New on my This post was originally published in the October issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News
The finishing touch required for our new extension was a little background music.
My tastes in music are eclectic, but when I’m reading or writing, I prefer to listen to something without words. I needed a machine to do justice to classical music.
Going to John Lewis to buy a modest CD player to fit the space, I quickly discovered it’s nigh impossible to buy a stand-alone CD player. All seem to come with a DAB radio attached.
How the Other Half Shops
While awaiting my turn for the assistant, as I browsed the machines in the lower price bracket, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the elderly couple the young man was serving. For them, money was clearly no object: they were inspecting the product range of a brand fancy enough to have its own display area. I assumed they must have a more discerning musical ear than mine.
Not so. “Please may we try it on BBC Radio 4?” asked the elderly lady.
Once they’d been despatched with their purchase, when the assistant came to help me. I said to him, “Only in John Lewis would a customer ask to test your best hifi on Radio 4.”
The couple must have been working their way round the department, because the two models I’d been looking at were also tuned to Radio 4. Stephen Fry was in full flow on them both.
“Perhaps you should have him playing on a continuous loop,” I suggested. “His velvet tones would sell any sound system more easily.”
The assistant smiled conspiratorially.
And almost before I knew it, he was ringing up my sale on the till.
Every month, I write a short column like this for our local community magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News. I’ve collected the first six years worth of columns in a book, All Part of the Charm: A Modern Memoir of English Village Life, along with several essays I wrote about living in the village when I first moved here over 20 years ago. It’s available in paperback and ebook format via Amazon and elsewhere.
A week today, on World Diabetes Day 2013, I’ll be launching my latest book, a short e-book about how Type 1 Diabetes has affected my family. Its prime purpose is to raise funds for the search for a cure, via Type 1 Diabetes charity JDRF.
As close friends, family and regular readers of this blog will know, my husband and our ten-year-old daughter Laura both have Type 1 Diabetes, a serious incurable condition that requires careful management every day to guard against unacceptable short-term and long-term health risks.
The book started out as a series of occasional blog posts here, addressing different aspects of living with Type 1 Diabetes. It brings together all of these posts in one place, plus extra material written especially for the book.
One of the new additions is an excellent Foreword, kindly provided by the broadcaster Justin Webb, who co-presents BBC Radio 4’s influential Today programme, and who also has a child with Type 1 Diabetes.
Here is an extract:
“For families around Britain and around the world – today and tomorrow and for every day until a cure is found – a diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes is a life-altering, life-worsening piece of news…
“For parents, for the children themselves, all is changed. Some cope badly and suffer the awful consequences of complications and added misery. But some people have within them … the strength to fight back…
“This book has been written by someone who is ready and willing and able to fight back, and I commend her for it.
“Debbie Young has written a moving and personal testimony. I hope it inspires people to support the work of JDRF. And to salute the pioneers who first helped Type 1 Diabetics to stay alive, and nowadays helps them to live increasingly normal lives. This is a story that begins with harsh reality but encompasses success as well. It is a story of hope and progress, and one day it must end, in triumph.”
The funds raised by this short e-book will help bring that triumph closer.
The e-book will be available exclusively from Amazon from 14th November. The retail price will be £1.99 in the UK, and the equivalent in all Amazon territories around the world. All profits from every copy sold will go to JDRF, the international charity for Type 1 Diabetes.
The profit will be around 70% of the retail price. because the book has cost nothing but time to produce. Justin Webb and my author and publisher friends have given their services free of charge. Special thanks to SilverWood Books for their beautiful cover design, to novelist Joanne Phillips and poet Shirley Wright for proofreading, and to many other friends for reading the draft copy in advance of publication.
I will also be very grateful to anyone who is willing to post a book review on Amazon, because the more reviews a book has, the more visible it becomes on Amazon, thus increasing sales opportunities.
As the book is relatively short – around 8,000 words – there are currently no plans for a print version, but next year I’m hoping to publish an anthology of essays by other writers whose lives have been affected by Type 1 Diabetes, and I may incorporate this first book as a part of that project. Anyone who would be interested in contributing a piece to the 2014 book is warmly invited to register their interest via the contact form on this website.
Years ago, when I was a fresh young executive in the dog-eat-dog world of PR, it was the done thing to complain about your stress levels. Anyone in the office who didn’t was assumed to be not working hard enough.
Our boss Jim*, an ex-hack in his early 40s, was a kind man. Under pressure from the agency owners to maximise profits, he did his best to resolve our anguish, while still appearing to crack the whip. It can’t have been easy to be in sole charge of a bevy of ambitious young women, many of whom were prone to tears when losing a pitch for new business. Always the rebel, I was aghast when I overheard two women senior to me seriously discussing the merits of crying in the workplace: “It’s every professional’s right to express their true feelings.” I suspect there were days when Jim could have cried himself.
A family man with three lovely children, Jim was married to a former beauty queen. Although she adored him, I suspect she couldn’t offer him much practical help for dealing with women in suits. She’d probably have suggested a manicure to cure our stress. Jim’s solution was to send us on a stress management course.
Goodness knows how much the firm paid for that course. We were all shipped off to a posh country house hotel where our training session lasted all day. The cost of the coffee break alone must have run into treble figures. Inevitably, when we returned to the office, the training course made not the slightest bit of difference to our stress levels. All it did was salve Jim’s conscience that he was looking after us properly.
At the time, I was the only dissenter. “Cure the cause, not the symptoms!” I implored him. “Just eliminate the stress, instead of managing it.” I never did like wearing a suit.
Now that I’m working mostly from home, stress avoidance, not stress management, is my mantra. So when a nice man from confused.com challenged me to choose a stress-reducing gadget, with the chance of winning one for myself, I jumped at the opportunity. Jim could never have solved our problems with gadgets: they simply didn’t exist. In those days, the golfball typewriter was considered cutting-edge technology. If we wanted a gadget, we had to improvise. One of my colleagues infamously did so: she lobbed an ashtray at poor Jim in the middle of a difficult meeting. (Yes, it was that long ago: smoking in the office was still considered an acceptable way to manage your stress levels. Jim’s chosen prop was the cigar.)
My own approach to resolving stress is more constructive. I’ve pinpointed the early morning as the greatest source of stress in my day.
The stress kicks off when the radio-alarm wakes me up, ensuring that the first voices I hear every day are not those of my loved ones, but Messrs Humphreys and Naughtie on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Much as I admire these fine broadcasters, being woken by the news headlines is about as soothing as fingernails running down a blackboard. It’s less jarring when their gentler colleagues, Justin Webb and Evan Davies, are on duty, but even my favourite radio voice of all time, David Attenborough, could not make those news stories less than stressful.
The Antidote to Stress
Instead, what I really need to sound the alarm is an iPhone, loaded with soothing tunes, in an iPod dock on my bedside table. Music, not news, would wake me up: so that’s one source of stress that would bite the dust.
Another stress factor is checking the weather, so that I can put out the right school clothes for my daughter. Summer dress or winter pinafore? Light cardigan or sweatshirt? Boots or shoes? Socks or tights? I’d therefore also download a local weather app on to my iPhone. Then, each night before bed, I could check the forecast and lay out the appropriate clothes, leaving one less thing to worry about in the morning.
Knowing the weather forecast, I’d be able to ensure that it wasn’t just any old soothing music that woke me up in the mornings, but music chosen to put the most positive spin on the weather. (Ah, you see, all those years in PR were not wasted.) Whatever weather we woke up to, its accompanying tune would be a pleasure to hear. For sunshine, the choice would be easy: “Here Comes The Sun” by George Harrison. In case of rain, “It’s Raining Men” by The Weathergirls would never fail to lift my mood. For exceptionally bad storms, I’d pick “Greased Lightning”, from the movie Grease. Snow would provide the perfect excuse to play “I’m Walking in the Air” from The Snowman. If the weather ever got too depressing, I might cheat and load ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”, a song that my daughter and I had on permanent repeat in the car last summer to raise our spirits while driving through pouring rain. But you get the general picture.
Less Stress For All
My system would be endlessly adaptable to suit all tastes in music. For those of classical bent, there’d be Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, although to reflect the impact of global warming and its ever-weirder weather systems, you might want to play the Summer movement in Winter, and vice versa.
You could also use the system to herald landmark days and events. “Get Me To The Church On Time” from My Fair Lady would signal a wedding. My daughter would not be the only one looking forward to hearing Alice Cooper sing “School’s Out”.
I’d even use it on days when I didn’t have to get up. I’ve thought of the perfect song for a lie-in, by possibly the most melodious duo of all time: Simon and Garfunkel. I bet you can guess what it would be: “The Sound of Silence”.
Yesterday morning as I flitted about preparing for the school run, still pondering my previous day’s post about why I’m not cooking a turkey dinner this Christmas, I caught this snippet of a news report on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
The problem is that Turkey does not have its own defence missile system.
It was a few moments before I realised that I had misinterpreted a serious report about conflict in the Middle East as a silly season story about traditional Christmas dinners. Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, the context of the story fell into place for me….
The Real Reason Why We Eat Turkey At Christmas
It was the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and the newly-crowned Queen was not looking forward to the next day’s festive banquet.
Not roast boar again! she sighed to herself, drumming her fingers impatiently on the wooden embroidery hoop that lay neglected in her lap.
For generations, roast wild boar had been the focal point of her country’s traditional Christmas feast, and her sensitive young palate was bored of roast boar. And of deer and elk and moose, for that matter. In fact, all those cumbersome great creatures that the huntsmen insisted on dragging in did not impress her at all. Why did they always seem to think the biggest catch was the best?
Well, she was queen now, and if she wanted a more elegant centrepiece for the royal festive table, then a more elegant one she would have.
She called to the servant that stood to attention by the door, poised to rush off on any errand that took her fancy.
“Thomas, please summon the huntsmen,” she commanded. “And be quick about it. There’s not much time before it will be dark.”
Distractedly she added a few stem stitches to her embroidery while she awaited their arrival, the fine golden thread rasping against her palm as she pulled it through the fine linen cloth.
Suddenly there was a commotion at the door as a dozen huntsmen, dressed for action with knives in their belts and crossbows slung over their shoulders, jostled against each in the doorway. Each wanted to be the first to present himself to the Queen. She disregarded their open rivalry; it did not impress her.
“Now, I want you to go out and catch something different for tomorrow’s feast,” she instructed them. “Something small that can be cooked in the bread oven in the kitchen. Don’t bring back anything huge that has to roast for hours on a spit, looking like it’s being tortured to death. I want faster food. Bring me a lighter, more compact animal, served up straight from the kitchen to the table. It has to look pretty, too.”
The huntsmen exchanged anxious glances, but they knew they could not refuse a royal commission. There was no time to lose before dark. They’d have to work fast.
“I’ll give ten guineas to the huntsman who provides the best creature,” she added, rather hoping the victor would be young and handsome too.
The men perked up at this offer and immediately set off from the royal palace. Some headed for the hills, others down to the sea, but the two youngest and handsomest, Piers and Giles, decided to hunt closer to home.
They stalked off into the thick, dark woodland that lay immediately outside the palace walls. They did not bother to look down at the ground for tell-tale tracks of big game, but headed purposefully towards the lake where they knew smaller animals went to drink. As they entered the lakeside clearing, the loud beating of strong wings, carrying a grey goose into the sky above their heads, gave them an idea.
“Birds! We should stalk birds!” cried Piers. “Light to carry, quick to cook, and unspeakably pretty to serve, especially if you retain some fancy feathers for decoration.”
From the top of a nearby elm, a rook with an inflated idea of his own good looks also took flight, loudly cawing its disapproval of their scheme.
“Plenty of them around, too,” said Giles, watching its black outline become smaller against the grey December sky. “It’s just a question of catching them.”
Their hunter’s instinct bade them to fall silent as they trod softly onward, across crisp bronze bracken , down to the lake. Five swans idly drifted by, innocent of the huntsmen’s intentions.
“So shall we go for a swan, then?” whispered Piers. “You don’t get birds more elegant than swans. They are so beautiful.”
Giles narrowed his eyes against a shaft of winter sunshine just breaking through the clouds. He stared thoughtfully at the plumpest one.
“Imagine it dead, though,” he suggested. “That long, elegant neck would flop about like a string of sausages. Not exactly pretty on the plate.”
“Ducks, then,” said Piers, turning his gaze to a newly-landed mallard. The glossy bird was waddling contentedly along the water’s edge, the teal flashes on its folded wings glinting beneath droplets of water rolling proverbially off its back. “A duck’s just a swan on a smaller scale, but without the ridiculous neck.”
He took a few cautious steps towards the sturdy creature, but was stopped in his tracks by a loud squelch. He looked down to the source of the disgusting sound and saw his nutbrown calfskin shoe was now caked in a dark-green sludge.
“Ugh! Duck droppings! Just too messy. I’m not carrying one of those back to the palace.”
The duck let out a mocking quack and relaunched itself onto the lake before his pursuer could change his mind.
Forlorn, the two huntsmen sat down on a fallen tree trunk to reconsider. They stared at the lake hopelessly. It stirred gently beneath the chilly December breeze; a few skeletal leaves skittered around their feet.
“If swans and ducks won’t do, the only alternative out there is geese, and surely they’re the worst of both worlds – the long neck of a swan but the grubby looking feathers of a duck,” said Giles, watching the duck carve a v-shaped trail across the water’s silvery surface. “I’m not sure this was the best place to come after all.”
“Bigger poo, too,” said Piers. “So how about a peacock? You can’t say a peacock wouldn’t look pretty on a plate.”
“Oh yes I can,” retorted Giles. “It’s all very well when they’re wandering about the palace gardens preening themselves and displaying their tail feathers, but imagine the difference when they’re roasted. Their fancy tails would lie flat, trailing off the edge of the platter, not standing up like a fan. Not a pretty sight at all.”
Piers passed his hand across his face, as if to clear his thoughts. Suddenly he had an idea.
“What’s the Queen’s favourite colour?” he asked. “Maybe there’s a clue in that? Something really bright and cheerful would be festive. Or red? Or blue or yellow?”
A small blue tit that had been watching them from its perch on a low-hanging branch didn’t hang around to hear the answer, and a nearby red squirrel lobbed an acorn at the huntsmen in angry protest.
Giles shook his head.
“Polly says the Queen loves white at the moment,” he said, with the allowable authority of a man courting the Queen’s wardrobe mistress. “Pearls, ivory, diamonds – the less colour the better. It’s the latest fashion from Paris, apparently, and she thinks it’s more flattering for her pale skin. So anything highly coloured is unlikely to be well received.”
Piers pointed to a small stone cottage perched beside the lake a few hundred yards away.
“Let’s go and see the royal egg-keeper,” he suggested. “Maybe he’ll let us have one those fancy big white birds that the royal explorers just brought back from foreign parts. I don’t think they’ve been very productive on the egg front.”
“I hear they’re fat and stupid, and they don’t fly much,” said Giles. “So they should be easy enough to catch. I wonder what they taste like?”
“There’s one way to find out.”
Feeling more cheerful, they got up and headed for the royal egg-keepers cottage. Entering his walled garden, they disregarded the tawny coloured chickens, scratching about in the undergrowth, whose eggs were a staple of the royal diet. Instead the huntsmen set their sights on the chickens’ bigger, more exotic cousins. Although these portly creatures had integrated comfortably into the native flock, their size made them easy to spot. With snow-white feathers, these so-called turkeys (that were, court rumour had it, not from Turkey at all), were certainly of a colour that Her Majesty would find acceptable. Their neat appearance was spoiled only by the foolish, red, wobbly flaps of skin protruding from their head and neck. These odd protuberances would be unsightly whether the birds were alive or dead, but, as Giles was quick to suggest, the royal cooks could easily cover these up with a strategic pastry ruff or a cunningly fashioned collar of cabbage leaves.
The big birds’ conversation was less alluring than the chickens’ gentle clucking. Their harsh, throaty cackle became more raucous by the minute as the huntsmen weaved in and out, trying to scoop one up to capture. Undeterred by these grating sound effects, Giles soon managed to corner a healthy looking specimen against an outcrop of rock. While he bent towards it with arms outstretched, making what he hoped was an enticing “chook, chook, chook!” noise, Piers leapt behind the creature and shooed it towards his friend. A little closer …. and up! Gratefully, Giles flung his arms around the fat, feathery bird, pinned its wings to its sides, and swept it up off his feet.
“Ha!” he cried. “That wasn’t so hard! Now we’ve just got to get him back to the palace.”
“I hope the Queen will like it,” said Giles, as they headed back through the forest. He was not looking forward to the Queen’s reaction to those hideous red flaps.
With a flash of inspiration, Piers extracted a small dark woollen hood from the leather pouch that hung from his belt. He’d been using this hood the day before to control one of the royal falcons. It was a bit of a tight fit for the less streamlined turkey, but he soon had it over its head. The turkey immediately fell silent, as subdued as if it night had fallen.
“I expect she’ll like it once she’s tasted it,” Piers said hopefully.
They walked as fast as they could, discussing how each would spend his share of the ten guineas. The bird seemed to grow heavier by the minute.
As the forest started to thin out towards its boundary, they passed by a familiar hollow tree, often cited as a landmark due to the distinctive large hole in the trunk at shoulder height.
“Just a moment!” cried Piers. “I think there’s someone watching us from inside the hollow tree! Halt! Who goes there? Someone else trying to win the Queen’s Christmas favour, I’ll be bound. Well, I’m not having it! Giles, hide that turkey while I take a look.”
Giles raised his eyebrows, wondering exactly where he was meant to hide a bird that weighed as much as a small child.
Piers rushed forward, adrenalin pumping in anticipation of challenging a spy. He thrust both arms inside the hole, expecting to grasp the varmint’s neck. His attack was met not with human cries but with a startled avian squawk. When he hastily withdrew his hands, he found he was clutching not the neck of a rival hunter but the body of a large owl, soft, white and fluffy as snow. The bird blinked one startled amber eye at him and strained its wings against his cupped palms in a rush of optimism that it might escape.
Piers let out a cry of admiration.
“I say, Giles, that’s a beauty! Do you think we should take it back as another suggestion for the Queen’s Christmas dinner? There’s nothing unsightly about that specimen!”
Giles straightened his arms so that he could admire the bird at a greater distance.
“By George, I think we should,” he agreed. “It’s certainly a handsome fellow. Not sure how much flesh it has on it” –gently he squeezed the lightweight body “ – but it would certainly look a treat on a silver platter.”
To keep its broad wings under control, Giles tucked the bird close against his chest. Its tiny heart fluttered undetected through the huntsman’s leather jerkin. It was a comfortable arrangement for them both.
Once back at the palace, the two huntsmen sought permission of the Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting to show their catch to their mistress. They were soon admitted to the Royal Bedchamber where the Queen was still toying with her embroidery.
Giles set the turkey gently down on the floor at his feet, its head and neck still concealed by the woollen hood. The big bird took a few steps unsteadily as it tried to acclimatize to the hard, chilly flagstones, so different from the soft floor of the kitchen garden. Stumbling across a discarded croquet mallet, it took comfort in settling on the handle, let out a contented “caw” and appeared to settle down to roost.
The Queen looked at the turkey thoughtfully.
“Nice white feathers,” she appraised. “They’d make a pretty decoration for my hair for Christmas Day. Plenty of meat on it too.”
She prodded it with the end of her embroidery scissors. It didn’t flinch. Then she turned to inspect the smaller, fluffier bundle that the second huntsman was clutching to his chest.
“What have you got there, Piers?” she questioned.
Piers gently set the fragile creature down on the floor. With its vision unhampered, the owl turned its head around, slowly, taking in its new surroundings. Sidestepping a few paces, it stared hard for a moment at its captor. Then it paced over to inspect the turkey, which was by now emitting a low, steady rumble that sounded remarkably like a human snore. The owl looked at the turkey, then it looked at the Queen, silently engrossed in assessing how much meat might be concealed under that feathery wrapper. The owl slowly made its way towards her, where it stood quietly for a moment, contemplating its next action.
And then it decided. With a rattling, hacking cough it opened its beak and expelled a dark brown, furry pellet to land neatly on the lacy hem of the Queen’s long white silk frock.
“Ugh! What on earth is THAT?” spluttered the Queen, teetering backwards and shaking her skirts anxiously. “The wretched thing’s attacking me!”
Giles stepped forward and bent to inspect the owl’s emission.
“It appears to be dried, matted fur, blood and – yes, a few bone fragments, too, Your Majesty,” he reported.
He bowed courteously, as if he’d just paid her a compliment.
“I believe that’s how owls expel their digestive waste. It’s the remains of a mouse or a rat that it had for lunch.”
The Queen shuddered.
“Surely you don’t expect me to eat something that’s got THAT muck inside it?” she shrieked.
The owl, which had been looking rather pleased with its performance, spread its snowy wings and fluttered up to perch smugly on a brass candelabra. It was so lightweight that the metal frame scarcely moved.
Giles turned his attention to the larger bird, which was still perched contentedly on the croquet mallet. He extended his arm in its direction, as if offering a formal introduction.
“Then might I suggest the turkey, your Majesty?”
The Queen nodded quickly, anxious to conclude the matter so that she could change into a fresh dress.
“Yes, yes, we’ll have the turkey. Now take them both away.”
She rang the bell for her wardrobe mistress and swept from the room, leaving Piers to coax the owl down from the candelabra. Meanwhile Giles hoisted the huge turkey into his arms to escort it to the kitchen.
As the huntsmen headed down the spiral staircase bearing both birds, they encountered Giles’ ladyfriend rushing to respond to the Queen’s summons. She’d heard of their mission and was eager to hear the outcome. While Piers explained, Giles mischievously whisked the woollen hood off the turkey’s head in hope of frightening her with its ugly red wattles.
“Ugh! Why on earth did Her Majesty choose that hideous creature instead of this gorgeous little owl?” she questioned, stroking the docile bird on the top of its head and wondering what it would taste like braised in mead. Assuming it was no longer under threat of execution, the owl happily allowed her this liberty.
“Oh, there’s nothing really surprising about that,” said Giles. “The problem is, that turkey doesn’t have its own defence missile system.”
I’m very excited that this post has been chosen to go behind today’s door on the fabulous Mumsnet Advent Calendar!
This story is an extract from my book called Tuning In, a collection of short stories inspired by listening to the radio, to be published by SilverWood Books in the New Year.
“Can we travel back in time, Mummy?” asks my daughter Laura (9) as we set off for the next tourist attraction on our agenda.
We’re part way through a two-week visit from the 16 year old daughter of my old schoolfriend, an American who I met at school in Germany (yes, it’s complicated) . It’s her first trip to England and we’re trying to give her an accurate snapshot of British life and culture.
So far this has included:
– a very large quantity of rain
– seeing a live recording of “With Great Pleasure”, a BBC Radio 4 programme with the wonderful but anarchic performance poet John Hegley (what other Radio 4 programme would conclude with inviting the audience up on stage to dance to Kirsty MacColl’s “A New England”? Spot on for my agenda, Mr Hegley, so thanks for that!)
Today’s destination is the SS Great Britain, lovingly and expensively restored to replicate mint condition. Brunel’s groundbreaking ship is now in dry dock in Bristol’s Floating Harbour, the very dock from which it was launched in 1843. It was rescued from the Falklands in 1970, where it was languishing after a long and varied career and refusing to sink, and returned to base. Movingly, its homeward journey included passing for the first time ever beneath one of Brunel’s many other masterpieces, the Clifton Suspension Bridge – something it had never done before, as the bridge was not complete when the SS Great Britain first (and last) sailed out of Bristol.
As we enter the museum shed – the overture to boarding the ship itself – I spot a sign that echoes Laura’s request. “Travel Back In Time!” it invites us. Cleverly, the museum is arranged in reverse chronological order, so that we first see evidence of the ship’s return to Bristol, then pass back through its previous incarnations during the Second World War, on the Australian Gold Rush run, and on trips around Cape Horn to the Pacific coast of America.
By the time we’ve passed down to the far end of the museum, we’re thinking like Victorians. We willingly don the dressing-up clothes provided to complete our transformation before we board. We pose before a backdrop that suggests we’ve just alighted in Australia. I almost believe that we’re about to visit my Auntie Mary who lives there. Finally, we board the ship, to listen to an audio guide that uses as its script diaries and letters from real-life passengers. We truly have travelled back in time and now see the ship and the prospect of ocean-going voyages through accurate contemporary records.
Can we travel back in time, Laura? Yes, I think we can and we just did. I take my (stovepipe) hat off not only to the engineering genius that was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but also to the very clever historians and archivists who made time travel possible for us.