Thursday, 28 April 2011

A birthday and a wedding

My new grandson, Olly (or Ollie) arrived safely yesterday morning and today's the royal wedding, so routine is up the spout along with any literary thoughts. A friend has recommended My Life so Far, the memoir written by filmmaker Sir Denis Foreman about his childhood in Moffat - a copy is on its way from Amazon. But before that arrives, I am going to spend a week on the water, pottering around the creeks and inlets of the Firth of Clyde. What book to take? There are books on board the converted fishing vessel or 'puffer', so maybe I will rely on pot luck. More news when I return.

Monday, 25 April 2011

A night in the forest

I decided to spend last night (Easter Sunday April 24/Monday April 25) in the forest. After a winter in town, the dark and the quiet takes some getting used to. As soon as it was light, I got up to let the hens out and found that four of them were out already - they can fly up and get over the fence of their enclosure which is more to keep foxes out than them in. Their water had run out, so I refilled that and checked for eggs in the straw. One of them stubbornly lays in the same place just outside the fence, bolshy behaviour that must bestow some kind of reproductive advantage (were her eggs fertilised). Harry is coming up to try his hand at fishing this morning mainly I suspect in order to legitimise possession of maggots as bait. I attended the Easter service at St John's, Burnside in Moffat, and was aghast at the well meant use of a 'modern' form of service. Tinkering with both the traditional form and magnificent language of the liturgy must be responsible for much of the decline in church attendance, a colossal failure of judgement and extraordinary arrogance on the part of the church authorities. But the message gets through, and the congregation is a model of friendliness and welcome. It seems that the new wording and form of service was chosen for the service yesterday 'in case there were visitors'. Well, if I count as a visitor, take it from me: I would have preferred the Prayer Book and King James.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Candle in the dark

I nearly forgot - Khristos voskrese! Christ is risen! To which the reply (all together now) is Da! Vo istinu voskres ! (Yes, he is risen indeed). On this day in Russia - when their Easter coincides with ours - , or in Greece, you go to church at night with candles which are lit at midnight as the great day begins and everyone kisses each other with the greeting above. Once, in a small village in Greece, I watched as a whole coachload of parishioners drove away down the winding mountain road, each one clutching their lighted candle in the dark.

Pale violets

It rained all day yesterday, until evening when the sun came out and Harry and I went out to play in the burn. But before that: I sat listening to BBCR4 and realised it was a whole programme about Sweden! I quickly messaged my Swedish date. The tag on the TV screen - I always listen to the radio on the TV - said 'serial thrillers, music, and design' - which (you might guess) stood for Stig Larsson (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo etc), Abba and Ikea. Well - it turns out that an extraordinary percentage of Europe's music is recorded in Sweden, not just Abba. Was it 40 per cent? I should have been listening more carefully. My date has changed his Facebook photograph to a picture of him at the wheel of a sailing boat with a pipe stuck in his mouth, looking like Thor Heyerdahl, one of my childhood heroes - , the man who crossed the Pacific on a raft called Kon Tiki. The successful Northern economies - Norway, Denmark and Sweden are all constitutional monarchies, and here I tip my hat to Knut my Norwegian lodger who saved my economic bacon, enabling me to make ends meet in the last years in London before I downsized. Knut was rather grand, a bon viveur in his 70's who worked in the financial services industry. He used to go racing with one of his best clients, returning the worse for wear and on one occasion a taxi driver rang my front doorbell with Knut's diary and wallet which he had dropped in the effort of staggering from the cab to his basement quarters in my house. Knut's father was a member of the Norwegian royal family who had been on the wrong side during the last war, so Knut's mother had divorced him and married a British naval officer and sent Knut to Stowe where he learned English like Eliza Doolittle so impeccable he might have been taken for a Hungarian. I am drawn to the displaced and the dispossessed, early on opting to learn everything I could about that other great Northern presence, Russia , whose emigres sparkled in dull suburbs, cheap hotels and attic rooms of America and western Europe throughout the last century, teaching the piano or giving lessons in their magnificent language. Later, when I used to host regular visits from Russians as part of my job, I was able to observe them for days on end both at home and abroad. Once, I had twelve members of the Moscow Arts Theatre to Sunday lunch in my tiny basement kitchen. It was a sunny day so we all went out into the garden afterwards to smoke and drink tea. I came back indoors to fetch something and found Oleg Efremov, Russia's Laurence Olivier, who played Hamlet, and Astrov in Uncle Vanya standing eating a cherry tomato. He started like a school boy discovered scrumping apples. Now, I think it wasn't about the tomato. He was snatching a moment alone, the one thing you weren't meant to savour if you were a good Soviet. Many years later, just before he died, he hosted lunch at Elly's hen party at the theatre (MXAT) in Moscow where a photograph of Gordon Craig hangs. Gordon Craig worked as a distinguished set designer at the Moscow Arts Theatre in the 1920's. His mother, Ellen Terry, used to stay with her entourage, Sir Henry Irving, his secretary Bram Stoker and hers Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl) at Watermeetings, the farm in the upper Clyde Valley below the forest. Gordon was illegitimate so Ellen Terry gave him the surname 'Craig' after Ailsa the rock that sticks up in the sea between Scotland and Ireland aka Paddys' Milestone. We went up to the forest at midday yesterday and tried unsuccessfully to get the barbecue lit under the deck; luckily I had brought some pork pies and we cooked sausages on the stove indoors while Harry chased the hens and found a frog (1 v small) and slugs (3 large). We got so wet that it didn't matter any more, and the trees were enjoying it. And everywhere the slopes of rough tussocky turf were sparkling with thousands of tiny pale violets, like Russians.

Saturday, 23 April 2011


The impending nuptials, aka The Royal Wedding, Catherine and William makes me very glad I downsized in 2009 from the family home just round the corner from Raffles, a nightclub frequented by the royal princes and their entourage. One morning I came out of my front door and found one of Harry's loafers in the gutter where he had dropped it leaping into a car to escape the attentions of the press. Catherine - Kate as she was then - lived just round the other corner, in Old Church St where my son in law Jim used to bump into Woody Allen as Woody went off to work on his latest film and Jim walked Flo the family cairn terrier. That part of Chelsea was exactly where Henry VIII used to row up river to, to visit his friend Thomas More. The square where we lived was part of Thomas More's garden, and in the southwest corner of the square was Richard II's house, brought stone by stone from the City when it was in danger of being demolished. That house became for a time part of an ugly modern building housing the University Women's Institute, then passed into the hands of a city tycoon nicknamed Pretty Boy who incorporated it into a magnificent replica of a Tudor mansion. Chris Nolan, our pianist at the April 16 Love and Marriage book event, used to play in the famous Long Bar at Raffles hotel in Singapore.


Welcome, soft rain was falling at 1am this morning (Sat April 23). I know that, because I was awoken by 'prommers' returning home, which they continued to do in dribs and drabs until well after 4am. I sent an email to our local policeman at 2.22am and again at 4.16am suggesting wearily that the next time a 'prom' is held, some arrangement is made to ensure that the young revellers reach home without a bucket of water being tipped over them by an enraged householder. Happy Birthday, Shakespeare, by the way. I spent the wakeful hours pondering the budget for the October 15 Moffat Book Event - a new working title for which is Scotland's Family Tree which some may be surprised to see includes, controversially, Merlin (featured above , left in an illustration by Kevin Twedell for Count Nikolai Tolstoy's The Coming of The King – The First Book of Merlin published by Bantam in hardback ISBN 0593 013123 Price £12.95.In his earlier The Quest for Merlin, Tolstoy argues that Merlin was a historical shaman/druid adviser to the warlord we know as Arthur, and ended his days living in the hills above Moffat. Another real life magician (with words), Borders historian Alistair Moffat will also be talking about the DNA found in people living in Scotland today. I choose the order of my words carefully. It turns out, unsurprisingly that the DNA of Scotland's present occupants has more in common with the rest of Britain's natives than difference. Tolstoy considers that we here in Moffat live in territory known in Merlin's time as Rheged, so I am resolved to go to the visitor centre of that name just south of Carlisle to bone up on the subject before he comes up in Oct.

Friday, 22 April 2011

A bit of a blur

Yesterday (Thursday April 21 in Scotland)was hot, hot,hot. And I have lost my sun hat, a reliable old denim number. The working day started bright and early with a call from our lawyer about the water supply to our premises up in the forest, and a long telephone conversation with a neighbour similarly affected. It's not often that you hear the words 'It was my eagles' breeding season....'. I once accepted an invitation to dine chez the Bird Man and one of his eagles was sitting quietly on a tractor tyre in a corner of the room. Then off to the Moffat Initiative for a Moffat Book Events meeting picking up threads from our last Saturday's event. Next time, we vow to: understand how the tickets work (you tear off the perforated portion and keep all the bits so you know exactly how many have been sold - duh -); to bolster income, you schedule a whole meeting just about sponsorship - who to approach and for how much; review the marketing strategy and decide that next time we can spend less on advertising, put more effort into word of mouth and the 'social media' such as Twitter and Facebook. That day's April 21 Moffat News had mis-reported, we thought, the numbers who attended Love and Marriage, so a letter was drafted to the editor putting that straight ; we started to look ahead to our Sat October 15 event - talk of a 'Reivers High Tea', wenches, roistering, music etc to go along with Alistair Moffat's research into 'Scottish' DNA (or, here in Moffat, 'Rheged' according to Nikolai Tolstoy - seconds out)! Then, at midday off with daughter Elly to collect a sample box of Zacharry's spruce beer from the forest to take to Duncan Turnbull at his Cairn Foods shop in Biggar for another feedback session. I stop by the post box at the metal gate, so still and for so long that Elly thinks I have had a stroke but I am just reading and approving the lawyer's letter on my Blackberry about our water supply. According to Duncan, an international food merchant, we must consider if the bottle is slightly too tall for comfortable shelf fit. We line a number of similar quality soft drinks up on the counter: the Bundaberg 'stubby' is the shortest, next comes Fentiman's, then - the same height as Zacharry's - Luscombe elderflower bubbly. The label reminds Duncan of 'a sauce bottle' - but in a good way, with our retro sunburst rays and Yogi bear cartoon trees. The colour reminds him of Bitter Lemon; the taste for some reason puts him in mind of American Cream Soda. He ambushes a couple of unwary customers and Elly and I hide behind the cereals unit while he offers them a couple of test beakers. 'Mmm. Delicious!' We passed the taste test! While Elly shops for delicacies from Duncan's well-stocked shelves, I pop next door to Atkinson Pryce Books and thank Chris for bringing a stall to last Saturday's event. She is enthusiastic about coming to Moffat for October, and Merlin and I promise her that we will credit AP's contribution in our promotional literature this time, an oversight on our part last Sat. A quick cheese and tomato toastie at the Cross Keys, then back to Moffat for a much-yearned for cup of tea. The boys' paddling pool in the garden is full of tadpoles and rather muddy lumps of water- weed and reed brought to make them feel at home, plus a couple of old rough bits of wood to allow the frogs to exit when they are ready. Outside my sitting room window, the heat shimmers over the park and the burn. A knock at my door. Elly wonders if I can just pop across to collect Harry's bike, which she, just hours now away from giving birth to Ollie, couldn't manage and has left under the watchful gaze of a 4 year old girl who looks at me reproachfully as I wheel it away, as if I am a thief. At 5.22pm I succumb to a glass of semillon blanc and a very old re-run of 'Relocation, Relocation.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

We twa hae paddled

Harry (aged 5) and I (aged 67) spent two hours paddling in the burn yesterday afternoon, climbing trees and picking up rubbish. The water was surprisingly warm and the spring flowers growing all along the bank - celandines, daisies, dandelions, ladies smock and primroses made an extraordinarily pretty scene reminiscent of Botticelli's Primavera, rumoured to be the inspiration for Catherine Middleton's wedding dress. A friend sent me the link to the Boswell Book Festival May 20-22 at biographer and diarist James Boswell's stately home in Auchinleck, Ayrshire. The festival has the theme of biography, and I will go along to hear Alistair Moffat speak about his new book on Scottish DNA. We at Moffat Book Events are meeting today (Thursday April 21, in case it says something different on Google's header) to review Love and Marriage our inaugural event last Saturday. We want to establish ourselves on a secure and sustainable footing for the benefit of booklovers and local businesses and in the interests of having fun where it matters most ie where we live. A propos, I see that a lingerie shop is opening in Well St, Moffat where our Zacharry's shop used to be, and after us, Moffat CAN. A successful book event must have partners, and we are looking forward to working with many in Moffat - House of Colour, Moffat Let's Live Local, Manse Furnishings, Pocket Mountains, the new walking books publisher in the former Jenny Wren shop, Savour the Flavours....

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Mopping Up

There is some 'mopping up' to do after Love and Marriage - including, long term, whether to go for another DES -based event with a different theme such as the servant problem (yes, I'm joking) next April. We have a meeting to review all aspects of last Saturday's event tomorrow (Thursday April 21 in Moffat, whatever Googletime says on the header). The event, including some not-to-be-repeated startup expenses such as our logo and website, cost just under £7,000, less than the 'worst case' £10,000 our sponsor Forestry Purposes LLP had agreed to underwrite. We will be aiming to break even in October by increasing income and reducing costs. On the income side we can seek another sponsor, sell advertising- for instance by asking businesses in the town to take space in our programme or on our website - , increase ticket costs, and increase ticket sales. We will not be giving away Fiona's lovely flower containers, designed to look like pretty little pale green pink and white carrier bags, as we did to participants by way of a 'thankyou' at the end of Love and Marriage, unaware that they formed part of her wedding stock. Sorry Fiona. Until tomorrow, I will be making hay while the sun shines remarkably warmly, off to the hills this morning to meet a rep from Scotland Food and Drink to discuss the marketing of our Zacharry's spruce products (drinks, essential oil and fragrance). Yesterday evening I went with my grandson Harry aged 5 to paddle in the burn across the road from our respective houses side by side at the end of School Lane and we found a fossil! It could either be the skeleton of a centipede type creature or the imprint of a fern-like leaf - it has a spine and bits sticking out all the way down so it is now up to an expert such as Harry's art teacher Mrs Speirs to decide which.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

In the cold light of day

It is early on Tuesday morning April 19, contrary to what may be printed across the top of this blog. For some reason best known to Google, they set all blogs at US west coast time - hence my apparently being able to write about the highly successful Moffat Book Event before it started. In the cold light of the day after the day after The Day, I am preparing for our post-event meeting on Thursday. We will be reviewing every aspect of Love and Marriage: what worked, what didn't, and how to make the best use of our limited resources - human and financial - for our October 15 & 16 event themed on Identity: People and Place. One comment I particularly treasure is how nice everyone was on Sat. Being a friendly, welcoming and happy event is important if people are going to want to come to the next one. The theme for October is arguably more unisex than Love and Marriage, appealing to a universal curiosity: who am I? What makes us who we are includes a very broad spectrum of factors ranging from the hard-wired physical such as DNA (hair colour, sex)through diet, education and the various accidents of existence such as where you live and the narratives that surround you at home and at school, on TV and the web. Famously, one test of who you are includes who you cheer for at sports. In my case, this varied with who I was married to, in the first instance a Welshman in the 1970's when Wales carried all before it at rugby then to an Englishman whose parents lived near to the famous cricket ground at Arundel where test sides played friendlies against a local team. When I had a holiday job at the Institute for Nervous Diseases in London's Queen Square, we studied patients' handedness with the aid of a checklist of 12 or more questions to establish how profoundly 'handed'(left or right) they were to assist in rehabilitation after brain surgery. A similar questionnaire might be developed to discover how profoundly 'native' you feel yourself to be to any given location. At another stage of my life, I was aware of a passionate Welsh nationalist of the sort who burned down holiday cottages who turned out not to be technically Welsh at all. In October, we have the opportunity to examine how dress, food, and fairytales affect who we are - or, more properly, who we feel ourselves to be. We will be mapping out the journey, starting from now.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

A golden day

I promised a full report on the book event, so here it is (at 5.0am the day after). The first good thing, as I mentioned in my earlier post, was the weather which remained fine throughout the day right through to nightfall when a magnificent full moon appeared in the southern sky. At 8.45am, Harry aged 5 and I helped load the Zacharry's products into the back of Jim's car, Zacharry's being the sponsor, with Forestry Purposes LLP of the event and Jim being my son in law. I took a decision to wear my old mud-stained, once-purple plimsolls - lace-up canvas shoes - for some kind of superstitious reason distantly related in my head to that poem 'When I grow old I will wear purple' . ( Well, I was - a purple fleece jacket over my lime leopard print Boden dress). Also because I correctly guessed there would be quite a lot of running about to do both before and during the event. As I scrunched across the gravel forecourt of the hotel, I saw the reassuring figure of Marilyn Elliott, book lover and indispensible MBE administrator, without whom it can quite literally be said the event would never have taken place, standing at the door. The function room at the Moffat House hotel looked dauntingly large and empty set out with chairs from front to back. When I arrived, Jim and Harry had set up the Zacharry's stall at the far end by the window, and a volunteer was putting the finishing touches to the PA system. Carolyn Yates, D&G Literature Development officer - our compere for the day - appeared, resplendent in 1930's style coat, hat, dress and shoes but nearly minus her voice. She revealed huskily that it had been completely absent the day before, but being a trouper she did magnificently, a benign, experienced and professional presence from arrival at 9.0am until after the unveiling of the plaque to D E Stevenson at her former house and the glass of pink bubbly courtesy of our host there, Anne Colledge, 10 hours later. Lorraine, chic in orange, established herself at a small table by the front door, while Andrea, Sarah and Tina organised a beautiful display of vintage clothing in an ante-room between the bar and the reception room. Chris and Sue of Atkinson Pryce Books from Biggar set up a bookstall placed conveniently beside the entrance door facing the audience. It was a full and appreciative house for both the morning events, listening to Fiona Bevan's family memories of DES, Aline Templeton's clever appreciation, as a writer herself, of DES's lasting appeal, and Alis Ballance's hilarious reading of well-chosen excerpts from Miss Buncle Married, demonstrating DES's genius for comic observation and dialogue. After coffee, Jerri Chase explained how and why the DESsie evolved and skilfully highlighted those qualities, including a sense of moral goodness which draw us so strongly to her still. I proposed a champagne toast to The Book in the sun-filled garden room before we returned for a Q&A in which Rosemary Swallow, DES's daughter took part, alongside Fiona her granddaughter, Aline and Jerri. After a light lunch and a bit of nail-biting our afternoon speaker, Lynne McCrossan arrived on the dot of 2.0pm explaining that a) her lift had lost his way between Edinburgh and Moffat and b) she had it in her mind that she was on at 3.0pm. An appreciative audience with a significant sprinkling of younger guests were able to quiz Lynne about the in's and out's of wearing vintage, the delicate balance that needs to be struck between charity shops operating on a very charitable tax and rent regime, and those experts running 'vintage' as a small business; the vexed question of fur - to wear or not to wear - arose, what counts as 'vintage' etc. Our MBE marketing & PR Stacey Paul, officially on holiday, attended this session with her mother - all tribute to Stacey whose good work through the three months runup to the event ensured magnificent local, regional and national media coverage to the event and consequent full houses. All too soon, it was suddenly teatime; Chris Nolan struck up hits from the 1920's and 30's on his keyboard and on came the sandwiches, scones, and dainty meringues, strawberry tarts and other delicacies. Fiona of Moffat's Fiona Flowers had placed the prettiest little posies of pale pink and white flowers in tiny 'carrier bags' on every table. The function room was packed, cups were replenished, and at one end of the room a birthday cake appeared with a fizzing firework in its centre. At 6pm the 'plaque party' set off in cars and on foot to DES's former home for the unveiling in the presence of BBC reporter Willy Johnstone, who is putting together a programme about DES to be broadcast on May 5, of a dignified bronze plaque, celebrating her long and fruitful (over 40 novels!)residence in Moffat. Our host Anne had a bottle of pink fizz and tray of glasses waiting, the sun still shone more brightly on the daffodils and golden dandelions in every garden along our way up and back, bluebells just starting to open. At 7.15pm we made our way back to the Moffat House hotel for the 'after event' preview of Abi Roberts's 2011 Edinburgh Fringe show Abi Roberts Takes You Up The Aisle raising £150 for Moffat's Small 'n Tall nursery, currently attended by Abi's nephew Zac aged 3 after whom, with his older brother Harry, Zacharry's spruce products business, sponsor of Moffat Book Events is named. The show was the ideal, crazily comical, both down to earth but also uplifting way to round off a memorable day, the audience in turns rocking with laughter and rapt at the rendering of many old and new favourites (Abi's encore,by request, was her own hit song Turn the Lights Back On). And so to bed for a ruminative oatcake and bit of cheese to start to savour all the wonderful memories of our first - I hope of many - Moffat Book Events.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Perfect Day

It's a perfect day for the Moffat Book Event - pale bue sky with a few little white clouds, no wind. The leaves are just beginning to show green on the birch trees opposite my bedroom window. We the advance guard met last night as planned at the Moffat House hotel for a mixture of drinks - as it happens not a single glass of white wine among us. Appropriately for an event entitled Love and Marriage, a wedding was in full swing at the hotel throughout. We were: Jerri Chase (who will speak later on Being A Dessie) from Arkansas, and Laura of Anglophile Books from the Mojave desert came the furthest - welcome! - Sarah Watkins, looking stunning in her trademark bright red hairdo, not exactly a Mohican but a nod in that direction, checking round the table for dress hangers, rails and a ride for her tailor's dummy for the vintage clothes bazaar to go with Lynne McCrossan's talk... Eryl, sadly unable to be at the event today, came to say hi and promised to help us plan our next event in October, using her professional creative writing skills. Tina, newly volunteered, and my friend Joan all the way from Tunbridge Wells were the other two new faces, plus myself (chair), Marilyn our MBE Administrator who set up a tab with some of the cash from ticket sales (buoyant I am happy to say) and Andrea our Volunteer Organiser made up the merry table. I am beginning to use Miss Buncle-type words - see ? All set now for a glorious spring book lovers bonanza. A full report will follow.

Friday, 15 April 2011

What to wear at the Book Event

What to wear for the inaugural Moffat Book Event tomorrow? Dress: the vexed question of our troubled age. When I made my first visit to Los Angeles in the 1980's, I took the whole caboodle - my best dresses and jewels as for an official visit to (say) Russia. My first setback was that the hotel I had booked into, the Westwood Marquis (on the advice of Penelope Lively whose husband Jack used to go to Hollywood on film script business) in Westwood Village, the only place in LA you can go for a walk without being stopped by the LAPD as engaging in some kind of suspicious un-American activity, had never heard of my reservation. But they took pity on me, dressed as I clearly was for some kind of Ruritanian fantasy, and offered me the penthouse suite which Mick Jagger had just vacated. Too excited to sleep, I set off for my first round of business meetings in Century City (the business hub of skyscrapers built on the old Century movie lot), dressed up to the aforesaid nines. Over the next twentyfour hours it dawned on me that the stars do 'grunge' when not on duty. The most expensive restaurants are full of tiny thin people in torn black t shirts, including the music crowd such as Berry Gordy who I sat next to at breakfast on another visit at another hotel (the one with open wood fires in your bedroom - LA can be cold at night) in his trademark black beret (did he sleep in it?). From observation, these days you cannot go far wrong by dressing down. We - the organising committee, volunteers and friends - are meeting over a glass of white wine for a final briefing session for our Book Event Love and Marriage at the Moffat House hotel this evening before we go over the top tomorrow. If you are coming, I am the one in a pair of torn old jeans and a dirty jumper. Oh - and a nice long email from the Swede this morning, as it turns out at much the same stage (2 grown up kids, one grandchild) - prompted to contact me because of going through a lot of old papers while getting ready to downsize after a full, globetrotting life (so far). How very satisfactory.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Royal landings

Yesterday's post about Vevey reminded me that when I was last there in the late 1980's there was a ripple of activity at the landing stage and lo! Queen Fabiola of the Belgians and her husband - was that Baudouin ? stepped onto the quay from a boat which had presumably brought them from Geneva or stops along the way. Unless they had come across from Vichy? I think the mayor of Vevey might have turned out to greet them, but otherwise they just strolled off like any other couple enjoying the spring sunshine. Oddly, some years later I experienced another episode of an unannounced royal arrival. I was mooching about on the quayside at Lochinver with my friend Tony when we noticed two policemen with sniffer dogs giving the little motorboats tied up alongside the once-over. I asked them if it was a drugs raid and one of them said:`No, Princess Anne is about to arrive' and sure enough, round the mole came a small and very unroyal-looking fishing vessel type of boat. Tony and I formed up in a line of three with a Frenchman who was on the quayside, and as HRH drew near in a small launch Tony said to the Frenchman that she and I had been at school together (true enough - but being older than her, I had left before she arrived). We were not sure whether to attempt a cheer but she gave us a friendly smile before going off to open a new sports hall and a reception. The Frenchman was enormously impressed by my slightly exaggerated royal credentials and immediately insisted on giving Tony and me a guided tour of his boat, which was a vast fishing factory ship tied up and waiting for a spare part for an engine. I took on the role of Princess Anne, shaking hands with the piratical-looking crew deep in the hold and asking them if they had come far. We saw how the catch was processed and packed in ice before being put on a conveyor belt back up to the quay where it is loaded onto lorries bound for France and Spain. The Frenchman turned out to own a chain of French supermarkets and was on a periodic visit of inspection to the ship when the engine had broken down. On the news this morning it is reported that David Cameron went last night to have supper with 'Sarko', who was a friend of our quayside supermarket supremo; on a subsequent visit to his home town in Normandy he showed us a photograph of him and Nicolas with their arms around each others shoulders - this being before he was elected President. NATO is in the news too, because of Libya, which our PM and President Sarkozy met to discuss. All I have to tell you about NATO is that when I was there on a visit, sometime in the 1990's, the coathooks were not in use because if you tried to hang a coat on them they fell off the wall. Ponder that thought. Oh! and one last thing: last night a Swede who I dated 50 years ago emailed me to say 'how do'. How about that !

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


Because of the anniversary yesterday of Yuri Gagarin's extraterrestrial flight in a rocket round the earth, the BBC have been replaying their reporting of the event. This includes their translation of M. Gagarin's description of his landing (on the telephone to Nikita Khrushchev) as 'normal'. The word Gagarin used in Russian is 'normal'no', but should not be translated into colloquial English as 'normal' - in other words it is a 'false friend' - a word that sounds the same in two languages but cannot simply be transposed from one to the other. 'Normal'no' is the word that Russians use all the time every day in reply to conventional greetings which do not require anything other than a conventional reply, such as 'How are you?' or 'How's things?' The conventional reply in English is: 'Fine' or 'OK' not 'Normal'. A propos, it was Gagarin who unwittingly became the instrument for forcing the Soviets to accept the organisation that my second husband ran, the Great Britain-USSR Association, as their counterpart for UK cultural exchanges instead of their favoured pro-Soviet (even according to some, 'front')organisations such as the Friendship Societies or the Society for Cultural Relations. When Gagarin came to Britain on his triumphal first cosmonaut tour, a meeting with the Queen was mooted and eagerly accepted by the Soviet organisers. When they demurred about his visit being through the GB-USSR Association, the Queen's diary suddenly became full for the day appointed for Gagarin's visit to the palace. The message was received and from then on, a regular programme of top level exchanges was set up annually - a baroque dance which only ceased with the collapse of the Soviet government in 1989/90.


Just as T S Eliot wrote The Waste Land in the now-desolate seaside resort of Margate (apart from the new Turner Gallery there, which may pull Margate up by its sandy bootstraps), so Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot in Vevey, a charming little town on Lake Geneva. Another resident of Vevey, where I went to school for two years 1958-60, was Charlie Chaplin, who moved there in 1953 in a huff because of the McCarthy hearings probing possible communist infiltration of US institutions such as the film industry. Maybe a latter-day colossus of world cinema or books will move to Moffat. I see from the Birlinn book list that someone has written, with Alexander McCall's full cooperation and approbation, a Ladies' Detective Agency cookbook. Perhaps a Miss Buncle/Mrs Abbott cookbook should be considered? Do spinsters eat differently from married women? Still on the subject of Moffat, this time qua spa: I read today that Thomas Jefferson, father of the United States of America, attributed a long and healthy life to immersing his feet in cold water every morning. This is called 'Kneipp walking' on the continent, and I can now exclusively reveal here that a Kneipp walk is planned for a park or similar location to enhance Moffat's already packed catalogue of attractions. The Japanese Ambassador has written to The Spectator magazine protesting at the use of 'Jap' for 'Japanese person'. Does this mean I may not ask for a jap cake in future at Little's? How about 'Brit' for 'British person'? These are deep waters, Watson.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Seven days and counting

Only seven days now until the Big Day: Love and Marriage, our inaugural Moffat Book Event. Marilyn has printed some information strips to tell people that they can get their tickets from the Moffat Book Exchange as well as from dgArts at Mid Steeple and online. Tonight we have an organising committee and volunteer bonding session, courtesy of Moira Cox, House of Colour, (Moffat) debating what to wear. I have an alarming lime green leopard-pattern print dress and purple jacket on my short list. My dress philosophy often silently answers the question: what have I come as? Sometimes, in my brown cords and brown jumper I am a tree. In the lime green dress and purple jacket, I am a crocus. Most of last week in London I was wearing an acid yellowy-green cardigan with a purple cotton shirt. Who knows what flower I resembled but I was on trend with my blocks of colour. Going to House of Colour some years ago now, in Kent, with my two daughters was quite literally a life-changing experience. I had reduced my wardrobe colour to black. The House of Colour process involves choosing first by an empirical vote from the others present (in this case, our House of Colour expert and my daughters and me in turns), whether what suits one's skin tone best is white or ivory. This is achieved by the simple test of draping a scarf round the subject's neck. Time is saved after that by the experience of the expert, who tries scarves from a rack containing literally hundreds in oranges, reds, browns, blues, greens and every nuanced shade of beige to result in a little wallet of one's best colours for guidance when shopping. Simples. For your information, my colour group is known as 'rich autumn' but my blue group are the 'peacocks'. Quite fascinating and incredibly successful. I have never worn black or stark white since. So carried away by this post that I failed to realise that the aroma I took at first to be someone making toast in the house next door turned out to be my own porridge burning. There is probably an Uzbek proverb or maxim based on such an event, or if there isn't, there is now. It's another lovely day here in Moffat, by the way.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

A magical day in Moffat

Well, folks, it has been a magical spring day here in Moffat where Moffat Book Events come from. It was almost too hot to stay out for long, but I managed a circuit taking in the new restaurant Brodies, paid a bill at Manse Furnishing, collected the paper from Grieve's, bought an old fashioned scrubbing brush in Hyslop's, some milk and new season's Norfolk asparagus from the greengrocer next to the butcher (you only live once unless you are James Bond) and had excellently scrunchy fish and chips in the garden of the Moffat House Hotel. I am not in the pay of any of these excellent suppliers of meat, drink etc just glad to live in a place where the High St is still lined with real shops. Well, if not lined, then peppered. I am now looking out of my first floor window at a misty blue picture: the grove of tall, bare birch trees (my favourite sort whether clothed with leaves of green or gold, or - as now - leafless) on the old mill leat in the foreground, where dandelions and celandines have sprung up over night in the ditch; then the burn, and beyond the burn the green grass of the park, the scheme in the middle distance and then the line of the hills in the distance. Quite magical and showing no sign whatever of getting dark at gone 6 o'clock.

Moderation in all things

On Elif Batuman's website blog, I posted a comment - well, three: one rambling explanation of how I came to read, and love, her book The Possessed - about Russian books and the people who read them; a correction of a typo which made it look as thought I was a time traveller ('from 1983-200' when I meant '2000') and a third about who the subject was of a detail she used to illustrate 'cavaliers' and 'roundheads'. It just happens that the whole picture, (well a copy; the original is in the Nat. Gallery) by Van Dyke, of the sons of the Duke of Lennox, used to hang in the 'Gilt Room' at Cobham Hall where my daughters went to school. My (I would have thought innocuous) comments have been 'waiting to be moderated' for three days now. Why? wherefore? Surely a blog should - could - be a conversation as well as someone of accomplishment graciously acknowledging mis-spelled expressions of wonder of the 'Wot a wonderfull book you have wrote' variety.

Synchronicity - again

Last week in London, I found myself queuing behind Joanna Trollope the novelist in Waterstone's. Today I turn on BBCR4 and lo! the guest on Saturday Live is the sainted Joanna, patron of Agas the world over. I didn't even - haven't even - heard the presenter confirm that it is her. I just know it is. (I will feel foolish if it turns out it was someone else palpably upper middle class with a dry sense of the ridiculous who is a world famous, best-selling writer). The presenter, a cleric whose name escapes me - how is it that these Revs turn up running quoted plc's and introducing programmes on the radio? Do they not have parishes to run? Clearly not. Anyway this Rev. introduced the heritage tracks of B. Zephaniah describing him as son of a Barbadian. No! People from Barbados are Bajans. Talking of which I see an email has popped into my inbox guessed it. A Bajan who I was at school with 50 years ago and have known ever since. A propos I found the 'memorable question' on the Olympic ticket website extremely difficult. It was 'your best friend'. I have many close and dear friends but: 'best friend'? School children in the playground have 'best friends' but don't we, as we get older, collect a bouquet of friends, each in his or her own way special? I cheated and gave my mother's maiden name which as it happens could be that of my 'best friend'.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Proust in Boots

Yesterday evening I went along to the Institut Francais for the long-awaited conversation between a man who is never introduced (the lit. ed. of the Independent, I think) and Edmund de Waal (author of The Hare with Amber Eyes) on Proust. The Hare with Amber Eyes as I am sure you know, is a memoir in many ways reminiscent of, and inspired by, A La Recherche de Temps Perdu. Not only that: one of the main protagonists in de Waal's memoir is his great uncle Charles, aesthete and collector who was almost certainly the model for Proust's Swann - so we are in world of mirrors and reflections. The talk made me quite dizzy not least because towards the end, de Waal - a very mild-mannered and cautious speaker, pausing long and thinking hard before opening his mouth suddenly said angrily that he could not bear the thought of Proust on TV with Jeremy Irons. This was odd and I called for the microphone and said that I wished to alert de W to a Proustian circumstance ie that having dined at the Wolseley restaurant in Piccadilly on Tuesday evening, I was waiting at the door while my companion fetched her coat when who should walk past me but the self-same Jeremy Irons. 'So - be warned', I said to de Waal, 'he's in the area - he may even be in the room'. The audience for this series of English writers talking about French writers - (I have been to two) is a curious one. We left in silence, no sense of a shared experience, everyone locked into themselves, in striking contrast to such an event in, say, Moffat where one would have made some friendly remark to whoever one found oneself alongside on the way out. I am engaged in a strange thread on my Facebook page with my friend Barty Hotchkiss about D H Lawrence and Boots the Chemist. The conversation - as you will see - started when Barty spotted a pair of vipers basking in spring sunshine as he walked through the royal park of Drottingholm near his home in Sweden, outside Stockholm.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Roy Brooks lives

RoyBrooks! That was his name! His firm lives on but the great man himself passed away some years ago. Here, courtesy of an entry from the Daily Telegraph found on Google, is a taste of his inimitable (well, imitable but you know what I mean: trail-blazing, expectation-confounding, surprising, funny)
In the 1960s, Chelsea estate agent Roy Brooks was famous for his candid Sunday newspaper advertisements, in which he described a "house of ill-repute in Pimlico" as "still habitable, judging by the bed of rags, fag ends and empty bottles in one corner", and wrote of another property, "a lightly built member of our staff negotiated the basement stair, but our Mr Halstead went crashing through"

Experiments in advertising

In Stacey's absence (happy cruising, Stacey!) I have been asked to keep up the marketing effort for Moffat Book Events. This was possibly a rash move on my colleagues' behalf. Sitting down yesterday to contact reporters on local papers and other media I became increasingly light-headed and irresponsible. I suddenly remembered a famous estate agent in the 1960's who used very successfully to market houses and flat by describing them in extreme and comically negative terms such as: Eastend spiv and his ageing bleach blonde moll seek to dispose of their damp and dingy 1-bed basement flat, no mod cons; a tree has started to grow in the outside lav. Offer invited. In fact, I believe that a book of these gems was published. My idea was to market the Moffat Book Event under the striking headline: Moffat - not just smelly walking socks and sulphurous water. Well, it worked for an estate agent in the '60's.


A free ticket will be awarded to our inaugural Moffat Book Event on Sat April 16 for the first correct answer received - on a piece of wedding cake please - to our exclusive Love and Marriage quiz:

Which of the following statements are true/untrue/ridiculous:

  • You really need two pairs of shoes for a wedding – whether you are a guest or the bride – one for the ceremony and the other for dancing
  • It is sometimes correct for the groom to wear trainers
  • Queen Victoria really did marry John Brown
  • Robert Louis Stevenson is behind the event
  • A commercial forestry company is sponsoring the event
  • Moffat was once the standby venue for Wimbledon
  • Moffat has the highest density of sweet shops,B&B’s, restaurants, cafes and hotels of any spa anywhere in Europe
  • William and Catherine are spending part of their honeymoon in Moffat
  • If you drink the water from the healing spring in Moffat when the moon is full you will never have trouble getting a signal to watch Sky Sport ever again

Cross fertilization

I visited writer Elif Batuman's (The Possessed) blog this morning to check when she is going to be doing a platform appearance (it's at the Festival Hall on Mon April 11) and read her entry for when she was in London a month or so ago. She writes about meeting Molly Parkin which evoked the following memory: I got a job as a feature writer on the Look pages of the Sunday Times in 1968/9 with Molly Parkin, Lucia (How To Spend It) van der Post, Mark Boxer and Hunter Davies. My first day in the office, aged 24, nervous, neat and clean, dotting my ‘i’s and crossing my ‘t’s – the door burst open and it was Molly pissed as a newt waving a bottle of champagne just rolled in after a very long lunch with editor Harold Evans now of NYC parish seemingly having undergone a male menopausal motorbiking transformation and married Tina Brown – in fact, travelled backwards in his own lifetime: the theme, as it turns out, of my comments this morning.I heard about The Possessed from Damion Searles, writer and translator of NYC, on a visit to a redundant nuclear test site at Orford Ness during the tribute weekend to W G Sebald at Snape Maltings in Jan. I went straight into the bookshop in Aldeburgh to buy it – not in stock – but found it on the shop’s computer on Amazon and the proprietor and I couldn’t get past the cover – we both thought it must be a strip cartoon. But once I got the book I stayed up until 3am reading it, being a frequent visitor to Russia and Central Asia 1960-2000, often with writers, I wept with laughter and recognition. Elif Batuman is a genius. By the way, the portrait of the cavalier on Elif's blog post is a detail, one of two brothers dressed up to the nines ( the sons of the Duke of Richmond I seem to remember), in an enormous life -size full- length portrait, – both were killed in the Civil War I believe – , which hangs in a school called Cobham Hall in Kent, former home of the Earls of Darnley, where my daughters went. Elif is appearing 'In Conversation' at the Galway Literary Festival shortly with Geoff Dyer whose ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ is my favourite book next to The Possessed. And The Tap Dancer by Andrew Barrow for some reason.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Moffat and croquet (continued)

Just for the record: according to local architect and historian Peter Beck-Samuels, the croquet pitch used to be in the centre of the High St, then it was moved to where the Garden Centre now is, next to the Pump Room aka Town Hall - perhaps to revert to a 21st century version of Pump Room as the town plan evolves to accommodate the Old Academy. My friend Lesley suggests that any new school be founded on times tables, spelling and possibly latin so I must look out my 'First Eating Primer' (for those who did not undergo this childhood ordeal: with a few strokes of a pen, nib - dipped in ink natch - , A First Latin Primer can thus be transformed). Food was on our minds a good deal at school in those days before takeaways.

Croquet in Kent thanks to Al Quaeda

At the consultation evening at Moffat Town Hall, conversation turned to croquet. Not many people know that Moffat was once a standby for Wimbledon. Aha, caught you out there! You thought Wimbledon means tennis but to the purist it means croquet. Lawn tennis was merely what people played while waiting to take to the field for the real blood sport: croquet. My family is big into croquet, or into croquet big time. In summer evenings, my cousin Jimmy used to appear at the gate from the woods - he had walked across from his house in the neighbouring village and endless marathon croquet matches would ensue between Jimmy and my brother, and later my husband who worked as a night editor on the Business section of The Times. He would drive in at dusk and across the grass and the croquet would continue in the light of the moon. We all went our separate ways but after 9/11 my cousin Jackie brought her daughter over from NYC to meet the English side of the family. Thirty or forty of us gathered and my mother put some games and toys out on the lawn in front of the house to amuse the children. Lo! and behold! a cobwebby croquet set was in the scattered collection. The next year we gathered again, this time with a fiercely contested croquet match at the heart of the occasion. Every year the match is held; there is now a cup for the winning team (we play in pairs) a marquee for the tea - custom dictates that we bring our own picnic lunches. Towards the end of the day, before the families with young children drive home we sit on the steps in front of the house for a group photograph. It was on those very steps in 1962 that a smaller group of us held an Easter bonnet competition. which cousin Jimmy easily won with a vast mushroom-shaped concoction made from torn up strips of newspaper. One of the guests, an Irish artist named Joe McGill appeared round the side of the house with a rifle and fired a volley of shots into the air in honour of the Easter Rising. Later at lunchtime he regaled us with an account of how he and a friend had tried to blow up Hammersmith Bridge. All this was before the IRA started its campaign in Ireland, so at the time we thought it was rather funny. Autre temps, autre moeurs.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

A School at The Old Academy?

In the end, I put on my 'What To Do with The Old Academy' consultation form not only the 'tiny Tate' idea - to use The Old Academy as a picture gallery - but possibly a better idea which draws more directly on Moffat tradition: a private school. No, not for privileged small boys wearing tailcoats and toppers but teaching some specialism such as English as a foreign language for Chinese, Brazilian, Indian and Central Asian children. Yes, they might also be from privileged backgrounds, but don't let's get too bogged down in the politics. Education is something we are good at and should be proud of. We are also good at aiming to run as fair a society as human frailty allows, seeking to make change by consensus rather than by burning down buildings. I think Moffat is a remarkable community - I can say that without boasting because after just six months residence, I still count as a mere observer. Today is Mothering Sunday: Happy Mother's Day to mine, 93 not out (or 'in the shade')! My elder daughter Abi is taking me out to lunch which I am looking forward to tremendously. We are going to a restaurant that I have known for nearly 40 years in various incarnations, now known (speaking of carnations) as Il Giardino because it abuts a garden centre. Bon appetit a tout le monde et a toutes les meres du monde!

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Old Academy

To the Town Hall (formerly the Pump Room) yesterday evening for the consultation about the Old Academy. Moffat is a place people stop off at on their way somewhere else as well as come to stay in, whether for life or for holidays. One thing we do not have is an exhibition space. Perhaps we should become a tiny Tate along the lines of Tate St Ives? There is a Darwinian argument for creating spaces for many small businesses - the ones that flourish will gradually come to occupy more space as unsuccessful ones slip away. So: a centre for small start up businesses - to include manufacture, of course. The bicycle was, if not invented right here, developed not far away by a local D&G blacksmith (see Bella Bathhurst's latest The Bicycle Book). Invite a bigger business to relocate? Enterprise, excellence - reminds me of the very sad news of the death of Edward (son of Eddie) Stobart's death at the untimely age of 56. RIP.