Interview with Debaleena Mukherjee, poet and writer of observational life pieces

This week I’d like to welcome Debaleena Mukherjee to my blog.

Debaleena and I go way back. We’ve never met (who knows, maybe one day?) but have been friends for years. We first met online through a shared love of murder mysteries. Talking about books led to talking about family, work and cake. The important things in life! Debaleena has also been a staunch supporter of my writing, and I am proud now to be able to do the same. Debaleena writes poetry, the first volume of which was published a few months ago by Blue Rose Publishers.

Debaleena, welcome. It’s amazing to have this conversation with you! Congratulations on publishing your first book of poems, I’m sure there will be many more. I wasn’t entirely surprised when you announced the book was coming out – you’ve always shared such lively and passionate posts on Facebook and Instagram. Your powers of description are so vivid that I often feel as if I’m there with you. I particularly love your posts about the various festivals you celebrate.

But let’s move on. My first question is, What do you write?

I write poems; and I am now experimenting with short stories. It started with Facebook posts, Book Club reviews: that’s how we met, remember! I would write little notes about my day; like little letters to myself . Then I translated a Bengali poem for someone very close. And I could do it, although I’d been very hesitant and nervous about poetry. Poetry has always been “the impossible dream”. After that little translation, I got a bit braver. One night I started out very very tentatively. And I saw I could do it: very rough and cobbled together; but I could feel my thoughts in my words. My writing is just as  the title suggests – Ink smudged dreams: by the reading light. All written in the later hours of the night when I would drowse, browse and write. They are not about any coherent thoughts or convictions. They are more of inarticulate thoughts, emotions: ramblings you could say. So the poems were written.

There is a strong observational thread in your writing, so lovingly shared, that marks you out as a great writer. Question two, What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?

I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer; the cobwebs in my mind have never been swept away.  As a child I remember, I would  sit quietly for hours together, playing in my head. Now this head game was very interesting. I would imagine different scenarios- people, families, foreign countries I’d seen in photographs. I would spin stories in my head about people and places. Then I would imagine myself in castles and mansions. But it all had to be happy. This head game continued and I loved it. Later I would look at houses ; especially old houses; distant windows, silhouettes of people through the windows and concoct stories about their daily lives.

I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. Before I learnt to read, I would  love looking at illustrated books, magazines. I remember I had a book on dolls and I would look at it all day long. Then, once I learnt my ABC: I found the Ladybird series of fairy tales. Let me tell you the enchantment still remains as fresh as ever. Those covers! My favourite was The Beauty and The Beast. That started my life long enchantment with fairy tales. By the time I was ten, the Enid Blyton world became my world. I simply lived in those books. They were like a perpetual picnic life for me. Of course Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, school stories, they kept appearing in my life, and my head was a lovely place to visit. Then of course Mr. Rochester entered my life when I was twelve or thirteen – all ready to fall in love. By fifteen I got to know Mr. Darcy, whom – I know you’ll be shocked – I did not love. Mr. Knightley was my hero! Then  came Charlotte Bronte’s books- Shirley, Villette. And Louisa May Alcott. I used to imagine myself as Jo. We all do. I decided that Professor Bhaer would be my love for life. Until I read about some other character the next day, that is! Isn’t it delightful: to fall in love with so many heroes all at once! And I have a macabre taste for horror. So I wallowed in  gruesome murder mysteries. Then I was given an Agatha Christie book: The Man in the Brown Suit. After that there was no looking back. Christie led me to Victoria Holt, Bram Stoker, Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. As well as a wide range of Bengali literature of all genres. I am also a fan of romantic fiction, esp the mean and moody hunks that are Mills and Boon heroes! 

We read very similar things as children and young people, it seems, I was into all those books too. I’ve already touched on this next question a bit, but, next question, do you believe your culture influences your writing, and if so, how?

Oh yes! My culture has a profound influence on my writing, as you can see in my poems. They are imbued with a sense of belonging to my land and my people in every which way. This is more pronounced in the sections in my book, The Prayer and Hymn to the Earth. I am writing about my way of life. I realised that I’ve chosen colours, comparisons, ambience that are totally inherent to my culture. I’ve grown up reading our mythological stories, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as my parent tongue-Bengali literature- folk tales, fairy stories, poems. For me Gitanjali by Tagore is the ultimate prayer book.

I think culture can often be an almost hidden extra character in our writing. But looking ahead, what can we look forward to in the future from you?

Now that my mind block is gone, and I’ve tested the waters, I have become quite adventurous. Poems definitely. I’ve discovered this about myself that as I grow older, poetry grows more appealing. I find that I now can interpret life and emotions better through poetry. It is an instinctive response.

Like I told you – short stories. I am trying my hand at those. It’s very challenging but extremely interesting. And intriguing. Writing in someone else’s skin, creating another individual, different points of view: I find it extremely fascinating. I have to construct a short story, not just pour it out. So it is a constant process of study too. I have to keep going back to little research, references to literary devices, unity of time, place and action; and above all keep a firm track of all the threads.

Oh short stories are the slippery slope to novels! That’s exciting news for us! We’ve talked a bit about the books that influenced you, but who are your favourite authors? Do you have certain favourite books you return to again and again?

I am glad you asked “authors” and not “author”? You know we cannot have just one favourite. Ever. I of course love  re reading the classics like Jane Eyre, Emma, the Little Women series, Rose in Bloom. My comfort and enchantment lies in Mary Stewart’s books. I read them whenever I need a holiday of the heart. Elizabeth Peters is another favourite. I started reading Georgette Heyer pretty late in life, but I find her delightful. What shall I say about Patricia Wentworth! I adore Miss Silver and I still pine for Frank Abbot. One author who is a verbal illumination is Eva Ibbotson. I find her books poetic prose. I simply love medieval mysteries, and I keep discovering authors in this genre. Even more, I like the thrillers based on archaeological mysteries, religious relics, and mythological mysteries. And now: there’s Dottie Manderson. I am loving this return to the cozy mystery genre, very exciting and warmly familiar. Like I said, and I know you too agree: that one cannot have just one favourite.

Absolutely – and I know that like mine, your to-be-read pile is very substantial! What do you do when you are not writing or reading?

I am a homemaker. And not a very efficient one at that please! But I try. I do try! I cook. I cook traditional meals every day. Very often there are kitchen secrets that I dare not share. Of splattered oil, exploding blender. But yes, I prepare our Indian, especially Bengali cuisine ( that sounds so much more impressive than “food”). I enjoy baking, more so because I eat most of the cake myself. Music! That is my soul balm. I love to listen to oldies goldies: English, Hindi and Bengali. Instrumentals are my ‘go to’ solace when I am tired of words. And as I’ve been told “I have the spirit of enquiry”. Do you think it’s a polite way of saying I am nosy? I love people watching. My best pastime is to sit in a cafe and watch the world go by. As I watch people, I make stories about the passerby in my head. Another thing is that I haunt bookstores; especially old books, pre-loved books. All the obscure, dusty corners: I am very good at finding treasures there. Long drives with music in the car. I sit absolutely silent in the car and I soak up the peace and the purr of the car.

I’ve often heard you talking about the meals you prepare – your descriptions make the mouth water. But I remember that you used to be a teacher. How has that inspired you or helped you with your writing?

It gave me insight. That’s the crux of my teaching experience. I’ve learnt to probe into people’s minds and see stories there. Teaching young teenagers and college students made me more receptive and absolutely non- judgmental. That helps  when I write. I learnt from students and colleagues, that as a teacher I am not dealing with folders that you open at 9.am and shut at 5 pm. Everyday I found something new in my work. And that influenced my writing . Most of all it heightened my sense of humour as well as the perception of the Absurd in life. Not to forget teaching made me quite tech savvy about which I love preening and boasting.

Debaleena, it’s been an absolute delight and I’d love to talk more about these things. In the meanwhile, where can readers find your book?

My book: ‘Ink-Smudged Dreams: by the Reading Light is available as an eBook from Google Play, or from BlueRose Publishers online store, or for those readers living in India, from Amazon India and Flipkart . 

Thank you so much Caron for this wonderful and warm interaction. And for giving me this opportunity to talk to you. You’ve always been an inspiration. You encouraged me all the way. But I still envy you Dottie. Thanks so much for helping me reach out to readers with my Ink- Smudged Dreams: by the Reading Light. They’re just that- dreams, that as I penned down, the ink was not candid and clear; but smudged in places with tears, and vivid in places with smiles.

Thank You.

Debaleena, my pleasure xx

ABOUT  DEBALEENA  MUKHERJEE

Debaleena is a homemaker, who has also been a teacher and college lecturer over the course of years. She grew up in Jamshedpur and did her schooling at Sacred Heart Convent School,Jamshedpur, and Rajendra Vidyalaya, Jamshedpur. She has done her Masters and M.Phil in English Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata.She lives with her husband in Bangalore, and she  has a twenty four year old daughter. Reading is Debaleena’s way of life. That’s what she is always doing. She enjoys the moonlight and roses kind of music. She loves travelling to places from the pages of history text books. Haunting bookstores is her pastime. She loves going on shopping expeditions for shoes, bags, and bling.  Observing people as they go about their lives, fascinates her. At the end of the day she needs her recliner, her books, and coffee. With some cake.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Ink-Smudged Dreams: by the Reading Light is a collection of poems. Poems that reflect the many facets of my life: maybe any woman’s life. Certain moments, fleeting experiences, lasting impressions, unknown anxieties, silly apprehensions, humble realisations, intense joys and every hurt felt; these are the poems’ moods . And above all a growing perception that life is not about tomorrow: it is about today. But all these are not my consciously addressed ideas. Each day, they have gently enfolded me. Then in the quiet of the night, I would sit down and pour my heart out on paper. Drowsy, blurred, and very close to my heart. These are those ink-smudged dreams by the reading light. 

You can find Debaleena on Facebook as Debaleena Mukherjee from Bangalore, and on Instagram as m.debaleena

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The colour of numbers

Now here’s a thing. I thought this was something only I did, and that it was (yet another) symptom of me being slightly unhinged (well I’ve got one working hinge but the other two are a bit shonky).

But it turns out it’s a real thing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Can you tell I’m excited slash relieved about that?

Because I have something called Ordinal Linguistic Personification. Basically, I see numbers as having a personality and a gender. Yes. Numbers. I know it’s a bit ‘out there’, but it turns out that people other than me have been doing this in one form or another for years. It was first noted back in the 1890s. Presumably as they slammed shut the asylum door on the poor woman.

People who have this – well I can’t call it a problem, or a gift, but what is it? A method? That implies they’ve planned it and worked on it, so let’s just say they have a ‘bent’ – just a quirky view of things – these people are called Synthetes. Sounds like a Greek philosophical sect from 500bc. Anyway, these are people who ascribe attributes to inanimate objects and scientific concepts that would not usually have a personality or character traits. For example, they may associate a particular colour with a number or a sound, or associate a particular colour with the name of a month or a time of year. In some ways we all do this, as we will usually associate winter with cold colours (if you live in the northern hemisphere especially) or autumn with warm, russet colours, and spring with bright and pastel shades. You can do a test online where you see a name of a month or a letter, or hear a sound and are asked to ascribe a colour to it.

Except that for me, January is yellow. Obviously. And May is turquoise. October is white… (ooh it’s just occurred to me that the birthstone for October is opal – and they are often white… coinkydink?)

I don’t give numbers colours. But I do give them genders and personalities. I first noticed this when doing sudoku puzzles. I see 2, 5 and 8 as female. 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7 as male, and 9 as either/both genders. I also see them as having a personality or a character, although some are better defined than others. And it’s only the numbers 1 to 9.

For example, I see 8 as a duchess type character, the older woman, past her prime but still powerful, though vulnerable to enemies who seek her position (note to self: does this mean I see numbers as able to somehow spontaneously change, or are they fixed in a perpetual state of ‘about-to-happen’?)

5 is a martyred matriarch, self-sacrificing but resentful, always looking over her shoulder to preserve her position. But on the positive side, she holds everything together and keeps things running smoothly. Weird, I know.

2 is a young woman. Beautiful. Ambitious but with a heart. She can work with either 5 or 8 but is often out on her own, working to fulfil her own aims. She can also be dutiful and supportive.

1 is the young upstart, brash, impetuous, full of himself, selfish, not taking anything too seriously. 3 is his sidekick, but a kind of watered-down version. 4 is the shark, he is ambitious, super ambitious, demanding, hungry for power, loving no one but himself.

6 and 7 I see as paternalistic or avuncular males, they are the backbone of the ‘family’, working away silently in the background, not brilliant, not charismatic but solid, dependable, carrying the weight of the puzzle and more or less capable. Of the two, 6 is the older, more experienced, and more dominant. 7 is not taken all that seriously by anyone (me!) but he’s a decent chap and useful in a crisis. (What kind of crisis does a sudoku puzzle have, you may ask? It’s where there are very few other numbers and 7 is the only one you’ve got to start you off. although this can apply to any number they happen to put in the grid…ah, my ‘theory’ doesn’t work. Oops. Good thing I write fiction.)

9, as I said, for me can be any gender, and is either the arch-deceiver or manipulator, unknown, lurking, dangerous, or can be the detective/saviour, rooting out all the secrets that everyone frantically tries to conceal.

Can you see how for me as a mystery writer, these ideas can develop nicely into a plot with actual human characters? It’s a kind of cross between a board game and a number puzzle.

I think more scientists should be penguins.

This ties in quite well with what I was talking about a few weeks ago when I discussed the concept of the manageable cast. A book such as a cozy mystery needs to have a finite range of characters that give breadth and depth to the story without overwhelming the reader with too many characters to remember. I think between 9 and 12 characters is enough, though I have to admit my books regularly have twice that number and more. I used to add a list of characters in the front of my books, to help readers to keep track, but I stopped doing that.

Scientists have studied the phenomenon of this strange thing of Ordinal Linguistic Synthesis, and have suggested it may be due to different parts of the brain interconnecting. one part of the brain deals with facts and figures, and scientific concepts, and another part deals with imagination and creativity. To me it sounds like two people sharing an office and occasionally picking up the other person’s notebook or phone. Wires get crossed, and ideas that are usually separated can converge.

I’m not too bothered what it is, it helps me with my writing a little bit and I find it intriguing. and it entertains my creative mind whilst my prosaic mind tries to solve the sudoku puzzle.

what is this woman even on????

***

March: an odd time of the year

Malcolm aka Malkie Moonpie, in happier times, chilling with his blue mousie

I’ve been busy with a number of writer-things, but life gets in the way sometimes, as I’m sure many people have discovered. This pandemic isn’t helping of course, as we all struggle to stay in command of our mental health or to establish and keep to new routines that work around different circumstances.

I usually set aside March and April to write the first draft of my latest Dottie Manderson mystery, which I will then revise, rewrite, edit, revise, rewrite etc until it is published in the autumn, usually October or November, occasionally not until December. This year I plan to release book 7 – Rose Petals and White Lace – towards the end of November.

But my writing in the first half of March hasn’t gone too well, and I feel that I’m a little behind schedule, though I’m fairly confident I can pull that back – this week is already going quite well.

I love this image though I’m starting to see similar ones everywhere. Should be released in Summer 2021.

But I’ve had some issues. I have a subscriber email list through Mailchimp, and I had loads of problems with that, which took over a week to resolve, (though the bods at Mailchimp were very helpful) meaning that my newsletter went out over a week late – no big deal really, but things have a knock-on effect.

And then I had issues with this blog – I have another blog too (ooh big secret) and that one was overwriting everything I did on here, and seeing that this one is my priority, that was not good. Again it took several days to sort out, and at one point I was on help/support chat for almost two hours as they and I tried to figure out what to do. Again, the lovely ‘happiness engineers’ (yes that’s what they’re genuinely called) at WordPress were absolutely wonderful, but it all takes time out of the working day.

This was me and technology this week and last. Not a happy pairing.

I write in one of three places at the moment. I might write at my desk, with or without my computer, or I might write longhand sitting at the dining room table, or maybe I will huddle up on the sofa with my feet on a pouffe, my notebook on my lap and a cup of coffee precariously balanced on the arm of the sofa. Possibly with half of a sneaky early Easter egg on the side. (We always buy Easter eggs early before supermarket stocks dwindle, then can’t resist their siren call and end up buying a second lot.)

You’ve seen this pic hundreds of times. I didn’t used to be one of those people who snaps everything they eat but then I began to see it as useful blog material! Looks like I was writing The Thief of St Martins when I took this one.

Once upon a time I used to write in cafes. Yes, I’m one of those. You see them, don’t you, or used to. Cafe writers. Huddled in a good spot in a quiet corner where they can see the counter, and the door, and are close to the loo but not too close. A notebook, maybe two, several pens in case the first three run out, a large frothy muggacino and a tempting crumbly pastry nearby, a paper serviette careful deployed to protect both notebook and jeans. Perfect. I love to sit in a cafe and write. There’s something quite relaxing about being silent in the midst of bustle, where you can observe but not participate. Plus it’s given me plenty of blogging material in the past as I watch those around me living their lives. I can’t wait to get back to that. This month has been tough.

As some readers may know, our beloved tabby cat Malcolm was poorly and died last week, which was an emotional shock for us as a family. If you’re not a dog/cat/mini hedgehog/micro pig lover, then you may be rolling your eyes now and saying ‘What the bleep, this woman is so wet!’ But it’s horrid to lose a companion you’ve had in your life for 13 years just when they appear to be making a good recovery. On the upside, we still have 23-year-old tortie, Mabel, who we never thought would outlive both the bigger, stronger boys.

Subject to tweaking at a later date – can’t decide whether to keep the white background bit or lose it.

Consequently, I’ve got a bit behind in my writing. By rights, I should have half of a first draft for Rose Petals written, and be eagerly anticipating moving onto another book which at the revision stage of production, namely Miss Gascoigne Book 1: A Meeting With Murder, which I had hoped to publish in the summer. I’m hoping that will still be done on time, I know my schedule and what I am able to take on, and let’s face it, working as a writer, I don’t need to stick to office hours only.

March is an odd time of year. It’s a wait-and-see time of year, neither winter and the time of rest and recharging, nor summer and the time for growth and expansion. I feel impatient to be moving on quickly, yet I can’t go any faster. I feel a bit frustrated at what I see as a failure to meet my targets, but I know that any progress is better than none, and I have always been too impatient.

Stay strong, everyone. Soon you will be able to go outside, and even – hooray – hug your loved ones. Or write in a cafe.

Mabel. 23 years old (that’s 98 in cat years) frail, wobbly on her legs, half the time doesn’t know where she is or what she’s doing, hardly any teeth, yowls ridiculously loudly between 2am and 5 am, and still more resilient than Malcolm or Maurice.

***

Brisbane – some memories

The blue-tongued skink I mentioned last week – about a foot to eighteen inches long, and snake-wide! These guys love Comfort Spring Fresh laundry softener…

As you no doubt realise, I sometimes get a bit stuck for ideas on this blog. Last week I talked about where in the world I would like to sit and write, if I could just choose. And I chose a certain little high-set house in Brisbane, Australia.

So this week, I thought I’d share some memories of that time. We lived in Australia from 1997 to 2002, so back in the dark ages now, but it still seems so vivid to us, mainly because it was a life-changing experience.

What I remember mainly about Brisbane and our time there is the wildlife.

So many things happened while we were there, the four of us, what with my hubby working away from home so much, and the children going through secondary school, and me, meeting people, doing courses, going to the Writers’ Convention on the South Bank, but all that seems to fade by comparison with the wildlife we shared our back and front yards with, our streets and parks and school yards with—many of them new to us, some of them frightening, some of them weird, some beautiful.

Lorikeets and a Rosella in the back garden.

Like the possums that lived in the roof of our first home, in Farm Street, in the suburb of Newmarket. Every night when we sat eating dinner or watching television, we would hear it above our heads, the slow roll of a stone from one corner of the roof to the other and sometimes back again, sounding just like a marble rolling across floorboards

And if I was waiting, alone or with the children, for my husband to come home, and sitting on the front step in the fifty seconds of twilight we only seemed to get in Aussie, we would sometimes see a possum come off our roof and onto the telecoms cables overhead, swinging itself along underneath the wire until it reached an intruding tree branch when it would flip upside again, amble on, then swing back under to move along the cables again.

Or the massive cockroaches that seemed ever-present in spite of all the Raid blocks we purchased and distributed in the bottom of the kitchen cupboards or in quiet corners out of the way. At Farm street, an older house, they used to run up the walls at night and terrify us so we felt like we were actually under siege, and out of sheer terror, I would splat them on the walls or floor with a long-handled spatula. It really was the stuff of nightmares. We never got rid of them in that house. We also had maggots falling through the ceiling onto the furniture including my young daughter’s bed. I hate to think what else might have been up in that roof space but we didn’t have the most hands-on of landlords.

Or the blue-tongued skinks that sprawled on top of the compost heap down the garden, gorging themselves on leftover melon, papaya and mango—they would look at me when I went out to the heap with the peelings from dinner, and I was convinced if they could talk they’d say, “So kind, dear lady, but I really couldn’t manage another thing…” They always looked exhausted. I imagined them talking a bit like Donald Sinden, I don’t know why. Or maybe James Mason? Or David Niven. Definitely a posh English accent for some reason. And if I left sheets or towels by the washing machine in the open-air laundry room under the house, chances are I’d find a snoozing lizard sprawled on them when I went back later.

the house at Farm Street – none of the windows had glass except the ones to the kitchen (back) and the sun room (front). These are the front steps where I’d love to write.

I rescued one blue-tongued skink from the oncoming wheels of a bus once. It was in the middle of the road round the corner from our lowset (bungalow) house at Lawnton, a suburb of Pine Rivers shire, about 20 kilometres from Brisbane. The bus only ran once an hour, so that left plenty of time for a dozy skink to meander into the road, fall asleep at the wheel and be in danger of becoming a traffic statistic.

I thought it was dead. It was lying there in the middle of the road, not moving. I’m certain a couple of cars ran over it. Then the bus came round the corner, and the stupid thing lifted its head. It was still alive! I let out a shriek of dismay and launched myself into the road, flagging the bus down then grabbing the lizard with both hands and shoving it into some shade under a bush—lucky I didn’t get savaged by something even nastier.

When I got on the bus, I began to apologise, but Bruce (yes, that really was his name) the bus-driver said, “Well I know you’re a Pom.” Apparently that explained everything.

Good thing he didn’t see me rescue the turtle…

That was along the road from our second home, after Farm Street but before Lawnton. We were living a couple of kilometres down the road from Lawnton at a lovely little town called Strathpine. I was coming home from the shops along a fairly quiet little road, when I spied a snake-necked turtle in the middle of the road .

Now only a few days earlier, Rolf Harris (eek!), on Animal Rescue or whatever it was called, had featured a turtle that had been hit by a car and had to have its shell patched up with fibre-glass. And I convinced myself that was the fate that awaited this chap, if he lived long enough. The young hoons—wild teenagers, to us Poms—loved to drive their cars at crazy speeds over the speed bumps down our road, and I could see the turtle was in danger of becoming yet another tragic victim.

So obviously, I had to interfere help.

I picked it up, and set off towards the creek. I quickly discovered that being a snake-necked turtle gave it an extraordinary range for gnashing at would-be do-gooders, so I had to hold the dinner-plate sized shell as far towards the back as I could to avoid being bitten, and I had to go as quickly as I could. The ingratitude! That didn’t stop me getting scratched by its huge clawed feet though. Eventually I got it to the creek and shoved it in the water. It seemed a bit reluctant to go in—maybe he’d only just left there? Another good deed done.

Snakes were the main wildlife at Strathpine. Well, those, and the spiders, bats, frogs and birds. And some fishing guys said there were often sharks in the creek, but I never went fishing.

The easement, with deluge, though partially drained away.

The birds were wonderful there—I’ve never lived anywhere so fabulously endowed with birdlife. It was because of the Easement.

The Easement was a strip of land between the park and a housing estate on one side, and another housing estate on the other side. Through the middle ran the creek. At one end, more houses, and at the far end, some farmland afforded us great view of cows with their ‘helpers’, the Little Egrets, that usually stood on the cows’ backs to – I don’t know, steer? Supervise? Shout advice slash encouragement?

The idea of the Easement is, when it rains which it does even in Australia, usually a year’s supply arrives in about an hour, and the creek very quickly bursts its bank, so the Easement is just a natural no-man’s-land to accommodate the temporary floodwater for the few days or week until it soaks away.

But on the day it rains…

The easement – sans deluge!

The whole area behind our house used to fill with water, resembling a small—and occasionally quite large—lake. Then all the birds would descend, especially if it was the first rain after a few dry weeks or even months. Cormorants, shags, ibis, white-faced blue heron, butcher birds, noisy miners, rosellas, sulphur-crested cockatoos, galahs, purple swamp hens, coots, magpies, egrets, little and not quite so little, rainbow lorikeets, even, one or twice, pelicans. It was amazing, and all I ever wanted to do was sit and watch. Sometimes I did just that, for hours. And quite often, I’d be menaced into providing the new arrivals with birdfood. (What a Pom!) It really was the most amazing spectacle. The shags used to bathe/hunt in the floodwater then hand their wings out to dry, standing like little black feathered scarecrows, for hours on end. The galahs and cockatoos would hang upside from the phone lines and flap and squawk, like footballers having their after-match shower.

Even the big lizards got in on the act (and probably the snakes too, though I don’t remember seeing them when it was wet, only when it was very dry). My hubby and I sat and watched one for ages as it swam about in the new lake, its long tail making a curving wake behind it. Not sure if this was the same enormous lizard that dug up my shrubbery to lay about 20 eggs in a big hole one day and then covered them and left without so much as a by your leave. We moved to Lawnton before they hatched—I was sad not to be there to see the babies.

Snakes are probably the one terror people associate with Australia. Well, snakes and spiders. Okay, snakes, spiders and crocodiles. And sharks. Don’t forget the sharks. So, snakes, spiders, crocodiles, and sharks. And jellyfish. And mosquitoes. And I’ve told you about the cockroaches. Oh, and the weevils. You have to keep your baking goods in the freezer, otherwise one hot, damp summer you, like me, will discover that your entire supply of plain flour, self-raising flour, cornflour, your bran, your wholemeal flour, your semolina, and your biscuits will be a squirming mass of weevils, and, like me you will scream in horror and disgust (mainly because you’ve just used several ounces of flour in a roux sauce and wondered naively why the resulting mix was two-toned: the top consisting of wriggling, brown weevilly-stuff and the bottom, still white, only slightly-weevilly stuff) and fling out the lot including the expensive Tupperstuff they were stored in, as I couldn’t bear the thought of washing them out and reusing them, then rush back inside to disinfect everything. No baking for weeks and weeks! It was very good for my waistline.

So snakes, spiders, crocodiles, sharks, jellyfish, mosquitoes and weevils. Not to mention the heat. And in Queensland, the humidity, which is sometimes 95%.  Apart from those few things, it’s lovely.

Australia’s most unwanted – the red-backed spider – we had a ton of them. Turns out they are partial to a strawberry planter.

At the junior school, the nice secretary lady had a little book on her desk, so that when the kids came running in from morning playtime (called little lunch) they could identify the type of snake they had just seen for the groundskeeper, and he would go out in his shorts and t-shirt, with his heavy boots and ankle-protectors, and track down the culprit and kill it. And if he couldn’t kill it for whatever reason, or he discovered there were too many for him and assistance would be needed, the playing field (oval) was closed to all pupils forthwith. But that didn’t stop the kids getting bitten by green ants—and that was a painful bite. Green ants are beautiful iridescent ants, about 1 to 1.5 centimetres long, and they have a fondness for young flesh. Okay, let’s be honest, any flesh, and their bite is like the worst stinging-nettle sting you can imagine, and doesn’t ease off for at least half an hour. So as you can imagine, play times and sports days were great fun for all the family.

I know, being the greenest Poms ever to come off the boat, we were a bit over-protective of our children. But I was still gobsmacked when the headteacher of the school sent a letter home to all the parents reminding them to ensure they always make their children wear shoes to school, and to stop sending them barefoot.

It was an amazing experience, mostly weird, often terrifying, but it didn’t kill us, it did make us stronger, and when we came back from Aussie after four and a half years, we were very sad and wondered if we were doing the right thing in coming back. We had some wonderful experiences Down Under, and we still hope to return some day, this time, forewarned!

*

Come To The Fair!

As a champion-level over-thinker, I’ve been thinking lately about settings for murder. In fact I spend most of my time thinking of places that might be the perfect setting for a dastardly deed. In recent months I’ve looked at village life generally, and of course, that evergreen setting, the country house. And I’ve pondered the usefulness of cities for carrying out or concealing a crime, and even thought about alternative settings to the country house as a destination that might prove a bit too final for some people.

 

This week I’ve come up with a slight variation on that theme. I’ve been thinking about events in a village or small town and decided that nothing affords more opportunities for almost any kind of shenanigans than a Fair.

A fair afforded everyone opportunities to escape the humdrum everyday world and experience a bit of well-earned fun. There were new goods to browse, your own goods to sell, the pleasurable clinking of coins into a leather purse. Women meeting up to gossip and exchange recipes, family history and perhaps even husbands. Men getting together to drink, to laugh, to commiserate on a bad harvest or celebrate a good one, to buy and sell livestock. Kids running around and getting into mischief with other kids – for once able to forget about the hardships of life and enjoy the noise, the spectacle, and the edible treats.

 

The fair had so much to offer, and it was a place and a time when normal rules no longer seemed to apply. You were away from your everyday responsibilities, and had a bit of money in your pocket, and lots of novel things to look at. There was the opportunity for freedom for youngsters looking for love – and not just the young. Everything was new and everything was different. It was the most exciting thing to happen in your village for at least six months, and maybe the whole year, so you’d put on your finest clothes and get there as early as you could.

I was thinking of a medieval fair (which might last for several days) ratherthan a modern village fete type of event. This is what I came up with:

Hurrying to the fair. Exciting, new. It’s been a long time since the fair came to town. The usual marketplace is heaving with crowds. They watch the jugglers, the tumblers, maybe dancers. There could be a performing animal of some kind, or a fire-eater, the children’s favourite.

The air is heavy with smoke from the torches and the fires. Whole hogs are roasting over the coals, and chickens too. Apples are dipped in hot sugary toffee and scorch greedy lips; potatoes are hot from the ashes and wrapped in wool, warming the fingers nipped by a light early frost. All this heat creates wavering streams in the air all around.

The sun sets, but the revelry continues, occasionally disturbed by an ale-fuelled brawl that is quickly interrupted by friends keen to prevent blood-shed and ill-temper that will linger long after the fair has moved on.

Lovers quake at the chance glimpse of the objects of their affection, and placid matrons leave go the hands of the dragging children, who run, leaving the mothers in peace to gossip with the neighbours. A dog may bark, or geese squabble.

A lost child might weep as he wanders a little too far, until some kind, burly farmer hoists him to his shoulder to scan the crowds for the wearer of that familiar apron.

It is the village in festival. The men lean on fences or trestles and talk of crops or hunting. Children run in and out of the groups. Everywhere there is noise, chatter and laughter.

The lost little boy is reunited with his mother who hugs and scolds in equal measure, relieved beyond words. She turns to thank the farmer; sees in his face signs of a boy she once knew. When he raises his hat and is gone, she tells her neighbours that once he had been tall and skinny and had blushed when she smiled at him.

She wonders what he saw. She looks down at her ample, matronly form, no longer the slender darting little thing she had once been.

‘Time changes us all,’ she thinks and turning, sees him glancing back at her, still smiling.

It’s made me want to write something bitter-sweet and set amidst the smoking fires of the dark ages. If this has made you want to read a mystery set at a fair or fete, can I suggest one of the following:

St Peter’s Fair by Ellis Peters (set in 1139, the only ‘old’ one here)

The Burry Man’s Day by Catriona McPherson

Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie

A Fete Worse Than Death by Dolores Gordon-Smith (I love a pun) (in fact a couple of authors have books with this title)

Murder At The Village Fete by Catherine Coles

(slightly interesting note: Sean Pertwee starred as Sir George Stubbs in the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot episode called Dead Man’s Folly and also played the role of Hugh Beringar in the Cadfael TV series including the episode of St Peter’s Fair.)

***

The reading writer or the writing reader

We are surrounded by words. They are there on the side of your breakfast cereal packet, full of persuasive ideas or nutritional information. They are on the wall of the lift as you make your way from car park to shopping mall. ‘In case of emergency DO this or DON’T do that…’ They are on our clothes – a logo, a designer’s name; they are on the label – how to wash the garment, the size, the fabric constituents.

As I say, we are surrounded by words. We as humans have come a long way from the days when we communicated through pictures. The concept of communication fascinates me. Why do we communicate? Is it to know our allies from our enemies, or to form friendships, assist pair-bonding, or create a safe environment for our children? We developed words because if a buffalo or something similarly huge is rushing towards you, no one’s got time to whip out a slate and chalks to create a nice little scene to indicate the usefulness of running away. So words are more efficient, maybe.

But words change us. From our earliest days on the planet, gazing fondly at our mothers, we learn words. We learn how to physically say them by watching and listening, and we learn what they mean by observing consequences and effects.

We connect not just words together to form a sentence, but ideas together to create a narrative or story. We might hear the words, ‘Let’s go to the mall’, but what we really hear are ideas based on prior knowledge of that as a situation. ‘Let’s go to the mall’ becomes a narrative: ‘Let’s go to the mall – where we will walk about the shops, talking as we go, laughing and enjoying being together, and discussing life issues or relationships, or personal goals and dreams, where will we notice and comment on the latest trends, where we will exchange currency (or more likely swipe a small piece of plastic) for new goods, that we can then take home and discuss at length, creating a new shared experience. Whilst at the mall we will likely go and get some food somewhere, so it will become a social event, we will sit and eat, and talk some more, possibly on a deeper emotional level, and this day will become part of our shared memories and we will often revisit the occasion in our thoughts, and enjoy the time over and over again, and the whole experience from beginning to end will enhance our relationship and sense of closeness.’

It doesn’t always work like this. Sometimes we have a row as soon as we get there, sulk all the way round the shops and come home later frustrated and disappointed, still in a frosty silence. The great tapestry of human experience!

Where am I going with this? It’s just this: simply, words are key to the storytelling of human life, whether an ordinary trip out to buy new jeans, or whether we are sitting curled up in our favourite armchair reading words on a pages, pages bound together in one book, a book enclosed by a hard or soft cover, possibly enhanced with a relevant image on the front.

This is not the first time I’ve pondered on the weird and truly wonderful impact of words on my life. At the moment I’m wrestling with the final edit of my novel The Spy Within, (coming soon to an internet store near you), but I’m making time to read. In the last few weeks I’ve read my dear friend Emma Baird’s romance, Highland Chances, and another good friend’s Paul Nelson’s Cats of The Pyramids, yet another writer friend’s book Undercover Geisha, by Judith Cranswick. I’m now reading Mary Stewart’s The Wind Off The Small Isles, as well as P G Wodehouse’s A Damsel In Distress, and dipping in and out of non-fiction books: The Great British Bobby by Clive Emsley, and The 1960s fashion sourcebook by John Peacock. 

Each of these books will leave a lasting imprint on my life. I’ve blogged before about how what we read–especially when it’s something we love–leaves its mark on our soul, a fragment of its written beauty that will see us through the hard times. And this year has been one of hard times, hasn’t it? I think in the coming months we will all need as many beautiful phrases, sweet or witty situations, dastardly intrigues and happy-ever-afters as we can get our hands on.

Happy reading!

***

 

The Audience Were The Winners!

As I’ve mentioned before, not only do I keep a journal, but I sometimes find useful or interesting stuff in there and it gets rehashed as a blog post! I’m an avid people-watcher. People fascinate and astonish me in equal measure. This is a journal entry I wrote in July 2011.  Remember those heady days when we used to go out of the house, unmasked, and sit perilously close to complete strangers? That’s what my daughter and I did that evening. I swear this is all absolutely true.

Wed 20 July 2011:

My daughter and I had the most bizarre experience at the theatre this evening. The play was a ‘murder mystery farce’ called Death By Fatal Murder.

Actually the bizarre experiences began well before we got to the theatre, when we went for dinner at Pizza Express. When we were seated at a table for two in the pretty busy restaurant, a couple were soon seated next to us. They were a bit odd.  Or maybe they had just never eaten out before. Anyway there they were, seated at the table next to ours. We soon became aware that there was a discussion between them about money. He had a £20 note and a huge handful of change which he counted out on the table twice.

The waitress brought them a large-print menu, and after leaving them for a while to choose, another waitress came to take their order.  The chap told her he only had £20 and so had to be careful not to overspend. Also, he said he didn’t like mozzarella. For at least twenty minutes–we had ordered drinks, waited, ordered food, waited, received and eaten our food–he asked the waitress questions about the menu items.

She tried to persuade him to have a pizza without cheese but with ham and peppers. She suggested chicken on his pizza. He asked for chicken wings. She explained they didn’t serve chicken wings. She suggested a chicken salad, but he thought that was too expensive. He asked what goat’s cheese was like, but was afraid he might not like it. He asked what parmesan was like. Again, he thought he might try it, but what if he found he didn’t like it after all?

The waitress was helpful in the extreme. If he’d been the mystery shopper from hell, she must have passed the test with flying colours. But instead the chap and his girl decided they would go and eat somewhere else. As they left they told her they were going to try Nandos.

That was the warm-up, now for the main entertainment.

At the theatre, we got to our seats at 7.10pm for a 7.30pm show.  I’d thought we were cutting it a bit fine. Others cut it finer. To begin with we were virtually the only ones there, but the place filled fast. A massive lady sat on the other side of my daughter, so she was pretty squashed as the seats were narrow and she had me (also massive) on the other side.

A tall well-dressed man with a HAT (it’s Derby Playhouse, not the National Theatre) entered and sat three or four seats along from us with a tiny little old lady we presumed was his mum, wearing her best outfit, and with handbag and theatre programme too. She looked very excited. Along from them, a middle-aged chap and his wife and their 20-something daughter, both wearing lovely frocks, took their seats.

The curtain went up. The set was lovely, the music was 20s/30s, but pretty good, the story set during WW2, so not quite right, but never mind.

It was the most farcical farce to end all farces. It was awful.  The main stars were Leslie Grantham, Dirty Den from Eastenders, no doubt he’d done loads of other stuff, but that’s all I knew him from, I don’t watch a lot of TV.  And there was also Richard Gibson, Herr Flick from ‘Allo ‘Allo.

But… the audience was definitely the main attraction.

Behind us and slightly to one side, sitting next to two utterly mortified late teen-early 20s women, was a chap. As soon as the play began, he opened and began to eat from a HUGE bag of Quavers. He made the most incredible amount of noise grabbing them out of the bag and eating them. It took him ages, and it wasn’t just me who turned to glare at him.

Also behind us was another guy who kept saying very loudly ‘What the f**k?’ and doing huge nausea-inducing snorting sniffs through his nose. Whether he was referring to Quaverman or the play or the Little Old Lady, I don’t know.

The Little Old Lady. Well. Every single word, action, expression or movement brought gales of laughter and guffaws from her. And her laugh was a cross between the Granny in the Tweety-Pie cartoons and Barbara Windsor in the Carry On movies. She laughed longer, louder and more frequently than anyone else in the place. She clearly had a wonderful time, and I have to admit, some of the time, it was her everyone was laughing at, not the play.

Then came the intermission.

Some people had bags of sweets. Some, including Little Old Lady, came back from the reception area with an ice cream tub with a little plastic spoon sticking out of it. Quaverman had another big bag of quavers.

But Dad, Mum and Daughter in the posh frocks had…

…peas.

Yes. Peas!

During the intermission I glanced along the row to see Dad with a huge bag of something long, thin and green. I thought at first maybe it was a kind of jelly sweet, like those little  sugar covered very tangy bootlaces or sticks. He opened the bag and pulled out a massive handful and passed them down the row to his family members, holding out their eager hands. Whereupon they popped the pods and scooped out the peas and devoured them.

Honestly, they were peas. See, even now, it seems too mundane yet bizarre to be true. You know when in a daydream you think, what if I stumbled into a parallel world, how would I know? This is how. Real life is the most peculiar experience imaginable, and fiction cannot possibly live up to it.

Then I thought, maybe they are just trying to find a useful way to pass the tediously long intermission? Shell the peas, save time later when you arrive home from the theatre starving and ready for your slow-cooker chicken casserole or whatever, whack the peas into the microwave, and hey presto, a lovely quick vegetable side dish.

But no, it was their intermission snack.

Don’t get me wrong. I love peas. And straight from the pod–yummy. But ever so slightly odd for the theatre, wouldn’t you say?

And it’s not like they were organic hippies, rejecting the modern commercial and industrialised production of food. They drank Coke.

The people sitting next to me frowned at my almost convulsive laughter as I took in the whole strange scene, and for a minute, as I tried not to pass out, I couldn’t remember if the play was what was happening on the stage or in the rows of seats.

The girls were commiserating with one another on getting stuck next to Quaverman, apparently he wasn’t just loud, he sprawled, too.

Then the intermission was over.

Quaverman was clearly high as a kite. He screamed with laughter and called out comments such as, ‘Yeah, you tell him!’ to the bumbling detective. He was practically standing on his seat and completely oblivious to anyone else. Even the cast were sending him sidelong glances.

One of the actors–the bumbling detective–had to ‘accidentally’ spit tea on his junior colleague. Then he couldn’t keep a straight face, and for several minutes both of them kept corpsing to the delight of the audience who laughed and applauded.

Eventually the ordeal was over–the play was awful–sorry Leslie and Richard, not your fault, guys–the ending nonsensical even for a send-up of the detective-farce genre. The audience was definitely the winner. I felt a bit as though I had taken part in one of those live-action, unrehearsed, ‘theatre of the absurd’ type things.

Little Old Lady trotted out happily with her programme in her hand to mark the occasion forever. Someone said, as we left, ‘What great writing’.

Only if the dramatist wrote the lines for the audience as well.

***

Anyone for Mock Turtle soup?

So in these weird times, when we are told to keep three feet away from everyone or to stay at home, and your dodgy neighbours down the road have now acquired two years’ supply of toilet paper, I thought it would be appropriate to see how an earlier generation dealt with this kind of upheaval.

I immediately started thinking about the rationing our parents/grandparents endured during the war years. This week, even the Queen has announced that she will ‘do her bit’ and has urged everyone to adopt a ‘blitz spirit’ of the usual muddling through that we do so well in this country.

My German pen-friend’s dad, when I was 17 (going back into the mists of time, more than forty years ago) told me proudly that they survived war-time rationing by eating daisies from the lawn. I told him that my grandparents had eaten dandelions in salad. It felt a bit like a competition as to who had it the hardest. If I’d known a bit more about it, or had the guts to stand up to this guy, I’d have said that people dug up their lawns to plant vegetables. But it didn’t seem a good idea to have a Germans versus Brits conversation about the war. (He brought it up!) I’m guessing it was a terrible time for everyone, whichever side of the channel you happened to have been born on.

But leaving aside the actual trauma of death, injury, destruction, and uncertainty, there was, it can’t be denied, a sense of ‘all pulling together’ which only conflict with an outside enemy can bring, no matter where you are geographically.

So it’s not surprising that many older people look back with almost fond memories of the war, hopelessly idealised, of course, with dance band music, dreary clothes and an urgent sense of seizing the moment that we just don’t experience today. We hear about our grandparents or great grandparents meeting and marrying within weeks instead of months and years, of 48-hour pass honeymoons in Brixham or Bognor rather than the Algarve, and the uncertainty of ever seeing one another again after that. Is it any wonder that wartime romance, of all things, stands out as a bright moment, like a jewel on a dirty piece of string?

I have a number of reference books about ‘life during the second world war’. Here are a couple of the most interesting, bought from the shop at Cosford Air Museum: If you enjoy browsing through reproductions of the actual information supplied to people’s homes, then these are for you as they contain dozens if not hundreds of ads, advice booklets and articles.

Above right is the back of a railway ticket – with the usual warning to not gasbag in public. And I think most of us have heard the ‘coughs and sneezes’ slogan (probably courtesy of Tony Hancock) featured on my favourite item: this post card (top). I blame footballers for the fact that these days everyone thinks it’s okay to spit on the ground – a revolting habit once punishable by a hefty fine for the way it (possibly) contributed to the spread of viruses and bacteria.

When we think of roughing it during the war, the main thing that comes to mind has to be rationing. Now kind of back in force at the moment in an attempt to stop greedy or panicking people from buying far more than they need, let’s hope the current rationing doesn’t continue for too long.

Here is a reproduction of a ration book: with the name and address of the recipient of the ration on the cover, and inside, the name of the specific merchants who were to provide the family with their food or other items.

If you were going to stay with someone out of your area, your auntie for example, or future mother-in-law, you had to take your ration book with you – or they wouldn’t be able to feed you. Not legally anyway! This is the kind of detail I love that crops up all the time in Agatha Christie’s books, and others of that era.

The government produced thousands of leaflets at that time to explain to people how to make their food ration last, and how to make sure family members got enough nutritional value from the diet to be healthy.

This tiny booklet contains a number of ‘healthy’ or ‘economical’ recipes for the housewife to use. But don’t expect anything exciting! A quick glance through will show you a heavy dependency on potatoes and for desserts or baking, dried fruit especially dates. I can only imagine the excitement people would experience of some ‘exotic’ food such as tinned fruit, or dairy products, or biscuits and chocolate. In many ways, it is a healthy diet – I’m pretty sure if I worked on the land five or six days a week and ate Ministry food, I’d be half my weight – definitely a good thing. But remember, rationing in Britain didn’t end until July 1954! Can you imagine eating this way, living this way for fourteen years? It must have been incredibly difficult, until after a while, it just became normal. I think many people would have been quite slow to go back to buying whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted once the rationing of food ended.

Some of the recipes make me feel so grateful I didn’t live through that time. Many of us today eat a very different diet to those of that of most Brits in the 1940s. Tripe and Liver Hot Pot? Eww! And as for the Mock Turtle Soup I’ve read about in various novels of the era… surely mock turtle soup has to be morally and gastronomically superior to actual turtle soup??? It must have been a very desperate person who decided to try eating a turtle. (Turtle soup: to prepare, first catch your turtle…)

In Eat For Victory there are also recipes for Potato and Cheese Flan (potato, cheese, celery and onion), Potato Stew (potato, onion and a tiny smidge of bacon), Potato in Curry Sauce (potato, apple, ‘one small tomato’, and the inevitable onion), Potato Sandwich Spread (??????????), Potato and Bacon cakes (patties I think they mean, there’s no icing on this guy), Irish Potato Cakes (same as above but without the bacon), Potato Soup (essentially just a potato, boiled but not drained…), Potato and Watercress soup (pretty that’s grass) (or dandelions).

So I’m guessing things got a bit mundane. No wonder everyone smoke and drank so much. I think I would have too. Try drawing a straight stocking seam up the back of your leg after a dinner consisting of potato soup and two glasses of 1930s cooking sherry.

But now I’ve whetted your appetite, here are two versions the famous Mock Turtle Soup, not at all a recipe for wartime deprivation as I imagined, but very heavy on meat and grossness and originating in the 18th century. Feel free to share.  And here is a brief history of that soup. 🙁 I would definitely rather eat daisies or dandelions. Or Sainsburys’ Petit Pois and Ham, with a very buttery slice of toast – om nom nom.

Take care people and share your loo rolls, please.

***

No-more-blues-Monday.

When we look at the news it’s so easy to get really depressed. So often it seems that only terrible things are happening in the world; ecologically, politically, financially, economically, even in the arts or in entertainment, there is often bad or sad news. The winter days are cold and dreary, sunlight seems to have forgotten us, and Spring and Summer seem so far away.

So I thought I’d find a few headlines that might cheer people up a bit as we head towards what has been called Blue Monday: apparently tomorrow, Monday 20th January, is known to be the most depressing day of the year. Although it’s widely believed that Blue Monday is a ‘real thing’, it was created by psychologist Cliff Arnall back in 2004 as a way of boosting holiday sales at a time of year when exterior factors such as weather, work, mid-month financial strain and the return to work after the Christmas/New Year break are supposed to have us in their grip.

If it’s not a real ‘thing’ then we can shake it off, right?

We can do that by: having some fun (without spending the money we won’t have for another week and a half), talking to our friends and family, going for a walk, weather permitting, staying in with a loved one and snuggling in front of the TV, the fire, curling up with a book, baking a cake, planning holidays and trips for later in the year, planning DIY projects. All these life-affirming activities boost our moods and help us to remember that life is good and worth living. Feed the birds in your garden or if you haven’t got a garden, at the park. Look for signs of Spring

arriving: new growth on trees and shrubs, daffodil bulbs emerging, the slightly longer days.

Surround yourself with caring people.

Take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It’s not selfish to nurture yourself as well as others. It’s just the sensible thing to do. Treat yourself, little and often.

Count your blessings–an old-fashioned but useful way of deliberately looking for the myriad of big things and small that make your life a good one: your loved ones, the roof over your head, the bills you’ve paid, the opportunity to pay more bills in the future which means your life is full and busy and you have grown up and taken on responsibilities, the dog, the cat, the colour of the sunset, the old lady who smiled at you in the grocery store. Turn it to the positive.

Take note of the small, the mundane stuff that usually is overlooked in the busyness of life. A minute here, a minute there will not massively mess up your deadlines, but it could make a huge difference to your well-being.

If you still want to read the news, but don’t want to get depressed, here are some uplifting stories from the last week or so:

Not all retail parks and human environments destroy habitats and ecosystems, some are being used to encourage and even nurture wildlife: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-51050547

A dad helped his daughter revise for her school exams, and saved his own life: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-51081957

Generous and caring people still exist in communities: anonymous donors leave money for those in need: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-51093623

And here’s a picture of Malcolm – he’s a happy chap, and a glance at him having a snooze will always put me in a good mood. I advise looking at this picture three times a day after meals and once before bed.

I’m hoping that with all these little things, you–and I–will have less of a Blue Monday and more of a Rosy Outlook. Wishing everyone a good week.

***

 

A Quick Trip To The Loo (bathroom, for you non-Brits)

A flushing toilet, almost the same as the ones that had a removable bowl.

These days it is more or less standard to have 2 or maybe 1.75 bathrooms per average home in the Western world. If you ever watch a house moving TV show, such as Escape To The Country or similar, top of most home-buyers’ wish-list is an en-suite bathroom to the main bedroom. I’d say probably the majority of families have a main bathroom with a toilet, shower/bath and a wash basin, and many have a spare ‘loo’ (toilet) in addition to the one in the main bathroom. Not everyone, but many people do. It’s quite easy these days too to stick a new loo in any unused walk-in cupboard, or utility room, or to section off a piece of a large bedroom. A lot of people think of a luxury home as one that includes more bathrooms. The bathroom has become our special little private world for relaxation as well as taking care of our bodies. Though we don’t really give the same attention to our toilets as we do the rest of the bathroom.

Can you imagine sharing your toilet with a dozen other families? What about if those families all have four or six kids? That’s a lot of trips to the loo!

Yet that used to be normal. In fact, it was once common for even larger numbers of people to all use the same toilet all the time. It’s easy to see how contagious diseases and infections could sweep through a whole community very quickly. Add to that open sewers running (literally) down the middle of the street and the potential for an epidemic is huge. There were several major outbreaks of cholera in London in the nineteenth century, and there can be little doubt that contaminated drinking water from the sewer-filled Thames was the cause.

In Judith Flanders’s book The Victorian House, the author quotes a report from 1858 (the same year as ‘The Great Stink’ when London was sunk beneath a terrible sewer stench resulting from a long hot summer) that the army wanted to combat the high number of deaths amongst servicemen that could be attributed to disease and poor hygiene. Flanders says, ‘When the Army improved the ventilation ‘and nuisances arising from latrines and defective sewerage’ in its barracks, the death rate dropped dramatically’. (Nuisances here means spillage, overflowing, and the smell, not to mention infestation of pests.)

So it seemed the time was finally ripe for an advancement in the provision of hygienic solutions. It was time for a loo.

Just let me clarify for overseas readers. In Britain, you are more likely to be invited to make use of a loo or a w.c. or a lav. Any of these means toilet. If you are in a public place, most people will announce (but why?) that they are going to the ladies’ or to the gents’, or (cringe) to the little boys’ room/little girls’ room. Brits usually ‘pop’ to the loo. No idea why. Brits rarely say they are going to the bathroom. American visitors, in Britain if you ask for a bathroom, people will look at you oddly, wondering why you need to take a bath right now.

Please note the plunger handle beside the loo, (the little white circle, not the red and black thing at the back) This loo was flushable!

When I studied Spanish years and years ago, we laughed like mad when our teacher told us a very old-fashioned word for the loo in Spanish was el retrete. I loved it though, and thought it was a very useful descriptive name. Maybe they should bring that back? I think a lot of people like the idea of ‘retreating’ to use the loo in peace. Or beating a hasty retreat.

In Britain too we talk about ‘spending a penny’, a coy euphemism dating back to the days when you had to put a penny in the slot of the lock mechanism to open the door of a public loo. Though when we were kids we used to hold the door open for one another as we came out, and save our mums a fortune. These days it will probably set you back 20p or 50p in places where they still charge money to use the toilet. Who knows, it could be more by now.

Flushing toilets, in the modern sense of pulling a chain, pressing a lever, or a button or just waving your hand in front of a detector on the wall, to flush the toilet, is a relatively new concept. But the idea of using a flow of water to sluice out a latrine has been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years, since the Roman times, and probably earlier. Technology seems to rise and fall, doesn’t it, as humans learn a new idea then immediately unlearn it again, only for that same idea to be rediscovered later.

However the notion of a flushing toilet didn’t really fully catch on in the domestic sphere until the recent past. Maybe it was just easier to use a chamber pot then let someone else have the problem of disposal? Or maybe, with plenty of people around to do the more revolting tasks, those with the money to advance technology had no need to do so?

In the first half or even two-thirds of the nineteenth century, toilets for the use of the wealthy or moderately wealthy were still mainly chamber pots under a bed or in a commode, with waste needing to be carried out of the house and ‘disposed of’, sometimes into earth pits or closets, sometimes into a furnace. There were even people, ‘Night-men’, who came to the house to empty all your waste and take it away and sell it–yes, sell it! Urine was valuable for its nitrogen content, so useful in making gunpowder, in dyes, bleaches, and tanning leather, and as an ingredient in cleaning products, whilst poo was a great fertiliser and compost material (still is actually…)

Many households still relied on the outhouse, or outdoor earth-closet. These were not just the arrangements for the working classes, or servants, but were sometimes used by the middle and upper classes too.

In Kate Summerscale’s wonderful true-crime book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the dead body of a child is found in the earth-closet outside the family residence. This was a fairly well to do family in a large country house, and in 1860, when the murder took place, it was still unremarkable to have an earth-closet in the garden for the use of the servants. (With newspaper as toilet tissue!) The child’s body was found two feet below the seat of the closet, caught or placed on the splashboard (eww!) suspended above the pit for the waste.

The chamber pots waiting in the dumb waiter to be sent upstairs to bedrooms, and sent back downstairs in the morning to be cleaned. Also, as this is near to the dining room, gentlemen, sitting over their cigars and brandy or port, were able to pop into the corridor to ‘use the facilities’.

In rural areas, even up to the middle of the twentieth century there would be households whose main w.c. was an earth-closet outside and a short walk away from the house. But the flushing toilet first went on ‘display’ to the British public at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and a record number of almost 850,000 people queued over the course of the event to make use of the convenience of one of these new flushing toilets in one of the waiting rooms. It caused such a stir that it was reported in Parliamentary Papers, noting that although urinals had been provided for gentlemen to use in addition to cubicles, there was a much longer waiting time for ladies–nothing changes, does it?

But once flushing toilets were exposed to the British public, everyone wanted one. In middle and upper class households almost everyone had a flushing toilet by the end of the century. Obviously in working class homes, it took a lot longer to catch up with modern hygiene trends. Hence the shared toilets on blocks of slum dwellings, and the composting toilets in the countryside. As I said a couple of weeks ago, that’s almost come back around now, with eco-friendly, low water use toilets being installed in rural and out of the way or arid areas.

More reading:

The Victorian House by Judith Flanders

Lost Voices of the Edwardians by Max Arthur

If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

A stateroom at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire. This beautiful silk wall fabric disguises a glorious and ingenious design – a new bathroom was fitted for a royal visit that sadly never took place.

A curator holds up a photo of the bathroom hidden behind the walls of this stateroom. I would love to go inside, but unfortunately we weren’t allowed!

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