Sunday, 31 March 2013

Easter Sunday

It is snowing outside.
When I think back to all the days and weeks when I'd have given anything for a bit of snow, and we never saw a single flake! It was too busy blanketing most of the UK and Europe to give us a look in.
And now, on Easter Day, when you want the sun to shine and the daffodils to sing in the garden, what happens?

I don't think it's going to settle, and I have no expectations of waking up to a winter wonderland either, which is a shame - if it's going to snow, it might as well do it properly, and April Fool's would be an appropriate occasion.
But whatever I wake up to, I won't be sorry to see the end of March.
What a month its been.
A month full of buts.

The sun has shone - pretty well continuously - but the east wind has been like a scythe.

Benbulben and Knocknarea, Sligo's iconic mountains

Benwisken and Benbulben bathed in hazy sunshine

We've had the lowest tide of the year, but you had to be dressed like the Michelin Man to enjoy the beach.

The biggest beach of the year

The daffodils are in full swing in the garden, but for the first year I can remember, the Shirotae isn't even thinking of poking its nose out. And who can blame it?
So no white blossom this March.

SuperModel has been to be spayed, but now she's back to wondering if she can trust us. I suppose, when you think about it, it's not surprising. Hopefully we'll catch up to where we left off when her wound heals up and stops hurting.

Poor baby - feeling very sorry for herself

My gorgeous son flew home for a brief visit over St Patrick's weekend, which was heaven, but now I don't know when I'll see him again.

An Englishman in New York

My sore throat and cold have gone but the cough has settled in comfortably for the duration.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

But on the plus side - I've done lots of work in the garden and everything hasn't QUITE spiralled out of control as it usually does at this time of year.

The TeenQueen (pre-op, anyway) really was starting to think that life in this tiny corner of Ireland might be rather wonderful after all.

What a looh-la. The TeenQueen, when she thought I wasn't looking, squashed into the cat's bed

At last! Behaving like a proper lurcher!

We've made the mind-boggling decision to actually go on holiday later this year - life, debt and the state of the nation notwithstanding - and that is definitely one for the books. It's been 5 long years, after all, since the last Great Escape!

Yesterday's Easter Bonnet Parade and Egg Hunt was a ball at Beltra Country Market, and later on I got rid of a load of household clutter by taking it to a Jumble Sale in aid of local animal charities. Definitely a Win/Win, I'd say! I hope they raised lots of money.

My friend DodoWoman

Wondrous bonnets

My friend Axe-Woman, who (understandably) won first prize

The Stitch & Bitch group I wanted to start has started, and it's not only huge fun, but we're all learning masses. Can you believe I've managed to crochet daffodils (even though I've now lost my crochet hook!)

And I've even achieved my ambition of being a lot thinner by Easter!
But that was before I ate three doughnuts on the way home from Ballina the other day.
(Don't even ask.
I have no idea.)

All in all - a bit of a mixed month. Like most months.

But today is Easter Day.
So I'd like to leave you with something special.
There's no chocolate to speak of in this house (and certainly no doughnuts) but I have something far more beautiful to offer you.
Alas, it was not made by me, it was created by the incredibly talented, clever and crafty lady of Attic 24 fame. I hope she won't mind me sharing it with you. It certainly deserves to be shared far and wide.
(Now you understand why I HAD to know how to crochet daffodils!)

So, snow or no snow, thin or fat, with family or without, gardening or otherwise - I hope you're having a lovely Easter.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

In Memory

I couldn't live without animals. Literally. It would be a kind of death of the soul.
I suppose it's because I never have. Even though our family moved country every few years, we always had cats and dogs at home - pets that often, sadly - had to be given to new homes when we left, or had to spend time in kennels when we were 'on leave' in the UK.
But they were as much a part of the family as my brothers and sisters.
Just as my animals now are.

In fact, at the risk of sounding judgemental, I think that bringing children up without animals is a deprivation as bad as bringing them up without books, or clothes, or treats. I think they are an essential part of teaching children to love and share with someone outside themselves, of teaching them about caring for others, and becoming aware of the other occupants of our planet.

My biggest problem is in turning a needy animal away, and the In-Charge (also an animal lover) dreads me seeing orphaned kittens, or abandoned dogs, or anything else in distress, as he knows I won't be able to walk away. And things have only got worse in the time I've lived in Ireland, as I've always felt a moral obligation to share the  generous space we have with as many animals as possible.

But I don't think I'd make a good foster-mother, as I'd never want to part with any of the rescues that came through the gates. I wasn't very good at finding homes for the one set of kittens and one litter of puppies born on our property - I practically made any interested parties sit written exams proving how good a home they were offering.
Spanish Inquisition - eat your heart out!

I've often said that if there aren't any animals in heaven, I have no interest in going there.
      And it's true. I'd be completely lost.
      Happily, I think they'll all be lined up, waiting for me - the dogs, heads  cocked, wagging their tales fit to drop off; the cats pretending they just happened to be at the Pearly Gates by chance as I arrived. I expect even the hens will be there, busying themselves somewhere in the background.

It's been a bad year since Pet Remembrance Day last year.
We've lost so many in this twelve-month. The Little Empress died this very time last year,
     And then we lost Napoleon.
We have also lost Henrietta, and Popsicle and - a real blow - the tiny, gloriously beautiful Golden Princess, aka Mrs Smith.

But far and away the worst losses of all were my sweet boys, Top Dog and Under Dog who I still miss every single day.

 But thank goodness we had them at all. They have all, in their own  individual way, made our lives richer and better, more entertaining and more fulfilled. Pets want to be with you all the time, and don't care if you're wearing makeup or just a hessian sack, they hold nothing back, and hold nothing against you, they're sensitive, great company and entertaining and moreover, their love is absolutely unconditional.
How many people would fulfil those criteria?

Tonight I'll be lighting the candles and raising a glass (sadly, of cough mixture and night nurse) to them and all the animals we have loved and lost over the years. A toast in gratitude for ever having had them at all.
And I'll be raising another one to my fabulous Model Dog, and the TeenQueen, to Hobbes and Pushy and Pixie, to Wellington and all his girls - because I love them all and they make every day special.

I hope you'll join me in memory of all the animals you have held, or do hold dear.

It was my blog-friend, IsobelandCat who started this special Pet Remembrance Day, and she and many others all over the world - including Pix, will be saluting their animal friends today.

 Thank heaven for them all, past and present.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Lights Out!

Years ago, our first ever Wwoofer, Bill, sent us a letter after he'd gone back home.
It said how much he'd liked staying with us, and it enclosed a piece of paper that puzzled us for some time.
There was nothing written on it, just a black, photocopied - well, blackness, relieved by lots of white sploshes and dots, some running into each other, where the original document was obviously getting a bit past it.
Or so I thought.
But after a long time - several hours or days, I don't recall sixteen years on - the light suddenly came on behind the In-Charge's eyes. He didn't exactly shout 'Eureka!' but it was something along those lines.
'It's Europe,' he said. 'At night.'
And then it all made sense.
The sploshes were the huge centres of population, the connecting white areas the busiest parts of each country.
Needless to say, our own wild west coast of Ireland was unrelieved black.

I wonder if it would still be black on a similar image today?
I think, compared with most of Europe, it wouldn't be too bad.

One of the benefits of living in - basically - the middle of nowhere, is that our night sky is choc-a-bloc with stars. They don't have to fight to be seen here. They are overwhelmingly bright and fantastically numerous. The Milky Way is a pale, gauzy scarf stirred through the heavens, Orion marches all around us, sword at the ready, the Plough looks permanently on the boil (it appears to my unscientific gaze more like the porridge pan than anything else) and the morning and evening stars are as bright as the moon. From the hills - even from the sea - you can, if you're lucky, see the Aurora Borealis at certain times of the year. You can watch the satellite stations Big Brothering us. You could lie in the garden and identify every constellation in the Northern Hemisphere, if you felt so inclined.

But drive a few miles along the coast and there is an orange haze in the sky over Sligo Town - just a reminder that in the real world total darkness is a thing of the past, and Sligo is just a village compared with most of the world's cities.

As I am writing this, the lights have just gone out! How ironic.

Fortunately the candles are never far away

Well, our powercut lasted for an hour, but it was about 26 hours too soon.
Tomorrow is Earth Hour, and - as in years gone by - we will turn everything off for an hour, starting at 8.30pm local time, lighting our numerous candles instead.

In the six years since it started, Earth Hour has grown and grown, and now involves 'hundreds of millions of people across 7001 cities and towns in 152 countries and territories'. (Taken from the official website.)

Which is fantastic.
But it's all well and good turning the lights off for an hour, welcoming, for once, the darkness - but what about after the hour? Do we just go back and flick it all on again?
Will anything have changed?
Hopefully. But only if we all join in, talk about it, and maybe turn off the lights an hour every month, every week, every day. Changes start with small things, after all.

Have a look at the challenges on the website. Maybe you can commit to taking up one or two, or starting your own.
I don't know what I will do for mine, I'll have to think about it while the lights are off.

One thing is certain, if we don't face up to some of the real challenges facing this planet that we call home, there won't be any need for an annual moment called Earth Hour, because the earth won't be here anymore.

For some reason I can't upload the YouTube Earth Hour video, but you can find it by clicking on this link:

And here is another link:

Earth Hour

Thursday, 21 March 2013


Today is, I believe, the spring equinox.
It was calm and sunny when I got up at 7am.
It is now equinoctial, with rain flinging at the windows on an east wind honed to razor-sharpness.
The In-Charge had warned me, so I took the precaution of walking round the garden this morning, bidding adieu to all my lovely, upright daffodils.

I don't ever pick daffodils for the house because they last so much longer in the garden, and I'd rather see them there. Instead, I rescue odd handfuls of fallen ones every day..

There have been a lot of casualties this spring, thanks to the TeenQueen and Model Dog racing through the orchard every morning, not to mention the hens, who are extremely thoughtless where my flowers are concerned - despite my stern lectures - so between them all, my kitchen windowsill is generally full of broken daffodil heads stuck into little jars.
I expect there will be a big rescue-operation tomorrow as well, if this wind is anything to go by.

Down on the headland, I felt like Scott in the Antarctic, hat crammed on, earflaps firmly tied down, fighting my way into the wind. The dogs like the wind. They have the delicious sensation of being chased without being able to see who is about to grab them. They run so fast that you can't actually keep your eyes on them because it makes you dizzy. When they eventually slowed down I managed to get a - rather fuzzy - picture of them.

I think the horses like the wind too, although I felt rather sorry for them, having no shelter from it, especially the two tiny foals. They came running after us today, which they don't normally do, and for a brief moment, the TeenQueen thought of joining them for a mad dash around the lumps and bumps, but then she thought better of it.
Even she can count, and the odds weren't stacking up at all well
And they're bigger than she is.
And just a tinsy bit scary.
(I'm glad to say.)

So she high-tailed it inland across the rough grass, throwing out a challenge that Model Dog can rarely resist, and zig-zagged away like the hares she dreams about.
Then, on the far side of the headland, she spotted a flock of oystercatchers and managed to get them airborne in a flash, which was deeply satisfying.
It will be another exhausted evening on the fireside rug, I guess, and let the wind and rain do their worst.
Once the shutters are closed for the night, who cares?

Wednesday, 13 March 2013


The little bay

I took the dogs to the headland this morning.
The tide was right out, the little bay awash with seaweed, the water thick with seagulls.
The smell of the sea was so intense, it caught me in the back of the throat and sent me spinning through the years, to other days, other beaches, other dogs. Memories of another lifetime, it seemed, way back when time wasn't measured because it didn't matter.
Those days didn't feel like thirty years ago, but they did feel as if they'd slipped beyond reach.

Time changes as you get older. It is no longer a haphazard, generously proportioned patchwork, a kaleidoscope of shifting possibilities, an empty frame in which you are creating the picture.
It becomes mean and sly and penny-pinching. It stands at your side, licking the end of its pencil and noting everything down. Nothing slips by unremarked, and one way or another, everything must be paid for - even though the hours it measures out to you slip through your fingers like water.
But it's only when the past comes swooping back to grab you, that you realise how much everything has changed.

I found myself walking through the rough grass aching for days and people - for eras - that will never be again.

But it was a blue morning, calm and quiet, the sun warm on my back.
The headland horses came to say hello as we passed on our way to the lumpy dunes where the dogs love to race, or lie in the grass and ambush each other.

The headland horses come to say hello

It's probably the miniature hills and dells that make the headland so exciting for them. Whoever is playing the hare can never quite tell if she's about to be caught.
And it was only when I got to the top of the highest lump and looked back, I saw that one of the mares has had her foal. The tiny, dark creature was standing close to her, still wide-eyed at this world of mornings and evenings, of sunlight and starlight - too young to realise that all these things are just marking the passage of time.

Later, the tanker-man came to deliver heating oil. We stood in the sunshine and exchanged news. He always knows far more of what is going on than I do.
He was looking pensive as well, despite the spring weather.
'Someone up the road killed himself, this morning,' he told me.
I'd seen an ambulance, going past our gate - a rare sight in this quiet place.
Shocked, silenced, I didn't know what to say.
Tragically - in this quiet place - it seems to happen more and more these days.
'You never know how it is with people,' he said, eventually.

You never do.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Desert Island Women

Today is International Women's Day.
There are so many 'days' that you could make following them the sole focus of your life.
We have - apparently - just had 'National Cereal Day' and I even heard something about Pyjamas.
Don't even ask - I am as mystified as you are.
But International (maybe the Inter national is a clue here) Women's Day is something else.

Last year my CyberFriend, Isobel, marked the day on her blog, by paying tribute to some of the women who had influenced her life, and I have often thought of it since.
This year I would like to do the same.

Truthfully, I think they are too numerous to mention, but you have to start somewhere, and it is not far-fetched to say that these women's hands have helped shape the helix of my DNA. For that, I would like to thank them.

Rumer Godden with one of her beloved Pekingese

Perhaps I would have been a writer, no matter what. But it was being immersed in the magicical world of books when I was young that made me want to perpetually recreate that magic, and amongst others Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, Louisa May Alcott, Kathleen Wendy Peyton, Edith Nesbit, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Noel Streatfeild, Frances Hodgson Burnett, the Bronte sisters, Georgette Heyer, Daphne du Maurier, Monica Dickens and Barbara Timewell were amongst my formative fairy godmothers. Later the influences ballooned and it would be hard to isolate a few names (though I'm sure I will do so, after this has been posted).

When you are a child, pictures can lead you into another world as surely as words, though they are not always necessary if your imagination is constantly straining at the bit. But, like most people, I have loved some books purely for their illustrations and discovered others through my son's eyes; and the images they have created in my head will be there forever. Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, Shirley Hughes, Jane Ray, Nicola Bayley, Cicely Mary Barker, Sheila Moxley and Margaret Tarrant are just some of the illustrators who have hugely enriched my life.

The Young King by Anne Grahame Johnstone - 'borrowed' from My Christmas Book of Stories & Carols pub by Award

And then of course, there is the poetry. Where to begin with poetry? Well why not with Carol Ann Duffy or Elizabeth Jennings, with Mary Oliver or Dorothy Parker, Carole Satyamurti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, HD, Kathleen Coates, Jenny Joseph, Edna St Vincent Millay, Christina Rossetti - Ruth Fainlight, Diane Wakoski, Maura Dooley, I could go on and on...

Next it would have to be images. I couldn't exist without beautiful images. But if I was lost with the poet-list, I'm really sunk now, there are just too many, so perhaps I should keep this even more personal. Some of the images that make my life special every day have been created by Annabel Langrish, Hilda van Stockum, Heidi Wickham, Sarah Brecht and Sylvia Ripon. 

My treasured portrait of Top Dog by Sarah Brecht

And so far I haven't even included the women who make me laugh, like Sue Perkins, Jo Brand and Victoria Wood; the ones whose gardens have inspired me - Beth Chatto, Vita Sackville West and the Empress Josephine who bred so many roses; the ones who have filled life with small inspirations, like Francine Lawrence and Susy Smith - both editors of Country Living Magazine; the Hildegardes, Dame Julians and (again) Elizabeth Goudges who open up avenues into inspirations of other kinds; the Sandi Toksvigs, WTFs and Kirsty Warks for their ascerbic commentaries; the Audrey Hepburns, Yasmin le Bons and Sandra Bullocks of this world who are just hopelessly beautiful; the Candace Bahouths, Laura Ashleys and Tricia Guilds for exploding me into colour and pattern way back when; the Ella Fitzgeralds, Lesley Garrets and Rebecca Fergusons who make me wish I could sing; or the Svetlana Beriosovas, Marie Ramberts and Darcy Bussells who make me wish I could dance.

And then, of course, there is my mother, who taught me the joy of the little things in life.

My mother - from whom I also learned to love animals

I don't think Kirsty Young would let me take this amazing crowd to my desert island, but - in a way - I'd be taking them all anyway.
Thank you, wonderful women.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Mellow But Too Fruitful

Isn't is rather wonderful that most things mellow with age.
Even our irascible selves.
Even a vase of flowers.

It looks even prettier at the end of it's life than it did at the beginning.

The only thing that doesn't seem to mellow is my garden.
It is like a perpetually unruly toddler, filled with boundless energy and only waiting for my back to be turned to do exactly what it likes.

I am exhausted by my garden.
I love it, as presumably one loves one's toddler - however naughty. But it wipes me out.
After a month of ceaseless work, one tiny patch feels vaguely tamed - although once the rain returns even that will soon prove to have been an illusion.

Having - by some thoughtless oversight on the part of my parents - only one pair of hands, the other 95% of the garden is, so far, untouched. But even now it is summoning up all its newly awakened zest for life, and is gathering strength to burst forth with whatever it feels like growing.
I wonder what it will produce as 'This Year's Weed - DaDah!'
Not verbena bonariensis or papaver orientalis, I don't suppose, and needless to say, yet again, I will not be consulted in any of its decisions.

It is at times like these that one needs comfort.

Like many people, I keep a pile of books beside my bed.
It tends to grow rather than diminish, as I am very bad at moving on the ones I have read - there is always some quote I'm intending to copu out, or else I simply forget to put them back on the shelf.
The In-Charge once asked, very politely (all things considered), if I could deal with the pile, as he hadn't been able to hoover on my side of the bed. As I redistributed them, I counted.
73 books. I was shocked, but also pleasantly surprised to know that 73 books could be accommodated in such a relatively small space.
It gave me hope for when we come to 'downsize'.

The pile of books is a great comfort.
There is always some treasure to soothe my troubled mind or drown my woes in balm.
And of course, I never put all the books back on the shelf. One or two have to stay within handy reach, and this is the one I am reaching for now.

As you can see, it is well-thumbed

It never fails to lift my spirits when the garden reminds me who's boss, or gets uppity.
Which is surprising really, as it is full of magnificent pictures of magnificent gardens where not a weed dare show its face.

Come here to me, as they say in Ireland, and I'll give you a few tasters - several from France and one from America:

Words (for once) fail me

I gave up longing for this when I learned how many hours of sunshine a day irises need to thrive

I want this house just as much as I'd like the garden, so let me know when you're moving out Michel

Perfection. And if anyone has an urn like this that they don't want anymore, please get in touch.

But it doesn't really matter that these gardens are perfect in every detail.
That they each have - no doubt - teams of devoted tenders who pick up every stray leaf and tenderly clip the box hedges before breakfast, lift the tulips after elevenses and sow more peas in the afternoon. That because there are no weeds, it only takes a stroll around at dusk, glass in hand, to check for unwelcome arrivals in any of the flowerbeds.

I suppose it is more about aspiration and inspiration.
About the triumph of imagination over reality.
It is about rekindling the essence of your passion.
And I guess it's cheaper to drown your woes in balm than in champagne.

So if there are any garden-lovers out there, hie thee hence to your local bookshop and order a copy.
Give yourself a well-earned break.

Fashion Designers' Gardens

by Francis Dorleans, photographs by Claire de Virieu
ISBN: 9 780304 354375
My copy published by Cassell & Co