Sunday, 2 August 2015

Other People's Treasures

Recent books I've read: 
"Us" by David Nichols.  Really enjoyed this.  It was very funny with a touch of sadness like a twist of lemon in an exquisite cocktail.  Love his style - refreshing!
Haven't read "One Day" so am judging solely on this book.
"Never let me go" by Kazuo Ishiguro .  Again, I love the style of writing, it is refreshingly different. This is a disturbing book, which despite some weakness in the plot, keeps you fascinated to the end.  I will look out for more of his novels. 
Both of the above novels kept me reading late into the night which is the highest compliment I can pay them!

I often get my books in charity shops.  Books that have been read and enjoyed and passed around have a different feel to them than the ones you get direct from the bookshop. And once in a while you meet someone who is either working in the shop or browsing themselves and they strike up a conversation with you.  Striking up conversations with complete strangers on a subject that you are interested in is one of the nicest things to happen, I always think. One minute you are on your own, preoccupied, thumbing through all those paperbacks in search of a good read, and suddenly someone says "have you read this one?  I thought it was a great read" and in less time than it takes to click-and-buy you're yapping away as if you'd known this person for ages.  Buying online has its advantages but the human link is both rare and precious.

Talking about precious things.  I remember when I lived in Germany that the city council would collect what they called "Sperrmuell" every six months or so.  Sperrmuell is one of those wonderful German combination words from "sperrig" meaning bulky and "muell" meaning refuse.  So they collected bulky items that you couldn't cart down to the local dump unless you had a truck.  The collection trucks turned out around 6 a.m. so everyone put their stuff out the night before.  Neighbours met neighbours who they hadn't seen for weeks in the winter months.  There were lively conversations and sometimes unwanted stuff was simply swapped among the locals.  All kinds of things were stacked up on the street:  old armchairs and sofas, kitchen tables and chairs, broken vacuum cleaners, prams.  Pieces of people's lives, I sometimes thought.  Your financial situation improved so you could finally get rid of that suite of furniture which you hated the sight of for the past twenty years.  Finally got rid of that old vacuum cleaner, washing machine, oven.  Of course other things were thrown out as well which were not necessarily bulky but which didn't fit in the domestic waste / recycling bins. I've seen sets of crockery, toys, books, bedding.   Late at night there would be clangs and rattles as people combed through the piles of stuff looking for things they could use.  The scrap dealers drove round in their trucks and took away anything usable.  Some people toured all night even though they were not necessarily in need of anything.  I knew a few people who would show me a lamp which they had restored or even once, I remember, a television set which they'd got working again.  I heard that a local vicar had furnished his house entirely with stuff salvaged from sperrmuell. He simply cleaned it all up and gave a fresh coat of paint to things like kitchen cupboards, tables and chairs.  It was fun and when the trucks had done their work next morning, waking you at 6 a.m. just before your alarm went off, you had that clean, start afresh feeling.  Until your basement filled up again,of course.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Wasting Time at Royal Ascot

I shouldn't have done it but then again I have little or no self discipline.  Instead of working on my new crime novel I sat down with a cup of tea and watched Royal Ascot the other week.  For those readers who do not know what Royal Ascot is, I would best describe it as a cross between Downton Abbey and the Kentucky Derby.  Men in top hats and waistcoats accompany ladies in the most extraordinary headgear and amazingly high heels.  A great many people go to bet on the horses - some of the finest are competing - and a lot more come to be seen and possibly to be interviewed and complimented on what they are wearing (that would be the ladies rather than the men, I think, since men never get compliments on what they wear).

Royal Ascot is a wonderfully British event, I always think.  It wouldn't be half so appealing without the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh driving to their Royal box in an open horse-drawn carriage.  The appearance of the Sovereign makes you feel that all is right with the world despite all that stuff you see on the news.  Yes, it is tough out there but for a few glorious days you can focus on horses and riders and proud owners and even prouder trainers.  I must admit I lapped it all up.  I love horses, racehorses in particular.  Horse racing really is the sport of kings and queens and if I ever win the Euromillions I will buy myself a couple of these wonderful animals and watch them run at Royal Ascot or - dream on - at the Arc de Triomphe.  Oh and I'll invest in a few futuristic hats and hope to be interviewed for television.

Meanwhile, I had a great time watching the races and although occasionally a little voice would pipe up in my ear and tell me I should be writing or walking on the beach, I managed to ignore it and not feel any real pang of guilt.  For me, it was all time well spent.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A White Toothed Smile

I had my regular dental hygiene appointment today so my teeth feel squeaky clean and shiny after all that poking and polishing.  The hygienist said, somewhat regretfully I thought, that I was doing a reasonable job on my dental hygiene.   Have you noticed that dentists almost never praise your efforts in the tooth cleaning area?  They give you all sorts of advice on flossing and using cute little brushes to get between the gaps but they never - in the "never" of conversation, i.e. not very often - say you are doing a great job in tooth maintenance.  I once shared an apartment in London with a dental hygienist.  She gave us a lot of tips on keeping our teeth clean and at the same time entertained us with hilarious stories of quirky patients.  I never forgot her advice on how to combat those little hobgoblins which attack your teeth as soon as your back is turned or to be more precise when you've finished enjoying your favourite sugary snack.

Which all reminded me today of a dentist in London who did a great job on repairing all the damage I did by neglecting my teeth (until that flat mate hygienist arrived, you understand).  He had a habit of talking to you while working even though the answers he got - from me at any rate - were mostly in the nature of the gurgles of a drowning fish or "ummmhhhsss".  He was Australian and told me about how polluted the fish were because of nuclear waste being dumped in the sea and how CFC sprays were destroying the ozone layer (this was in the early 1970's when we - or I -  were just becoming aware of environmental issues).  I literally listened with my mouth open (yeah, I know, but go on, smile anyway).  The most fascinating thing about him was that despite being such a skilled dentist, he was scared of his assistant.  I discovered this on one particular visit where in rinsing out my mouth and returning the beaker, it fell out of my hand, leaving a splash on the floor.  "Don't worry," he said then added in a half whisper "but don't tell her because she'll be very cross with you."  ("her" obviously being his assistant who was briefly out of the room at the time).  I thought he was joking until as I was slipping into my coat I heard the following conversation:
Her:  "What happened here?  What's the water doing on the floor?"
Dentist:  "Oh, that was me, I slopped it.  I'll just clean it up."

No man is a hero to his dental assistant as some philosopher must once have said.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

A Tale from the Kitchen, Confessions of a Failure

You'll get all the world until you're looking for it.  That's what my mother used to say.  There is more than a grain of mother's wisdom in it.  For instance, I am looking for a simple utensil jar for my kitchen counter.  I thought it would only be a matter of popping into the Home section of any department store and hey presto, I'd get one.  Not so easy, as it turns out.  I'd like to get a jar in a lime green colour but I would settle for anything that fits in with my cooking utensils which are now in need of a home.  I got a set of these fabulous things for Christmas: scoops, fish slices, gorgeous turners of all kinds.  It's a pleasure to use them.  But living in rented accommodation I don't have the perfect kitchen to go with them.  I am not allowed to drill holes anywhere so I hit on the idea of getting suction rings which you affix to the wall and which you can hang things on.  I already have a few of these for tea-towels, oven gloves and stuff like that, and they work wonderfully.  However, my slotted fish slices et al are that bit too heavy and after a struggle to keep on the wall they collapse more or less ungracefully onto the kitchen counter.  Thus my quest for a nice utensil jar began.  I would settle for a nice jug, I think, if I found just the right one.  I'm not in any hurry which is probably part of the problem because I have too much time to scrutinize everything and decide on nothing.  Still, it's fun to be looking.
It puts me in mind of when I first moved to Germany and tried my hand at cooking and other handicrafts which seemed like second nature to my contemporaries.  I'd spent my young years in flats, not doing any cooking if I could help it and feeding myself junk food to ward off hunger pains.  I was smoking as well in those days and couldn't have led a more unhealthy lifestyle if I'd studied a manual on the subject.  One of my flatmates used to prepare liver casserole for me which I hated but felt obliged to eat in order to fight off incipient anaemia. Only when I had children did I start to try my hand at cooking - with limited success.  Whereas German women are a dab hand at producing mouth watering cakes, anything I took out of the oven looked as if the mice were at it.  To my eternal shame I could never donate anything to school bazaars or church festivals.
It took me a long while to accept the fact that I am not domesticated but I can whip up a tasty meal which might have some unusual elements (if that's the right word), depending on what's in the fridge.  But all this doesn't alter the fact that I am still searching for a utensil jar which appeals to me and is "just right" for my kitchen counter.  I'm not looking for all the world just that one utensil jar to gladden my heart.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Farewell to the country

I'm back from house-sitting in the country and can say that I have managed pretty well despite being a dyed-in-the-wool townie.  I have learned to negotiate the car past muck spreaders and other bulky farm machinery on narrow country lanes.  I have managed to avoid a pair of pheasants who seemed to think they had right of way and who refused to get off the road.  I have spared a daring little rabbit who peeped out at me from the edge of the road every day as I drove past.  And one night I saw a fox slinking across the road in the dark and felt privileged to have witnessed this piece of wild nature.  Even the birds in the garden accepted me and didn't bat an eyelid when I appeared.  They seemed to know that I was quite harmless and simply enjoyed watching their antics as they built their nests and fed their young.

It was a wonderful four weeks of peace and quiet with the mountains across the valley standing guard.  I often walked out into the garden at night to look at the stars, undimmed by street lighting and wished I understood more about the various constellations.

Yes, the country has its beauties and I was almost sorry to leave it.

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Country Life

I'm house and dog sitting in the country again.  I've been here over three weeks now and am enjoying every minute of it. 
I chose to live by the sea when I retired because I have always loved the seaside.  There is something heart-shakingly beautiful about white capped waves crashing onto the beach in stormy weather.  On peaceful days I enjoy strolling along and watching the waves shimmer and glisten in the rays of the sun.  And when it is pouring rain outside, I don't feel guilty curling up with a book because I know that at the first opportunity I'll be back out there enjoying it all.  Just now the first boats are back at the quays ready for the long summer days ahead.
Here in the country, when I look out the front door across the valley I am awed by the mountain range.  I watch them for signs that the weather is going to change, something I learned in my childhood.  They make me feel as if I belong while at the same time I am daunted by the idea that they have been there since time immemorial.
There is something unapproachable and mysterious about mountains, I always think.  That is why I set my first murder mystery in a (fictitious) mountain village.  Death in a Lonely Place is basically a detective story.  I have not included gory details,  instead I have challenged the reader to find out who the perpetrator is.  The story takes places under the shadow of Ardnabrone mountain with its legend of claiming three lives a year and the main character, Sergeant Alan Murray, has problems of his own.
I am currently writing the next novel in the series and it occurred to me the other day that I find it easier to write here in the country with that mountain range in the background.  Maybe it is just the peace and quiet of the country, the lack of distraction.  Whatever the reason, the words just flow every morning.  Sure, this is the first draft and I am going to have to cut and pull and smooth out the story before it is ready for publication.  But that's the fun of writing.   Which reminds me, I must get started!

Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Kindness of Strangers

I must admit that I often moan about small things and forget all the really nice things.  I love living here in Ireland by the sea and wouldn't want to change it for all the sand in Malibu.  Occasionally though I get irked by the slow pace of life, the feeling that God made time and plenty of it so what's the mad rush.

This week my apartment was in darkness.  All the electric fuses tripped.  I am actually house sitting some distance away so I was not even at home when this happened.  Electrical faults terrify me. I know nothing about electricity.  If I press a switch I expect a light to come on or the washing machine to spring into action.  When things fuse I am left with the panicky feeling that something sinister has happened. I have visions of zigzags of lightning lurking behind every plug waiting to pounce.

So I was panicked.  The electricity supplier hot line told me what I should do and said if that didn't work I should get an electrician to look at the problem because as far as they could see there was no fault on their side of things. I flicked those switches very gingerly, half afraid something would spark but nothing happened, I mean nothing at all.   No power.  Zilch.   In the meantime I had to pop down to the community development centre where I do some voluntary work and lost no time in telling all and sundry my tale of woe.  One of the caretakers listened to my garbled version of events and assured me he knew someone who'd "fix it".  Within minutes I was talking to this friend of his who arranged to meet me in half an hour to have a look at the problem.  He was as good as his word.  Within minutes of his arrival the electricity supply was back.  I had turned off at the master switch by mistake, he said, while flicking those other switches.  He made it sound as if it was an everyday mistake for which I was very grateful even if I felt a fool.  More important was to find the cause, he said.  Together we checked everything but came up blank.  It could happen again, he said, but now I know what to do.  And with those kind words he left.

I am so grateful to this man who went out of his way to drop by and help a total stranger. Sometimes when all we hear are the bad things, it's good to experience kindness of any sort but the kindness of strangers can often be the most touching.