WHAT YOU'LL FIND ON THIS BLOG

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Reasons why Fran went quiet

I'm sorry I've been absent for a month or so. Did anyone notice? Did you wonder what that unusual quiet was, or why you could suddenly hear birdsong and butterflies whispering?

The reason is, I've been writing the first second third fourth seventy-ninth draft of a novel all summer, grabbing the opportunity afforded by a long teacher holiday, or should that be 'long holiday for teachers' in case you think it's only for teachers who are unusually lanky with limbs like string. What fun syntax is, readers!!

Here are some other things I have done this summer.


Thing I did #1


I came within a few inches of snogging a llama at a farm. Is it just me, or is that llama looking sideways at my daughter-in-law taking the photo as if to say, 'Please get this llady away from me as soon as possible.'



Thing I did #2

I stayed in a holiday cottage in the Cotswolds where all the mirrors were so high up on the walls you had to be six feet tall to see more than your fringe, yet all the sofas were so low down that if there'd been an emergency in the kitchen you'd have taken six minutes to reach the scene. I looked on the brochure to see if it said 'Only suitable for people who can grow or shrink themselves at short notice' but, no. All I know is, by the time you'd leapt up and down to try and pluck your eyebrows and then winched yourself out of a seating position a few times to fetch biscuits, you've done more exercise than is right and proper on a holiday.


Thing I did #3


I met an old lady on a bench in Bourton-on-the-Water who should have gone into stand-up comedy. I got into conversation with her about the lengths to which people will go for a tan. She told me she'd seen a news article about a woman who was stuck in a traffic jam on a hot day and, so as not to waste the opportunity, lay in the road in between the cars to catch more of the sun. I mused with the old lady about whether being run over while you were sunning yourself was a good way to go. 'At least you'd be nice and tanned for when you're laid out,' she said. 'And if you were going to hell, you'd go down brown.'

Thing I did #4

I watched the Olympics. The dressage, you can keep. I feel sorry for the horses who I'm sure are thinking, 'How the heck do I face my mates tomorrow?' I'm also not keen on team sports. The hockey, for instance, reminds me of school, and of the fact that I still haven't ever confessed to my secondary school that I was the person who wheeled the trolley of hockey sticks into the girls' showers in July 1978 and turned the hot water full onto the sticks so that they warped. This was as revenge on Miss Smith who never believed me when I tried to convince her that I was on Week 46 of my monthly period and therefore could not possibly do cross-country running. My favourite Olympic sport is gymnastics. I love the 'floor' work. I do floor work myself quite regularly although I have yet to move on from Stage 1: sitting to Stage 2: moving a limb.

Thing I did #5

At the farm with the llamas ... the llama farm, where llama farmers and llamas alarm us but don't harm us ..... unless we're in pyjamas .... where farmers of llamas can calm us .... 

*THE WORLD SHOUTS STOP*

....  I watched Pig Olympics with my family: my husband, two daughters, one son, one daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. We yelled and waved flags to support our chosen pig, Harry Trotter. There were five pigs in the race. There were meant to be six but we were told that one had 'strained a hamstring' in training. Another pig was called Boaris Johnson; he came in last in the two races we watched, lolloping along at the back, looking as though he didn't care. As you can see from the picture below, these particular pigs look more like sheep. I'm sure their bacon will be delicious, although you might have to pick bits of wool out of your teeth.






My favourite conversation of the day was with 2 year old Phoebe who was doing some 'pretend cooking' in the play area of the farm.

'What would you like, Grandma?'
'I'll have eggs and toast, please.'
'Okay, here you are.' (She hands me invisible food.)
'Thank you very much. That looks delicious. How much do I owe you?'
(She thinks.) 'Hm. That'll be .... that'll be .... four o'clock, please.'






















Sunday, 31 July 2016

Reasons why Fran should learn to check timetables

Saturday's results: Public transport - 49. Fran Hill - 0

None of it was Chiltern Railways' fault, to be fair. They did their best in the circumstances ...

I'd set my alarm for 6.30. I needed an early bus to the station, then a train to Birmingham for a day of writers' workshops. I'd been looking forward to it.

I hadn't checked the internet to make sure there were no hiccups in terms of engineering works.

Everything went well and I had a lovely day. 

First, I forgot to turn the sound up on my phone, so at 6.30 the alarm went 'Ungh, ungh, ungh' making little effort noises to wake me. I slumbered on. Poor wee alarm, so keen to help.

At 7.32, I woke.

It's funny how quickly sweat can appear on one's forehead. Pff pff pff.  Little prickles of moisture, and then a sick feeling in my stomach, the same as you'd get if you'd just arrived for your package holiday in Spain and remembered that you'd ironed some clothes for your holiday and - had you switched the iron off? Or not?

I re-checked bus and train timetables to work out a new journey. Could I make it to Birmingham in time? Maybe ...

I leapt in the shower like a mud wrestler who's just remembered she booked a date with George Clooney for five minutes' time.

I dressed as hurriedly as a catwalk model with 20 seconds to change costumes, except, in so many other ways, not like a catwalk model at all. In fact, let's leave it at the hurrying.

I threw two sips of hot tea and one Weetabix down my throat and as it went down the Weetabix yelled, 'WHERE'S MY BROTHER?' but that was all I had time for.

I grabbed the bag I had packed the night before with notebook, pens and copies of my book in case anyone said, 'You wrote a BOOK? Here's a fifty pound note. Let me buy one. No, don't worry about the change.'

I caught a bus.

I got off the bus, caught the train in time, and had a lovely day. 

I had five minutes to walk the ten minutes to the train station. At the train station, I said to the man at the counter. 'Puff, pant, puff, pant, puff, pant, puff, pant, I think I'm dying.'

'Come again?' he said.

'Is the 8.34 to Birmingham Moor Street running?' I said, drawing on everything I was told during three birthing experiences so that I had oxygen.

'There aren't any trains,' he said. 'The line's up because of engineering works. There are only replacement buses.'

I said, 'Oh, never mind. C'est la vie. Que sera sera. The Lord moveth in mysterious ways.'

I said, 'Kill me now.'

His face said, 'You seem as though you're doing a pretty good job of that yourself.'

I made it all a lot worse by asking, so desperate for good news that all logic had flown, 'Do the buses take longer?'

He couldn't have gazed at me with more pity.

I boarded a bus which would take me to Solihull Station. It would take forty minutes.

It took forty minutes and I got there in time and had a lovely day. 

Forty minutes into the journey, we were at a country station stop called Dorridge, reached via some narrow lanes more suitable for pedestrians, bicycles and very thin cows.

'I thought I was meant to stop here on the way to Solihull,' our bus driver said to an orange-jacketed Chiltern Railways female employee with a clipboard and an anxious forehead.

'Not according to our timetable.'

'Oh, bugger,' said our driver.

We set off again, via South Wales, Cumbria and parts of Northern Scotland, before arriving at Solihull Station.

There was a train waiting on the platform. No tannoy announcements were being made, no information boards gave any clues, and I could see no staff to help me. I leapt onto the train and said, 'Is this the train for Birmingham Moor Street?' to everyone else in the carriage settling into seats and putting bags on racks.

'We think so,' they said. 'It's pointing the right way.' 'It's going at the right time.'

So, the carriage was filled with people like me, travelling by guesswork, with that faint hope stirring in our optimistic hearts that all would be well.

I sat down. By then, who cared? If it went to Bournemouth for the day, I could have fish and chips by the sea and a triple rum and raisin icecream. If it went the other way, to Glasgow or Edinburgh, I've always wanted to try a deep-fried Mars Bar, and if I died eating it, a railway station ticket man in Leamington Spa could confirm to police, 'Oh yes, she looked a bit peaky when I saw her. I'm not at all surprised.' And maybe Chiltern Railways would have sent flowers.

It went to Birmingham, though, and I sneaked into the workshop only twenty minutes late.

'This is the writers' workshop, isn't it?' I said.

'No, no,' someone said. 'This is advanced Russian grammar. You must be in the wrong building.'

'Yes, do sit down, and welcome,' the tutor said.

I had a lovely day.


BACON-wrapped? A step too far, surely, even when you've been lost on public transport for weeks and weeks. 





Friday, 15 July 2016

Reasons to eat plums

My husband came home from his allotment yesterday with some gooseberries.

When I say 'some', I mean 'enough to make a crumble to feed Warwickshire'.

It was a sunny evening. We sat at the garden table with the gooseberries in a giant bowl between us. 'I need to prepare these for the freezer,' he said. 'Do you want to help me get them done before we cook dinner?'

I stood up so that I could see him over the tower of fruit. 'No, I don't want to, particularly,' I said. 'But if I don't, I fear dinner will happen in the early hours of tomorrow morning.'

I sat down again, and began. He was using a tiny pair of scissors, but I was using my fingernails, which was quicker. Pick off the top. Pick off the tail. In the pan. Pick off the top. Pick off the tail. In the pan. Pick off the top. Pick off the t -

'This is a kind of hell,' I said, after half an hour. 'Did you hear Farming Today the other morning? They were saying that gooseberries were an unpopular dessert ingredient these days with Brits. I WONDER WHY.'

It's not only the hard work, though.

1. They're hairy. They remind me of cold-weather testicles. I told my husband this and he nearly cut off his thumb with the scissors.

2. They're sour, and the average crumble needs fourteen pounds of sugar to make up for it. Forget the sugar, and your face will look like a cat's arse for a week.

3. They're not unlike peeled lychees in their resemblance to eyeballs. (My husband preferred that comparison to the testicle one.)

4. Lots of people don't like them, so if you had eight people round for dinner, and had cooked a gooseberry crumble or pie, only two people would want it. 'A yoghurt, anyone? They're only just out of date.'

5. They go through the digestive system like a fast tube train through a tunnel with a stiff breeze behind it. I was going to say strong wind, but -

6. No one can agree how to say it. Some people say 'goozbree' and some people say 'guzbree' and others say 'goozberry'. I've also heard people call them 'goosegogs'. The world doesn't need any more conflict. Nobody has that trouble with 'plum'.

We were on gooseberry number 9,376,501 when my husband said, 'Why do people who feel left out say they're playing gooseberry?'

'When I've done another million,' I said, 'I'll look it up.'

Google came up with a very clear answer. 'No one really knows.' The most frequent idea was this, from DictionaryCentral.com:

Play gooseberry ‘be an uncomfortably superfluous third person with two lovers’ goes back to the early 19th century, and may have originated in the notion of a chaperone (ostensibly) occupying herself with picking gooseberries while the couple being chaperoned did what they were doing (gooseberry-picker was an early 19th-century term for a ‘chaperone’).

As for why they're even called 'goose' berries in the first place, Google doesn't know that either. My favourite etymological dictionary www.etymonline.com says helpfully, 'No part of the plant seems to suggest a goose.' This seems reasonable, although, do geese have testicles? Just saying.

Anyway, my husband says he's got three times the amount he brought home yesterday still on the allotment, waiting to be picked: enough to cure constipation in everyone in the whole wide world or ensure that no one ever comes here again for a dinner party.





Next time, Fran would add the sugar to her dinner party crumble





Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Evidence that a trip to the dentist isn't just a trip to the dentist

I've just come back from the dentists' surgery.

1. Is it dentists' surgery? Dentist surgery? Dental surgery? Or dentist's surgery? There are four dentists working there, but I only had one treating me, the Lord be thanked. Imagine! Four at once, peering into your mouth in the way the police might gaze into the darkness of a deep well scanning for bodies. Four dentists saying 'Open wide' 'Open wide' 'Open wide' 'Open wide' like a Gregorian chant or an echo across a valley. Four gleaming dental probes, all in your mouth at once, like an attack of metal scorpions. Hey, you dentalphobics out there: have you fainted yet?

2. It was raining when I set off to catch the bus: Proper Grown-up Rain, which has been falling for two days now, greying up the world and sluicing down drains with unreasonable gusto. So I took my husband's giant umbrella, measuring a mile across its width, and being the most anti-social umbrella in Christendom. To pass me, people had to balance along the kerb like tightrope walkers to avoid hurling themselves in front of buses. But the giant umbrella was shedloads more effective than the size 8 umbrella I had with me during yesterday's rainstorm. That one left me with a narrow dry patch down the middle of my body but elbows and outer thighs like papier mache, bits dropping off by the time I reached home.


For my next birthday, please 


3. On the bus, a woman on the seat in front was peeling the sticky 'discount' price labels from packets of broccoli and bread rolls and sausages, one by one, picking at them to remove any trace. Why? Was she shopping for a friend she was about to con? 'You owe me £14.10, Audrey, but just the £14 will do. Don't you worry about the change.' 'Aw, thanks, Joan, chuck. You've got such a generous nature.' [Stage direction: Joan sniggers behind her hand and plans to spend her ill-gotten gains on a beer and a Cornish pasty in The Dog and Duck.]

Woman on the seat in front, if you are reading this, please leave a comment below with an explanation.

4. I was seeing a dentist today I haven't met before: someone called Jane. No surnames now, even for dentists, apparently. Soon we'll be addressing our medics as 'pet' and 'love' like Northern bus drivers do with passengers, and giving them friendly punches or high-fives and saying, 'You must be bloody joking, you plonker!' when they tell you the price of your treatment. I used to see a private dentist (Tom, soon to be Cutiepie). But I received a letter a year ago saying that either I could stay on Tom's list, paying into a private insurance plan that would cost me nine million pounds a year, but would give me peace of mind not even Mother Teresa could offer, or I could switch to the NHS dentist.

I switched.

She was very kind, although there was an awkward moment when the tannoy called me upstairs ('Mrs Hill to Surgery 3, please, and try not to feel self-conscious as everyone watches you shuffle upstairs to your doom') because when I got there I shook hands with a woman in a green surgical uniform and said, 'Nice to meet you, Jane. This is the first time you've seen me. And my teeth. Ha ha.' She turned out to be the dental nurse and I had to do it all over again with the actual dentist who, from now on, I will call Honeybunny-Cheekypodge because we're - like - bessie-mates now.

5. I need a filling. Bah! The receptionist tried to book me in for next week. 'That'll be Wednesday 6 July,' she said. I frowned at my diary. 'But 6 July is a Monday,' I said. 'No,' she said. 'It's definitely Wednesday. Next week. Wednesday 6 July.' *awkward pause* 'Oops,' I said. 'I'm looking at last year.' The receptionist laughed and I told her, 'No wonder I'm a bit confused. That explains why I started peeling sprouts yesterday and putting up tinsel.'

Actually, I didn't say the thing about the sprouts and tinsel. I wish I had. So many missed opportunities. :(










Sunday, 26 June 2016

Reasons why Fran's ribs are fine but her feet are not

I bought a new non-slip bath mat. But I am a spectacularly unsuccessful shopper and could not sing, along with Edith Piaf, 'Non, je ne regret rien' because I rue 90% of my purchases.

Neither can I speak French, so that's another reason.

And she's dead, so singing along is probably too high an expectation.

We never used to own a bath mat. But our shower is an over-the-bath type, without the dimpled surface one gets in a purpose-built shower unit. Since my husband slipped a couple of years back while showering, fell forward, and landed on his ribs on the edge of the bath, we've used a mat. Yes, ouch. He broke two ribs and, as you probably know, medics do nothing for broken ribs these days unless the shards have pierced your lungs, your lips have gone blue, and your eyes have disappeared into the back of your head. 

I remember the Summer of the Spouse's Broken Ribs well, because four weeks later, with his chest still the colour of blackberries, we travelled to the Lake District. We'd booked a pretty holiday cottage and didn't want to cancel. 

Because we don't drive, we took trains and buses, and I had to manage all the luggage including a case the size of the Lake District itself. 

This was fine while we were on the flat, as the case was on wheels, but when we arrived in Grasmere, and took the 'short walk from the bus stop' that the holiday cottage details had promised, we found we had something like THIS to traverse first.




We made it, but the words 'solicitor' and 'Do I get the piano or do you?' had been mentioned on our way there.

Back to the bathmat.

My first response when I ordered the mat from Amazon was one of amusement because of the description of it. 

PVC Transparent Large Long Non-Slip Anti-Slip Shower Bath Mat with Massage Function (Green)

I have filed the description away because next year I'm teaching A level Linguistics and it will provide me with an entire lesson on pre-modifying and post-modifying adjectivals, ambiguity, noun phrases, the use of parenthesis, syntax, advertising conventions, and the most important lesson of all, don't buy this kind of bath mat. 

Here is why 'Oui, je regret everything' about my new purchase.

1. The description says it's green. Our bathroom's colour scheme is 'aqua' and the picture of the mat made it look a similar shade. It is not. It is a green so garish that, in the middle of the night, there is no longer any need to put the bathroom light on. If the window's open, the bath mat attracts moths, mosquitoes, and the occasional ship out at sea. 

2. It is so non-slip and anti-slip that, when you try to detach it from the base of the bath after a shower, its rubber suckers cling to it like stubborn monster-limpets, and the resulting noise means that people in New Zealand look up in the street and wonder if bad weather's coming. No, we're not going to slip and break our ribs. But we might pull a muscle wrenching the damn thing out of the bath and one day the bath may come with it.

3. Its 'massage function', which I assume is meant to give the soles of your feet a mini-workout while you shower, takes the form of raised pads on its surface.  But 'massage'? Imagine Astroturf that's been starched, or something like this.


Fran's new lime, almond and jojoba shower cream wasn't having the relaxing effect promised,
mainly because her feet were being pulverised to shreds

I need to buy another one but this time I'll go into town so that I can 'feel before I buy' and make sure it's a bath mat and not an instrument of self-harm. 

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Reasons why I loved being in Colin the Harsh's classes



You bump into someone in the street. ‘Sorry,’ you say.

‘No, I’m sorry,’ says your bumpee.

‘No, my fault,’ you insist.

‘My fault,’ they say. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘No, really …’


And it could go on for ever, this quest to be the one in the wrong, if you didn’t both have shopping to do, letters to post, and other people to apologise to.

They say it’s a British thing. Whatever it is, my creative writing tutor, Colin, was determined to stamp it out.

I joined his class in 1995 when my third child had started school. During that first lesson, he asked a woman to share her work. She opened her notebook, announced, ‘I’m sorry – it’s not very good,’ and began to read.

He interrupted her. ‘Rule Number One,’ he said. ‘We will never apologise for what we’ve written.’

It took us weeks to learn that he meant it. If we launched into a bumbling, self-effacing, ever so ‘umble apology, he’d put up his hand, like a police officer stopping traffic, and say, ‘Start again.’

He wouldn’t accept any of the following:
‘Sorry – it’s not quite finished.’
‘I do apologise – I think it’s a bit rambly.’
‘I’m sorry – I had to rush this before I came out tonight.’
‘I’m sorry – it’s not my best work.’
‘Apologies for this – it’s a bit depressing.’
‘Sorry about this one – it’s not the funny stuff I usually do.’
‘Sorry, guys – I didn’t have time to do the usual edit.’
‘Gosh, how can I follow Simon’s? It was brilliant. Well, I guess I’ll read it anyway.’
‘I really struggled with this. I’m sorry if it doesn’t come over clearly.’
‘Oh dear, I’ve lost my place. Sorry, sorry. Let me just find it. I knew this was going to read badly.’

The need to apologise beforehand – or during - was as strong as a Delhi-belly urge: verbal diarrhoea in its purest form.

Sometimes, we’d apologise all over again for apologising.

‘I’m losing the will to live,’ Colin would say.

One day, he brought in a pineapple. Don’t ask me why he chose a pineapple. ‘Every time I sense an apology-fest coming,’ he said, ‘I will shout “Pineapple!” at which point you must stop explaining, justifying and second-guessing our reactions, and just read the damn piece!’

That was a turning point.

‘This is a piece I wrote last night about my grandmother’s funeral,’ we learned to begin, or ‘I wrote the start of a short story. Here it is.’

We could request particular critique, but only in positive terms. These were fine: “Could you listen out for sections you think are confusing?” or “I’d like to get the girl’s childish voice exactly right. Could you comment on that?” As Colin put it, ‘Self-aware is fine. Self-deprecating nonsense, no.’

He also pointed out that, sometimes, when we heralded a piece with ‘This is a bit rubbish,’ it wasn’t lack of confidence at all. It was over-confidence. We thought we were the new Stephen King or J K Rowling.

‘So, I’m not allowing false modesty either,’ he’d say. ‘It’s not sincere. And if you come to class thinking you’re Booker Prize material, you won’t listen to anyone’s critique. Go and join Embroidery or Spanish Cookery: something you think you need help with.’

Colin the Harsh, he was, but also Colin the Wise.

Anyway, I’m sorry if you found this blog post a bit …..


Oops! PINEAPPLE!!

Apologise one more time and I'll just throw the tin at you


Monday, 6 June 2016

Reasons why Fran prefers to shop online

Last weekend saw me in Yorkshire on a writers' course. We were given a task on Saturday morning: write about a journey. We read out our pieces on the Saturday night. This was mine and I thought some of you might identify with its sentiments :)





I would rather navigate spiteful whitewater rapids, I think, as I embark on a journey that terrifies me more. I would sooner scale mountains thick with snow and peril. I would, instead, fight through rainforests with only a compass and the threat of snakebite for companions. Yes, I would choose any - all - of these, rather than launch myself on this journey.

I am travelling, nudging, millimetre by millimetre, from the back to the front of the Saturday morning queue at Tesco.

No, there are no killer beasts here, except for unpredictable wayward trolleys, untamed in the inexpert grasp of Marjorie, who normally shops online, or Derek, who hasn't shopped alone since 1972 and is only here because of his wife's broken ankle. And her Stare of Death.

There are no crocodiles here, no lions, tigers, hornets or spiders. But there is the fierce bite, the deep sting of knowing that ahead stretches a queue of seventeen others. Each, like me, has a trolley piled to perdition with pizza and pastries and packets of peas. My quest up this queue of stultification will delete forty-five minutes from my life that I will never see again.

And nor would I want to see those minutes again, any more than I would offer myself a second time to a grizzly bear that had just wrenched off my foot with its teeth or denuded me of an arm with a swipe of its concrete slab of a paw.

And, no, here there aren't snarls and hissings from a rainforest's hidden beast-life that can cool the blood faster than the Grim Reaper himself. But, in front of me, there is a Small Child. A Small Child who wants Haribo. Small children who want Haribo - but aren't getting it - have screams that could slice into the soul of the Archbishop of Canterbury and divide him cleanly from every moral and compassionate instinct. This here is not a child. This is a monstrous wailing boy-creature that any midnight wolf would be proud to call 'brother'.

The queue shifts. Another millimetre of ground conquered.

But my journey - perhaps my last journey - has only begun.

Having detached his own tongue in his fury, Bobby was never going to enjoy Haribo again