Sunday 23 December 2012

Ho, ho, ho

Christmas Day won’t be the same for us this year. There will be an empty seat at the dinner table where my son used to sit. Oh, don’t worry, he hasn’t died; he’s working at the Harvester. 

Holly Spr...I knew this time would come. This isn’t the first December he has been working there, but until this year he’s always managed to negotiate himself the time off. On paper, of course, he’s the best person to work during the festivities. He’s single with no one to answer to, whereas some of his colleagues are married with children and complicated family situations. But for some reason his boss hasn’t taken my feelings into account. No, no, that’s selfish. I don’t want to be THAT MOTHER, the one who majors in emotional blackmail and puts pressure on her offspring.

If you’d asked me, I would have said we weren’t a particularly traditional family, and yet I now see that we have been following the same routine every Christmas for quite a few years, albeit keeping things age appropriate. There is the annual debate about when to put up the tree, for instance. I come from a family who would decorate the weekend before Christmas and take it all down again on Twelfth Night, but I’m married to a man whose way is to put it up much earlier than that and leave it only until New Year’s Eve. We compromise, one way or another, on the date, but always have a glass of something to accompany the task while The Muppet Christmas Carol or, if we’re feeling mawkish, It’s a Wonderful Life plays on TV in the background. That didn’t happen this year and it felt odd not to do it. After dinner on Christmas Eve we open one present each – something small and not from an immediate family member. I don’t know if that will happen this year either, because with number one son missing it won’t be the same. 

So we’re doing things a bit different this time and I’m trying to be cool about it. I’m a yoga teacher, for goodness sake, so I must be generous spirited and release my attachment to routine. I must be flexible, open-hearted and open-minded. Things change, we adapt, we move on.

Even so, I wonder if I can get away with leaving out a sherry and mince pie for Santa?

Season’s greetings to you all.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

I beg your pardon?

At this time of year, attendance at my yoga classes is a bit hit and miss because everyone is so busy. Quite a few of my students are involved in education in some way, as teachers and support workers, parents and grandparents, so they are swamped with carol concerts and nativity performances. Others succumb to viruses or react adversely to the flu jab. Others still are simply overwhelmed. The irony is that this is when it is more important than ever to take a moment of stillness whenever we can, even if the only place that happens is when the queue at the checkout isn't moving.

But I've just had a phone call from one of my ladies to say she won't be at the class this afternoon. She had the best reason ever:

'Sorry I can't make it. I'm expecting some bull semen through the post.'

Anyone ever had a more bizarre apology?

Monday 17 December 2012

Agreeing terms - and a gift idea!

I don't mind a bit of jargon, but there's a time and a place. In specialist publications, where all the readers know what's what, I don't see anything wrong in reducing terms to acronyms appropriately and in my editorial work I come across this a lot. I know that CAGR means compound annual growth rate, that TPL is a third-party logistics provider, and that MOD TSF is the Ministry of Defence's Total Support Force. Fair enough.

I don't even mind people thinking outside the box. It conjures up an image of some brave soul poking his head out from the cardboard flaps to discover a whole new way of doing things. I quite like the idea of drilling down to get to the bottom of a problem. What I don't like, however, is made-up terms being used when there is already a perfectly good word for the job. Top five annoyances at the moment are:
  • The person being mentored is a protege, not a mentee
  • Those people at the conference are delegates, not attendees
  • You can grow a company from scratch, but from then on you expand it 
  • You can look to the future, but you can't look to appoint
  • You don't have to make a forecast going forward - there's nowhere else for a forecast to go
But there's a new annoyance, a buzzword that's all the rage in the world of transport: alliancing. This is what two or more companies are doing when they form an alliance - and there was me thinking that they were allying and had become allies.


Shameless plug alert!

If you get a minute, please pop across to the website of Silver Link Publishing and check out the latest book by Will Adams in the British Railways Past & Present series: Northamptonshire Part 1 South and West. I declare my interest here because Will is a good friend (though I have nothing to gain from sales of the book other than vicarious pleasure). This is a great book full of fab pictures and fascinating details. If you have a railway enthusiast in your circle who needs another book - and my experience of enthusiasts is that they can never have too many books - whether or not they know Northants (or someone with connections to the county but who isn't necessarily a railway buff), I can recommend this. Plug over.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

A hint of humbug?

Is the whole world losing its senses? I mean, I know it’s Christmas in a couple of weeks’ time and we all tend to act a little oddly at this time of year, but what is it about the whiff of pine needles that makes people lose all sense of proportion? I've just visited a local self-styled emporium, filled with seasonal wonders in the form of decorations, gifts, festive tableware and candles. And then there was the food.
Christmas Goose by Jan Pashley Art Print -
Displayed amid the handmade chutney and nets of walnuts was a tower of goose fat, which as any self-respecting modern cook knows is THE essential ingredient for roasting potatoes. Anything else simply won’t do. (Politeness prevents me from expressing my views on this.) 
Incredible though it seems, a 300g jar of this precious commodity was priced at £4.59. 
That’s £15.30 a kilogram. 
For fat.  
That’s just daft.

Friday 7 December 2012

A little bird tells me

One for sorrow...
I've just been disturbed from my work by the tap-tap-tap of a beak against my patio door. It seems I am a little late feeding the birds this morning, and Blacky is getting impatient.

The room at the back of my house where I work looks over the garden. I used to work at the front, but not only was it very chilly, but also I found I was forever going to the window to look into the street for the postman or just to have a nose. At the back of the house, my room faces south and gets all the sun. Even at this time of year I benefit from the 'solar heating' and if I wear a large-brimmed hat I don't have to draw the blinds to see my screen - although I did get a funny look from the window-cleaner this morning.

I've only got a small garden, but I like to put out food for the birds and get quite a variety of visitors: 'Trotty' wagtails are prevalent at the moment, plus the usuals - blackbirds, sparrows, finches (even goldfinches, when I remember to top up the niger seeds) and robins, too, of course. Excitingly, there is often a red kite hovering overhead. And am I the only person being invaded by magpies? Incidentally, one of the only things I ever learnt how to do in art classes at school was to draw a magpie, because it is simply a series of overlapping triangles.

...two for joy
I'm on the mailing list for the e-newsletter from the RSPB: 'Wild About Gardens', which this month has a link about a new BBC series that is look for people whose garden is a haven for wildlife. Sounds interesting - although I was alarmed to hear that: 'Outline Productions are making a new landmark series for BBC ONE about the perilous [sic]  state of Britain’s wildlife and what we can all do to help.'

It's a jungle out there.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Who am I today?

Life is a many stranded thing
We all wear different hats. I'm mother, wife, sister, auntie, daughter, friend (and perhaps enemy!), business colleague, fellow alto, yoga student, community busybody etc etc etc. Professionally, I also have multiple roles. One of the joys of being self-employed is that I can do lots of different things to earn a crust, but the two main threads are teaching yoga and word-wrangling. There is some cross-over between the two - I write for Om magazine and have just had an article published in the British Wheel of Yoga's journal, Spectrum, for instance - but I tend to promote them separately. I have a website for my yoga and place ads in local publications to publicise my classes; but I also have entries in business directories for my editorial stuff.

But it's getting complicated. My website has a contacts form that doesn't feature my email address, but nevertheless any enquiries are forwarded to my all-purpose Googlemail. I have this blog, which is, again, a multipurpose outlet for my writing but takes in whatever is on my mind at the time. I monitor my choir's email address (admin@) which is diverted to my personal one and am the fingers behind the choir's Twitter feed. I've also got a fairly idle Facebook account, but that is so I can look at stuff, rather than post it.

However, I've just uploaded a couple of stories to Ether books, a site from which folk can download stories (some free, some not) to be read on a mobile phone. (Thanks to the Literary Pig for the tip.) The site suggests social networking as a really good way to promote my stuff, which makes sense, given the target market. I can't be bothered with Facebook, and don't want to tweet personal trivia, but quite like the idea of having a 'Julia as writer' Twitter that I can just use for wordy news. But this means another account and, for simplicity and to reduce the risk of my posting details of a new writing competition to the choral music community, another email address.

Does this sound like a rational way to carry on?

Friday 23 November 2012

Who is liable?


Here's a thing for you to consider.

I've just drawn out £250 from the cash machine outside the Santander branch where I hold an account. I then went straight to HSBC to pay the same notes into my account there.

The HSBC machine clicked and whirred and then spat out a receipt for £230, with a message  that one suspected counterfeit note had been detected and retained. The staff in the branch confirmed that the note would be examined and that if it was indeed a phony I would lose the £20. Whoever handles it last before it is detected is deemed to be guilty. This process will take a couple of weeks.

Needless to say I have rung Santander, who claim this has never happened before. Really? Does the bank check its notes before putting them in the ATMs, I wonder? If the HSBC machine was able to detect a fake note on the way in, surely the Santander system must also have similar technology in place.

Of course, it might turn out that the machine has made a mistake (surely not!). If, not, I'm sure that the good people of Santander will reimburse me (well, Rory in the call centre said they would, which is good enough for me).

The annoying thing is that if I'd queued up at the counter and handed the money over to a human, this problem wouldn't have arisen.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Seasonal flavour

Two-Tiered Tree Cupcakes
Life's too short...

Food does not feature high on my list of priorities. Yes, I like to eat good food, but going out for a meal holds no special appeal other than that it provides an opportunity to meet with friends for a good old natter. I like my dishes to be tasty, nutritious and good value, but faffing about with jus and reductions is, to my mind, a complete waste of time.

So I’m not reading all the advice that is already forthcoming on how to make stuffing balls, create filo parcels or decorate cupcakes with greengrass icing for that perfect edible Christmas tree.

My one major concession to the mythical homemade Christmas is mincemeat and, if I’m honest, it’s my husband who makes it, not me. I’m allowed to join in with the peeling, slicing and dicing of the apples, but measuring and mixing the other ingredients, including, like Colonel Sanders, his own secret blend of spices, is strictly his domain. And very good at it he is, too. All this takes place in October, when the apple harvest is in full swing. He makes a huge vat of the stuff, which he leaves to mature in a cool, dark corner of the house, occasionally stirring and tasting it, perhaps tweaking the flavour slightly. Eventually it's ready to be transferred into jars.

(At this point I should mention a small detail: if you put cold mincemeat into hot sterilised jars and seal them immediately the mixture will expand and seep out through the lids to create an immovable sticky mess. Don’t ask me how I know: just trust me on this.)

Then, my husband will put into practice all his years of bakery training to create the lightest pastry ever to grace the palate and produce the finest batch of mincepies in the land. The first few dozen for this year are in the oven as I write, and the heavenly smell is driving me crazy.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Love your local radio station

BBC Radio Northampton 104.2FM 103.6FM

I know I'm going on about this, but my choir is performing in a concert on Saturday in aid of Help for Heroes. Not that it's filling my every waking moment. I sat up in bed with a start a couple of nights ago worrying about chaperones for the young performers. Then today, someone asked the perfectly reasonable question: 'Does the keyboard we are borrowing have a music stand?' I don't know; never thought to ask; put it on the list of things to sort out.

Getting publicity for the event has been challenging. Our formerly daily local paper is now weekly, so there is increased competition for space. With this in mind the choir decided for the first time ever to take out a paid-for advert to appear in last week's paper, giving readers 10 days to rush out and by their tickets. The paper took our money but didn't run the ad. Profuse apologies were forthcoming, and the ad is in tonight (twice, actually!), but that's not the point.

So local radio to the rescue. The fabulous team at BBC Northampton have mentioned us in several shows and I've been on air twice doing my Sixty-second Sell. So huge thanks to everyone in the mighty Abington Road studio for all their support.  

Friday 2 November 2012

Happy Anniversary

It is a year today since I started this blog. My 2011 diary records that 2 November was a Wednesday and it was National Stress Awareness Day. I seem to have spent the day working predominantly on editorial stuff and then taught a yoga class in the evening. Well, the editorial client is still with me and my yoga class continues to flourish. So has anything changed?

Workwise the balance has shifted slightly. I now doing much more teaching and less editing; but my actual writing has picked up and I've had some modest successes here and there. Domestically, one son has moved out, the other has left school and is a student/drummer. The lizard is no longer with us, but we still have two tanks of fish (notwithstanding that we had to do an emergency transfer of one lot the other day when a small but potentially fatal leak was found in one aquarium).

Thank you for sticking with me. Here's to the next 12 months.

Thursday 1 November 2012

The last few days have been a bit up and down

The last few days have been a bit up and down.

I've been on BBC Radio Northampton promoting my choir's concert, which was exciting. It was for a slot called 'Sixty-second Sell', in which - you won't be surprised to learn - I was given exactly one minute to plug our forthcoming event. Naturally, being a Monica I rehearsed this with a stopwatch, so that I was able to say everything I needed to before the buzzer went.

Crouch End 1979 - see Best of British, October 2012 Copyright Julia Thorley
I've had a couple of writing successes, too. I've had something accepted for AlphaFit, which is a magazine given away free in gyms. I've also had a little something published in October's issue of Best of British - but I only know this because the editor emailed me for my address so he could send me my cheque. Sadly, I missed this issue, so if you've got it perhaps you'd let me know how it looks. In the November issue there is a letter referring to my piece, which is nice. (Ego starting to inflate.)

I've also been to The Yoga Show, where I finally got to meet the editor of Om magazine. He said some nice things about my column. (Ego getting bigger.)

But then the universe gave me a bit of a slap when one of my yoga contracts suddenly came to an end. I have been teaching in a health retreat and they have decided to shake up the timetable, which means no room for my yoga class. (Ego deflated.)

When my boys were little we had a Snakes & Ladders game where each climb up or slither down was connected with a proverb. As I write this I'm recalling the pictures for 'Pride cometh before a fall'.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Mange tout, mange tout!

My friends and I were putting the world to rights last night over a glass or two and a bowl of Twiglets, and the conversation ranged far and wide as it is wont to do whenever five opinionated women get together. One topic that came up was why it is so much harder to wrap your tongue around foreign words when you speak than when you sing. I don't mean understanding the words - essential to the former, but only desirable in the latter - but the actual mechanics of getting the sounds out.

I have a vague idea that somewhere I have been told that speech and music are controlled by different parts of the brain, and that stroke victims who can no longer talk properly can sometimes communicate by singing.

This chimed (sorry!) with an incident earlier in the week at choir practice. We are rehearsing hard for our forthcoming concert, at which we will be revisiting some of Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man. We performed the whole work earlier in the year and are reprising three sections, one of which is the opening chorus 'L'homme armee'. You see, it's in French.

Notwithstanding that we've sung this before, we are little rusty on the words, and it's quite fast, and I could feel the line running away with me. However, in the spirit of being a team player I battled on, but instead of singing 'Que chacun seviegne armer d'un haubregon de fer' what came out of my mouth was a fleeting reference to 'fruits de mer'. Fortunately only the altos either side of me heard this, but the three of us just couldn't stop laughing. Every time we thought we'd pulled ourselves together, one of us would splutter and off we'd go again.

I don't think we shall ever be able to sing this with a straight face again - which might be a problem when we take to the stage in two weeks' time...

Monday 22 October 2012

Where is everyone?

Malcolm Arnold
I've had a weekend of culture at the Malcolm Arnold Festival in Northampton. If you've heard of this composer at all, chances are you think of film music - St Trinian's, Bridge over the River Kwai, for example - but there is so much more to his repertoire. There's the nine symphonies for a start.

One of the key features of the weekend was the world premier of Arnold's opera The Dancing Master. Written in 1952 for the BBC, it was considered too bawdy and has only now received its first performance. I'll leave the critique to someone more qualified than I am. It was, shall we say, interesting.

Among the wide-ranging events were many performances by astonishing young musicians, not only from local choirs and orchestras, but also from further afield, including the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music. And I mean young: school age through to students in their 20s. But the audience was predominantly made up of the middle aged and beyond. So what happens in between? Where are the folk in their 30s and 40s?

If there is such interest amongst the youngsters, why isn't there a wider mix of ages in audiences for classical musical events? It doesn't seem to happen in other genres. At rock concerts generations mix well in the mosh pit, and the folk scene has every age group represented amongst audiences and performers. Nor do I just mean this particular festival. I've noticed it before elsewhere. It can't be lack of availability, because there are classical concerts in theatres, churches and village halls throughout the land. Is it a babysitting issue? Is it just pressures of modern life? Is it considered elitist?

Anybody have a theory?

Sunday 14 October 2012

Wedding bells

churchmainI had another of those 'never done that before' moments yesterday when I sang at a wedding. The church choir was down on numbers so one of its regulars, who is also a leading light in the choir I belong to, asked if a handful of us would go along and swell the ranks. So, first time singing at a wedding for someone I didn't know, and first time wearing a proper chorister's gown (rather a fetching blue).

And what a lovely do it was. Before the service started, the vicar did a bit of a warm-up act. It so happened that one of the children was celebrating his birthday, so the vicar got everyone to sing 'Happy Birthday' accompanied by the organist. That broke the ice nicely. Then he rehearsed the congregation with their 'lines'. He announced that after the bride and groom had made their vows and done the 'I do', he would be turning to the assembled family and friends to ask them if they would support the couple in the years ahead, and was expecting a loud and enthusiastic 'We do!' in reply. They were tentative at first, but a couple more attempts got the volume up, and when we reached that part in the service there was a glorious outpouring of love and support. Then later, his address consisted of a couple of jokes offering advice on what not to do in married life, which went down very well.

I'm not a big church-goer, but I enjoy the elements of community spirit it can provide. For instance, I think baptisms should be incorporated into a regular service in front of the whole 'flock' rather than sneaked into a private ceremony with a handful of guests. So while this wedding might not have suited the traditionalists, I thought it was lovely. Congratulations, Dave and Jan. We all wish you well.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Things I've learnt since my last post

Not sure where the pansy came from!
  • Those sad marigolds we liberated from the Asda bargain rack have been well worth the 10p they cost. 
  • It isn't possible to cut your own fringe and make a good job of it.
  • A washing machine will fit in the back of a Fiesta.
  • Indoor surfing is the best fun EVER. Check out Flow House here.
  • You can have too much of a good thing. Free cooking apples, anyone?
  • My 'baby' is now 19. How did that happen?
  • It is impossible to make a four-year-old boy join in with a yoga class at school if he has set against it.
  • Composer Benjamin Till, who wrote The London Requiem, is from Northamptonshire. 
  • White space is important on a page of poetry to give it shape.
  • I've been awarded a CheerReader commendation for my story 'Linda's Lucky Break'.

Thursday 4 October 2012

Venturing into Twitter

I've always said I didn't want to get involved with Twitter. However, I'm helping to promote a concert here in Kettering: 'A Musical Salute' in aid of Help for Heroes. For the first time, we are trying to fill a proper theatre, rather than performing in a church, which our usual style. This means we have to draw in a crowd of over 600 - not scary at all!

The lovely people at Help for Heroes said that if I were to tweet the details of the concert, they would retweet it far and wide. As is so often the case, I said I could do that - and then had to go and find out how. Fortunately, I have an 18-year-old to hand who was able to give me a whistlestop tour around the inner workings of Twitter and before you could say 'hashtag' I was up and running. @KettCamerata, if you're interested.

I can quite see how people become obsessed by this medium. The temptation to keep looking 'just in case anything has happened' is quite strong, but I must remember that I'm doing this on behalf of the choir and mustn't get sucked into following David Tennant or other such lovelies.

Monday 1 October 2012

Thinking time

Marcus Brigstocke is my new favourite philosopher. I’m reading his book God Collar and have concluded that he is one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking writers I’ve come across in a long while. This might surprise you if you’ve only heard him do a quick rant on Radio 4 or seen him play King Arthur in Spamalot, but honestly, it’s brilliant.

On Friday, I had the rare luxury of being able to sit and read for pleasure for over an hour without interruption. I wasn’t in the most comfortable of places, but the book is so absorbing that I soon forgot I was sitting on the kitchen steps in an empty house.

God CollarTo explain: I was on duty for my son, waiting for a delivery to his new home, while he and his housemate were loading up a van elsewhere. For a bargain price he had bought a bed, fridge, freezer and TV table from the British Heart Foundation shop. Have you ever been in one of their big branches? I’m not talking about the regular, slightly fusty shops where you can buy a floppy t-shirt, a well-thumbed paperback or a pre-owned Toby jug, but the shiny outlets that sell electrical goods and furniture. They should be your first port of call next time you need something for your home.

Anyway, the delivery was made on time and with a smile, and my boy and his friend have moved in without too much difficulty. Well, there was a sticky moment when we thought the boiler didn’t work, but it turns out you have to switch in on first. Doh! And there was that unfortunate incident when the slightly-too-big sofa was mauled down the hallway and took the front door handle with it, but it was nothing that a trip to B&Q couldn’t resolve.

So now the discussions are underway as to what we do with his vacated room in the family home. I quite fancy soft colours and mood lighting to create a haven for a spot of yoga and meditation; husband thinks that with some staging it would be a great place for starting off seedlings, what with all that lovely natural light; while our remaining homebound son thinks it the ideal place to store spare guitars, amps and other musical paraphernalia. I suspect I shall need to apply all my philosophical reasoning if I am to win the day.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Home work

Grey heron in flight
Flying the nest
Not for the first time, I'm very glad today that I work from home. As I look out on to the street I can see my neigbours battling against the Winnie-The-Pooh weather (a blustery day - see?) and I'm SO glad I'm not on my way to the station to stand shivering on platform 4 waiting for a train to London. All I have to do is mumble my way into the room at the back of the house overlooking my garden (a heron has just flown by!) and I'm at work.

There are other advantages, too. For instance, it was very convenient that yesterday I was here to let in the washing-machine repair man without having to negotiate time off. I'll spare you the details, but at the moment I have two machines in my kitchen, neither of which is working. I'm also able to juggle my hours so that if I get a better offer during the day I can go out with a clear conscience as long as I work in the evening. My clients don't know when I've done the job; they're just know that I get it done on time.

It's particularly useful to be around during the day this week, because my son is moving out on Friday and I've been given permission to release my inner control freak and help with the logistics of packing, paperwork and general organising. I'm in my element. I just hope I can rein in my enthusiasm at the weekend and don't try to arrange his furniture in his new home.

Thursday 20 September 2012

Lazy, lazy writer

I'm REALLY busy this week, so I haven't got time to write another 'proper' post. Here is a picture of a comedy potato: please devise your own amusing text.

Monday 17 September 2012

Losing the plot

Our neighbours 'wildlife garden'

One hot topic amongst the allotment holders in our field this summer has been what to do about those of our number who seem to have given up and whose plots, so lovingly tended at first, have run to seed. Where there should be rows of beans and sweetcorn are swathes of nettles, thistles and other nasties, just waiting for the right moment to take flight and infect our beds. It’s just not fair, but there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done.

By the path divided
I remember my dad taking a flame gun to tenacious weeds in our orchard. Dangerous, possibly, but highly effective. Well, I’d like to do the same to the plot next to us, which threatens to engulf us any minute - but there are probably rules against that.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Five things I suck at

You might think that drawing up a list of things I can't do is a bad idea. The yogi in me tries to think positively and I tell my students about the benefits of positive affirmation.

But following a post on Fusion Massage + Movement blog (which in turns picked up this idea elsewhere - you can backtrack for yourself, should you so wish), I've decided it's an interesting exercise.

So, here are five things I suck at:

1. Sewing - anything that needs resources other than some strong glue or a discreet staple won't get fixed by me.
2. Travelling abroad - just can't be bothered, don't even have a passport.
3. Rock climbing - this frustrates me, because I really want to be able to do, but I get so far of the ground and then stop.

My favourite footwear

4. Wearing high heels - I simply don't have the poise.
5. Keeping my nails tidy - I don't nibble them, but they split, or I catch them on something, or they suffer from fallout at the allotment.

How about you?

Tuesday 11 September 2012

What a nice surpise!

How to keep your whiskers dry
This morning's post has brought me a cheque from Real People magazine in payment for a little filler piece I submitted in January. I'd forgotten I'd written it, but my filing system is so 'Monica' that I was able to look back and find what it was: an item for 'Tim's Treasure' about a moustache cup. Just goes to show you should never give up hope!

Monday 10 September 2012

Ticket to ride

I went to a birthday bash yesterday. I'm not sure how it can be right that one of closest friends is now 60, when I am still so very young, but nevertheless that was the occasion.

Dining in style
Will is a railway enthusiast, so to mark his special day a coach-load of us went on a Dining Car Excursion on a vintage steam-hauled train courtesy of the Great Central Railway. The 16-mile return journey took us from Loughborough to Leicester North station and back, pausing on the bridge across picturesque Swithland Reservoir to admire the views of the Leicestershire countryside.

Setting the mood
I'm not a steam engine buff, but it would be a hard heart that wasn't moved by the sight of one of these mighty beasts: and the smell! It makes everyone nostalgic for bygone days, whether or not they are actually old enough to remember them. It was all very Agatha Christie.

So we dined in style in a luxurious Pullman carriage. The food was cooked actually on the train, not imported in huge vats to be reheated, and it was delicious.The drink flowed, the talking never stopped and a good time was had by all. Cheers, Will!

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Parallel lines

I'm pretty good at making decisions. I'm not saying I necessarily make the right decision, but I'm not one of those people who agonises for weeks about every little choice and then spends just as long afterwards worrying whether or not I've done the right thing. Weigh up the pros and cons, decide, move on.
Crouch End Broadway, 1979
But I've been writing an article about leaving home and looking for a flat in London in the late 1970s. Long story short: I ended up in a bedsit in Crouch End, which was at the time a cheap option but is now very desirable. Across the way from where I lived was a small block of one-bedroom flats, newly renovated and on the market for £20,000. No, I haven't missed off a zero: £20,000.

Why didn't I buy one? Because I was having too much fun, spending ridiculous sums of money of records, concert tickets, taxis home from the Music Machine in Camden Town, patchouli oil and black eye-liner. I didn't want a mortgage!

But if I'd bought it, stayed 10 years and then moved to the Midlands, would I be rich now? Perhaps. But would I have married the same man? If not, does that mean that my two lovely sons would never have existed? Which lives would I have touched and which would have passed me by?

I am where I am now because of the choices I have made. But is there another 'me' somewhere who never left London, and who pursued a career in public relations and never went to a yoga class?

Too much philosophy for this early in the day. But it makes you wonder.

Thursday 30 August 2012

Happy New Year!

The September issue of Om Yoga & Lifestyle magazine landed here this morning. I mention this because my new column is there on the back page. (The lady pictured, delightful though she is, isn't me.)

Summer blooms are fading
September seems like a good month to launch into a new venture, because I've always thought it feels more like a new year than January does. It might be because there is a definite change in the seasons between summer and autumn, whereas December/January is winter whichever side of the divide you're on. However, I suspect it's more to do with it being the turn of the academic year.

Not that this matters to me any more. For the first time since forever, this is no longer the end of the summer holidays, but simply the end of the summer. My younger son has scooped some satisfactory A-level results, but isn't going on to university, choosing instead to study for two music-related diplomas on a distance learning basis, while working as a drum teacher and performer.

 I reckon that's a good excuse to raise a glass and celebrate a Happy New Year!

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Rock on!

Number Two Son is off to Reading Festival this weekend. He is really excited and I'm really envious.

You wouldn't think it to look at me now but I've served my time under canvas in muddy fields: Reading, Knebworth, Milton Keynes, Donington, Port Vale (yes, the football ground - saw Motorhead and Ozzy there!). Oh yes, I was quite the rock chick.

NTS was finding it hard to imagine his respectable parents rocking out, so I've been digging through the photo albums to find some proof (these are from 1978).
Striking a pose. Check out those flares - and the cars!
Good times!

Looking back has in a strange way reassured me about the safety aspects of his impending adventure. In my day, we would take flags into the arena mounted on dangerous, pointed sticks so that we could locate our friends again after the expedition to the toilet or beer tent. Today NTS will simply text his mates if they get separated. (Apparently there are phone charging points at Reading, would you believe.)

We drank whatever we wanted from whatever container we wanted, whereas these days there is no glass in the arena (and I know that this is partly so that they can sell beer at inflated prices inside, but it's still safer) and there's free water for all.

We pitched our tents in a circle and had a communal bonfire, and used Primus stoves to heat up dodgy sausages.
Rockin' to the Tygers of Pan Tang
We squashed together as close to the front as we could get, danced and sang (and who knows what else!) with strangers - and had a fabulous time doing it.

We left all our stuff in our tents and never had anything stolen; NTS will be able to available himself of a locker (!) and the police are giving out free lanyards to keep phones and wallets safe.

He and his mates will have a great weekend, whatever the weather, and I won't fret about him at all while he's away. Honest.

Friday 17 August 2012

Flash post

A Matalan brochure has just landed on my door mat, featuring details of this
'iconic blouse'. Must remember to genuflect.

Wednesday 15 August 2012


One of the many things about parenthood that no one warns you of is that no matter how old your sons become, you will always have the urge to mother them.

My two 'boys' are technically adults now, but circumstances mean they are still living in the family home, which is lovely; but it does mean I have had to train myself to make vague, general enquiries, like, 'Will you be eating with us this evening?', rather than to give voice to what I'm actually thinking: Where are you going? Who with? What are you going to do when you get there? Will it be safe and legal? When will you be back? What will you do about food? Have you got your wallet/keys/phone? and, most damning of all, Don't forget to go to the toilet before you leave.

I know I'm controlling, but I'm trying hard not to be. Then this morning I thought I'd had a breakthrough. It was almost lunchtime and I was working away at my computer when I got a text from my first born:

'Hey, just letting you know I'm OK. Crashed at a mates last night. CU later. xx'

I went upstairs and tapped on his bedroom door. Not surprisingly, there was no reply. I had assumed a closed door meant he was still slumbering, but hadn't felt the need to check. A triumph in my battle to untie the apron strings!

But then I started to picture a different scene:

A weary policeman leans towards me over the desk. 'Are you telling me,' he says, 'that you didn't even realise your son was missing? What kind of mother are you?'

 Oh dear. Something else to feel bad about.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Bending and stretching in the sun

I had a lovely morning on Friday when I went to teach yoga at a nearby day nursery. It was sunny, so we went out into the garden, took our shoes and socks off and just went for it. One of the great things about this nursery is that the children are allowed, nay, encouraged to go outside and get dirty. They even have a tree specially for climbing!

The children were 3 and 4-year-olds and FULL of energy, and questions, and ideas  - and did I mention energy?
I have found that story-telling works well with yoga for tots, where it's more about making shapes and exploring what our bodies can do than anything po-faced and spiritual. Mind you, at the very end I did manage to get them to sit still and quiet by asking them to focus on Shanti's nose. Shanti is my yoga bear, pictured above.

I felt very virtuous because I cycled there and back - only about 25 minutes each way, so Victoria Pendleton doesn't have anything to worry about, but not bad for an old bird. I'm a bit of a fair-weather cyclist and don't exploit the full gear range on my bike. It has 15, but I only use the middle three or four. It's like my washing machine, which has dozens of programmes and permutations, but I only ever use 30-degree wash, woolly wash and spin; and my microwave, which I only use when I really have to, because I don't trust it. (Who said, 'Luddite'?)

Wednesday 8 August 2012

World Book Night 2013

Earlier this year I was one of the people picked to give away 24 copies of a book in honour of World Book Night. I chose Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Well, the organisers have announced that two of this year’s givers will be invited to join the independent editorial committee and be part of the group that chooses the World Book Night 2013 titles.

Copyright Julia Thorley
To apply - and of course I'm going to - I have to come up with my Top Ten favourite books and then write 100 words on why one of them should be picked for next year’s event. But what to choose?

Do I include Wuthering Heights, a book where nothing happens, twice, but that never fails to move me to tears? Do I go for something clever by Howard Jacobson, or something more mainstream (but no less clever) by Terry Pratchett? Do I stick with the classics - Dickens, Hardy, Defoe - or come bang up to date with Zadie Smith? I don't want to look pretentious, but I do want the committee to believe that I know what I'm talking about. Any suggestions?

Whatever I decide, though, it's a good excuse to spend a couple of hours trawling through my bookshelves and revisiting some old favourites.

Monday 6 August 2012

Can you feel the force?

I've been thinking about energy. There can surely be no doubt that the support of the GB fans has played a huge part in the ever increasing medal tally. The sportsmen and women competing at Eton's  Dorney Lake, for instance, have all spoken of the crowd as being an extra person in the boat. The positive energy generated by the shouting, cheering, flag waving, jumping up and down and general joy is tangible. (Sadly for the opposition I imagine it must be like swimming against the tide - especially for those who have been up against Rebecca Adlington, ha, ha).

Copyright Julia Thorley

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in Northampton with an hour or so to kill while I waited for my son to take his Grade 8 drum exam. (Yes, he passed, thanks for asking.) So I ambled over to All Saints' Church, which has a lovely little cafe inside that extends out on to the steps. This is the place where poet John Clare used to sit and write, in one of the little alcoves beside the door. In my picture, it has a potted shrub in it.

Anyway, whether it was the fact that I was forced to sit and ponder for a while or whether it was John Clare's energy I can't be sure; but while I sat I came up with ideas for a short story, a couple of possible magazine articles and a book - as well, of course, as this blog entry. Whatever the reason, I came home feeling inspired. I'll let you know if anything comes of this burst of creativity.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Don't call me Four-Eyes

Every now and then I have a incident that causes me to reflect: 'I'll use this when I write my sit-com.' One such incident occurred today: at ten past five this morning to be precise.

My dearly beloved tiptoed around to my side of the bed to kiss me goodbye before he set off to work. Well, I say tiptoed, but actually he fell over my discarded clothes and went tumbling into my bedside table, dislodging a teetering pile of books and sundry items, including, as it transpired two hours later, my specs.

As usual, I managed to go straight back to sleep after he had left, not waking until my alarm went off at seven-ish. Flailing around in my shortsightedness, I was perturbed not to be able to find my glasses, but after much squinting and carpet-patting I found them and put them on - at which point I realised that while one arm fitted snugly over my right ear, the other was heading up towards my left eyebrow. I deduced that my poor glasses must have been injured in the earlier commotion and come up against  a size 11 workboot.

Not that I said any of this to the patient lady at the opticians. 'How did it happen?' she enquired. 'Oh, you know,' I replied. 'Just life.'

Monday 30 July 2012

A new F-word!

Just happen to have a sabre and a foil!
I'm probably not alone in enjoying the word 'flunge', which has surfaced in the Olympics fencing commentary. It's a sort of forward lunge thingy ( f + lunge?) that allows you to cover a lot of space between you and your opponent as you advance with your sabre. One fencing website helpfully defines it as: 'A fleche without the crossover'. So now I've got to look up 'fleche': it's the longest extension a fencer's body can make, in case you're interested.

I'm proofreading a financial text at the moment and came across the word 'fungible'. Surely, I thought, that must be a typo? But no: it's a real word, meaning: 'interchangeable, exchangeable for something similar'. Good to know.

But below that my eye was caught by 'fungo: in baseball a ball struck high into the air for fielders to practise catching'. Scanning through the page I also saw 'furan', 'furbish' (what you do before you refurbish, I suppose) and 'furibund'. You could lose many an hour bouncing from one definition to the other.

Family legend has it that my late uncle - no mean writer - spent much of his childhood reading the dictionary for fun. That must be where I get it from.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Pork pie triumph

When my husband does the supermarket shop on his own, two things generally result: it costs more than when I do it, but we get nicer food. On his last trip, however, he came back without his habitual weekend pork pie treat, declaring that all those on the shelves were - well, I can't tell you what he said, but it wasn't very complimentary.

What he did bring home, though, was the wherewithal to make his own. All those years in the bakery trade come in useful in such crisis times. I was banished from the kitchen, while he put on his pinny and wielded his rolling-pin.
Ninety minutes later he revealed a pie of such beauty and majesty that it brought a tear to my eye! It wasn't one of those picnic-size morsels; no, this was a full-on 2lb example, with a hand-crimped crust decorated with pastry leaves.

'Leave it to cool,' I said, 'then I'll take a picture of it for my blog.'

Unfortunately I got distracted and by the time I went back with my camera the teenage hordes had been at. Even so, I think you can see from this picture that it really was a prince of pies. I have decided he can stay for at least another week.

Monday 23 July 2012

Boy genius?

There's an interesting tale on the website of my local paper, Northants Telegraph:

'When young entrepreneur Crawford Johnston came up with the idea of his Creative Writing Magic Money Cards he thought it would help him understand English grammar. Now, his cards, designed to help nine to 15-year-olds improve their creative writing skills, are being used by pupils across the country and have won praise from the National Union of Teachers’ magazine The Teacher and the Times Educational Supplement.'

Crawford is 14. Read his story here. I have no connection to this boy, nor have I seen the cards; I just thought it was a good story.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Going for Gold!

Well, folks, it’s nearly here. The Games of the XXX Olympiad are almost upon us – and much to my surprise I find that I’m kind of looking forward to it. I’m still appalled at the huge sums of money that have been spent – and in some cases wasted – and as for the G4S fiasco, words fail me. And yet, and yet…

A couple of weeks ago I stood in the rain to watch the Olympic flame go by. Actually I saw it twice, because it had a lunchtime stopover in our town, so I watched it arrive, popped into a café for a latte and a pecan Danish, repositioned myself at the other end of the town and watched the circus leave.

Despite myself, I was quite moved by the whole experience. There was a lovely atmosphere on the streets and thanks to the wonders of technology we were given real-time updates of the torch’s progress, until finally someone shouted: ‘It’s two minutes away!’ Then we all got very excited, even cheering the forward guard of policemen and support vehicles.

Certainly the sponsors weren’t backwards in coming forwards and the advertising element was a bit in your face – but I suppose I can’t complain about public money being spent and then grumble when commercialism steps in to help. Funding has to come from somewhere.

As to the events themselves – and let’s not forget that this is a sports competition, and not just a massive opportunity to showcase London as the tourist destination of choice – well, I can’t be doing with all the strutting and fretting that goes with the track and field, and based on the GB football team’s first outing the other night I don’t think there’ll be much there to captivate me. I’ve had enough of tennis for a while and I don’t understand the rules of quite of a lot of what’s on offer.

But I heard an interesting radio programme about some of the less well-publicised events and that has whetted my appetite. For instance, water polo sounds like it might be worth a look-in; and no doubt there’ll be back stories and tales of personal triumph that bring a tear to the eye.

So I won’t be glued to the telly for the whole extravaganza, but I shall definitely watch some of it. And I honestly want it all to go well. I want the transport system to work, the security to be effective but unobtrusive, the stadiums to be full and I want the sun to shine. And I really want Bradley Wiggins to win gold.

Friday 13 July 2012

'Somewhere over the rainbow'

It's not been the best of days. My much anticipated tax bill has arrived. Then just before 5pm all the electricity in the house went off. And there was me mid article! Grrr. I'd also got my tea cooking. But I re-set the fuse thingy in the kitchen cupboard, checked that the cooker had come back on and went back to work.

An hour later, tastebuds tingling at the prospect of a tasty meal my hopes were dashed when it became clear that what had caused the power to fail was the withdrawal of labour on the part of the heating element in the oven. So no tea, then. Just the prospect of an expensive phone call to the repair man.
Copyright Julia Thorley 2012

On the other hand, just look at this fantastic picture that I took out of my bedroom window. How cool is that?

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Release your inner geek!

Our older son is back home at the moment but a move is imminent, so he has been having a bit of a clear-out. In the depths of what used to be the 'toy cupbard' (a long time ago, I should add, since he is now 23) he has unearthed boxes and boxes - and boxes and boxes - of Warhammer 40000 models and ephemera. This is a tabletop miniature wargame set in a dystopian science-fantasy universe. It involves building teeny figures and painting them to create various armies of fabulous creatures and then battling them in line with complicated rules, all set out in various codexes and dependent on the role of a dice. It is, apparently, great fun, if a little expensive. Over the years, we must have spent hundreds of pounds in Games Workshop.

Warhammer 40,000: RulebookChatting with some of his friends about his impending disposal of his brave soldiers, they decided to get together for one last battle for old time's sake. Somewhat predictably he is now reconsidering his decision to get rid of all his stuff. Not only that, but when I came home from teaching last night he and his younger brother (who is also old enough to know better) were sprawled on the floor in deep concentration, gluing and painting Citadel Miniatures, bless 'em.

A change of plan means that they have decided to get rid of some models, but to keep others. They do, after all, have some young cousins who might be interested in playing at some point.

I'm secretly quite pleased about this development. There is plenty of time to be a boring grown-up, and it's really important that we hold on to our inner child and have something in our lives to be passionate about. 'Put away childish things'? I don't think so; not yet, anyway.

Sunday 8 July 2012

What a week!

This week has flown by. I've haven't known if it was half-past two or Good Friday, as someone once said. 

Monday's Olympic Torch trip went well. In the end I saw it twice, once at either end of the town. I decided not to take any pictures because I can either look at what's going on or record it for posterity. Whether this is because my digital camera doesn't necessitate my looking through a viewfinder, which makes me feel disconnected, or whether I'm just stupid is for others to say. (No money earned today - too busy to work!)

Tuesday was taken up with 'discussions' with Virgin about my erratic broadband service, ferrying sons about and last-minute choir rehearsals for Sunday's performance - see below. (Also managed to squeeze in some teaching and some editorial work.)

Wednesday: So it rained again. My poor gooseberries have taken a hammering, so I dashed out between showers to scoop up what fruit I could, then turned it into jam (with some strawberries), some crumbles and shoved some in the freezer. Proper domestic goddess. Also, having missed Zumba on Monday I went today instead. Found myself volunteering to be part of a demonstration troupe at a forthcoming village fete. Oo-er! (More words subbed and more yoga taught.)

Thursday: I've got a new column! Having written regular features for OM yoga & lifestyle magazine, I am to become a monthly columnist. My first will appear in the September issue. (More words, more yoga.)

Friday: Worked flat out day - the tax man cometh at the end of the month. (Sad face.)

Saturday: All day at the allotment. Can't work out why all the runner beans we planted have disappeared without trace. Replacement seedlings have been installed. Saw five magpies sitting in a row on the shed of the adjacent plot. Anyone for silver?

Sunday: Supportive family members arrived from up north to come and hear my choir sing, bless 'em. A good time was had by all - no doubt enhanced by the provision of some fabulous cake.

I'm going to loosen my stays and have a BIG glass of wine now. Night, all.

Monday 2 July 2012

Least Exotic Marigold Pot

Ever with an eye for a gardening bargain, we picked up a tray of bedding plants in Asda the other day that had been reduced to just 10p.
Admittedly one of them was dead and another didn't look as though it had a lot of life, but we've crossed our fingers, sprinkled some optimism into the compost and transplanted them into a 14-inch tub. They look better already, so I hope I shall be able to post a picture of a splendid display later in the month!

And speaking of optimism, I'm off into town in a moment to watch the Olympic Torch Relay pass through. It's raining, but I'm sure it'll brighten up in a minute. I'm listening to local radio, where the presenters are doing a great job of keeping energy levels high. Apparently there are thousands of folk lining the streets, so I'd better get a wiggle on.

Thursday 28 June 2012

Proofreading test - not!


I was interrupted a few moments ago by a text from my son's school. He has finished all his A-level exams and has to go in tomorrow to sign off officially. This is the text:

Your son needs to come in at 10.00am tomorrow and sign off. They must return all books, cd's etc, as well as, ID badges and landyards, keys & passes.

So few words, so many errors. My son says I'm like the Grammar Nazi Party and that there are more important things to worry about. Perhaps he's right; but this text was sent by the woman who is head of the Sixth Form and she is an English teacher.

Abandon hope...

Monday 25 June 2012

Have you had your daily llama?

Llama Oscar - stud male
What are you looking at?

With a group of friends, I took a lovely ramble through the south Northants countryside yesterday. We'd had torrential rain overnight so I was half-expecting it to be called off, but at the last minute the clouds parted and out came the sun. So there I was, ambling through a little piece of rural idyll, wild flowers all around, kites and buzzards soaring overhead and a llama at my side.

Yes, that's right, a llama. We were visiting Catanger Farm for a spot of llama trekking. I had envisaged a gentle stroll with a beautiful, docile animal beside me, in keeping with the publicity leaflet’s promise of ‘the perfect way to de-stress’. Well, it was a lovely morning, but thanks to the standing water up to my knees, shoulder-high wet grass, tenacious mud and borrowed wellies a size too big, it was actually quite challenging.

Llamas are incredible, ridiculous creatures. Perfectly adapted for life at high altitude, they have two expressions: startled and bewildered. I’d sum them up as jittery but harmless. They have no top teeth to bite with and their soft-pad feet don’t have hooves, so while a kick might take you by surprise it’s not going to break your leg. Yes, they spit when they’re angry – but who doesn’t! The only noise they make is a nervous-sounding hum.

So after an introductory talk, nine of us set off on a two-hour walk under mercifully blue skies with five llamas between us, taking it in turns to lead them – and sometimes to be led by them. Once you’ve got the hang of it they’re pretty easy to steer, but I must confess that at one point I let go of my llama Indigo and he bounced off into a field of rape from which only the tips of his ears protruded.

The whole experience was rather surreal, but I'd definitely recommend it as a different way of recharging your batteries.

Friday 22 June 2012

Free-to-enter competition

The A.Vogel Story Competition logoI've had an email today from 'Your Healthy Living' promoting its new competition: 'Write a short story for bedtime' - details here. With no entry fee and a first prize of £500 that's got to be worth a go.

Trouble is, I've got a lot of 'proper' work on at the moment. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad to be busy. But I always seem to get lots of ideas for other things to be doing the moment the phone starts ringing or projects land in my email inbox. I must prioritise.

One thing that has taken up a lot of time today is a series of, shall we say, conversations with the Customer Service bods at Phones 4U. I'll spare you the grizzly details, suffice to say that it's amazing how obliging people can be when you ask to be put through to the Cancellations Department.

I'm singing in a concert later on today: 'Music For a Summer's Evening'. Pity we haven't got the weather to match. Think of me shivering in the church, fa-la-la-ing my heart out!

Wednesday 20 June 2012

What's on your CV?

Cheers, Norm!
A potential client asked to see my CV the other day. This threw me. Most of the work I do is freelance assignments that have come my way by word of mouth: perhaps an editor I have worked with will be approached to do a job he doesn’t have time for – or just doesn’t fancy – and passes it on to me. I can’t remember the last time anyone asked to see my credentials.

So it was a good excuse to look over what I’ve done and to update my records. I have two versions of my CV. One has on it everything that I have ever done, all the way back to the schools I attended. No one is ever going to want to know that, of course, but I might be glad it’s written down somewhere when my memory starts to go – or perhaps – ahem – I’ll become famous enough for someone to want to write my biography and they might be glad of the basics.

I’ve also got a shorter version that outlines all the publishing and word-related jobs I’ve done over the years. These days you need a relevant degree to get into publishing, but I sneaked in through the back door. I was secretary to an editor in a company producing part works. Did you ever collect recipe cards that were delivered by the postman in handy monthly instalments? Chances are they came from Odhams Leisure, and that’s where I first picked up a red pen. When my boss left, I took over her job and found that my nitpicking approach to spelling and punctuation, combined with an inherent desire to control everything around me, made me a born editor.

I’ve never looked back. I’ve worked on all manner of topics, from motor racing to crochet, from gardening to steam engines. If only I’d retained everything I’d read, I’d be a shoe-in on The Million Pound Drop! Sadly, although I’m fully immersed in the subject while I’m doing the job, as soon as it’s done I forget most of it.

I suppose it was inevitable that I should gravitate towards writing my own stuff. My CV records that I once wrote something for a magazine published by the Diocese of Peterborough. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was! I’ve also compiled crosswords, some cryptic or general knowledge, but others for marketing use or company magazines, including on the themes of Shakespeare, Lincolnshire - and yoghurt. Never let it be said that I’m not versatile!

It’s been good to take a walk down memory lane. When I left school I had no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to end up. Now here I am, broadcasting over the internet – which we didn’t even have when I set off on my work life journey. As Fatboy Slim put it, ‘You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby’.