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!

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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.

Don’t call it a comeback

I’ve been here for years, but to misquote LL Cool J I can’t say I’m rocking my peers, as I have been out of the blogosphere for several months now. A few people have been kind enough to ask where I’ve been (or rather what I’ve been reading). In a nutshell, a major work upheaval took up a huge amount of my time, energy and what passes for brainpower. That, and, if I’m honest, trying to plough through all 10 seasons of Friends on Netflix. But things are calmer now!

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The Dream of the Poet or, The Kiss of the Muse, Cezanne

It’s interesting my last post was about re-reading because currently I’m going through all the Merrily Watkins series (by Phil Rickman) again. I find that I look forward to these books with the same delicious anticipation that I look forward to roast turkey or a twice-baked cheese souffle. I take such joy in the intricacies of the sub-plots, the chill of the supernatural and the warmth of human empathy in these books. They just get better with each read, and I’ve found I missed vital elements of the story which made a lot more sense with a fresh eye. I always bang on about Phil Rickman, but that’s because he deserves a big drum. He should be far better known than he is and it’s a crime (ho ho) that he isn’t on every bookshelf in the land.

I have found some new books though! Rather than bore you to tears with everything I’ve ploughed through, here are some of my personal highlights:

Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

I couldn’t believe how much I loved this book and I wasn’t sure why, but i couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I began reading it again as soon as I finished it. There is also a section of short stories based on the book available on BBC iPlayer Radio. If there is one book I want everyone to go out and discover (apart from Phil Rickman’s!) please let it be this. It’s sparse, beautiful, gentle, slightly chilling, heart-warming, heart-breaking.

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

This is the story of what Abraham Lincoln’s son might have experienced in limbo, where all souls congregate. I got annoyed with it at first and nearly ditched it; I’m so glad I continued. It’s startlingly original and thoroughly enjoyable.

He – John Connolly

Yes, another of my favourite authors; but this book is a huge step away from the Charlie Parker series. He is a biography of Stan Laurel. Initially I got irritated by the constant referrals to ‘he’ but once I got into it I found this a fascinating history of cinema and also a gut-wrenching look behind the smiles of Laurel and Hardy. A fitting testimonial to one of comedy’s greats.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

A brief history of mankind – and basically how it’s screwed the planet up. Essential reading, but not something to read in a one-er and certainly not advisable bedtime reading if you’re feeling a little melancholy. I felt so ashamed of being a human being by the time I’d finished it that I began my Friends binge-watch.

Eureka – Anthony Quinn

I absolutely loved this! Set in the world of 1960s London, it focuses on a small group of characters and a film which seemingly won’t be made. It’s breath-takingly original, sad and funny.

Winter – Ali Smith

Read back in January but not forgotten. The story of a family gathering, relationships severed being cautiously knitted together, and time skittering back and forth like a skater on thin ice. Ali Smith’s second in her quartet of ‘season’ novels is slim, as if she measures each word very carefully before using it. Mary Berry will tell you that’s the best way to get results, and Winter is a perfectly risen, light but satisfying Victoria Sponge.

At the moment I’m juggling To Dream of the Dead by Rickman and The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp. I have two eyes so why can’t I have two brains enabling me to read both books at the same time?

To see which one I finished first, you’d better check out my next post. Which I promise won’t take me as long to write as this one did!

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As an aside, I have also written a story. I attended a training session as part of my new job and we discussed a fatal helicopter crash.

The incident haunted me so much I went straight home and typed out my story without really thinking much about it – a real Homer moment at the laptop. No it’s not as romantic an image as an artist being visited by a muse, or Ted Hughes’s thought-fox, but it’s a bit more accurate. When I sit up from the keyboard, blinking sleepily, with my mouth as dry as Ghandi’s flip-flop, I know I might have written something good – mainly because I can’t remember writing it.

(Thank you sincerely to the people who wrote saying they missed my blog. That made my day!)

Rereading for Christmas

This post was written over a period of 2 months.

Re-reading is a joy which I don’t often allow myself. As I recuperate from an operation, I have too much to time to think. There’s a perpetual ache I can’t quite handle.  I’m hiding from it by re-reading the Jinny books, which I posted about a couple of months back. I polished all of them off within a couple of days. I remembered phrases, heart-wrenchingly beautiful descriptions, characters as alive as people in my own life, simple, taut plots. It reminded me how much I had admired the author Patricia Leitch and how desperate I had been to write like she did.

I’ve spent a lot of time with my gerbil who is the light of my life; but our partnership is no match for that of Jinny and her Arab horse Shantih.

A quiet day in sounds wonderful, when you spend your life running around. I’ve had four weeks of quiet days and I’m still exhausted! I have watched Alias Grace and Stranger Things 2 on Netflix; I have read Lifers by Geoffrey Wansell which made me feel a bit ill; Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe which was blandly fascinating in the way his books are; Great Britain’s Great War by Jeremy Paxman (brilliant); The Vampyre by Tom Holland (I never thought I’d enjoy a vampire book); London 1945: Life in the Debris of War by Maureen Waller (excellent); Minette Walters’ latest, The Last Hours, set during the plague  (which left me wanting something. Not the plague, but I felt it was lacking… body).

 

I’m ending the year on The Somme by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. An deep, damning book, and a vital one, but I am so glad it is over. I have not for a long time read something so visceral it plunged me into the heart of the battle, the horror and suffering, the mud and the slaughter. At one point I found that I could smell death, so vivid is the writing. It was a strange feeling. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong reaction to a book before.

I have closed it with a sigh of relief.

Now, finally, I can relax and become a little more festive. Last night a group of four very close friends was reunited. In the summer we were close to becoming a trio. I squished S’s illness and my worry about her into a a little stream of fear which ran deep in my gut. It was only when I watched her, vibrant with new life and a second chance, opening her Christmas presents that I realised how terrified I had been that we might lose her. That we were indescribably lucky to have her still with us, at a time when many feel an emptiness in their life like the gap where a tooth was, an ache which will never be soothed.

I’ve had significant downs this year; not a life-threatening level, but certainly life-changing. That rivulet of dread has been trickling through my every waking hour for many months. But now for the first time in a very long while I am looking towards my future with hope, and a certain degree of excitement, rather than fear. I feel I’m being given a chance to turn my life into a very different direction and the uncertainty for the first time is an opportunity rather than a blow.

With that in mind, it’s too late for me to decorate for Christmas, but I will be lighting some candles this evening. Plugging in the sadly neglected fairy lights. Heating up some salted caramel & clementine hot chocolate (that’s not an advert, but if Hotel Chocolat want to send me some freebies I won’t rebuff them).

I’ve opened The Children of Green Knowe now, and will settle down with that followed by the best book ever written (in my very humble opinion): A Christmas Carol.

The world is so flooded with new books I feel breathless with the desperation to wallow in them. My wishlist is full of titles I may never get to open. But, at a time when I’m on the edge of a new life, some of the oldest, most familiar stories are what I need most.

Happy reading, and merry Christmas.

Angry Blackberry Picking

This photo is of the tiniest snail ever, which I found on a blackberry bush. I rinsed him in the colander by mistake, then rescued him; then dropped him in the washing up bowl, and rescued him again. Somehow, he survived. I like to think this is a good omen, as most of my life, to the point of OCD, is about seeing omens – none of which are positive ones.

 

I am angry. The blackberries aren’t, or not so far as I know. But they are going over now, and apparently because the devil has spat on them. That is so bloody typical of the devil. Can’t even leave the sodding blackberries alone.

 

Yes, it’s been several months since I last posted. Thank you to the three people who’ve got in touch saying they’ve missed me! I’m afraid while you may have missed my witterings, you haven’t missed me too much. I’m angry and scared and frustrated. But then aren’t most of us nowadays?

 

 

I am angry about Harvey Weinstein and the fact that the reaction from so many is “Why didn’t they say anything sooner?” rather than “Who the hell did he think he is?” I’m angry at 21 year old me who didn’t complain when she was groped in a club because she thought it was just what men did (and it wasn’t the first time, either) and then didn’t understand, for many years, why other women did speak up. Don’t even get me started on the Chedwyn Evans case (not calling him Ched, he’s no friend of mine) and how it’s impossible for a woman to be raped if she allegedly had and enjoyed sex with other men pre/post alleged assault. That case was the main reason I spend a lot less time online.

I’m angry that I’m being made redundant. That’s all I’m going to put in the public domain about that. I’m scared, too. I am angry at myself that I have screwed up my life so spectacularly that I am facing 40 without a penny (well that’s not true, I do have a pension, but you know, right here and right now!).

I thought going blackberry-picking would assuage this anger but then I saw a collection of beer bottles flung into the hedge and this reignited the rage. WHY? Why treat our beautiful countryside like a rubbish bin? Then I saw signs from the local community campaign group protesting against yet more sodding “affordable” – that’s 3 and 4 bed affordable, you know – homes to be built on greenbelt and I felt red hot rage.

After all that, I picked 12 blackberries. 12! I’m now angry at the bushes for their dearth of berries, and myself for not putting in the devoted picking time I normally do. A few weekends ago a couple starting picking on the same bush as me and I went into picking overdrive, my hand a blur from bramble to bucket. That also made me cross. Though not angry.

Things That Have Made Me Less Angry

A walk at lunchtime, kicking through piles of yellow leaves with the canopy of trees embracing overhead. I’ve rushed through autumn; I’ve missed her beauties, her gentle warmth. Hopefully, if I’m still here next year, I will take more time over her.

Cavalier chocolate – it shouldn’t, but it does. And it doesn’t have sugar in it, which makes it less bad.

The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert and The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters, read in tandem. It’s taken me ages to read The Compassionate Mind and I’m very glad I did. Even if the end made me curl up in a little ball of despair because the author is heralding a more compassionate age thanks to the inauguration of Barrack Obama. We all know how long that lasted! A reign of compassion appears to have lit the touchpaper for the intolerant, the ignorant, the racist, the phobic, the selfish, the fascist. It’s an enormous backlash as if certain people just couldn’t stand having a decent human being in charge of their country.

I keep having to reign in my own chimp – the part of my mind which is uncontrolled, which is primitive and works on instinct. For the first time I can separate the Wouldbegood from the Wouldbebad and notice when my chimp gets out of her cage. The chimp has her uses – her instinct is to protect – but she’s left me lonely and bruised, if no longer broken. To have control over her, to be her mistress rather than at her mercy, is something to aim for. Perhaps all this anger isn’t a waste of energy if it means I have heightened awareness of when she’s about to go on the rampage.

Those are the only books I’m going to talk to you about today. I’m done, for now. Off to the gym to be, somehow, less angry. To exercise my chimp in a safe environment so that hopefully tonight, unlike the last few weeks, she gets some sleep.

So the devil wants to spit on my blackberries? Bring it on Lucifer – but you needn’t think I’ll let you do it without protest. Like thousands of other women, I’m done holding my tongue.

We’re angry.

For Love of a Horse Book

I am not a horsey person. I have never had a horse, nor a pony – unless My Little Pony counts (my first was Blossom). When I was in hospital with appendicitis aged 9 my grandparents brought me two books by Patricia Leitch, someone I had never heard of, and this sparked my love of the Jinny books. Night of the Red Horse is the most supernatural of the stories which got my attention straight away. Once I finished the books I then wrote my own version, which were pretty hopeless as I knew nothing about horses. My heroine was called Jenny – fortunately I got more original as I got older.

I stumbled over this very book a few months ago as I was clearing out my old bedroom, and decided to collect the whole series again. As is my wont, I became obsessed by getting all the books in the same cover I had in my childhood. This wasn’t easy – of course !- the late 1980 Armada edition was rare. I scoured eBay, Abebooks and charity shops (a mistake, as I never found a Jinny book but I did find another book I wanted to buy – always!). Some sellers online told me rather snittily that they didn’t have time nor resources to find out which edition they had for sale and I would just be allocated one when I paid. As any serious book collector knows, the edition of the book is vital and I’m not sure someone who doesn’t understand books should be selling them!

My patience paid off, although it did include having a book sent over from South Africa (fortunately a friend in SA is coming over to the UK soon and was able to act as a carrier pigeon). I now have all 12 of my Jinny books again – including 2 individual copies of the double-book compendium I was originally given.

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Jinny is an 11 year old whose family move to the Scottish highlands from a grey city. On their way to Scotland the family see a circus and Jinny is entranced by an Arabian horse named Yasmin. When Yasmin escapes across the moors, Jinny makes it her mission to find her and keep her safe – never to tame her, as her wildness is what Jinny loves most about her.

Jinny’s passion for Yasmin – whom she renames Shantih – and her determination to win her over – is the main theme running through the series but even if you really don’t like horses you will still find these books engrossing. There are 12 of these books – written for children, ostensibly, but in my view they are much deeper and darker than mere pony stories. They deal with relationships, family, bravery, tolerance, and the various traumas of growing up. In my view Patricia Leitch was right to finish the series at book 12, rather than drag it out indefinitely like the Sweet Valley books (another series I avidly collected). Jinny’s burgeoning self-knowledge would have torn her away from her symbiotic relationship with Shantih and the magic of the Celts. Another joy of the books now is reading Jinny’s innocence through my adult eyes; her frustrations, fears and failures are all too easy to remember as my own.

These books are now republished by Catnip, if you want sparkling new copies – but I found mine on Amazon, eBay, Abebooks and through these sites:

www.childrensbookshop.com

www.clhawley.co.uk

There’s a real joy in stumbling upon and making a connection with independent booksellers. When I next go on one of my little jaunts, I think it will be to Hay-on-Wye: the kingdom of books.

I also stumbled upon The Grapes of Wrath. How have I misssed Steinbeck until now? (Of Mice and Men is a much shorter piece) What an incredible book. I lived it. I could smell the heat of that dreadful summer, feel the pangs of hunger the Boads learned to live with. The ending for me was not redemption so much as utter despair – but did I read it wrongly? Was there some hope for the future in Rosasharn’s action of mercy?

I also read the new Lisa Jewell – Then She Was Gone. BAH! I love Lisa’s warm, perfectly observed, extraordinary story of ordinary people and ordinary lives. I don’t want a psychological thriller from my ‘big sister’ author. The book is as perfectly written as always – Jewell gets emotion, sensation and dialogue spot on in her own inimitable style – but the plot is melodramatic and even I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for the length of it.

Birdcage Walk, Helen Dunmore’s last, did not hold me. It’s beautifully written as always enough but dragged – there’s only so long one can care about a builder slowly going bankrupt against the background of the French Revolution. I feel bad about being disappointed by this, and have ordered The Lie, which in my mind should be her last book and is a much more fitting epitaph.

And – because I have never read it – I tracked down Rosemary’s Baby from my library. Fabulous stuff, with much more depth than you would expect; and above all, a real chill which went from the top of my spine right down to the very tips of my toes. I love that chill as much now as I loved it nearly 30 years ago, prostrate in my hospital bed, reading about the Red Horse haunting Jinny Manders.