Saturday 9 December 2023

What I said to the Planning Inspectorate

 

I was one of the nearly 40 people who spoke up in defence of Weekley Hall Wood and Meadow this week. This is what I said.

My words this evening come from my heart and while I appreciate that planning decisions must be made on legal grounds, there is surely some space for common sense and compassion.

Although I’m a recent √©migr√© to Northamptonshire, having been here a mere 40 years, my children were born here. They both explored the woods on foot and on their bikes. Now our whole family enjoys the physical and mental health benefits of the natural environment there. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that on the dark days, Weekley Hall Wood and Meadow has been a life-saver.

Perhaps you’re not swayed by an emotional response, but let’s not forget that while you’re here in an official capacity, you surely have a place in your own life that is special to you. How would you feel if a warehouse were to be built on this?

There has been talk about the creation of thousands of jobs. Well, I worked for over 20 years for the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, and as such I am familiar with the skills shortages that prevail throughout the entire sector. The developers claim they will be creating jobs. No, they will be creating vacancies that will not be filled.

The traffic considerations, too, have been explored. Imagine yourself standing in our meadow or in your own special piece of the countryside, listening to the birds sing. Now imagine how difficult this it would be against a background of the rumble and disturbance of lorries and warehouse activity, not to mention the chaos that would occur during the construction phase.

I could wax lyrical about the wonderful opportunity that this situation offers the Duke to put right in part the atrocities carried out by his ancestors during the Newton Rebellion. However, I doubt you’d be swayed by such rhetoric. But what a lovely gesture it would be if the Duke were to give this land back to the town, perhaps as a country park. There is no doubt we are in the midst of a climate emergency and should be preserving our natural world. We have heard recently that England will get a new national park as part of a government set of ‘nature pledges’ to give greater access and protection to the countryside. Let’s accommodate that intention here. It would be so much better a legacy than concrete and steel.

We have of necessity been subject to a lot of legalise and jargon during these proceedings. ‘Mitigation’ has joined the list of my most hated words. And if we decipher that other phrase – ‘impact on biodiversity’ – we will see that it means destroying plants and killing wildlife.

There are many reasons not to allow this development but I cannot think of one reason to let it go ahead.

I’ve heard it said that there is no room for morals in planning decisions. Prove me wrong, please, by dismissing Buccleuch Property’s application. Thank you.

Friday 18 August 2023

Betty and Pauline: what happened next

If you were one of those lovely people who bought a copy of my second short story collection, Tasting Strangers, perhaps you agreed with the reviewer who said that some of the stories could have been longer. 

Well, if you remember 'A Merry Dance', which related the tale of sisters Betty and Pauline and their adventures at sea on the Marianna Grande, I hope you enjoy Part Two of the story, shared below.

 

  

Betty Takes Another Trip

It was one of those early April days when the weather had forgotten it was supposed to be spring. Drivers inching their way along Victory Way were undecided about whether or not it was raining enough to warrant turning on their windscreen wipers. The road was slick with grease and leaves.

As the lights changed to amber, an overcautious driver at the head of the line of cars stopped instead of trying to beat the red. As the vehicles behind it came to a standstill like a loose-coupled train, Andy tapped an impatient paradiddle on his steering wheel. He watched as a woman walking along the pavement overtook him, then smirked as she skipped over one puddle but landed in the second, her feet now wet in ill-judged sandals, and her day spoilt before it had begun.

The lights changed to green and the queue began to inch forward again. For the fourth time since he’d pulled off his drive, Andy’s phone rang, jostling in the car’s centre console alongside several open packets of mints. For the fourth time he ignored it, but when the persistent caller tried yet again, Andy gave in. With a sigh and an expletive, he turned left into an unfamiliar side street to find somewhere safe to stop.

Trafalgar Road was a curious mix of Victorian terraced houses that opened straight on to the street and modern bungalows that looked as though they had been dropped at random into gaps. Had bombs fallen here during the war? Andy neither knew nor cared, but it was outside one of these bungalows that he found a space to park. Set back from the road, it had room for a tub of daffodils either side of the blue front door. By now his phone had stopped ringing, so he switched it to silent.

A few minutes earlier inside the bungalow, Betty had been holding back one of her sitting-room curtains to get a clear view up and down the street. She was wearing her second-best coat, bought in Warwicks’ sale this time last year, a teal wool mix with silver buttons shaped like roses. It hadn’t seen much wear because the weather had turned warm almost before she’d got it home. Now, with the unexpected cold snap, she was pleased to give it an outing. She loved its vibrant colour. It was smart enough for the day ahead, but not too smart.

In her hand she clutched her rainbow umbrella, and over her shoulder she had a cheery yellow bag in which were stowed the papers she had been asked to take with her.

She let the curtain fall back and checked the time again. Where was he? She’d said half past and it was now quarter to.

She resumed her lookout. Damn this fine drizzle slowing everything down. She should have told him twenty past. At that moment a Mars-red hatchback pulled up outside her front dor. Finally! She hurried out, pulled the door to with a slam, gave it a double-handed shove to be sure it was shut, then scuttled over to the car trying to dodge the rain. She jumped into the passenger seat, arranged her bag and brolly in the footwell and patted her damp hair back into shape.

‘Right, let’s go,’ she said to the driver. ‘I don’t want to be late, and you know what it’s like down Waterloo Street at this time of the morning.’

Only then did she turn and look at the driver.

‘Close your mouth, there’s a bus coming,’ she said to an astonished Andy. ‘What are you waiting for? Come on!’

Now Andy spoke, slowly as though he knew at least one of them was in the wrong place, but he wasn’t sure who.

‘Who the hell are you?’ he demanded. ‘And who do you think I am?’

‘I’m Betty and I’m going to be late. Call yourself a taxi driver?’

‘No.’

‘What?’

‘No, I’m not a taxi driver. Get out of my car.’

Betty was thrown by this revelation, but only for a moment.

‘Well, I’m in now,’ she said. ‘I don’t suppose…?’

Andy raised his hands to ward off the rest of her question.

‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘Sorry, but I’ve got stuff to do. Anyway, I might be a crazy man.’

‘Are you?’ asked Betty.

‘Well, no, but that’s not the point. Out you get.’

Betty gave him her best endearing old lady smile and brought her hands together in supplication.

‘Please?’

Andy opened his mouth to repeat his refusal, but to his surprise he heard himself say, ‘All right then. Where do you want to go?’

‘You’re a star. Thank you,’ said Betty. ‘Anywhere in the town centre would be fine. My appointment’s in the pedestrian precinct.’

Andy drew away from the kerb, executed an immaculate three-point turn and re-joined the main road. In spite of himself he was curious about his passenger.

‘Nothing medical, I hope?’ he asked.

‘Why would you automatically assume that?’

‘Appointment usually means doctor, and you’re…’ Andy petered out.

‘What? Old enough to be your mother and then some?’ Betty feigned indignation. ‘Got me pegged as a little old biddy off to have her bunions seen to, have you?’

‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to offend,’ said Andy, then added, ‘Hang on: why am I apologising? I’m doing you a favour.’

‘I’m just teasing you – what’s your name?’

‘Andy.’

‘I’m just teasing you, Andy. But if you must know – and I suppose the least I can do is to tell you why you’re driving me there – it’s a legal matter.’

Andy was curious now.

‘Oh? Been left a fortune by an anonymous benefactor, have you?’

‘No, just the opposite actually,’ replied Betty.

She tugged at a loose thread on her sleeve while she considered if she should tell him more.

‘Let’s call it repercussions of an episode a couple of years ago,’ she said. ‘Now me and the law like to keep in touch. Well, they do. There, that’s surprised you.’

‘You’re right,’ replied Andy. ‘That’s not what I was expecting.’

The traffic was building up now, stop start all the way into town. A young woman on an e-scooter wove a dangerous path between the slow-moving cars. They travelled in awkward silence until Betty, keen to find out a little about her impromptu chauffeur asked,

‘So where were you going? No, let’s go back a bit: why were you parked outside my house posing as a taxi driver?’

‘I wasn’t posing as a – oh never mind,’ said Andy. ‘My phone kept ringing and I didn’t want to answer it, but then I thought I should, so I parked up to take the call, but then decided not to after all and put it on silent.’

‘Sounds like you’re in a tizzy before you even get to the office,’ said Betty. ‘I presume you do work in an office, given you’re wearing a suit and there’s a laptop on the back seat?’

‘Yes. I’m a data analyst, which is as boring as it sounds.’

‘So you must be in need of the distraction of an unexpected passenger. Who was ringing?’

‘Is that any of your business?’

Betty ignored him and continued, ‘Mind you, if you didn’t answer perhaps you don’t know who it was.’

‘Oh, I know all right. Hang on, stop talking a minute while I get round this roundabout.’

‘You’re procrastinating.’

‘Well, if you must know,’ said Andy, ‘it was my sister.’

‘Your sister? Why would you not want to talk to your sister? You don’t want to lose that connection. Believe me, I know.’

She shook her head at a distant memory.

‘It’s complicated,’ said Andy.

‘Families are always complicated, but that’s no excuse for not picking up the phone to your sister. What if it’s important?’

‘Oh it is,’ said Andy. ‘I know that. That’s why I don’t want to talk to her. Why am I telling you this?’

‘Because people say I’ve got one of those faces that makes them think they can talk to me and they can trust me – and at least one of those is true.’

Andy let that go. The rain had started to come down with more determination, so he turned his wipers up a notch. He drove on past a line of kebab shops and burger bars where the debris of last night’s food frenzy was evident in the gutter. He picked up his story again.

‘I don’t know how it started. I said something about Tom – that’s my sister’s boy – and to be honest I can’t even remember what. But she didn’t like it and she said something back and off we went. It was a storm in a teacup really, but it’s got out of hand.’

‘That sounds like something you could sort out, if you wanted to.’

‘But it’s not down to me. She started it.’

‘Good grief,’ said Betty. ‘How old are you?’

Andy had the grace to look sheepish.

‘Thirty-seven.’

‘Not seven? Isn’t it time you stopped saying things like “she started it” – which she didn’t anyway, from what you’ve said.’

‘Yes, I know. I’m old enough to know better. I’ll think about it, but big sisters are bossy. I might ring her, but I might not.’

On any other day, Andy would have been grinding his teeth by now at the slow progress into town, but today he didn’t mind. He was enjoying Betty’s company in spite of himself, and wanted to know more about her criminal past.

‘Come on, then,’ he said. ‘Why are you in trouble with the law?’

‘I won’t go into details,’ said Betty, ‘but funnily enough it involves my sister. We went on this cruise and I got beguiled by the glitz and the glamour of it all. It had been a long time since I’d let my hair down. Anyway, we were on this holiday of a lifetime and I was in the mood for a bit of fun. Pauline – that’s my younger sister – is so staid. I just wanted to show her it is possible to have a good time, that we’re not past it. One thing led to another, what with the men’ – she ignored Andy’s wince – ‘and the dancing, the drinking and the gambling – especially the gambling. I got a bit carried away. I borrowed some money off my sister without telling her and…’

Andy interrupted.

‘Hang on. You stole money from your sister?’

‘I suppose I did, yes,’ Betty admitted. ‘Long story short, I got caught. Now the police like me to check in from time to time.’

‘So you’re on probation?’

‘Like you said, it’s complicated.

‘Do you still see your sister?’ he asked.

‘We don’t speak unless we have to, like if there’s a family emergency or something. I really messed things up. We were so close as girls.’

Andy let this sink in as he paused at a pelican crossing to let a crocodile of children in hi-vis bibs trot over the road.

Then he said, ‘I should have asked for the fare up front! So have you gone straight?’

Now it was Betty’s turn to look sheepish.

‘I have, yes,’ she said. ‘I’ve well and truly learnt my lesson.’

They reached the town centre and Andy turned into the council car park.

‘Will this do you, Betty?’

‘That’s perfect, thank you.’

She peered through the window.

‘Looks like the rain’s easing off. I needn’t have brought my brolly. Thanks again for the lift. Can I pay you?’

‘No, you’re fine. Just keep out of trouble.’

Betty gathered her things and clambered out with a cheery ‘Mind how you go – and ring your sister!’

He watched as she walked away. You’d never know she was a hardened criminal, he thought. He picked up his phone: another missed call from his sister. He looked after Betty, but she had disappeared.

Andy moved his car into a marked parking space and tapped a number into his phone.

‘Hello, sis. I think we need to talk.’

 'A Merry Dance' may be found in Tasting Strangers.





Friday 17 February 2023

Last week I gave a talk to a local WI group about how to be a rebel. Here in Kettering, we have an ongoing battle to prevent half a dozen warehouses being built on an area of woodland and a wildflower meadow, and that was the starting point for my presentation. If you want to know more about the Newton Rebellion and the fight to Save Weekley Hall Wood, click here.

Then I segued into an introduction to Extinction Rebellion. I've not (yet) been called upon to glue myself to anything, but I've done a bit of shouting and taken part in various actions that, depending on your point of view, might be considered close to the line that divides legal from arrestable.

There is so much that needs fixing in the world that it's hard to know where to start. Indeed, some days it seems overwhelming and it's tempting to throw in the towel and let the world go to hell in the proverbial handcart. However, as Mr Thorley wisely says, 'That's what "they" want you to do." So we fight on.

Anyway, the WI ladies were lovely. They listened carefully and asked lots of questions. Many of them seemed as outraged as I am, and they took away leaflets and details of where to go for further information or to get involved. I did, though, try to reassure them that getting arrested wasn't necessary, that there is plenty of gentle but effective action that can be taken:

  • Read the planning applications in your local paper and oppose them if they seem iffy
  • Look at those laminated notices that your council sticks up on lamp posts
  • Sit in the public gallery at council meetings so you know what's going on
  • Write letters and sign petitions - hell, why not start a petition?
  • Many of you who read this blog are writers, so submit articles to newspapers and magazines
  • Report problems on Fix My Street
  • Make a placard for someone to carry on a protest
  • Put up a poster in your window

The key thing is to do something to make the world a better place. If not you, then who?

Friday 10 February 2023

Back in the saddle

Failed already, then. I was planning to post a blog every Friday (or as near as I could manage), but have slipped after only three weeks. There are mitigating circumstances, though.

January went by in a blur of campaigning for the local by-election. I was lucky enough to go to the count, and it was fascinating to see the democratic process at work, as bundles of voting papers were opened, unfolded, sorted, counted, then sorted again and re-counted. Goodness me, though, it was hard work getting to that point.

The week after that I decided I really ought to do some housework (I know!) and maybe stock the fridge again. There was work to catch up on, too. I'd been keeping things ticking over - a proof read here, an email sent there - but a client's 90,000-word manuscript kept tugging at my sleeve for attention. I'm pleased to say that I've made a good start on this book now and it's going well. I really should be working on it this morning, but this blog was saying 'Over here!'

The other project that has taken some of my energy is that I have finally sorted the paperback edition of my walking book, Jurassic Way. It's been a long slog, but has already had some interest and I think, overall, it's been worth it. Anyway, have a look and see what you think. If you like it, please leave a review; if you don't, then - er - keep quiet!

Watford, Northants - yes, as in Watford Gap



The question is: what shall I do next?

Saturday 14 January 2023

Out on the mean streets

Anyone else signed up to Country Walking magazine's regular challenge to walk 1000 miles in a year? It's not as daunting as it sounds: 2.75 miles a day and you've got it in the bag. Easy, if you say it quickly enough.

I've made a good start. I've already walked 60 miles since New Year's Day, because I've been out canvassing. There's a local by-election coming up at the start of February, so I've been pounding the streets posting leaflets through letterboxes and knocking on doors to gauge voter intention. I feel doubly smug because of all the miles I've clocked up and the satisfaction of knowing I'm supporting a good cause.

An unexpected consequence has been that I've seen parts of Kettering I've never seen before, despite having lived here for over 30 years. It's not a big town but a bit like New York (and this is where the similarity ends) it is divided into tidy chunks, and there are some sectors I've never visited, especially those on the posh side of the tracks. There's been a lot of building work, too, and in several areas where once there stood a proud shoe factory, there is now an enclave of bijou homes. I was particularly intrigued to see a resurgence in back-to-back terraces being built among swish detached houses. Fascinating stuff.

If you fancy a walk, why not explore an area of your home turf you haven't visited before? You never know what you might find.


Friday 6 January 2023

What you will

 

Just before Christmas, I was out delivering community newsletters. People were beginning to put up lights outside their houses, and inside I could see trees being decorated and people wrapping presents. Now we're at Twelfth Night, and those same houses are looking bare, with just the occasional deflated Santa clinging to a chimney pot. 

 As usual, I haven't made any New Year resolutions. I used to when I was a child: be kinder to my little brother; do my homework on time; pick up my clothes off the floor before bedtime; then later it was the usual things like losing weight, getting fit, cutting down on the tea and biscuits. I never lasted much beyond February, so now I just don't bother. Nor do I engage with Dry January, Veganuary or any other such nonsense. I prefer to decide for myself when things need a shake-up. 

The other thing is that it's so hard to predict what the coming week will bring, never mind the next year. Looking back I see I posted this on 1 January 2020: 

'I don't know if you've noticed, but a new year has started today. Honestly, to look at FaceAche you'd think it had never happened before. I'm SO fed up of people telling me how great 2020 is going to be. I hope they're right and I shall do my damnedest to make it so, but let's wait and see, shall we?'

 Need I say more?

The title of this blog is, of course, the subtitle of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night from which this quote comes:  'Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.'

I'll just leave that with you.


Friday 30 December 2022

Board but not bored

 

I'm surprised and delighted by the resurgence of the humble board game. I was brought up playing Snakes & Ladders and Ludo, Dizzy Bugs, Mousetrap and Scrabble. My children were initiated into the ways of the Draughts board long before they could ride a bike, and even now on family occasions we will gather around the dining table for competitive games and a little gentle bickering over the rules.

Today's rash of games is different from those I remember from 'the old days'. The look and feel of them is as much a part of the experience as the actual playing - check out Azul, for instance, which is a strategy game we're playing obsessively at the moment. It involves laying tiles that, to my mind, look like Spangles. Remember them? We also turn to Catan, Seven Wonders and Colt Express, the latter of which comes with a cute train on which Wild West characters are moved in search of booty. Phoney cowboy accents have become obligatory when we play this.

We do still dig into the cupboard for some old favourites. However, the one pictured is the worst of all possible worlds; I mean, Risk is bad enough - it can maunder on for hours - but Lord of the Rings Risk means I have to wrap my head around the intricacies of Helm's Deep and Dol Guldur. Good grief.

I did suggest we got rid of this one, but was met with howls of protest from the rest of the Thorley clan. We'll see.