red-stems-of-sycamoreWytham Woods is a study centre for the University of Oxford. During a guided walk there recently I had my mind changed — or, rather, put straight — about the sycamore. I am of the generation brought up to think of it as an ‘invasive species’ and I remember a principle of woodland management in the 70s and 80s was to remove sycamore. Prejudices are easily sown: I learned to shudder at the very name. When, over the years, I’ve seen a beautiful piece of creamy wood, or a five-lobed leaf on the path with a striking red stalk, I’ve been disappointed to learn it was sycamore. Well, no longer.

The European sycamore is Acer pseudoplatanus. It was growing in Britain by 1500, and some think much earlier (in Scotland, its Gaelic name — for chrann — dates it to the 6th or 7th centuries). The idea of it being a weed tree has some truth, especially in Australia and New Zealand, but in fact sycamores set seed some distance from the parent plant, not at its base. Apparently if Wytham Woods was left to itself, it would, despite its sycamores, revert to being an ash wood.

Here is what this tree of ill-repute gives us: sap sugar and honey made by bees from its nectar; wooden floors; furniture; musical instruments, especially the necks of violins. In Cornwall, oddly, it is sycamore which is ‘the May’, not hawthorn as elsewhere, and during the May Day or Flora Day celebrations, the youths gather sycamore branches and make whistles from bark.

 Like the plane tree, it is tolerant of pollution and salted roads, so is good for cities. (If you’re wondering if the avenue in your city is plane or sycamore, here’s one difference: leaves are alternate in planes, paired or opposite in sycamores). And, apart from all that, it’s beautiful. It may even be the white maple in the old song, Wassail, Wassail, all over the town.

Its distinctive double-lobed winged seed is called a samara and is formed to twist in the air as it falls, taking it away from the tree. We have a local jewellery-maker from whom I bought a fabulous pair of earrings that are, I know now, silver pendant samaras. I remember feeling ambivalent when I bought them: they were beautiful, but they were inspired by sycamore. I’m older and wiser now, and shall wear my samaras with pride.

On the guided talk we were told that the term ‘non-native’ has been changed to ‘future-native’. What sounded at first like a piece of arboreal PC is in fact a recognition of a truth that, as our native trees die out (elm, ash, larch, possibly oak), the vast gaps in our woodlands will be replaced by sycamores. We are losing what we love: time to start loving what comes next.

Pomona’s Day


It’s all apples now, falling like small thunderclaps on to the ground, crashing into the wheelbarrow. It is the wormy ones that fall by themselves, leaving the whole ones on the tree for another couple of weeks of ripening.

I chase apples through the dictionaries to find out why they are called poms. The Latin pomum, pl. poma, at first meant any fruit but in time became especially linked to the apple (and, of course, the pomegranate – pom plus grain).  We find pom in many other words, such as pomander and pomace, which is the name of the pulp left after juicing.

In the hunt, I stumble upon Pomona, a Roman goddess and daughter of Ceres and Neptune. She was one of the twelve gods called Numina, guardian spirits of Rome. Her feast day is not known: August 13th and November have been suggested, neither of them satisfactory.

As I hunt, I begin to wonder about the origins of Apple Day, for it is a tradition without a history. ‘Oh, it’s apple day!’ people cry in October, and I wonder why I never knew about it when I was a child. So my dictionary hunt is abandoned for a session on Google and I find that it’s a tradition that began in 1990, or shall we say custom? For ‘tradition’ by its nature is a word that suggests some length of time. The begetters of this custom were Common Ground. This is a group founded in 1983 to inspire people to engage with their local environments, creating projects such as Apple Day, Parish Maps and New Milestones. A bit of a success then, as such groups go, for Apple Day is everywhere now although, like Pomona, we’re not quite sure when, except sometime in October (the first, which Common Ground set up at Covent Garden, was on October 21st, but our village orchard is celebrating on October 9th this year).

And so Pomona, who was hardly heard of after her brief rebirth in the imagination of William Morris, has returned. The orchards are blushing with heritage varieties and names that were nearly lost. Our own community orchard, born of the Common Ground initiative, was planted in 1993. Local varieties were tracked down and now it hosts rarities such as Bampton Fairing, Winter Greening and Sergeant Peggie. My own favourite is a new variety which has been named after the village.

The windfalls will be juiced, turned into chutneys and cakes, and sold on Apple Day to fund more trees. As I write, my husband is peeling and chopping. Our own dear tree in the garden is Lord Lambourne and he keeps the freezer stocked for the entire year.


I am the ancient apple-queen,

As once I was so am I now. For evermore a hope unseen

Betwixt the blossom and the bough.

Ah, where’s the river’s hidden gold?

And where the windy grave of Troy?

Yet came I as I came of old,

From out the heart of summer’s joy.

William Morris.

Waterperry Apple Weekend – October 7th to 9th

Dear Young People

I am not young, I am middle class, white, and live in a village where, along with 77% of my neighbours, I voted to remain in the EU. However, by a democratic majority in the nation, we are now in the process of leaving. It is time to revision the future, and I have an idea…

We need to enfranchise the young. At the age of 16, anyone born in Britain should be granted citizenship, given the right to vote and be asked in return to join any of the political parties, with free membership until you get a job. The last year in school should have a compulsory module in citizenship, including a constitutional history of Britain, so that everyone is at least informed.

We are living in a ‘democracy’ which relies far too heavily on not having the people involved. I saw this in action when I was a member of the National Union of Journalists. I used to go to the chapel meetings and leave after about half an hour; one day I decided to stay. After half an hour, when most decent, intelligent people had been bored witless by ‘committee dialogue’ and had left, the real business began. It’s how politics operates, and I would like to see that change.

Compulsory membership wouldn’t mean we all have to attend meetings, but we would have a vote.

Today the Labour Party is in turmoil because it cannot reconcile the membership to the party, and vice versa. This is all bad news, but I’m hoping it heralds a new approach, where membership matters.

Referenda are held easily within parties. You get emailed regularly and can always state your views, either to your local candidate or the leader directly. In this digital age, it would cost nothing to have local, in-party voting systems. And then the elected members would at least be informed as to the mood of the party; they would still find ways to go against it, but they could no longer ignore it.

The thing is this, we cannot go on the way we have done in the past, electing candidates every four years, moaning about the leaflets coming through the letterbox, and then going about our business with no engagement at all except the occasional emotional outburst at the TV, or a letter to the MP about the environmental degradation of the community.

If we continue as we are, wanting only what is good for ourselves, and the leisure to play with our phones, to switch off, zone out, or whatever the current parlance is for non-engagement, then we shall be slaves.

As Tacitus said of the conquered Britons: ‘They adopted our dressing fashion, and begun wearing the togas ; little by little they were drawn to touches such as colonnades, baths, and elegant talks. Because they didn’t know better, they called it ‘civilization,’ when it was part of their slavery.’

What he meant was, the Empire knew how to keep the people quiet. It still does.

You have the right and the duty to be part of your country and have a voice in its future. Get out there and demand it.

I always believed that there was no room for emotion in political decision-making, but I think I was wrong. Emotion plays a great part, and gut-feelings are often more reliable, certainly more than opinions formed by the media. But it should always be balanced by Reason. Head and heart together.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Vapour Eyes

So there we were, a couple of oldies on their holidays, going into a shop in Ulverston where they sell vapes and accessories. ‘You could get a tattoo while you’re about it,’ I told him. A moment later, I realised he could probably have his nose and nipples pierced, too. That kind of place. But it’s Cumbria and even the yoof in the North can’t help but be friendly, so the couple behind the counter did their best to initiate my old man into the rituals of vaping and the ceremonial accoutrements required.

He hasn’t smoked cigarettes since Good Friday and has done well, using e-cigarettes mostly bought at petrol stations and the like, but they are a fiddle and a faff, always running out of charge at an inconvenient time, and he wanted to get something more reliable. Behind glass cases there were dozens of styles and varieties of cartridge, on the counter, racks of ‘tanks’ (what an oboeist would call a mouthpiece) and behind the counter every imaginable widget for the serious vaper.

Out in the real world, e-cigarettes are deemed a Good Thing, an easy way off tobacco, but there, in this Cumbrian opium den, this is the dark side. Darth Vaper’s world.

The girl serving us, with ever-increasing impatience at our inability to understand, our need to sit down, or to change minds, was blond and pale in that way of those who only really come out at night. Her male half: baseball cap on backwards, huge hole in one ear where surely a stud if not a bone should be? – everything overshadowed by the silver ring through his nose, huge and so hard not to stare at. And boy, could these two vape. Every now and again, as we increased their exasperation, one or both would disappear in a great puff of smoke. I mean, puff – the size of a steamboat. Whoosh! Her puffs were particularly impressive because she could blow smoke like donuts, in ever-decreasing sizes.

By now, other customers were entering, and presumably finding the presence of Mr and Mrs Smith a little surprising. Wiry-armed old guys in combat vests, a biker in a leather jacket with death heads on the back, all with baseball caps, stubble, close-shaved heads. Could be anglers, more likely neo Nazis, and they vape for England. Remain or Leave? – don’t even ask.

I thought this stuff was supposed to be OK, harmless even. After half an hour in this growing fug I’m beginning to feel really ill and keep conscious by noting the names of ‘liquids’: Leprechaun, Monkey’s breath, Irish pipe, Welsh pipe, raspberry menthol.

‘No, you want something stronger,’ she’s telling my old man. ‘Was it giving you a kick? At the back of the throat? That’s what you’re looking for.’

It’s taken him half an hour to choose a cuboid over a tuboid and now he can’t decide on flavour. ‘Try Monkey’s breath,’ I say.

‘That’s just a fancy name for banana. Why not Benson and Hedges flavour? Golden Virginia?’

‘I don’t like them. Prefer Cutters’ Choice,’ he mumbles. She’s never heard of Cutters’ Choice. Now she’s having recourse to her cuboid donut-maker more and more often. Hfffff – she breathes in quickly. ‘Most people like you go for standard tobacco…’  Pfwhooo.

I press the credit card into his hand and escape. There’s a lovely handbag shop next door. By the time we reunite, he’s in such a good mood I can have whatever purse I want.

We walk among the crowds at the music festival. People stagger past covered in foam from a pie fight. Many are wearing bowler hats in honour of Laurel and Hardy, the local heroes. Here and there among the throng you see someone disappear in a cloud of smoke and then come back again with vapour in his eyes.

They say this stuff is harmless. Good. Don’t tell ’em anything different, because the relief of living in a smoke free house is worth the occasional white cloud enveloping the man beside me.


World food

My dentist said, ‘Have a good lunch before you come. Treat yourself.’ So I had it all planned – a toasted sandwich at The Playhouse, a place blissfully ignored by all Oxford in daylight hours. But the menu has changed and all the options were Really Fattening. Slabs of cheddar, cream cheese, etc. I looked over the choices twice before deciding I really had to go elsewhere, sob. So I walked on, to No. 2 favourite eatery in this city of eateries, Mortons in New Inn Hall Street, but all they had were baguettes over a foot long and so crusty I’d need another appointment at the dentist; and then wraps. Well, wraps are good. But duck in hoy sin sauce? Smoked goats’ cheese?

Suddenly I remembered my mother’s face when she first tasted grapefruit, and how I’d had to coax her to put a piece of avocado in her mouth.  Her wail of ‘I don’t like it!’ was always met with my ‘You haven’t tried it!’ Well, I haven’t tried any of these things and I’m certain I don’t like them. Absolutely convinced. I don’t exactly want spaghetti on toast but you know what I’m getting at: something normal, something light.

Off to the open market, then, where I could be sure to find some street food. It must have been like this in Rome at the height of the Empire. Chinese fried noodles, Indian hamburgers, paellas, big dumplings (halal), Venezuelan arepas, Polish cheesecake, polenta, Vietnamese noodle soup, kebabs, Sri Lankan Roti, Gyoza buns (which apparently are Octopus balls), langos ‘n’ spatzle, and oh, at last, good old English hog roast, only I don’t fancy it. After all, cooking in the open air can’t be good in a place with the levels of air pollution we have in Oxford. Can it? And then I read, ‘Artisan Bread baked on the bus while you slept.’ Whaaaat? Which bus? The number six? The Park and Ride? Which? No coincidence that Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland in this city.

So now I’m staggering and wanting to howl, ‘My kingdom for an egg sarnie!’ But then I remember the Nosebag, the good old Nosebag, which has been in Oxford longer than I have. Ten minutes later and I’m getting a small bowl of mixed salad with a blob of cottage cheese on top. And just to show the young man serving that I’m not a poor old lady, not yet, I pronounce quinoa ‘keen-wa’ when I ask for some.

On the way to the dentist, I find an unassuming cafe close by that sells paninis. Paninis! Now that’s what I’d been looking for: proper English food.




Growing pains

Alice in Wonderland.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smartSeeds come in various sizes, from the dust of foxgloves and grit of brassicas to the desiccated sponges of beetroot. All are shells containing new life. Some need to be frozen for a kick start, some drowned in a saucer of water overnight, some cooked over a radiator, but they have this in common: they must be shattered. Three times in the past few days, I’ve been reminded by the wise that stress is the trigger for growth.

First, standing with a friend in the Ashmolean looking at a hand axe 300,000 years old, I voiced my rather clever, I thought, objection to evolution theory with the question, ‘How come one species grows out of another, but the original one remains? In other words, how come there are still chimps?’ She looked at me witheringly, as well she might. ‘The chimps were in a comfortable place.’ I fell backwards through time like Alice and got a glimpse of hungry hominids, cold and thirsty. Time to move, to migrate, or to change.

Second, a YouTube clip I came across on Facebook. Anyone with a beard like that has to be wise, so I listened…

[Unfortunately I am not evolved enough to embed a vid and get it to play when it doesn’t want to. Here’s the link: Responding to Stress. And if that doesn’t work, as it doesn’t for me, go to YouTube and search Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski, Responding to Stress.]

Third, in my current favourite reading, Florida Scott-Maxwell’s Measure of my Days, this development of the thought:

Evolution is necessarily slow since we resent it so. A large proportion of our energy is used in holding it back, wanting to stop it if possible. The new good is refused countless times before it is accepted. The rare, the beautiful, the admirable are taken as rebukes, making us feel inferior, suggesting our improvement. Anything but that, so we mock at the new, recoil from the rare belittle the great, until finally grown accustomed … to ignore is easy.

And then a glimpse not of the distant past, but of now and how it is as I biff my husband to try something new, such as podcasts on his Kindle Fire.




Fra Filippo Speaks

After yesterday’s exciting news, that a publisher in Russia is looking with interest at Knights of the Grail and, potentially, all my novels, Fra Filippo is elbowing everyone aside. Today is his day. Recently interviewed by the wonderful Helen Hollick, his unholy words have just appeared on her blog.

A Gift for the Magus low res