Friday, 29 December 2017

Book Group Envy

I recently received proof that Carenza is a proper grown up lady. For some mums this would have happened when their daughter turned twenty-one, for others when she started work.
But for me it was when she announced that she and her girlfriends had formed a book group.

I admired their maturity and applauded their first choice - The Power by Naomi Alderman.

But then I saw a photo of them.

Why doesn't my book group look like this?

I have begun to experience Book Group Envy.
On the bright side, we have superior life experience....and weight. And volume.

Not sure whether these are the criteria by which one is supposed to judge a successful book group but they are certainly qualities which I shall henceforth be promoting.
Card seen in Oxfam.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

How to get straight to the top without New Year Resolutions

Feeling slightly seedy after Christmas feasting, we are easy prey for the New Year’s Resolution.

We will make a promise to eat less/exercise more/ read improving literature/ take up fretwork.

The aim is to become better people.
The result will be that most of the forthcoming year will be clouded with a nebulous sense of failure.

So I’m asking you to think first.
There is a simpler way of doing this.

Next time you are ordering something on the Internet, or registering for an organisation, take a look at their drop-down list of titles – some of them contain the full range of options, from Ms to Viscountess.
You can select any one you like – the cursor does not contain a lie detector.

I sometimes choose Brigadier – to have attained such heights without serving a distinguished career in the army!
Then the person delivering my package will look at me with respect, for in their eyes, I am a brigadier.

The only time I regretted it was when we moved house and I lost some Tate tickets I had ordered months before.  Sue and I arrived at the ticket desk where I was confident I could explain myself:
“I bought two tickets in the name of Clare Hobba…”
“Nope – no record of a purchase in that name.”
Sue and I exchanged a worried glance – we had both travelled in specially.
I tried Nigel’s name and even my middle name, but they still did not recognise my purchase.
Finally, the woman squinted at me sternly:
“You didn’t call yourself Princess Cynthia Hobba did you?”
“Erm.  Yes.  That was very likely me.”
“What is your address?”
Dimly, I gave my current address – not the previous one from which I’d ordered the tickets.
More stern staring, even after I’d explained.
“I’m very sorry I gave a false name.  I shall never do it again.”

“Nor a false title, nor a false address…” muttered Sue in the background.

Monday, 25 December 2017

God With Us

At Christmas, we have only two firm family traditions.
On Christmas Eve we attend the beautiful sung evensong at St Albans Abbey – or The Annual Festival of Coughing, as we call it.
On Christmas morning we go to our own church, St Luke’s.

At quiet moments in the services I pray for people I know who are sad, ill or bereaved.  Then I move on to considering the year ahead and praying that God be with us.

And this year, I have already received a blessing.
Let me tell you the story:

This morning we attended our church.  SO MANY people we knew were there for Christmas.  And so were their children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles. 
We circulated around the church to exchange the handshake of peace with everybody. 

We processed up in front of everybody to receive communion.
Then back again.  
In front of everybody.

But it was not until I got home that the pants which had been caught up my trousers in the wash fell out onto the floor.

As I say – a blessing.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Not too Christmassy

We always had a Christmassy outing with the children.  We have continued, but sometimes I miss their youthful awe and excitement.

The train into London was packed with families.  Nigel, Pascoe, Carenza and I were split up down the carriage. (Perran was arriving later.)  Two toddlers, high on tic-tacs, were clambering over my knees.  
Their dad said,
“We’re going to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park.  It’s cost us a fortune.”
In his eyes, mingled hope and defeat.  Wonderland could never match up to their anticipation. 
And probably one of the kids would be sick.
If not all of them.

Our own day centred round the very grown-up play about the IRA, The Ferryman, by Jez Butterworth.

Beforehand we visited the free exhibition of Degas drawings at the National Gallery, then grabbed an Itsu. 

Nigel was on map duty and we even had the experience of walking through a narrow ally full of sex shops and adult bookshops – not something we had previously included in our family Christmas outing.  But apparently, the most direct route between Itsu and the Gielgud Theatre.

Then the riveting, enthralling play.

After the play, we went to Freud’s for a cocktail or two and Dan joined us.  I enjoyed the banter over my virgin mojito.

On the way home on the Tube, we watched a Mummy imploring her three very young children to stop licking the train windows.  
"They may be dirty."  
She was clearly a master of understatement.

And I was glad after all to be missing out on the traditional finale to the Christmas outing - rushing home to wrestle weepy small children into bed. 
Carenza with the Kings Cross Christmas Tree

Monday, 18 December 2017

Where Lost Balloons Go

Months ago I began to photograph lost balloons.

I didn't really know why.

They don't seem very photogenic.

But each one carries a story we shall never fully know.

Once they were part of somebody's plan for jollity.
But they slipped from captivity and escaped into the wild blue yonder.
Only to discover that the waiting world was hostile.

Although maybe the balloons that I come across are a biased sample - the ones that didn't get away.
Perhaps others are bobbing happily together high in the ether.
I'd like to think so.

However, on Saturday I spotted somebody in Huntingdon town centre.  As soon as I saw him, I knew that he was the missing part of the story.

At last, right in front of my eyes was the individual who looked as if he had lost all those balloons.
A sad clown laid low by the practice of balloon art.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Whatever Happened to Nigel and Clare?

When the children left for University it was the end of twenty-one years of family life. 

We would be brave and stand back while they found their wings.

We expected to be sad, and for a time we were.

But soon we found compensations.

Just to go out on a Saturday and enjoy lunch and a walk with Gill and Graham, Nick and Jackie or Jenny and Terry.  
Without having to make a picnic for my whole voracious family.
We could even afford a pub lunch when it was just two of us.

And then the twins graduated and returned home.
We know it’s temporary, so we are enjoying their company while we have it.

But this Saturday, as we tried to lure them on a day out, Christmas party aftermath overlapped with urgent shopping and they declined blearily.

I was tempted to stay home.
Nigel said “We should still go.”

So we drove to Grafham Water where I proved myself a hopeless nerd by getting overexcited by goldeneye and goosander ducks. The words “Just look at that!” may have been over-used.
Then we explored the twinkly market town of Huntingdon, drifted into a few shops, appreciated a Mediaeval church and bridge. 
As we drove home, I said to Nigel, “That was a good day.”
Meanwhile, the twins had begun to text us. 
Looked like we’d see them tomorrow.

As if we cared!

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Just Stop

A few years ago when I trained as a teacher, I had a placement in rural North Hertfordshire.  Showing me round,  the pupils focused on the most important thing of all – the procedure for snow days.  
It was only September, but they already had an eye on a day off.  And I quite liked the prospect too.

From that day to this, however, there has been no snow day in Hertfordshire.  Until today.

Even today there is not really a snow day off school as it is Sunday. 

However, there is the same delightful feeling that whatever we were going to do today, it will not be done. 
And it is not our fault.

It’s a very busy time of year, preparing cards, gifts, food and social life for Christmas.  But today it’s as if God just shook his finger at us and said “Shush now – doesn’t really matter.  Settle down.”

We put on our boots and did the things that counted - got to church, called on an elderly neighbour, filled the bird feeders.

But then everything slowed down – home made bread, the wood-burner lit, an old film on the telly.

And a nourishing day’s rest in Advent.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Happy Hair

The order in which information is delivered really matters, and this Saturday proved it.
We had just been en famille to see the Tove Janssen (Moomin) Exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

I find it particularly poignant to revisit activities which I associate with my children when they were small and innocent on a day when they are bleakly hung-over and straining not to be surly.

Afterwards, we parted on Dulwich High Street when Perran went off to get a haircut. 
“Be careful,” warned Carenza “– Could be pricey here.”
Nigel and I were on the train going home when texts started to arrive from Perran.

From this, we figured Perran had gone into a nice barber’s, asked the price, misheard, had a great experience but then been horrified at the true price.

We felt a little sorry for him until he came home and explained that his texts had arrived with us in the wrong order.  Looking back at his phone, there was a very different story.

He had asked the price only after the haircut.  By this time, he had received such amazing service that he feared it would be expensive.  
He DID mishear – what he heard was £70.  
What they actually charged him was £17.  

The story was one of triumph NOT disaster.

And significantly, it was also a story of beer.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Sound of God Laughing

They say “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

The plan was that I was to have a foot operation to relieve painful wear and tear.  I would be off my feet for six weeks. 
I had painstakingly arranged my teaching work around the operation.
I had done the Christmas shopping and made the cards. 
The only part of it I was looking forward to was reading books by the fire.
Nigel booked a long weekend in Falmouth, so we could see my parents, but also spend time together before the operation.
Then, only a week before, I received a phone call.  My surgeon had a family emergency and had cancelled his operating list. 
After Christmas was no good for me.  I would have to be back at work.

It was all off. 

However, we continued with the trip to Falmouth. 
Romantically, we caught the sleeper from Paddington.
We explored the coasts of the Fal Estuary – golden hedgerows under cobalt skies, and the wistful cry of the curlew.  We visited twinkly craft fairs and cosy tea rooms. It was a brochure-perfect break.
But lulled by my pleasure in the trip, I let one of my rules slip.

On our last night I ate an oyster – part of a starter.  I love shellfish, but, as they say, they don’t always love me.

The train on the way home was wedged crowded and it was like a game of Twister to get to the loo.  However, this didn’t stop me being sick.  To minimise this, I didn’t drink anything.  For five hours.

By Paddington, I had a teeth-chattering temperature.

By Tuesday, still high temperature and bad pains in new places.
Doctor suggested I submit a urine sample.  It was so evidently murky that I was almost proud as I handed it over at reception.

I had managed to transform my food poisoning into a urine infection.

At home, waiting for the antibiotics to kick in, I decided that after all, I would have just one afternoon by the fire reading a book.

And at least that went to plan.


Tuesday, 21 November 2017

You Have Saved the Best 'til Last

Driving down the dual carriageway, I peer out the windscreen and say anxiously to Nigel, “How much longer will they last?”
“Another week maybe?  Not long?”

I love the way that trees which seem a uniform green in Summer each choose a different colour.  The beeches are copper, the birches gold.  I love the way the spindle tree, drab and insignificant for ten months of the year suddenly becomes the Rupaul of the hedgerow - camp pink berries and fabulous, flame coloured foliage. 

But now the leaves were nearly all over for another year.

I was supposed to be going for a last Autumn walk with Carol, but unfortunately something came up.

I decided I’d go anyway.

It was early, bright and frosty.
And the colours took my breath away.

This wasn’t so much the end of Autumn as a grand finale.

As an empty-nester, one of my preoccupations is a regret for the passing of time and the shift from one generation to the next.

But when I saw the trees that morning, a phrase from the Gospels kept going through my head – “You have saved the best 'til last.”

Friday, 17 November 2017

Pigeon postscript

1st pigeon:  “Sparrowhawk! Sparrowhawk! Let’s get out of here!”

2nd pigeon: “But wait, aren’t we flying directly towards some artwork by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, that master of Art Nouveau design?”

1st pigeon:  “I don’t care!  There’s a sparrowhawk, I tell you!”

Me from the sitting room:  “Did anybody else hear that loud bang at the kitchen door?”

Sadly the Charles Rennie Mackintosh window decals haven’t worked.

(The picture above is the print of fine dust which a pigeon leaves when it hits our patio door.)

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Pigeons.

I have never before asked myself whether pigeons might like the Art Nouveau designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

But I am about to find out.

In our garden, we have a cluster of bird feeders.  They attract every kind of finch and titmouse.

Woodpigeons lumber beneath, hoovering up dropped seeds.

However, five times now, we have discovered the complete, yet ghostly, outline of a pigeon in flight on our patio door.  
When they hit glass hard, fine dust flies out of their feathers and makes a print.

But why are they zooming into our patio door?  
There’s no window on the other side to trick them into thinking there’s a through-route.

Fact is, we’ve made our garden such a great place for sparrows that we’ve also attracted a sparrowhawk, skimming stealthily along the hedge, scaring the grit out of our little birds.
I’m guessing it’s blind panic that stops the pigeons from spotting our door.

So how to warn them off?

At the weekend, we visited 78 Derngate, a house designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  I oohed at the luminous stained glass,  aaahed at the detailing in the woodwork.

But the best thing of all was in the gift shop – window decals.

“Do you think the pigeons will appreciate Art Nouveau?”

“Maybe not, but they’ll enjoy not bashing themselves on the glass….And besides, there aren’t any Art Deco decals here so they'll just have to make do.”

Friday, 10 November 2017

My Family and Other Animals

Pascoe was home for the weekend. Although we’ve had holidays together, it’s the first time he’s been home this year.

It was time to become Mumzilla.

I put out a three-line whip.  For one Saturday, we would ALL do something together. 

But what?

Lately I’ve felt nostalgia for Whipsnade Zoo.
But it was risky – the forecast was cold and rainy.

More than that – nostalgia can backfire - it’s not always wise to go somewhere you have fond memories of.

We went.

Sure enough some old friends were missing.
Where were the white wallabies?  Where Horatio Hornbill?

Until we went back, we had been able to imagine Horatio still perkily offering gift-twigs to visitors.  But now…

We had to rescue the day, and fast.

We rushed to lay down some new memories.

I will always remember sleek lionesses playing with giant bags of rustling paper and catnip only feet from us, like lethal kittens.
And the warmth of the butterfly house where dazzling blue morphos alit delicately on our shoulders.

Only the dusk persuaded us to go home.

We had planned to go out to a fireworks display, but there was something we had forgotten.

The perfect end to a tiring day at breezy Whipsnade is to snuggle down by the fire. 
And that’s what we did.
Nigel lays an egg: flamingos outraged!

Three-line Whip

Tuesday, 7 November 2017


The earliest stories about werewolves are in Latin literature.  When I teach fabula mirabilis in the Cambridge Latin Course, I make it spooky for the children with candles and creepy sound effects.
I also have a happy schooldays memory of the werewolf story from Petronius.  The way I translated it made it sound as if the werewolf was exposing himself.  My lovely teacher, Yvonne Simmons, roared with laughter – “It’s not that kind of story, Clare.”

So you’d think I’d be alright with werewolves.

But I’m not.

They are my pet fear.

So when Ann and Steve invited Nigel and I to go and see An American Werewolf in London, my first impulse was to say “No”.

“Oh come on, Clare.  It’s very tongue in cheek.”

Surely I am now grown up enough to sit through a light-hearted horror movie?

I could do this.  I really could.

“Look,” said Steve, “Great seats – right at the front.”

Turns out that I am now so grown up that I lasted only half an hour – even less than last time.
Luckily the Odyssey has a cool bar and I have a Kindle. 

After an hour of sipping a G & T and reading Naomi Alderman’s The Power, I began to believe that we women would one day gain world dominance.

This is possibly even more improbable than the existence of werewolves but at least it took my mind off them. 

Friday, 3 November 2017

Modern slavery

On Saturday night, a blonde woman was sitting in a darkened kitchen, forced to work by candle light.
In front of her was a huge bucket of muddy windfall apples. 
She had been asked to peel, core and slice them.
She was many miles from her home, and she was sniffling.

So where was this sad scene?

I am sorry to say, it happened in our kitchen.

Charlotte was visiting from Glasgow – she was in the South East to give a talk on Martin Luther.
At our house, that Saturday, all the lights went out.  Peering through the window at the entire street in darkness, we deduced a power cut.
We lit the candles in the warm kitchen and began to cut up the cooking apples which Chris and Christine had so generously given us. 
Charlotte came and joined us. 
Unfortunately, the eighties music we were playing gave her a head-ache.
Plus I had forgotten she was allergic to raw apples.

And there were an awful lot of apples.

All I can say, Charlotte, is sorry.  
But on the bright side, when you next campaign or speak on social justice you will have extra knowledge of how modern slavery can exist even in seemingly respectable homes.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Love Autumn!

chestnuts and a parasol toadstool
I heart Autumn.  I really do. 
In education Autumn represents the start of a new year.  Full of promises and excitement.


My birthday falls in Autumn.

The trees are all wearing MY colours.

And Nigel and I get to forage.

This year we had the added bonus of David and Carolyn coming to stay.  Carolyn wears Autumn colours too, otherwise I obviously wouldn’t have invited them.

The other really cool thing about them was that even after knowing us for twenty-five years, they still took our word for it that the big toadstools were edible and consumed my risotto without blenching.

They’ve gone home to the North East now.  I’m sure we’d hear if they’d suffered from our toadstools. 

Unless of course they’re seated paralysed and drooling in a layby on the M1.

But they won’t be.  Things never go wrong in Autumn!

Autumn’s so great.

Friday, 20 October 2017

No More Empty Nest

Recently we redesigned our back garden. 

We made sure there were holes in the base of the new fence for hedgehogs. 
We put in a pond to attract newts and frogs. 
We hung up birdfeeders to encourage finches and tits.

And now we are rewarded by seeing the little creatures in our garden.

Meanwhile, in the house, we have at last mended the hole in the bath (long story).  We have also installed electric blankets.  We have packed the fridge full of wholesome food, especially hummus, lots of hummus.

So what kind of wildlife have we managed to attract to our house? 

The answer is Twins. 

Perran and Carenza have both begun their working lives in the London area. 
For the time being, they are living with us.  
I put out fresh food each night and mostly they return.

But when their post-university bank accounts have recovered, they plan to move out and rent a flat.
I feel sorry for them that housing is so expensive right now, but quite glad they are stuck with us for a bit.

Just hope we don’t have to cut holes in the fence for them though.
They would be enormous.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Generation Sandwich

Being in the Sandwich generation leads me into absurdity.

To my children, I seem “unutterably old”.
At least, that’s what Perran said when I asked if I might go with him to a Mr Scruff gig.
I try not to tell too many back-in-the-day stories as I hate to see the incredulity on their faces.
I can’t possibly have been the girl who danced in the street during a thunder storm, or who experimented with home-made fireworks and set off all those fire alarms.

Yet to my parents, I am forever young.  
When my mother leans on my arm for support, she doesn’t realise that my back hurts.  She thinks the walking stick in the boot of the car is a spare for when she forgets hers, not an aid that I use when I go walking.

But there are advantages to being in my mid-fifties.  
At my age people are reported to be at our most content.  We have achieved some of our goals and relinquished our most unrealistic ambitions.

Better enjoy the view from the top of the hill while I’m still at the summit. 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017


Mark and Adri were coming to lunch with their offspring, Thea and Ben.

Adri texted, “What would you like us to bring?”

My fingers hovered over the key pad.

The designated reply, in accordance with Middle Class Politeness is
“Just bring yourselves.”

On receiving it, Adri and Mark would scratch their heads and probably resort to flowers.

All seemed so dull.

I found myself typing,
“I have always particularly wanted my own tapir.”

ADRI:  “That may be difficult to arrange at such short notice.”

ME:     “You are crap guests.”

In fact, they thoughtfully brought a clematis to cover up our unsightly exposed fence.

But then, a week later, a package arrived by post.
I had ordered nothing and could not think what it might be.

Inside was a beautifully carved and painted wooden tapir.

Adri and Mark, thank you so much.

And particularly thank you for not sending a live specimen.  I understand caring for them can be ...tricky.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

University Reunion

As we drove up the A1 for the reunion, I said to Nigel,
“I can’t believe that all that time, next to our hall of residence, there was that great big orchard and we never scrumped the apples.”
“I suppose we were too busy with our friends.  Well, the apples should be ripe now.  And there are carrier bags in the boot.”
“We’ll get some after the reunion.”
We had a companionable dinner with old friends.  The next morning we attended chapel and then over breakfast, Rosie suggested we collect the key and climb the stairs to the tower. 

I have thirty-three year old photos of a whole gang of us standing up there in front of the low parapet, arms round each other, our hair blowing in the strong wind. But nowadays only four of us were allowed up at a time and a metal bannister stopped us from accidentally toppling over the edge.

When we looked out over the view, there were more changes.  Beneath us our redbrick college still glowed and its grounds stretched out green.  But beyond, in nearly every direction, new buildings were going up, including a whole new village called Eddington.  I felt like a creature from a bygone era.

Afterwards, amid embraces and farewells, we went back to the car park where there had once been a sheep field, and drove away.

“Darn it,” I said, “I forgot to pick any apples.”
“Well.  Clearly then, some things never change.”

I reconnected with Andrea Skevington who also has a blog. Her amazing poem about spiders has resonated with me in the days since.  You can find it here:


Now - photo by Rosie

Now - Photo by Rosie

Friday, 22 September 2017

Fencing Champion

A mere fraction of our fence
For over two years now, we’ve been in our new home, and all this time, we’ve been staring out at a featureless rectangle of grass bordered by sinister dark green shrubs.

Finally we found some nice landscape gardeners who were able to drill out some old foot-deep concrete, lay a patio and dig out a pond for us.  They also removed the laurels as we requested.

And now the dominant note in our garden is very much “Fence”.  We have unbroken wastes of wooden slats to gaze at.  We could not have more fence, even if we had joined Fenceflix and ordered the boxed set of Fence.

This Autumn we have gathered a fantasy football squad of new shrubs – some gold, some silver, some with berries, and have ranged them along the Fence.  We have planted them what seems like an unrealistically huge distance apart to allow for growth.  So we still have a pretty much unimpeded view of Fence.

Perhaps in three or four years’ time, when our little elaeagnuses and pittosporums have heightened and thickened, I shall turn to Nigel and say, “You know, I really miss seeing our fence.”

But I don’t think so.