The Pleasant Land of Counterpane

So my operation left me with a blissful amount of reading time. OK, so blissful isn’t exactly the word. Blissful is reading lying on white sand with the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean tickling your toes. I was mainly lying in bed or on the sofa wearing bed socks and a very bulky bandage. It does make you wonder what people do if they don’t read – not that I’ve ever stopped wondering this, really, nor had an answer to it. Especially those who spend hours on public transport, or are delayed in the doctor’s waiting room, or are laid up after what is described by medical types as major surgery.

Fortunately I don’t have to feel my brain liquefying and slipping out of my ears in viscous strands. My convalescent companions were the following:


The Stories of Jane Gardham
I really enjoyed this collection. Some stories have supernatural overtones and others are deceptively simple snapshots of life. I’ve not heard of Jane Gardham before I read this anthology and it’s encouraged me to look out more of her work.

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney
I read this book in one sitting. It’s intense, and often beautifully written – the author does get a bit carried away with her similes and metaphors occasionally but this doesn’t mean her prose loses power. The book opens with Amber lying in a coma, convinced her husband put her there – and then her story unravels and nothing is as it first appears. I found Feeney was most believable when writing from the perspective of Amber in a coma – this was particularly well done.

The plot is not perfect, and there are several holes which I won’t spoil for would-be readers, but I enjoyed this book nonetheless. Alice Feeney is a fresh new talent and I look forward to reading her next work.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Certainly dated, but nonetheless visceral and enjoyable, this prickly little story about a marriage floundering after an affair makes you laugh even when your eyes blur with tears for Nora. What is poor is that someone has gone through the entire book and marked the pages containing recipes with “R”. Sacrilege! If you want to do this, buy your own copy; do not deface ones bought by a public library! A disgrace.

Holding by Graham Norton
Oh dear. I wanted to enjoy this. I really did.  I started it, disliked it, put it down and then returned to it. The plot was quite interesting – the unexpected discovery of a body uncovers the dark secrets of a village – but the characterisation poor and the behaviour of several protagonists bizarre to say the least. Graham is so wonderful on radio and TV, and his autobiographies are so full of life, perhaps it’s expecting too much of him to be a talented fiction writer as well. I’m not going to tag him in this. I love him too much.

The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter
For anyone who’s followed the Will Trent series, this is the latest instalment – and in this Angie, Will’s cruel, manipulative ex-wife comes into her own. I started to like her more, and to like the rather simpering, sickly Sara less. I also did not see the denouement coming at all – Slaughter excels in making her readers gawp.

A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century by Jerry White
A sprawling book which takes the subjects of politics, literature, sex, economy and racism amongst others to paint so vivid a picture of London you can smell the streets. A fabulous work, this never loses its pace.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
One or two of these did not sit right with me at all, but the others were indeed dark. I very much enjoyed this spooky little collection.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to read this, especially as I saw My Cousin Rachel performed in the theatre with Stephanie Beecham when I was 14, but in a way that’s not a bad thing because I think you have to read du Maurier with the slightly jaundiced eye of a grown up. I read it very differently to how I would have done 10 years ago, for example. A classic.

Close Encounters of the Furred Kind by Tom Cox
Not terribly interesting, nor terribly funny. Cat escapades are either entrancing or boring and this fell into the latter.

All of a Winter’s Night by Phil Rickman
Hoorah for the latest in the Merrily Watkins series. Again another fat pudding of a book to relish curling up with, this focuses on ‘black’ or ‘dark’ Morris which is something I find particularly fascinating in a spine-chilling way.

We Are for the Dark by Elizabeth Jane Howard
I was thrilled to discover a friend is EJH’s grandson, and he very kindly lent me this as it’s impossible to get anywhere else. Not the best ghost stories I’ve read, but to be honest I was so excited to be reading it that the substance mattered less to me than it normally does.

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory
Not Gregory’s strongest, this focuses on Margaret, sister of Henry VIII. I’m not sure how much of it is based in historical truth; Margaret’s character tosses and turns like a sleepless bedfellow and I didn’t find it convincing.

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
I wouldn’t normally pick up a book like this but I’m so glad a friend recommended it. Triss gradually recovers from a fever with strange after-effects. She’s hungry, but not for food; and her little sister is convinced that she’s “not the real Triss”. This is a fiercely original story meant for young adults (which I am sadly no longer!) but I very much enjoyed it.

The Beautiful Visit by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Hmm. This wasn’t a brilliant book and to be honest I think she was lucky to get it published as it’s not terribly interesting. 😦 The good news is that she got better from hereon in!

If anyone rich is reading this, please please would you consider buying me this chair. Or one of these?

I can’t think of anything lovelier than sitting in the lap of a whole heap of books.


Bedpan Humour

I’ve been in hospital for 5 days and sitting on my backside for 4 weeks. This has not been easy for me. I twitch unless I am doing at least two things at any one time as I fear Something Bad will happen due to my sloth. But once I recovered20170112_134705 from the anaesthetic, which felt like a really dirty Bank Holiday weekend with Morpheus, and learned to handle the fact my knee joints feel like horrendously short elastic bands on fire, I did a lot of reading. And a lot of thinking. The first was good (mainly). The second was bad (mainly). ‘Twas ever thus.

So for the record, here is what I have been reading:

The Victorians by A N Wilson saw me through the first few days when I was entangled in a cats’ cradle of sleep and pain. I doubt I did the book justice.

Himself (Jess Kidd) was an odd little thing, about a man returning to a village where his mother disappeared.

Die of Shame is Mark Billingham’s latest, about people undergoing therapy – though if you’re reading the post in 40 years then you will consider it one of his earlier works. What an odd thought. Will this blog still exist in 40 years? Will the internet still be around? Think of how may amazing letters, journals and notebooks we uncover from many centuries ago. What will we, our generation, have to offer historians of the future? Emails in draft form? Fake News and Facebook posts? Has history finished?

Blimey. Went on a bit then. Where was I. Yes. Die of Shame. Mark on sparkling form again, with an ending as satisfying as scraping up the crispy bits that stick to the bottom of the Yorkshire Pudding pan.

Saturday Requiem, the latest Frieda Klein book by Nicci French, and the first time I actually like Frieda. Which is a shame seeing as if the series follows chronology the next book will be the last about her.

The Haunted Library, a collection of ghost stories by Tanya Kirk. Wonderful gothic stuff – obviously ghost stories set in libraries, but apart from The Tractate Middoth (the MR James classic) I’d not read any of them. This was a real gem.

My Story by Jo Malone. An interesting autobiography and particularly pleasurable for anyone who feels fragrance is a vital part of life. I do – my quest to find a replacement for Dune by Dior (the new formulation is a bland shadow of the rich, salty 1990s version) has been going on for about 7 years and I still haven’t found the new Me.

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer. An easy to read, sinister thriller. I liked this, so much so that I ordered Dark Side from the library immediately afterwards.

A Life in Questions, Jeremy Paxman’s autobiography. Oh, how I loved this! It was like going out to dinner with Jeremy and ordering a twice-baked cheese souffle, fillet steak in peppercorn sauce with fries and chocolate mousse, all washed down with very fine red wine. It made me howl with laughter, but also made me think. I stored up some of the more pertinent sentences to use in conversation and make myself sound intelligent. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of them now but it is the perfect excuse to read it again.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Quite good, but not something which I would rave about. I will still read the others in the trilogy then. And yes before someone gets smart I know she’s not really called Elena Ferrante but that’s what she wants to be called, so she can bloody well stay Elena Ferrante.

Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years is a different reading of Elizabeth I by John Guy. The strong, sharp-tongued Gloriana we have come to adore throughout history is not completely disassembled in this telling of her life, but the myths built around her as tall as one of her collars melt away to reveal someone utterly human. In fairness, you couldn’t be a child of Henry VIII and expect to come through life completely unscathed. Fascinating stuff.

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadya Hussein – only it’s not by Nadya Hussein, she of Bake Off fame. It was ghost-written apparently. An average story; interesting to learn about Bangladeshi customs and ways of living, but not something which will stay with me unlike the taste of one of her cakes.

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths. This is apparently the latest in a popular detective series. Popular why I’m not sure as the book wasn’t particularly well written, and as a crime story it was pretty dull. There were holes in the plot (cannibals? is all I will say about that) and the end of the book was supposed to make you want to read the next one. It has just made me more determined not to – but I’m funny about things like that. No spoilers in this post! Move along, nothing to see here! But anyone who has read it will know what I mean.

A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant. Incredible that I knew so little about epilepsy, and yet the first time I was introduced to it was aged 11 when we read Julius Caesar and the poor sod “fell foaming at the mouth”.

The Collected Stories of E F Benson  – fabulous ghost stories, like M R James but just a bit nastier. There were a lot of them though.

The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola. A historical crime story based on TruFac – the murder of  a young woman whose body turns up in various odd places around London. I enjoyed this because the author built up very genuine characters and didn’t embellish the facts too much, but still created a bloody readable book. I will look out for more from this name.

The Matrix by Jonathan Aycliffe. I do enjoy this chap and his spooky little stories. This one is about finding a way to bring the dead back to life.

Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier (and other stories). Why has it taken me so long to read the story upon which one of my favourite films is based? Oh I loved these short stories. Each with a sting in the tale as delicious and sharp as sherbert.

The Binding Song by Elodie Harper. A story about a psychologist investigating several suicides in a prison. Not perfect, but intriguing. The story lost its way towards the end, but it was spooky and brutal enough for me to read more by the author.

Her by Harriet Lane. This built up beautifully, although blimey doesn’t the writer like describing EVERYTHING…. and then the denouement (that is before the actual denouement – when you find out why Nina is so full of loathing for Emma) is really disappointing. The ending of the book though has stayed with me. I keep thinking about, wondering if what I imagine happened next really did, and what was in the author’s head. That is the sign of a good book; like you can forget the disappointing egg mayonnaise in the middle of a sandwich if the last crust is really chewy and tasty.

That was the reading. Now for the thinking.

Two weeks ago I used a bedpan for the first time EVER. Even when I had my appendix removed I didn’t get to use one – the nurse brought me a commode and I had a meltdown when a boy in the next cubicle peeked through the curtains at me. I was naked (why, I don’t know.) I was 9 – they don’t care about segregating you by gender when you’re little. This time I was in my own suite at the private hospital. I got to choose food from a menu and my sheets were changed on a daily basis, whether they needed it or not. 

The evening of the operation, I  wake up at about 1830. I’m cold, so cold. The nurses are talking to me and they lift my sheet up and blast me with a massive hairdryer which is the best feeling I have ever had IN THE WORLD because it makes me warm instantly. I go back to sleep. I wake up again this time in bed. The hairdryer has been turned off and two white pads pummel my calves. They are attached to the bottom of the bed. I’m pinned to the top by oxygen to my right and fluid to my left. It’s like a pleasant version of Misery. 

Come midnight I need a wee. Really, really need a wee. I can’t move – even lifting my hand to have my blood pressure checked is such hard work the nurse has to do it for me – so she says she will fetch a bedpan. The thought makes me go cold, remembering episodes of Casualty where the patient has an icy stainless steel pot slipped under their hips. But this one is cardboard and environmentally friendly. She pulls back the sheets and expresses surprise that I am still in my “knick knacks”. Not for long! With one deft tug she sees more of me than anyone has in seven years. The bedpan is slipped efficiently in place and I am left alone relaxing with my thoughts. 





I am stranded on my bed in a half-bridge position like a desperate whale. When I was very little I had bed-wetting problems. And when I was not quite so little, if I’m honest. (I mean aged 10-11, not last year.) The horror of that I’m-on-the-loo dream and waking up to find out you’re really, really not has never left me. Now I’m entitled to pee in the bed, nay, encouraged, and I simply cannot. My manners and upbringing refuse to give me the release I need. 

The nurse, Rosa, comes in. She is foreign – that is all I remember in my sedated state – with very tight shiny brown curls and a glossy pink mouth like an exotic flower. She mumbles something kind at me. I drool something back. She goes away. Twenty minutes later she comes back. She mumbles something again and I bleat my distress at her. “It will come, it will come,” she says phlegmatically, as if predicting the arrival of the second Messiah. 

An hour later – I even fell asleep in that position, like a cat – she comes back in, slips into the bathroom and subtly runs the tap. That does the trick. Boy, the trick is done. “Heavens, you can pee,” she says, visibly impressed, as she staggers out of the door under the weight of my bladder. Please God, I pray, don’t let her bump into the fit anaesthetist on her way out (he really was very handsome, the kind of man they don’t make any more, like Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart) – and please God don’t let her TRIP.


I don’t think I want you to know the things I have been thinking about … and I don’t think you would like to know them, either. So I will leave it there.

Next time I write a blog post I promise I won’t have a glass of wine beforehand. Yes, that really is all it takes…

Captured by Candlelight

I indulged a great deal this Christmas. Possibly because last year it took all my strength to put one foot in front of the other, so I made up for it. Elton John tells us to step into Christmas, but I plunged headfirst into it, and came up smelling of cinnamon and cloves, covered in glitter which I can’t bring myself to wash off.

The title of this particular post is a perfume by 4160 Tuesdays – check it out.


His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet wasn’t exactly festive reading, but it was an astonishing novel worthy of its place in the Booker list. It comprises of witness statements, a memoir from a jailed man, and other documents which the author apparently stumbled upon when looking up his family history. I am rather embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realise it wasn’t true at first, but the fact that it is fiction does not stop it being a powerful lesson on truth.

I was a few months late with Ali Smith’s Autumn but this was another wonderful read: deceptively light and gentle, with a great depth and tenderness interweaved through the story like gold thread through a tapestry. It’s about the relationship between Daniel Gluck, aged 101, and Elisabeth Demand, aged 30. But it’s also about artist Pauline Boty, who I immediately Googled once I’d finished.

The Tempest comes to life in Margaret Attwood’s latest, the Chinese-box narrative Hag-seed. The story is retold as a retired theatre director helps men in a prison put on their own version of the play. Spell-binding.

Continuing my investigation into new publications by some of my regular authors I enjoyed The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland. As always, her historical detail is both fascinating and sickening (the detail of how regular-sized babies are made into dwarves is particularly horrific). Not one to be read if one is of a sensitive disposition!

And then to Christmas reading; Silent Nights and Murder Under The Christmas Tree (anthologies of Christmas mysteries), The Mistletoe Murder, four great new stories by P D James, and The Children of Green Knowe which anyone who has ever been a child should read. The best by far though was Mark Forsyth’s A Christmas Cornucopia which tells you anything you ever needed to know about Christmas and a load of other stuff. Not only is it fascinating, it’s really, really well-written, and you could read it any time of the year, not just Christmas.

Inhaling all these words means that you have to exhale at some point, and I did yesterday – 2 hours of writing. It made me very happy. A good way to end the old year, and to welcome in the new one.

I wish anyone who’s taken the trouble to read this a very, very happy new year.




Pot Pourri

The last few weeks I have been spent going around the country like Phileas Fogg, or Willy Fogg depending on which version you grew up with. It has been the most wonderful time, mainly because I have been using coaches and trains, which has availed me of much reading time.willy

I am desperate to get back to my own writing, so this is going to be succinct, but I have read some cracking books and I don’t want you missing out on them. So, pay attention and add some of these to your letter to Father Christmas…

Mount by Jilly Cooper – Oof. First Poldark, now Rupert. I found this hard to read for that exact reason.

Thin Air by Michelle Paver – wonderful atmospheric ghost story set in the Himalayas. Anyone who hasn’t read Dark Matter, her first ghost story, should grab it immediately.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss – Really enjoyed this unusual story of a woman battling to balance work and family life in the middle of nowhere.

Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley, my favourite historian. A children’s book set in the court of Henry VIII and Katherine Howard, but fascinating nonetheless. Worsley presents history to you like a slap-up meal: easy to digest and hugely more-ish.

The Travelling Bag and other Ghostly Stories by Susan Hill – this little collection was better than others of hers but not a patch on Dolly nor The Woman in Black. A ghost in a story should haunt you long after you’ve closed the book. These ones disappeared into the pages.

The Rotters’ Club by Jonathan Coe. OK, trying to be a modern day Ulysses I think. I saw there was a sequel and wasn’t interested in looking it up.

Blue Eyed Boy by Joanne Harris. Crime story set in a posh boys’ school. Went on a bit – the narrator was a little too arch – but I liked the twist.

Blow Your House Down by Pat Barker. Gripping crime drama about a serial killer of prostitutes; but it’s not so much a crime drama, it’s a snapshot of life, and how searingly dreadful it can be.

I have just polished off The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry which is a luminous novel of tremendous beauty and power. Newly-widowed Cora moves from London to Essex where the village is in turmoil over a monster prowling the area. This is such a gorgeous book I wanted to read every word all over again. I didn’t, however, in deference to the 18 other people who have reserved it at the library; I then moved onto Rachel Tusk’s Transit, which was too highbrow for me so I didn’t read very much. I skipped onto An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve, which is a hugely readable, painful memoir. Ariel’s mother, a famous writer, was hugely narcissistic and abusive, and the effect on the little girl is devastating. Ariel’s words are never self-pitying, but intuitive and ultimately life-affirming. I devoured this in one (bath) sitting.

I am setting myself the challenge of writing an hour a day. No housework, no TV, no niggling little tasks – forcing myself to do it. So, off I hop to do just that. I’m not stopping reading though, so don’t feel too abandoned…

The Frontline Walk


The beginning (my photo)


This is going to be a bit different to my usual posts, because I haven’t read very much over the last week or so but also because I need to write down how it was and my diary isn’t sufficient.


Roomie – Millie, who I shared a room with
Robin, Amy and Helen  – ABF Staff Extraordinaire
Ed – Photographer in Excelis (all ABF photos, plus those of Bertie, are by Ed)
Steve – Historian and Diamond
The Two Daves, Ian and Pete – fellow walkers

The walk started at Lochnagar Crater… but if I’m accurate the whole experience started the day before, when we got on the coach with a load of strangers. I did my best to combat my fiercely British thou-shalt-not-mingle instinct and promptly walked into the gents’ loos at Wellington Barracks, mingling rather more than I had intended.


Walkers assembled


Our first stop in France, on the way to the hotel, was the Faubourg d’Amiens British Cemetery. The Arras Memorial commemorates 34,785 Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave. The coaches, which had become quite jolly as people recovered from the Channel Tunnel and got to know each other, were subdued when we boarded. The cemetery had reminded us why we were all here.


In the afternoon Roomie and I went to the Wellington Quarry. We toured underground, where men had talked and worked, slept and dreamed for three months, before they were sent over the top. We saw pictures they had drawn on the walls, initials, marks in the rock. The tracings of another generation in cold cream-coloured rock.

Towards the end of the tour we saw where the men would have gone up to fight. Up the carved staircase to the hell above. The brutal explosions, cruel flashes of light. The smoke and smell of cordite. The shouts and cries. An aural representation of Dante’s inferno.

Back at the hotel, we gathered for a briefing of the first day’s walk and a speech by the charity’s ambassador Andy Reid. Andy was so engaging, his sense of humour so sharp, that it took some time to notice that he lost both his legs and one arm in Afghanistan. He told us his story: his desperation to get into the army, his love of the job, and then the day he was injured. He then spoke to us about his slow, painful recovery. His determination to propose to and marry the woman he loved. Andy achieved everything he wanted to and continues to do so. The Army Benevolent Fund has been instrumental in helping Andy get back on his metaphorical feet and when he finished talking to us there was stunned silence followed by deafening applause. If we were walking in the footsteps of soldiers past, we were walking for the soldiers of the present and the future.


Dawn at Lochnagar Crater (my photo)


Day One found us at Lochnagar Crater, 0630. This crater was formed by one of the explosions which marked the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The wind was razor-sharp and the crater wreathed in very thin mist. We were given a blessing by the padre, who repeated it in Welsh as we were heading to Mametz Wood. As we set off, the sun began to rise, settling in soft gold stripes on the land which had seen so much and could forget none of it.


A blessing


At Mametz Wood I felt increasingly uneasy. The earth was covered in greenery but underneath it was churned up like whisked egg-white. I felt sea sick. 4,000 Welshmen died here. There was a memorial to one soldier; aged 91, he had wanted his ashes to be scattered where so many of his friends had fallen. A drone being used for aerial footage abruptly stopped working and would not operate until we had left the wood. My stomach starte29630666854_576c05e1a8_zd hurting and tears sprung into my eyes. We left the cool stillness of the woods for the sun-splashed fields beyond, and I felt relieved. The eyes of the fallen watched our departure through knots in the twisted trees.

This tortured country held a million memories, but now only bird song disturbed the peace. In the distance a farmer ploughed his field; 3 people are killed a year by disturbing buried armaments.


We walked on to Thiepval Memorial, dedicated to the memory of 72,000 Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave. I thought the faint lines on the walls of the memorial were part of the design until I got closer and realised they were all names.

On to Mill Road Cemetery and the Ulster Tower, a memorial of the 36th Division.


The Danger Tree (Millie’s photo)


Then to Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial which is in a park encompassing the scarred grounds where the Newfoundland Regiment attacked. How the earth pitches and rolls! This park also houses the Danger Tree- the only tree on this part of the Somme battlefield to survive the fighting of 1914-1918. In a way this was the most poignant memorial of them all, this crippled twisted piece of bark.

At the end of Day One we gathered at Hawthorne Ridge Crater where, like Lochnagar Crater, a mine was detonated on 1st July 1916. We walked to Sunken Lane, halfway between the two frontlines and where Somme footage was filmed. Again, the deafening silence of held breath. Steve described how he had calculated the point at which the soldiers entered the lane, and with it the war. Stills from the film – of real soldiers, many of whom died minutes after they were taken – were laid out along with poppies.


Soldiers, not actors (my photo)


Past the Memorial to the Accrington Pals Battalion. I thought of the three sets of brothers who shared my childhood in Overbury, and imagined them all going off to war never to return. A village losing all its boys in one day. This is what happened to Accrington and the towns and villages nearby.

We finished at Gommecourt Wood Military Cemetery, where 750 soldiers lie buried – most of them unidentified.

This whole day I felt like I was walking through a film made of sepia. Roomie and I agreed to put the light out at 2130. I slept soundly, and did not dream.

Day 2 was longer. The ground harder and drier. We started at Neuville-Saint-Vaast German Military Cemetery under a sombre grey sky; in contrast to the clean white of the Commonwealth cemeteries this felt grim and neglected. Sadness welled up in me. The German cemeteries are supported by charity, which means they are limited in what they can do to commemorate their dead. Each black cross has four names on it, every one of those a human being. A life ended. A son mourned. An Arras shop keeper had told us that a German visitor asked if they were allowed to visit the cemeteries, which to me is the saddest thing of all. I took the details of how to donate to these cemeteries, as I had no money on me. (Yes, I had totally forgotten to bring any Euros with me.)


The German dead sleep (my photo)


Next stop was La Targette Memorial, then the Maroueil British Cemetery and the Ecoivres Military Cemetery. Again, crosses spreading as far as the eye could see, although these were Commonwealth memorials, bright and scrubbed. The scale is immense, indescribable. Every marker is a life lost, a ripple of broken hearts and shattered lives. We stopped for refreshment at the remains of an old monastery at Mont-Saint-Eloi which were reduced from 53m to 44m by WW1 shelling.


Mont-Saint-Eloi ruins


At this point my chin started to droop. My soles were painful; whispering at first, then grumbling, then shouting at me to stop.  I focused on what was dead in front of me, not daring to look any further ahead, placing one throbbing foot in front of the other, not noticing Ian until he caught up with me (not difficult) and asked how I was getting on. Company stirs tired limbs and distracts from aching ones. Ian made me smile, then laugh. He showed the way (because, yes, I would have got lost otherwise). The worst bit was going up a very steep hill in woods where you had to physically pull yourself from tree to tree. Towards the top I grabbed at a branch to pull me up; it promptly snapped and I nearly tumbled right back down to the bottom. I gritted my teeth – really gritted them, like I’ve not done since aged 17 I broke my ankle and then had to walk on it – and got to the top.

We broke for lunch. Steve told us that 100 years ago men had flung themselves up that hill being shot at and having grenades thrown at them. I felt ashamed of myself.

We were now at Notre Dame de Lorette, the biggest French cemetery which is built on the site of several bloody battles between the French and German. There are 39,985 men buried here . A father, killed in WW1 and his son, killed in WW2, lie in the same grave.

Onward to the Cabaret Rouge Cemetery with 7,650 burials so far, more than half of whom are identified. Are these numbers meaning anything to you as you read them? It’s hard for them to make sense to me when I see them written down. But when you see them laid out in front of you, as people, then you understand the enormity of the loss. Imagine a man standing behind each grave and you start to be able to get your head around it.

Walking continued to be difficult. We kept our spirits up by singing Tipperary (badly). I remembered being taught this by Mrs Brown, our school music teacher who pounded the piano with great vigour during the hymns. We sang Pack Up Your Troubles and Tipperary in a round aged 10, having little or no idea where these tunes came from. Singing them nearly 30 years later (ouch!) I found they lifted my aching knees and my dwindling spirits. The tunes worked their magic and we arrived at Vimy Ridge.


Here is a truly breath-taking memorial in marble to all Canadians who served in WW1 and particularly the 60,000 who died in France. The names of lost men are cut into every surface. A Madonna looks down in sorrow on a coffin topped with a soldier’s helmet.


On the way to the coach I passed sheep grazing in an enormous shell crater. It looked so innocuous and yet for me summed up the Somme as it was then, and as it is now.


Sheep may safely graze (my photo)


That night the medic attended to my very blistered feet. I was drowsy. The food provided by the catering company wasn’t sufficient, and the trek organisers called in pizza. I have never tasted pizza so good, with melting pulled cheese and hot dough and sharp olives.

Day 3. We were a little sombre today, despite the fact that the sun was back. Andy left us. He had been our beacon, our reminder of what we were doing this for, pushing himself on a specially adapted bike with one arm while we went on two feet and grumbled about sore toes. He had been an example for us all – a reminder of what real hardship is. He left us with the words “What the mind believes, the body achieves”.


A man in a million – Andy Reid


We started at Ploegsteert Memorial which commemorates over 11,000 servicemen with no known grave. One of the named is a 15 year old boy who must have joined up aged just 13.  On to Prowse Point Military Cemetery, named after Brigadier Prowse who was killed on the first day of the Somme. On to the Khaki Chums Christmas Truce Memorial where the famous football game is believed to have taken place. The Island of Ireland Peace Park was full of beautiful poetry carved on slabs of gentle grey granite. The words of the men who witnessed this violence and slaughter sum up the atmosphere better than mine can.


Never a truer word (my photo)


We walked on and on.The graves kept coming and coming. There was little, if any, time for reflection or close scrutiny. We paid our respects and went forwards.

We broke for a rest. I had to wee behind a blackberry bush.

I was then taken off to “meet” Bertie Ambrose, my great-great-uncle, who lay buried in Messines Cemetery, aged 19. I was accompanied by Amy, Steve and Ed. I was glad that I was with friends, as I found myself feeling nervous.


Thank you for being with me!


Steve helped me trace his grave, and Ed walked up the row, gesturing gently to the headstone. I faltered for a moment, then went slowly to meet my uncle. I found I was

overwhelmed with sadness, loss of someone I had never known and relief at having come all this way to find my ancestor. I didn’t know what to say, so I said hello to him and introduced myself. I felt he knew me already, as I knew him. Steve had given me a cross, and I wrote on it before placing it on his grave next to the picture I had brought. I had briefly lost it that morning and had a complete meltdown, sick with disappointment that I had brought it all the way from England for it to disappear only miles from its final destination. I’d let Bertie down, and all those who had supported me to come here. Now I had paid tribute to him. In a few quiet minutes I had stepped backwards 100 years and put my arms around a 19 year old boy who died alone and frightened in the horror of war.


On to New Zealand Messines Ridge Memorial and then the Pool of Peace (the Spanbroekmolen Mine Crater). This was the largest of the 19 mines to explode on 7th June 1917 and the sound was apparently heard in Dublin and Downing Street itself. It is incredible how something so destructive and violent can create an area of such extreme stillness and beauty.


A pool of stillness (my photo)


On to the Wytschaete Military Cemetery where 1,002 servicemen are buried or commemorated. Then – of course, I got lost; it wouldn’t be right if I hadn’t. Fortunately I wasn’t on my own, and Pete, my stalwart companion, was the one who noticed we hadn’t seen any markers – or any other walkers – for a good twenty minutes. We turned around and in the distance saw a whirlwind of dust as Helen – rather like Sir Lancelot in Monty Python’s Holy Grail – pounded towards us, despite having cycled and walked about twice as far as everyone else. My heart sank into my dusty, muddy boots, where my feet were wrapped in barbed wire. We had gone the wrong way. To my eternal shame – but I’m being honest because I don’t believe in not being honest – my bottom lip began to tremble. The thought of slugging all the way back from whence we had come was not something I could countenance. Thankfully the support team descended from on high in a blazing chariot – or to be more accurate screeched up the road in a grubby white van – and took us back to the spot where everyone else had just enjoyed a break. Pete and I crammed Penguins into our mouths and were then taken to the pub where we all had a drink before the final march to the Menin Gate.


What a sight we must have made as we walked down the road – all different ages, shapes and sizes, all of us in ABF T-shirts. Our feet were lighter, our steps stronger. Cars beeped in support. Traffic stopped to let us cross the road – we should have hurried, we should have attempted to run maybe, but we were beyond that, and there was solemnity in the occasion.

The drivers, knowing something special was going on, waited patiently. We were on paved streets, going past Ypres Cloth Hall which loomed in Gothic splendour into the pale blue sky.

30145814212_4c98498994_oThe pace picked up. A few unwitting shoppers were swept up in our crowd, clutching their bags helplessly. I feared we might take them through the Gate with us. People standing on the bridge we went under applauded. As we got ever closer to our destination the tramp of our feet was as rhythmic as that of a marching army. Customers at a cafe stood up and start clapping. I gulped down the emotion brimming in my throat. Here was the Menin Gate, gleaming in the evening sun, the names of the missing engraved for eternity on its stones. Two ex-servicemen walkers donned their berets and, with backs straighter than any had been in the last three days, turned their heads sharply right and saluted their fallen comrades. That did it for me: I burst into tears and sobbed all the way through the Gate.

Friends and relatives were waiting at the end of the walk, clapping and cheering. We stopped, rested, but only for a second; there were people to hug, to congratulate, to share the moment with. There were tears of relief, joy, triumph and  achievement.


The bath that I soaked my poor macerated feet in that evening was the best bath I have ever had in my life. The service at the Last Post, when we were positioned behind the bugler, was respectful and dignified. It was the pinnacle of the entire event and the focus was on “those who grow not old”. Silent pride swelled for Robin, the ABF chief of staff who read the commemoration, and the three walkers chosen to lay a wreath on behalf of the charity.

The food we ate at the celebration dinner was the best I have eaten (even though nobody could tell if it was pork or chicken). I drank wine, and vodka. I chatted with pals and made friends with strangers.

The next day I went with The Two Daves and Roomie through the Flanders Field museum. We were given a discount at a local chocolatier so we went to buy gifts for friends. The cheerful little Belgian had put a sign in the window welcoming us.


We got on our coaches home, tearful farewells were exchanged, and we all spilled out into London several hours later like a dropped bag of marbles.

Now it’s over. Feet have recovered. Toenails have started to grow back. I keep peeling dead skin off my soles like wallpaper. We can’t bear to stop talking to each other. We post photos and memories, share articles and book reviews. The first week back was especially hard; I didn’t know what to do with myself without my comrades.

So, my friends, I succeeded. I did it. I walked with ghosts, learned histories, met incredible people and forged unique friendships. This event was much more than a physical challenge for me: when I signed up nine months previously I knew I could not baulk at it. Alone, I might fail myself, but I would not fail the charity and those who had sponsored me. By choosing to sign up, I chose to live; to remember those who died so that I could. Thank you, every single one of you, who believed in me and donated to help me do this. I didn’t let you down.

Sour Milk

Have decided to make shorter posts, because they are easier to write and a damn sight easier to read. 

So. I read Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. It’s on the Booker list, so I felt I would be enriching my mind by reading it. But I found my mind didn’t want enriching as it kept wandering.

Levy paints a good picture of Spain, and I enjoyed reading about the weather and the heat and the smells. But I didn’t care much about the people who inhabit this particular bit of it. Sofia’s mother is unable to walk and suffers from a variety of ailments, including an aversion to ‘certain types of water’. So to distract herself she gets into bed with a couple of weird people and flies off to visit her dad and his new wife who is 40 years his junior. None of which is particularly interesting.

The book is possibly supposed to be funny in places, but left me poe-faced. If I were stung by a load of jellyfish and had to race across the beach for aid I would still notice if my bikini top had fallen off. Perhaps Sofia is not as blessed as I am.

Like when I read Anne Tyler, I feel like I am missing something, and am somehow less intelligent by not getting why a book is so good. I have stumbled across another writer who (in my opinion, not that that counts for much) is trying too hard to be a writer – who is so aware of prose, literary reference and being Deep and Meaningful that she forgets plot.

Barbara Erskine’s latest, Sleeper’s Castle is due back to the library next week. Here is a lady who knows how to tell a story! So to date I am still unMount!ed. ‘Twas ever thus…

The Final Word

I have spent the entire time since my last post reading this book.


Hefty tome, isn’t it? I was reading it in the local fish & chips shop as I waited for my order and a gentleman commented “That looks like light reading.” Indeed – over 3lbs of it, sir.

David Cesarani died months before Final Solution was published. To my mind this is the definitive work for not only those who want to study the Holocaust and the rise of anti-Semitism but also the psychology of us all: how quickly humans can turn on their brethren. How easily we transform from the epitome of civility into creatures more bestial than animals.

I started reading this book before I went on holiday and I had to hand it back to the library (a) because someone else wanted it, (b) because it was way too heavy to take with me and (c) because I needed a break from the horrendous truth of what people can do to other people. I am glad I have finished it though. It is immensely readable, even though the subject matter is such agony. It is painstakingly researched and no sin is left uncovered. It was as difficult to read as you can imagine and more so. In some paragraphs my eyes skidded away from the text and on others they were hooked onto words as if on barbed wire, unable to believe what they were seeing. At one point I had to put the book down and do something else because I couldn’t take what I was reading – but I always returned to it. If people suffered unimaginable cruelties the least I could do was read about it, and bear witness to it.

Thank you, Professor Cesarani. Rest in peace; God knows you deserve to.

Coming up next:

Mount! by Jilly Cooper. My copy arrived 2 weeks ago and I was desperate to start it but I needed to finish Final Solution first. I wrote to Jilly to inform and she promised she understands!