Tuesday, 30 June 2009


I always enjoy planting leeks. Mysteriously, one buys leek plants by the score, although Bartrums of Beccles seemed to lack confidence that the modern gardener would understand the word. They advertised their plants as coming 'about 20 in a bundle'.

When I first started growing vegetables in a garden in Yorkshire a long time ago I had a great book called The Vegetable Garden Displayed which was full of photographs of men in hats digging enormous trenches and growing enormous crops of vegetables in black and white gardens. I followed all the instructions meticulously and grew plenty of enormous vegetables. My other favourite vegetable gardening book is Grow Your Own Fruit and Vegetables by Lawrence D Hills. How come I have mysteriously lost both these books? At least I can still plant leeks because I can still remember how to make a hole, drop the leek in and fill the hole carefully with water. Very satisfying!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Dunwich reversed

I went for a bike ride yesterday and took a look at the new outer harbour which they're building in Great Yarmouth. Yarmouth has a long spit of land which runs south from the tourist area to the harbour mouth, squeezed between the river and the sea, covered with warehouses and storage yards, many of them run-down or apparently derelict. There was once a caravan site here; a place where it was hard to imagine anyone would have ever wanted to stay.

Between the road and the sea was a narrow strip of wasteland and a beach that few people walked on, but now it's all changed. You can see the process here. It is strange to see the coastline extending into the sea on a shore that elswhere is being eaten rapidly by the waves. These cranes are supposed to start unloading containers later in the summer, although a male Cassandra with a face burnt almost black by the sun and a couple of diamond earrings told me, as we stood on the Haven bridge watching young men fishing the river for sea bass as the tide swirled out through the arches, that the outer harbour was a white elephant and the roads were in the wrong places and the trucks were only going to be allowed to move at night.

He was the first of two gloomy men who engaged me in conversation yesterday. The second was in Yarmouth railway station. He approached me and moaned about the fact that he'd looked up a ticket on the web then come to the station to buy it, but it was cheaper on the web. He was outraged. He couldn't understand it. The same ticket, but two different prices. 'Things are often cheaper online,' I said mildly. He responded by telling me about all the great bargains he'd picked up online - like a Wii for his grandson - but he kept coming back to the ticket. I suggested he might buy it on line, but that was no good. There was a wrong that needed righting. Eventually I edged away and escaped.

I suspect people kept talking to me because I was wearing an old flat cap belonging to Elli's dad. It must have made me look approachable, though why that would be I can't imagine, since Peter Elliott was renowned as one of the rudest, meanest pub landlords in Suffolk. And proud of it, too.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Green Fingers

This is a nice thing to see in the email on a Monday morning!

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Alison Uttley and renegade sheep

Almost by accident I found this little gem about Alison Uttley via a link on Chris Priestley's blog. When I was a child I don't think it ever occurred to me that it was possible to actually meet the authors of the books about the Famous Five or the Swallows and Amazons or William Brown. Anyway, as far as I was concerned the authors of those books had merely set down accounts of events that had actually happened.

I didn't even want my friends to read the same books as me. I was a jealous, possessive reader. If someone else shared my experience it would be diluted. I lived with the characters, imagined myself somehow there beside them. How could there possibly be room in the books for another reader? I don't know how common an experience this is, but I do know that children often ask me when I've finished telling a story if it's true. I simply tell them that I heard it from someone so that they can carry on believing, if they want to.

And then when I have to be an author in front of a group of children the whole process of fiction tends to get anatomised like a kippered herring. Where do you get your ideas? Is it hard to make up stories? How long does it take? What hours do you work? A novel is exposed as an artefact. It's like telling them that Father Christmas isn't real and, as we all know, they find that out soon enough by themselves. Children may even be aware that this loss of innocence is about to happen. I came across a fine instance of this in an article by Hugh Crago in Signal 94 reviewing David Rudd's book Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children's Literature (Macmillan 2000). He describes how his daughter, aged 10, 'urged me to read faster on our way though The Magic Faraway Tree(which she had heard before) because if I was too slow, she might grow out of the book before we reached the end.'

So, on the whole I think I'm not in favour of introducing young children to authors (in person!), and if they do happen to meet them I rather hope they behave like Alison Uttley. I was never quite able to get over my dislike of analysing fiction when I found myself studying English Literature at university. I suspect myself of incurable shallowness. I like a good story. If I'm carried away, that's great. If not, I probably won't finish the book.

And so to the sheep. The meadow behind our house seems to hold a mischievous spirit which teaches animals how to escape. In the past we had many exciting expeditions chasing bullocks around the cornfields. Now we have sheep. The farmer has changed, and he even uses proper sheep netting, unlike Murray, our previous neighbour who preferred to rely on a ramshackle mixture of old ironmongery and baler twine. But the fancy sheep netting couldn't contain the renegade sheep, so the farmer resorted to... baler twine. Perhaps it's like the coloured threads beloved by the heroines of Celtic legend. If so it's lost its magic. No sooner are they herded back into the field than they escape again.

I think they may be tunneling.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Collective nouns

My favourite collective noun has always been a 'charm' of goldfinches, so it's very nice to have a charm in the field outside my window. There seem to be about a dozen of them, flitting to and fro all day long, and occasionally resting for a moment on the topmost leaves of the winter-flowering viburnum. The list of collective nouns in the back of my primary school English textbook used to fascinate me, and I tried to become expert at remembering them. I loved all those lists - homonyms and synonyms and the rest of them, though I could never quite remember which was which!