Yesterday our friends Priscilla and Rupert from Lancashire (the ones who showed us Pendle Hill earlier in the summer) visited to accompany us on one of our local Yorkshire walks. They have a smallholding (an idyllic place) and keep chickens, geese and sheep. The conversation turned to ram harnesses. They’ve just bought a shearling ram to service their eight ewes.
Rupert had spent Friday afternoon trying to get the ram harness on, but without success. It wasn’t that the ram was being obstreperous: named Terence the Tup, he’s as docile, Rupert says, as rams come. The problem was that the harness, which is an elaborate contraption made up of multiple straps and clips, came with no instructions. Not only was it almost impossible to put on, but Terence several times managed to step calmly out of it as soon as their backs were turned. Priscilla said that Rupert was a typical man in not wanting to ask for help (I suggested that he called the NFU, but he frowned that that would be totally demeaning), so we compromised by looking up ‘fitting ram harnesses’ online.
It seems that Rupert is not alone in experiencing this difficulty: there are farmers’ forums that devote many pages to harness complaints, mostly without providing the answers and, even when they do, they’re about as comprehensible as the instructions from a Scandinavian flat-pack. One respondent even said, just look for the mud marks on the ewe – it’s cheaper! I should have explained that the purpose of the harness, which is fitted with a coloured crayon, is to let the farmer know when the ram has mated. When the ram mounts the ewe, the crayon leaves a mark which shows that the deed has been completed; so sophisticated is this method that there are soft, medium and hard crayons, according to the number of ewes; soft doesn’t sound much good. As the same effect can be achieved simply by daubing the ram daily with raddle paint (red ochre powder mixed with a little cooking oil, apparently!), it’s impossible not to believe that whoever invented these devices was having a laugh. The harnesses seem to have caught on, however: at this time of year, masochistic sheep farmers may be observed across the countryside, struggling with their own bucolic version of Rubik’s cube.
Chuckling over our conversation again this morning, I wondered what Friday afternoon’s episode looked like from Terence’s point of view?
I knew when I saw Rupert’s place it’d be a good billet. He’d sorted me with eight wives, a nice number for a harem, and it means I get them all to myself. I’m not so keen on the bigger gigs where I’d have to share a twohundredsome with some other blokes. It’s not that I’m anti-social, just that team ramming tends to encourage inappropriate equipment and performance comparisons and it’s definitely dodgy to find an old tup leering sideways around the manger to measure you up. There’s one such ram in particular I can’t abide: his name is Fuchsia (What kind of a name is that for a straight fella?). My name is Terence the Tup, so you can imagine what people call him.
Another reason that I’m keen on coming to Rupert’s is that he strikes me as a sensible chap. Like me, he’s a bit lugubrious, but underneath we both have a wicked sense of humour. I credited him at first with quite a lot of common sense, too, because he played a tight game of it at the auction; when he got me home, he turned me right out with the girls and didn’t bother with one of those ridiculous harnesses that I’ve seen used elsewhere. I was a bit surprised, therefore, when I’d no sooner got comfy in his field last Friday and was just beginning to have a sniff round the ladies when I saw him approaching, brandishing one of those things. Baaaaaaa, I thought. Last time I had a close encounter with one of these, being fitted on a friend of mine, it made me blush to see a self-respecting ram looking like a bondage freak. But the straps were all over the shop and the air was blue, I’m not exaggerating. ‘Mister,’ I bleated at the farmer, ‘kindly remember that there are ladies present.’ But he was too cross to listen.
Anyway, since it was Rupert and obviously not a man with a chicken’s brain, I decided to co-operate, at least up to a point. Wasn’t there an old fella called Gandhi who invented something called ‘passive resistance’? Very effective, I’ve always thought. So I just stood there, chewing on a piece of turnip to alleviate the boredom, while Rupert endeavoured to truss me up.
The first time, he put it on upside down. I didn’t let on, of course, but it wasn’t very bright of him. For one thing, the crayon was squashed up against my brisket, pointing inwards, whereas a lamb could see that it’s meant to face outwards, to put some colour on to the lady. He soon realised that it was wrong and had another go. This time he ended up with two straps spare: those two are supposed to be crossed over my shoulders, but again I didn’t say. Would you help a chap if he was trying to push you into a strait-jacket?
Then the real fun and games started. Priscilla and Rupert have a dog. She’s a sleek black little thing and a bit of a minx, but friendly enough. She’s not one of those rogue dogs that chase sheep. Classie, I think her name is. Anyway, she showed up at this point and, for some reason best known to himself, Rupert decided to have a practice on her.
Catching her was something else. Once he’d finally got her in his grip she squirmed and wriggled while Rupert tried to hold her down with one hand and stick the harness on her with the other. Why he thought this would help was beyond me. Eventually, she ran off with the harness dangling and with Rupert in pursuit. I just stood and chewed my turnip.
Priscilla came out then to catch the dog. She put its lead on and tied it to the fence. Rupert was back with me by this time and beckoned Priscilla over. I must admit that I was slightly bemused when he asked her to kneel down on the grass and started clipping the straps in various permutations on her. But I’m broad-minded: ‘Whatever turns you on,’ I thought.
They must have come up with some new ideas by doing this, because Priscilla stood up and came across to hold me while Rupert had another go on me. By Larry, he was sweating. ‘I think that’s right, now,’ he said, ‘but it probably needs to be tighter.’ Shucks, I thought, he’s getting the hang of it. ‘Don’t hurt him! Don’t hurt him!’ Priscilla said, sweetly panicky. I smirked. Rupert tightened the straps a little, but gingerly. He slapped me on my rump and I walked forward a few paces, nonchalantly displaying the harness as I went. ‘I think that’s done the trick,’ said Rupert, and they both went into the house.
I walked over to the far side of the field, where most of my ladies had gathered, and stepped out of the bloody thing. I gave it a well-aimed kick. I didn’t quite manage to flip it into the ditch, but I trampled it down into the mud. Put yourself in my position: wearing that’s like having someone peeping through the keyhole of your bedroom door every night.
As I ambled towards my ladies, I had a look through a gap in the hedge and glimpsed Fuchsia in the next field with some ladies of his own. I met his eye and wondered why he was looking so sheepish: he’s usually a cocky so-and-so. Then I realised: he’d got a harness on and he’d been trussed into it good and proper. Seeing him like that made my day, I can tell you; he looked a right flower.
This novel is very funny, very wise and actually quite sad. Written by Maria Semple, it tells the story of Bernadette Fox, a woman who, when she was young, was a brilliant prize-winning architect. However, her first big project was destroyed out of malice and she never worked again. Nor did she become a brilliant home-maker to her daughter Bee (who was born after Bernadette’s many miscarriages and has had operations for a heart ailment) and her husband, Elgie Branch, an arch-nerd who is high in the Microsoft hierarchy. (One of this novel’s particular attractions for me is that I worked on a project for Microsoft some years ago and I therefore know that it captures that company’s culture to a ‘t’.) Needless to say, given Elgie’s profession, they live in Seattle, in a house that is becoming increasingly derelict because Bernadette refuses to care for it and Elgie is always at work.
At another level, the book is about the malaise that has afflicted contemporary life in America – and by extension all Western societies. It veers from the wildly funny – the Galer Street School scenes (which depict an aspirational school that is almost, but not quite, part of the ton, and present how, among its other tribulations, it has to contend with an adjacent fish factory) are hilarious– to the creepily sinister: the scenes in which Elgie and his PA, who briefly becomes his mistress, try to get Bernadette committed to a psychiatric institution are frighteningly realistic.
At its heart, this novel is a romantic comedy, but it is also an astute satire. The speech cadences of the characters are uncannily accurate; their ways of thinking are sometimes bizarre, but always credible within the context of what they are doing. Amid the traumas besetting their lives, there is a continual preoccupation with things: Bernadette becomes attached to a fishing vest with many pockets to keep her belongings in; Elgie has both a nebuliser and something called a ‘neti pot’ to aid his breathing; Bernadette (through her ‘virtual’ maid Manjula, who turns out to be not all that she seems) orders shoals of clothes for them to take to Antarctica.
Antarctica? For a story that starts in Seattle? I know it sounds weird, but even this is logical within the structure of the plot, which is creative, but never forced. This is entirely appropriate, because, ultimately, what Where’d you go, Bernadette does superbly well is to celebrate creativity.
The photograph is of a proof copy that was given to me by my friend Sally; the jacket of the published version may look slightly different. It was published in July, by Orion.
[This is the second of my posts about BOOKS ARE MY BAG. You might like some background to the campaign here.]
I spent yesterday at the Booksellers Association Conference, which was held for the second year running on the campus of Warwick University. It was a wonderfully upbeat occasion and celebrated the many successes of the BOOKS ARE MY BAG campaign (now also known as BAMB), which was launched to the industry at the London Book Fair in April. All the activities that were built on this afterwards culminated in the public launch on 14th September.
Patrick Neale, current President of the BA (and also proprietor of a wonderful bookshop in Oxfordshire – and also, incidentally, a former colleague of mine) listed some of the many triumphs of 14th September. Here are a few of the key ones:
• The BAMB campaign ‘trended’ on social media.
• Footfall in bookshops increased by 17.4% and sales by 18.5%. Booksellers everywhere said that it ‘felt like Christmas.’
• The most pleasing thing of all was that everyone in the industry – booksellers and publishers alike – realised that this was just the start of celebrating the unique attributes of the physical bookshop.
Dame Gail Rebuck, CEO of Random House, who visited Patrick’s shop on 14th and cut his BAMB cake, said that she loved the sense of energy that the campaign has brought. She said, ‘Of course publishers care about bookshops; they are the lifeblood of our culture.’ She was not the only celebrated person to visit Patrick’s bookshop on that day. First of all, Samantha Cameron came in with her daughter (so the staff decided not to pester her); then the Prime Minister himself followed and the staff, deciding that he was fair game, asked if they could take his photograph. He said that he was in favour of the campaign and obliged (all memories of Jimmy Wales and the ‘free’ information in Wikipedia evidently forgotten!).
I shall write more about the conference – which was full of good ideas for authors as well as for publishers and booksellers – and about the campaign. For now, though, I’d just like to share with you the contents of the wonderful goody bag that I received at the end of the day, along with another BOOKS ARE MY BAG bag, which I shall carry with the same pride as its two predecessors, now grubby from a whole summer of being paraded everywhere I’ve been. I’m doubly proud that a postcard about Almost Love was included.
Oh, and in case you’re interested, here’s that photo of the PM outside Patrick’s shop!
There are many things about this novel, the first of Chris Brookmyre’s that I’ve read, that I admire. The novel is set in Scotland and the author successfully conveys that country’s rawness and beauty without descending into shortbread and Bannockburn lyricism. The plot is brilliantly crafted, with believable twists and turns until the very last sentence; it explores the dynamics of relationships on several different levels; and one of the protagonists, a private investigator named Jasmine Sharp, who inherits her uncle’s private investigation agency, Sharp Investigations, is only twenty-one years old, which makes her unique amongst the fiction detectives of my experience. She’s also an actress manqué, which helps her considerably in her adoption of a career that she has literally fallen into by accident. In When the devil drives, Jasmine’s pursuit of a long-disappeared missing person collides with the investigation of a present-day crime being conducted by Catherine Macleod, a senior police officer. Parallels and contrasts are drawn between the two women in both their professional and personal lives.
Jasmine’s relationship with Fallan, the man who confesses to having killed her father, is the most compelling of the many relationships that Brookmyre portrays. Fallan is an enigmatic character; still barely operating on this side of the law (in at least one instance he commits a criminal act, though there is the underlying suggestion that this is morally justified), he is an ex-con who, by his own admission, owes Jasmine an unpayable debt. She should shun and despise him, but she becomes ever more fascinated with him, while it becomes even clearer that she needs his help. To the end of the novel, however, his true character and, the reader suspects, his true relationship to her remain ambiguous. (When the devil drives contains an extract from Brookmyre’s next novel, Flesh Wounds, and I therefore know that Fallan features in it. I shall be happy to buy Flesh Wounds just to find out more about him.)
Catherine has a similarly edgy but not hopelessly antagonistic relationship with her husband. More bohemian than she, he clearly thinks that she is over-protective towards their two sons – a natural result, we are encouraged to conclude, from what she sees and suffers daily as a policewoman. I have to confess that I find the portrayal of Catherine the weakest facet of this novel. Her assured public role – she is almost brutally terse in her treatment of colleagues – sits ill with the neurotic wife and mother that she becomes at home. However, the main problem with Catherine is that her character fails to engage the reader to the same degree that Jasmine’s does. Many crime writers develop two characters to act as foils to each other: Stephen Booth’s Fry and Cooper and Anya Lipski’s Kiszka and Kershaw spring immediately to mind – but their success lies in making each character as appealing as the other, despite their very obvious differences. By contrast, in When the devil drives, I found myself impatient to get back to Jasmine during the Catherine scenes.
This is a realtively minor blemish, however. I won’t say too much about the intricate plot of this novel, as I don’t want to spoil it – and I should like to encourage anyone who is reading this to get hold of a copy of the book. Brookmyre has an original style and I’m sure will write many more such successful and entertaining novels.
I’ve just been in London for three days. It was mostly for the day job: I’m afraid the lazy days of August are now a distant dream. Autumn, with its increased workload and vigorous round of conferences and exhibitions, has now kicked in with a vengeance. The nights are also getting longer, of course, and on Wednesday evening there was a decided nip in the air. Nevertheless, I was having a wonderful time. After five meetings with colleagues and friends (none of them arduous, it should be said, and all of them interesting), I rounded off the day in style by meeting my friend Sally, with whom, as I’ve mentioned before, I stay when I’m in London, and going to see Top Hat at the Aldwych.
Although I’ve seen many (probably too many!) amateur musical productions, I don’t think I’ve ever been to one in the West End before. It was truly breathtaking. Top Hat was made famous by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for whom it was written, and first produced in 1935. The Aldwych version is faithful to the original – I’m glad to say that it’s not a spiky modern take on what has always been intended to be a slice of sumptuous fantasia – and I’d guess, although I don’t know, probably even follows the same choreography. The dancing was superb. The lead roles were played by Kristen Beth Williams and Gavin Lee, and to my eye – although I daresay this will be considered sacrilege in some quarters – their dancing was every bit as fluid, graceful and amazing as Fred’s and Ginger’s (which I’ve seen on film). The dancing by every member of the cast was of the same high standard. The costumes were magnificent – Williams wore at least ten outfits on stage, each one more glamorous than the last – and the two-tiered set was extremely clever, a brilliant way of making the most out of what is in fact quite a small early twentieth century stage.
The theatre was packed, and not just with people of a certain age. It set me wondering why a musical with no ‘hidden message’, whose appeal resides in the extravagance of everything about it, from the virtuoso performances to the clothes and make-up, should be so popular. I thought that it might be because we’re all fed up with so-called austerity, and seeking a break from it. Spending the evening in a make-believe world where money is no object and everyone is talented and beautiful certainly did the trick for me. I guess that this may be the reason why the original Top Hat went down such a storm, too. The glamour and genius of Fred and Ginger were obviously powerless to dispel the dark shadows that were gathering over Europe in 1935, but they must have given their audiences a night off from thinking about them.
Understandably, the Aldwych doesn’t allow photographs to be taken during performances, so I hope that my words and your imagination will supply the deficit. I have, however, included a photograph of another heart-stirrer, the view from Waterloo Bridge. It was approaching midnight when I was walking over the bridge to catch the train back to Sally’s, so I managed to capture only a fraction of its magic. It’s a place that never ceases to delight me when I’m there. The sweeping views of the Thames, the elegant and floodlit buildings, the reflection of the lights on the water and the London Eye (which is larger and more substantial than the other Ferris wheels I’ve written about) always make me feel proud of our capital city. London can be grey and dingy, mean and impoverished, just like all big cities, I suppose: but on Waterloo Bridge it twinkles and shimmers with the same aplomb and grace that the dancers showed in Top Hat.
The conference that I attended last week was held at The Belfry, the hotel and golf complex situated close to Birmingham and venue, quick internet research tells me, for at least four Ryder Cup tournaments. I know little about golf, so this was quite an experience, enhanced even further by the fact that the hotel was undergoing some refurbishment, with the result that the conference itself was held in a marquee. As someone who put her foot down about camping about a quarter of a century ago, I viewed this latter development with some trepidation; however, despite intermittent rain, the marquee was neither damp nor draughty (rather the reverse) and in fact quite luxuriously appointed. It even had a small ante-room that had been kitted out with proper flushing loos.
I still felt that I was the temporary inhabitant of a somewhat alien landscape, however. The golf course (It is actually three golf courses, the most difficult of which, the ‘Brabazon’, I was reliably informed, is a legend of its kind; this must have been true, as assorted men could at most times be seen gazing across at it, some taking photographs, others just lost in a trance of admiration) is perfect in every way. The acres of lush grass are flawless, manicured and bright green. The trees are symmetrical, the fountains crystal clear, the pathways pristine. It looks like a film set, rather than a managed slice of English countryside, but for a particular kind of film. It’s not the sort of place where you might encounter Mr Darcy striding across the greensward (though there would be some convenient lakes for him to jump into if he were so inclined) and you’d certainly not be able to imagine the muffled screams of a madwoman in the attic (in any case, the hotel itself is rather a low-lying, stubby building and may not have attics). It would probably be most suitable as the backdrop of a romantic comedy. I could conceive of Cameron Diaz, running across the course in a pair of Jimmy Choos to get to her lover, a posse of infuriated golfers in her wake; or Pop Larkin, annoying the staider representatives of middle England by turning up with his noisy and unpredictable brood. (Several golfers staying at the hotel were accompanied by young families, but all the children seemed to be behaving impeccably.)
This is not to say that no dangers are to be encountered in a place that exists largely for golf. The Belfry boasts a whole fleet of motorised golfing buggies. To me, they seemed to be extra large, a type of off-road version of the ones I’ve seen in Yorkshire. They came bowling round the pathways at some speed, making walking hazardous for the unsuspecting. Either one of the hotel’s attractions is the fringe sport of potting conference-goers, or the drink-driving laws don’t apply in its grounds. An additional, temporary, danger was caused by the gangs of workmen employed on the renovations. They were frequently to be encountered striding about purposefully, balancing what looked like iron girders on their shoulders. I tried to photograph two of them engaged in this activity, but a bevy of passing buggies got in the way. I did manage to snap them on their way back for more girders, however. The one on the left stuck his tongue out at me, too late for my picture: I felt like Just William, establishing good relations by means of a skirmish.
What is beyond dispute is that The Belfry is a very photogenic place. This whole blog-post is therefore just an excuse to show you some pictures of it. I won’t say anything about the conference, as that belongs firmly in the compartment of my life marked ‘day-job’ – except to offer you a rather extraordinary sentence delivered by one of the speakers, which may amuse you and has already sown the seeds of a possible plot in my mind: “We uncover the discordant voice of dentistry – all dentists hate each other!”