Reading. Books: several of them. I’ve been wallowing in my book pile and, prompted and inspired by my blogging chum Pauline from way down under who listed the titles nestling on her bedside table, here’s a little resume of what’s been distracting me the past few weeks.


First up is The Children Act by Ian McEwan. This was a book group choice. Nice and brief and classic McEwan. You either love or loathe him and as I’ve read a fair few of his works I guess I fall into the former category. A friend who struggles with him thinks he’s pompous which I can understand as he’s quite wordy and very British but his characterisations are spot on and often humorous. The Children Act introduces us to Fiona, a high court judge who specialises in family law. She is faced with a case involving a seventeen year old boy suffering from leukaemia who is refusing a blood transfusion to save his life because of his and his parents’ religious beliefs.

Fiona, who is highly regarded amongst her peers and for whom home and work life has to this point been straight forward is thrown by the vulnerability of this boy’s situation which then begins to reflect the disharmony in her personal life.

I read this book quickly, bounding towards the unexpected ending so typical of McEwan’s work. Definitely worth a read.


Next was The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. This book had very mixed reviews which I trawled through after I’d finished reading the novel. Set in 17th century Amsterdam I thought the author evoked the darkness and damp of a major European trading city very well. The story revolves around young Petronella who is recently married to an older, well heeled Merchant who spends much of his life at sea. He presents Nella with a doll’s house replica of their home and she begins to furnish it with miniatures created by the mysterious Miniaturist. Strange co-incidences begin to occur between events in Nella’s life and the items delivered by the Miniaturist. It’s as if the pieces are for-warning her of subsequent tragedies. This is not a happy tale, there are several despicable characters here but this all adds to the darkness and gloom. The descriptions of place are excellent and the historical facts surrounding the trading laws at this time interesting.

The main criticism I read afterwards was that the ending didn’t tie things up but in my view, that was the point. I made my own mind up about the character of the Miniaturist (who, incidentally, we never meet) and I recommend that if you read this novel you take that approach too!


Ishmael’s Oranges by Claire Hajaj was a title we nearly chose as a book group read but it was considered too long for the time we had which was a shame because I think it would have provided us with a good debate. Essentially the book deals with how the Israel-Palestine conflict affects ordinary people. The story is presented from two points of view – those of Salim – a Palestinian and Judith who is Jewish. They meet in London in the 60’s and we track them through their life together, the familial conflicts they encounter and the heart rending decisions they are forced to make when their cultures collide. It’s an ambitious task for a first novel and I found some of the subsidiary characters unbelievable which weakened the plot slightly but that said, I enjoyed the read and although the ending was predictable my attention was held till the last page.


I’m just about to finish Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. His writing is beautiful, very wordy which slows the pace but that works well in this story of a small town Irish woman, recently bereaved, and how her life is changed. She has to become independent, find a job, sell the family’s summer house and manage her children. To be honest, not much happens but the relationships between Nora and her family and the new friends she makes through her love of singing are completely believable. The dialogue is written so that the gentle Irish lilt comes through – very clever.

Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn has recently been adapted and released as a film starring Julie Walters. I think we’ll be in for a treat.


And lastly – I must share with you the reading material being delivered to our eleven year olds in the run up to Christmas. One of my favourite modern tales, Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce can be enjoyed on so many levels. The class teacher and I are already drawing short straws for which one of us has to read out the ending. (It’s a tear jerker). The story deals with so many issues – happiness, bereavement, greed, friendships and is told through the voice of young Damian who has an odd but endearing penchant for Saints. In his quest to be ‘excellent’ he collects them while practising mortification. There are some laugh-out-loud passages (at least for the grownups in the room) and the story provides the opportunity for plenty of class discussion. Prior to beginning reading, the students were asked if we could ever care for a fictional character. One little girl answered that there would be no point in reading a book if we didn’t. She nailed it for me.

And with that in mind as well as the previous mention of the wonderful Julie Walters, here she is as one of my favourite characters of all time.

Who’s your favourite fictional character?

A Matter of Priority

Catching up with some admin work during my lunch-break the other day and unusually minding my own business, I couldn’t help but overhear part of an enthusiastic conversation. Now I know that eavesdropping is hardly ever likely to be to one’s advantage or indeed present the whole picture so to speak but the bit I did hear beggars belief. Apparently the randomly coloured and therefore offensive seating throughout the site is to be replaced with one type of ergonomically and aesthetically pleasing chair – one that can’t be swung on and comes in the colour of chewed gum: presumably so that the blobs which are frequently deposited beneath furniture from disenchanted little mouths will be less visible. There’s a sample in the corner for us to try out – hurrah – let’s hope some philanthropic furniture dealer is presenting the whole consignment  for nothing because as we are severely short on the staffing front we sure as hell don’t have funding to fritter away.

Imagine a child watching gifts piling up under the annual Christmas tree. One particular parcel catches his eye – the tantalisingly tinsel wrapped, sparkly present which had looked so promising reveals a Pound Store rip-off version of the thing his heart had most desired.

With that metaphor* in mind and with hundreds of educational establishments up and down the country opening their doors this month for Open Evenings I hope that starry-eyed parents will remember to ask the right questions and not be fooled into making choices just because they can smell fresh paint or the interiors look like an advert for IKEA.

I’ll leave you with a quote attributed to His Holiness the Dalai Lama I found whilst trawling through Flipboard the other day:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”


‘I am Mosquito’










*Metaphor: one of the many language devices the National Curriculum requires  students between the ages of eleven to sixteen to cram into their writing at every conceivable opportunity.

















We recently spent a few days on the Cote Fleurie on France’s north coast and apart from one spectacular thunderstorm we had good weather which should be regarded a bonus for this area – Normandy is green for a reason.

Once we’d done the beach-sitting, people-watching and strolling around the picturesque towns of Trouville and Deauville we availed ourselves of some of the freshest seafood you are ever likely to find. The Poissonerie on the quayside at Trouville is open from seven in the morning till seven at night and is frantically busy all day. Several small market stalls are crammed together side by side and compete for business, displaying the morning’s catch in ever creative ways, tempting tourists and locals alike.


Each stall has its own tiny ‘bistro’ attached – in reality, a few stools and tall tables under parasols where you can sit and sample the shellfish, prepared in front of your eyes by friendly staff. They will supply a chilled bottle of wine to go with the food but if you want bread, you must visit the nearby Boulangerie. Paper napkins, wet wipes and an empty bucket for the shells and then you just tuck in with your fingers – delicious!


So feeling replete, it was time to head out for a little sight-seeing – of the historical variety.

A few kilometres along the coast to the west lays the Orne River, peacefully flowing its way through lush Norman countryside out towards the English Channel, or as is politically correct from this side of the sea, La Manche. At this time of year the river-banks are full of reeds and wild flowers and the trees, heavy with leafy greenery, dip their branches into the water while fish surface occasionally, leaving lazy concentric pools.

We stopped near this rural idyll, just outside Ranville, the first village to be liberated by British forces on D-Day (6th June 1944) and whose cemetery is the resting place for many British soldiers killed in action after a short but epic battle to secure the bridge across the River Orne. This was one of the major objectives of the British airborne troops in the opening moments of the Normandy Invasion and would prove crucial in limiting the effectiveness of a German counter-attack.

Imagine flying into an area you’ve never seen – in a glider – under the stealth of a pitch black night and landing safely within yards of the river. This is what Major John Howard and his Glider Unit of the British 6th Airborne Division did. Transported from their base at Tarrant in Dorset, they travelled in Horsa Gliders towed by bombers and landed virtually intact. One plane did land some seven miles away, near Dives, but the troops made their way through German lines towards Ranville and were reunited with British forces.

There is now a memorial on the spot where Major Howard’s glider landed, a peaceful garden adjacent to the river.


The bridge that Major Howard and his men were tasked with capturing crossed the River Orne from Ranville to the neighbouring village of Bénouville.


Next to the bridge, on the Bénouville side, was a small restaurant, the Café Gondrée. Here Georges Gondrée lived and worked, running his small establishment but also working for the Resistance.


Information about explosives under the bridge and the location of a switch in a pillbox was discovered by Georges, passed on to British Intelligence and was instrumental in the success of this operation.


Nowadays, Café Gondrée is run by members of the same family and exists as a tourist attraction as well as a café serving the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted in France. The staff were offhand – not unheard of in France, let’s be honest – although this, I felt, was scaling things to a whole new level. Large hand-written signs warned customers not to take photographs inside the building. (Son told us on our return that the newer establishment across the road is the place to go, and is full of friendly information for the visitor as well as decent fare).


The bridge was christened Pegasus on 26th June 1944 as a tribute to the British troops who wore the emblem of the winged horse on their sleeves. Today the original bridge resides in the grounds of the Pegasus Museum. A new bridge, constructed in 1994, now spans the river.


The original Pegasus Bridge

The Pegasus Museum was officially opened in 2000 by HRH Prince Charles and is worth a visit. Weapons, documents and photographs as well as the old bridge, a tank and a Horsa Glider are on view. Explanations of the mission are simple to understand or there is a guided tour which takes about an hour.

Heading back through Ranville it is apparent that much of this sleepy little village was rebuilt after the war. It is possible to visit the nearby Batterie at Merville where British troops overcame German forces intent on building their ‘Atlantic Wall’ – but we had done this on a previous visit and more shellfish was beckoning…

With some 4000 memorials in Normandy, commemorating acts of bravery and heroism undertaken during the Invasion, there is plenty of history here so there is always something to see, however often you visit.

The French call this area the Musée à Ciel Ouvert – ‘Open- Sky Museum.’ It makes sense.



When Mum isn’t playing word games with me over the internet or looking things up on Google she spends much of her time doing jigsaw puzzles – complicated ones with thousands of pieces. She has a special board onto which she builds her puzzle having painstakingly sorted out all the corners and straight bits first. She then groups similar colours into piles. Her dining-room table takes on the appearance of a military plotting map. This hobby would drive me absolutely insane but keeps her occupied for hours and provides the rest of the family with easy options when it comes to present buying.

Which I did recently…

Now, Mum likes a challenge but draws the line at those double-sided-plate-of-baked-beans affairs or pictures of wrapped sweets – the kind of puzzles pushed at Christmas in the novelty gift section. And she prefers a Gibsons puzzle – apparently superior in quality they also concentrate on landscapes or scenes with ‘plenty going on.’ So with those criteria in mind I looked for the busiest picture I could find. Perfect – a thousand piece, 19th century stately home in cross section, showing all the rooms – just like a doll’s house.


Mum was thrilled but unfortunately her delight turned to frustration when it became clear that on near completion several pieces needed to finish off the roof just did not fit. She took it apart and tried again several times. She’s nothing if not patient, my Mum. However, it became evident after several fruitless attempts that the pieces left, although similar, were not part of this particular puzzle. She hesitated to tell me as it had been a gift but had to come clean when I asked her if she’d done it yet.

I’ll send them an email, I said, bristling.  So I did (polite, naturally), pointing out our problem. I wasn’t expecting anything really but it was worth a shot. The following day I received a reply from Gibson’s customer services, profuse with apologies and instructions for me to send various details back plus the offending pieces whereupon they would not hesitate to replace the whole puzzle. Which I did, by post. After two days, I received a letter back (yes! A letter – not an email!) assuring me that all the details I had sent were exactly what they needed, our puzzle had been ordered and would be with us within a couple of weeks.


So often we receive shoddy service which, because I worked for years in a company which takes the maxim ‘the customer’s always right’ to a whole new level and who’s trading dictum is ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ it always comes as a bit of a surprise when other companies come up trumps. Hurrah for Gibsons, I say.

I did think I’d balance up this post with tales of irritating and/or appalling service but I’ll leave that for another time. Let’s just celebrate the good for a change. Have we received the replacement puzzle, I hear you wondering. Not yet, but I’m keeping the faith.

This post forms the final fifth part of a challenge thrown down by Sherri, over at her Summerhouse.  As Sherri herself  already changed the rules of the challenge which originally was to post five pictures and five stories on consecutive days (ha! not a chance!), I have taken a much more relaxed attitude. Having to nominate someone to carry on the challenge isn’t fair but I’m pleased to say that Tracy took it upon herself to have a bash. Frankly, even though my approach has probably been far too laid-back, I’m glad it’s all over. Challenges? Pressure? In the summer holidays? Ah well, the end of those is in sight now too. Back to the coal face very soon… 






As the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) garden at Wisley is almost on the doorstep I thought I’d mosey on up the A3 this week and take a wander to get some botanical inspiration. Having to park in the second overflow car park before mid-morning didn’t really bode well crowd-wise but I’m in chilled out holiday mode, so hey-ho.

Once through the gates it was obvious that there must be a special school-holiday event on. (Oh, dear). Grimly undeterred, I waded through hundreds of very small people attached to their Surrey mothers, all pushing the obligatory Surrey pushchair – the equivalent in stroller terms to a 4×4 vehicle. These modern day contraptions come with several levels of parcel shelving, space for two or three infants and room for all the paraphernalia that seems to be required when taking an outing, however uncomplicated, with your children these days. Things have changed since Son was small. We had the equivalent of a canvas deckchair which folded up like a telescopic umbrella. That and a modest back-pack was all we ever needed. Perhaps he was a deprived child, I don’t know, but it never took long to get ready or in and out of my humble hatch-back.


I like to start a Wisley walk by taking the wide path through the herbaceous borders and up towards Battleston Hill, passing the rose garden on the right.


“Off With Their Heads!”

It was here that I realised why there were so many children and their parents around – the event ‘Adventures in Wonderland’ was celebrating 150 years of the book by Lewis Carroll and the small visitors were rushing around like crazed beetles trying to find Alice and all the character sculptures hidden around the gardens.  In the centre of the rose garden was the Queen of Hearts, positioned here looking for all the world as if the three gardeners behind her had caused displeasure and were definitely for the chop. I began to see the fun in this and actively started searching out the figures for myself although I was at a disadvantage because I hadn’t been given a fact sheet to tick off or a little booklet on my arrival.

Now – here’s a point to ponder: When does a garden ornament become a sculpture? What actually defines a sculpture?


I puzzled on this as I meandered through the hydrangeas, also wondering why ours don’t look quite like these gargantuan specimens. No Wonderland figures here as far as I could see so I changed route towards the rockeries, passing this intriguingly mown lawn and more herbaceous borders.




Here I found the Mad Hatter standing on the edge of a bird bath as well as the White Rabbit. I spied the manufacturer’s details on an information stand near these two and thought what an excellent way this is to maximise publicity for your company.



White Rabbit with the Dormouse sitting in the bird bath

I can imagine that these figurines will prove very popular and are certainly a step up from the kitsch garden gnomes or moulded Alsatian dogs I’ve seen at my local garden centre.

As I crossed the main lawn where I passed a giant chess set and a croquet game being played with plastic flamingos (this whole event has been very well thought out for Wisley’s youthful visitors) it occurred to me that I’d probably answered my own question, especially as I spied this bronze sculpture, on loan to Wisley from the Henry Moore Foundation.


Entitled simply ‘King and Queen’ and created by Henry Moore in 1957, these two figures sit serenely in front of the house now used as a botanical laboratory. They overlook the canal and appear very much at home here.


 Now, that’s what I call sculpture.

Adventures in Wonderland continues at Wisley until 31 August.

This post forms the fourth part of a challenge thrown down by Sherri, over at her Summerhouse.  As Sherri herself has already changed the rules of the challenge which originally was to post five pictures and five stories on consecutive days (ha! not a chance!), I have been taking a more relaxed attitude towards the rules myself. I’m supposed to nominate someone to take up the challenge after each of these posts but I’m not going to do that. Suffice to say, if you feel the urge to challenge yourself to five pictures/five stories (fact or fiction) then please feel free.







I wouldn’t want to give the impression that my life is just one continuous whirl of wafting around museums and galleries or discovering talented distant relations. There’s a certain amount of tedious monotony one has to get through before enjoyment is permitted.

Domestic drudgery is one of life’s necessities and I tackle mine on a what’s-needed- most-basis, rather than having a fixed routine as I know some folk do. I tend to take the ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’ approach, a phrase coined by Shirley Conran in the seventies.

During a working week the bare minimum gets done but now with time off I am already sliding guiltily into thinking that a thorough, intense overdue spring-clean is in order.

How dull.

I start off with good intentions – planning my attack from the comfort of my morning bed while waiting to leap purposefully into the shower but by the time I’ve eaten breakfast and cleared away, the enthusiasm for all things household has worn off and I’m seeking excuses and distractions. As indeed I do when there is writing to be done. Suddenly a pile of ironing has never looked so appealing. Life can be so perverse.

I suffered an enforced incarceration last week which was the ideal time to set to which I did with gusto. I’m well aware that this sudden burst of domestic goddess-ery was brought on by a conversation I had with my hairdresser who revealed that she wipes her kitchen cabinet doors down every night. I have to say she made me feel inadequate and ashamed.

Stumbling across a Channel Four programme called ‘Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners’ didn’t help either. I was riveted: how two people with diagnosed OCD would cope deep cleansing the old country house of an eccentric hoarder made fascinating TV. As soon as the two dirt-o-phobes cleared anything out, the hoarder snuck around to the rubbish and claimed it back again. I don’t know who had the greater problem but all of them were cheerful enough about their predicament. They made me think I’d hit normal on the dirt to clean scale.

Now, this particular enforced incarceration I mentioned earlier began with what we thought at first was a piece of junk mail but which, on closer inspection, suggested that we may be eligible for free loft insulation.

Us? Free? These aren’t words that usually coincide where we are concerned but it was worth a phone call. This call elicited a visit from the gas board who carried out a short survey and, lo and behold – yes! – we were entitled!


I arranged a time for the work to be carried out and was then forced to wait in for them to arrive. Which they did: on time and with very little fuss, completing the job in a little over an hour. Which was all very well except that I was then free to be distracted: but not, I hasten to add, before the area below the bed was designated a dust free zone and all the paintwork wiped down with a squirt of Flash.

So while I can feel smug in the knowledge that things here are beautifully spring-cleaned for the time being this comes as a reminder to occasionally check your junk mail. You never know what little goodies might be lurking therein.

This post forms the third part of a challenge thrown down by Sherri, over at her Summerhouse.  As Sherri herself has already changed the rules of the challenge which originally was to post five pictures and five stories on consecutive days (ha! not a chance!), I shall be taking a more relaxed attitude towards the rules myself. I’m supposed to nominate someone to take up the challenge after each of my next five posts but I’m not going to do that. Suffice to say, if you feel the urge to challenge yourself to five pictures/five stories (fact or fiction) then please feel free.




If, as a child, I wasn’t roaming around outside I’d be endlessly inventing stories and scribbling them down in my red Silvine notebooks bought from Woolworths or I’d be drawing or painting. Dad would wander past, look over my shoulder and tell me that I must take after his cousin, Wally.

Cousin Wally was a couple of decades older than my father: they were never close and we children never met him but Dad would often remark on Wally’s talent.

Well, it turns out that Cousin Wally (Walter Steggles 1908-1997) had considerable talent. Prolific talent which culminated in him having work exhibited at the 1936 Venice Biennale alongside such luminaries as Duncan Grant and Barbara Hepworth. He and his younger brother Harold belonged to the East London Art Club, whose artists collectively became known as the East London Group.

Talk about hiding one’s familial light under the proverbial bushel.

In the last couple of years the little known or even recognised East London Group have had something of a renaissance – interest within the indiscernible world of art dealing has increased, helped along by David Buckman’s publication of a very comprehensive history of the group, ‘From Bow to Biennale.’ This fairly weighty tome is based on correspondence and interviews with the last, now deceased, (Wally was the last surviving member) Group members as well as primary and secondary archival research.

Both Wally and Harold have extensive biographies along with colour reproductions of their work.

Harold Steggles (1911-1971) achieved some commercial success by designing posters for the Shell Petroleum Company but it seems that his older brother was the more artistically driven of the two. However, both brothers had work displayed at the Lefevre Gallery in London.

Wally painted all his life – he never married and lived mostly with his parents who moved around quite a bit. When he lived in Cookham he became acquainted with the artist Stanley Spencer and the two would visit each other’s studios. His paintings reflect areas of the country he knew – landscapes of East Anglia and Wiltshire as well as industrial scenes of East London.

The canal, Mile End by Walter Steggles

The canal, Mile End by Walter Steggles

It is the latter which most appeal to me and I was fascinated to learn that as Wally became interested in photography he would take his photos, “square” them up into grid formation and then use them to create a painting.

Without wanting to recount Wally’s life story here it’s important to mention that his passion and undoubted ability for art grew from attending evening classes in Bow, East London as a very young man. These classes were taken by one John Cooper who inspired Wally and who invited prominent figures from the art world to come and talk to his pupils. One of these visiting artists, Walter Sickert, left a lasting impression on Wally:

“Sickert’s advice has been constantly with me. I did not, however, wish to be an obvious follower as a number of artists have.”

So when I saw that the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester was holding an exhibition of Walter Sickert’s work I suggested that we take a look. Once we’d secured a parking space – which isn’t easy in Chichester but worth persevering  – we found the gallery pleasantly uncrowded. The current Sickert exhibition concentrates on the artist’s time in Dieppe, where he lived for a number of years. Often lauded as the English Impressionist, Sickert (1860-1942) was inspired by Monet and Pissarro and his work definitely reflects their influence although his method of sketching his subjects first and then work on his paintings back in his studio is much removed from the French Impressionists who worked ‘en plein air.’ I was intrigued to see that Sickert used the grid method to translate his drawings to the canvas and wondered if this was where Wally got the idea from for his photographs.



Shop in Dieppe by Walter Sickert

All in all, I’m sorry to report that we were underwhelmed by this particular collection. Sickert’s paintings have a flat, unfinished quality to them. I found it difficult to pick out any one painting that had the wow factor although this one appealed because, I think, of its storytelling potential.

It’s not just the tenuous family link that creates my bias towards Wally’s pictures – his colours are vibrant and I prefer his style. His paintings are now fetching respectable sums at auction. According to family folklore, when Wally’s Uncle Henry died and his wife moved home, she threw out one of Wally’s paintings: it wasn’t to her taste, apparently. That woman was my grandmother.

Families, eh? So near yet so far…

This post forms the second part of a challenge thrown down by Sherri, over at her Summerhouse.  As Sherri herself has already changed the rules of the challenge which originally was to post five pictures and five stories on consecutive days (ha! not a chance!), I shall be taking a more relaxed attitude towards the rules myself. I’m supposed to nominate someone to take up the challenge after each of my next five posts but I’m not going to do that. Suffice to say, if you feel the urge to challenge yourself to five pictures/five stories (fact or fiction) then please feel free.










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