The Book of De-lights

One of my earliest Christmas memories is of an advent calendar in the shape of the town of Bethlehem. Every day I opened a new window and in the evening the calendar was propped up against a lamp. The light shone through the opened windows, lighting up the little houses and alleyways. I think I loved it so much that it was brought out year after year.

My love of lights and flames has carried on and I am never happier than when curled up with candles flickering. The Christmas lights that people started putting on in mid-November may have been OTT but blimey we needed it and seeing the colours twinkling against the dark did me the world of good.

The Box of Delights was a major piece for me this year. I have ordered another copy as mine – the original 1985 TV version – has disappeared. I remember veyr clearly this being one that I always think of as having a yellow spine, and it having a beige one. Despite this memory being clear so strong I remember LAST TIME I looked for it seeking in vain for its yellow spine, the book remains lost, so I’ve ordered another in the same binding from eBay. Alas, a blog post I stumbled across tells me that this edition was abridged. The thing is, I know the book so well that I’m not sure I could cope with reading a different version of it. There’s one line Kay says in the book – “Poor, beautiful owls” – which is completely rewritten, losing its meaning and nuance – “or even owls” (I had a small issue with this as I liked stoats more than owls). I haven’t read the book for at least 25 years, but I watched the episode again this Christmas and, again, the line jarred.

Isn’t it incredible how rich memory is? When I watch The Box I remember not only the music but how it felt hearing that music come on. These were pre-Sky days, pre even VHS days, when you watched what was on, or missed out. It would have been devastating to have missed an episode, and sitting down to watch this with the family was a regular ritual. We would have crumpets with golden syrup on them. We had a toasting fork we held up to the fire (yes, really!). The things ones mind associates with programmes, books, songs, etc is bizarre. I made a dress for my toy dog Pippa out of one of mum’s old vests as we sat watching Oliver Twist, and I wasn’t able to put it on her because Oliver Twist scared me and made me feel funny.

I remember every single thing in The Box. I remember being terrified of Pouncer and the scrounger; feeling sick at Peter scrobbled in a boat with a blanket over his head.

I remember the word “rumpaged” and “tosser to my kick”, I remember muffins versus teacakes and bacon rind and the boy’s head telescoping into his body; I remember the posset, and asking mum to make me one. These memories come flooding back, glorious and unashamed in technicolour, and it strikes me that the older I get the better my memory gets. For things which happened long ago, I mean – I am appalling at remembering to buy things I don’t write on a shopping list, to call someone back, the date of an appointment even when I have written it in my diary and looked at it the day before. I can’t even remember the time when I look at my watch and have to remind myself to look again. But I remember the heat of those flames on my cheek as I got just a little too close to them. Watching the first special effects which seemed so magical and, even now, when we take such wizardry for granted, they make my heart flutter. Envying the magnificent toys given to the children at the Bishop’s party. Thinking that if I were Kay I would have hung onto the broom rather than letting it sweep me off the stairs (all things you will only have any idea about if you’ve seen the TV programme – I recommend you do, it’s on Britbox at the moment).

So while my memory may not be getting better at remembering useful things, it’s improving hugely at remembering things which made me happy. Like little flickering lights. Find your book of de-lights.

I need to confess. I kicked off COVID.

It would have been easier for me to sit here quietly and let everyone blame the bloke who ate that bat, but I need to strap on my big girl pants and admit: it was me. My copy of The Mirror and the Light arrived the day before lockdown. “Oh poo,” I muttered to myself, “I really want to reread Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies first, but I don’t have time.” With those fateful words, the path for our nation was set; I woke up the next day to all… the… time… in… the… world. (Shakespeare could have made a stonking play out of this.)

Rereading is a pleasure we don’t often allows ourselves. It’s odd really because we frequently cook our favourite meals, wear lucky pants, or go on walks we could do backwards: not for the pleasure of something new, but because we know how happy each revisit makes us. It’s like curling up in the lap of the your comfortable armchair. Yet a reread seems to be a bit of a waste of time when there are so many other books out there to discover. I get a bit breathless with panic when I think of All The Books there are which I haven’t read, and that I don’t have enough seconds in my minutes in my hours in my days in my years in my life to finish them all. Normally, the library feeds my reading habit; 90% of my reading comes from it. I continually keep a list of books which are recommended to me, or I find in the bibliography of another book, and use the handy online reservation system (in the bad old days I’d easily spend £8 a month on reservations). As soon as I return one set, another is ready to be picked up. A friend has lent me one. I’ve been given one for my birthday. There are shining pristine volumes still waiting to be opened, smelling of new paper and fresh ink, on my bookshelf. Unlike a Christmas card list, I don’t get that smug, satisfied “all done for another year” feeling; I’ve finished one book and I pick up another. But March 2020 brought reprieve: the world was put on hold. So, with the library shut, I turned to old friends.

Firstly, obviously, I read Wolf Hall and Bodies again. Diarmaid MacCulloch mentions in his biography of Thomas Cromwell that so little of Cromwell’s own literature survives, we don’t really know what he sounds like: Hilary Mantel therefore doesn’t write in the first person, nor does she use his name but she watches from the court sidelines as so many did, silently observing “him”. I know this way of writing irritates some readers, and that if I suggested a re-read improved the experience their eyes would roll back in their head (who has time for that?!?). But a reread normally allows you to take a book more slowly, to revel in it, like holding a Malteser in your thumb and forefinger, nibbling off the chocolate one tiny bit at a time before popping it in your mouth and letting it melt lazily on your tongue.

Ahem.

When you already know what happens in a book (and yes yes we all know what happens at the end, hush) you take more time over it. You’re not racing to the end to see how it develops and you can appreciate more the way it develops: the words, the craft, the little snippets you might have missed which make the story whole. In these books Mantel, like Shakespeare, doesn’t do anything by accident, or without thinking. Some people have complained The Mirror was too long – all I can think is that Cromwell’s fall came in so short a time it would have been painful for it to have unravelled on the page any more quickly. His exhaustive relentless work and the rise it allowed him was cut off within a few short years. The length of this final volume allows him the respect his King refused him. Plus I suspect Mantel had some difficulty letting him go; I certainly did. I was dragging out the last few pages, knowing there was no reprieve, and felt bereft when I got to the end. I had lost a friend. Another of my very inappropriate crushes.

Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire chronicles got me through 2004, which was the worst year of my life to date (sorry 2020, you’re not even in the top 5). After discovering the Backlisted podcast I decided to revisit the romances: Bella, Harriet, Imogen, Octavia, Prudence, Lisa & Co and Emily. It’s a very strange feeling reading as an adult books you read over & over again when you were about 12. First of all I felt real affection for the characters, the storylines, and the little snippets I remembered so well: jokes I didn’t get; scenarios I was confused by; lines which appeared in my own teenage “work”. I wistfully longed for the simple days when to me people sleeping together literally meant sleeping in the same bed and I couldn’t understand why such a big deal was made about it. My favourite heroine will always be Prudence, going to visit her boyfriend’s eccentric family and winding up staying for weeks; but readng these books again I felt a bit uncomfortable too. The heroes are often pretty unpleasant. They are rude and aggressive. They treat women (and men) appallingly. There are scenes in which women are threatened or hit and a couple of very rapey moments to say the least. Later in my own writing (that 42 chapter epic I never actually finished) men (boys!) who treated women cruelly were the attractive ones. Men used women for sex rather than it being something that grown ups consented to and enjoyed equally. I will always love and treasure these novels, but I wince at some of the scenes now.

The biggest problem with Jilly Cooper’s novels however is that they made me believe in things which never, ever happen in real life. Nowadays I know full well the Mark Darcys and Daniel Cleavers of this world never fallen in love with Bridget Joneses and that happy endings, to quote Fen in Riders, aren’t like “the Pullein Thompson novels”; but there’s always a bit of you that hopes. That hope is never quite extinguished because you know these characters so well you feel that these romanic crazy things happened to a friend. So you think maybe, just maybe, that’ll happen to you too.

As an example: on one of the hottest days of the year, when lockdown had eased, I went to a friend’s for a dip in their river (or their bit of it anyway). They were away so I changed into my bikini in their stable and felt comfortable walking through the fields to the shore carrying my library book, anticipating an evening of leisurely swimming and reading while dragonflies danced around my head and frogs croaked out eine kleine nachtmusik. It was a horribly close evening, hot and sticky, with a grey sky so full so rain it was like walking under a bladder. A tiny bit of me knew this was a foolish thing to do, but I had come this far and I slid into the water determinedly, just as the rain started. At first there is no denying it was very pleasant: the water was warm, the rain was cool, and a swan glided past approvingly. Within a few minutes though the shower became a downpour. When a particularly fat raindrop nearly pushed me under, I decided to get out and shelter under a canopy while the storm “died off” because we all know that storms, like toddlers having a tantrum, blow themselves out within mnutes.

Twenty minutes later it became clear this wasn’t going to happen. I was soaked to the (almost all exposed) skin and very, very cold. I was also a bit unnerved. Being in the middle of nowhere, in a howling gale, with woods clustered around me, clad only in my bikini and Fitflops, made me feel vulnerable and reminded me of all those woman-in-isolated-situation-comes-to-sticky-end books I’d read on Kindle Unlimited. I decided the rain wasn’t going to ease off, curled myself over my library book like a question mark to protect it, and gritted my teeth before fitflopping off through the fields in what was definitely the worst storm I have ever been in. It was so rainy and windy I couldn’t see straight so I couldn’t go quickly; thunder was rolling, lightning flashing and sheep baaing in terror (of me or the storm I am not sure). Zeus was reclining on his cloud, laughing and throwing down spears of rain so painful at one point I admit to yelling, “You’re doing this on purpose” at him, wherever he was. I got a thorn stick stuck under my fitflop and had to stop to pull it out, breaking my sandal in the process.

Still, a very small bit of me was convinced that out of nowhere would appear a landrover would appear driven by a ruddy farm hand, or a surly gamekeeper in a Barbour. He’d raise his eyebrows, gurn at me in a “gerroff ma laaaand” way, and haul me into dry warmth smelling of unplucked pheasants and labradors. His windscreen would steam up as I dried. I would be humiliated, I would grudgingly thank him, he would make some comment about stupid floozies, we would part on poor terms, but we would definitely wind up married within 9 months. I know this happens. It happened to Harriet and Imogen and Prudence and even horrible Octavia. I baked biscuits for the local Co Op staff during lockdown, I registered as an NHS responder, I’ve volunteered to be a COVID vaccine guinea pig, I donate £8 a month to a charity for trees – I deserve this.

But no. I had to continue my lonely hobble back to the stables, taking small comfort in the fact that nobody had seen me (as far as I knew anyway). I decided to sit on a plastic bag to drive myself home as there was no point getting my dry clothes wet so I put the heating up high and turned the car around. Two feet down the drive I’m confronted by a tree – not a branch, not a shrub, an actual tree – which had fallen down over the road. I couldn’t go around it. I couldn’t drive over it. I had no chainsaw. So I had to get out, still wearing a bikini and one sandal, still in the pouring rain, and physically haul the tree into the ditch. It was so heavy I couldn’t physically do this at first and had to break bits off it.

That hope waved its hand again, like the mosquito that will not be swatted. Surely now? Surely? But Willoughby’s horse had shed a shoe. Mellors had run out of fertiliser and nipped to Dobbies’. And Rupert Campbell-Black is by now very happily married (and must be in his 80s – a stretch too far even for me). Suffice to say I went home alone, wet, cold and very cross.

The Anne books are certainly safer reading, and I dived into them next. This was pure joy. Storylines which were as familiar to me as my own are comfort food for the soul. As always, to keep track of what I read, I added them to my Goodreads list and glanced at some of the reviews. It was a bit astonishing, to say the least, to see reviewers rebuking Anne for failing to carry on teaching when she had her children, or sneering at the impossibility of “not wearing stockings to church” being a heinous sin. These books were written 200 years ago: when you read, you have to take into account the readers of yesterday, and the people who wrote for them. Criticising Victorian authors for not being ‘woke’ is like going into a castle and complaining about the lack of central heating or double-glazing. These reviewers put me off Goodreads to be honest and now I’m logging my reading on The Storygraph instead; I was interested to find this article which agreed with me! On Goodreads the reader seems to be king, and little imagination is utilised; that for me isn’t what reading is about. It’s a vital part of me and I want to be in a like-minded space. I felt a bit bruised after reading about Anne not being an outspoken feminist or Gilbert doing less than his fair share of the housework, like a beloved shrine had been desecrated. Time to find another safe space for my favourite passtime.

I grew up with a lot of ye olde books in my life thanks to the well-stacked bookshelves at my grandparents’, so it’s not surprising I also enjoyed the complete What Katy Did series which I reread. It’s not as well known as say Little Women or Anne, but it’s a great trilogy if bordering very slightly on preachy (nowadays, with the beneficience of old age missing from the Goodreaders, I was able to smile fondly at the Society for Suppression of Unladylike Conduct without wrinkling my nose).

Pulling myself back into more contemporary authors, I opened Duma Key, which I think is one of Stephen King’s masterpieces (can one have more than one? If anyone can, it’s King). It is full of human emotion, chilling, hugely original and captivating in its beauty and horror. If you have yet to discover King, it may be a bit mindblowing for your first read but it’s certainly not one you will regret (and no the fact its cover is pink has nothing to do with that, although it certainly is one of the best-looking books on my shelf).

Finally, I ought to give props to new authors: I was surprised by how much I enjoyed J D Kirk who was available on Kindle Unlimited (I got an inevitable free trial: hold out long enough and they’ll give you one too). Normally most stuff I stumble across on there is dross, but these detective stories were both funny and tightly plotted with surprisingly strong characterisation. So, kudos to those orchids growing in a field full of nettles. There are more of them than you’d think, and they deserve recognition.

All this took much longer than it should have done because I’ve got into the irritating habit of researching everything. Every author, every book; I like the backstory, I look for articles about them, I search for other people’s views including blog posts and (well thought out) reviews. This incessant and bordering-on-obsessive researching means that life takes a lot longer than it used to – this whole post has actually taken several months. However can I make it clear to the Plague Gods that I am not asking for more time to do nothing so there is no need to give us another lockdown. Just saying.

The Frontline Walk 2019 – Normandy Beaches

All photos with the ABF logo are by Ed Smith. All the others are by me or other walkers.

I don’t normally take so long to write up epic things which happen to me and it’s 6 months since I embarked on my third 100km walk in aid of the Army Benevolent Fund, this time to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. My life took off in a crazy, crazy way when I came back and I found myself putting off doing anything contemplative. Well, in lockdown one doesn’t have much choice to do anything but contemplate, so here I am, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to actually go through my memories because it was once again a very special event I am privileged to have been part of.

There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to undertake this walk. When I was 15 my parents took me and my brother to Normandy to celebrate 50 years since VE Day. We walked along the beaches. I listened to the stories, stared in awe at the statue of the parachutist on the spire of the church in St Mere Eglise, and fantastised I could still smell fear in a German pillbox (I suspect less prosaically someone had used it as a makeshift loo). But I wasn’t old enough to take in the enormity of the achievement of the Allied soldiers and and the scale of the loss. Going back to it as an adult, knowing so much more about it and having an adult perspective, was very important to me.

I had trained as always but this year had suffered great foot pain despite my new custom-made insoles and walking boots. As the majority of the walk this time was on the road my podiatrist recommended wearing trainers instead. I got a pair fitted and the change was incredible. I went from staggering like The Little Mermaid to bing able to complete my training walks easily. Again the weather was kind to me for many of my treks, and I was able to truly appreciate the beauty of the countryside around me, meeting my dad (who cycled around me like some sort of be-wheeled dervish) at the top of Cleeve Hill which it nearly killed me to ascend. Dad of course shot past me, yelling I’d come the wrong way, and then somehow managed to pedal UP the hill, reaching the top long before I, sweating and cursing, had got there. He hadn’t included the hill in the route he’d written for me but I’ve never believed at looking at maps too often as a watched map never boils. Or something.

I was therefore more or less set for October. My journey to London did not begin well. I returned from work, ready to repack for the nth time, and discovered large puddles of water in my flat from a leaky ceiling I had told my landlords about several months ago! As you can imagine I was a little ball of fury being driven to the train station by my longsuffering friend Tom but having placed a umbrella (only partially open, obviously, for safety’s sake) over my TV and a bucket under the worst leak I just had to try and forget about it. I arrived in London and met my room-mate Sam with whom I had become friends with on the 2018 walk. As the heavens opened, we scuttled across Tower Bridge trying to find restaurant where we were meeting previous walkers for dinner. We had one umbrella between us and avoiding other pedestrians, being able to see little more than the ground immediately in front of us quickly became impossible. We were both soaked to the skin within seconds, and neither of us were particularly adept at navigating, so we decided to hail a taxi. As we told the cabbie about our forthcoming adventure he told us he himself was ex-military and began relating stories of various customers he had driven around. He mentioned he was compiling a book of stories he wanted to publish in aid of a military charity. When he dropped us at the restaurant he refused to take payment for our journey, saying we were doing a good thing. His kindness was touching. I took his number and promised to get in touch with him as I had some contacts in publishing. The last I heard, last month, he had sent his manuscript to the ABF … I really hope that he gets somewhere with it. He deserves to.

It was exciting to see some faces from previous walks, and to greet a few new people who had braved the weather and the nerves to meet us. I looked around the restaurant and felt lucky to be among them: to have met these people I would otherwise have never known existed.

The following day dawned early as always. Meeting at the barracks there was excited chatter and plenty of hugs and rapturous reunions. One walker, Clare, could not join us on the expedition due to her partner’s illness but had come along to wish us well. She accompanied us as far as Kent where she left the coach. It was hard saying goodbye to her, knowing how hard she had trained and fundraised for the event and that she should have been with us.

During the journey to Bayeux we watched The Longest Day. I’d had a film evening to fundraise and shown this on June 6th. Bob Semple, the charity ambassador I had met on 2018’s walk, was generous enough to come to the event and talk about the charity. His softly-spoken story cast a spell on the audience sitting in the warm room and educated everyone on what their money was going towards. Watching it again as we travelled towards the beaches where the film had been set brought great poignancy to it. We arrived at our hotel in France and Sam and I were thrilled to discover we had a bath! I had packed a foot spa but a bath was an undreamt of luxury.

That evening we had a talk from Andy Reid, who had spoken to us so movingly in 2016. It was great to see him and to hear how he has basically dedicated his life to helping others since the ABF put him back on his feet. The room was utterly silent as he talked to us in his matter of fact manner without an ounce of pity or regret; just when I feared my eyes would overflow with emotion he said “And if you get any blisters, don’t come moaning to me” and we exploded into laughter and applause. As always with Andy and the other ABF ambassadors, I came away exploring my own character, wondering if I would ever have an ounce of the bravery, determination and grit displayed by these people. As always, I found myself wanting.

I was cheered though by the comments of Steve Roberts, one of our excellent historians, who I was thrilled to discover was leading us on this event. He had also been on the 2016 and 2018 expeditions and he commented that I had changed a great deal since 2016 becoming more confident and happier in myself. I treasured up this kindness and held it to me like a hot water bottle for when I felt cold and full of doubt. If I have changed – and there is no doubt that the Elly writing this now is totally different to the Elly who wrote 2016’s account – it is in no small part to these mammoth challenges, both physical and emotional.

There wasn’t much time for deep thought however as we went straight to bed, aware of the 0515 alarm waiting for us.

The first stop was St Mere Eglise. In the half-light it was almost impossible to see the church I had gazed at in awe 25 years ago and I felt a little disappointed, but Steve told the story of the parachutists descending to their horror right into the middle of the busy village where inhabitants were trying desperately to put out the fire ravaging their church and you didn’t need to see anything. There was the replica of Marvin Steele suspended from the roof by his parachute. There was the original water pump the villagers had been using to try and put out the fire. We were in the heart of it, hearing the church bell clanging frantically, feeling the heat of the fire and caught up in the pandemonium into which hundreds of parachutists dropped.

We set off for Utah Beach. The countryside we walked through was still and peaceful, shrouded in gentle dawn mist. I could easily imagine how the men, scattered from their various drops, had run around ducking in hedgerows and bushes as they tried to reach their comrades, in light very similar to that we were walking in. The locals had put up posters of soldiers in commemoration and many of the roads were named after the fallen.

We reached the village of St-Martin-de-Varreville where we had our first break and my rather rusty French enabled several of us to use a lady’s compost loo! We then turned onto Utah Beach and set down on the sand.

Because WW2 was not as long ago as WW1 a lot of the walkers had relatives still living, who had shared their stories personally. These walkers had come to retrace the steps of their fathers, grandfathers and uncles. This added real zest and poignancy to the proceedings: we had paid homage in 2016 and 2018 to ancestors, but there were many of us who had had first-hand accounts of D-Day.

It is hard to describe how peaceful the beaches were as the sun rose, unmarked by anything other than shells and pebbles. The sea washed almost reverently over the smooth sand, as if aware of the violent history it was covering.

One of the walkers, Paul, was wearing a WW2 soldier’s uniform. It was a very odd feeling seeing this figure walk alongside us, like a phantom of the past retracing his footsteps. He fitted in better than any of us.

The French had commemorated the fallen well. We went past several monuments to brigades and divisions which I longed to explore properly. I felt proud at the Allied flags flying everywhere. We lunched at the monument at the Utah Landings Museum and Roosevelt cafe, so named because it was near here that General Brigadier Roosevelt landed. This museum is particularly poignant, as you can literally walk into one of the landing craft, getting some idea of its size and scale.

Historian Steve Roberts and walker Pete Chilcott

Imagining it packed with shivering, frightened men, I gladly walked out of it into the sun. As we walked we were reminded of those. both German and Allied, who had received commendations and medals for their bravery and determination.

Video footage I took of the next few days often show my trainers walking on and on into the footsepts of those who were ahead of me. The beach is scattered with shells in the same way 75 years ago it was scattered with men. The sea was so quiet here it seemed respectful, as if it seen and heard so much that it feels it can no longer make any noise. The peace is its tribute to those who bled into its waves.

We stopped at a small chapel at La Madeleine and recreated a famous photo from D-Day before the afternoon break. I passed the time of day with a donkey and quoted the G K Chesterton poem to him, a favourite of mine. He ignored me; I guess he didn’t speak English.

We finished in the village of Les Forges which had been liberated in the afternoon of D-Day. we had walked 35km.

The evening finished with an ice-cold 10 minute bath which did wonders for my legs! I lay awake for a while in bed that night, despite my exhaustion, pondering on how the sea would have washed away out footprints as it washed away those of D-Day. But we all knew we were there, just as the men who fought on the sand have their memories.

Day 2 began at Omaha Beach. We watched the opening section of Saving Private Ryan on our way to this destination and it was much harder to watch than I had remembered, maybe because I was seeing it as an adult and had a greater appreciation for pain, loss and death. I remembered the name from my 1994 visit and how it resonated with pictures of slaughter and destruction.

We began in St Laurent Sur Mer churchyard and then had some warm-up exercises from a a walker who was PT in the army before setting off onto Omaha. Maybe it was because we had just been watching Saving Private Ryan but the crash of the sea sounded like the roar of battle. The present-day peace felt surreal; it was the war which was now. Again, the placid white sand belies the history of the place. The miracle is how anyone survived the clamber onto them and scaled the hills. This beach saw the loss of 2,400 men on D-day alone and nearly led to the abandonment of the whole operation. The Omaha Beach Memorial was again a place you just want to stop and stand for ages because your eyes can’t take in the enormity of the scarifice epitomised by one man running up the sand determinedly hauling his injured comrade behind him. Les Braves memorial, while more contemporary, was equally as powerful. The French should be proud of themselves; the many memorials and nods to D-Day everywhere reassure me that the events of 1944 will never be forgotten and the sacrifice will never be relegated to the dusty drawers of history.

We walked up a long woody hill towards the American Military Cemetery where over 9,000 soldiers are buried. This is breathtakingly huge yet tranquil despite its size. I was starting to limp but I didn’t want to miss out on seeing anything so I hobbled up the hill. The Royal Marine Commando Memorial at Port-en-Bessin offered a spectacular view over the harbour; it was a struggle getting up there but I wanted to pay tribute in some small way.

We had lunch in Port-en-Bessin itself; I am sure if I look back in my 1994 diary (which I have in a box in my parents’ garage!) I will find details of our family trip there, having crepes on the quay. This time some of the walkers had fish & chips for lunch and I can honestly say nothing has ever, ever smelled better than that fish & chips. I’m not saying my boil-in-the-bag chicken pasta wasn’t filling and hit the spot – but my God, those CHIPS. The salt and vinegar smell which gets even the driest mouth watering. I vowed to myself: I am going to come back here and eat those fish and chips. Remind me of this when lockdown is over, please!

Look-out points and pill-boxes were built into the hillside. It is a shock seeing them poking out of the undergrowth on the cliffs and yet at the same time it’s like they have always been there, as much a part of the landscape as the trees and rocks.

The day drew on. The fields we walked through were unending and the beauty of the countryside began to pall. I couldn’t pretend to myself that I wasn’t hurting. My feet felt like splinters were being pushed into my soles and my knees had begun their gentle but insistent protest.

A kind friend from 2018, Richard carried my bag for some of the way. He, Dai, Sam and I were the four musketeers at the back of the trek and the boys kept our spirits up. When we hobbled up the last hill and finally got to the bus we were asked to pose for photographs and, embarrassed, I felt my shoulders sag. I was so desperate to rest. The kind paramedic Lee saw me falter and made me go onto the bus and sit down. I could have hugged him, but after 9 hours of walking I didn’t smell too fragrant so I kept my distance.

We had ended by the Royal Engineers Memorial at Arromanches. We stopped and looked back at the artificial harbours which still exist and had made such a significant difference to the advancement of the Allies. They remain in the water today, slumbering black sea creatures.

We had walked 36km. Back at the hotel Sam and I had small but not insignificant blisters which needed attending to. I couldn’t help comparing my generally happy feet to the macerated lumps of meat I’d hauled around a year ago!

Day 3 and we were on the homeward stretch encompassing Gold and Sword Beach. Day 2 is always the worst day of the walk because you are only halfway through; on Day 3 your steps are lighter no matter how sore your feet.

We began at the Stan Hollis Tram Stop which looks so insignificant until you realise it was the site of the eponymous Major Hollis earning his VC (the only one to awarded on D-Day). We walked past the Cross of Lorraine where General de Gaulle first set foot on French soil four years after being exiled and other memorials. Everyone seemed more upbeat. Chatter was light. We were coming to the end. We walked through Hermanville War Cemetery where 1,003 WW2 soldiers were buried, 103 unidentified to this day.

We walked for a long time along a rather unpicturesque road. This road went on, and on, and on. I started muttering to myself in a rather feral fashion. My feet, my feet, my feet. A friend sent me Invictus and trite as it sounds I remembered I had a choice to keep walking. Millions didn’t. I chose to keep walking.

The route took us inland towards Colleville-sur-Mer. As we strode through a field of turnips Philippa, Nick, Robin and I began singing The Quartermaster’s Stores. Coming up with more and more absurd things for people to be doing “behind the door” led to breathless laughter even as we stumbled through the parched soil.

Recreating an iconic image from 2018
Last few miles…

We all congregated in the village of Benouville, some rather raucously than others (The Quartermaster’s Stores is kind of addictive) before we quietened down. Steve outlined the ‘end of the beginning’ and the storming of Pegasus Bridge. We were at the beginning of our end, only minutes away.

Pegasus Bridge is functional rather than ornamental but never had anything looked more beautiful, and more welcoming, reflected in the still waters of the Caen Canal. We lined up and began our final steps towards and then over the bridge. Like the culmination of the walk in 2018, this was jubilant yet muted: theirs was the victory we commemorated, rather than our own.

We crossed that bridge and our work was at an end. 6th June 75 years ago theirs was only just begining. The longest day had been the first of many long days.

I had a gentle almost sombre stillness come over me and I suddenly didn’t want to be celebrating although naturally I was pleased to have completed the challenge. I wanted some quiet time. Steve understood and took me to the ‘Café Gondree’ across the way where we joined Terry for a quiet drink and raised a glass to those who had gone before us.

This cafe had been used as a temporary aid post and is run today by Arlette, the daughter of the cafe owner Georges, who was 5 years old on D-Day. It was a privilege to meet her and again history was brought to life.

Before we got onto the bus, Rev Paul Critchley, who had worn the uniform throughout the walk, gave a speech and lead us in prayer. He said that we should all do good, and that by doing this walk we had done good. That was what I needed to hear.

That late afternoon the bus of the walkers was jubilant. We’d done it. We sang and passed around small flasks of various liquors which had kept our spirits up.

We revived in time for dinner in Normandy … and just a couple of drinks.

Thank you to all those who helped me achieve it and to help the ABF continue its incredible work. Before I even embarked on this walk I had said to myself this was my last. I can’t keep asking for sponsorship, I can’t keep putting my body through this. But on the first evening as I sat in the dining room with old friends and people I had yet to meet, my overriding thought was, I have got to do this again.

The Timeless Clock

I have sat down several times to write this post over the last few months. I’ve been putting it off; writing lists of other things which I need to do first; wasting time online; finding things to mend, clean or get rid of.

Last week my parents brought back a clock from my grandparents’ house. It has lived on the mantlepiece of their fireplace since before I was born and now it is mine. I carefully wound it up, conscious of the delicacy and age of its workings. The minute it started ticking, I felt calmed, like a rabbit whose ears are being stroked. A bell strikes the hour – not the right hour admittedly (I haven’t figured out how to synchronise the time and the chime), but an hour which has been and will be and is, no matter where the clock rests.

My granny died in June. Her passing, shortly after her 92nd birthday, was both inevitable (as death is) and impossible (because life without her was). My sun and my moon are cloaked by a cloud which will not disperse. I am without compass or anchor. The house in which I have lived most of my life is being cleared and sold. I will never see my grandparents again.

Last night I watched my baby niece curl up in my mother’s lap for security. I envied her that wordless solace, the trust and reassurance only a child can feel at being in the care of someone else. I liked to rest my head on my granny’s knee and let her rhythmically pat my head. Just as my grandpa’s hands were cool, dry and firm, those of a gifted doctor, my granny’s were softer than powder, padded and exquisitely wrinkled. Hands which had nursed the sick, baked cakes, knitted jumpers, written letters, crafted pies, and clasped in prayer. Their fragile appearance belied the strength of the woman who owned them: who overcame two life-threatening injuries in her youth; raised three children, six grandchildren and countless waifs and strays; acted as Arkela for Boy Scouts; took charge of orphans in a children’s home and patients in hospital, and cared for her 98 year old husband single-handed until the last week of his life. My grandparents were a force to be reckoned with. There is much comfort in the thought that they are finally reunited even as we are separated from them.

The clock on my windowsill has marked the time of several generations of our family with quiet confidence. It’s a sound which I have associated with peace and love since my birth. The comfort I always felt at my grandparents’ house has subtly shifted into my own room and, for the first time since my granny died, I feel less alone. I focus on the cushioned silence, punctuated by the pinprick tick, and I’m at my grandparents’ in Suffolk, the wind making the strange howling growl I have only ever heard at this house. It is early evening and the hedgerow outside is silhouetted in black spikes against the blushing grey sky. My grandpa shakes the newspaper; my granny turns the page of her letter. The labrador – golden, black, chocolate – sighs contentedly at our feet. I am on one of the stone seats by the fire, eating toast and oranges. The flames crackle bright on my eyelids, nuzzling my cheek with almost unbearable affection.

Lux et umbra vicissim, sed semper amore.

Poppy Politics

As my regular readership, all 3 of you, will have noticed, I haven’t written in ages. I’ve been working and doing stuff full stop which I will tell you about in due course, you lucky, lucky bastards. I have a lot to say – be still, your beating heart! – but this is something I wanted to say right now.

I buy a poppy, every year. Because they are cheap little plastic and paper things – and you want them to be cheap, because you want the money to go to the charity (which does bloody good work by the way; check it out) – they don’t last very long. They also inevitably fall off and get trodden on. There are hundreds, thousands, of unintentionally discarded poppies disintegrating in the yellow and brown mulch of autumn leaves.

In 2016 I undertook a walk of 100km following the Frontline of WW1 in aid of the Army Benevolent Fund. I raised over £3k and it was the hardest thing I had ever done up to that point. My parents, in commemoration, bought me a WW1 poppy made from WW1 shell metal and containing Somme mud. Each of these limited edition poppies was dedicated to the memory of a soldier who died in that appalling battle. It is one of the most precious things I own, but it is small and subtle. You probably wouldn’t notice it. I wear it all the time, not just in November. I wore it in 2018 and 2019 when I did two more 100km walks for the same charity.

Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself worrying about wearing the poppy I bought from the British Legion (the third this year). It’s cold so I am walking around wearing a coat. Do I take my poppy off my shirt and display it on my lapel? I’m going to work in a public-facing role so then I’ll have to take my poppy off my jacket and pin it back to my shirt. I’m busy and I forget to do this – suddenly, walking around town, I realise I’m not wearing a poppy. What will people think?

Every year the same arguments crop up, regurgitated with the tedium of acid reflux. Facebook posts proudly declare “I’ll wear a poppy whether it offends you or not” (I’ve yet to meet anyone who is offended by a poppy, although I’ve come across an awful lot of people who are convinced that all Muslims are, based on what their neighbour’s dad’s plumber’s dog said down the pub or what they read on Facebook). Fingers point at politicians/TV presenters/anyone who is seen without one. The white poppy is motted as a “peaceful” alternative (the Remembrance Day poppy is not made of blood; we’re not talking black pudding versus white pudding here). Above all, self-righteous condemnation of those who do not wear one or choose not to wear one.

I’ve realised this year – for the first time! – that I could be seen as someone who doesn’t care or chooses not to remember the fallen. Someone looking at me and not seeing the poppy because I’ve forgotten to go through the on/off rigmarole could judge me very harshly. They wouldn’t know I have in the last 4 years raised over £5k for a military charity. That I’ve bought a paper poppy – hundreds of the bloody things – and it’s fallen off/disintegrated/sticking into my chest because it’s on my T-shirt. That I hold my WW1 poppy, and the memory of the soldier whose name it bears, as priceless as my great-grandmother’s engagement ring which I am never without. They wouldn’t know how important Remembrance Day is to me; how I went to church this morning with my pyjamas hidden under my coat because I have got a fever and feel ill, but did not want to miss the service.

My grandparents both wore knitted poppies. I am honoured to have my granny’s. I pin it onto my coat before pondering, will people think I am a cheapskate if I appear not to have bought a paper poppy? My grandpa was one of the longest-serving presidents of the Royal British Legion. But where can I announce that to the world, to make it clear that I’m upstanding and respectful?

So I suppose I am saying: the paper poppy is important. Really important because it raises money for charity. Remembrance though is more important. 2 minutes out of your year isn’t going to cost you any money, make you miss a text message (yes woman in church this morning – I’m looking at you!), or have a huge impact on your day. But showing your respect and making a big song and dance about how respectful you are isn’t, important and it misses the point. Tommy Robinson and the “English Defence League” make sure to be seen to be wearing poppies, and make a huge fuss about the symbol; yet this hardly makes them upstanding citizens, does it? How can it therefore be the marker of a decent human being? Indeed, using a symbol to distinguish who is and is not worthy is reminiscent of the Nazi Germany our ancestors sacrificed their lives to destroy.

I know exactly who I am and what I have done for the soldiers of the past, present and future. It boils down to a great deal more than a bit of paper and plastic pinned to my jacket and I am sure that the same is true of many, many people too. I like seeing the poppy worn everywhere, but only if it is worn for true reasons of respect and remembrance, not because people want to make a point about what decent citizens they are and how they are much better than those who do not.

That isn’t what our soldiers died for. To claim otherwise is anything but remembrance, and anything but respectful. If you find yourself doing so, have a word with yourself. Make amends by donating to the Royal British Legion or the ABF by sponsoring me. Don’t tell anyone about it- just do it. Help the servicepeople of today in memory of those who went before them. You can commemorate our fallen in no better way.

A Bank Holiday of New Books

I haven’t written for ages, for two reasons. Well three actually.

  1. I want to have something vaguely interesting to say. I don’t want to crank out posts with the tedious regularity of bowel movements. They might wind up being just as fragrant, and as quickly disposed of.
  2. My reading has been a bit fractious over the last few months and I’m disappointed by it. There are quite a few books I’ve read and thought “woteva” about once I’ve finished.
  3. The muse has taken a rambling holiday and her sense of direction is as bad as mine.

I only thought to write this post because I’ve just read two books to which I had extreme visceral reactions. The first was Late In The Day by Tessa Hadley. I wanted to like it but I hated it – and the reason I hated it was because I wound up having a full blown panic attack because of it. It’s ridiculous but it’s true. I was curled up on my bed, breathing shallowly and feeling sick and scared. I had to medicate myself with a hearty dose of Wodehouse in order to effect a recovery. I don’t want to be denigrating to Hadley especially as she provoked such an extreme response in me, but I don’t ever want to read this book again. The story was about four friends – two couples – and how both of them cheated with each other’s partners, basically. The betrayal of each other, and the friendships, was deeply distressing to me. So, kudos to Hadley for pulling it off so well although I doubt she would be pleased to know she upset a reader so deeply.

The second book is The Lost Man by Jane Harper. I went to the library yesterday and to my glee found the new books by John Connolly, Ian McEwan, Ali Smith and Harper available to borrow. Talk about riches ready to drop upon me; could there be better company for a Bank Holiday?

I picked up The Lost Man first and foremost. It’s again an Australian crime story of sorts, but the actual crime is incidental to the real story of human relationships. Nathan, Cameron and Bub are three brothers who have grown apart over the years. When Cameron is discovered dead from dehydration and heat exhaustion it appears to be a tragic accident, but Nathan isn’t convinced. Harper’s skill is peeling back, fine as the layers of an onion, the strata of a family. It is never quite how it looks to an outsider.

Forgive me for using this phrase but it’s too apt. I got lost in The Lost Man. I turned my phone off so nobody could disturb me. I got cross when people tried to talk to me and shut myself away until I could finish it. I can’t praise it highly enough and all I can think now is when is her next one coming out? Is she working on it now? If not, why not? When will she? What will it be about?

A few years ago I emailed the agent of an author I’d loved, Elizabeth Rigbey, and asked if she was writing any more. The two that I had read by her, the only two she has published, captivated me. Her agent wrote back and thanked me, saying my email would serve as a ‘kick’ to Rigbey to write some more. He promised that there was work in the pipeline but I’m still waiting.

The sheer joy of writing for writing’s sake is something I’ve neglected since I started trying again. I’ve been trying to structure what I write, think what might sell, be clever, and I should never try to be clever. I should be what I am, especially considering my writing brain is so atrophied. I miss the exhilaration of creation. That’s all anyone should write for, really.

I’m going to press “post” on this now so that everyone knows what to read this Bank Holiday! Further posts on McEwan, Connolly and Smith to come, of course.

Doughnuts

CheltenhamI have been reading, natch, but that isn’t what I want to write about today.

Ten years ago this weekend was the one I started doing Christmas shopping. It was also the most miserable weekend of my life (up until then). I remember watching people walk around town laden with bags of gifts. Everyone was scurrying too fast, bumping into each other, spending money they didn’t have on things nobody needed. It was raining. The Salvation Army gamely played carols while drizzle collected in their cornets. Sugar crystals glittered in the air by a doughnut stall. Rosy store lights shimmered in the puddles on the pavement. I stumbled around in a daze, tears rolling unchecked down my face, because one of my dearest friends had died following a car accident.

I don’t know if naivete is a blessing or a curse. I had not been prepared for the fact that Rob – 24, a football player, my personal trainer, with huge vivacity for life and a 90 watt grin – might die. He had been so badly injured that he spent two weeks in intensive care. At one point, lying in the hospital bed, he had squeezed his father’s hand and I took this as evidence it was all going to be alright. At the gym where he worked we discussed fundraising for helping him get back on his feet. I arranged workouts with another PT “just until Rob got better”.

Were we all really so gullible? Or was I the only one who genuinely believed what I was saying, and the others were talking thus because nobody could bear to face reality? I won’t ever know the answer. After Rob’s funeral, inexplicably, life went on. Christmas thundered ever closer, with its cosy candle-glow themes of love and togetherness, so excruciatingly painful now. The gym owners organised a Christmas night out for the members, an act of defiance against death. I became frantic, working all the hours I could, exercising maniacally and desperate to spend time with people in case they died. Getting phone calls began to frighten me so much so that my parents got into the habit of saying “Nothing’s wrong” if they left a voicemail. If someone was driving to see me and was a few minutes late my stomach would start a slow twist of fear. I started living on a knife-edge of dread; to this day I struggle to say “see you later” or “see you soon” in case Someone listening takes offence at that arrogant assumption.

Four weeks before Rob’s crash another good friend had died in a motorbike accident. Steve’s death was an enormous tragedy, my first true major bereavement, and a real trauma. Within 3 months a further friend took his own life and another was killed in a helicopter crash. On top of this I lost my little gecko, Dexter, who was indescribably precious to me and upon whom I lavished all the love left in my tattered heart. On the day the vet rang to tell me he’d gone, the sensation was physical; I can only describe it as a piece of bone being chipped off something in my chest.

Writing about this is very difficult, even now.  Not only because of my grief but because of the grief felt by others which was far rawer than mine. Losing a friend is devastating, but it is not losing a partner, a son, a brother. There were so many mourning families whose hearts were more broken than mine, so many tears shed, so many wordless howls which can only be translated as “Why?” I never found the answer to that, either. There is no reason to sudden bereavement. There is no reassuring mathematical algorithm to refer to. A person holding a knife to someone’s throat, relieving them of their wallet, is likely to go home safely and watch TV, while another who has never done anything worse than garner a speeding ticket will plunge to his death into the North Sea. A much-loved, hugely successful young man leaves work one evening and commits suicide, while an individual who cares nothing for others shuffles comfortably into old age, swaddled by a spare tyre of spite.

I haven’t been able to visit the graves of my other friends (Dexter is buried in my parents’ garden) but I regularly go to see Rob, not just on the anniversary of his death, but at Christmas and on his birthday too. On Wednesday, the tenth anniversary, I went up again. It was early in the morning, dull and misty with a muted grey light. The cemetery was deserted. There is a child buried near Rob; helium balloons bobbed gently around her stone. Other graves are decorated with chains, statues, cards and toys: bold declarations of love unfaded, of heartbreak unabated.

I would rather feel this sadness than never have known Rob, and Steve, and Fred, and everyone else for whom I’m lucky enough to grieve. On the day after Rob’s car crash, before I knew anything about it, I drove past a newspaper board for our local paper. The headline was “man fights for life in A40 crash”. I moved on with nary a thought. Rob, of course, was the focus of that headline. I spiralled from a cotton wool comfortable existence into one of constant anxiety. Death was no longer something which happens to Other People.

I walked around town again this morning. Unsurprisingly, it was raining. The doughnut seller had set up and, even though I think half nine is too early for doughnuts, this cheered me. Two children whose existence hadn’t even been dreamt of ten years ago were splashing in puddles. I remembered the despair of that first dreadful day, and thought of everything that has happened, to me and those I love, in the decade between those Saturdays. Some things, myself included, have changed almost beyond recognition. Some are still very much the same. For both these I am grateful. I am grateful for the grief I felt and continue to feel because of the friendship I was given. Everything comes at a cost, but one of the lessons I’ve learned is that bereavement is not too high a price to pay for love.

In 2008 all I could do to assuage my misery was buy a couple of hot doughnuts for the homeless guy opposite the stand. The kind man who owned it gave me two extra for free. There’s a metaphor in that, a parable, or something by Aesop involving a fox and a tortoise. Anyway. I did the same thing today. Unlike everything else, offering kindness to a cold stranger has not risen in price, nor decreased in value, especially when it is done in loving memory.

For Steve, Rob, Fred, Paul and Dexter x

The ABF Frontline Walk 2018

Good photos – and those with the ABF bootprint logo – are by the  incredible Ed Smith. All the others – the rubbish ones! – are mine.

Turning up at Wellington Barracks early in the morning on 10th October was very different to when I first did so in 2016. I was less apprehensive, and more excited. So much so that within minutes of arriving I had to duck behind an official-looking building to throw up my breakfast; apologies to the horse and carriage trotting genteelly past!

Meeting up with friends I hadn’t seen in 2 years was a joy. My ‘real life’ friend Will was with me, and it was a strange experience being an old hand as opposed to a newbie. I was empathising with what Will was feeling while experiencing all without the “I know nobody” nerves. There was however something fresh for me to contend with: the fact that I was secretly concerned I might not be able to complete this time. A few months after 2016’s walk I had both my kneecaps replaced. This meant that I no longer made the sound of a bag of Quavers with every step, but it resulted in a long period of rehabilitation and pain of a very different nature. In addition to this, my new knees had a significant impact on my gait resulting in my feet experiencing agony similar to that of the Little Mermaid when she gains legs (Disney edited this element of the story from their version of it!). I had found myself, since June, privately worrying how I was going to go about completing 100km.

But here I was, and we were on the coach to the Channel Tunnel. When we emerged into France, our first stop was, as in 2016, Arras Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery. The sun lay peacefully across the pure white stones. This was my second visit and again I was struck by its incongruous beauty.

I took only one photograph here. I wanted to experience the place and prepare myself for the days ahead by holding at the forefront of my mind the real reason we were doing this. I watched bees busily buzzing between two graves, blissfully unaware of those either side of them. In the midst of death, we were in life.

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That evening, Steve Roberts explained our route to us, and Bob Semple talked about being kidnapped by Al Qaeda while working in Yemen. Bob was formerly in the Royal Engineers and was held for 18 months in a windowless cell before he was released. He was entitled to no help from the military as he was no longer in active service, but this was where the ABF stepped in: once they were made aware of what had happened to Bob they helped Bob’s family pay everyday bills, as they became impossible for his wife to afford on a single salary. Thankfully, Bob was released and returned to the UK to discover he still had a home, but the scars which cannot be seen are still healing. The ABF continues to support the Semples as they attempt to get their lives back to some semblance of normal.

Bob spoke softly, with little emotion, but the room was spellbound by his words. When he told us how after 18 months of captivity he had been bundled into a car and had felt a hand on his arm before someone told him “You’re safe” every inch of skin on my body prickled and tears stung my eyes. When Bob began mentioning the effect on his loved ones he too welled up. As he thanked the charity he was greeted with a standing ovation. It was a timely reminder that injuries are not always physical and help is not all about bodily rehabilitation. I felt overwhelming pride for the charity I was raising money for, and determined to do them proud.

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We were up before the sun on the first day, gathered at Cambrai Memorial to the Missing. This was built in tribute to the 7,048 UK and South African soldiers who died at the Battle of Cambrai and remained without a known grave. It was cold, and a muted hush fell over the group as we heard Steve Roberts talk about our forthcoming walk.

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I was trying to use my head torch for the very first time, but couldn’t figure out how to tighten it, so it perched high on my temple blinding those around me before it fell unelegantly to sit on my neck.

The day began with a prayer from Andy Herrick, a vicar who had come on 2016’s walk and was a real champion of the events. He was unable to make it this year but Steve had promised to put a cross on the grave of Reverend Shovel who came from Andy’s parish. I took a photo of the tombstone so Andy knew he, and Reverend Shovel, had been in our thoughts.

Then we were off, and as the early morning mist cleared our chins lifted. Our spirits were high, our legs fresh, our feet rested. The terrain soon proved to be hard on our soles and knees though, and we could understand why 100 years ago soldiers had complained about the pave. Plenty of it was still clearly visible under the (comparatively) modern road surface.

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I enjoyed catching up with Brigadier Robin Bacon, CEO of the charity, during much of this walk. We crossed a canal and came to the memorial of the West Riding Division complete with pelican mascot.

Perhaps an incongruo45500318871_6b3562e379_zus emblem, but I could only think this was due to the fact the pelican will give its own blood to its chicks if they are running low on food.

Along the walk Steve Roberts, Vern Littley and Terry Wenham had put out details of particular lives for us to read about. The path was long, and much less broken than 2016’s walk as we were following the advance of the troops rather than the Frontline. Reading about these individuals gave colour to the journey. We really were walking in their footsteps.

Our next stop was The Monument to the Nations which honoured all who fought at Cambrai. It’s built on the site of a windmill which was demolished by the Germans when they were building trenches. The foundations of the windmill were uncovered and preserved. the monument is laid out in the shape of the Union Jack, with each ‘arm’ pointing to a significant area of the battle. It also contains the flags of all nations who fought. The grouping of nations, regardless of who fought against who, was a recurring motif of this walk and something I found particularly moving.

From the monument you can look out to the peaceful, furrowed farmland which was once a battlefield. It was somehow not difficult to picture the clamour, the bloodshed, the explosions of earth and the roar of war, on this tranquil setting.

Thanks to Steve’s efforts, we were thrilled to be able to view Deborah, a WW1 tank which had been rescued and put in a museum at Flesquieres. Beauty is a strange word to use about a tank, but that’s what I thought when I looked at her. She was also a box full of memories; if she could speak, what stories would she tell?

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I was not able to spend as much time with her as I would have liked, as my role of French translator was required! A journalist had heard about our expedition and came to interview us. As a result we were a week later in a French newspaper, but Robin had been promoted to ‘president’ and ‘ancien generale’ of the charity – I’m afraid this is down to my schoolgirl French being severely tested rather than shoddy journalism!

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Lunch was gratefully received by all. I was inducted into the Society for Changing Socks Mid-Day which was to my sore sweaty pieds the equivalent of slipping into cool, freshly laundered sheets.

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The next phase of the walk was a strange journey into the future as well as the past. We walked past a wood where several Resistance fighters had been betrayed and executed by Germans in WW2. Three appeared to be from the same family.

Crest Cemetery for some reason hit me very hard. Men were buried where they’d died, in a massive shellhole. The incongruity of a massive pile of turnips next to the graves did not escape me, but it also felt apt. Life goes on, but the memory of the dead was not dimmed. I liked the fact these men had been buried here; what balm the peace of the land must be to their tortured ears after the scream of shells and cries of their comrades.

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Along our route we saw astonishingly beautiful horses, albeit some of them a bit skinny. 2016’s walk was serene, with muted blues and grays. 2018’s was startling in its palette: golds, greens and rich browns. Life was vibrant even in this season of hibernation.

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The end of the walk was close to a canal. We were tired and warm. The waters of the canal, lazily slipping past us, were tempting. Not for the first time, I wished I were a dog and could jump in. A young and very toned French gentleman obviously felt similarly as he was standing topless on the other bank! I was very sore by now and the end seemed a long way away. More French translation was required by the time we got to the coach, as a photographer had come to take photographs of our “ancient general”.

I was pleased by the state of my feet and my joints thusfar, but I knew from experience the first day was simply a warm up.

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Day two was one of huge emotion. We started at Cambrai East Military Cemetery and this affected me more than anywhere I’ve ever been. Partly because it is an all-nation cemetery, where soldiers who had fought in life lay peacefully together in death. Partly because several who lay buried there had died 100 years ago on the day we were visiting. Partly because of the stones with heartfelt, plaintive words from families. The grief in the air, even 100 years on, was palpable. The graveyard was shrouded in sorrow.

Below are the tributes on the gravestones which particularly affected me. I have put each one up individually to allow them to be more easily read. Embarrassingly, I had a big snotty sobbing fit in the cemetery as I read them, overcome by sadness for those families whose boys had never come home.

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Vern read out this poem which I should perhaps I should keep in mind…

VOICE FROM A WAR GRAVE

Please, don’t lower your voices
As if you’re in some kind of pain.
I can’t tell you how pleased we all are
To see you come back here again.

There’s no need to stop yourself laughing –
We all of us like a good joke.
We used to laugh quite a lot in those days,
Despite all the noise and the smoke.

We’re glad that you come here to see us.
We like to see friends old and new.
So laugh and talk as much as you like,
We wish we could come to see you.

So please don’t lower your voices,
We’re aware of the pain that you feel.
It’s no worse than ours, I can tell you,
And yours is the one that can heal.

George Sewell

44569111_10160964667985483_2462159301729320960_o (1)I was pleased that all the gravestones were white, regardless of which side the soldier had fought on. It made a pleasant change from the dark, dingy markers of the German military cemeteries we had visited in 2016. One of these three men had been sought out, and a descendant had laid a photo on his grave to remind us the enemy too had faces, and were loved.

 

 

 

This was a very, very long day. As I started walking along the field track a tiny, insignificant speck of gravel started niggling at my sole.

I remembered the doctor’s advice about ‘dealing with things before they happen’ so I dutifully undid my boots and removed it. I put them back on and after a few hundred yards my other foot started hurting. So then I undid this boot. Thus began an endless round of being plastered/checking plasters. Craig, the paramedic at the back of the trek, strapped my feet up as best he could. I put on more plasters and they rubbed between my toes. It is hard to describe the pain without sounding utterly pathetic but every step soon became torturous. I stopped noticing where we were walking, finding it difficult to join in conversation, focusing on nothing more than the next step. At lunchtime, the paramedics tended to my feet, which were rubbed raw and bleeding. I wasn’t able to look around Ligny-en-Cambresis Communal cemetery where we stopped; all I wanted to do was sit.

This was the walk which didn’t seem to end. I stopped looking around me. All I could focus on was my feet – oh, and the need to use my SheWee, which was getting stronger every minute. Being at the back of the walk, I ducked behind a haystack and used this piece of modern technology. I’d used it once before and had been impressed by myself and how ‘going behind a bush’ has been made so much easier for the modern woman. This time SheWent, and stumbled. You can imagine the results. I’m afraid I cried (again). I could not face all the other walkers in such a state. It was still fiercely sunny, but I wrapped my fleece around myself and hoped I’d dry off in time. I was mortified.

Around the corner were the friendly faces of Steve and Vern, eagerly waving me forward. Usually I was pleased to see them, but I would have given anything not to have seen anyone for several hours. Vern, kindly, tried to take my bag off me and I wheeled away in panic. Steve was not put off by my howls of, “Don’t come near me! I’m disgusting!” and put his arms around me. Vern supplied Haribo. Thanks to them I recovered my dignity and some of my Stiff Upper Lip, and thanks to the weather my shorts dried off pretty quickly. The late afternoon sun softened but the ground underneath our feet was relentlessly hard and uneven. Both my knees ached, my feet were agony, and I’d pulled a muscle somewhere in my thigh. Even my earlobes were hurting. I developed an odd kind of walk which Rick, who kindly took my bag and was trying to cheer me up, said looked like Big Bird’s gait. I was trying desperately to flex my feet and release my ankle bones while at the same time easing the pressure on my knees and that’s without even starting on those throbbing blisters.

Beth, the doctor, very carefully asked how I thought I’d feel after the next tea break. I knew I couldn’t physically go any further but this was still a tough decision to make. People had sponsored me money in good faith. Everyone else seemed to be doing OK, many with feet in a worse state than mine. Andy Reid had done the Walk in 2016 with only one arm, for heaven’s sake, and here was I whinging about a couple of blisters and aching joints which weren’t even real ones. I loathed myself for it, and cried some more, but I knew I had to give in. I climbed onto the coach and curled up in a seat, not wanting to talk to anyone. I was not alone on it, but I felt like a fraud.

Several hours later the rest of the walkers joined us. All agreed it had been a very, very hard slog. Like the cool kids at school, those at the back of the bus handed out silver flasks of rum, brandy and Schnapps. There was singing on the way home, and general camaraderie, but I felt muted and like I hadn’t earned the right to join in.

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I woke up several times during the night, worrying secretly about my feet. As I hobbled across the bedroom on the third morning I wondered how on earth I was going to complete this final day. Breakfast was for me a subdued affair. There was no doubt in my mind that I had to complete this – too many people had sponsored me for me to let them down. (Plus I am very stubborn.) But I wasn’t quite sure how. I figured if I could just keep putting one foot in front of the other, eventually I would get to the end.

The walk began calmly enough, at Bavay which was Field Marshall French’s HQ during the Battle of Mons. We were following the path of the last few days of WW1, through which the I and III Canadian Corps had swept 100 years previously. As the war moved so fast at this point, the soldiers had little opportunity to bury their dead and the majority were left where they fell. Some were buried in communal cemeteries such as Quevy-le-Petit (see below) but many others lay beneath our feet. This made walking particularly thought-provoking.

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After a couple of hours it was pointed out to us that we really should pick up our pace as timing was crucial. 2 years ago Andy Reid had said “What the mind believes, the body achieves” and I found that walking at a smarter pace didn’t make the pain any less, but it didn’t make it any worse, either. With cheering words from other walkers, and the reassurance we were all in this together, suddenly I felt lighter, brighter. I was going to complete this. I felt like Pilgrim when he reaches the top of the Hill of Difficulty and his Burden falls off – although I had a kind soul carrying mine for some of the journey! An ebullient mother and son were walking alongside me.

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Their enthusiasm and upbeat humour was infectious. She told me to give my bag to her son for a while and he carried it as if it were featherweight. We watched in awe as she jogged ahead of us to walk with someone else who was alone. The world needs more people like the Callcutt family.

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Several of us chose to detour to Quevy-le-Petit Communal Cemetery where we visited the graves of those who are often neglected as they are not in the military cemeteries. This really bothered me, and I left a poppy for these men.

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We walked through a town, past a school. Children were playing and their laughter came through the air, crisp and golden. This contrasting so strongly with the sombre cemeteries was poignant in its beauty: a metaphor of yesterday’s sacrifice made for today’s children. A woman applauded us, waving a flag out of her window. People often said hello to us, greeting us in curious French. Some asked us for an explanation of what we were doing. Two men who were making cider in their back yard gave out free bottles, and squeezed me a fresh glass of apple juice which tasted ambrosian.

We passed the house of a Belgian paratrooper who had set out cold Coke and biscuits for us. He explained his grandfather had been in WW1 and his family had a military background. This gentleman joined us at the cemetery for the remembrance ceremony at the end of our walk.

Lunch. Spirits were high for most, but some could not do the penultimate stage. There were tears. I will never forget the image of one walker lying flat on her front as the paramedic bound up her broken, battered feet. The determination of everyone to do their very best was extraordinary. I was able to encourage others, to empathise with their disappointment at not being able to do the whole thing, to reassure them we would all be doing the last stretch together.

 

More wee stops, behind greenhouses and rusting tractors. For once, I was not at the back of the trek and was able to hold out an arm for those in tears who’d reached the very edges of endurance. My feet were throbbing but it was manageable. Everything was doable – just!

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Spirit of the walk – nobody was left behind

We paused briefly at a pub, where the barman told us to return the following day for free drinks. Robin and I led a chorus of Tipperary and then we set off for the home stretch. Those who had been at the back of the walk were told to lead the way to the end, and to the Saint Symphorien Military Cemetery.

This was a subdued ending. There were not crowds like at the Menin Gate; there were no cars hooting or strangers applauding us. ABF staff handed out medals and we all clapped each other as we came to the end.

Somehow, this was better. I felt this was more fitting. We were greeted silently by those in whose footsteps we had walked, and were able to pay our final tribute to them as a bugler played the The Last Post. Tesbo and Bob led us in our own service of remembrance.

The cemetery contains both the first and last soldiers who died in WW1.

I chose to leave a poppy in memoriam of my Great-Great Uncle Bertie on the grave of an unknown soldier. Both were remembered. All were remembered.

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Thank you to everyone whose generosity and donations, no matter how small, enabled me to undertake this challenge, and complete it. The messages of support encouraged me on the dark night of Day 2 when I felt so ashamed of myself. Thank you.

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Not for the glory of first place
For everyone finishes the same.
Not for the plaudits of strangers
And the highlighting of ones name

In posts to be ‘liked’ and forgotten;
But for those who lay under the mud.
Who heeded the call of their country
And paid for their brav’ry with blood.

For those who were slaughtered in battle,
For those whose fear could not be borne,
For those who lived on but were shattered
With bodies or minds scarred and torn.

A century’s passed, yet the anguish
Of war continues to resound.
Soldiers still fight their own private battles –
It’s for them that our feet hit the ground.

To those who didn’t stride past a stranger,
But held out a hand to assist,
Who carried a bag, offered comfort,
Who urged one, through pain, to persist;

To those who left crosses by headstones,
To those who stopped, quiet, by a grave;
To those who read somebody’s story;
To those who elected to save

A minute for silent remembrance:
We honoured those fallen men well.
We helped those who walk in their footprints.
We sounded out their passing-bell.

 

With huge thanks to Emma Price, podiatrist supremo of Supafeet Cheltenham, who helped me walk again and my wonderful knee surgeon Mr Harminder Gosal at the Nuffield in Cheltenham. I am not sure if any of his other patients have gone on to complete a challenge like this after he has operated on their knees! This photo is for them:

 

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You can still donate to the Army Benevolent Fund on my page until 31st December 2018: http://fundraising.soldierscharity.org/ellymoo

To learn more about the Army Benevolent Fund and its work please visit https://soldierscharity.org

The walk was run impeccably by the wonderful staff at Classic Challenge.

To date the Frontline Walk, 2014-2018, has raised over £1m to help servicepeople and their families. Which is pretty ace!

A ray of sunshine

Reading an author you like, and being disappointed by their latest offering, is pretty crushing. A new book from an old favourite is like a special pudding at the end of a meal. Having a hot chocolate made with full fat milk, topped with whipped cream and marshmallows melting into the froth. It is something I really look forward to, and this week both Karin Slaughter (Pieces of Her) and Lisa Jewell (Watching You) have let me down.

Slaughter, I’m going to forgive, mainly because the rest of her work is consistently of a high standard. Pieces of Her, about a mother having rather surprising secrets, is sloppy, unbelievable and not terribly interesting. Andrea, the heroine, is dull and uninspiring. The bizarre romance Slaughter tries to inject falls flat. Her other standalone novels, those outwith the Grant County stories, are brilliant – The Good Daughter being a case in point – so I won’t hesitate to pick up the next one she writes.

Lisa Jewell, however, is another matter. Jewell is like my big writer sister. She’s the only “chick lit” author I like; she’s got brains, emotional intelligence, and knows how to make a big story out of not very much. She knows how to write characters who you understand, who live just round the corner, who you see on the bus and on the next table at Starbucks. Her simple stories are much more complex than they first appear, just like real people.

So why has she started going down the thriller route? One of those which are inevitably marketed with the “… twist you won’t see coming!!!!” on the blurb? It’s disappointing. Jewell’s thrillers don’t thrill, they just annoy. I am not interested in who killed the corpse alluded to throughout the book; the sections of police interview fail to convince; what I want to know is more about the relationship between Joey and her brother Jack, how the dysfunctional Fitzwilliam family fits together, why Jenna’s mum has started losing her marbles. The little minutiae of life which Jewel makes so fascinating are discarded for the Big Mystery and it’s enough to make a grown man weep (I cry pretty easily). This is now the third thriller and I keep reading her latest, hoping that she’ll have gone back to the style she does better than anyone else. But each time I am disappointed and I don’t know if I will dare pick up the next one.

Thank heavens then for Gillian Flynn. Having devoured Sharp Objects on TV – the only TV series I have finished and immediately started watching again – I read the book in one morning. I got out of bed 2 hours later than I should have done because I didn’t want to stop. This was her debut novel, and is accomplished, sinister and fabulous. This was the hot chocolate; not just with whipped cream and marshmallows, but a load of cocoa sprinkled on top. Top marks.

Next on my To Read pile is the new Ann Cleeves: Wild Fire. I have just finished Raven Black, the first in her Shetland series, and enjoyed it. I’ve got that hot chocolate feeling again. Let’s hope it’s made with full fat milk rather than water – that’s as big a let-down as some of these books.

You Are What You Read

I made a decision while in Greece this year which was to stop reading horrible stuff. Spooky stuff is still in – horror is out. There is a big difference.

I got my annual free Kindle Unlimited pass and every year I remind myself these things are free for a reason. The occasional good title sneaks in – Mark Edwards isn’t an amazing author, but his dark little stories show originality and I keep going back for more (Follow Me Home was the one everyone went mad for, but The Magpies deserves fans too). The Hangman’s Daughter series by Oliver Posztch, about his ancestor who was a hangman in medieval Germany, is again not astounding authorship but is nonetheless enjoyable. I also got some free horror, one of which was “beautiful” horror stories – and they weren’t beautiful. There is no beauty in dredging up the very worst of what humanity is capable of and feeding your brain with it.

I lay in a splash of sticky golden sun on a boat which rocked lazily from side to side. I was in the company of some of my favourite people. If I looked to the left the Mediterranean sea sparkled, inviting me to jump in and cool my tight, salty skin. On my right rose my favourite place in the whole world, a green and purple island.

This is what I could have been looking at.

And I was reading about – a girl who got her mother killed by Nazis in Auschwitz. Someone’s mouth being sewn up. A man turning into a giant penis (yes, really).

I stopped reading and removed the book from my device along with the others of a similar ilk. If your body is poisoned by eating toxic rubbish, what’s it doing to your mind?

I’m not going to tell you what those books were. You don’t need to know and the authors, who are utterly entitled to write whatever the hell they want, don’t need to know that they made me feel ill. Here are the books which I really, really enjoyed and which I think you SHOULD know about.

A Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration England – Ian Mortimer
Entertaining, fascinating and a most enjoyable read. The others in this series have been ordered from the library.

Larry’s Party – Carol Shields
An extraordinary book about an ordinary man. Shields takes the minutiae of a man’s life and creates a life from it. I loved it.

The Habit of Murder – Susannah Gregory
Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew series is great fun. Fascinating from a historical point of view, it’s also funny, touching and bloody well written. If you haven’t read about this medieval monk, get into the habit. Arf, arf.

Day of the Dead – Nicci French
A fantastic end to the Frieda Klein series. When these books started I wasn’t keen, but Frieda has grown on me and the taut, well-plotted stories are spell-binding. To all those churning out trashy “a story with a twist you’ll NEVER SEE COMING” nonsense: this is how it should be done. Nicci French (aka Nicci Gerrard and David French) very rarely let you down. If you can’t do it like them, don’t bother.

The Outsider – Stephen King
King has no equal, not only in his imagination but also in his observations on humanity and his ear for dialogue. I’m pleased to see the return of the Finders Keepers detectives. King’s supernatural horror may not sit entirely comfortably with the detective genre, but it’s still far superior to most of the stuff out there…

The Killing Habit – Mark Billingham
… although Billingham is probably one step ahead of King in this particular style. This was another Thorne novel which throws up so many red herrings it was in danger of smelling. Great work. (I’ve just realised that Billingham and Gregory almost share a title!)

There are a lot of dark books here, but nothing I’d call horrible. Horrible is cheap, nasty and unrefined. Horrible is designed to shock and sicken, creating violent visceral reactions rather than gently building up disturbance. Not all horror is horrible, and those who dismiss it as such do it a disservice – but I have to admit most horrible stuff can be found on the Horror shelf. Browse it if you want to, pick up anything that looks fascinating, but tread carefully; choose your titles wisely. The worst will not leave you, and life is short; we should only have worthy companions for it.

P.S. Today is National Read a Book day. So go on! Read one and tell me if you ever find one you liked as a result of my blog. Someone did that recently and her kind message sparked this entry.