Reasons to be cheerful – 1, 2, 3

I’m wearing my Converse baseball boots today, the ones I was given by my son and his partner for Christmas.

They’ve got glittery rainbow colours on the side and they’re fab. Reasons to be Cheerful #1

It’s all too easy to work from home in ‘loungewear’. I’m not on trend like my old friend who runs the Is This Mutton fun and fashion blog. I mean, this girl is Glam with a capital G.

However, I always make a point of changing out of my dog walking clothes each morning into something I wouldn’t mind being seen dead in. Especially the shoes. I love my slippers but they’re not exactly suitable for work.

Reasons to be Cheerful #2 is the weather here today. It’s one of those crisp, winter’s days when the morning sky is pink and the coldness makes your cheekbones tingle.

Who could fail to be moved by this glorious scene? Even better is that both dogs had a brilliant run and are now curled up at my feet in The Shed of Dreams where I am pulling up my novel in progress by its bootstraps and tackling some fundamental issues head-on.

And I’m winning, enthused once again by the tale I started spinning some months ago and also inspired by the delightful Marian Keyes and her free, online writing class. I’m currently doing an MA in creative writing with The Open University, which is great but I’m so wrapped up in the academic side of it I’d forgotten how much fun writing should be.

But, best of all, here’s Reasons to be Cheerful #3. My 95-year-old mother had her Covid vaccination yesterday, after a week in which I was waiting for a promised call from her local hospital that never came.

So, after plucking up courage to phone the doctors to find out what was happening, her surgery then called me in the car at 5.15pm, about quarter of an hour after I’d left her house, asking if she could come into the surgery at 7.30pm.

So I drove home and fed the dogs and went back to her house, picked her up and waited with about four other people at the end of a mass vaccination session.

We had to wait a little while because they had to open another phial. But who cares? By eight o’clock, it was done. And with the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine too.

Huge thanks to the NHS staff up and down the country in getting us closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. And well done to the volunteer stewards who are helping things run smoothly in difficult times.

Last night, I felt a weight lifting, which wasn’t helped by a delicious takeaway king prawn bhuna which has just put the weight back on again.

Still, we’ll get through the darkness, all of us, together.

That’s about it.

Love, Maddie x

Under pressure

I’ve lost count of what day it is in the UK’s Lockdown Number 3. And, frankly, I don’t care.

I was going to say one lockdown kind of blends into another, but that’s not true. This one is boring, unsettling and oppressive although, in my opinion, the restrictions themselves aren’t oppressive enough, especially when yet again it’s one rule for those in charge and another for the rest of us lower down the food chain.

This time around, the lockdown is like someone putting pressure on your shoulders after they’ve already been pushed down as far as they can go.

I’ve given up the Sound of Music Through The Square Window, my daily song request slot for the village, because I needed the time for myself. I’d done it for more than 120 days and it’s worn me out.

And then I see on the news that a little boy has been sleeping in a tent in his garden since the first lockdown and feel bad for being such a lightweight. I know the daily music helped a lot of people and, to be honest, they could probably do with it now more than ever.

But it’s cold outside, not like the novelty of the first lockdown when it felt like we were all being given a holiday. Who wants to time their daily exercise with a walk through the village square at one o’clock in this weather?

Much better to be watching reruns of Midsomer Murders or NCIS.

I think we’re all feeling fed-up, disjointed and angry and longing for it all to stop. I cannot begin to imagine how it is for people on the front line, like NHS staff, teachers and other key workers.

Teaching my children at home while working from home would send me completely round the bend. Thank goodness they’re grown up and being sent around the bend themselves, although Number One Son has only a large cat and a tiny dog to educate, so not all bad there.

This summer, we’re going to have a great big party, assuming we’re allowed to do so. There will never have been anything quite like it. And these are the things we must look forward to.

In the meantime, while my trips to the beach with the dogs are on hold (although if I were Boris on a bike I’d be pedalling off to the coast like a demon) I’m making the most of the beauty on my doorstep.

That’s about it.

Stay at home.

Love, Maddie x

Books I like

I’m not a great one for New Year’s resolutions, especially when they’re about giving up something.

Giving up anything, especially in the black hole of a pandemic, is never easy. Far better, I think, to take on something instead, as well as appreciating just what we have and making the most of it. If nothing else, the virus has taught us to be thankful for the good things in life, such as nature, family, friendship and dogs.

I’m currently more than halfway through a two-year master’s degree in creative writing with The Open University. I did really well in the first year but there’s no way I can maintain that standard, especially as I have begun to realise that the more I learn, the less I know.

Earlier in the week, I tinkered away in The Shed of Dreams to get my writer’s eyrie all clean and tidy. I hadn’t been able to think for clutter. I’ve moved some of my pretty (but useless) china from the dresser to give the books a chance to say ‘hey, look at me!’ instead.

I was going to list here the top five novels I’ve read in 2020 but, unlike 2019 when Lanny by Max Porter and Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield raced in as joint winners, both with five of my stars, there wasn’t one book I read that really stood out for me. This is despite (or perhaps because of) reading everything I could get my hands on from the telephone box library in Lush Places and from the three shelves in the post office in France, where I was lucky enough to spend three months last summer.

So instead, I’m listing five of the books on my Goodreads bookshelf to which I’ve given five stars in recent years. It’s a funny old site, Goodreads. I haven’t used it for years but have turned to it again. It’s great when you find ‘friends’ with similar tastes in fiction and you can see what they recommend.

So, in no particular order and excluding what I consider classic authors like Thomas Hardy, F Scott Fitzgerald and Ray Bradbury, here’s my top five:

To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal

Circe by Madeleine Miller

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

I’m not reviewing them here but just to say I thoroughly enjoyed all five of these books (seven if you count the wonderful Lanny and Once Upon A River) and if you enjoy good writing, then you might too.

But read the Goodreads reviews in the linked text rather than take my word for it.

Happy reading.

That’s about it.

Love, Maddie x

Caught short in Lockdown 3

So now there’s another national lockdown.

Not the best of days to have your car serviced an hour’s drive away in Exeter, especially when the Fiat dealer doesn’t let me have a courtesy car but instead gives us two free bus tickets to the city centre.

Which is nice, but after a freezing cold fifteen-minute walk to the park and ride facility and watching all the Stagecoach bus staff get on the bus without masks (to be fair, they do put them on once the engine is running, but that’s not the point) both Mr Grigg and I are busting for a wee.

By the time we get into the town centre, groaning over every bump in the road, the hunt is on. But, of course, it being the start of a new lockdown, everything is shut. Coffee shops and cafes are doing takeaway service only and we can see from the doorways that the ‘rest rooms’ inside are roped off.

No chance of the loos in John Lewis or even Wetherspoons being open. I’m not a Tim Martin fan but a toilet’s a toilet, wherever it is.

Full bladders don’t respect lockdown. I’m not sure how long I can last.

‘How about my brother’s shop?’ Mr Grigg says.

So we pootle up Gandy Street, which is said to have been J K Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books. We don’t expect Mr Grigg’s brother to be there but someone might be, even if it’s only to put the shop to bed for its enforced slumber.

But the shutters are already down. Tumbleweed rolls up the narrow street.

‘What about the station?’ I suggest, hopping from one foot to the other.

So we walk briskly to Exeter Central only to find the loos are on the other platform, which we can access if we buy a train ticket.

I decide to ask Siri to find ‘public toilets near me’.

She does and we follow our little blue pulsating circle on my phone as it makes its way in a circle of its own, beyond the cathedral and the shopping arcade. We turn the corner. The loos are shut.

Up through another empty arcade, dodging the ‘wet floor’ notice (which doesn’t sound very promising – you can guess what I think might have caused it) and in and around Sainsburys, peering into corners marked ‘staff only’ and getting odd looks from the store detective.

‘Fancy a coffee?’ Mr Grigg says as we walk up through the arcade like a pair of masked gunslingers.

Coffee? The very thought of it makes me thank God for pelvic floor exercises.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I picture myself on the local BBC Spotlight news later this evening as the mysterious woman caught with her drawers down on Cathedral Green.

And then a very nice lady comes to our aid. I won’t say who she is because she probably isn’t allowed to help us out. What I will say is that I would thoroughly recommend the delicious carrot and orange soup with focaccia and the joyous polenta cake from Eat On The Green. We will definitely go back, once lockdown is over.

We eat lunch sitting on a bench overlooking the cathedral’s west front where we are promptly accosted by a drunk clutching a full bottle of red wine.

In formation, Mr Grigg and I whip on our masks while I shriek something about being vulnerable. The drunk is visibly shaken by the encounter. He makes his apologies and leaves.

‘Let’s go to Wilko,’ Mr Grigg says, knowing how to treat a girl, especially a low maintenance one like me.

So we go a bit mad and buy a couple of cut-price Toilet Ducks, a scrubbing brush and four roll-on deodorants.

Back on the bus and then a brisk stroll back to the garage, Mr Grigg jaywalks across the roundabouts of the trading estate to accompanying beeps of horns and outstretched middle fingers from the drivers.

It feels like crossing Times Square. (It doesn’t, but I’ve always had a vivid imagination.)

Back at the Fiat franchise I am delighted to find my car has been cleaned inside and out. But then at £350 for servicing a two-year-old car, it is the least they can do. It’s a shame they didn’t open the boot and clean that out as well.

As we exit the bright lights of Exeter to the tune of Bob Marley’s Exodus, an idea pops into my head. Never mind crossing Times Square or the roundabouts of Marsh Barton, I’ve crossed the Rubicon.

I’m going to give up the car completely.

Well, it’s not as if I’m going to be going anywhere for the next few months.

That’s about it.

Love, Maddie x

Happy New Tier

‘It’s like the Last Supper,’ Spanish John said behind his mask as he passed our table at a safe distance.

We’d booked into the Lush Places pub at the last minute for a meal yesterday after hearing the Prime Minister’s announcement that by midnight, Dorset would be moved up from Tier 2 to Tier 3, scuppering New Year’s Eve parties everywhere.

It’s hugely disappointing although inevitable. We’ve all got to do our bit for the greater good. But I feel so desperately sorry for local, independent businesses which are in danger of going under.

And all those schoolchildren and teachers, not knowing their arses from their elbows.

Here in Lush Places, we’ll support the pub as best we can by ordering takeaway meals. It’s the least we can do, until we perhaps go up a tier or there’s a national lockdown.

I was all set to take the dogs to the beach this morning until it dawned on me that this pleasure is now restricted because everyone in Tier 3 needs to stay within their own community.

So the girls and I set off up the hill until I made the mistake of letting Ruby off halfway up. She was gone for forty minutes, chasing pheasants and squirrels in the undergrowth on the common, with occasional forays around the field where I was standing just to let me know she wasn’t far away.

She finally came back, tail wagging and teeth chattering. It’s cold out there today. The upside is the countryside looks beautiful.

Tonight, as the church clock strikes midnight and everyone would usually be coming out of the pub in a conga to join hands and sing Auld Lang Syne in a big circle and then kissing friends and neighbours, Mr Grigg and I might just go out in our masks and pyjamas and say a quiet hello to the Cold Moon as it wanes its way into 2021.

Happy New Year everyone. Here’s to better times on the horizon.

Keep safe.

Love, Maddie x

Time to put my head in order

In those in-between days, the days in that week between Christmas and New Year, nothing much happens.

The virus romps along like a puppy on roller skates, acquiring new powers from the Acme store on the corner as it continues its Looney Tunes journey at an ever-increasing pace.

A Brexit deal is done but is worse than the deal we had as a member of the EU.

And all the while, the rich get richer and fatter and the poor get poorer, the children developing eating disorders and all of us becoming used to staying at home or in bubbles.

So with a new year just days away, we all hope and must work for better times ahead, where kindness, forgiveness, the Covid-19 vaccine and a positive outlook overpower all the bad things in life.

Never have open spaces like the hill at the foot of which Lush Places sits or the winter beach stretching out along the wonderful Jurassic Coast seemed more appealing.

My daily music ritual has come to an end, the mixing desk and speakers in the hall awaiting collection after one hundred and twenty six days of use this past year.

My Advent window is about to be dismantled to let the light in and floors vacuumed for dog fluff.

And then, once I’ve tidied my desk and put my head in order, I must settle down to a new ritual and write at least one thousand words a day and stop making excuses for my lack of creativity. Although it might just have to wait until New Year’s Day.

The muse comes not to those who sit and gaze out of the window, waiting for her to land on their shoulder. The muse is there, and just needs to get into the habit of popping out and reintroducing herself when she is least expected.

As Ernest Hemingway says in The Old Man and The Sea: ‘now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.’

Have a Happy New Year. Here’s to good things in 2021.

Love, Maddie x

Merry Christmas Everybody

If Lush Places in Lockdown were a film or a book, this would have been its finale.

With so many Christmas plans in tatters, thanks to coronavirus and an eleventh hour decision by the government, it was just what the village needed to bring us all together in seasonal song and celebration, physically distant but socially close.

The vicar had chalked hearts on the pavements and placed paper crosses on the village green so everyone knew where to stand.

Mr Loggins and Darling brought picnic chairs, there were stewards in high viz tabards and Santa hats, and dogs with flashing collars. Children whizzed up and down on the swings on the green as Hark The Herald Sing reverberated around the Square.

Among those singing behind their masks were Mr Costner, the shop manager, and wife Whitney, DJ Landlord and Mrs Plum, Ding Dong Daddy, The Parson’s Daughter, Mr Brogue Boots, The Angel of the North, Mrs Let’s-Get-Busy and a dear little spaniel puppy, Randy Munchkin, Bellows, and Mrs Remington resplendent in Santa hat and a great big smile.

And in between the telling of the Christmas story and prayers by the vicar on my doorstep, tractors towing dung-spreaders roared by, the drivers giving the 70-strong congregation a cheery wave.

Our outside carol service, with me at The Square Window decks controlling the vicar’s microphone and crashing in with the carols, was twenty-five minutes of sheer Christmas joy.

I felt a tear roll down my cheek as the enormity of this worldwide crisis and the resilience of ordinary people in places like Lush Places kicked in.

We will beat this, tomorrow the sun will be shining and, with the Winter Solstice, the countdown to longer days begins. Community and comradeship are everything.

And then Slade came in and we were up there rock and rolling with the rest.

Merry Christmas Everybody.

That’s about it.

Love, Maddie x

In my dreams

As we hurtle towards spreading good Covid this Christmas (I wish we’d had no relaxation of the coronavirus rules over the festive period but there you go, these decisions are taken by people on a much higher pay grade than me) and run with open arms, headlong into the cheer of Brexit (don’t get me started on that) and the prospect of chlorinated chicken and beef pumped up with growth hormones on the near horizon and the end of free movement into Europe, my dreams are getting darker.

Yesterday, after a day spent indoors, the rain battering and swirling as The Beverley Sisters’s sang Little Donkey for the latest window in the Lush Places’ Living Advent Calendar which no-one could find, the aforementioned animal obviously having legged it after getting wind of coronavirus and Brexit, I settled down to a few chapters of my book before bed.

Mr Grigg was ensconced in the front room watching the final episodes of MasterChef: The Professionals. I had taken my leave before any of the judges tucked into the sweetbreads, not able to stomach Gregg Wallace’s eating-with-his-cheeks-full-Mockney proclamation which was likely to follow.

So I snuggled down to the latest Louis de Bernieres novel, which, being a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society, I get to read before it hits the shelves. I’m hooked, but more of that another time.

After a disturbed night’s sleep, I was woken by the whistling car that goes by at between six o’clock and six-thirty most mornings. It makes a distinctive, high-pitched but rather friendly squeal as it goes around the corner.

I sat up, trying to remember why I hadn’t slept so well and why I had a funny taste in my mouth.

And then it hit me. It was another dream.

This time, my dream me had eaten some really stringy, dry beef and it was threatening to make me gag as I walked home in the dark from Yeovil. I was aware I was being followed by an older man with whom my dream me had earlier carelessly flirted.

I looked back over my shoulder to see a black suited and booted Joe Biden jogging along behind me. His teeth were gleaming. He looked kindly but dream me knew he wasn’t. I tried desperately to ring for a taxi on my phone but they were all out picking up people from Christmas parties.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

From Haselbury Plucknett to Misterton, Joe Biden was gently calling me, and all the while I had this stringy beef in my mouth.

I finally ducked into a primary school and made my way through the gym, which had been laid out as an agility course for guinea pigs. I balanced on the bar, wheedled my way through a long and winding tube made of yellow fabric and then found myself up on the dado rail looking down on Joe who was now in a white tracksuit and looking a bit like Morgan Freeman’s God in Bruce Almighty.

And then the actual whistling car roared by and I woke up, trying to take the taste of stringy beef out of my mouth.

I went downstairs, greeted the dogs, lit three positive vibes joss sticks and thanked my lucky stars that the dream me was at least being chased by Joe Biden and not Donald Trump.

That’s about it.

Love, Maddie x

Office politics

The dream was turning into a nightmare.

Not only was I working in a rabbit warren office with narrow corridors radiating from one central hub, which was lined with desks of dark brown wood, and sitting in between twins I remembered from school who were accusing me of copying, there was the malign presence of Dominic Cummings roaming the creaking floorboards.

On my way to deliver a typewritten memo, he brushed up against me in the corridor. There was a flash of pointy teeth and satanic-looking eyes as he pinned me to the door frame.

If only I could make it to the door at the end, where the nameplate said: “Queen Elizabeth II”. If I could get past him I could burst through to her room, fall at her feet and ask for a transfer.

And then, the next moment, I was on the top road near the old BBC World Service transmitting station at Rampisham, in the back seat of car with Cummings, Matt Hancock and Mr Loggins, a friend from Lush Places.

I could see in the rear view mirror (the car was being driven by Slimer from Ghostbusters) that a large truck, with a grinning grille and headlights for eyes, was rapidly approaching us from behind.

I screamed, the truck missed us but rammed straight into a car coming the other way. Bodies were flying, children were curling up in craters and I shouted that we needed to stop and help, especially as Mr Loggins had a first aid at work certificate.

But Cummings declared that it was none of our concern and put his foot down, having taken the wheel in place of Slimer without anyone noticing.

This morning, I woke up in a cold sweat, not because the car-wreck was clearly a dream interpretation of the Brexit talks running out of road but because I remembered my dream me found Dominic Cummings faintly attractive.

In an attempt to get that horrid vision out of my head, here’s a picture of my dog asleep.

Sweet dreams.

That’s about it.

Love, Maddie

Blue skies and winter days

There’s a crisp frost on the grass this morning. It reminds me of brilliant white sheets on a line, rigid as a board, caught in silent protest at being left out overnight.

Up on the hill, there is a mist in the valley through the trees as the sun begins its ascent into a winter sky. The beech nuts crunch, the cattle exhale steam through their noses and the dogs pick up the scent of a squirrel.

It’s glorious up here, just glorious, and it’s the best-ever tonic for anger, frustration and depression, as long as you can wipe your mind clear of such pointless feelings and soak up the beauty around you instead.

Cattle mooch beneath the hillforts, in a perfectly-layered Dorset landscape.

And the sky has just been given a watercolour wash of cobalt blue.

There’s a pink glow all around and the individual blades of grass are upright with frost, knitting a crib blanket for the field as the earth lies beneath it, curled up and sucking its thumb.

It’s like walking through a Christmas card.

Back in the village, I inspect my neighbour’s Advent window in the cold light of day to see how she’s done it. There is a standard to keep up here, and I don’t want to be be the one who lets the side down.

With two dogs tugging on my warm woollen mittens anxious for their daily dental sticks, I turn the corner for home.

That’s about it.

Love, Maddie x