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Leah Bobet: An Inheritance of Ashes [Jul. 24th, 2016|04:53 pm]

I refused to get up this morning until I had finished reading An Inheritance of Ashes: I don't often do that.

I remember this book when it was called On Roadstead Farm, and leahbobet was posting daily wordcounts and the occasional darling: does that give me a proprietorial bias in its favour, or does it mean I am coming to it with impossibly high standards? Let's assume they cancel out, and that I am, if not a perfect and impartial critic, swayed only by my own tastes and preferences. On that basis, this is an amazing book, and I don't know why I haven't been hearing more noise about it all over the internet.

I've never read Laura Ingalls Wilder, but if that change of title suggests some sort of collision between post-apocalyptic YA and the Little House on the Prairie, I don't think it'd be far wrong. Something has taken out the cities and their technology, but that was long ago, and serves only to set the scene: a world of family farms and small towns, hired men and manual labour, which can still be startlingly modern in its social attitudes, where women are as likely to be in charge as men, in which both men and women have husbands and religions co-exist.

This is a post-apocalyptic world in which the apocalypse is eclipsed by the more recent past, the war in the south from which the men (and yes, it does seem to be men) are only now returning. Hallie and her elder sister Marthe struggle to maintain Roadstead Farm, and hope for the return of Marthe's husband Thom. There's a flavour of the American Civil War in that summary, but this war has been stranger than that, and it was ended by a heroic deed, when John Balsam killed the Wicked God - if the stories are to be believed. But there are still strange things, Twisted Things, like the spider-bird that crashed into Hallie's window and burns to the touch...

Hallie is a brilliant narrator, with all the passion and blindness of her sixteen years, and An Inheritance of Ashes is entirely her story. But the canvas gradually widens: Hallie takes on a veteran called Heron to help out over the winter, the Blakely family from the neighboring farm arrive, Hallie ventures into town to buy provisions and spectacularly fails to heal the rift between her family and Windstown. Everyone has secrets, everyone has things they are not saying, everyone has their own story.

Not everything in the book works for me. In particular, there are aspects of the ending which leave me saying wait, what? (and I don't think all of them are intentional). But what I want is for everyone to read it, so we can discuss this properly.

And I haven't even mentioned the wonderful Chandlers.
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A1L2B [Jul. 23rd, 2016|10:38 pm]

This morning we visited Catterick racecourse, to inspect progress on the work that is being done to upgrade the A1 to motorway standard between Leeming and Barton. No, really, we did, though the precise aspect of the work that interested us was the archaeological excavation taking place where the Fort Bridge is being replaced to cross the new, wider road. The A1 - the Great North Road - runs close to Dere Street, and Cataractonium was a major Roman town. There have been previous excavations, and geophysical mapping of the site, but the deep foundations of the new bridge provide justification to dig deeper than before.

We gathered in the racecourse car park, and signed to say we'd read the risk assessment, and took our numbered slips, and were led off in groups, up the closed road to the stub of the old bridge, from where we could see people in high-vis. outfits scratching away at the ground with their trowels:

A Roman house

Within this very confined area were the remains of a house. One room, in particular, showed the remains of its heating system, and had previously contained a platform, which the archaeologists thought had been the footing for a bath; the walls had been plastered and the plaster painted in red and white; a pewter inkwell had been found in the same room, and we were invited to envisage this luxuriously warm next in which to linger and write...

Finds!Collapse )

We lunched in Piercebridge on the way home. durham_rambler had declared that he wanted to lunch at a farm shop, but had dismissed both the shops I could think of (on the grounds that neither of them was in the right place). "You'll be lucky!" I thought. But he was: Piercebridge Organics Farm Shop and café, not just a farm shop but an all-day breakfast.
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Pick of the week [Jul. 22nd, 2016|09:28 pm]
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  • Contestant on Only Connect, deliberating with team-mates: I alway get 'Flaubert's Parrot' mixed up with 'Foucault's Pendulum'.

  • The decorators, having finished a previous job earlier than expected, arrived on Tuesday afternoon. The builder, to whom I had given the sample of my chosen wallpaper and the brochure with my chosen paint colours marked on it before we went on holiday, has not passed them on and has in fact lost them. We have, as of today, reinstated that order, and the decorator is confident that this won't hold things up. That may be because the condition of the plaster under the wallpaper is worse than they had expected, and what with patching the plaster and lining the walls, they will have plenty to keep them occupied. The room, our bedroom, had not been decorated since we moved in in 1975; yes, I am quite excited at getting rid of the Lincrusta wallpaper - but what I am really excited about is the prospect of adequate wardrobe space.

  • The man in front of me at the till in Marks & Spencers had his money ready, a five pound note on top of his two-for-a-fiver ready meals. He completely confused the till assistant by asking "Is there tax on top of that?", but I thought of all the times I've been caught unawares in the States, when there was tax on top of that, and I sympathised.

  • I made pizza with today's batch of bread - actually, with about half of it, and the rest has made a round of buns. It rose spectacularly: a combination of hot weather and sloppier than usual dough, presumably. For the first time ever, the final rise before shaping had the dough nudging the dishcloth I'd laid over the top of it. I'll try the rolls for breakfast tomorrow - it doesn't seem right to breakfast on pizza, even if it's disguised as rolls and has no toppings on it. Well, if I don't like it, I'll thing of something else...

  • Last Saturday's Travel supplement told me that Tucson had become a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. I didn't know there was such a thing, and it sounded great. looking it up, it would seem to be part of a Creative Cities network, which seems more nebulous, with overtones of marketing, and why does it have to be all about cities, anyway? Downtown Tucson looked pretty and colourful, though.
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Scotch rock and bananas [Jul. 21st, 2016|10:13 pm]

I had a phone call yesterday from my scool friend S.: that's nothing out of the ordinary, she does call from time to time. And she was in a state of excitement, but that's not unusual either.

What she was burning to tell me concerned the retirement of Miss Chapman, who had been head of the school when we arrived there aged 11. She was an imposing personality*, and although this is over 50 years ago, I remember the sense that we were diminished by her departure, and that her replacement was a lesser woman. But S. has a specific memory, and that was what she wanted to talk about: that on Miss Chapman's retirement, every girl in the school, all 600 of us, had been given a banana and a piece of what she called 'Scotch rock' (I think of it as Edinburgh rock, but I wasn't going to argue). And that although she had spoken to a number of her contemporaries about this idiodyncratic gift, none of remembered it, until she began to wonder if she had dreamed it (although she was sure she hadn't).

It doesn't at all surprise me that I don't remember it: there's so much I don't remember (it's why I value this diary so much); I don't actually remember S. mentioning it before. But evidently I wasn't the only one who had no memory of the parting gift, and it had been beginning to bother her.

The good news was that A. had come to the rescue: she didn't remember it herself, but she had written to B., and B. remembered it clearly, and added the detail that there had been a special assembly, so that we could be allowed to eat the spoils straight away (as I suppose we would have done, allowed or not). So S. is vindicated, and triumphant.

*That must be her on the right of this photo from the school's website, and since it shows her presiding over the School Birthday celebrations in 1964, I'm probably somewhere in the ranks. But I digress...
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The things that make a Sunday [Jul. 17th, 2016|10:26 pm]
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Since we couldn't put it off any longer, we finished clearing our bedroom ready for the decorators. The bulk of the work had already been done, not least to allow preparatory work ahead of the decorators' arrival, and the last of the furniture can be left in the middle of room, and covered with a dust sheet - as long as the walls are clear and accessible, surely, that's all they need? To my own surprise, I managed to find (or empty) a few more boxes for the books from the bookcase - not quite enough, and the last shelf has been decanted onto the bookcase in the spare bedroom (which has not yet been refilled with its own proper books, because we are still considering improving the shelving supply in that room).

But I have sorted the clothes from the drawer under the bed. Some will be discarded as rags, but most have been bagged to go to the charity shop. It seems I was once a size 16, and if I had any recollection of this I would probably be more upset that it is no longer the case, nor likely to be. As it is, I'm feeling quite pleased that I appear to have lost the weight I inevitably put on during our Scottish holiday, but I have no ambitions to wear size 16 Rohan shorts. There's a grey cord skirt I'm sorry to say goodbye to, but how often do I wear a skirt, anyway?

By mid-afternoon, we'd done about as much as we could, so we went out to the open gardens event at the local allotments. We wandered around and admired things - including the contestants for 'best scarecrow' - and talked to people, and tasted the proferred strawberries and raspberries, and learned why you mustn't plant carrots on the upper slope of the allotments (it's close to a badger track, apparently, and badgers are very fond of carrots - also sweetcorn. They don't just nibble here and there, they dig up the entire crop with their strong forearms. And once you've attracted their attention, they don't give up. This may or may not be true, because, as the gardener who told us about it said, it wasn't something he wanted to put to the text).

A rest from scaring crows

It was a warm and sticky afternoon, so we came home and had a cup of tea - and found a message on the answerphone from the decorator saying sorry, he couldn't start tomorrow after all, he'll be here on Wednesday. Oh, well, we'll be ready for him.
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Gannets and guillemots and (one or two) puffins, oh my! [Jul. 15th, 2016|09:26 pm]
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Speaking - as we were - of seabirds, that boat trip to Ailsa Craig:

The trip - in a RIB, which is a Rigid Inflatable Boat - was certainly an experience, and I'm glad to have done it. It's quite a palaver, though. The boat is open, and goes fast, so they wrap you up in generous quantities of waterproofing, as much, I suspect, against the cold as against the wet. The overtrousers were a snug enough fit that I was not entirely confident that I would be able to sit down, but I wasn't called on to put that to the test: the saddle seats carry you as much standing as sitting. This is never exactly comfortable, and the two and a half-hour trip was close to my limit (I was quite surprised how quickly after disembarking I was walking more or less normally!).

Our destination

Ailsa Craig is 18 miles out (if I've got that right) which is 40 or 50 minutes fast going each way. Outbound, particularly,we seemed to hit the waves head on, and I was reminded of riding lessons, and learning to rise to the trot. Once there, we made a leisurely circuit of the island - though just one way, and I was sitting on the 'wrong' side of the boat, so my view onshore was always obstructed (all my photographs feature a knitted hat, as worn by the lady between me and the island).


But the gannets didn't care, and soared above us in considerable numbers (though we didn't see them diving, as D. had from our cottage). The puffins were nothing like as numerous, and it feels rude to say "is that all you've got?", so I didn't like to ask whether their numbers are down here, as elsewhere, or whether the rocky island is not actually prime puffin habitat*. I did, all the same, see several puffins in flight, including one pair who did an obliging fly-past close to my side of the boat.

Puffins and gannets are clearly the A-list celebrities, and the birds our driver made much of. We also saw large numbers of guillemots (including at least one black guillemot which passed us when we had barely left Campeltown harbour), and I could hear the kittiwakes yelling 'kittiwake' from their cliffs, though I couldn't make out which of the carpet of white dots were kittiwakes and which were gannets**. Plus one or two razorbills, and a shag or so.

*The internet suggests that although there are fewer puffins than other birds, their numbers are growing.

**Blowing my photos up as far as they'll go, I can see mostly gannets!
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Weird fact of the day [Jul. 15th, 2016|05:45 pm]

Countdown is all about the word and numbers games, and mostly the weekly guest is the least interesting part of the show: too many sports personalities, or daytime TV presenters with pointless self-deprecating anecdotes. So I didn't have great hopes of Chris Packham (TV presenter and naturalist, who just happens to have a book out at the moment). In fact he has been fun, and today's snippet put together two facts about animal perceptions of taste in a truly striking way. Bearing in mind that this was not an in-depth explanation, and that I am writing from memory, it goes something like this:

Birds are capable of tasting the same five basic tastes as humans, but most species don't taste all five. Penguins only sense two tastes, sour and salty. This article, with bonus cute Gentoo penguin, hypothesises that they have lost sensitivity in the receptors that don't function well in the cold. It doesn't say whether this is the same factor which removes flavour from over-chilled wine, and means that a mixture that tastes too strong before freezing is fine as ice-cream - but I digress. Penguins have a limited sense of taste.

Fish, on the other hand, not only sense more of the basic tastes (four, at least, I think), some of them have taste receptors on the outside of the body as well as in the mouth (I can see how this would be useful for tasting the water they are swimming through).

So when a penguin swallows a fish whole, the penguin can't taste the fish that it's eating as well as the fish can taste the penguin.

You're welcome. Bonus Wikipedia quote: "Salmon have a strong sense of smell."
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Carradale [Jul. 14th, 2016|09:31 pm]

Today being the quatorze juillet, the fête nationale, I ought by rights to be posting about France - and there are still things to say about last summer's trip, not to mention plotting the next visit... But today being the fête nationale, I opened a bottle of organic Jurançon to accompany our dinner, so instead I'll take the easy option, and post something I wrote while we were offline in Scotland, staying at Ferryman's Cottage on the Kintyre peninsula.

The nearest village - it has both a post office and a shop, though the shop is for sale - is Carradale. durham_rambler and I spent a morning exploring these retail possibilities, then followed the road which was alleged to lead to a good fish restaurant. We found a pretty, almost circular bay, and the adjacent hotel, which does not serve lunch.

Which is how we ended up at the Network café, and if I'd known we were going there, I'd have taken my notebook. Never mind. Words I never expected to write: I recommend the veggie burger (the beetroot and quinoa veggie burger). And to follow, good coffee and a litany of cakes, beginning: "Angus made Rocky Road this morning..." and going on from there. I could have ordered one of each.

Then walk it off with a hike through the woods. We chose the Deer Hill Trail, 3 miles long and allow 2 hours, says the leaflet. We allowed three: it marched us up to the top of the hill, and it marched us down again. When we were up there were extensive, if hazy, views across to Arran, the whole length of the island spread before us; when we were down there was a long return along the Kintyre Cycleway; and when we were only halfway up - or rather, halfway down - it was like climbing a neverending staircase, but with added midges. At one point, inevitably, I swallowed a fly - and we all know what that leads to, don't we?

Carradale view

Back home, D. and valydiarosada told us about their day (they had visited the Springbank distillery, and recommended it) and I had a bath. That's a day well spent. Next up, boat trip to Ailsa Craig.
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It Came From the Back of the Wardrobe [Jul. 12th, 2016|10:29 pm]
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We had a very good weekend. The Bears were visiting, and we did many interesting things:
  • On Friday afternoon, durham_rambler and GirlBear and I went to Woodhorn Colliery museum, while BoyBear worked on his t'ai chi with a friend.

  • Saturday was the day of the Durham Miners' Gala. It rained. Fortunately, we had time to see much of the procession and to hear many of the bands before the rain set in for good. If the sun had been shining I'd have been happy to sit on the grass and wait to hear the speakers, but as it was we left before they even started. We walked home via Palace Green, and saw the banners waiting outside the cathedral, which I haven't done before.

  • On Sunday afternoon, there was music at Old Durham Gardens. We listened to a consort of (three) viols playing rather hesitantly, then avoided the Scratch Choir and wandered around the gardens instead. They seem to have planted lots of old roses since I was last there.

  • And in the evening, we deposited the Bears at a Sacred Harp House Sing, and went to see Gail, who showed us Dracula's Daughter, a curious 1936 movie, which starts very carefully at exactly the point where Stoker's novel ends, and then veers off into comedy cockney policemen (in Whitby), a Hungarian countess with hypnotic powers and a love interest called Janet who seemed to have strayed in from a screwball comedy being shot in an adjacent studio.

I have plenty more to say about any of these things, and I took pictures, too. But our builder has interpreted We will get our bedroom ready for you to start work in there on Monday 18th as Book the decorators to start on Monday 18th, and we will give you access far enough in advance to remove the fitted wardrobe, make good and allow the plaster to dry. So instead of having all this week to clear the room in an orderly fashion, we have been desperately trying to clear enough space around the wardrobe for the builder to start work on it first thing tomorrow.

Which means, I suppose, that we'll need to be up early, and that it's time for bed now. Have some old roses:

Old roses
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Campbeltown Loch, och aye! [Jul. 7th, 2016|08:18 pm]


Getting up for the second time on the morning of the solstice observed, we set off for Campbeltown. But first we stopped at Saddell Abbey, a ruined abbey - two part walls in a pleasantly overgrown graveyard - in the care of Historic Scotland (though their care, as D. points out, does not extend to removing the sycamore seedlings from the masonry). But a small stone shed at the entrance shelters a collection of magnificent carved stones, full length effigies, decorative foliage, even a small mermaid. We saw more of these throughout our holiday, but these were our first, and we were greatly impressed.

The lost industries

I liked Campbeltown itself, too. My Lonely Planet guide describes it as 'blue collar' and suffering from the decline of its whisky and mining industries, but it has some fine old buildings: the cinema was undergoing restoration, and hidden behind boarding, but the Christian Institute (now council offices) was splendid, and the museum even better. Elegant houses front onto a little green, and cliff-like tenements have a classical severity.

That 'decline' has spared the town the invasion of the High Street chains, and there are some entertaining independents. We had arrived at Ferryman's Cottage to be greeted by a note from the housekeeper: "Sorry, your predecessors broke the kitchen scissors, and I don't have any in store," which was an excuse to visit Nickels'n'Dimes on the harbour front, where I bought a card of three pairs of scissors, a small knife and a lifetime supply of emery boards. A variety of kitchen wares were available in a choice of colours: we could have bought colour-coded kettles, toasters, cafetieres, breadbins, one for each member of the party, including valydiarosada's special pink. We resisted, and we didn't buy a CD player in the shape of an electric guitar, either.

On the advice of the Tourist Office ("I'm not allowed to make recommendations, but I can give you pointers") we lunched at the Bluebell Café. Despite the 'Business for Sale' sign, it was very busy (much busier than on our second visit two days later) and good. Also at the Tourist Office, I had picked up an irresistible (free) booklet about the museum: serious money had clearly gone into preparing this, and it contained excellent photographs of selected items (Hooray! It's available online!). Some of these had been chosen by the public at an open evening, and the descriptions included the remarks of local schoolchildren: a piece of rose quartz was "bling", and a penny-farthing bicycle was "very old" - this in a collection which included a neolithic jet necklace, and a beautifully polished axe-head in pale grey stone striped as if with a wood grain. One or two items from the booklet were mysteriously not on display, and I was sorry not to see the metal tags handed out to beggars in the nineteenth century, each bearing an identifying number which allowed the bearer to beg on one specified day of the week.

Behind the museum is a little garden, part of the original design of the building but now renamed the Lady Linda Macartney Memorial Garden. (We discussed that 'Lady Linda' but came to no conclusion*.) The bedding plants had obviously just been removed, presumably to be replaced with something else, and the statue of Linda sat a little forlorn among the bare earth beds. At the gate, a lady from the American tour group was asking their local driver, "Angus, has that song about the Mull of Kintyre been recorded?"

We drove on to the very south of the peninsula, to Southend, where the rocks are apparently popular with seals, though we only saw two, and where Saint Columba left his footprint in the rock, helped by a nineteenth century stone carver. Then round, on a narrow and winding road, to the Mull of Kintyre itself, the rocky headland from where we had views across to Antrim, and to Rathlin Island (been there! there were puffins!) and to the lighthouse, a mile down the steep road below us.

*It's right, apparently: he was knighted in '97, she died in '98.
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