Thursday, 20 April 2017

In Bruges

We've just returned from a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands, repeating the route we took two years ago when husband first did the Amstel Gold cycle challenge. Last time the weather was glorious; unfortunately this time it was cool most cloudy and he cycled his 125km in the rain on Saturday morning. This time we didn't stay in the luxury apartment we booked last time but all three of us squeezed into a rather grotty and overpriced hotel room where Kate and I spent the damp Saturday morning, her revising for AS exams and me marking mock papers.

But, despite the weather, it was a good trip.  En route we caught up with relations, calling with youngest sister and catching up with my aunt and uncle who now, by chance, live in the same area.  We also had Easter Sunday lunch with my cousin and her family who live outside Brussels in a beautiful spot with a fabulous garden, conveniently situated just off the motorway.

On the way to Valkenburg, where the cycle event took place, we had a day in Bruges.  Or Brugge its official name, as the town, in the Flemish part of Belgium, now seems to have left its French identity behind and all signs are in Dutch. I've been here five times in total and love this city - the Venice of the North they call it - with all the canals and beautiful buildings.  It's nearly as busy as Venice now too. This time there were many parties of Japanese tourists.

We visited Bruges 13 years ago and at the time I had joined a creative writing group.  For the class I wrote a description of Burg Square in Bruges.  I'm trying again with creative writing: next weekend I'm going to Co. Clare in Ireland for a weekend writing course with Niall Williams who wrote 'History of the Rain'.  I'm excited and terrified in equal measure.

This time we eat in the same cafĂ© on Burg Square, admiring the building which looks like Sleeping Beauty's castle, which is apparently the Old Town Hall, while sitting on the enclosed heated terrace to avoid the cold wind.  Kate was 4 when we sat here last; she's now 17, dressed in denim and Converse, black eyeliner flicks like quotation marks at the corner of each eye and a square paper bag from Mango at her feet containing her latest purchase. In our family of three, alliances often shift.  Her father dares to ask what she has bought - we'd left him behind to visit the shops. She cuts him dead; I answer for her, 'A black cold-shoulder top'.  The irony only strikes me later. Then outside a dog they admire walks past and allegiances shift again. We revisit the new puppy conversation.  It had been selected in secret one day when I was at work.  A female German Shepherd. She's even given it a name: Luna.  They are trying to wear down my objections.  I stand firm, turn my back and return to watching the people in the square.

Blinkered Black Beauties trot across the cobbles, their drivers carrying knotted whips we hope they won't use. Cyclists weave around the tourists on foot who glance briefly at the buildings and then turn their back to take selfies. Some carry their phones on sticks like weapons. The sun is shining and the shadow which divided the square into equal rectangles when we arrived is advancing towards the other side as evening approaches.  A family group of orthodox Jews in traditional dress, black and white with hats adorned with fur cross the square.  They look striking among the other tourists in their dull uniform of brown and black quilted jackets.  Back inside Kate is checking her phone to see how many likes she has on Instagram for her picture of the Sleeping Beauty building.  She eats goats' cheese salad and drinks iced tea, her tastes now more sophisticated than the four year old we brought here in 2004 who just wanted chips.

I'm reminded of a poem by W. B. Yeats 'The Wild Swans at Coole'. He revisited the swans nineteen years after the first time and reflects on how his life has changed.  'All's changed' for us too since we first sat in Burg Square 13 years ago. Though I'm not quite so gloomy about change as Yeats is...

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Watching the News

So this is a post I mentally composed a few weeks ago and never got round to writing. Two reasons for this: firstly the ever present list of things to do at school and home which get in the way and secondly and, more importantly, my reluctance/fear about touching on topics which might offend people I know or other readers or unleash unwanted attention and comments from unfriendly strangers.  But here goes anyway and apologies in advance if you are offended.

My daughter Kate, now 17 and studying History and Politics for A level, now watches the news regularly (in addition to her usual diet of Vampire Diaries and Made in Chelsea).  Recent news events have provoked a lot of discussion and now, instead of just accepting my explanations and opinions as she used to, she challenges me and I find myself rethinking things.  This happened a couple of weeks ago after the death of Martin McGuinness and this BBC news report about how he made the journey from IRA commander to Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland. I'd talked to her before about events in Northern Ireland and my experiences of growing up there in the 1970s, but even so she was shocked by the news report and surprised about McGuinness's IRA background.  She remembered how a good friend of our family, a second cousin, saw her husband, a member of the security forces, shot dead in front of her as they returned from a night out. This happened up the road from her Granda's house in Ballyronan.  Martin McGuinness was the MP for Mid Ulster for many years - you'd see his smiling face on election posters around the village.  My own feelings about him remain mixed.  Kate's initial reaction was clear - it is wrong to kill innocent people what ever the cause.  I agree, but kind of admire McGuinness for moving away from violence. My feelings are echoed here by Colin Parry, father of Tim, the 12 year old who died in the Warrington bomb.

A day later Kate and I watched the news together again - this time the terrorist attack on Westminster.  She was upset by this, explaining that it was because she had been on that bridge by Westminster several times herself so it seemed more real.  Some of those injured were students on a school trip to the Houses of Parliament: she'd been on a similar trip, meeting a local MP and touring the building last year in when she was in year 11.  Again her question was why. What can the man who carried out this attack hope to gain? Apart from notoriety. I had no answers this time. I heard an intelligence expert on the Today programme say that there is an urgent need to work with the communities where the attackers come from and tackle the root causes of radicalisation.  Otherwise these things will keep on happening. No amount of security measures is going to stop someone who is prepared to use a car as a weapon.  As I write this, a similar incident has just occurred in Stockholm. It is hard to see an end to it. That's what we used to say in NI. 

More horror on the news this week with images of the chemical bomb attack in Syria. I covered my eyes; I couldn't bear to see the images of children injured and dying. Kate told me off, saying I should watch; that we shouldn't turn away from the horror. We need to know what is going on in the world.  We also had a discussion yesterday morning about where the American response to the chemical weapons attack was justified. No simple answers to this one either.

I'm going to finish this post on a more positive note. The photo above were taken by Kate on our Mother's Day visit to Ness Gardens. The magnolia trees were in bloom. Terrible things happen in the world and we can't avert our eyes. All the more reason to value precious time with family, count our blessings and enjoy glorious spring days like this one.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Year in Books: March

I've read quite a lot recently.  Nothing I've loved really but for the record, here's the list:

1. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
I chose this after watching the documentary about the Bronte sisters at Christmas.  Anne was considered the less talented one, apparently.  I quite like this book, though the device of the letters is a bit clumsy.  The narrator switches halfway through and there is a rather sanctimonious, moralising tone which can get annoying. It seems clear that Anne was using her brother Branwell to inspire her characterisation of Huntington, the debauched husband of the central character, which, if the drama is to be believed, didn't go down too well with the rest of the family,. Good plot if slightly telegraphed plot with a happy ending.  As I have said before, I prefer books to have a proper plot.

2. Solar Bones Mike McCormack
It was hard work following the plot of this one as it's written without a single full stop. That was a bit annoying at first and I'm not sure whether this structural device (English teacher speak) added much to the novel. It's the story of an engineer, Marcus, living in small town Ireland and, actually, I warmed to him as the narrative is basically a stream of consciousness so we can sympathise with his anxieties as a parent of an artist daughter who achieves success by painting with her own blood and his smartarse son who is currently jobless, very hairy and working his way round Australia. There's also a lot about engineering which interests me a little since quite a few members of my extended family are engineers of one kind or another and there's probably some extended metaphor going on if I were to look closely.  I didn't realise until the end that the whole narrative is framed by the fact that Marcus is dead.  This is not a spoiler as, if I were not so dim,  I would have realised the significance of the references to All Souls day in the opening sequence. He's back as a ghost observing and the last part of his life.  It's on the blurb of the print edition but, as I read it on my Kindle, I didn't know.  Husband reading this one - his Kindle purchase, not mine though his appear on mine for some reason,so will be interesting to see what he thinks.

3 A Boy Made of Blocks Keith Stuart
Another one of those books which explores autism (Curious Incident, Rosie Project etc.)  I picked it up in the library and read it quite quickly. The writer reviews video games for The Guardian and the novel is loosely based on his own experiences with his autistic son and how he connected with him using Minecraft which is, as far as I can gather, a game where you build houses etc. on the computer.  It was ok: there was too much detail about the game for my taste and the plot - marriage breakdown due to central character's failure to deal with his grief for his brother - was a little thin.

Olive Kitteridge Elizabeth Strout
Who is the writer of the moment. Top of the best seller lists, Booker prize nominated for Lucy Barton is Missing, which I haven't read, and Pulitzer Prize for Olive.  This is my book club choice and I did admire the writing and characterisation but in the end was disappointed by what promised to be a good book at first . Olive, retired maths teacher married to Henry, is quite a character and she holds together the narrative which is basically a series of loosely connected portraits of people living in a small town in New England/  No real plot which I found irritating, especially in the final chapter which doesn't include Olive at all but a character who was only briefly referred to earlier.

This month I'm going to finish The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and some more books by Niall Williams who wrote History of the Rain which remains my current favourite book. You can read my comments on it here.  I'm rereading it and have also borrowed Boy to Man from the library. I've also chosen Four Letters of Love for my bookclub choice - it's my turn.  The reason for all this Niall Williams reading is that I have booked to go on a weekend Writing Course he is running in Ireland during April.  I'm very excited about this as I have always wanted to do a residential writing course, but am now very anxious as I'm afraid other people will be proper writers and not sloppy bloggers like me. 

Post illustrated by an irrelevant photo taken in Amsterdam by my daughter.  One reason for my lack of recent blogging is that I spent my half term on a school trip in the Netherlands attending, for the third time, a Model United Nations conference in Zoetermeer and taking my daughter too. It was a brilliant experience and the students I took thoroughly enjoyed it, but it has left me behind with other things. I've blogged about MUNA before here.

Linking again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees

Saturday, 11 February 2017

In Praise of Cousins

I have mentally composed this post over the past few weeks and only now finding time to write it.  This morning have been woken early by the sound of retching dog. Got up and chased him outside, but it was too late.  Clearing up doggy sick at 530ish on a Saturday morning is not fun.  But I'm wide awake now and so will use the time profitably to catch up here.  Life hasn't been much fun recently: work dominating and quite stressful; my broken arm still causing me pain; and further stress because the dog has had an operation to remove a large lump from his abdomen.  We were worried it was something nasty but it seems it was just a fatty lump, a common thing in middle-aged dogs apparently.  But it was horrible as he was so miserable after the op.  And it cost a fortune and is unlikely to be covered by insurance.

But back to the main subject of my post.

In Northern Ireland when I was growing up I saw my cousins often.  I have 20 first cousins and, as most of them lived within a 5 mile radius of our home, we visited each others houses often.  Whole families of cousins would sometimes come for tea on a Sunday afternoon and mummy would make a salad and we'd maybe have coffee cake and apple creams or a sponge flan with jelly and mandarin oranges set in it.  After tea, while the adults talked, us children would run riot, playing wild chasing games or putting on 'shows' in the sitting room.  Sometimes this ended badly - I remember one occasion when we broke the china cabinet - yet these wild afternoons are some of my best childhood memories.

During the summer holidays we would, as children, take turns stay for longer periods at our cousins' houses.  This was great fun: we played all sorts of dangerous games, my favourite being the construction of a 'ghost train' tunnel in hayshed at the Derby cousins' house in Ballynagarve.  It was terrifying but exhilarating to crawl through the precarious structure we'd made with bales of hay piled high at that time of year.  And my cousins' parents were a little more relaxed about certain rules so we got away with things we weren't allowed to do at home.  I remember riding back to the farm with my cousins on the top of a tall load of hay bales on a trailer being towed by a tractor for a couple of miles on a public road. Again I was scared and a bit guilty, as I knew this was forbidden, but such a lot of fun.

One set of cousins, on my Dad's side, lived slightly further away in Maghera.  Again we would take turns to visit, usually just one of us at a time.  I liked going there as Auntie Joy was one of my favourite aunts, really kind and lovely.  I have some good memories of visiting there too: they had geese in the back yard which was exciting for us, especially being chased by the gander.  I remember going out on the tractor with Uncle Roy; he'd let us ride beside him sitting on the wheel mud guards, another thing that was banned at home.  And I remember helping to stack the turf that they burned in the range cooker.  I love the texture and the smell of turf burning; it always reminds me of visiting these cousins. I don't know whether it is still used for fuel these days in Ireland; no one over here in England has ever heard of it.

These memories came flooding back to me recently when I heard the news that Uncle Roy, one of only two of my uncles who is still alive,  had died last October.  Unfortunately I didn't hear about his death until a few months later - my cousins were too exhausted and busy to call - and, as neither me nor any of my sisters live locally, we're out of touch with local news. I've now written to offer my condolences and will visit when we next visit Northern Ireland in the summer.

I count myself blessed to be part of a big extended family.  While other friends and acquaintances have come and gone over the years, my cousins have always been there.  Although I see some more than others, mainly those who are closest to me in age and who were among my best friends as a teenager, I am always pleased when I get the chance to catch up with them as we did when we had a cousins' party in Ballyronan in 2015.  My cousins were a huge support to us in the difficult times when our parents were ill and a source of comfort when they died.  I am sorry not to have been there to offer the same support to them.

My Kate is an only child but she is lucky to have many first cousins, 16 in total.  Unfortunately, due to a family fall out on my husband's side, she has never met some of them and has lost touch with another.  However, she does see quite a lot of the cousins on my side of the family, including those who live on the other side of the world.  This summer the NZ cousins are visiting the UK again and we have planned a family holiday, booking a villa outside Barcelona for all five families.  It's looking like all of the cousins will be there, even the adult ones.  We're very much looking forward to this family reunion.

Kate and her cousins during last reunion in 2015
Sister and cousins in Portrush July 2015

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Recent Reading

Inspired by Christina's account of her December reading, I thought I'd write a book post, something I haven't done for ages.  I've read a few books recently which I really enjoyed and thought I would share these with you though to be honest there was a period in September/October when I wasn't reading very much at all.  I don't worry much about this - reading is pleasure so I don't set myself targets about numbers of books to read a year or anything like that.

For my bookclub in November I read ' A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry.  It's quite a chunky book -600 plus pages - but was written so well that you don't really notice this.  It is set in 1970s India and follows the difficult lives of three men and one woman against a background of political upheaval.  It's very sad but wasn't a depressing book because of the characters' resilience and how they usually find ways of dealing with all difficulties they face. There's a huge cast of eccentric characters - in one review I read, Mistry is described as a kind of Indian Dickens. I can see what this reviewer means. At the bookclub meeting we all loved this one - very unusual.

I have also read several very average books.  My husband read and recommended Sebastian Faulks 'Where the Heart Used to Beat'. I was a little disappointed - I never really warmed to the central character and was unconvinced by the big love affair which is central to the plot. The war scenes were well done though - he'd done his research - but it was too obvious rather than feeling integrated within the characters' experiences. Then there were a couple books from the best seller lists.  'Versions of Us'  Laura Barnett and 'The Trouble with Sheep and Goats' Joanna Cannon, neither of which was very memorable.

Another more interesting read, again a bookclub choice, 'The City and the City' by China Mieville was hard work to read, not enjoyable as such,  but it was worth persevering to unravel the complex plot which was half detective story, half sci-fi. There are two cities and two communities which overlap 'geotopically'. However the residents of each city must not interact and must 'unsee' each other otherwise they will be in trouble with Breach, the ruthless secret police force for the cities.

In January, I'm planning  to read Anne Bronte's 'The Tennant of Wildfell Hall', having ignored this particular Bronte in favour of her sisters until now.  I watched the BBC drama on Boxing Day - I've forgotten the name- was it 'To Walk Invisible' ? - and this has renewed my interest in this forgotten sister.

I'll also be dipping into my lovely new cookbook  'Home' by Trish Deseine - a Christmas present from NZ sister. It's a beautiful book full of recipes and pictures of Ireland. I'd bought a copy for her birthday last year after hearing a radio review and said I'd like one too. The photography is stunning and the writer includes stories of growing up in County Antrim as well as featuring Irish chefs. The recipes are a familiar mix of old favourites like wheaten bread and buttermilk scones which I don't really need a recipe for and the sort of traybakes that my mother used to make for coffee parties in the church hall.

And a bit of more general news - my new year hasn't started too well as I've managed to chip a bone at the top of my arm having fallen over a duvet left on the floor by one of the teenagers who stayed on New Year's Eve. I didn't know I'd broken anything until five days later when I finally got past the receptionist who'd initially fobbed me off with a physio appointment next week, and saw a GP who sent me to A&E. Spent over 5 hours there watching all the little dramas unfold in front of me - NHS at its best and worst - possible stroke patient waiting for ages but then being treated with real compassion when he was seen.  I have to wear this collar and cuff thing and have a 'virtual appointment' tomorrow - someone from orthopaedics will ring me having looked at x-Ray. So can't drive. Or do much housework. Silver lining etc...

My New Year wardrobe accessory - a lovely piece of pink foam!

Happy New Year to all - I'm planning to post more frequently this year so keep reading.
I started blogging regularly about books because of the Year in Books posts by Laura at Circle of Pine Trees which you can read more about here.  I'm aiming to join her by posting one a month about my reading.