Monday, December 17, 2012

Petra's leap

It’s holiday time. The family are bundled into the Humber Hawk – ‘Snodge’. My dad always named his cars, and this big old grey car, with its huge leather seats (no seatbelts), its spacious boot and improvised roof-rack, was the perfect vehicle for transporting the family down the long and winding roads from North London to Devon. Petrol was 73p a gallon – an outrage! One day, my father mused, it would probably be more than a pound a gallon.

There was no M4 in those days, so the A4 was our favoured (and only major) route. The journey was punctuated by visits to different hostelries along the way and I am fairly sure that at the age of about six I could reasonably navigate myself across half of England via the names of different pubs along the way.

Petra, following me up a cliff on the beach

I looked out of the window watching fields spin past, sheep dotting the hillsides like fallen clouds, whilst pigs and cows added extra punctuation to the brown and green countryside. My brother, ignoring the world outside the window and whiling away the journey through immersion in comics (Superman, Batman, The Flash), would stop reading just long enough to argue with me over food, or to steal my comic (Sparky), or to look out the window cursorily at my mother’s insistence that we ‘enjoy the view’. Our dog, Petra, would alternately sit in the front with mother, or in the back with us. If we argued too much, Petra sat in the front and we were deprived of her warm, affectionate companionship.  She was, as my father described her, a ‘black and tan-ex’. A cute mongrel with a lovely temperament and an obliging nature.
One of our favourite stops along the way was the Pig & Whistle. Now for the life of me I can’t remember where this pub is, but I do know that it was by a bridge over a river – and from the road bridge there was a 20 foot drop down to the riverbank below. It was the scene, on one of our travels, for Petra’s spectacular leap. Petra was on the bridge with my brother, and I was below in the field by the river. The field sloped down from the pub to the river and was part of its garden. Though deep rivers and huge drops may be considered dangerous environments for kids today – for us it was nothing to play in such places without adult supervision.

I called to Petra – it was my ‘turn’ for the dog. Assuming that she would trot round the lane route and down into the field, I was aghast to see our lovely pet flying through the air as she took the quick way down – leaping from the bridge to join me below. The strange thing is, I remember this from a third party perspective, as if I am standing by the pub watching both the road and the field below, with me standing there as Petra sailed – perhaps gracefully – down to the ground. Amazingly she was unhurt; perhaps it wasn’t really a huge 20 feet drop – but it did seem incredibly high to a small girl, and probably higher to an even smaller dog.

Writing your childhood

I'm reading a book about going camping in the 70s (The tent, the bucket, and me). The writing is witty, bright and detailed. I'm sure that the author doesn't actually remember the details herself of events from when she was just four years old; there'll be a good dose of imagination as well, I'm sure, as familial interrogation.

So how do you write your childhood? Yes, you were there, but your perspective would be totally different at the time compared to how you may remember things in later life. I know, for example, that a lot of my stories from childhood are based around constructed memories: things that I know happened and have been recounted as stories. So are my memories from the events, or the retelling?

I'm not sure how it works, but I do know that it takes a good writer to make it feel genuine.

I thought, then, about how I might write something from my own childhood. For example, a family holiday, or a particular event. How would I collect the information that goes with the memory? Most of the people of my childhood are no longer around, apart from my mother.  I do need to talk to her more about her life - she has some amazing stories to tell. But I doubt if any of them relating to my childhood are particularly entertaining.

It's taken me a couple of hours, and I've written about 1500 words about my childhood, and I discover that my style is very wordy and not particularly amusing. I am caught up in detail, and one though leads to another so that the narrative is long and not very structured. But it's been an interesting adventure, writing with the thought of being read, rather than just writing for my own pleasure.

As a writer, I still have so much to learn, but I do understand that your own life isn't really interesting to anyone else, and to make it entertaining you have to be creative (not necessarily fictional) and apply your imagination so that whatever you are saying, there is a reason, pace and outcome to the piece. I don't think I've succeeded yet, but at least I understand what is needed. I'll post an excerpt, and then I'll revise it in future.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Direct Musketeers!

In a recent conversation, it was commented that I spoke as a 'direct marketeer'. I took it as a compliment and, in my head, heard 'musketeer' of course.

The Musketeers, Maurice Leloir, 1894
 Direct marketing and the musketeers are not so different. Dear d'Artangnan would never stand aloof from the oncoming army on a battlement throwing out random shot at his enemy, oh no. Our bold musketeer would be in the thick of it - engage one to one, face to face, and adapt his fighting style to his opponent. He would never use a cannon against one man with a sword; that, my dears, would not be honourable.

This may seem like a ramble, but I think it is rather a good analogy. In the past marketing was rather more blunderbuss and boiling oil over the parapet in the hope it would hit the target.  We call that mass marketing. Examples would be TV, print  and radio adverts - no control over who the message is going to reach. Newspapers and magazines undrestand their audience and carry adverts most likely to match their reader, but they don't start with 'Dear Milady de Winter, so glad you are watching/reading this advert...' - it's just not possible (yet).

Returning to my musketeers, when the objective is to kill, perhaps the mass approach is more effective, but when it is to sell - whether that be a government or a product - then the winning of hearts and minds is very much a key campaign objective. And to do that, you have to understand who your audience are and what they want to hear.

Direct marketeers need to approach the audience the way that the musketeers would - approaching the most appropriate opponent with respect, honour and dignity. That's direct marketing, and direct marketeers should 'treat others as we would be treated'. Each of the musketeers has a different appeal and characteristic: the noble and secretive Athos, the honest and extrovert Porthos, the womanising Aramis and the dashing d'Artagnan.  Dumas developed engaging characters that had varied appeal - and marketers do the same. We just call it audience segmentation, which sounds far less romantic.

The motto of the direct marketeers could be similar to that of the musketeers too: 

"All for one and one for one!" 

Marketeers adopt a wide range of techniques to get consumers to buy their products, donate to their charity or to support their political or social cause. But the best sell of all is usually the most personal. Even in our technological age, the adage that 'people buy from people' is still true. We may order goods on line, but if we want to know more about a product or service, or have a question, we like to speak to people.
Real living people. So the more personal you can get in a communication, whether it's a letter, email, phone call or face to face, the better.

Probably best to leave the sword at home, though.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Just a year older than me

Philip Anthony Dwight Sheppard 1920-1974
As I was driving home the other day, a memory came to me. I don't know why, or what prompted it, but it was crystal clear and bitter sweet.

When she was in her early forties, my mother was widowed. She was young, attractive, and had two teenage children. Her husband was a gentleman; he always opened the doors, he was the one who did the driving. He was an actor, a writer, and she probably worked ten times more than he did. But that was circumstance, not choice.

He died at just 53 - that's only a year older than I am now. I never knew him really - only as a little girl who loved her daddy. I think of some of the things we said and did, and they seem like things I can't understand now, as if there was a different language we spoke then.

But the memory which came to me was  from the day of his funeral. We were in Bath, the home town of his family. It was a chilly winter day,  most of the which was a blur, but I remember being very cross at the funeral gathering after his interment (which I did not attend). The vicar was sent in to see me, to try and explain to this immature child why everyone was having a party now her dad was dead. I wasn't having any of it.

My mother, aunt, brother and I must have looked at the flowers and read cards, with the usual condolence and best wishes. But it was this one card's message that suddenly came to mind as I drove home that day, and it's a memory I treasure. It was from our neighbour's child Mary - she was probably only four or five years old.  On the card, in her naieve writing, was written "Have a happy time in heaven Anthony".

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A walk around Fowlmere

Tree creeper

What better way to spend a sunny October Sunday than to take a walk round my favourite nature reserve? Fowlmere is run by the RSPB and I go as often as I can. I've seen mink there before but today I spotted a weasel hopping across the path with his dinner in his mouth. Tasty for him, unfortunate for some small creature.

The lazy heron

The reserve was really busy - there were lots of cars and plenty of people. There were very few birds though - the lake was deserted apart from four ducks and a lazy heron. I did have the pleasure of seeing a tree creeper. I tried to photograph it but only got a backside view (my speciality it seems).


As I wandered round the reserve, sitting quietly in some of the hides, or wandering slowly along the sun-dappled path, I didn't just keep my eye out for birds. There was a deer, the aforesaid weasel, and lots of bugs. The gnats danced over the water in formation, a cloud of insects that seemed to love the feel of the sun just as much as everyone else.

Being autumn, it's also a wonderful time for fungi and I saw bright orange spongy stuff on rotten wood in the river, mushrooms in little circles and some lovely ones on a tree. I have no idea what kind of fungi they are, but the deep red one was particularly striking.

Old man's beard
There was talk of the kingfisher having been seen (though it has eluded me every visit so far), but I am almost sure that the grey feathers I photographed through the reeds was a water rail (or a pidgeon learning to swim). The long-tailed tits, who I have been trying to photograph without success, put in a quick performance. I managed to get another butt-view, but not very in focus unfortunately. Patience is the key, and I will keep trying until I get my perfect photo of these delightful little birds.
Of course, it's also a great time of year for plants - the changing of the seasons brings out a riot of different colours to the brashness of summer. Deep red berries, ochre-tinted leaves, purple blackberries and the lush greens of watercress, reedbed and evergreen. 

Long tailed tit
The barn owls have nested and there are young too - I took a long-distance photo of the nest box and can see, on close examination, a sleepy owl's head. I need to go back at dusk one day to get a good look at these wonderful ghost owls.
If you've never been, then do take a walk around Fowlmere one day. It's not too long a walk for young and old alike, and there are plenty of benches and hides.

A life on the wing


The last weekend in September I spent time away from a computer, away from technology and my every day life. I have always enjoyed bird watching, so the opportunity to spend three days in the company of fellow bird enthusiasts in the wilds of Norfolk was delightful.

I won't list birds all the birds or go into detail about walks along hedgerows, patient waiting to see if we could spot the elusive 'yellow browed warbler' (who did not appear); I could mention standing in fields with scopes and binoculars focused on distant soaring buzzards, I will mention my delight at watching the gannets plummet into the ocean. All in all it was a most relaxing and enjoyable time, and I learned a lot.

Godwits and stuff

The other members of the group who were, without exception, lovely people.We were all 'bird nerds' together. I took great delight in learning more about birdsong, in absorbing little snippets that will help me recognise more birds and to know where to look and what to look for. I particularly enjoyed the fact that when someone saw a bird (whether we were driving, walking or standing watching) everyone was interested and keen to see what had been spotted. Chris, our group leader and very knowledgeable guide, would often pull the van over to the side of the road (mostly tiny single track Norfolk byways) and point to something in the field like a grey partridge or a rock dove. It was no inconvenience to be interested in birds - it was our shared passion.

I have often bird watched, but usually on my own, or incidentally when out doing something else. At other times my bird watching has been quite often been a reason to get left behind. But for three whole days we were completely indulged.

Thousands of birds at Snettisham. Knot, dunlin,
oyster catcher, to name but a few

The highlight of the trip was the early morning visit to Snettisham. We saw some forty or fifty thousands birds on the mudflats, waking up from their overnight roost and getting ready to spread out along the coast as the tide receded and the day warmed. The most spectacular point was when something spooked the birds and they would rise in a cloud - the sun catching their wings, creating a golden shimmering cloud.

I had an amazing time and will definintely try and go again one day. Maybe I'll take a friend, if I can find someone else who is as prepared as me (and the other birders) to stop what you are doing and just peer into a hedge for fifteen minutes in the hope that...

For more info, visit Chris's website:

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The right stranger

I've been doing a lot of train travelling recently and as I sat on the train last night I thought how nice it would be to talk to someone. But instead, opposite me was a huge man who ate noisily and largely (each movement of his mouth, every gesture towards his crisps or drink, was large) and who left crumbs down his shirt and tie and all his rubbish on the seat. Next to me was a woman who was engrossed in telephone calls. The other seat of the four was occupied by Mr Large's detritus.

I would have liked to chat to someone, as I often do. Sometimes talking to a stranger can be the right thing when you have something on your mind. As I sat and pondered these things, wishing I could snooze but unable as one window of the train was faulty and a howling chill breeze kept everyone wiggling in their seats, I remembered an encounter from many years ago.

Pregnant and awaiting the arrival of my daughter, I was in the park with my son, who was only two. It was a brisk, chilly day, but bright and the playground that Alex was enjoying was fairly empty. There was one other woman there, and I can't remember if she had a child with her or not. We got chatting, as women do.

After a very brief time she told me of an extremely distressing personal experience relating to childbirth, and the trauma and difficulties she'd had dealing with it. She also told me that she'd never told anyone this before. So why me? I don't know -sometimes it really is easy to tell the hardest things to a complete stranger. I never saw her again, but I hope that a listening ear was helpful. I hope I was the right stranger.

Photo credits:, Ajax46 (Flickr).

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The price of music

Playing with 'Beau Jangles' at Hertford Corn Exchange
I'll start with an anecdote that's going round on social media.

"A guy calls the musicians guild to get a quote on a six piece band. The rep says 'Off the top of my head, about $2,000'. The guy says 'What?! For music?!'

'Tell you what', says the rep, 'You call six plumbers, ask them to work from six till midnight. Whatever they quote you we'll charge half'."

It's sadly true. These days pubs will happily put on music to bring in more custom. But most of the time they expect the musicians to play for free or, if they are lucky, for beer. They'll happily host sessions and jams, and not even give the organisers the courtesy of respect for all the organisation and the business it brings them.

Now I know that venues pay PRS fees, and that musicians should be able to log their gigs, the songs they played, and get their royalties. But it's a long process, and also the fees are pennies. You'd have to work thousands of hours to earn a living from royalties that way.

Many pubs in our area put on live music but expect the musicians to play for free because 'It gives them a chance to showcase themselves and sell CDs.' How many CDs would you have to sell to make enough to pay a band their expenses, let alone a fee? And, of course, there's the overheads of the CDs themselves to be taken into account.

I was moved to write this post because I received an email the other day from our local folk club which is urging support. They are booking some good acts, and I understand that they want to build up funds to help pay for the artists that perform. These are the 'lucky few' - those that can make a living out of playing music. But it takes hard work, dedication and the ambition to be a working musician, not a super star.

I won't be going to my local folk club, however.  My email was for the singers' night. Entry £4, performers £3. So they don't just want performers to play for free, they want them to pay for the pleasure! I will be going to Hitchin to see the acts I like in the folk world.

(The reason this particularly annoyed me is that I did support the very first singers' night and did pay as I didn't realise that performers had to pay before I turned up. Whilst I was on stage, two friends of the organiser came in. They offered to pay and he refused. We got to pay to see the audience... That, to put it mildly, peeved me somewhat.)

In the 'good old days' our band used to do gigs and save the money to pay for making our CDs. The music scene is so very different now. If you wanted to self-fund an album, you'd be extremely lucky to do it from gig fees. But it's possible if you didn't want to eat, for example.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the opportunity to play when it's provided - I am not in a working band and our duo doesn't get much chance to get out there and go for gigs. But I do feel that musicians have been devalued by the bookers (not necessarily the audience who will enjoy a good live act whether they are paying to see them or not).
Am I old and embittered and resistant to the new way music is shared and enjoyed these days? No, not at all. But I say a fair pay for a good job, and I'm buggered if I'm going to pay to play.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Music, music and more music!

David's son Stuart (left) and Tony Keys. Rehearsing...
 What a weekend! First of all I played at a private party which was it's own mini-festival! Most of the guests were musicians and from four until late, there was non-stop live music from all sorts of different bands. There was a young lass called Sophie who composed her own songs and sang with a couple of other bands, there were the 'old rockers' and even some young lads playing Shadows' tunes.

The band I played with, the 'Two Tones' (thus named because two of the band are called Tony) was formed through a link with my work. I met the band leader, David, as he is a fundraising champion for our charity. He's done amazing fundraising work in memory of his mother, who had dementia in her later years.

We first got together to do a charity ball gig that David arranged back in June. We had such fun, that a further opportunity to gig could not be missed, hence our performance at 'Lenborock'.  The party was an all day event with a covered stage area, barbecue, marquee for audience and a 'Gladiators' bouncy. The party was in the grounds of a lovely house in the Buckinghamshire countryside - beautiful views and the most lovely house.

We played a couple of sets - one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Even though Sophie and her young friends had done their mashup version of 'Stand by Me' we still did a version with Tony keys singing. It was a really nice gig with really nice people, even though I didn't know most of them.

Rachel Sermanni and friends
Sunday was a whole different kettle of music. I went to Cambridge Folk Festival again. The Friday evening I had popped over and seen the amazing Gretchen Peters, the entertaining Lucy Ward and the great June Tabor and the Oyster Band. On the artists bus I met the Moulettes - lovely ladies. They asked if I was playing and I said yes, on the Sunday, in a duo. I happened to mention that I'd also played in a band, 'Shave the Monkey'. 'Oh,' said Ruth, 'My dad loved them!'. Time to get the zimmerframe...

On the Sunday I went with my musical partner in crime, Shani, and we mooched around the festival catching a bit of Seth Lakeman, a few others and, after our own set, watching Rachel Sermanni and her friends (wonderful!). We stayed to watch Rachel as we had come over on the artists bus with Rachel and the others from the car park. Very glad indeed we watched Rachel and the gang, what a refreshing and entertaining act.

Blair Dunlop
The talented Blair Dunlop played a great set too. Whilst walking along the boardwalk I overheard someone say 'There's all these young people in folk music now...' Well hooray I say! What's the use of a tradition if it dies out? Given what I saw this weekend, there's plenty of life, youth and imagination in the folk world still. Put away your arran jumpers, your tankards and take yer finger out your ear. Folk music is a vibrant and positive force in the music scene.

Our set was short and sweet, but went well. It was a bit of a shame that the brief but noisy thunderstorm (which included hail) created pools of water in the club tent that meant there was lots of mud, but it was still a grand craic.

Though I'd like to have stayed to see Joan Armatrading, I was tired out, so Shani and I headed back to the car park. As we walked past these two huge RVs, my digestive system decided to issue its own comment on the proceedings. With a wheel-trembling trump, I alerted the attention of Ms Armatrading's road manager who gave me 'a right old fashioned look'. Apologies Ms Armatrading for my trumpet involuntary. On our way out the car park we waved madly at the RVs and the road manager waved kindly back.

A good, musical, and varied weekend. Until next year...

This single life - part four

It’s not always easy. Going to a party, for instance. Now I’m not a wallflower and will talk to anyone, but at a party where there is non-stop live music (which was great but quite loud), how do you sit and chat with someone you don’t know? Not possible. Though I went to the party with very nice people, I didn’t want to hang around them like a spare part. They had their socialising to do, people they knew at the party and most certainly I didn’t want them to feel they had to babysit me.

But it made me sad. I didn’t know anyone, and didn’t feel able to chat and make any connections like I usually do. Funny really, at a party where most people were musicians.

I went for a walk in the grounds – watched the horses munching lush rain-sodden grass, watched  the bronze sky darken as the sun set over the Buckinghamshire countryside. 

At times like that I feel terribly lonely, and yet absolutely fine at the same time. What the hell am I doing? Why on earth am I where I am and doing what I'm doing? 
Well, number one reason for being at the party was to play music, which we did and I thoroughly enjoyed. It is strange, though, how my social skills seem to have taken a battering over these last few years. It's not as though I never went anywhere or did anything on my own in the past - I most certainly did and never seemed to have a problem.

There's probably an answer in there somewhere, but for now I will just look back on the day and remember the fun rehearsal, the lovely lunch, and the great musicians I played with. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

The People Who Went Before

Archaeologists still argue and speculate about Stonehenge, about Druids and the purpose of this great stone structure. We know some things about it - like the solstice alignments - but very little about the people who built it and used it.

The Aztecs, Mayans and Egyptians also built amazing structures, but they left us clues as to what their purpose was by having a written or pictorial language. But what about the places like Stonehenge that don't leave any clue?  All we can do is make educated guesses.

Casa Grande. The holes at the top line up with
summer and winter solstice
So think about a different people who built amazing structures, which include solstice alignments and incredible irrigation systems, who then just disappeared. They changed their social habits dramatically and then, without any obvious reason, completely abandoned their communities. They disappeared. They melted into the landscape and their complex society and everything they knew was left behind to crumble.

Who were these people? Who built a society that we can trace back to the beginning of the last millennium, and then in the mid 15th century just ceased to be?

The Hohokam. Native American peoples. They were farmers who built strong houses, huge platform complexes, ball parks, and a canal system that in many places is still used today, nearly a thousand years later. They were successful enough to create 'leisure time' - theirs was more than a subsistence living.

What an enigma! When I think of Native Americans in a historical context, I have to admit that Hollywood has a lot to answer for. Wigwams, teepees - nomadic people; or the corn-growing Virginians who made the mistake of welcoming the British.

Reproduction Hohokam house

Just to add a bit of context, whilst the Hohokam were first building their communities, the British were being invaded by the Romans. When the Hohokam 'disappeared' in around 1450 AD, Henry VIII was on the throne and dismantling the monasteries.

When I went to Arizona this time, my friend and I visited just two of the many prehistoric Hohokam sites - Pueblo Grande and Casa Grande.  The heat was incredible - the desert sun bouncing off the sandy coloured structures. The sense of history was there, but it was 'captured', with neat paths, concrete reinforcement and air-conditioned displays that talked of a people that we really know very little about.

I was captivated. Here, in Casa Grande, was a Native American Stonehenge! In some ways we know more about the Hohokam than we do about the builders of our ancient stone monument (though built for what may be different reasons), because their society surrounded the structures and the archaeological evidence has endured. Their houses, their burial grounds, their sporting arenas and their rubbish, their 'trash heaps' were still there.

Ball park. I wonder what games they played?

The deserts is quite good at preserving things in some ways. The Arizona desert is especially good as it is, as any Arizonan will tell you, 'a dry heat'. So until you want to build in the desert, nothing is touched. But they do want to build in the desert, and from Pueblo Grande (which is within Phoenix) you can feel the nearness of Sky Harbour airport. If you look towards the Papago hills, where a huge glass building stands now, once stood another Casa Grande. There is a wealth of history beneath the skyscrapers and freeways of Phoenix. Thankfully, these days they do archaeological excavation and record whatever may be found before erecting another huge, concrete and glass monstrosity.

Any human remains that are found are returned to the Native American people to re-bury. There is no DNA testing, no putting in a museum and displaying of ancestors. The history of the Native American people belongs to the Native American people. We are very lucky to have a glimpse into this history through the Hohokam and wonder at the coincidence of European influence in the Americas and the dissipation of this once successful civilisation.

Photographs: Mine. (C)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


I'm in week two of no internet at home. An administrative error by my new provider that has caused me much angst. Let's hope the improved service delivers.

So how have I coped without being on line at home? I've survived, but it's been extremely irritating.

Computer says 'no'
However, I have not missed out on how my pal had to miss rowing after getting a little drunk, or whether a due baby has arrived or not. After all, for important updates, I could always lift up the phone (though that was out for two days too). No, what has been most frustrating for me is studying!

For the first time in years I am doing a qualification that requires lots of reading and lots of internet learning. So the consequence of no internet at home is that my studying is restricted to mornings and evenings at the office. Makes for a long day.

I thought I would be much more irritated by the inability to go on line, email my buddies, check out something I saw on TV via search engine... but it hasn't been that hard. The consequence is that I have done a lot less sitting around with my computer on my lap.

All this newly released time should mean that I have got lots of other things done but, in reality,  I have to confess to having watched a lot of rubbish TV. The difference being, I am not multi-tasking. Instead of doing two things (watching TV and checking my emails, for example), I have been restricted to one. To watching the TV. Goodness, what a way to waste a life.

Would losing computer access upset you? Would you find it seriously challenged your preferred life style?  I think I need to try complete abstinence at some point in the future - but not until my studies are over.

Illustration credit: unable to trace

Cheat source: I did have my mobile phone still

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

From racing cars to double agents

Once again my train travels bring me something new. Today, as I sat at the station waiting for my Kings Cross train, a man asked me where to get food (the coffee booth was closed). I directed him to the little shop and he returned, roll in hand, and asked if I minded if he sat down next (but one) to me. No problem.

He then talked. Quite a lot. He was from Thailand, visiting his country of origin to renew his passport, sort out his visa. We chatted generically about Thailand - about how he loved the people there and the temperate climate. Under 33 degrees and he'd be shivering. So, on a cold, wet, Decemberish May afternoon, he was a little out of sorts.

He told me he'd come to our town to meet an ex-Formula One driver, now a thriving (and determined) businessman. My fellow traveller's past had included mental training for racing drivers, amongst, it was hinted, many other things.

He talked about how life in Thailand was good, if you had money. I said not much call for my profession out there - a fundraiser. I talked a bit about my job and he told me about a friend he'd known who had died of Alzheimer's. A man called Eddie Chapman. Zigzag.

He told me a bit about Mr Chapman, and the sad state he eventually saw his friend in during his last days. Dementia is no respecter of the past, or of the person. My travelling companion (we got on the same train) described Eddie as a war hero. He mentioned an old film with Yul Brynner (and yes, you can find the film on the internet - 'Triple Cross'), and how Tom Hanks has bought the film rights.  What he didn't mention is that Eddie was originally a criminal - part of a gang that blew safes.

I didn't talk a lot about myself, for whatever reason this man wanted to talk, and didn't seem to want anything from me except that I listen. We talked a bit about mental capacity and the conversation ended up with him telling me about his son. His ten year old son had been kidnapped by his mother - taken to the other end of the island - and the first thing that my traveller friend had to do when he got home was to hire two policemen to help him retrieve his son. He has legal custody, he said.

It seemed a bit odd - what was he going to do with his son whilst he was in England? I didn't ask, but I wondered. A slight hole in the plot there. The wife had taken the son back to live with her and her two further children by an Australian partner, and had unregistered him from his home school and registered him with her school. So, not just a temporary care situation then.

But the man seemed quite chilled about it. He described a phone conversation with his son, and had a very relaxed attitude to what, one would think, is likely to be a tricky situation.  He said he'd always been self-employed. Somtimes he was rich, sometimes he was poor. Financially he was poor, but he was the richest man in the world in having his son.

It could, of course, have been a complete fantasy - from racing driver, via WWII double agent, to kidnapped son. But what would be the point? I don't know, but one thing he said was 'don't worry about the big things, sort out the little things and the big stuff will follow'. I hope it works for him.

Car photo credit:

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

What do you do with the past?

Spring Term, 1971.

"Despite accidents, this has been a good term."

Wennington School
That's my brother's domestic science report from Wennington School in Yorkshire. I have about 9 of his school reports. I chose that one because he became a chef. What we knew as domestic science in those days actually gave him a real love of cooking. He was very creative and worked all over London including Leith's, Royal Court Hotel and National Theatre. If he invented a dish he would call it 'a la berger' - berger meaning 'shepherd'.

In this huge old black metal trunk I have been delving into, there is lot more than just my brother's school reports. There are all sorts of papers and note books. So far, on cursory glance, I have inspected my mother's English school book and her mother's diaries which seem to range from 1946-1971. If the diaries held something interesting like journal entries I could see the point in keeping them, but they just have notes like 'meet M, 2pm'. But my mother has obviously held on to these for a reason.

Norbiton Hall
My granny Maggie (mother's mother) lived in Norbiton Hall in Kingston with her third (or fourth, I can't remember) husband, Charles. They were, to us children, 'Granny and Charles'. An entity. We would visit them and play in the grounds of their residence (which sounds grand, but in fact they lived in a block of flats, but a very nice block). I have photographs of Granny and Charles with all sorts of people - I can ask my mother but she probably won't know who they are. And if I do find out who they are, what do I do with these photographs?

So what do I do with the past? Do I quietly bin it without telling my mother, or do I just keep it in that old black trunk until it will no longer be of consequence to her?

It's a puzzlement.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

For Philip

Hi Phil

Here it is - another letter into the ether with a vain hope that somewhere you are out there and able to read this.

It's been a strange time. Work is very, very busy and quite challenging. But I am learning a lot, and hopefully contributing too. I like working for a charity - it fits better with my personality I think to do a job with an altruistic purpose.

Oh, I like getting paid of course, but it's still very good to know at the end of the day it's not just the number of widgets you've sold  - that what I've done may, in some small way, be useful.

I'm not sure why I started writing to you tonight - I think I just need to chat to you. You are a great listener.

I've taken our great-great-great-grandfather out of storage and he's ready to put up somewhere in the house. Probably over the stairs, like he was an Athenaeum Road. It's an odd picture, not one really that you would like to sit and look at in the front room, but as he was part of our childhood I'd quite like him back up, standing there in all his regal gear and regarding us in his distant way. I think he's our great-great whatever, but maybe he isn't. I can't remember, can you?

I've got the family histories safe; not sure what to do with them. I'd like to transfer some of the contents onto the web. It's amazing who has contacted me from the Sheppard family blog. I should share more of that for them really. I keep meaning to visit the archivist at Longleat, and maybe contact Gatcombe Park too - but there's always something else to do.

And what does it all mean, really? You are the last of the Sheppards, on our side. Does it matter? I don't know. I think I'll see if there's a museum who want the family histories - I can't see my kids being interested in it really. Sad in a way, but it's just how things are these days. What was very personal to us, will be something anthropoligically interesting for someone else.

I'm in a reflective mood.

Well, I must get to sleep, busy day tomorrow once again. But the day should start well, we are having a 'bacon sandwich morning' (except Oli who is having a 'veggie sausage morning').

I hope you are well, I fear you are not, I wish you the best.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Big cats

Snow leopard (C) Carolyn Sheppard
This amazing animal is a snow leopard, one of the world's endangered big cats. "Snow Leopards are suspected to have declined by at least 20% over the past two generations (16 years) due to habitat and prey base loss, and poaching and persecution. Losses to poaching were most severe in the former Russian republics in the 1990s" (IUCN). So this amazing creature who certainly has a wonderful pelt, is now struggling for survival.

This guy though, didn't seem to be struggling. In fact, although he was in a smallish enclosure, he seemed happy and content. Like most animals bred in captivity, he doesn't know what he's missing I guess (eg being shot at and excoriated or simply starving to death).

I am not a great fan of captive big cats - the best place for these animals is in their natural habitat. But their habitat is receding, there is less and less food, and we could be amongst the last couple of generations to ever even stand a chance of seeing this animal in the wild.

So how did I get not only to see these magnificent animals, but also to hand-feed one (through the bars, not in the cage)? I visited the Cat Survival Trust (CST), which I was introduced to by a friend.  They are not a zoo and not a pet cat rehoming charity, but an organisation who, since 1976, have been working to help the world's rare big cats - especially those kept in captivity.

They have an amazing record of longevity for their cats, which Terry (the Director of CST) attributes to good food and, especially, purified water. He is obviously passionate about the work the charity does and his affection and admiration for the animals shines through.

As well as acting as a 'rescue' home for big cats - some who cannot stay at their zoo of origin or who are taken from unregistered or irresponsible private owners - CST also works in conservation and has purchased a tract of land in Argentina specifically to ensure that the cats in that area are protected. Managing a large reserve in Southern America is admirable, and going to visit animals in the wild would be challenging to say the least, but I was privileged to meet some of these amazing animals at CST in Hertfordshire.

Snow leopards are a particular success story, with a content breeding pair providing additional animals for zoos and collections around the world who are building up the population with a view to release back into the wild. Sounds easy, but my goodness, it isn't. One of the problems with captive breeding isn't just the animals' reluctance (as the Pandas in Scotland have demonstrated) or even enthusiasm, but gene pools and potential homes/relocation/care etc.

They say that a genetically stable group of any animal should have at least 200 individuals. Amur leopards (which you can also see at CST) have about 40 left in the wild. We don't have that many of some species in captivity, and many of them are related and you can't interbreed, or cross-breed, without causing more problems. 

Is captive breeding the answer? Long term, probably no, short term we have little option if we do not want to lose some species all together (which inevitably will happen).  We need to reduce the impact that humans have on wild habitats, change our own habits and reduce consumerism. That's not going to happen short or long-term I fear. Perhaps we can, with a concerted effort, create protected habitats where our endangered species can survive, but with the global pollution of air, sea and river - even there they won't be safe.

Still, as the starfish story goes, we can make a difference even to one, so I for one won't give up my commitment to conservation. 

More photos of my visit to CST here

Monday, April 09, 2012

This single life part three - a bit of psychology

I remember many years ago thinking how difficult it would be to split from your partner. How could you walk around knowing that someone else knew so much about you? All the intimate details you shared, the thoughts, hopes, desires and experiences. All those things, how could you cope, not being connected to that person, knowing they could tell those things to others and have no reason to keep faith with you, once you were split? It was just unthinkable to me at the time.

Little did I imagine then that I would be in that position one day. But interestingly, I now know what you do. Firstly, you don't (in my experience) want to share all those personal things and pollute those memories and experiences. They were your history, and yours to keep and treasure (or forget as appropriate).

And there is a way to protect yourself - at least this is how it's worked for me. You build new memories, experiences and thoughts, hopes, desires - that are not shared with that person. People (and especially the ex) only know what you care to share. It's like a shield, something you have that they do not have access to, cannot expose or share wantonly. I'm not saying that they would want to (though some of the splits I've heard about have been very bitter and cruel in some ways), but it's that re-building of self, of a self that is not totally shared with one person, that happens. And that's how you move on.

I'm learning to rebuild myself and to find a new identity. But I am not actually that different, it's just finding out how I can be me in a new context, a context that is not bound by a relationship. Maybe a tattoo (above) seems a daft self-assertion, but it's just one little thing that I chose to share now, and the decision was mine and the pleasure I take in it is very much mine.

The photo I have shown here is one taken at a make-over day I had with my gorgeous daughter. I enjoyed the day and in my mind I look very different to how the camera tells it (OMG, I'm soooo old!) but with a bit of tweaking (not telling exactly what) this photo came out OK.

Vulnerable still? I guess always. But better able to cope with it now.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Happy anniversary

On April 3rd 2006 I started my blog. And - amazingly - I'm still here. Still posting fairly regularly, still telling tales of odd gigs, nice nights out, my friends and pets and other odd adventures.

So it's time to question (why not?) - what is the purpose of my blog? Firstly it is very useful for me. I often have weird dreams, or enjoyable days out, and I want to remember them. I am no good at keeping a diary but I do like story telling.

Secondly I would like to share some of my life. Why? Well, pure ego of course, why else? But before you assume I am someone who thinks rather well of themselves and is perhaps a little smug, think about the word ego. According to one reputable psychology post, it's something in me that stops me murdering a bad driver. According to the dictionary, it is your conscious mind, the part of your identity that you consider your "self." 

There, that's two reasons, but the third is a desire to entertain. I do like to make people laugh, smile, and engage with other people in lots of ways. And a blog is not a bad way of doing it.

So, if you are visiting my blog today for the first time, or you have visited it before, please take a look through the history of posts, or use some of the labels to browse. I hope you will find something in here to touch, or amuse; I would hesitate to say enlighten, it ain't that kinda blog.

Oh, and there is another use I have for my blog. It's the only way I can write to my brother, who I lost touch with over 20 years ago. Hi Phil!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Losing a friend

Today I took my cat to the vet.  I knew what was going to happen, which is why I had delayed the visit in the first place. But she was thin - and though mostly she seemed content enough, she would not eat. She had renal failure, her kidneys were no longer working properly.

At 14 that's not unsurprising for a cat of her age. But today, I lost a friend. In the last few months of my life when I have started living a very different life, she was always there when I came home. I would call her as soon as I came in, and she would sleep on my bed and keep me company.

She didn't understand herself why she could not eat, and it was so sad to see her getting thinner and thinner; when she ate a little it was a small victory, but it really wasn't fair to keep her going in such a situation.

I took her to the vet who has always looked after our pets. Though retired, he still has a surgery next to his house.  After telling me what was wrong and what we should do - what I knew we should do - I held her and he injected her leg and she relaxed. Then he gave her the full dose and she fell into a deep coma. I put her back into the cat carrier and took her home.  She was deeply asleep - he thought she had already gone, but as I cradled her in my arms back at home, I knew she was still with me just for that last goodbye.

Her heartbeat was very, very faint. She gave a sort of purr, and then there was nothing. She was soft, warm, limp and so terribly thin. My poor lovely little Melissa - I shall miss you my friend. So will the children who have known you for a good portion of their lives. She and her sister Ace (who passed away a few years ago) brought us lots of happiness and companionship - and the odd dead mouse.

That's a cat's way. And we shall miss her very much.

I buried her at the bottom of the garden, and tomorrow I shall plant something above her grave as a lasting memory.

I keep thinking she will be there, on the top step, or on my bed, or in the kitchen round my legs. It will take a while for that feeling to pass I know.

She was only a cat, but she was my friend.

Friday, March 02, 2012

This single life - part two

When I was working at Essex, I knew I had a fixed term post (maternity cover) and that after that... well, a whole undecided future lay ahead of me. I had, in theory, no home, no job and no idea where I was going or what I was going to do. The house sale was going through, the split was going ahead, and I was planning to live in temporary accommodation on my own until things were sorted.

One thing that kept nagging me was the desire to travel. I wouldn't be rolling in it from the house sale (alas finances mean that I can probably never be a house-owner again), but I would have sufficient cash to let me travel. I half had in my mind that at the end of my time in Essex I would up and travel.
The very rare Northern White Rhino

I have always wanted to visit the Amazon, I became fascinated by Africa whilst at the conservation charity, and I could, perhaps, at last visit some of the places that I'd been talking about as a conservationist.

So that was, broadly, my plan. Kids would live with dad, I would have no job and no fixed abode and just go off on an adventure.

Never works out how you think, does it?

By chance, I saw a job near Cambridge that more or less matched all of my experience and skills. And so - instead of trekking off into the broad wild world, I settled in a new job, found a new place to live, and resumed an orderly life. And I like it. I am, after all, someone who likes stability and knowing where I am going to be and what I am going to do.

I do still desire to travel though - and so I visit my friend in Arizona as often as I can. You can fit the UK into Arizona alone about six times, so there's plenty to see there (ok, no rhinos but I have seen amazing birdlife and even a wild coyote - which is like seeing a fox here, I guess).  But the lure of Africa still tickles my imagination (though looking at prices of tours, I won't be going in a hurry).

I am single - I can go on holidays I choose (as long as I can afford them) and don't have to worry about what anyone else wants to do. I can please myself. I like doing things that others may think mad, or just boring (what's wrong with sitting in a hut by a reed bed for three hours, in the small hope that you may see a bearded tit?).

Rhino photo credit: Fauna & Flora International

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Converted at last

For many years I have disdained the harmonica - mostly because of asthma-attack impersonators with a harmonica strapped around their necks on a frame that looks like it is a leftover from either a Hammer horror or a particularly vindictive orthodontist.

Tim and Brendan - sorry couldn't find photographer credit
Seriously, there's nothing that grates my teeth more than that wheezy, tuneless, in-out-in-out attempt at accompanying guitar playing by puffing aimlessly and tunelessly into a strip of tin reeds...

OK, that's perhaps a bit harsh, but you can sense my strong definition between the above and, say, the playing of Stevie Wonder or Rick Davies (Supertramp). Well, Brendan Power definitely falls in the category of Stevie and Rick - playing his gob harp as an instrument of delight, not of torture. He was playing with Tim Edey at the Hitchin Folk Club, where I have been resident for many a year.

They came hotfoot from the BBC Folk Awards where they did indeed acquire an accolade or two I was host and support. So I got up there with my guitar and sang a few of my songs - which seemed to go down OK with the audience (nobody threw anything at me, in fact I even got three compliments).

It's unusual for me to be 'converted' by anyone, but hearing folk-beatbox-harmonica and guitar and squeezebox playing that just longs for a car door was wonderful. Yes - folk-beatbox (see Wriggle and Writhe link below if you don't believe me). A sneaky bit of loop technology as well and, with a couple of songs thrown in for good measure too, a thoroughly enjoyable evening. They deserved the Folk Awards, so do try and catch them if you can.


Tim Edey and Brendan Power's website
Listen to Wriggle & Writhe

Friday, February 03, 2012

The single life

I don't think I've ever been single before. Does that sound mad? Well, let me explain ... I married my first boyfriend.  From 16, I only ever had one man in my life. So from leaving home, I went straight to living with him (well, his parents actually); I've never lived on my own.

And until now, I'd never been single.

A heron at Fowlmere
So, what has being single brought me? Well, the usual things I guess. A lot more bed space for one, and the freedom to choose my meals, go birdwatching for a whole afternoon, and decide when I go out and when I stay in. I am still not living alone though, I have my beautiful daughter with me, and my son too when he's home from University. But neither of them need me around to feed and sort themselves out, so it's still the single life, even when they are around.

OK, the above are the advantages. What are the disadvantages? Well, no one to discuss important matters with for one. I mean - should I have painted that fourth wall cream instead of green? And no shoulder to cry on that you can then fall into bed with afterwards. Plenty of shoulders, plenty of hugs available, but I'm a little picky about who I flop into bed with.

Is that a disadvantage? Well, I've not been single that long, so right now, no. At the moment I am learning what it's like to have quite a lot of my own company. I did 'enjoy' that status for a while when I wasn't separated, but even so, this is different.

The main difference for me is I am out of the horrendous debt we were in. That was not nice. I don't own a house any more, but I do not lie awake at night worrying and fretting and getting depressed about financial issues. Oh no, plenty of other things to do that about now.

But, it doesn't matter. I actually feel more like myself than I have in a long time. And one thing I have started doing is so small, yet very important to me. I am now a Kiva donor. No, I'm not leaving some minuscule portion of my anatomy to medical research, I am supporting worthy causes throughout the world by making micro-loans. I've loaned a whole $75 so far!

Try it. It doesn't cost a lot, but it makes a huge difference. And if you want, you get your money back too.

Some nights I come home and I think 'oh, what shall I do now?' and I, like AA Milne's old sailor, have so many things that I want to do, I don't know where to begin. Other nights I set to with a determination of purpose - like painting the walls (three green, one cream), or ironing. Yeah, can't get away from ironing.

There's more to this single life, but I'll save some of my anecdotes for another post. Sloe gin and public houses, folk music and moving house. It's amazing how you can socialise...

Friday, January 27, 2012

Best and worst Christmas presents

The worst was a bug I picked up from somewhere. I'm sure it wasn't mean to be a present, but from about 27th December onwards I was ill - coughing, spluttering, wheezing and eventually so ill I couldn't work. Mind you - if I had rested instead of having to move house and add the wonderful ingredient 'dust' to my poor belaboured lungs, I might not have been ill for quite so long.

It's a month and I'm still not well. But worse things happen at sea, so I was always told when I was a child.

Christmas seems like such a long time ago now! We've cleared away all the decorations, even the sales (which are seemingly interminable) are coming to an end. The credit card bills have arrived, we made it past Blue Monday and now...

Well yes, what now? I moved house, and now live in a lovely place with a great neighbourhood. OK parking is a nightmare, but it could be worse. I only have a shower and no bath (which has drastically reduced my reading hours) and there's quite a bit to do, but it's a new year, a new start. Now I'm better, I should be able to get on and do a few more things. Tonight I am planning to change a tap washer.

And this is where my favourite Christmas present comes in! I have wanted one of these for years, and it is practical and sensible! I have been up ladders and dropped drills, put down a screwdriver and not been able to find it again whilst balancing bits of self-construct furniture... these days are gone! I now have my very own...

I am empowered! I don't lose the screws (though some of mine may be loose), and now I also have a brand new cordless drill, I am intending to have some very productive weekends.

It doesn't take a lot to make me happy, but a tool-belt did.