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Mud On the Road

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I Love the M3, I Really Do




Posted by Deborah Courtnell


     A sunshine-filled day up in London began with lunch at Tibits, Heddon Street's great vegetarian eatery.

     Tibits is far and away the best and most welcoming pit-stop in the West End. It’s a place where girl-friends who haven't seen each other for far too many months can talk and talk and talk and graze on delicious food and drink scrumptious ginger tea and linger long and late as possible into the afternoon.

     One friend had travelled down on the train from Waglandia and was there well ahead of me. A two hour ride from Manchester to Euston -  that’s already a pretty fast train isn’t it?  The gorgeous Dalston Eclectic swept in from East London via the all-singing and dancing Ginger Line which now links London to super-cool E8 thereby rendering E8 so accessible it might have to be down-graded to merely  very-cool.

     I ate tofu and soy beans and chick peas and ricotta and quinoa salad. I considered bringing a quinoa salad doggy bag home for Shedley but I decided against it. I didn’t want him to experience crushing disappointment.

     Because Shedley's been going around saying 'Keen-Wah!' quietly and thoughtfully to himself ever since Gwyneth Paltrow suggested the pleasures and health-giving properties of the 'pseudo-cereal' on the Graham Norton show a couple of weeks ago.

     But I know that Shedley is associating 'Keen-Wah' with a Californian tan and long blonde hair and even longer, blonder legs and I also know that the polystyrene realities of the Keen-Wah, un-smothered in chilli sauce and denuded of salt and any flavour whatsoever, the way we girls can handle it because we’re tough, would rob Shedley of the fantasy that he too could be pure-as-the-driven-snow singer in a rock band married to an international movie star.
   
     La Paltrow's charms peaked for me that evening. Listening to her proselytise about the benefits of her style of healthy, organic cooking whilst simultaneously selling her new recipe book and the sci-fi action thrills of Iron Man III in which she co-stars, put me in mind of the character of Martha Lane, the beautiful but teeth-grindingly pious Methodist in BBC's Sunday drama series The Village. Martha wants to have her saintly, organic cup-cake and eat it too.

     Like Martha, Gwyneth Paltrow is a bit of evangelist-bore for her lifestyle creed. She wants to be one of us but she’s too much of an élitist on the food front and patently oblivious to the housekeeping realities  faced by we lesser mortals.

     'I've got a bit of sick in my mouth,' she joked when Lee Mack mentioned Pot Noodles.

     Back at Tibits we enjoyed our 'Keen-Wah' enormously but we didn't stand on the street corner later and hand out leaflets.
*****

     In fact I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. I went round all the galleries and so was confronted, free of charge, with the in-yer-face brutalist images of post-glasnost Ukraine, part of the New Art From Russia exhibition.

     'Case history,' a set of 413 photographs  by Boris Mikhailov  who, according to the exhbition guide is, 'the most influential photographer working in Russia today,' chronicles lives of utter despair eked out in his home town of Kharkov in the Ukraine, 1997-1998.

     The pictures remorselessly span the gamut of deprivation, destitution, addiction, prostitution. They leave diddly-squat  to the imagination but still there's something missing, a big blank hole of nothingness, a void in each highly coloured shot. Unlike, say, the deeply engaging war photography of Don McCullin, Mikhailov offers the viewer only a passive, one-way experience akin to the one-dimensional thrill of a fairground horror ride.  All scream and no substance.

     The more pictures I saw,  the less factual I felt they were.  There’s a stagey theatricality to much of the work, discernible especially in the images of women, old and young, predominantly topless, often embracing each other, eyes looking out to the camera which is filming them in the close confines of their bedrooms and the squalor of  impoverished interiors.

     These shots in particular, coupled with exploded close-ups of cankered body parts, gave me an uneasy sense of prurience and voyeurism.

     It was bewildering to emerge into the bright contrast of a well-heeled, sun-lit Chelsea evening. And I wanted suddenly to be home and as quickly as possible.

*****
     
     Unlike the Dalston Eclectic and my friend from Waglandia on their different modes of pubic transport, I had driven up to London via HS3 - otherwise known as the M3. And I  parked for a bargain fiver at the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherds Bush.

     Call me old-fashioned but I like driving.  Hell, I love driving. I adore my somewhat banged up Fiat and I love the M3, I really do.

     I spent decades of my life on the train, principally the Waterloo – Exeter St. David's line. I can name every station in my sleep. I've got on and off at most of them and dozed off and slept and dribbled through several of them.

     I remember buffet cars and carriages set aside just for luggage and bicycles and big dogs; enclosed compartments with blinds like in Hitchcock's Strangers On a Train; doors to the platform that you could open yourself via windows that you could push down and stick your head out of and smell the night, the train pummelling fast through the dark; windows you could open and lean out of to say  'good-bye', the way Celia says good-bye to Trevor in Brief Encounter. Because, back then, friends and loved ones  were still allowed onto the platform, without a ticket, just to wave you off. Railway station good-byes were a mini-drama all of their own.

     That train line maps the years between childhood and 2002 when I got not my first car but the first car which could be relied upon to accelerate hard enough and fast enough to pull out into the middle lane and overtake the cavalcade of  HGV's grinding uphill on the inside.

     The M3 for me is the chain which links the rural delights of home, countryside, dogs, chickens and mud to the edgier, smokier pleasures of the city and friends, Keen-Wah and dodgy art.

30.04.2013
~~~~~

Also Seen at the Gallery




The Saatchi Gallery
Side view of the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea, London



20:50 a permanent installation by sculptor Richard Wilson at the Saatchi Gallery.






Used sump oil!
The installation 20:50 - 1987, used sump oil and steel, dimensions variable

20:50 made in 1987 by Richard Wilson
Since 2004 Richard Wilson has been Visiting Research Professor at the University of East London


The Test in February
Going Fishing 
The winning Australian exhibit at The 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show
No Nettles at Chelsea
Green Mud
Dear Councillor Gibson 
Poor, kind Mrs Harris
Working From Home

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

Posted by Deborah Courtnell

    The first warm-ish evening of the year to date and so off to the pub for a beer or three. Obviously.

     But what should have been a brisk schlep down Stockbridge High Street to landlady Lucy's immaculate garden at the Three Cups, turned into a complete palaver however, as we three grown adults, mainly me and Shedley, proved completely incapable of leaving the house without first losing then finding but misplacing all over again – keys/sunglasses and the hungry wallet – without whom there is no pub.

     We finally set off but had to return as no-one could remember who had locked up and we don't like to leave the house unlocked any more, not since some low life punk had the cheek to stroll right up to the front door, unscrew my bike saddle and casually nick it.
      (For twenty three years I left my old bike all over London, just name a post code and I've locked my bike there, and not once did someone steal my saddle.)

     In all we went back to the house and back inside the house three times.

     On the third attempt to leave the house, two cars passing in opposite directions on the busy and very narrow road outside, evidently clipped each other.

      The driver going down the hill continued on his merry way. The driver going up the hill pulled in off the road, got out of the car and walked back down the road to check nothing else had fallen off – and forgot to put his hand brake on.

     His car began to ease, ever so gently, out of the lay-by....

     Fortunately we were on hand to shout and wave and jump up and down a lot and shout and wave some more.

     Disaster was averted.

23.04.2013

~~~~~



Poor, kind Mrs Harris
Working From Home
Tail of the swarm on the bird box
Day of the Bee,  Part I
Rescuing the swarm
Day of the Bee,  Part 2

The Good Workman

Posted by Deborah Courtnell

     Ok, so here's the thing and it involves eggs.

     I've just gone downstairs where I happened to see Shedley which is not such a great surprise as he lives here. With me. We live here together. Anyhow, I went downstairs and I saw him and I said:

     'Oh hi Shedley so how was your lunch?'

     'Great,' said Shedley.

     Then he paused for a second and cleared his throat. Which meant he was on the verge of saying of something else but had opted to pause briefly and fully reassure himself that he would not regret saying whatever he was going to say next.

     'Your brother made a great lunch. Actually, he's got rather a good technique for frying eggs.'

     My younger brother, Can-Do, is staying with us.

     Can-Do designed and built Shedley's Shed which I call the Man-Shed because it's where Shedley goes and does manly things like stare thoughtfully out of the window or rearrange his hammers and screwdrivers.

     Strictly speaking, Shedley and Can-Do designed and built the Man-Shed together, but Can-Do did a teensy-weensy bit-a-lot more of the work than Shedley.
   
     An Esteemed Villager likes Shedley's shed so much he's hired Can-Do to build him a 'shed-office' in his garden.

     'Right,' I said, in a neutral, casual manner. 'A good technique?' I tried to sound non-threatening.

     There are two things about this:

     Thing number one is that Shedley prefers his eggs fried. Me, I like a fried egg but then I'll eat eggs any way you care to serve them, scrambled, poached, boiled, omletted, souffléed because I just adore eggs. And because I’m a very flexible person.

     But hey, if it makes Shedley happy then I'm happy to fry them when I'm making eggs for both of us.

     Even though I know they are approximately one million times more fattening and likely to fur up your arteries and kill you if you cook them that way. Because of all the oil.

     Thing number two is that our eggs are bantam eggs and they're small which makes them much harder to fry. Much, much, much harder to fry. And the frying pan is old and has lost its non-stick stickiness. And the spatulas are simply all the wrong shape.

     Result? Every time I cook fried eggs they start off fine but then deteriorate fast into looking like something that fell on the floor, got stepped in and smeared about a bit and only then scooped up and served.

     They taste great but pretty they are not.

     Unlike Can-Do's fried eggs which were bantam eggs cooked in the same pan on the same stove with the same spatula but, whaddya know, they came out picture perfect.

     According to Shedley who evidently interviewed Can-Do on his fried egg  technique, Can-Do starts with the heat low and then turns it up just at the end.

     Oh yes and then there’s the oil. Can-Do likes to use a lot more oil. Lots and lots  more oil.

     So now I know.

22.04.2013
~~~~~



Beam Me Up
Egg and Spam
Poppies, Cowdrove Hill
Time Please! 
The Test in February
Going Fishing 
The winning Australian exhibit at The 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show
No Nettles at Chelsea
Poor, kind Mrs Harris
Working From Home

In Which I Blow My Own Trumpet, Loudly

Posted by Deborah Courtnell

     The London Marathon always brings tears to my eyes and this year the sight of all those runners in the London sunshine was particularly evocative given the devastation wreaked upon their fellow athletes, families and supporters in Boston less than one week ago.

     But the reason I find the sight of the London Marathon so personally moving is because I ran in the London Marathon in 2001 and the sight of it on the TV each year brings back all the incredible memories of the day.

     I remember deciding to take part; my abject dismay when I failed to gain a place in the ballot; that dismay translated to sheer joy when I secured a place to run for the National Autism Society with an undertaking to raise at least £1,200 (I raised more!); the training throughout the long, dark days of Winter; the knee injury which threatened but thankfully did not jeopardise my 'race' on the day; the extraordinary magic, spirit and atmosphere of the day itself.

     Though you are but a poxy 'fun runner,' the event organisers treat you like a pro: like a proper athlete, even if you happen to be wearing a red telephone kiosk or have come dressed as Mr Silly.

     You find yourself, as a result, thinking of it genuinely as a 'race'.

     I could have walked faster than I 'ran,' on the points of pain that my feet became, but running was everything. I was determined not to stop once and I didn't. I staggered in at 4 hours 44 minutes and 40 seconds. And I felt like a hero.

     I even overtook a real hero, Olympian god Sir Steve Redgrave, on Birdcage Walk, in the run-up to the finish.

     True, he had stopped to be interviewed by Sky TV at the time but, still, I came in ahead of him.

     Taking part and raising the money I did, combined to make the Marathon far and away one of the best days of my life and certainly the proudest.

     But the reason it moves me to this day is the sight, sound and memory of the crowds of well-wishers who line the route and cheer you on, every inch of the way.

     Total strangers, shouting out their encouragement, clapping you, cheering you, waving, calling out, 'well done,' urging you on.

     No-one had prepared me for that. It choked me up frequently on the route itself.

     And there they were again today.

21.04.2013
~~~~~





Poppies, Cowdrove Hill
Time Please! 
The winning Australian exhibit at The 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show
No Nettles at Chelsea
Myrtle in the Man-shed
Dog Fox, Lady Boxer 
Poor, kind Mrs Harris
Working From Home

In The Dark

Posted by Deborah Courtnell

     We had a lovely Sunday  lunch at the house of some friends in Stockbridge yesterday and I sat next to a man who works at Moorfields, the famous eye hospital in London.

     This got me thinking about vision and in particular about the sight test I had last week to check the health of my eyes for continued contact lens use and ensure my prescription hasn't changed.

     I've been short-sighted since I was 12 and so I've had a zillion eye tests. I always find a session at the optician distinctly whacky in tone;  a bit Heath Robinson,  what with all the gizmos and gadgetry they have in their dark little rooms.

     Most people nowadays have a fairly clear, better than rudimentary understanding of their bodies, of what goes where and why and how it all joins together be it an arm or knee or bladder. And we have a grasp of the procedures of medical diagnosis and repair whether through drugs or surgery or both.

     Thanks to Holby City I can say I am something of a medical expert.

      From the comfort of the sofa I can recommend people for CT scans and 'full bloods'. I can spot an ectopic pregnancy around a corner and I usually diagnose the weekly parade of ailments on Holby within seconds of their admission to AAU and the charms of consultant Michael Spence.

     In fact Shedley and I compete to be the first to make a diagnosis  but I'm confident that my surgical skills are more advanced than his and if, called upon, I'm reasonably certain I could intubate him in a flash, transplant his kidneys laparascopically and perform open heart by-pass surgery on him and fix a bleed.

     But his eyes and the esoteric science of optometry remain a complete mystery to me.

     Of course, if you ask, and I always ask a lot of questions which I think riles them a bit, the optician will tell you what test he or she is about to perform on your own eyeball but that still leaves you in the dark as to the how of the thing.

     And boy are you in the dark at the optician's.

     It's really a very odd concept. When you go and see your GP, you dash in for ten minutes, mostly sit politely on chairs across from each other and converse under bright lights or in broad daylight. You probably already know him or her but in any event you address them as 'doctor' thereby retaining a degree of formality and a slight and comforting distance.

     Whereas the optician, who will most likely be a complete stranger to you  (I haven't seen the same optician twice in ten years) will insist you call him Stan or Bert or Alison; will hang out with you in the dark for some 40 minutes during which time he will mostly loom over you, frequently getting so up close and personal he can smell the skinny cappuccino on your breath and you can count the hairs in his nose and worse. Really very weird.

     Last week I had a nice lady optician. She asked me to read the letters on the wall and, as we hadn’t met before, I read the very large  ones first to impress my intelligence and capacity upon her and demonstrate that, in an emergency, I can read very large letters very slowly out loud.

     She was noticeably  underwhelmed by that, so I had a go at some smaller ones and then some really titchy ones which I reeled off very fast so she wouldn't be embarrassed by my mistakes.

     I placed my chin on the white plastic chin-holding device and looked up, down and sideways till tears came and I stared for an eternity into a machine that looked like it had been invented on the set of Star Wars but was actually, she said,  measuring the curvature of my eyeball which made me feel like a planet.

     Then she came at me with orange stuff.

     I delayed her approach with a diversionary tactic involving a question about night-blindness in one eye but she persisted, saying the orange stuff was going to drip and stain her hand and her clothes so I generously allowed her to complete her advance and squirt it in my eyes.

     I always arrive at the opticians feeling together and breezy and leave feeling ragged and exhausted.

     I mean it's like sitting an exam – you're asked all these questions and you feel you have to give the right answers but sometimes it's genuinely hard to know if the left circle on the red square is actually sharper and clearer than the right circle on the green or is simply blacker and thicker and therefore only pretending to be clearer.

     Someone should write a really forensic Holby City about opticians with eye operations and enormous close-ups, so we can better get to grips with the machinery of optometry, gain an insight into the motivation and techniques of a typical optician and discover precisely how our eyeballs work.
15.04.2013
~~~~~



Because the Woods Are Scary
Surrey Hills
But, I Am Not A Mote
I Love the M3
I Love the M3
Eggs, by Floyd
The Good Workman 

Darling Buds of April

Posted by Deborah Courtnell


     10.45 am: It’s tomorrow.

     Just back from a walk up on Stockbridge Down.

     Instant weather report:
Dry
Warm.
Sunny.
BUDS...*

14.04.2013
~~~~~


I Love the M3
I Love the M3
Beam Me Up
Egg and Spam
Green Mud
Dear Councillor Gibson 
Marathon memories
Blowing My Trumpet 

The Jaded Day

Posted by Deborah Courtnell

     We were foolishly expecting sunshine and warmer weather this weekend but the rain hasn't let up all day.

     I don't mind. It's a jaded kind of a Saturday; the kind of Saturday after the Friday evening before, a good Friday evening spent in the Three Cups Inn where it never rains.

     I went for a run with the Myrtle-dog this morning. We were out for about 40 minutes in a drizzle so fine it was less like being rained upon and more like passing though a vapour.

     Myrtle seemed to enjoy it. She maintained a pleasingly consistent and very elegant fast trot, like those ponies you see pulling a trap with a single skinny boy at the reins, going at quite a lick without ever breaking into a canter.

     I baked her special treats for her this morning and she  saw me stuff a bag of them into my pocket before we left. Every ten minutes or so she butted her blunt little muzzle against my thigh demanding a snack.

     When I'm out with her like that, enjoying how spirited and agile she is, how quizzy and interested in everything and everyone she is, how lightening fast are her reactions, I cannot grasp the reality of her situation.

     I cannot get my head around the bald truth that she is not a well dog at all but is operating on impaired kidneys and recovering from a mercifully brief recurrence of the Pancreatitis which afflicted her two months ago and flared mysteriously again last Monday, prompting yet another dash to the vets.

     Midday: Shedley and I go down to the Marsh with the other two dogs. The drizzle, or 'mizzle' as Shedley likes to call it, has turned to steady rain.

     The marsh is deserted. Uncanny. It’s more like a wet weekend in January not mid-April with the school Summer term about to get underway.

     I look hard but there’s barely a single bud to be seen on a single tree; trees and hedgerows alike are as skeleton-bare as mid-Winter, bar the odd sprig of white/pink blossom, incongruous as a bride in a meringue dress at a funeral.

     Long overdue Spring must be due any-day-now. Any minute. Change is imminent. And I don’t just mean the weather.

     The house behind us is up for sale, the doctor and his wife having relocated to a nursing home. Sure as night follows day, with the sale of such a valuable, sizeable plot will come talk of development.

     This time next year who knows what I will see out of this window. Not just trees and birds and sky and garden I suspect.

     Meanwhile, the speculation about a mooted purpose-built car park and a residents' parking scheme for Stockbridge intensifies.

     Each day that passes without a concrete plan being formally proposed, sees Whisper and Rumour rushing to fill the void.

     Increasingly wild and peremptory suggestions pop up out of the blue and are bandied about. Neighbours the length and breadth of the High Street look with trepidation at  hitherto undistinguished parcels of land close to their homes over which the eyes of councillors and bureaucrats now hungrily rove.

     No-one is safe.

     The site of the former workhouse, slap-bang next door to us, on the village's frayed edge, is the latest favourite.


    All of this mounting seasonal and municipal tension contributed no doubt to the angry mood at a public meeting on Thursday. The meeting was  held to discuss a proposal to build 46 new houses at the Western end of the village.

     We didn't make it on the day but first-hand reports tell of Stockbridge Town Hall being packed to the gunnels and seething with antagonism towards the developers who struggled to be heard.

     Sitting here in my attic eyrie watching the rain come down against the big window, I have a feeling of mild foreboding. It's as though not only Spring but everything is momentarily stalled, locked. We're held in a dank, grey suspension ahead of what? Some vast calamity triggered by a man with possibly the scariest haircut on earth? The kind of event that, in days and months to come, might see people looking back, shaking their heads and saying, 'To think of it! Why, we never knew, could never have imagined, never saw it coming.'

     Well, ‘I for one won’t think about it today. I’ll think about it tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.’ Rumour has it the sun might even shine.

13.04.2013

~~~~~



Silhouetted against an uncertain sky
Dark April

Dark and Gothic, just how I like my trees
Into the woods

The wooded corner, Marsh Court Lane
A moody sky




Poppies, Cowdrove Hill
Time Please! 
The winning Australian exhibit at The 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show
No Nettles at Chelsea

Going Fishing

Posted by Deborah Courtnell

     Small But Exceedingly Mighty, my five year old nephew, is coming for the day tomorrow. He and I are going to go fishing together.

     We tried this once before and had enormous fun plonking about in the river up to our knees.

     We didn't catch a thing with our little black nets. We surprised the occasional pebble and gave some weeds a bad fright, but nothing that could really be termed a fish.

     I've heard that fishing should be done in an atmosphere of quiet tranquillity which I take to mean STEALTH.

Golden Day

Posted by Deborah Courtnell

     A lovely day with Wise Father and Beloved Mother and two Anglo-Maltese couples who are among their oldest and closest friends and have known me since my pre-existence as the faintest of twinkles in a faraway look in the Wise Father's left eye.

     There's something rather nice about having been known that long. It gives you a context; puts your life and the worries and problems of today into perspective.

     Somehow, being around people who remember me as a splodge of baby flesh, is rather comforting. It's a source of encouragement and hope.
   
     Back then, I faced the tricky processes of learning to walk and talk, pee in a pot, read and write. Ok, I’m still struggling with at least one of those skills... but hey, I mastered the rest. More or less.

     Who knows what I might still achieve if I focus and concentrate hard. What’s that thing they always say? ‘It's never too late.’

 I'm contemplating a mid-life career change.

     I might become an artist or a fashion designer. I haven't decided yet.

     After lunch I took photos and captured forever a bride and her two bridesmaids, one on either side of her: all still married, all still friends, 50 + years later.

07.04.2013
~~~~~





I Love the M3
I Love the M3
Bradley Wiggins claiming Team GB's 7th Gold medal, 1st August 2012
High Vizzers
Beam Me Up
Egg and Spam
Eggs, by Floyd
The Good Workman 

Being of Sound Heart

Posted by Deborah Courtnell

     Snail mail which arrives only once a day and frequently not until 4 pm,  is usually comprised of junk mail, bills, more junk mail, yet more junk mail and occasionally lovely postcards and charming thank you notes for long lazy lunchtimes or evenings deliciously spent eating and drinking with friends,  past-times so entirely pleasurable that, really, you should write and thank your friends for coming and making it all worthwhile. Oh yes, and more junk mail.

     Today, most unusually I got a piece of junk mail that I opened and actually appreciated.

     It's a letter from the British Heart Foundation thanking me for 'taking the time and trouble' to donate my items (books, clothes etc.) to them for sale in their shops and informing me that they have raised a further £12.55 in Gift Aid on the back of the sales.

     Thank you British Heart Foundation. Thank you Margaret Robinson Gift Aid Administrator. You made my day. I feel like a good person.

06.04.2013
~~~~~


Bradley Wiggins claiming Team GB's 7th Gold medal, 1st August 2012
High Vizzers
Beam Me Up
Egg and Spam
Eggs, by Floyd
The Good Workman 
Poppies, Cowdrove Hill
Time Please! 
The Test in February
Going Fishing