If you’ll forgive me a little self-promotion, the paperback edition of Hare House is coming out officially on the 29th of September, just in time for anyone looking for a spooky read around Halloween. And the very next day I’ll be at the Wigtown Book Festival talking about it to anyone who is interested enough to turn up and listen (and pay their £7.50 entry fee). This will be a new experience for me. It’s our ‘local’ festival (but still a good 50-odd miles away) and after toying with cycling there I’ve decided to take the bus most of the way and let the Brompton fill in the gaps.
Indeed, this will be just one of a few adventures the Brompton will have coming up this month as we get ready for another #5GoMad adventure… Watch this space.
And we’re back, after not quite 24 hours of travel back from the US, mildly surprised to have made it almost without a hitch AND with our luggage to boot. TransPennine Express had laid on a little mild travel chaos in the form of a broken train door for our journey home, and it was sobering to walk past the massive queue to get into Manchester Airport as we made our way out, but on the whole the return trip went about as well as anything involving two planes, three trains and a drive home could be expected to go.
As holidays go, it’s fair to say, we’ve had better ones. Fortunately we were staying with family and could isolate ourselves effectively enough on the screened back porch, enjoying the hot weather and trying not to snack too much. The sole upside of getting Covid while on vacation is that you really are forced to kick back and relax (despite, in my case, having a bit of work to do, because being on holiday and contracting coronavirus don’t stop the joys of the freelance life…). And now we are recovered and we are rested, jetlag excepted, and we even managed a bit of holiday-type activities towards the end once the Covid had relented.
(We didn’t actually do the hoverboard thing, just admired the guy attempting to look nonchalant while being held up several metres in the air by two jets of water)
I even got a bit of cycling in towards the end. The rides were all pretty short and gentle and on the flat, but didn’t leave me feeling out of breath or too exhausted. I’ve heard from lots of cycling people that Covid can leave you pretty wiped out, even (or especially) if you were pretty fit to begin with. This afternoon I’ll be heading down into town and the ride back up our hill will be the moment of truth. Although, if I do struggle, it may just be three weeks of largely lounging around and eating that are at fault. Wish me luck.
Did I say I expected to be spending a bit more time sitting down this week after the exertions of our weekend in New York?
I’ll be honest, I was expecting to be spending at least some of it sitting on this
But instead of tooling around on my sister-in-law’s sweet little titanium road bike, checking out the best swimming beaches (and Dairy Queens) and learning not to be afraid of drop handlebars,* we have instead been sitting around on my brother-in-law’s back porch with Covid.
What can I say, it’s not a fun disease. The symptoms appear to be completely random, and change by the hour, although the ‘throat that feels like swallowing ground glass’ has hung about for longer than I’d like, along with sneezing, headaches, earache, eyeball ache (a new one for me) and – most random of all – having absolutely no desire whatsoever to go for a bike ride.
Today did feel as if we’ve turned the corner, so hopefully we are on the mend. Fingers crossed we may even get to meet up with the rest of the family before our holiday is over.
I might even manage to get back on the bike.
* The last time I rode my sister-in-law’s bike (about 20 years ago) I went straight over the handlebars, having failed to factor in the fact that some people actually maintain their brakes so that they stop the bike quite suddenly, rather than giving off an advisory squeal as mine mostly did at the time.
So we made it to New York and it’s been a full on few days of walking for miles, getting confused by the subway (the trick, I’ve discovered, is to forget everything you know about taking the tube or reading the tube map and instead treat it as a system for trapping unwary tourists into heading the wrong way on the wrong line and that will be $2.75 to turn around and go the other way, thank you very much), and taking pretty much every form of transport available (ferry, the dreaded Uber) except bikes.
What’s that, you cry? Not cycling? Isn’t there a bike share scheme? Well, yes there is, but it’s expensive compared to the subway ($15 for a day pass, and then you have to keep under the 30 minute limit or its another $4 per ride, versus $2.75 a trip on the subway), and even with lots of wide and mostly well-protected bike lanes it did all look a bit scary. Had I had a native guide, or been on my own, I might have given it a go, but as it is, of the two people I met up with (other than the other half’s family), one was from Edinburgh
And the only native New Yorker (the lovely Ellen who mans (or womans – and she’s the person to ask if that’s correct) the Grammar Table) admitted she was too scared to ride a bike in the city either, though she does walk everywhere.
That said, it’s clear that the city has done a lot to try and make cycling more attractive. It was impressive to see wide, protected, bike lanes along the main north-south avenues (at least on the west side of Manhattan) and also on some of the cross streets.
There was enough parking in the unprotected bike lanes to make it a bit hit-or-miss otherwise and the general sense that New Yorkers take no prisoners, whatever their mode of transport, might make for some high stakes mistakes. Even so, had we had a few more days in the city, I might have given it a go once I’d got my bearings a bit more (trying to ride a bike on unfamiliar infrastructure with everything on the wrong side of the road is bad enough, combining it with navigating is almost impossible), if only to give my poor aching feet a break.
What was really nice was the clear commitment to taking space away from cars. I enjoyed the High Line Park, as a nice place to visit, but what I really liked was where they’d turned Broadway into a pedestrian plaza.
There were loads of parklets, some more finished looking than others (New York infrastructure is pretty rough and ready looking – if a large concrete block will do the job, then that’s what they use and you have to admit it’s effective). The little on-street cabins that all the restaurants had been allowed to open during Covid were also a boon. I think at times my companions might have preferred to sit indoors in the actual air conditioning but I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to sit and have a meal in what had used to be a parking space. Apparently there is a debate over whether they will continue, but they seem like a straightforward win to me. Add in the weekly ‘Open Streets’ events further closing off streets to traffic every Sunday, and there’s a clear commitment towards rebalancing the city’s streets towards pedestrians and cyclists.
However, after four days in what to us felt like baking heat (and Ellen described as ‘the last of the cool weather’), the main takeaway for me was the importance of street trees in making a hot and humid city bearable. New York has a surprising amount of them, along with lots of shady little parks with playgrounds and fountains. I note that there are heat warnings again in the UK. If we can’t put bike lanes everywhere – or even if we can – can we at least start planting trees?
And the ferry is an absolute bargain, especially on a hot day. The same price as the subway, but with spectacular views. We’ll draw a veil over the fact that some sort of transport chaos meant we had to wait an hour in the queue (standing on aching feet after walking all the way from Central Park to get to the ferry stop). It still felt a worthy way to end our trip.
And now we’re in Minnesota in the suburbs, where the driving (and actually the cycling) are a lot easier. Stand by for more adventures of a gentler kind…
As I think I’ve mentioned before, 2022 is the year of doing-things-originally-planned-in-2020, including a couple of much-postponed weddings. And so we find ourselves in Manchester awaiting a flight to New York tomorrow for a couple of weeks with the other half’s family – the first time we’ve seen them all since 2019. It’s been the usual scramble to get away, concluding with assembling all the pot plants that will need watering in one place for ease of access, and wondering just how on earth one unwary purchase of a spider plant about five years ago has turned into the Temperate House collection at Kew. Apparently, they breed. Who knew?
Flying from Manchester to avoid the start of the Scottish school holidays price hikes north of the border seemed like a very good wheeze a few months ago, before the ‘flight chaos’ headlines started, but we’re staying in a hotel within sight* of the airport and don’t have a massively early flight, so we should be able to weather at least a normal amount of chaos (from my mouth to God’s ear, and all that). We’ve already managed to get this far without being stymied by train cancellations (the Trans Pennine Express service around our neck of the woods having become largely theoretical), COVID, or family emergencies. It’s starting to feel as if maybe, just maybe, we might make it off on holidays (assuming we can tear ourselves away from the breaking news, with the government apparently collapsing around our ears.
Assuming we make it, stand by for adventures in New York and the midwest, with undoubtedly some cycling along the way…
* But not, it turns out, within easy walking distance unless you like bolting across four-lane highways and hacking your way through a bus station.
So after POP, and our local Candidates’ Ride, and a month and a half of trying to fit Walk, Wheel, Cycle, Vote in around my other commitments, today was the day when the rubber hits the road (or the pencil hits the paper) and I actually got to go and vote (as did the other half, despite being a furriner, because he’s now allowed to do that in Scotland).
I’m going to blame busyness, but in truth it’s nobody’s fault but my own that it was only a couple of days ago that I actually took the time to look up the candidates standing in my ward. The voting system here is the single transferrable vote, or ‘vote till you boak’ and I know from having done the lists of parties standing in each of the 32 local authorities in Scotland, there are some quite nausea-inducing options out there in some of the wilder fringes. We don’t have any of the really fringe parties standing in Bigtownshire, but a bit of last minute googling revealed that among the five candidates standing for three seats we had one ‘independent’ who’d been thrown out of his party for making Islamophobic jokes, one Tory who’d been an SNP councillor but left because he felt it was becoming a hard left party, and another Tory who I swear to God appears to be about 12 years old. Only one responded to my question about support for Walk, Wheel, Cycle, Vote, so for the rest of them it was definitely a question of who do you want to see defeated the most, rather than who would you like to see elected, and working back from there.
In the past few years I’ve come to the conclusion that one really good councillor in a position of power beats a large number of vaguely well-intentioned ones. If you look at the councils that have streaked ahead with active travel (other causes are available) they’ve had a genuine champion driving it forward. When most of your interactions with the council feel closer to gaslighting than anything else, you need someone who will stand up to the more obstructive officers, and actually work out how to get things done. Whether we’ll manage to elect anyone like that in Bigtownshire, I don’t know. Almost definitely not among the lot on my ballot paper, but I live in hope, as always. And besides, if you don’t vote you can’t complain so off we went and did our duty.
And besides, it was a nice excuse for a bike ride.
So as I’ve mentioned before, my parents are moving to Bigtown shortly and as the daughter on the ground I’ve had various tasks to sort out, not least finding a set of stopgap curtains for the big bay window in the sitting room, so that my mum didn’t need to go looking for something more permanent until they’d got settled in.
This initially proved a challenge even to my advanced charity shop hunting skills, as finding a pair of nice looking curtains of the right size is hard enough; finding two matching pairs, or even two pairs that might coordinate with each other, takes more luck and/or time than I had to spare. It says something about my spatial reasoning ability, that I was a couple of weeks into this particular mission before it occurred to me one afternoon on the bike (where I have all my best ideas), that if I couldn’t find two matching pairs of smaller curtains, then I could, with the application of some scissors and rudimentary sewing skills, turn one big pair into two.
Coincidentally, just as I’d had this genius idea, and secured a pair of curtains that were roughly the right length and width, I got an email about a ‘repair cafe’ at New Nearest Village so off I went with my new purchase up the hill to see if anyone could help. As it happened, the lady with the sewing machine was an ex-curtain maker who could talk me through the whole process. These were lined curtains (‘bagged out’ as they are apparently known in the trade, and I do love a technical term) and could be sewn up on the inside to produce a neat edge even without a sewing machine (fortunately I had plenty of Zoom meetings instead). So after much measuring and pinning and checking and measuring again, the curtains were cut and ready to be sewn.
Sewing is a struggle for anyone as spatially challenged as I am, because everything has to be done inside out and backwards, and even though I’d been shown exactly what to do, it all felt so counterintuitive that I must have turned the damn things inside out and right side in half a dozen times before I was convinced it would work. But work it did, and today we hung the curtains and even though they’re not quite the perfect fit, they’ll do the job until they can be replaced. And all for the princely sum of £6.
And then on Wednesday, the big move begins, and with it what will effectively be a new chapter for all of us. For almost my entire adult life, I’ve never actually lived in the same place as any of my family and while I know this is just normality for most people, the prospect of living more or less on each others’ doorsteps feels like uncharted territory. In a good way, I hasten to add…
So please welcome Mr & Mrs Pepperpot to the blog. And now, back to the hare content …
One of the things about being a published author (did I mention I’ve got a book coming out at all?) is that people ask you about the writers who inspired you growing up. I had a pretty bookish childhood; I was one of those kids adults used to complain always had their nose in a book. But despite having access to an extensive library of the cream of 20th century children’s literature, if I’m honest when I think back to what I enjoyed reading as a child there’s always one book that stands out above all the rest:
I remembered it falling apart even as I had it as a child, so I had assumed it had long got lost along the way as my parents moved from country to country over the years. But I did grow up in a family where discarding books is a powerful taboo (it took me three house moves in as many years before I could bring myself to get rid of any books at all) and jokes are our common currency, and so amazingly it has survived
I was equally amazed at the warmth with which Twitter (at least those of us on Twitter of a certain age) greeted the sight of it. And how many could remember some of its more offbeat jokes after many many years. Such as this one which has lived with me ever since, in all its unresolved weirdness.
I loved this joke as a child and I love it now, but I also remember never being quite sure why it was funny, only that it was. And that in a family where we all had our ‘own’ jokes this one was mine. It has also struck me that (to the frustration of some who have read Hare House and wanted the ending tied up a little more neatly than I was willing to do) it might just be where I got the idea that some things are stronger if they’re left a little unresolved.
So perhaps it was a literary influence after all …
Well, this is exciting – I’m actually going somewhere. I’m not sure if you can count one event at a bookshop as a ‘book tour’ but I am heading to Oswestry for an evening talking about Hare House on the 27th January at the lovely Booka Bookshop (which have even done a wonderful Hare House window in its honour.
Practicalities have put paid to my original plan of taking the Brompton and cycling to Oswestry from the nearest train station, sadly, but I am looking forward to going somewhere different. It’s been a while since that’s happened.
If any of you are Shropshire way and interested, come along and say hello!
Soon, I promise, but today is publication day for my book and as threatened I have made a little video trailer to celebrate.
It’s actually been an interesting little project for the whole Christmas/New Year period, and I’ve ended up learning a lot, mostly about how not to go about making a video, like attempt to shoot video hand held unless you’ve got the steadiness and low heart rate of a sniper. Also that three days spent listening to a recording of your own voice as you painstakingly align images, words and sound would send anyone over the edge.
I have edited basic videos before but mostly just cutting stuff and adding captions and I knew I needed something a little more functional than the video editing tool that comes with Windows. The other half recommended Blender, an open source programme that he’s used before and it definitely is a lot more functional in that it’s a fully fledged 3D animation rendering tool that does a bit of video editing on the side (when we were kids I remember my mother and aunt doing a jigsaw puzzle of Concorde’s cockpit and this is more or less what the Blender user interface is like, only perhaps somewhat more complicated). I was reduced to watching YouTube tutorials, my least favourite method of learning stuff, just to be able to get started, but after a few days of messing around I had got to the point where I could do most of the things that I needed to. And, as well as giving me the excuse to get out cycling round some of my favourite places, it has also reminded me that there is a real satisfaction in learning a new skill (and also filled me with even more admiration than I had before for those people who manage to put really good videos together).
Anyway, here it is, apologies in advance for the sound of my voice …
… and now I’m wondering what else I could do with my new-found skills.