As Rare as Rocking-Horse Manure

The new garden, about the size of a postage stamp, looked forlorn. This time of year, everyone else’s garden is already a riot of colour. Our soil is so poor, this is about all we can grow.

recycling

But then two students gave me an idea. As they walked past the English faculty, I heard one of them moan about having to ‘dump his shit before Michaelmas.’

The other one nodded encouragingly, and agreed he would dump all his shit too, man.

I know what Michaelmas is. It’s the name of the academic term that starts in early October and ends before Christmas. I wasn’t so sure what kind of shit they meant, but it got me thinking.

horse manure

That’s just the thing for improving garden soil.

But have you any idea how hard it is to find when you actually want some? There’s never any shortage of bullshit. The equine variety is another matter.

When I was at medical school, any really rare condition would be described as ‘rocking-horse manure. I never appreciated that the real thing could be equally challenging to track down.

Somewhere in Norfolk I’d spotted a sign that said HOSS SHIT, but Norfolk is a long way from anywhere. Except maybe Suffolk.

Lo and behold, this sign was a lot nearer home, and had more conventional spelling.

horse shit for sale

We stopped the car. Bingo, I thought. There was even a visible guarantee of quality.

horse in paddock

We knocked on doors, rang on bells, and went round the back of the outbuildings. Nobody was in.

So at the weekend we visited Wimpole Hall, a National Trust estate with a mansion and a working farm.  There was cow shit galore, a lot of it still on the actual cows.  There was also an amorous bull in a pen with several cows, which prompted a toddler to ask, ‘What are they doing, Mummy?’

‘Good question,’ said the mother as she wheeled the buggy away.

Sheep shit and pig shit too, but surprisingly little horse shit, certainly none for sale in the twee gift shop, complete with gingham ribbon like everything else. I think the National Trust missed a trick there.

There are substitutes, obviously. Some say cow shit is as good if not better. Would cat poo fit the bill? We have our own little factory, supplemented by presents from guests who come over the wall at night.

cat

If you’re wondering, the human stuff won’t do. Although my mother, ever the eccentric, used to tell me to put dirty nappies on the compost heap. Don’t worry. I wasn’t a very obedient daughter.

If you think you can collect horse manure fresh, think again. For garden use, horse manure needs to be well-rotted. That’s why I haven’t been round the riding schools and livery stables with an extra-large dog-poop bag.

You can get anything on eBay, right?  I checked this out. You can get horse manure for about £1 a bag. The snag is that you have to collect it from Scotland.

The solution was surprisingly simple.  I should have thought about it sooner.  Yep, the garden centre. Go ahead.

calf by the river

Call me a silly little cow.

What’s Sauce for the Goose is Sauce for the Gander

I’m all in favour of egalitarian relationships, as I’m sure you are. Last week I blogged about how to annoy the hell out of your husband, so this week it’s only fair to cover the ways in which your other half can drive you round the bend.

If you dished it out, you’ve got to take it – right? So woman up and let your husband (partner, boyfriend, lover, whoever) do his worst. Here are some of his methods.

leaving the loo seat up

1 Battles in the bathroom. And no, leaving the toilet seat up doesn’t count. It’s just too predictable. Blokes can do far more infuriating things in bathrooms. Like locking the door and singing along to the radio at full volume, so he doesn’t hear you bashing with all your might, pleading to be let in before your bladder bursts.

Like leaving the bath-tap in the ‘shower’ position, so you get an impromptu soaking when you next try to run a bath.

Like using up the last of your megabucks-a-bottle sodium-free shampoo on his own barnet – and later refilling the bottle with the ordinary stuff. The kind that works like paint-stripper on your expensively Brazilian-straightened hair. 

sodium chloride free shampoo

2 Reveal that he’s much younger than you. There’s no going back with this one, because it’s the kind of thing people remember. Then, even if he’s barely a year or so younger, he’s forever known as your toy boy. For added impact, he may even tell people you’re older when it isn’t true.

3 Playing dumb. Poor lamb, he does get confused between your hairbrush and the cat’s.

brushes

As you can see, they look nothing like each other. Not to begin with, anyway.

He may also fail to distinguish between coasters and your favourite books. This one’s really challenging, since both are vaguely rectangular and can be found on tables.

coasters

coasters

not coasters

not coasters

Then he makes it tough to get angry because he wears an innocent face that plainly says, “I’m only a man. What do I know?”

4 Cooking fabulous meals. Which means using every single pan in the house, and leaving it in the sink. “I’ll do it later.” Course he will. Three days later.

5 Doing the laundry. This includes washing your cashmere socks in the machine. In case this hasn’t happened to you yet, I’ll tell you that this shrinks them to the size of baby socks and makes them as soft as a kitchen scourer.  There’s no option but to buy another pair. Which your other half will also put in the washing machine. “Just being helpful, darling.”

6 Being a duvet bandit. Like marriage, it all starts off equal, but come morning you’re hypothermic and sleep-deprived. Your side of the bed ends up like this.  

your side of the bed

I tried to photograph the other side, but I tripped over in two acres of duvet and sprained my ankle before I got a decent shot.

7 The final one, the ne plus ultra, without which no programme of annoyance would be complete, and frankly you may as well stick a couple of fingers down your throat.

He does this: totally amazes all your friends. Maybe he cooks them all a fabulous dinner (AND clears up afterwards). Then he sings YOUR praises to the skies, declaring that you’re prettier than Claudia Schiffer, smarter than Stephen Hawking, and funnier than Omid Djalili.

It’s totally sick-making, of course. But it reminds you that, despite the fact that he’s driven you round the twist, he’s a keeper. 

goose

How to Stop Yourself Watching Kitten Videos

Aw, kitten videos! Don’t we all love them to bits? It’s estimated that there are some 5.3 million kitten (or cat) videos online, and writers like me must have watched every single one. When inspiration fails to strike, or you can’t quite find le mot juste, the brain craves a cute kitty video.  

I bet you’ve watched them too. There are kittens tumbling about, swimming in bathtubs, playing the piano, cosying up to babies, fighting off Dobermans, rescuing firemen from trees, etc.

They’re a massive time-suck, especially for the self-employed, but they’re compulsive viewing. Someone shares one with you, and you can’t delete or look away. You just can’t. It would be like turning down a date with George Clooney. I bet if Clooney called you just before a crucial work deadline, you’d still say ‘Yes.’

I managed to give up chocolate for years on end, but couldn’t stop the kitten video habit, even though it’s pretty obvious I’d be a lot more productive.

Well, I’m over all of that now. No more kitten videos. And now I can share my secret with you.

Puppy videos.

I mean, who can resist the one with seven dogs waiting to be fed? Or the one where the smallest dog nicks treats from all the big dogs? Or the dachsund playing in deep snow? Not that you can actually see him, obviously.

Here’s my personal favourite.

I have the Mayhew and Jenny to thank for this one. The lovely Honey is one of the puppies from the Mayhew Animal Home in NW London. In December, I posted a photo of her, along with three other Mayhew animals who were also looking for forever homes.

Amaruq

Amaruq

Rambo

Rambo

Alfie Moon

Alfie Moon

I’m delighted to tell you that Amaruq, Alfie Moon and Rambo have now all found homes too. But there are still lots more lovely animals waiting patiently.  So check out the doggy videos on this link.

PS there are a few kitty videos too. Just in case you’re still hooked. 

A Holiday Home for the Cat

Moving house is a real performance. Just ask my cat.

Even if your heart isn’t set on a pad with an eye-watering price tag, like London’s Princes Gate or the Bishops Avenue aka Billionaires’ Row, it’s a major expense, and that’s before stamp duty. There are also surveys to arrange, solicitors to pay, and a mortgage to sort out. Get ready too for the gazumping, gazundering and chains which make the property game an expensive version of snakes and ladders.

cats have no such worries

Cats have no such worries. All Mishmish had to do was let herself be transported to a weekend retreat.  “We’re going on a mini-break,” I tell Mishmish. She takes this announcement in her stride.

checking the cat basket

The weekend starts well because she loves her basket. This always surprises me, considering it’s only used for transporting her to the vet and back. Maybe it’s the ‘and back’ bit she remembers best.

The journey itself is no trouble, though it’s hard for the humans to squeeze into a car packed to the gunwales. It’s all very reminiscent of trips with my three children when they were young. Only in this case there are two cat trays, a favourite water bowl, the special cat food, her favourite toys, and of course The Blanket.

Not that anyone would call it a blanket now. You can always tell who has cats. Their blankets look like towels and their towels look like knitting mistakes, says the author of How to Live with a Calculating Cat. This little book has been making people laugh since 1962 because it’s so damn true.

Anyway, on arrival Mishmish bolts out of the basket and heads under the IKEA sofa. There she stays, oblivious of efforts to coax her out.

cat under the IKEA sofa

Husband and I put out food, water, toys, The Blanket, even a welcoming sign.

I love my cat

We talk to her in a silly voice. She sits there watching us make idiots of ourselves.

After a few hours our knees hurt and I wonder if she’ll be there until the sofa self-destructs. This could take a while. Many people I know have an Ektorp sofa and it lasts years, sometimes decades. As reliable as a Volvo, though without ABS brakes.

We tell each other that you can’t make a cat do something. You can only make a cat want to do something.

Actually, scratch that. If your cat doesn’t want to do something, it’s never going to happen.

Cats are highly territorial, but my first ginger cat was far more adaptable. Bananas went places. As a student, I’d take her from London to Brighton and back. When I was a junior doctor, I’d often have to spend 80 hours at the hospital, so I’d take her with me to my on call room if nobody else could look after her.

But I have to accept Mishmish is different. She’s a homebody. And now she’s turning a couch potato.

Over the course of the weekend, she doesn’t venture out, not even to use the tray placed about 5 feet away. I get that. If there are predators around, a fresh deposit will give away your presence faster than a big brass plate on the door. But still.

So after 24 hours we go home, with Mishmish having seen no more than the underside of the Ektorp sofa.

Back and seat frame: fibreboard, moisture-resistant particleboard, plywood, solid pine, polyurethane foam 20 kg/cubic metre.
Cover: 100% cotton. Machine wash, warm 40°C.

IKEA Ektorp 2-seater sofa

We try again two weeks later. It begins exactly the same way, with Mishmish heading straight for the sofa to complete her PhD in furniture construction. All I can hope for was that she might graduate to an armchair for her post-doctoral research.

The breakthrough comes on Sunday around 2 a.m. This, I can only assume, is the moment she realises she isn’t going to be mauled by a lion, and the ceiling won’t cave in if she emerges from her shelter.

Her eyes are wide. There are loads of new crannies to investigate and new places to play.

nooks and crannies

“Cupboards! Wow! This one must be mine.”

cupboard

“Ooh, windows!”

window on the world

“And what’s this? Instead of wooden flooring there are carpets! That means the whole house is a scratching pole. “

carpets on the stairs

We’re kind of sleepy but this cat, having conserved her energies, is ready for action.

Pets depend on us, but they’re not children. Still, I get a warm glow now I see Mishmish likes it here. And it thrills me that she’s now eating and drinking.

Over the next few hours she uses both trays, sending the cat litter flying. I’m grinning from ear to ear with pride. Was I this delighted when my kids first used their potties and upturned them over each other? I’m really not sure, because my eyelids are drooping and I’m done in. Must repair to the sofa for a rest.

On top of it, not underneath.

IKEA Ektorp sofa again

An Epiphany

Twelfth Night looms and Harriet cannot wait for all traces of Christmas to be gone.  

Christmas tree

Simon packs every single decoration off the tree into its rightful place in its box. Only he knows where this is, so all Harriet can do is make tea. It’s Lapsang Souchong, brewed in a pot because he always says it tastes better that way.

Freelance journalist Harriet is a character from my novel One Night at the Jacaranda.

On the first day of Christmas, Simon gave her a cashmere and silk jumper, but it’s not nearly as soft as Pushkin was.  

Pushkin

On the second day of Christmas, they had turkey drumsticks and leftover roast potatoes which, Simon reminded her, had not been as crisp on the day as they could have been. 

Of course they weren’t. The heart went out of Christmas several years ago.

The tree survived well, but that was because there was no Pushkin to climb its branches or bat the baubles off.

“It’s just ailurophobia” she’d told Simon at first.  But it wasn’t fear of cats.  His breathing was really bad, beyond the help of inhalers, pills and sprays, and there was a tissue permanently attached to his nose.  She tried products to keep down fur and dander, to no avail.  It would have to be the RSPCA or the Mayhew Home. What alternative was there?

It was December 18. Simon got the cat basket out of the cupboard and Pushkin promptly fled under the bed. 

“He’s gone into the bedroom!” cried Simon. “Now I’ll be wheezing all night.”

“Well, he won’t be here much longer, will he?” Harriet retorted.

Pushkin emerged warily, though not warily enough.

“Grab him, Harriet.  I’d rather not touch him.”

Harriet picked him up and kissed the soft places behind his ears.  It was too awful to let him go. “It’s raining,” she pointed out.  “Pushkin hates rain.”

“Put a towel over the basket if you’re so concerned.” 

cat basket

The car was parked two streets away.  Simon went to get it, but he drew the line at driving to the shelter.  “I’d rather not spend the next hour sitting a foot away from him.”

Harriet lugged the basket downstairs and into the car.  As Simon got out of the driver’s side, he warned, “Don’t bottle now, Harriet.”  He may as well have added it was only a cat.

Harriet negotiated the traffic out of London.  She thought the RSPCA place off the A1(M) would be best, as there’d be more chance of finding him a suitable home in a rural area.  Plus with a shelter that far she’d be less tempted to rush back and adopt Pushkin herself.

She got stuck in a fierce bottle-neck on the A41, trapped between a bus and a Chelsea tractor surely bound for Brent Cross. When she finally moved off, a van driver nearly clipped the wing of the Peugeot.

Harriet had transferred the basket to the passenger seat.  Pushkin yowled and stared at her through the grating with huge eyes.

“Come on, big boy,” she said, her voice catching.  “Everything’s going to be fine.” 

Her words failed to reassure a stressed Pushkin, and the car filled with an unmistakeable aroma.  Fresh dog turds occasionally smell of coffee grounds. Cat shit, on the other hand, only ever smells of one thing.

Harriet wept openly on arrival.  The kindness of the RSPCA staff only made things worse.

“My partner’s allergic to cats,” Harriet explained. 

“Has the cat had any health problems?” the girl asked.

“Well, he has a slight irritable bowel.”  What kind of luck was it to have a fastidious boyfriend and a cat with loose motions? 

Tears streaming, she left Pushkin and a large donation and returned to the car with the empty basket.  

The potatoes had been soggy and the turkey tasteless ever since.  

roast potatoes

As the last bauble goes into the box, Harriet thinks of this year’s Christmas message from the Queen and its theme of reconciliation.  She wonders whether it can ever apply to them.

***

Twelfth Night marks the end of Christmas for many people, but in the Eastern Orthodox Church Christmas isn’t until January 7. That means there’s still time to enjoy the Christmas Party Blog Hop devised by Helen Hollick. My own contribution is below, and you’ll find about 25 other bloggers taking part too.

2014-ChristmasPartyBlogHop

I Hope Aliens Don’t Find my Phone

There’s a lot of embarrassing rubbish on my mobile, including the logo.

BB

As my husband pointed out, aliens could be mighty confused if they ever got their hands on it. I’m confused just looking at the memos. ‘Next book’ is one of them. Here I meant to jot down amazing plot ideas as they came to me while sitting on the 13 bus. But what could I have meant by ‘Dr Tiggywinkle’, and then something about cradling a fire extinguisher? It hardly seems the stuff of which Booker winners are made.

The shopping lists are easier to decipher. There’s no spellcheck on memos, so one list goes

Bresd

Winr

Benecol?

Veg

Narnite

Surely everyone likes a bit of Narnite on their bresd.

I have 389 bonkers photos, mostly blurred, which may be just as well.  Alongside Remembrance Sunday in Aldeburgh and the cat sitting on my neck trying to suffocate me, there are toilet facilities in Lion Yard, Cambridge:

Cambridge-20141129-01354

Here’s Sigmund Freud clutching his belly in what can only be an attack of womb envy:

Camden-20140419-01011

 I’ve kept this great memento of a shag on the beach: 

IMG-20140302-00942

There are slides from a lecture by Roger Neighbour: 

IMG-20140613-01050

Every cat owner has close-ups of their cat sleeping. I’m no exception.

Camden-20140715-01160

I’ve kept some choice texts, like the one from Henk the oven cleaner, and the exchanges with wretched PPI claims companies. My usual text reply? PPISS OFF.

At five minute intervals, there’s a pop-up which invites me to validate my BlackBerry ID credentials. I’ve forgotten it, so that’s not going to happen.

There are a gazillion back and forth BBM exchanges from friends I never manage to meet, and WhatsApp messages from people I’ve never met in my life. One mystery missive asks me

Es tu cumple hoy?

If you speak any Spanish, you probably know this isn’t as obscene as it sounds.

I’ve no idea what else is on there, as the thing has just seized up. Excuse me. I’m just off to write a letter to Santa.

My next post should be a lot more festive as I’m going to a party. A Christmas blog hop, no less. And you’re invited too.

2014-ChristmasPartyBlogHop

 

What Happens When Writers Meet?

Writing is a solitary life. It’s just you and the page, though, all being well, some words eventually show up. If you write novels, you may fashion some wonderful characters, but you still don’t see other people.

Going out in public once in a while is a good idea but it takes an effort. It might even mean getting dressed and putting a set of teeth in.

It’s totally worth it because, as you know, everyone’s fascinated.  Mention you’re a writer and people invariably say “How interesting.”

Royal typewriter

Sadly, the interest rarely lasts. Those same people want to tell you all about the novel they have inside them (it’s often the one that shouldn’t get out). But all a writer really wants to do is talk about their own work. After a while, few can put up with us because we either bore them to death about our books flying off the shelves at the speed of light, or bore them to death because our masterpieces are Superglued to the bottom of the Amazon rankings.

It’s sometimes the same with significant others, so the writer skulks off to the shed or spare room to keep out of the way. At this point SO usually gives a look that suggests you’re engaging in solo activities of an adolescent nature.

But it’s good to get out. A sedentary lifestyle is linked with back pain, constipation, low mood and worse: obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and even breast and bowel cancer. It’s estimated that globally lack of exercise causes 5.3m deaths a year, which is roughly the same as smoking. 

There’s a lot to be gained by meeting other authors. It’s really not the same as communicating online, as fellow indie author Kevin Booth points out in a recent blog post.  When we meet, we can learn a lot from each other, in a casual, friendly and effective way.  

We’re not all introverts. Writers are often outgoing. As Kevin says

There’s a particular chemistry that seems to engage when a group of writers get together over a glass of something. If people find it difficult to stay on-topic, it’s because they are sparking creatively off each other and raising new questions that they hadn’t previously considered. I don’t think the online experience has yet been able to replicate this.

Some like meeting to critique, but other authors hate talking about their work in progress. I sometimes worry about Schrödinger’s novel. Let even a chink of light in, and the book dies. While it’s still safely in the dark box of the mind, it could be either alive or dead.

Schrödinger’s cat, you’ll recall, is based on quantum physics. Until the box is opened, the cat could be either alive or dead, or indeed, a touch of both. 

Personally, I don’t have many doubts about the cat. If you can’t hear it inside the box, scrabbling to get out, then it’s probably dead. Cats may like boxes, but they want to choose their own. Nobody should ever put a cat into a container without food, water, ventilation, and a clean kitty litter tray.

cat in box

But back to meeting other authors. Do writers bitch and argue when they meet? Hardly ever. Apart from the fact that we’re a nice bunch of people, or so I like to think, we’re also mighty relieved to find like-minded company. We enjoy each other’s books and don’t mind saying so. And, when someone is super-successful, it’s inspiring to remember that it can happen to people not so very different from ourselves. We can celebrate other writers’ triumphs, just as we commiserate over setbacks like paltry advances or poor sales.

There’s no place for petty jealousy. Out there are many millions of readers. No one author, not even one several times as prolific as Barbara Cartland, could produce enough books to keep the whole world happy.

If you write but don’t have a writing group nearby, why not start one? Self-published authors might like to join the Alliance of Independent Authors.author-member ALLi

ALLi (pronounced ‘ally’, appropriately) is a global non-profit association of author-publishers. They offer connection and collaboration, advice and education, and, importantly, also campaign to further the interests of self-publishing writers everywhere.

I come back from local ALLi meetings with a spring in my step. Here’s more of what Kevin Booth has to say on the ALLi blog about face-to-face meetings.

Every reason for getting up from your desk, then.

Marital Battle in the Bathroom

As writers know, the bathroom is a great place for ideas.  Inspiration is more likely to strike when you’re reclining in a warm bath than when sitting facing a blank screen.

While soaking today, I vaguely contemplate the Poppy Appeal, and how achingly suitable the poppy is as a symbol of conflicts from Flanders to Afghanistan, but the brain cells aren’t exactly working overtime.

What’s this I see?  A little green ceramic dish on the edge of the basin. ramekin dishI mentioned it to my other half two weeks ago, and it’s still there, where anyone could easily elbow it off when reaching for a toothbrush, sending it crashing down onto the floor tiles.  Or, God forbid, the hurtling ramekin dish (for that is what it is) could concuss the cat as she crouches in her litter tray.

But does he listen?  Does he heck!  Still, only to be expected when we’ve been married this long (nearly three months, since you ask).  I don’t listen to him either, allegedly.  That is why I keep putting the toilet roll the wrong way round, and always leave my undies near the laundry basket.  Not in it, obviously.  Just next to it (allegedly).  Plus I drape my bra from the taps, which looks like a skinned rabbit and is beyond annoying to someone wanting a bath.   braI fire right back.  He always has the radio on, full blast.  Does he not realise that some of us like peace and quiet?  I neither need nor want aural wallpaper.  And another thing.  Why do we have to have all six bathroom lights on?  OK, a guy might need decent lighting to avoid amputating his Adam’s apple while shaving, but it seems a bit over the top to require 360 watts just to brush teeth.

Then it dawns.  Here we are approaching the annual Poppy Appeal, and, instead of battles like Passchendaele, El Alamein and Goose Green coming to mind, we’re having a ding-dong in the bathroom.  poppiesThe postscript is that peace has broken out in the flat.  We’re not arguing about the toothpaste tube, or the toilet paper that’s the wrong way round (by which he means the right way round, obviously).  The skirmish over the laundry is over, and even the ramekin dish has been moved before the cat had a head injury.

If you’ve read this far, please visit www.britishlegion.org.uk

While you’re there, you might also be interested in the RBL Centre for Blast Injury Studies (CBIS) at Imperial College, London, where academics and military experts work together to better understand and reduce the effects of injury on the human body.   Here’s AnUBIS, one of their research tools.  anubis cropped and big credithttp://www.britishlegion.org.uk/news-events/new-initiatives/centre-for-blast-injury-studies#

Thank you.