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


Vernal Equinox

It’s a misty, dank day, this 20th March. We’ve enjoyed high pressure for over a week, and for many days that has meant cold air and bright sun, but now it is warming a little, as under a grey blanket. Time to start turning the soil ready for planting.

And time to stop writing. What does that mean this year, this day? A pause, at least, to take breath and re-gather the energies after a few weeks of being carried on a big wave towards the end. I’m stopping with the end still to do, but at least the structure is in place now, and the latest idea makes me smile suddenly in inappropriate places, whilst talking to another or walking to the corner shop.

I say, this is my last novel. Others say, we’ll see. I compromise: I shall not go looking for another story, but if one comes to me… But if they could see this screen as I type, they might realise what I’m trying to say: I’m not up to it any more. It seems that even at the basic level, of touch typing, brain and hand are no longer in synch. I sometimes watch words appear on the screen and wonder how they got there. Is it just a spelling (first written as pseeling) mistake that hand becomes hound? Some fat-fingered mis-typing? I think not. Somewhere in the process, I am typing (tuyping) what I hear, and it seems I’m not hearing so well on a subtle level.

I have loved this winter past, although I would have liked it a bit colder, would have liked to have seen snow falling. In the Drawing Landscape class, I am learning to draw trees, learning that what stops me being able to draw trees is impatience – all those twigs! – and now I see buds appearing, breaking, even, on the blackthorns, and I think, ‘Oh no! So soon?’


I shall miss the trees in silhouette, the ability to see into the undergrowth, the gratitude of the swans as I feed them, the snuggle of winter clothes, the bliss of my very woolly socks, the great white cloud of the new duvet, the teddy-bear embrace of the armchair slanket. No doubt spring and summer shall have their compensations.

And so here we are, at the equipoise between winter and summer, balancing on a fulcrum, on a day when it will be light for as many hours as it is dark. Too grey a day to run out on to the meadow at sunrise to see my equinoctial shadow stretching away to the west. Alas. But a good day for a bit of a clear up and chuck out, perhaps starting with the ideas of what I can and cannot do.

mature socks
The best socks are those that can stand up for themselves

Subtle Maps

Subtle Maps

It’s too easy to think of blogging as singing in the shower in an empty house, but every now and again you pull back the curtain and find you have an audience. Gulp! Yesterday was one such day when, for some reason, my stats went wild. I also received a message from people I never knew about, the parents of Justin Howes, who left a comment on a post I made a couple of years ago, saying that today is eleven years since his premature death.

All death, all grief is hard to bear, but how much harder it must be to grieve for your child than to grieve for a parent. The death of a parent is in the natural order of things, something that can rarely take us by surprise. But of a child, even — especially — when he is a grown man, it must be so hard.

I was therefore reading through my post ‘Goodbye to the Press‘ and realised I’d made a mistake in saying we’d gone to Kidderminster to see Justin. Of course, it was Kettering and I was muddling my K’s. Then I realised that anywhere that begins with K seems remote to me: Keele, Keighley, Kent. It was the middle of the night, of course, that hour when I lie prone fit only to wonder about things, and I was wondering, does anywhere in Oxfordshire begin with K? Cumnor, Cowley, Cutteslowe, Cotswolds, the list went on and I do believe I drifted off, but not before I’d wondered why this should be, that Oxonians prefer hard C to K, and whether — now, here’s a thought — whether there is an invisible map of England related to such linguistic differences in place names? I expect there is, and someone has already done it, but in the deep hours it was toe-wriggling delight to think of my felt-hatted and smocked predecessors (not ancestors — they were elsewhere) burring and drawling, telling the children what places were called, and suffering some kind of aversion to K.

There may not be such a map, yet, but what I did happen upon and only yesterday, when googling about looking for something to explain the geology of Shropshire (as you do), was the government’s very new project, Natural England’s Character Map.

The idea was to divide England up into areas of habitat rather than geo-political divisions (usually created to massage voting patterns, I have to say). How sensible! How wonderful! How wise! Mind you, it took me a while to find where I live, for in this plan ‘Oxfordshire’ is designated ‘The Upper Thames Clay Vales’. Of course, silly me …

The description: … a broad belt of open, gently undulating lowland farmland on predominantly Jurassic and Cretaceous clays. Blenheim Palace World Heritage Site falls within the NCA, along with around 5,000 ha of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and smaller areas of the Chilterns AONB and the Cotswolds AONB. Two of its Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) are designated for their lowland meadow vegetation communities, while Little Wittenham SAChas one of the most studied great crested newt populations in the UK. There are contrasting landscapes, including enclosed pastures of the claylands with wet valleys, mixed farming, hedges, hedge trees and field trees and more settled, open, arable lands. Mature field oaks give a parkland feel in many places.

The project was only completed two years ago. Perhaps it’s taking time to filter into national consciousness, or perhaps I’ve just been out of the loop. Anyway, I embrace you, Natural England Character Maps.


Welcome to Upper Thames Clay Vales – a K-free zone


How to see

How to see

2015 has, for me, been the year of John Ruskin. It was the year of four trips to Lake Coniston, two of them holidays in a cottage which is completely Swallows and Amazons, two of them on retreat with fellow writers at Brantwood Lodge. Brantwood was Ruskin’s home at the end of his life. It was where he put many of his ideas into practice. You cannot walk those woods above the house without bumping into his gangly spirit, striding along, muttering, ‘Just look! All you have to do is just look!’


The Lodge at Brantwood House

Creatively, it has been one of the profounder years. I started high, with a retreat in February, but by March I was crashing into something a friend finally diagnosed as ‘accidie’. I read Kathleen Norris’s Acedia and Me and realised that the way out from this awful hole of depression – a kind of well where a deep voice booms, asking, ‘What’s the point?’ – is to pay attention to detail.

Art in Action invited me to take part in their lecture programme in July and I opted to speak on Ruskin and ‘How to see’. Preparing for that helped me out of my hole. After all, I had quickly to learn what I was about to propose to others: how we need to learn how to just look.

One of the highs in this year of valleys and mountains, troughs and peaks, was signing up for a drawing class at the Ashmolean Museum. This was where, after all, Prof. Ruskin founded the Oxford School of Art and, to my joy, his spirit still presides there, too. I had four sessions of traditional instruction in drawing technique, and discovered that if you want to learn how to see, drawing is the very best way.

elements of drawing

Ego haunts every path and turns us off the straight and narrow so quickly. ‘You wanna do art? Be an artist? Have an exhibition? You want praise? You want to impress people?’ Every day I have to remind myself, no, no, no and no. None of these things. I just want to learn how to see.

What I produce is of no importance. What matters is that for a few moments I’ve stopped to look: how a branch grows from a willow’s trunk, the angle of the crest of a grebe bobbing on the river, the slouch of an angler sitting on his stool, the shine of a crow as it pecks away at the pile of horse dung it’s standing on.


An aged John Ruskin being visited at Brantwood by William Holman Hunt

God is in the detail. Truth, happiness, knowledge. The devil is in ambition. I hope I remember this throughout 2016.


Robin of Brantwood