Another Christmas Letter this time for December 2015
We have had a comparatively quiet 2015, no book published, no property sold and no exotic holidays. We are settling in at Catkins, but the work we want to do to extend the dining room into the conservatory has still not happened – there have been difficulties with finding a builder who can do the work at a price we think is reasonable. In the end, the builder who did the work on Old Venn for us has stepped into the breach and we hope the work will start in January when we are away.
We did get away but only for quite short breaks; four days in Madrid visiting museums and eating some great meals. A week in Brittany at the HPB site Hilguy Manor; walking and eating. In September we went to Morocco for a week courtesy of Saga – we were not the youngest. The holiday was a mixture of gardens, art and guess what, eating. This time we went to a cookery class as well.
Margaret began to wonder what had happened to her Australian penfriend, Carol. Facebook came to the rescue; Margaret posted the story of the friendship and photographs of two of the envelopes. The post was shared over 30,000 times and resulted in the discovery that Carol had been living in the UK for the last forty years! We were able to arrange a meeting at her daughter’s home in Somerset.
The trip to France wasn’t quite our last holiday with Rudi. We went to Cornwall for two days to see a production at the Minack Theatre. The play at the Minack was rubbish but the venue is amazing. Fortunately, the weather was good and we had another couple of days doing some of the SW Coastal Path.
We had a beach hut In Exmouth for six months; it was the subject of a demolition order. Although the weather was not wonderful we went about twice a week for coffee and stayed for a couple of hours reading and watching the kite surfers out in the estuary.
If you are not a dog lover just skip this paragraph. One of the reasons we have had a quiet year is that Rudi was becoming much frailer, although he could still do a five-mile walk provided there were no hills. Indeed at the end of May, the vet had described him as remarkable when he went for a checkup. However, at the end of July, he had a number of fits which left him unable to stand so we made the heartbreaking decision to have him put down. We were both very upset by the loss of our lovely dog; he had provided us with loving companionship for nearly thirteen years. We still miss him.
Filling the gap left by Rudi, we have tried to keep walking every day and we did a few things we had put off because of him. One was a trip to Lundy; we had a fabulous if a rather long day – a two-hour boat ride each way. We also went to stay at a hotel in Rock that doesn’t take dogs and walked more of the Coast Path.
Margaret’s new book ‘The Fatal Step’ is in the final throes of editing with her writing buddy and will hopefully be published next year. Alan continues his fight with nature in the vegetable patch. The fruit bushes, however, are doing well and we had a glut of raspberries at the end of the summer.
We have volunteered to foster Guide Dogs who are being rehomed and Alan has volunteered for the Samaritans. He is still training at the moment and that has interfered with his singing, although he is still a member of Chagford Singers and he has been taking much-needed singing lessons.
We promised ourselves that when Rudi died we would take the opportunity of a long trip abroad and so we are off on 13th January to Singapore for four days and then Australia. We are staying in Sydney, outside Hobart and in Melbourne having arranged property exchanges with our London flat. Then two nights at Uluru (Ayers Rock) before making our way to Perth to stay with friends. We return to the UK on 29th February.
Our next task then will be to find another dog.
The book has not yet been published but hopefully next year and it will be called Reluctant Consent I think.
The round robins sent at Christmas usually provoke groans as the writer’s family’s achievements are enumerated in great detail. Mine however have a loyal following as I describe the ups and downs of our lives. We have always been ready to laugh at ourselves and we hope our friends laugh with us. I thought you might like to read some of my earlier letters in the run up to Christmas 2017.
If 2015 was quiet, the same cannot be said of 2016. It started with the sad news that Margaret’s rediscovered penfriend Carol died on Boxing Day. Margaret was pleased she had made the effort to find Carol and that they got to meet.
Planning and packing for the trip to Singapore and Australia took up the first two weeks of January. Margaret hates packing and there was a lot of huffing and puffing before she finally made her choice of what to put in her suitcase. The trip worked really well, our flights were all on time and staying in other peoples’ homes gave us a glimpse of the Aussie way of life.
That was particularly true in Perth where we were staying with our lovely friends Bev and John. We got up early to go swimming in the sea, notwithstanding sharks, and then after drying off, coffee at some local café. It was John’s birthday while we were there and we celebrated with dinner at the Royal Perth Yacht Club which had a curious outcome. One of the guest was quizzing Alan about where he worked in the UK and he said Sutton, to which the other guest said one of the State MP’s was from Sutton. Of course it was Bob Johnson who had been the Mayor of Sutton before he emigrated. Alan contacted him and we had lunch in the Parliament building with him and his wife Sue.
The work on the house did not begin while we were away. The conservatory was knocked down at the end of May. We sold it on ebay. The work finished in the last week of November. Rather longer than we expected. We are delighted with the new room and the canopy over the front door. Currently we are waiting for our decorator to finish the painting, new furniture to arrive and the books, tables etc to be recovered from storage. Hopefully we will be using it by Christmas.
We volunteered to foster Guide Dogs for the Blind while we looked for another dog. We had Siba for a week over the New Year and then Polly. Polly had been retired early because of her health and we had her for two months in order for her to see the vets and to organise the best treatment for her. Her teeth were in a very bad way and she had twelve removed. There is real pleasure in watching a dog revert to being a dog rather than a living guide and we are full of admiration for the way these animals suppress many of their natural instincts. Polly left to go to the IOW where we hope she is enjoying her retirement.
The week she left we adopted Lily, a six year old Springer with a few issues. We were given a long behaviourists report on her which was almost unintelligible. We decided the only way to deal with her problems was to go back to basics. So Thursday night is Dog Training Club at the Scout Hut in Exeter – chosen because the floors are washable and therefore suitable for small boys and dogs. We have enjoyed going and Lily has passed her Kennel Club Bronze good citizens award. We still haven’t sorted out all her problems!
We went to Cornwall to the Minack again. It poured down but we were well prepared and with raincoats and a picnic blanket the wrong way up we kept dry. The play/musical had a terrible plot but the actors were all students at the Central School of Drama – some amazing talented youngsters. The other trip was to Dunster on the edge of Exmoor. We stayed at the Lutteral Arms which is very dog friendly. The weather was warm enough for us to have breakfast in the garden every day. From the garden we could walk out into the park of the castle and the woods beyond.
In September we spent a week at the HPB property at St Simeon on the edge of the Champagne region. There are so few tourists the locals are friendly, almost unheard of in France. Lovely cottage and a great swimming pool as well.
Back in Devon we hired a beach hut at Budleigh Salterton. We went every day as the weather was very warm. So warm we both went swimming in the sea and not in wet suits! It’s the nearest thing to having a holiday without having to pack a suitcase. Margaret loved that.
It was the Budleigh Literary Festival during the time we had the beach hut. Some very eminent writers were speaking all lured to Devon by the patron of the Festival Hilary Mantel. Margaret introduced herself to Hilary as they have the same degree Bachelor of Jurisprudence from Sheffield University and they chatted about how they ended up doing this rather unusual course.
October we set off for St Petersburg again with our friends Rachel and Michael. This time flying and staying in a city centre, at the Astoria. We can recommend the hotel for its location and the staff who not only spoke very good English and were very helpful but also had a sense of humour. We spent two days with a guide, Liudmila, doing the tourist route, but we had one day to wander round the city, trying to get a taste of life in a museum piece. So many mansions all turned into Exhibition Spaces – what does one do with redundant palaces? We ate in local restaurants, some good, one terrible, and very expensive wine.
Alan has joined the Exmouth Choir; a much shorter journey than driving to Chagford every week. He is now a fully fledged member of the Samaritans which takes up a few hours every week, including some night shifts. Coming back from his 12-3am shift after a weekend of heavy rains he misjudged the flooding of the River Clyst (car came through the water on the opposite carriage way) and wrote off the Volvo. He wasn’t hurt only wet feet. At least the decision to change cars has been made for him.
Margaret’s next novel is being rewritten but she has published on Amazon a short book of the stories from her blog. The book is called Trials and Errors and is available as a paperback or on Kindle.
The vote to leave the EU and the election of Trump as the next President has left us feeling uncertain as to what the future hold. Keep calm and Carry On is probably the only approach.
The highlight for me was the talk by crime writer Sophie Hannah. Her talk was entitled The Nuts and Bolts of Crime Writing and she did indeed talk about her own writing techniques. She starts with an irresistible plot hook, usually some psychological obsession. There is often a strong component of real life. Her latest book Did you see Melody came about because of an incident when she was given the wrong room in a hotel which was already occupied by someone else.
Details matter, such as choice of names for characters. As the new novel is set in the USA she chose a name which was pronounced differently in the UK. The inspiration for the book came as a result of a case which was reported widely in the USA but not in the UK.
She is a great planner and writes the whole book in note form before she does her first draft. Provided the events she describes can happen at least once she was ready to use that for her plot. She described how when she was searching for an agent and publisher, she received advice about how unlikely her plots were and she was almost ready to give up when her husband suggested she tried a man who would just say yes or no. So she did. He said yes and sold the book before she’d signed anything.
She wasn’t interested in cataloguing urban crime. She didn’t like red herring, but preferred the reader to mislead themselves. There are those Poirot books as well and she told us how she came to be asked to write those by Agatha Christie Ltd. Perhaps that’s another post.
She was an interesting speaker, her talk highlighted by personal reminisces, often very funny.
There is always a good exhibition somewhere in London, often too many. A trip to the Royal Academy on Picadilly is usually worthwhile. We wanted to see the Matisse exhibition this time. How fascinating. There was not an enormous number of painting but they were exhibited alongside some of the objects he used for his work. The idea was to encourage the viewer to look at the objects the way an artist might. I love his use of colour and textiles and this exhibition was no exception. I’ve often thought that if I was asked what books I would want on my Desert Island, a copy of Matisse’s work would be the first thing I’d chose.
There was also an exhibition of the work of Charles Tunnicliffe in the same building.
He was a Royal Academician best known for his illustrations for books. Think Tarka the Otter. (Memo to self – must read.) What became more interesting was copies of the cards he did for Brooke Bond Tea. The cards were in the packets of loose leaf tea and one could send away for a book in which to stick the cards. Seeing those cards and the book brought back all sorts of memories. I’d collected the Birds of Britain. We started talking to the room steward who told us his had collected the Birds of Africa as he had lived in Uganda as a child. He showed us the Ladybird series of books ‘What to Look for in Winter’, and it’s companion volumes. Tunnicliffe was an amazing artist and deserves to be remembered.
I am going to digress from the excitement of London and tell you about the sleepy town of Budleigh Salterton. I say sleepy as everything is closed by seven o’clock. However for a few days each year it is alive with talks on literature, biography and memoirs, politics and power. I didn’t go to all the talks but every day I went to something.
Grammar has never been my strong point and I hoped a talk by David Crystal might give me some tips on how to get it right. But, no we were treated to a thesis on the verb ‘to be’ or perhaps ‘not to be.’ Later that day Hilary Mantel ( the festival’s president ) talked about writing history as fiction and the journey she has been on as her novels were transposed to the theatre and television.
The next day I went to a workshop on writing a family memoir. I was hoping to get some help in finding sources for a possible novel about my grandfather. We did get some information about that and I hope I can pursue writing a fictionalised account of my family in due course. Then a look at contemporary fiction Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land and Paula Cocozza’s How to be Human. The talk centred around the issue of keeping a novel truly contemporary when it can take a few years to write. In the evening we had the privilege of hearing the lawyer Dr Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, talking about her experiences at the hands of her country’s government.
By Friday morning we had moved from writing about the present to writing about the past as Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent) and Tim Pears (The Horseman) talked about their novels. They talked about how their stories developed. Sara Perry said for her the facts served the story and she kept her research to a minimum as it was second to the impetus of the story. The sense of place was important to both writers. Perry described her book as a love letter to Essex, the county where she was born. Tim Pears was brought up in Devon and he said he relied on his memory of the place.
Lucy Hughes Hallet who is well known as a biographer talked about her novel Peculiar Ground. The novel was very character driven and she liked to have them slightly on the outside of the events as that gave them perspective. Then we were back to memoir and two different authors writing about their family life and in particular their fathers. The books were Keggie Carew’s Dadland and Miranda Doyle’s A Book of Untruths.
On the political front a talk by Bridget Kendall on the Cold War. Not only did she provide her own perspective on the events of that era but also, as a result of making a programme for Radio 4, from those who experienced it first hand. Finally Alan Johnson talking about his life in politics as an MP and a Minister in the Blair/Brown governments.
Next year the Festival takes place from Wednesday 19th to Sunday 23 September.
One of the exciting things about the summer months in London is the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. We haven’t been to a concert there for quite a long time. It was so hot on the last occasion we left before the end. This summer we didn’t have that problem — it just hasn’t been that hot.
We hadn’t booked in advance so we took a chance and went to whatever we could get tickets for. It proved a blessing. The first concert was a French choir singing Monteverdi’s Vespers. I love these pieces for their mathematical precision and the music was enhanced by the choreography. It began with the singers facing away from the audience, the backless dresses of the ladies showing Gallic sophistication. Then as the evening proceeded the choir divided and moved around the stage and then regrouped. Soloists peeled off and sang from different parts of the auditorium, adding another dimension to the music.
Three weeks later we went to a concert by the BBC Orchestra and Singers of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. The Resurrections. The orchestra was augmented by extra timpani – five sets of drums I think- and by the addition of brass instruments. Big choirs filling that huge bowl with sound. The music was visceral and I was close to tears in the final movements.
Thank you to the BBC.
We had always wanted to visit Carlyle’s House in Cheyne Row Chelsea and this summer we finally got there. When Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane moved there it was in an undesirable part of Chelsea. They paid the princely sum of £35 per year. The house is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public. https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/carlyles-house It has been kept much as it was during his time – very Victorian. Virtually anybody of importance in 1830/40 visited him and his wife, including Dickens, Robert Browning and John Ruskin His books are very rarely read today, but he was the founder of the London Library and instrumental in the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery.
Today this is one of the most expensive parts of London but many of the houses are simply investments, not homes and a large number stay dark and uninhabited from one year to the next. When I first moved to London I lived in the next road, Lawrence Street, in a very similar house. I loved this part of London.
One of the pleasures for me of London is the unexpected meeting with someone of interest. We were upstairs in the house when the warden came into the room. She lives in the house and I asked her if she felt haunted by the presence of such an influential man and his equally important wife. She said she did feel their influence. We went on to talk about the area. She remembered the wine merchant’s in Justice Walk and the Cross Keys Public House before it became a gastro pub. The houses were all occupied; a mixture of young and old, city lawyers and bohemian artists. The nearby Kings Road the place to be for fashion. We reminisced for a while, before leaving one of my favourite places.