Monthly Archives: January 2013

Do you chit?

Giddy LJ has just scored herself some potatoes to chit from her local garden centre.

You just know how much I love this time of year, despite how cold it is and despite the fact that the weather looks like it will barely scrape its way over 2 degrees in the next week. It’s been so cold today that I thought the only warm place might actually be in the fire. Even being right up next to it, even though it was roaring, wasn’t warm enough.

Mind you, this was the weather on Wednesday morning at 8:30…


I’m also still unwell a bit. How has this happened? I got a bad cold on the 21st December, was just recovering by the 27th, got some gastric bug on the 28th December which tore the energy out of my very bones right through til just after new year, and then, joy of joys, just when I was recovering, I got another lovely cold in the first week of January. I’m still a little sickly, a little weak, a little tired. I go from being too hot to too cold. Je ne suis pas dans mon assiette, as the French say. I’m not in my plate. I’m out of sorts and a bit meh.

I’d gone to brico Leclerc to get a new collar for Heston. His old one is too small now and it is too tight, on its biggest setting. I also needed some cauliflower seeds and some soil. Then I saw the lady putting them out and I got all giddy. I bet I was the first person through with my spuds. I’m sure I could hear them laughing behind me.

I bought three packs of 1.5kgs. I might buy more, it depends. I bought a pack of Sirtema, good for chips apparently. I bought a pack of Cherie, because they sounded cute, and a pack of Charlottes. You might laugh at me for buying potatoes with a cool name, but one year I bought some called Samba, just because they sounded good. I had Sirtema last year I think, but for the life of me, I can’t find details of what they were. Oh well. As soon as Jardiland get theirs, I might go and have a root around there too. It feels like a potato kind of a year. When we first arrived here in April 2010, it was practically the first thing I did. We got this harvest that year – about 7kg.


I’m glad I got a bit of digging in before the ground hardened up. Paying it forward. You get a bit of time and it’s just right to get the jobs in.


It was 10° for the first time inside today. It’s not been that in the morning for ages. Usually, it’s 11 or 12° and when the fire has been on a couple of hours, it’s 18° or even 19°. So, I’m off to get a fire on, let the chickens out and try and not think about how warm my bed is. The bad thing about this new laptop is that I could quite easily take it back to bed and go and mark online in bed, sandwiched between two duvets and an electric blanket.

All I can think about is how glad I am that it is not (yet?) as cold as it was last year.

Why girls disappear from blogs and why Anne Hathaway shouldn’t play Katharina*

*A take on one of my books of the week, Freakonomicswhich has chapters such as ‘Why drug dealers live with their moms’ and the likes. I confess, I’ve read this book before. Does it count as one of my 100 before the year is out?

I’m going to count it as one.

Just because I can.

I suppose pop-economics books took over where pop-science books left off, but I like them very much regardless of fashion. I did a sociology unit as part of my first degree that covered the history of sociology, and then later, I read Marx and Engels and their offshoots, simply because it would be rude not to. I’m from Manchester. I’d like to know what I started, as a Mancunian.

It’s funny that what is often sociology is often economics. Can you ever really separate the two? They seem to have great big overlapping bits. I like Freakonomics because I like to think about things differently. I’ve read a few academic and a few pop-ec books and I like to know about how things work; it’s one of the reasons I went to Cuba. It’s both a history lesson and a talking point. It’s also an amazing place where things work, but don’t work if you see what I mean.

It survives without many imports. There are no shops to speak of. There are produce markets and that’s it. Make do and mend is the endemic culture. There are no car franchises, people share lifts and use whatever ‘public’ transport there is. Sometimes, that is a truck up a mountain. The country is forced to be less dependent on petrol (though relations with Venezuela are helpful) and so people farm with teams of oxen. The soil is incredibly fertile and rich. Organic and bio-farming is the future. But it’s completely imposed. You don’t have a choice. There just isn’t any petrol spare. However, they produce most of what they need themselves. There are chickens everywhere. There are little vegetable gardens everywhere. It’s about the cleanest inhabited country ever, because where there’s no heavy industry, there’s no pollution.

Anyway, I like to think of things like these from time to time.

I also enjoyed Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s books too. And Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I’m not finished with Chesil Beach yet. So… tally so far is 3.

I’m on to Daughter of Fortune in Spanish next. It’s been ages since I read anything Spanish and one of my friends said my lovely gangster-style latin-American Spanish now sounds like a French person speaking Spanish, so I was alarmed and tried to rectify it. I can’t get my mouth to do the same things it used to. And that says a lot.

I love Isabella Allende. I could read her books endlessly. She’s got these epic, dreamy narratives that are just so divine. Her writing is so rich. Hmm. But what to pair with it, if I finish this for next week? I doubt I will. I had my GCSE marking start again yesterday and I’m now up to my eyes in S scripts and MMS and CMI and QMS and TMI. That’s another three weeks of my life gone.

Luckily, this time I am not doing NaNoWriMo so it’s just normal work plus a couple of hours a day. This comes easily from Garden time and Cleaning time.

So, why girls sometimes disappear from blogs is usually because of economics. Dollars have to be earned. And then, they return to their blogs and eke out a little enjoyment from the writing process.

In all honesty, it’s not blogging that particularly takes a cut, but any downloads and broadcasts. I’m very much enjoying Fringe at the moment. I like crazy scientists, even if they do destroy the fabric of the universe. Walter Bishop is a crazy genius. Typical Walter. “Either a green unicorn just raced across the lab, or I accidentally took some LSD.” So this will have to take a back seat. I only watch an episode here and there, but that helps save me some time.

And, it also scares small children.

Small children worry when you don’t have a television. I think they wonder if you’re a witch or something. An anti-social misfit.

Or, when you do, but when it is buried under clothes in the spare bedroom.

Anyway, after my Keira rant, another casting issue has occurred. Anne Hathaway is thinking of doing Katharina in The Taming of The Shrew. 

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Miss Anne Hathaway. She was a perfectly fine secretary in The Devil Wears Prada. Other than that, I can’t really think of a thing I’ve liked or disliked with her in it. She was an okay Catwoman. Okay. She had almost zero sex appeal or edginess, but hey ho. It was a film rich in other ways. I know some people think she was a greater Catwoman than Julie Newmar, but she’s not my cup of tea. Julie Newmar was Bailey’s – cream with a kick. Anne Hathaway was probably a cup of tea. Inoffensive, widely acceptable and rather tame.

However, she has just been cast as Katharina, my most favourite Shakespeare lady. To this, I say No, No and thrice No.

Katharina is a Marmite character. Love her or hate her. She’s edgy, she’s emotional, she’s repressed. She’s a bra burner before her time forced into corsets and ruffs. She’s Julia Stiles and Elizabeth Taylor and Simon Scardifield all in one. Simon Scardifield was actually The best Katharina in The Best production by The Best theatre company in the whole world.

I confess to being a Shakespeare luvvie. I ♥ Shakespeare. I’ve seen hundreds of productions. And the Propeller version is one of my favourite plays done to such perfection that everyone walked out of the theatre in shock at the end. The Guardian reviewer didn’t like it so much, but I think he’s an idiot. He said it should be sex-charged. I think that’s an uninspired and unimaginative view. The production went from being a kind-of-comedy with a Basil Fawlty-style husband to being the most problematic of all the problem plays. Domestic abuse at its basest. You couldn’t do this play this way with a woman playing Katharina, not without all the women walking out.

Not only that, but I touched Simon Scardifield in the Press Club in Manchester, when one of the other actors asked me and a friend to join him for a few drinks and a dance. That’s how I rolled in my Manchester life. I would tell famous thespians that I liked their appendages and they would giggle and give me their mobile number. If I’d known at the time that Simon Scardifield was going to pull out such a stonking performance as he did later that year, I’d have touched him a lot more.**

I used to plan my Shakespeare teaching around what Propeller were doing that season. That season, they made all my choices worthwhile. So, no to the anodyne Ms Hathaway

** In the interests of full disclosure, I also touched Patrick Stewart’s head, among others, and flirted with a Nobel-Prize-Winning Poet. I’ve touched lots of actors. My sixth-formers said they had never seen anyone quite as shameless as me, and if Carol Anne Duffy had a head of English like I was, then her poem would have been very different indeed. I bought Mr Seamus Heaney a Bells whisky and we talked about Julius Caesar and how he felt about having his face defaced by the youth of England in the anthology. He liked that I could quote Personal Helicon by heart and he said it was one of his favourite poems. I didn’t tell him I called him the ‘logs, bogs and frogs man’ as an A level student. I was a philistine.

Preparing for summer

Most of the time I’ve spent in the garden has been in pruning the vines. I have to do it ‘Mother-Style’ (that’s not some weird Gangnam-Style thing) but the term I use for a really good hard prune. My mother prunes things brutally hard. I was always a bit of a namby-pamby pruner, but grapes always appreciate a real hard prune. Even last year when I had no fruit crops to speak of, I still had bounteous grapes. Even my neighbours were amazed. Their grape harvests were meagre.

A friend of mine, an Australian lady who has a vineyard close to me and uses both French and Australian viticulture traditions, reckons the ‘feet’ of my vines are a good 40 years old. I believe her. I have in my head the fact that the last lady moved in with her husband when her youngest daughter was married and lived here for 40 years without doing anything after the first year. All the decorations and furnishings seem to have come from that first period of their life in the house. My Australian friend would have torn all the pieds out and put in new ones. If I were to tear them out, I would maybe put three or four table grape vines in, but as I have really no use for an assortment of 150 random vines (I don’t drink wine much and I definitely am not a pineau drinker) there does not seem to be much point replanting them. As they are, I shall just keep growing them and looking after them. They are still very productive and although they’re a real assortment, I use the grape juice in lots of things, including jellies, sorbets and in with chutneys.

So far, I have pruned 42. They are already well established in a kind of T shape. I leave four shoots, two on each side. One is two buds long. The other is four buds long. French-style vines are about knee high. My Australian friend has hers at hip height. I’ve noticed some of the Pernod-Ricard vines are like this too.


Now I’ve picked out which ones will grow, I go back over them and prune the tiny bits back as hard as I can.

I’m planning on replacing the stakes and frames as well before spring. They’re very rotted. Then I’m going to put layers of newspaper down between the rows and put stones on them. The vines are impossible to weed around and mow around. More nutrients go to the weeds than go to the grapes, I reckon.

This is, as you can imagine, quite a lot of effort for a thing I don’t care much about.

I could rip them all out and put concrete down.

Of course, I will do no such thing. I like the fact that they are part of my garden eco-system. I still have plenty of space for all the other stuff I want to do. Space is one thing I’m not short of.

The vines did not have an easy year last year. First we had the hot and cold spring, then rain. Whilst it rained, I could not mow or keep the weeds back. The rain kept on falling; the weeds kept on growing. The vines ended up under water in May.


I’m not interested in becoming a viticulturalist or a wine geek, so they’re just a little hobby for me. I am not interested in all the load/yield/pruning science. It’s too technical and I’m just not that kind of a gardener.

I’ve got five things remaining in the vegetable plot: leeks, savoy cabbage, white cabbage, broccoli and cardoons.

Cardoons are these great, enormous dinosaur-thistle things:


You can eat the stems, once pared and boiled, like celery. They’re very popular in North African cooking. I plan on tasting some like that. As it stands, I have no idea what will happen to them. The seed catalogue I got them from shows a picture of them with the thistle-like globe artichoke-like head, but wikipedia says that the cynara cardunculus variety is used more for braising stems like celery. If they get heads on, all well and good. If they don’t, I shall pare and braise them. Not only that, they are quite beautiful and I am perfectly happy to have them as a simple architectural flower.


You can also see a few stalks of corn I left for the birds. I also left them some sunflowers and teasels.

Cardoons are also used in a popular Spanish dish, cocido madrileño. Most of the recipes I found for it usually say cabbage instead of cardoon. It just shows that these godzilla perennial vegetables aren’t so easy to get hold of, and that’s what I want for my garden. Rare things, unusual things, a little of lots of things. I also want to have a few more perennial vegetables, like artichokes and asparagus. I’m going to put in some rhubarb this year. I really miss a rhubarb crumble from time to time! Perennial = less faffing.

Not only that, but they have been ridiculously easy to grow. I planted them. They germinated. I put them in the garden. They grew. They’ve needed virtually no water (though that was true of most of my garden last year) and they’re growing super-healthy. They attract bees, apparently, too. Yay. There aren’t many cardoon recipes, but here are a couple. One is a Tunisian lamb casserole and this one for honeyed cardoons with pine nuts and thyme, which sounds rather Greek if you ask me.

I’m making the most of this ‘inter-cold’ weather, which is not particularly cold (vest, thin jumper and gardening ‘seed-attracter’ wool jumper, complete with seed pods… hat and scarf) to dig over the remaining plots. This one is being prepared for my peas and broad beans  The edges need some work yet to take it back to 2.5 x 5  metres.


The broad beans will go in next week unless there is a frost. I’m a little late this year, but I’m sure they won’t mind. There is a lot of speedwell in the ground, since this has only been cultivated for two years as a vegetable plot. Each year gets a little easier. This year, I think I’m going to put some logs around the patches because they are both moveable and easy to see where the edges should be!

I think to myself…

Today’s Much Love Monday is sponsored by Joey Ramone with a classic – It’s a Wonderful World. Sorry if you’re a Louis Armstrong fan, but Joey’s punk rock edge just gives this song a little something I like. Mondays sometimes need a little punk rock.

I love a bit of classic Ramones, Sheena is a Punk Rocker, Beat on the Brat and the ever beautiful I wanna be your boyfriend. They remind me of my first year in Sheffield, where I lived in a small student complex. It was a hard year in many ways, but the year I first found confidence in myself. It was hard being away from all those friends I mentioned last week, the people who let me play out with them. I missed them massively.

I’m babysitting right now for a friend, and very much enjoying her parrots’ random conversation; not only can the parrots call Tilly, my American spaniel, but they just said “bloody hell” in a right Northern accent. They are chatty beasts. In fact, these parrots are the reason for our dogs’ names. As the parrots generally pick up on dogs’ names very quickly, Mme V’s husband decided that he could take a shortcut to teaching them to shout his favourite football team, Charlton. Ironically, they haven’t picked it up yet. He really wanted them to be able to say Charlton and in reality, if they ever say it, they will probably say “Charlton… OFF!” since he likes to climb on the couch and is subsequently reprimanded, or they will say “Charlton… NO!”. Not exactly what he’d want them to say. Right now the parrots are blowing me kisses and saying “Yoohoo!” and “Hello!” which is kind of cute.

Charlton and Heston have not managed to destroy anything, nobody has peed on the floor (including me) and they are all being wonderful. Not easy with six dogs, four cats, two children, two parrots and me. I don’t know how Mme V does it.

A friend on Facebook posted the following video, with the question “What would you like to do if money were no object?”

It’s funny because my first response would be ‘to write’. And then ‘to paint’. And then ‘to spend all year in the garden’. I think that covers it. The first two are responses I would definitely have put way back in my youth, perhaps even before the Ramones. I totally had my stuffing knocked out of me by a teacher who I know one of my friends really rated. I went from the cocooned world of primary, where I had been one of maybe seven or eight children who were really ‘bright’, but never feeling top or bottom – never feeling ‘placed’ at all. I didn’t know if I were clever or not, and I didn’t feel like it mattered. I never knew if I were brighter than those other six or eight, or less bright. It was a golden world where, bar a crazy psychopath of a year 5 teacher when I was 9, all my teachers were gentle and protective and keen. I sat two entrance exams for two independent private schools and passed both – no doubt with a lot of coaching on both my maths and English. I got to pick which one I went to.

And when I got there, my first year Secondary English teacher was a real bitch. Her first job was to shout at the whole class and berate us for not having a representative standing at the door to open it for her. Her second job was to give us a translation of The Odyssey to read by ourselves. Our first homework, I got 7.5 out of 20 and the girl next to me got 20. She turned out to be a great student, but that always stuck in my head. And I had this teacher for 2 full years in which nothing I could ever do would ever please her. She would cross through everything with a red pen and tell me my ideas were stupid. She asked us once, at the age of 11, to find a song lyric to bring in. 11 year olds are not great afficionados of music. My parents had some Abba albums and some Carpenters albums. My dad put on an orchestral version of rock classics on a Sunday morning. He loves music, but we just weren’t really a musical house. On New Year’s Eve, we would have some great disco tunes at my Nana’s, but I have no idea what they really liked to listen to.

Anyway, I’d had a penchant for Adam Ant, but thought he was a bit passé. This was 1984 (!) however. (I’ve just realised the significance of that date…) and so I dutifully copied out the lyrics of Nik Kershaw’s most celebrated hit, I won’t let the sun go down on me which is about nuclear war. I loved the line “old men in stripey trousers rule the world with plastic smiles” – I was always very moved by the thought of nuclear war, especially when the creepy Year 5 teacher showed us “Threads” – a film about nuclear war. I’d also read Brother In the Land by Robert Swindells, which still makes me cry. It was something very much in my psyche. So I thought this was a good choice. No. Red pen through it and a comment “This is meaningless.” I’ve still got it.

Ironically, this was in response to the Pete Seeger “classic” of Little Boxes which is kind of trite, but also a similar theme to the “paper houses” of Nik Kershaw’s epic. I don’t doubt that it was a weak choice (and what would I pick now, I wonder, to offer her?) and that she really wanted me to pick some 1960s or 70s classic and show some musical integrity. I wish she’d asked me the year after when I discovered David Bowie and Talking Heads. But she didn’t. She just made me feel about an inch tall.

Luckily, I got a different teacher from 13-16 – a lady who nourished my dreams, twice copied me out poems by hand that she thought I would like and lent me poetry books with her own name written on the inside cover which I treasured with an almost semi-fanatic reverence. She inspired in me a love for The Go-Between and Maurice and for John Clare’s poetry, and for Spike Milligan’s verse. I owe her my As. I even owe her my choice of A level option; I hoped I’d have her as well.

You know what happened. I got the red line teacher. I got several Ds and Cs and never anything complimentary. Her general comment on my work was “sweeping statement” in bright red, thick ink. She never taught me how not to make such a statement, how to root it in the text. She adored Jane Austen’s sharpness and hated Wilfed Owen because of his adoration of Siegfried Sassoon. I love Jane Austen’s gentle fun and Wilfred Owen still moves me to tears. She taught me I was not good enough to be an English scholar, which had always been my dream. I didn’t apply for one single English course, though I wanted to. I applied for lots of mixed courses and combinations, not knowing where I wanted to be once the rug had been pulled out from underneath me. I desperately wanted to be good enough. I wrote naive stories about Viet Nam and chemical warfare and got them sent right back. When she asked us to hand in the same assignment of picking a song lyric, I gave her Motorhead’s Ace of Spades and let her chew on that. She had nothing at all to say about it and I got it back without a comment. I got a B in the end. Despite her predictions.

Luckily, I picked some English courses, and the fabulously buxom, gloriously Renaissance Professor Lisa Hopkins, her mousy husband Chris, Jill LeBihan who was the first person who ever really understood where I was coming from, the divine Dr Robert Miles who instilled a love in me for English that is so deep I have never been able to remove it… they reawakened and nurtured an old love. God I loved that place… the English building in Sheffield. Set back in acres of leafy woodland, a Victorian house with a rabbit warren inside… it was where I found that joy again, enough to want to share it. It took me several more years to refind my move of writing, though. I was still so uncertain of my own talents – had I any.

Lisa Hopkins was my favourite first year teacher. She made Shakespeare real. She taught me about how rude he was and how funny, how clever, how his real talent was in knowing the human condition. She was incredibly clever, yet utterly approachable. Her classes were always fun.

Anyway, it is thanks to them that I have any faith in my own writing and I love the fact that ALL days I get to do some writing that pays. A lot of writers can’t say that.

Much Love to all of those teachers who take a child and allow them to grow in interesting and unexpected ways, who show them what they are capable of and who they can be. Even Much Love to my bete-noir English teacher. I sent her a signed copy of my first English text book. I secretly hope it really pissed her off; in reality, I know she probably had forgotten who I was. She never had a text-book published though, and that’s all I care about. Revenge is a dish best served stone-cold, festering and stinking after 15 years, I find.

Anyway, see the positives in all the crap. She made me want to prove her wrong and I got a career out of it, even though she almost sent me into the wilderness.

Tubes, turmeric and capes

In the French supermarkets in January, you’ll always find loads of special offers on for spring cleaning products. Obviously, they don’t wait until after the spring has sprung to do it, as we do in the UK. Maybe, with the decorations put away and the pine needles everywhere, with inches of fire dust and dirt everywhere, they feel like they need to clean up. I know I do.

This January, I am having a declutter challenge time, which you can see at Slow Your Home. There is a monthly challenge, which I am doing. It’s amazing that although I moved here having spent the whole year selling off things I didn’t want to bring with me, limiting my things to a couple of van loads of stuff, I’ve still got things I don’t use or need. Many of those are books or clothes, and that is not so much about decluttering as it is about getting things unpacked and tidy. I left behind a couple of bookshelves, and a few fixed wall shelves, and I’ve just not got around to sorting it all out yet. I so want a book niche.

I’ve also been reading that it is the Tube’s 150th birthday. The Telegraph had a series of 150 facts about the Tube which tickled me. I love random information. It’s partly why I love QI so much. Plus I have a soft spot for Stephen Fry, as so many must do. He has an army of twitter followers. So, in essence then, an army of middle-class women between 24 and 44. Me then. I like the fact that Aldgate Station is built on a plague pit. It’s always the gruesome details that are memorable.

Another article I’ve been thinking about is this one about what you can grow to make you healthier. I follow Veggies Only blog and really thought the turmeric looked like a cool thing to grow. I’m a turmeric fan, so I definitely fancy having a go at growing it. Her turmeric tea looks fantastic.

I am obviously missing Game of Thrones, because I’ve gone cape-mental. I love a bit of cape action. My mum had a purple velvet one that I ‘acquired’ and used to wear about town when I was a teen. Twilight fans had nothing on me. I also had a black velvet one that I sewed silver sequins on. The fashion police were called.

Look at this beautiful cape from Vogue:

Capes, boots, moorland. What more could a girl ask for?

There are more gorgeous capes in this article from Fashion Gone Rogue with pictures from Spanish Vogue. It is just like the Spanish to go wandering about mountains in inappropriate shoes. They’re practically the only nation you will find up a mountain in four-inch spike heels, a pencil skirt and a lacy off-the-shoulder number, carrying a baby. Totally inappropriate ramblers, the Spanish.

It’s a glorious day, so I’m off out for a couple of hours in wellies… pruning and digging. Catch you all later.

Habits and resolutions

As you know, I’m sticking to a resolution tree this year, so I can keep it visual and keep myself reminded of those things I’d like to do. One of those things relates back to something a very wise lady told me. That lady was Elizabeth Laird, a children’s author, who I met at a book festival a few years ago. She said that she maybe had 20 good reading years left before her eyesight failed, and even if she read three books a week, a total of 150ish books a year, she’d only have another 3000 books in her. That’s a scary tale. There’s so much I want to read!

Whilst I cannot aspire to 150 books a year, I’m going for 100. This has been much improved by my acquisition of a lightbulb for the lamp in my bedroom, as I was too forgetful to get one for ages (it’s kind of a special bulb, a slim screw in and I just kept going past the bulb aisle in the supermarket because I’m usually so focused on other things and speeding round there. Plus, I don’t ever go the 15km round-trip to the supermarket for a one-off item…) so now I have light, I don’t go straight to bed to go to sleep. I don’t read many other places, and I never read ‘sitting’ if that makes sense. I like to lounge, to maul about, to enjoy it, to recline.

So, this has been the most important part of my quest. Once I am in bed, under my double duvet, one dog on either side, trapped in the divine cocoon of warmth with both a hot water bottle and an electric blanket, in my super-warm pjs and bed socks, I am perfectly happy. Like my mother, I have terrible circulation, so I sometimes even wear the fingerless gloves my sister sent me as a present. I know. I’m such an old lady.

So what have I been reading?

Having made the most of the Hope Association book sale last summer, I have a stack of good books to read. I have already read Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country? which I bought because I did enjoy Stupid White Men. I gave this to a friend to read when we were in Brazil and she was depressed for about three days. To a small Cambridgeshire girl, uninterested in politics, she’d never even thought this way. I’m kind of sorry I popped her bubble and turned into a cynic, but then I also think we have to accept the truth of things. It’s also timely to be re-reading this in light of the Chilcot Inquiry into the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I do think it’s important to think about how our lives are altered irrevocably by politicians.

The next one I’ve just finished is Steve Boggan’s Follow the Money which is about him following the track of a 10$ bill from the kind-of geographical heart of continental, continuous USA to wherever it goes…

As he says at the end, he realises it’s not the normal course a bill would take – people tend to do more extraordinary things with it than they would if it were just a normal bill. It was still a good read though. You can see the premise of the book in this Guardian article. As with many things, I liked it most because he was born in the North West, in St Helens in fact. The town without an apostrophe that should have one. Also, I liked it because although he looks like he’s in his thirties, apparently he’s had a thirty-year career as a journalist. That means he’s aged very well.

No… I’m being facetious. It was an interesting kind of travelogue of the mundanities of real America. It was no Peter Moore, my favourite travel writer, and it was no Bill Bryson. But it was a slice of almost-real-life USA.

Next up… On Chesil Beach. I love Ian McEwan. Atonement is one of my favourite books ever. I can’t stand the film; Keira Knightley’s wooden, bouche bée expression makes me want to hurt her. She has just one expression… this one

I want to say “you started life in Bend it Like Beckham when you weren’t afraid your face would crack if you actually looked happy or smiled or had an actual, genuine emotion. You’re just a skeletal clothes-hanger who needs to stop looking so miserable and actually realise it won’t hurt to expand your ‘acting’ repertoire to include a smile”

I can’t bear to watch Anna Karenina. She’ll wreck it like she did Atonement. See, here is her face again…

Spot the difference?

In one she has a hat on with a feather, and a dress off her shoulder.

Luckily, I’ve refused to watch Pride and Prejudice because nothing could live up to the Colin Firth/Jennifer Erhl adaptation. Nothing. He was awkward, reluctant, reticent. I remember thinking he was totally the wrong casting. Until…. I fell in love with him; I think a nation of women felt the same. And that’s what Mr Darcy is about. This is my favourite clip. The atmosphere between these two is divine. He’s a perfect Darcy. And she’s a perfect Elizabeth.

So, Keira Knightley can go and wreck all my favourite books. I should just send her a list of my favourite books and say ‘Go ahead. Pout all you like. Tu as la bouche en cul-de-poule*. If you don’t speak French, that means you have a mouth like a chicken’s arsehole. She does. After it’s just laid an egg.

*Technically speaking, having a mouth like a chicken’s arsehole is more of a trout-pout or duck-face than it is Keira’s particular expression, duplicating that of empty-headed mouth-breather. Unless she has a deviated septum, there’s no reason for her to always be so vacant-looking.

Hmmmm. Time to go and get highbrow, I think.

Summer dreams

I’ve relegated myself to the garden for the best part of today. Seems best. Plus, I have an acre of work to do. Literally. I’ve spent a couple of hours out there digging up the soil, preparing it for the first planting. Broad beans go in first. I usually plant them in situ in January (last year I planted on January 4th, so I’m a bit late this year) and then plant some in pots to fill in the gaps if any don’t germinate. I planted in succession last year. As soon as the first leaves were visible on the first crop, I planted another row. I had 60 plants in total, and I’ve got about 3kg of frozen beans in the freezer. Unfortunately, I didn’t weigh them, so I’ve no idea what that 60 plants yielded. I always leave five or six plants to dry out so I can use their seeds for next year’s crop.



They’re my favourite crop, super-reliable with beautiful pods. I love their first flowers – and they’re always one of the first things to flower – and I love their furry pods. They’re first to put out leaves, to say spring is properly here, and the first things in the pot. Last year’s frozen crop are still going in to soups now. Broad bean and chorizo is a real favourite of mine.

This year, I’m planning on a few more. I love those broad beans. I think I could eat them at every meal.

I rotate my patches – I’ve got five. The first is the big 10m x 5m patch that was here originally. This one will host carrots, onions, garlic and beetroot, along with a few others like lettuce. I practise companion planting and that seems to really work. I use no pesticides, no feeds (other than nettle tea, rotted chicken manure or leaf mulch) and this method really seems to keep the insects off them. So far. I try to use organic seed, or heirloom seed. F1 varieties can be mighty nice, but their seed sometimes doesn’t stay true and they’re often not the most pest-resistent. On the other hand, they can be bred for resistance so if there’s something that happens in my garden, I can pick some seed that will balance out natural threats.



The second (above, last year) is 10m x 5m too and this year will have cabbages and the likes in it. It will also have onions and garlic in it, as they keep pests off brassicas as well.

There are two smaller ones of 5m x 2.5m that will have potatoes in one and then beans and peas in the other.

The final patch will have tomatoes, ratatouille veg and so on in it. This is the one that I need  to expand, because usually I have a lot of things in it and it’s also the shadiest spot, being underneath one of the cherry trees.

Most of the time, I do a couple of hours outside and then come in to dry off. It might be cold, but I’m well-wrapped and get a little damp. Then I pore over my books and see if I’m doing everything right. Nothing like looking over books. My favourite is the Reader’s Digest ‘The Gardening Year’ which must have been massively popular because I’ve got three copies of it.

gardening books


This year, I’m going to have to swot up because I have a rival. No. Not Mavis. My mother. She’s just got an allotment and I suspect she will be beating me at my own game. Grrr. She is the least lazy, most productive person I know. I need to up my game.

No, I am very glad she is going to have an allotment; she’s born to grow stuff and I know she’ll be really good at it. Plus, she can send me seeds and I can send her seeds now. Yay.

I shall soon be on the lookout for potatoes to chit. I usually start that from January and then plant on Good Friday. Annoyingly, last year and the year before were not good potato years, since 2011 was too dry and hot, and 2012 was too cold and wet. 2010, I got a really good crop. It was hot, but wet. That’s perfect for me.

The source of my aching back
The source of my aching back

The potager this time last year. It looks much less tidy now. I have work to do!

Okay, I’ve got a couple more hours to do, so I’m outta here. No rest for the wicked.

Like Freaks of a Feather

Today’s Much Love Monday comes after a whole load of song-searching for something appropriate and uplifting. Some Mondays are very tough days. What could be better, then, than Red Hot Chili Peppers with Me and My Friends?

Tomorrow is Mark’s funeral and though I can’t be there, I know I won’t spend a minute of the day without thinking of him. I thought I’d just steal two stories that sum up Mark the best, without resorting to anything that might end up with a prosecution.

This is from Chris and I love this story. It’s just typical Mark.

“My best memory of Mark, I was in the recording studio wrapping up the very last track of the album back in 2007. Carl and the rest of the boys had been in the control room and I’d been locked in a dark vocal booth all day. I walk out and see Mark sat there, beer in hand, smile on face and giving me that nod, that seal of approval that he thought it was cool. No words just that nod!! The only non band member to ever share a recording session and I’m so glad I got to experience that with Mark and many other great memories………..oh, Worst memory we were wrestling one day drunk and he actually bit my ass cheek so hard it drew blood. I’ve never felt anything like it. Cheers for that bro. X”

It makes me laugh because I think you’d have to be crazy to wrestle with Mark. Like, clinically crazy.

And then the next is my good friend Henny, who has often been the glue that held various groups of people together, and was more often than not the oil on troubled water.

“One of my favourite memories was when I took him to a party in Horwich. It was in this really big posh house. We were wandering around being nosey, when we opened a door to a large darkened room. Someone flicked a switch and the lights started to come on to reveal a large kidney bean shaped swimming pool. Mark’s eyes widened, he pushed me aside and without a moment’s thought did a running jump, cannonball style into it. Fully clothed of course.
He spent the rest of the night in the pool, stripped to his boxers, laughing and joking, can of cider in hand, using corny lines and innuendo to try and get the girls to join him.
Before long the whole party gravitated to that room. First to come see the crazy guy in the pool. Then they stayed because around him was the best place to be.
His spontaneity, or lack of thought, was part of his charm and his eventual downfall. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying he made every party interesting.”

What else can I have Much Love for on a Monday morning other than a big crazy guy who was a completely loveable hooligan?

But more than that, I will miss seeing all my friends together, people who I’ve not seen in the flesh for a while, people who were once a huge part of my life.

The first seat of our Friday and Saturday night festivals was The Royal in Bury. In about 1988, I went in there to find a boy named Daniel Showman, the object of about two year’s worth of affection. He was playing pool with a few other people and I’d gone in with Angela, a friend of mine. At the time, The Royal was just a dirty, old pub where the landlord didn’t care much if you looked 18 or not. That first night, I met three people. One was Henny. He was playing pool, as he often did. The next was Danny Howarth. The other was Steve. I’d known Steve since I was 11 anyway, but I know for sure this was the first time I’d seen Henny. There were a few other guys from Tottington… Oggy, Nathan… other people who are barely but legends to me any more.

The real rockers of the time went in the Two Tubs, a pub up the road from The Royal, but the landlord was more picky. No kids. It would be a good six months before we would make our way up there, past The Clarence.

Those nights were never static. There was a cast of thousands. I think that’s what I like most about it. And everyone kind of knew each other, or knew someone else who knew someone else. I’d like to say I’d got memories of all of those people, maybe not always together. The night me and Mark walked back from Headbangers, going for rides in Nick’s Fiat Panda with Alison and Danny, me and Andy Mundy walking through Walshaw at 7 in the morning, nights when Stu would play guitar and we’d have a few drinks up in Whitefield, sitting outside Bury Church with Mark who was insistent that he wanted to show me Robert Peel’s penis. I have no idea what that was about.

When Monty’s opened, on the far side of town, it was like the mother ship had landed. This kind of sticky, seedy club-in-a-warehouse played great music, was cheap to get in to and was the Saturday night home of all my friends. I’ve got literally hundreds of photographs taken in here, and I can name just about everyone in the pictures. That’s quite something, to have a world where you know everyone, and everyone knows you. It’s a bit like the opening of Cheers! It totally rocked.

What else made these people my home (because finding a venue was just a place to all hang out, and we did a fair share of hanging out wherever we got together, be it outside Vibes record shop or at the bus stop with a bag of chips from the takeaway next to Tiger Taxis) is that although I had lots of friends at school, I wasn’t the preppy, clean, Benetton type. It’s funny to look back now and realise that most of my school friends weren’t either, but there were a lot of big, expensive perms and lots of Naf Naf clothes and ski trips that I never went on. We were the antithesis of that. No labels. No expensive perms (though some heavy-duty crimping!). No ski trips. No foreign holidays. Ironically, I’d say we were much happier and a whole lot less pressured. School, college, work… they weren’t at all important. Friendship came first. Then music.

Anyhow, here’s to The Royal, The Two Tubs, Monty’s and Jilly’s Rockworld. They were the seat of much good humour, many laughs, friendships that have lasted years and years, marriages, babies, children, bands, musical careers, fashion crimes and lots and lots of things we’re all very glad our parents don’t know. And even if I’m very far away from it this week, it’s always right at the heart of me.


Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I’m a massive fan of Mavis at 100$ a Month. I love Mavis. I love her name. I love her onesies. I love her garden.

Mavis’s blog documents her life as she and her family live off 100$ a month. Not only that, but she grew over a metric tonne of her own produce in her own back garden in Seattle. That’s over 2,000 pounds of produce, or over 1,000 kilogrammes of stuff. This year, she wants to grow even more. Oh. My. Days.

As the growing season starts, I’m kind of in a period of anxiety. The garden is a mammoth task for me, especially when I work so much and when I spend already such a lot of time walking the doglets. Sometimes, I get the urge to concrete it all over and just buy a load of carrots and stuff.


That defeats the purpose.

I moved here with the dream of being more self-sufficient. I love growing stuff. I love my garden. I love the whole plot-to-pot seed-to-stew thing. I wanted to live in the countryside so I could grow my own, not so I could sit in a darkened room that is either nice and warm when it’s cold outside, or nice and cool when it’s too hot outside. The aim was that if I could grow enough stuff, I wouldn’t need to work so hard.

That’s becoming even more important. The queues in the supermarket were EPIC this afternoon. The woman right in front of me had one trolley of normal stuff and it came in at just under 200€. I reckon that’s one week’s worth of shopping for a normal family in France these days. She didn’t have loads of expensive stuff, and she did have a lot of fresh produce, but even so… 800€ a month to feed a family. It’s a lot. I know it’s not just a France thing, either (though things are sometimes disproportionately expensive here) as The Telegraph had this headline today: Waitrose says food prices are going to rise sharply. Another article said: “Rising prices will take the annual food bill for the average family to over £4,000 within a decade, up from £2,766 last year, heaping further pressure on already-stretched households.”

It makes you wonder how one family can live on 1,200€ a year, that’s £738 or 910€. Of course, Mavis has it a little easier in some respects. Firstly she gets coupons, and she is mad for couponing. Second, she lives in the land of Costco. Third, she has a supermarket that will give her out of date veg that she then recuperates. Still, she is a hardcore couponer, bargainer, barterer and gardener. And she doesn’t have animals to feed as part of that, I’d guess, since my pets and chickens cost me a whopping 60€ a month.

Still, at the moment, I am living on soup from last year’s paltry crops and I guess it will see me through to the sandwich time, round about March. I have more than enough in the freezer to give me a soup a day for a good couple of months.

Anyway, recalling that I came here to garden organically, to grow enough to eat, to live more naturally and to spend less, I am fully geared up for the coming season. I’ve got my seeds sorted.



I’d like to better Mavis, but having a full-time job kind of precludes me from doing that. Instead, I would like to set a yearly target of a quarter of what she grew last year. 250kg of stuff might not sound like an accomplishment, but we will see. Food is just going to get more and more expensive, and become more and more of a commodity. It’s also going to get more and more intensively-farmed. That’s not good for anyone. I’d like to make sure that I commit to bucking the trend, even on a personal level.

A lot depends, of course, on the winter. I got no fruit last year. Nada. Zip. No apples. No plums. No nectarines. No walnuts. Oh, I lie. I got some quinces (more quince jelly, anyone?) and some pears, since the secret garden is more sheltered than the main garden. It was a bad year for ratatouille veg. The onions went to seed. The tomatoes just had enough. The courgettes died in a late frost (not falling into THAT trap again) The aubergines never got enough year.

So, what does the contrary LJ plan to have growing in her garden this year?

  • parsnips – because even the random French fella who came to Christmas lunch liked les panais. I have just realised I’ve got three different types of parsnip. Oh well. One of the packets is well past its sell-by date; 
  • brussels sprouts – because the older I get, the more appealing these are, and I like them with butter and pine nuts;
  • salsify – because I like to be contrary and grow unusual things – I have never tasted it, and it might be vile. I planted some a couple of years ago, but it didn’t grow. Rubbish.
  • swede – because mashed swede is divine.
  • lettuce – even though I don’t much care for it.
  • kale – because I like soup. A lot.
  • sweetcorn – because this is God’s gift to the vegetable garden and despite the fact I am surrounded by maize, not a stick of it is edible. It’s so rude. I never get the French. You can buy sweetcorn in cans, but not frozen, and you can’t buy it fresh, or at least I’ve never seen it.
  • broccoli – for broccoli and St Agur soup. It’s not Stilton, but it will suffice. I’ve got purple and red and green.
  • leeks – because homegrown leeks are the most amazing things ever. It makes shop-bought leek taste like watery, tasteless nonsense
  • tomatoes. And more tomatoes. And more tomatoes.
  • tabasco peppers
  • cayenne peppers
  • chili peppers
  • pumpkins – if only because they look so damn cool in the vegetable patch!
  • butternut squash – because it makes immense soup and is great roasted
  • carrots – because last year’s carrots were great
  • beetroot – because I can’t get enough of roasted beetroot
  • aubergines – ratatouille. Just ratatouille.
  • spring onions
  • red cabbage – because there’s nothing nicer than pickled red cabbage with stew. There just isn’t.
  • cornichons (gherkins)
  • courgettes – even though I’ve still got freezer courgettes from 2 years ago
  • onions – which hopefully will not go to seed this year
  • garlic
  • savoy cabbage – cabbage with butter. Yum.
  • spring cabbage
  • cherry tomatoes
  • cauliflower – for the cauliflower cheese and for the cauliflower soup
  • artichokes – for the blue air
  • romanesco broccoli – for it is so very pretty
  • peas – pea soup. Really. And pea risotto.
  • broad beans – I’m currently working my way through last year’s frozen ones and they are soooooo good.
  • haricot beans
  • borlotti beans – for bean casseroles.

I’m sure I’ve missed some!



I do have a whopping great selection, but as with all seed, it’s a case of use it or lose it. I’m getting better at reclaiming seed from things, or letting a few things go to seed. Still, having spent £28 on all my vegetable seeds for this year, the cost of all these seeds is not such a big deal.

Now… to get the soil ready! You just know I’m being over-keen and there’ll be a terrible freeze like there was last year.

Resolutions 2013

Well, I confess I’ve been procrastinating because I hadn’t finished this project. Hence no blog. However, I have finished lots of other things and I feel a big sense of achievement. Whoo!

First, I saw this super-cute idea on Crafting a Green World for displaying your resolutions

And I thought that was a great idea. I was all set to cut out the circles when an idea caught me. I say an idea. In actual fact, it was laziness at not wanting to cut out all the circles. As a child, I could never colour inside the lines, or cut out a perfect shape; as an adult, I’m little better.

I decided to do leaves.

I like the leaf idea because, as the year progresses, the resolutions will ‘fall’ off the tree as I do them, and just like in winter, I will have bare branches ready for ‘leaves’ next year. Also, I will be able to see them much more easily. Also, as the year goes on, I can add to it and take away.

Oh, the cleverness of me

resolutions 2013 lady justines blogAlso, I thought that it would be a really organic idea, both literally and metaphorically. I cut some branches of hazel, which made me miss my old twisted hazel in my garden back in Bolton. I shall have to plant another. Then I used up some old wool, threaded a tapestry needle and poked it through the shapes. Leaves are easier than circles because it doesn’t matter if they’re wonky.

I read a lot of stuff about not having resolutions, but to be honest, I like doing it. It’s a big part of my new year. They’re also less of a list of resolutions and more a list of things to do. That way I keep moving. If I don’t, I’m like a shark. I’ll just die.

Frankly, that is my approach to everything. There are people who live without destinations in mind, living from one place to another, but I like to know where I’m headed. Not to the detriment of places I might stop on the way, but I’m too lazy not to have goals. If I didn’t have a to-do list, I’d sit around, eat sweets, watch old movies and turn into Jabba the Hutt in my onesie.

I like to know where I’m headed, roughly. You can’t chart your progress unless you know where you are. It gives you something to look back upon, watching your starting-point drift away as you sail towards a new destination. You can also work out how far you have to travel, like those countdowns on planes and ferries that tell you how far you have yet to travel, and you can see your destination drawing nearer. Plus, planning can be fun. It’s like when you get out all the seed catalogues and think about what can be and what your garden can bring you. There’s nothing wrong with a little visualisation to kick-start the process.

resolutions - lady justines blogSome of these things are just habits to change. But instead of putting them in a blog post I don’t revisit all year, I thought this was a cute way of putting them up so I can see them.

My big one this year is to finish what I start. About six years ago, all the people I worked with had to complete a Hay Group leadership analysis on me. Nice. It’s like being under a microscope, professionally. They have to fill out all kinds of answers about you and identify where your weaknesses are. It’s a 360° analysis by the people who work for you, those who work with you, and then the people you work for. Talk about intense.

Anyway, apart from my obvious lack of modesty, which strangely did not come up, the only thing people said I had as a fault was the fact I don’t always finish what I start. This is true. I am an enthusiast through and through. What I always liked about being an enthusiast is that I get fired up, inspired, then off I go. It’s a great energy burst. Call me an activator, a divergent thinker, whatever you will, but my one great habit this year to build is to finish things off. Properly.

Hopefully the Resolution tree will remind me frequently about my challenge this year.

Two things I’ve finished this year include a present for a friend that I can’t show yet because I haven’t given it to her yet, and this truly mixed-media picture I made for Mme. V.


* like Peter Pan, who originally uttered these words, it is not my own cleverness at all, but somebody else’s. Also like Peter Pan, it didn’t stop me claiming the accomplishment as my own even though it is so not. In fact, even before it came from Crafting a Green World, it came from a Thanksgiving Tree on Make Them Wonder. I love how ideas travel. And meh. When I saw it was leaves in the original, it totally made me smile. Even my own adaptation was just an inadvertent rip-off. Such is life.