ones I spent this weekend with. But pretty darn accurate.

We set off Friday night for Dranouter - five of us in one car, the rest all making their way across the channel (none of us by air, thank goodness, as the Icelandic volcano put paid to any flying this weekend).

We arrived in good time and (nearly all of us) met up for an evening meal. There were 18 in the crew altogether - that's musicians, dancers and support team. I was in the band (I've never really been much of a dancer, alas), on the bass in place of their regular chap who was off in Singapore or some other far flung place.

We had a superb meal and the menu had about 40 different kinds of beer. I looked at the wine list - it simply said 'Glass, 1/2 carafe, full carafe' and prices - not so much as a 'red' or 'white' let alone any kind of further descriptor or choice! I guess it shows pretty much where the Belgian loyalties lie.... beer!

The following morning I abandoned my room mate (Natalie) and went for a wonderful walk in the woods just by the hotel on Mont Noir. It was beautiful! Sunshine, birds singing... the perfect morning. And a pretty good start to a rather good day. The reason Albion Morris were playing in Dranouter is that they had appeared at the Festival for something like 35 years! And some of the original dancers were still in the troupe. They were booked to play their last official gig at the Folkcentrum, which is a cultural centre and includes - as well as a super little venue and restaurant - a folk museum. So - how old do you think the guys felt when, watching a historical film, they saw themselves?! I guess when you find your childhood memories in a museum it's nostalgic enough... but to find yourself in a museum? That's a little scary.

In the afternoon, four of us went into Ypres (but spelled the Flemmish way) to the exhibition in the town hall: "In a Flanders Field". It was intensely moving and quite extraordinary. The first world war has shaped this country. Ypres was occupied, not by the Germans but by the British. And we brought with us Chinese, Australians, Sikhs and Moors... the whole city turned into a massive military camp. The terrible conditions are described often enough on screen, but to see the conditions and the photographs of the actual trenches, the bodies, the gas masks, the total destruction that hit the city - it's mind warping; and soul rending. If you go to Belgium, visit this exhibition if you can.

The afternoon we had a workshop scheduled - teaching non-morris dancers how to do some dances. Some local folk dancers joined, as well as some very small children, and they learned three dances (one of which seemed to take forever and by the time we played the tune for the 17th time we were quite ready to murder the dance teacher, Ada). We then had a meal and a chill out before our performance in the evening.

I have to say the dancers excelled themselves. Considering the team was augmented with members of Brighton Morris as so many of the original Albion crew couldn't make it, some of whom had not danced those particular dances before (or in those particular traditions), they did fantastically. I certainly didn't spot a wrong move, but then again I was concentrating like mad on the music.

I did hear that Stuart got hit on the head, but I missed that particular event. All I saw was some great dancing, a very enthusiastic audience and enjoyed the fantastic atmosphere.

At the end of the gig - which was quite emotional for everyone really - two 'Albion groupies' sang a song they had written especially for them. They'd been to see the team for more than 20 years... that's loyalty! And the song was very funny too.

Our hosts were amazing - always looked after us with drinks vouchers (thankfully they had an excellent cider) and made sure we had a superb sound and generally looked after us. You couldn't ask for more as a performer.

After the gig finished the evening continued with a song session led by Ian from Brighton. It was very entertaining - loud sing-along songs which perhaps bamboozled the locals, but entertained them none-the-less. With a most bizarre version of 'Music Man' and many other shanty type songs, I had a wonderful time singing along and relaxing after the intense concentrating of playing (the morris tunes are not one I'm really familiar with and I had to work hard!).

The session ended at around 1.45am, and it was weary, emotional and happy we all returned to our hotel rooms. Mind you, one member of the cast was poured into his room - having eventually been prised away from his best friend, the pillar, without whom he would have been bereft (or just in a heap on the floor). One of the dangers of so many beers and so little time.

The following morning I went with Stuart and Daphne into Popperinge where we visited Talbot House. This building was run by a military cleric, 'Tubby' Clayton and was a haven for the troops. No matter whether you were a colonel or a private, within its walls there were no ranks and everyone was treated equally. Tubby built a chapel in the roof, and his services were always full. So many of those men he ministered to came once, and never came again - never breathed again. Whatever your religious beliefs, he performed a great service, and you can understand why, in such terrible times, people clung to any belief that offered hope in such circumstances.
There was a beautiful garden, a concert hall (from a nearby house which Tubby comandeered without permission from the absent owners), a contemplation room, a billiards table, piano (which is still played today) and an opportunity to return to sanity for an all too brief moment.
We headed home Sunday afternoon after another lovely meal at the Folkcentrum - the trains were crowded with people. It was the end of the weekend, the end of the Easter break and also full of people desperate to get home because of cancelled flights. All in all I had a terrific weekend - excellent food, drink, company, music, dancing and singing. I saw long tailed tits, and heard the most wonderful song from a blackcap. I visited two museums and also the small cemetery at Dranouter. I had plenty of opportunity to contemplate, and to enjoy. A perfect weekend.
I'll post a link to my photos as soon as I have uploaded them.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Species Conservation

As you may have noticed, I am now working in the field of conservation (and loving it!). This weekend I am engaged in some exciting fieldwork! I am travelling over to Belgium to work with a highly endangered British species called Dancus Morrisus.

This unusual creature has been seen all over the world but is indigenous to the UK. However, sub-species have been identified in America, Canada, New Zealand and as far south as Antarctica (though the Antarctic sub-species is now known to be extinct). They are fairly easy to identify as they are extremely colourful, and the variants such as the Black Face, Rapper and Molly are all very distinctive.

The conservation team are heading over to Dranouter with the highly endangered 'Morrisus Albionus' - this is not an attempt at species bolstering through cross-fertlisation with the local Dancus Contradancus, but an opportunity to introduce the British variants to a more diverse food (and in particular beer) supply.

It is hoped that the trip will put some new life into this fascinating, if slightly weird, flock and either prove that the Dancus Morrisus Albionus is still viably sustainable or, which is the conservationists fear, heading for extinction. Despite some integration with a regional but quite robust variant (Dancus Morrisus Brightonian) we are still fearful that it may go the way of the now extinct 'Dansus Sloshus' and 'Dancus Charleston'.

So - wish me luck! I will be using my technical expertise (and my complex field equipment - a bass guitar and amp) to provide a suitable background environment to make the Dancus Morrisus Albionus feel right at home. Oh, and a few beers are certainly going to help!

For more information on Morrisus Dancus, visit The Morris Ring

For information on the sub-species Albionus, visit Albion Morris

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tiger tiger!

2010 is 'International Year of Biodiversity' and also the Year of the Tiger. For my colleague, Rob, it was fortnight of the tiger.

Rob works in our office in Cambridge and had the unique opportunity to visit FFI's project out in Indonesia where they are working to protect the rare and exquisite Sumatran tiger. There is a huge national park called Kernici Seblat and Rob went to stay with the FFI head of the project, Debbie (click here to read her tiger blog).

So why am I blogging about it? Because Rob just gave us a 'download' at lunchtime, where he talked about the project and the amazing bit of luck he had in actually seeing some tigers in the wild, and his admiration and enthusiasm for the team out there. The Tiger Protection Unit are local people, all with a real passion for conservation. Poaching is still a problem - but it's not poor local people who are poaching, it's rich businessmen who fund highly dangerous teams to go and snare and shoot tigers for the skins and body parts.

Rob's exploits (highly edited) are on the FFI website, but you should also check out the info on the site about the Tiger project, then I highly recommend it.

Photo (C) Fauna & Flora International

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

From Shamrocks to Daffodils

This week saw St Patrick's night - and Shani and I had a gig at a local village pub. Bryan said he may come and play some tunes with us, but not if there was just 'two men and a dog' in the audience.

Don't you just hate flip comments that turn out to be accurate predictions?! OK, at one point there really was just two men and a dog - the pub dog and the two landlords, but at the most I would say there were probably only 8 people in the bar.

This did not stop us having a grand evening though! We played and sang and generally enjoyed making music. At 11pm two ladies came in and, up for a grand evening (it was the birthday of one), we played and they danced. The two ladies and the landlords all dancing round happily whilst we sang some hackneyed Irish songs and a few other standards, for good measure (they loved our rendition of 'Let me Entertain you').

The birthday girl asked us if we'd play at her birthday party on the Saturday night, and we turned up but the way things turned out we didn't actually perform (apart from three and a half songs).

Sunday, however, was Thriplow Daffodil Festival and we played to a nicely full tea tent on a sunny, English spring day. The daffodils, however, were reluctant to perform (given the cold and long winter) but that didn't spoil what is a quintessentially wonderfully English village festival.

We played our set, then were asked for more (not with raucous encore shouts, but because there was more time to fill) and had a thoroughly pleasing little afternoon gig.

Next? Well, there is talk of a beer festival at the village pub ...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Toad Charmer

Did you know the toad belongs to the anuran family? No, nor did I. But as these engaging creatures seem to be attracting my attention a lot recently, I thought I should look up a little more about them.

The common toad is not particularly rare, but less common than good old frogs! The natterjack toad, though, is not only rare but endangered. I have had three encouters with anurans recently (hey, isn't that a great name for an alien in Dr Who?). The first was a frog. (see my previous Frog Blog for more froggy tales and my own pictures.)

It was a rainy night a few weeks ago, I was walking back from the station along a main road. It was dark, drizzly and I was thoroughly fed up. Winter blues in full swing. Next to the pavement I was walking on was a wall, atop the wall an old metal railing fence. Behind the fence was a hedge, part of the garden of a house. I was looking down, keeping the rain out of my eyes, when I noticed something unusual. A huge frog! He was gorgeous - green and brown and shiny in the rain. But on a pavement next to a busy road he was likely to get squished - either by unnoticing pedestrians or, should he(she) venture the wrong direction, by unseeing traffic.

I stooped to pick him up and he scrambed towards the wall. I held him in my hand and he settled immediately (perhaps the warmth of my mammalian hands was actually rather nice to a cold frog). I lifted him to the top of the wall where the greenery poked through and the earth and safety beyond beckoned.

I held my hand flat on the wall. He turned, and instead of leaping off, just looked at me. "Go on" I said. I swear he winked, and then he hopped onto the wall, and then off into the undergrowth.

The other day, cycling back from the station (instead of walking in the rain), I came via the Heath and as I trundled over the earthy heap that separated the open paths of Therfield Heath from our road, I noticed that at the side of the path one of the brown leaves was the wrong shape. I swerved the bike so as not to squash the toad who, nicely camoflaged, had chosen a pedestrian pathway to sit upon.

I picked him up and gently set him down further in the leaves, off the main path, so that he should not get squished. Hopefully he took the hint and stayed clear of the cold tarmac. He didn't seem to object to me picking him up. Toads excrete a rather nasty substance from their skin making them unpalatable to most predators. Perhaps that's what gives them their confidence when being handled?

That was encounter number two. This morning, however, the toad came a-knocking at the door. Well, not literally, but pretty close. I opened the front door to head for the annual Thriplow Daffodil festival and there upon the doormat was a huge, swollen bellied toad. Yellow, brown and with bright eyes, it looked at me. And then continued as if to enter the house.

Now I know that yon toad would not have had such a warm welcome from other, more squeamish, members of the family, so I picked her up. Again, totally unconcerned at my touch (she didn't even puff herself up, as some do), she settled in my hand. The answer was obvious - I took her round to the back garden and set her down on the greenery next to the pond.

Toads return every year to the same pond if they can, I just hope ours was the pond she was heading for. I am sure we will be able to tell as our little pond fills up with skaters and other wiggly pond life, and -without doubt - it's annual quota of frogs and spawn. I'll keep my eye out for the strings of spawn which mean our garden toads have decided to bless us with their warty, pleasing presence once again.

Photo from BBC, more info on toads:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Spring raised it's head briefly yesterday, uncurled from the frozen brown earth to take a breath of sunshine, then disappeared again today under the coverlet of clouds.

The birds are silent today, yesterday's enthusiasm dampened by grey skies and chilly air. But there are small white buds on the magnolia, and the primroses are struggling to open. Snowdrops, white and green against black, hard earth, are trembling in the rush of wind caused by the speeding, dirty busses that trammel the brittle tarmac.

Spring is on its way, reluctantly. But we are eager with anticipation, and optimism. The slightest bit of blue sky brings a smile, the instant of sunshine warms more than its thin heat radiates.

On the train, in the evenings, the sky is a riot of reds. Scudding clouds are daubed with vibrant colours, and the sunsets cast dramatic silhouettes of bare trees, farm buildings and scrubby fields that are slowly, slowly challenging the winter to turn green.

And this morning, as I came in on the train, into the city, the arms of a huge yellow spider clawed their way from the mound of earth that is the rebuilding of CB1. Three diggers looked like arachnid limbs, and the devastation surrounding their industry is like another spring - the bare field soon to sprout the concrete shoots of new buildings.

Change is a constant, and the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of development is as unstoppable as each sunrise. Though some days start grey, there will be sunshine one day. Remember that the sun is coming, that the wreck of land will soon be something new and shining, that the broken earth will soon blossom. It's hard to keep a positive attitude sometimes, but all we have to do is look around. And remember.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Changing Paths

I’ve spent years behind a desk for my job, and I’ve always been extremely lucky to have jobs that I have enjoyed and, most recently, that contribute directly to the wellbeing of others (healthcare, education, training). Though my ‘ideal job’ as a youngster would have been to be a forest ranger (I worked briefly as a volunteer on a nature reserve in North London), my career path took a very different course. This time I’ve definitely hit the jackpot as far as jobs go – and I don’t mean financially, but in terms of fulfilment and engagement. Around me my colleagues talk of their time in Kenya, India, America, Alaska, Indonesia, Viet Nam and Antarctica. I am in fact now working for a conservation organisation where the employees are not just dedicated but hands-on experienced.

The Membership Secretary used to be an Antarctic Scientist, the Comms Officer use to work with endangered Wallabies in Australia and the Fundraising Officer (who I am slightly worried to find out loves dressing up as a gorilla) has spent time in Swaziland. Next month he is going out to Indonesia for more hands on conservation work (hopefully not in costume, he’d have some problems at customs). There are 60 people working for the charity in nearly every corner of the world.

The work I’m doing now, a change from my previous employment, means I need to learn (and quickly) about Fauna & Flora International’s conservation projects: the work we do with (to name but a few) gorillas, trees, people, habitats, bats, carbon emissions, global warming and – crucially – how to fund the work we do all over the planet.

In short, every day I work here inspires me (and also stirs some previously suppressed wanderlust). Most of the people round me are younger and have done or are doing their travelling now (for work, sabbatical, or just for the hell of it). I would love to travel more and even do some field work myself, but I do know that it’s not all ‘cute cuddly animals’ – oh no! The work this fantastic organisation does is much more varied than that – they work with Kyrgyzstani women to help manage the sustainability of their fruit and nut forests, help farmers build buffalo fences to protect their crops (and the buffalo) and help local communities to develop tourism and other forms of enterprise to reduce the impact on their environment.

The dedication of the people in the office is just a reflection of those out in the field – and I am very proud to be part of the oldest conservation charity in the world. I may only be here for a year, but you can bet your last pound (please make sure you tick the ‘gift aid’ box on your donation form!) that I am going to put everything I can into it – I’m already getting so much out. I’ve never been afraid to get my hands dirty, so who knows, one day I may actually do something a bit more adventurous with the rest of my life.

I do, of course, still run the training business, which I enjoy thoroughly, but there is something to be said for working in an evironment where you know you are contributing real value beyond your own existence.