Posted in Personal life, Travel

Train of Thought

In my Young by Name column for the April edition of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I’m getting all nostalgic about train travel 

cover of the Tetbury Advertiser April 2019
Click the image to read the whole magazine for free online

Growing up in a London suburb half an hour by train from Charing Cross, I became a seasoned railway traveller at an early age. The slam of compartment doors and the rattle of trains on the line are part of the soundtrack to my childhood.

When I went up north to university, I enjoyed the longer train rides because I always met interesting people. From my current perspective as a parent, the thought of a teenage girl seeking out strangers on trains makes me shudder, but for the teenage me it was all an adventure.

On boarding, I’d choose my compartment carefully, walking through the corridor to find the most interesting looking passengers. Before the first stop we’d be sharing the sweets and biscuits bought for the journey while discussing the meaning of life. We felt we were striking up life-long friendships, but of course they never lasted beyond our destination. This is probably just as well, particularly with the middle-aged lady who invited me to bring my swimming costume and sunbathe in her garden any time I liked.

I wasn’t the only one to treat train travel like a social occasion. Once, as I followed a group of girl students into a compartment, its only prior occupant, a middle-aged lady, gave a deep sigh. “So we’re all girls together.” She sounded disappointed. Was the sole purpose of her trip to search for Mr Right in the form of a random fellow passenger? I wondered whether she had a season ticket.

If you didn’t want to chat, too bad. The Quiet Coach had yet to be invented. For a bit of peace, you went out to stand in the corridor.

Then and Now

These days when travelling by train, I always book a seat in the Quiet Coach to avoid irritating mobile phone conversations. This week, too weary to trek to my reservation at the far end of the train, I settled down in a normal carriage, bracing myself for the noise. To my astonishment, it was as silent as the Quiet Coach. Every occupant was staring at an electronic device, most of them further isolated by earbuds or headphones. The train might just as well have had no windows, because none of them once looked out to enjoy the view.

The ever-changing view: another great benefit of railway travel. I still can’t board a train without Robert Louis Stephenson’s poem “From a Railway Carriage” popping into my head at some point along the way:

“…And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.”

cover of Young by Name
Earlier columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, available in paperback and ebook – click image for more details

So I was pleased to learn recently of a care home that has mocked up a railway carriage for the benefit of elderly residents too frail for real trips. (Click here to see the BBC News report, complete with picture.) Complete with scrolling scenery behind fake windows, and with an excellent refreshment service, it offers them all the pleasures of train travel without them having to leave the building.

I bet they’d be great conversationalists too.


Posted in Personal life, Writing

Life Lessons Learned from School

Click the cover image to read the whole the magazine online

In my Young By Name column in the March issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I’m musing about the most valuable and lasting lessons from my schooldays.

 

As my daughter muscles down to revision on the home straight of her GCSEs, I can’t help wondering which of the many facts and concepts she’s memorising will be of greatest value to her in later life. When I ran an informal survey some years ago, asking the alumni of Westonbirt School the most useful thing they’d learned at school, my favourite answer was “Not to sign anything I hadn’t read – and at my prep school, how to steam open an envelope”. While I can’t promise to better those examples, here are the most lasting takeaways from my own schooldays.

How to Write a Three-Point Essay

Our English teacher, Mr Campbell, spent many lessons hammering home this simple but clear strategy for essay-writing. First, pick three points on your chosen topic, outline each one in a separate paragraph. Top and tail the trio with an interesting introduction and conclusion, and you’re done. Why three? Perhaps because it’s the magic number in rhetoric, or because of the limited staying power of a class of fourteen-year-olds – or because that’s all he could face marking. I must have written hundreds of three-point essays during my working life, and I wish he was still alive so I could thank him.

Never Give More Than One Excuse

I can’t remember which two excuses I gave to Mr Crane, the school’s pantomime director, when I wanted to bunk off an after-school rehearsal, but neither of them was genuine. (The real reason was that I wanted to get to the local bookshop before it closed.) Whatever they were, he saw straight through them, kindly letting me off the hook with the advice that, for future reference, giving more than one excuse is unconvincing. I never missed another rehearsal. He was a wise man.

The Masses Are Asses

This blunt statement was frequently shared by Mr Judis, our A Level history teacher, when trying to explain to a classful of teenage idealists why so many bad decisions had been made in the name of democracy. The topics of our study were the causes and effects of the First and Second World War, twentieth-century East-West relations, and the fall of colonialism, but as I listen to twenty-first-century news stories, his words frequently echo in my head.

So if, Desert Island Discs style, I had to pick just one of these school-life lessons as the most important, which would it be? It would have to be the three point-essay. Just cast your eye back up the page. Do you see what I did there?


If you’d like to read my archive of columns written for the Tetbury Advertiser, you can buy the first collection as an ebook or in paperback – click here for more details

 

 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Plus Ca Change

My column for the December 2018/January 2019 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of the December issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole magazine online

Crossing to France via the Channel Tunnel the day after Remembrance Day fills me with fin-de-siècle melancholy. This is likely to be the last time I set foot in mainland Europe as an official European. This column is no place for politics, but I mention it because it’s just part of a general end-of-year yearning for time to stand still.

When I was younger, I used to look forward to welcoming each New Year. Now that my parents are in their eighties, I’m conscious of the growing likelihood of less welcome changes as each year goes by. I hanker after reminders of my younger days, when I had less sense of my own mortality, or of anyone else’s.

Plus C’est La Même Chose

Second-hand books in the editions I enjoyed as a child are comfort reads. I enjoy knowing from memory what will appear on the next page before I turn to it.

I rescue from a charity shop a battered bear of comparable vintage to my own childhood teddy. What misfortune befell his owner that this creature should be consigned, appropriately enough, to a branch of Barnardo’s? I don’t want to answer my own question.

photo of two teddy bears
Galloway (left), adopted from the Dumfries Barnado’s shop, with my childhood Teddy

Vintage. You know you’re getting old when artefacts from your childhood are classified thus, as I’m reminded when I scour the internet to replace the Parker Lady pen I had for starting big school. This diminutive black lacquer, gold-trimmed fountain pen (so much classier than a cartridge model, don’t you think?) was just the right size for the hand of an eleven-year-old girl.

My quest isn’t only down to nostalgia. I wish to right a wrong done to me when I changed schools at the age of 14. Another girl stole my pen and claimed it was hers, despite clearly being perplexed as to how a fountain pen worked. As the new arrival, I wasn’t confident enough to contradict her. In a life of few regrets, that’s one of mine. I’m hoping she didn’t just throw it in the bin when it ran out of ink, as we did with the orange plastic Bic biros bought from the school shop. (Plastics recycling had yet to be invented.)

photo of vintage Parker Lady Pen
A design classic – so glad I was able to track one down again

Et Voilà!

On eBay, I find the perfect replacement: a Parker Lady pen so treasured by its owner that he kept it in its original box. I hope it will comfort the seller, the son of the late owner, that this precious pen will have gone to a good home, though I can’t help wondering why a man bought a Parker Lady pen in the first place. A lost love who never received his gift? Perhaps one day I’ll write the story of what might have been.

So as the year turns, don’t forget to cherish the old as you ring in the new.

I wish you a peaceful and contented Christmas, treasuring and treasured by those that you love.

Posted in Personal life, Writing

In My English Country Garden

Cover of October Issue of Tetbury AdvertiserThis post was originally published in the October issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser.

After my husband’s summer war against overgrown trees, shrubs and flowerbeds, some old outbuildings, no longer camouflaged by ivy, were just asking to be given a new lease of life.

The first step in our resurrection of two old privies, a pigsty and a Wendy House was to discharge their contents onto the lawn. (Thankfully the privy buckets had disappeared decades before.) I liked to think of the resulting installation as “Tracy Emin’s Shed”.

Photo of new-look shed
From Wendy House to Art Studio

After multiple trips to the tip and a couple more to IKEA, the conversions were complete. A few coats of pastel-coloured fence paint and the addition of minimal furnishings turned the Wendy House into an art studio fit for our teenage daughter. Once a new clear roof panel had linked the privy building to the pigsty, the introduction of a workbench provided my husband with a carpenter’s workshop. I was the only one in the family without my own outhouse.

A Room with a View

Then one day, admiring the orderly view of the restored buildings from my favourite armchair, I realised we’d done much more than tidy the garden. We’d evolved our own little village.

Not that we’ve been slashing and burning like a fast-food chain through rainforest. Our approach was far more respectful of local wildlife. I’ve never heard as much birdsong in our garden, and the frogs in the pond are flourishing.

photo of garden with ladders, tools etc
A work-in-progress: the taming of the garden

Not Strictly for the Birds

photo of buddha statue with pear
As the old poem goes, “You’re nearer God’s heart in the garden, than anywhere else on earth”

Like any decent village, our garden includes plenty of facilities for humans too. There’s a play area with a swing set and trampoline for the benefit of young visitors. For older, wearier souls there are plenty of benches at strategic intervals. For the peckish, there’s plenty of nourishment to be had from the trees. It’s been our best year ever for pears. Once we’ve finished resurrecting the kitchen garden beds, the last task on our list, there’ll be soft fruit and vegetables too.

If it’s spiritual nourishment you’re after, a buddha statue holds court in the shade beneath the damson tree. He’s a handy distraction from our miniature civic amenity centre: a row of compost bins offering their own “ashes to ashes” message about the circle of life.

Finally, for everyone’s peace of mind, Dorothy, our stately calico cat, provides a round-the-clock Neighbourhood Watch service.

As the dark nights of winter approach, it’s a comfort to be able to look out on my own little world. This Englishwoman’s home is her castle.

And if Brexit goes horribly haywire, I can always place an order with the carpenter’s shop to set about making a drawbridge.


cover of Young by NameIf you’d like to read more of my columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, Young By Name, this collection of pieces from 2010-2015 is available in paperback (ISBN 978-1911223030) and ebook.

To find out more about the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, visit their website: www.tetburyadvertiser.co.uk.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel, Writing

The Best Time to Travel

cover of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole of the September edition of the Tetbury Advertiser online

Due to the fortnight’s lead-time for publication, I filed my column for the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser from the wilds of Glencoe while on holiday in Scotland last month. (Only last month? Seems a lot longer now!)

 

If, like me, you are restricted to taking family holidays outside of term time, here’s a handy tip: you can gain a psychological advantage by spending August in Scotland.  The academic year is different north of the border, with the autumn term starting around the Glorious Twelfth. Local children returning to school add a frisson of guilty pleasure to our Scottish summer holiday. It feels as if we are bunking off.

This year, as ever, when we arrive in Scotland in early August, we make a pit-stop at a supermarket to provision our camper van. Here we find ourselves rubbing elbows in the aisles with brisk Scots mothers and stony-faced children bracing themselves for the imminent start of their new school year.

Gleefully my daughter calculates that even though we’re staying in Scotland for a fortnight, when she gets home, she will still have nearly three weeks of holiday left before the start of her new term. By then, these poor Scottish children will have been stuck into their studies for a month.

Suddenly our holiday feels much longer, as if we’ve stepped through a time-slip, albeit one from which we can return at will.

Travelling in Time

I can’t help wishing that real time travel was available as a holiday option.

My favourite tourist destinations are those that offer a sense of connection with the past. Some of these places are ancient, older than mankind itself, such as the Munro mountains that I can see from my window as I type this column. Others are much more recent. A highlight of this trip so far has been an afternoon at a traditional weaver’s cottage that pre-dates the Industrial Revolution. The cottage has been so sympathetically conserved to suggest that the occupant has just stepped away from his loom for a moment and will be back at any minute. By chance, one of his descendants was visiting that afternoon from Canada, adding to the feeling that this was indeed living history.

I’m sure I’m not the only tourist who hankers after time travel. A few days ago, my brother texted me from his family holiday in Rhodes to tell me about the tourist in front of him at the tourist information office. “Please can you give me directions to the Colossos?” the man asked. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Colossos –  the same size as the Statue of Liberty and a similar symbol of freedom that once graced Rhodes harbour – was destroyed by earthquake over two thousand years ago. But if the tourist information officer had been able to provide effective directions – “Just step through this portal, sir, and stop when you get to 226BC” – I suspect my brother would have gone along for the ride.


Cover of Young by Name
The cover of this essay collection features one of my father’s watercolours
  • Read the whole of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser here (and you’ll also see the fab picture of the Colossus that the wonderful editor, Richard Smith, used to illustrate it)
  • Read some of my previous columns from the Tetbury Advertiser in paperback or ebook here