I Shut All The Doors Now: Our dog died

Velma the dog with a large stick, standing on the edge of the wood walking into the sunlight

This is becoming a bit of a sad blog – death and grief and loss.

(But first of all, anyone who hasn’t owned, and loved, a dog simply has no idea how it feels when they die. So don’t roll your eyes and mutter “it’s only a dog” or “it’s not like losing a child or anything” because you simply have no bloody idea.)

Danny Baker says a pet is the heart of a home. I didn’t understand what this meant until the heart of our home died.

Velma the dog looking into the camera

She was our dog

A dog is the thing you always come back to – they are at home more than anyone else, they never go on city breaks or spend the day in Meadowhall or the evening in Pizza Hut.

They are the living part of the house, the part that is always welcoming, always thrilled you are back, and never has any recriminations. They are part of your home and family’s rhythms so intimately that the shock when they are gone is incredible. Suddenly you are unmoored, adrift without any ballast.

In a million different ways I am reminded of Velma, our one-of-a-kind dog. The thump of a tail when you come downstairs in the morning, the trot to the kitchen when she hears you unbolt the back door. The sound of blackbirds shrieking as she swooped onto the lawn. The way she went to the door whenever she heard the washing machine finish its cycle, knowing I’d be going outside, her angry excitement at the postlady and the teeth-punctured envelopes. They way she hurled herself out of the front door whenever she heard the latch turn and jumped up at the fence looking for next door’s cats. The irises I foolishly planted by the fence will now get the chance to grow properly and I couldn’t be more gutted.

Velma the dog asleep in her chair

Never totally asleep when there may be a postlady to bark at

I worked from home for many years and one of the reasons we got a dog was for the company. Homeworking, especially in a village, doing a solitary job, can be depressingly isolating. On work days she would follow me into the study, jump onto her chair (always very light on her feet for such a heavy dog) and snooze, checking the window for passing dogs, postladies and wheelchairs (she hated them all). I didn’t know how valuable this companionship was until it was gone.

Now, as I move from room to room I shut all the door behind me. When I leave the house I close all the doors, and when we go to bed we do the same. No need to leave them ajar so the dog can wander about. This is a home without a dog, and the house feels so much bigger, while our lives are made so much smaller.

She has been gone a week, and while those final, terrible days seem to have happened in another universe, the hole her death has punctured through our lives shows no sign of getting any smaller.

Velma the dog close up

A constant presence

When the delivery driver pulls up I still jump up to shut the study door so the dog can’t bother him. He will never know we used to have a dog, and I still can’t believe I am writing the words ‘… we used to have a dog…’.

I clean the house, automatically wiping the places where her paw marks would be, or the bottom of the doors made grubby by her nosing through them, even though they are still clean from last time I automatically wiped them.

I prepare my lunch and go to the cupboard where the dog food was kept, ready to fill her bowl.

Even though it would be much more convenient, I can’t bring myself to leave the gates open, kept tightly shut so she wouldn’t go bowling off into the road. The spot on the drive where she used to sit and watch the pavement, sweeping the gravel clean with her tail when she saw one of her favourite passers-by, is just that – a nondescript piece of drive. There is nothing to show it was once her spot. It is just a piece of ground now.

Velma the dog walking through a rapeseed field

So many walks, so many thoughts

The time I would have spent on a dog walk, mulling over writing ideas or listening to podcasts or planning the week’s menus, is now spent writing this blog post. The dog never realised we only went on walks for her – she thought we had some important and regular business in the fields or woods and that she was tagging along.

But of course, we didn’t go on walks just for her – they were a vital part of our lives too. And now that precious hour will be filled in with emails, or ironing or Twitter, and we are made lesser because of it.

The outside space she left will be quickly filled up like sand washing into a hole on the beach. But not the space in our hearts and our thoughts. She’s gone and the door is closed forever.

Velma leaping over snow-covered ground in the twilight

Just a silhouette


Chucking memories in a skip (Home Is So Sad)

Ivy covered gravestones

I’ve been clearing out my Grandmother’s house. She died 20 years ago, but my aunt carried on living there until she recently moved out and into sheltered housing.

It was never properly emptied and dealt with when Grandma died, and oh my gods am I dealing with it now.

It isn’t a big house but it is crammed with a lifetime of things. What the hell do you do with them?

Mirror set above a fireplace

Three generations of my family have peered into this mirror. Now someone I have never met looks into it

My sister hired a skip and it has broken my heart a dozen times to see stuff tossed into it, stuff I remember from my childhood, stuff I know Grandma used and valued.

She used to bake us tiny loaves of bread to have, warm and fresh, with our tea. Discovering the bread tins, made useless with rust, in a kitchen drawer, reduced me to tears.

Cream jugs, glasses cases, ashtrays – all useless now, but how can you throw them out when they are so heavy with memories?

Collection fo glasses, vases and crockery on a table

There is a story for every single of these items, and I’ll never know what it is

I looked online to see what people do in these situations – clearing out a close relative’s house happens all the time, no? There must be strategies for coping with it, yes?

Apart from suggestions to ‘save one or two special pieces and send the rest to a charity shop’ it seems the advice is to just bin it all.

But I can’t bin the homemade needle case with the rusty needles in it, and a charity shop would look at it askance. The same goes for the address of my first house, written on the back of a Christmas card in that familiar handwriting that no-one will ever write again, or the battered tobacco box of elastic bands, or the Scrabble game with the charred tiles where my sister (as a toddler) gleefully hurled them on the fire and they had to be raked out, amidst much hysteria.

Beige tiled fireplace

The fireplace where Scrabble very nearly met its end

On top of that is the the eternal, unanswered question that underpins every bloody thing we do. How can someone be so very much alive – alive enough to cut out a dress pattern, cast on some knitting, start a shopping list – and then not be there? How can you reconcile yoursef with the fact that everything is futile, because one day, not so very far away, it will all stop?

Everything that was them – their dreams, their unvoiced opinions, their memories, their knowledge, their plans for next week, their future selves – all comes to nothing.

There is no download, no backup on Dropbox, no reboot. They are gone and it is irreversible.

Philip Larkin summed it up.

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

Light shining through the coloured glass in a front door

Are all the carol singers trick or treating?

Victorian carol singers outside a snowbound cottage

My dad hated carol singers with a venom. He refused to answer the door to them and would become apoplectic if we timidly suggested giving them 5p.

I don’t know why this was. His general Scrooge-like attitude to everything that required payment? Memories of a viciously Catholic upbringing that had him do his time as an altar boy, forced to listen to dolorous carols for hour after lightheaded hour? An aversion to anyone who came to the door, for whatever reason?

Whatever, we used to be forbidden to move as we listened to the warbling outside, while he rolled his eyes and turned the TV up.

Carol singer dolls

This is how I imagined carol singers when I was a child – because I never got to see any of them

Some nights there would be three or four groups visiting, everyone from posh kids with clarinets doing In The Deep Midwinter to the local oiks in santa hats, belting out We Wish You A Merry Christmas.

I am now, as a homeowner with a front door of my own to sing outside of, in a position to do it differently.

But I can’t – there are no carol singers anymore.

Carol singers, Alma Tadema

NOT my doorstep. My doorstep doesn’t have an oil slick on it

It has been years since we had anyone screeching Silent Night on our doorstep.

Is it because they don’t teach carols in school anymore? 

My childhood Christmasses were stitched together with renditions of Once In Royal David’s City, Oh Come All Ye Faithful and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. The first Christmas song I ever learned was Away In A Manger. Now I assume it is All I Want For Christmas Is You (Mariah Carey version).

Or is it a reluctance to ask the neighbours for money? Don’t people have spare change in the house anymore? Is it not worth two hours getting a sore throat and cold feet for a couple of quid and a pocketful of floury mince pies?

Singing carols for Scrooge

See! Singing carols can make your scarf turn a cheery red

Or do too many people claim they are ‘spiritual but not religious’, meaning they are physically incapable of singing carols? I’m not Christian (blame a Catholic childhood…) but I shamelessly deck the halls at Christmas and hum O Little Town Of Be-ethleham’ while opening my Advent calendar. Anything else is humbug.

There is also another reason, if the amount of sweets we get through on October 31 in recent years is anything to go by – everyone who used to go carol singing is trick or bloody treating instead.

close up photo of jack o lantern

Imperialistic tendencies

Disclaimer: This is not a Brexit post.*

How much do you weigh? How tall are you? Waist size? Shoe size? How far is the nearest Indian takeaway?

Stones and pounds I bet. Feet and inches, some number between six and 12 (apart from the freaky elf-foot people) and miles.

At school, I was taught distance in centimetres and kilometres, and weight in grams and kilograms. But at home, our Marguerite Patten cookbook measured flour and sugar in ounces, the sweet shop sold Kola Kubes in quarter bags and roadsigns were in miles and yards.

As a teenager, we measured our weight in stones and lbs, not kilos. When I bought fabric at Barnsley Market to make pin-sharp pencil skirts it was measured in inches and yards. My knitting needles were in big solid numbers with no full stops, so you knew where you stood with them.

It was like the metric system never happened.

Fraction signs

I HATED fractions at school. Love ’em on signs

Even shoe sizes stick with the old style, although the dull metric system has infiltrated this more than most places. (How are shoe sizes calculated anyway? Why do they go from one to 13 and then back to one again? I’m a five-and-a-half, but five-and-a-half what? Cobbler’s fingers? Broadsword widths?) **

What amazes me is how we have managed to merrily carry on for more than half a century (the metric system was phased in from 1965) existing with two systems that have no real crossover. Kilometres and miles are, well, miles apart. A kilogram is 2.2 lbs (I think). A yard is roughly the same as a metre, true, but feet and inches just won’t bend to anything that divides by ten.

Legislation went so far and then gave up, which is why a pub will sell shorts in 25ml measures but beer and cider in pints. Car manufacturers talk about miles per gallon, but the oil companies sell petrol in litres (because it looks cheaper that way, the filthy swivellers).

It’s just so foreign. And look at that cup. You’d never get nice tea in a cup like that

Why do we do it? The Imperial system is hard. Inches are divided into eighths, lbs are 16 ounces but stones are 14 lbs. You have to be a mental maths genius to work it out. How many times have you heard someone on American TV say they weigh 180lbs and have to get your phone out to divide it by 14? And ounces are abbreviated into oz – where’d the ‘z’ come from?*** Pounds are lbs, for some medieval Latin reason (probably) and feet and inches don’t even have an abbreviation, they have quote marks instead.

The metric system is lovely and neat and it all divides by ten and all the measurements have matching names. But it isn’t British. And we have never liked being told what to do by foreigners, especially when we invented measuring (probably).

There is something very British about the yard, the acre, the quart and the gallon. They are traditional and solid and Churchilian. They aren’t artificial invented measurements but historic. A stone weighs as much as an actual stone. A foot is the length of King Canute’s footprint when he tried to hold back the tide in 1028 (I made that up but you know what I mean).

A milepost

You know where you are with a mile

And secretly we like the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t understand our measurements (only the Americans a bit, and they can’t get to grips with ounces and stones). We watch smugly as foreigners try to remember their 2.2 times table or look aghast at the enormous glass of beer they inadvertently ordered.

But we must be on the alert, as mealy-mouthed metric is starting to creep in.  I still ask for a quarter of salted caramel fudge in our lovely old-style sweet shop, but what I get is 100g. My children have no idea what the other side of the ruler (with the inches on it) is for. They weigh flour and sugar for cakes in grams, and measure milk for Angel Delight in mililitres. They complain that the cables on their phone chargers are only a metre long.

If we are going to go ahead with this Brexit madness then hopefully some good will come of it in the form of the official re-introduction of Imperial measurements. And while we are at it, let’s have tanners, shillings, guineas, sovereigns and groats back as well.


*I changed my mind at the end, so maybe it is.

**I’ve just Wikipediad this. It is five-and-a-half barleycorns. I rest my case.

***This is something to do with Latin, Old English, Middle English, Anglo-Norman, Middle French and archaic Italian. Of course it is.


The hierarchy of mugs

We have a mug cupboard. Everyone in the UK has a mug cupboard.

None of them match. Mugs that match are creepy. Those sets of six mugs that come dangling on a stupid stand that unbalances and falls over if you don’t take them off alternative sides? Don’t trust anyone who has one of those.

Anyone who drinks tea or coffee in a normal, British way does so about five times a day AT LEAST. So mugs get used a lot, and washed a lot, and left on the side of the work surface or the arm of the settee or the side of the chair so they get knocked off and kicked and bashed against the taps or crammed into cupboards on top of other mugs and chipped.

Nice blue mug

Nice mug. No idea where it came from

Lots of matching mugs means they haven’t been broken, and so the owner doesn’t have a tea habit, but is pretending they do. They are just going through the mug motions. And therefore not to be trusted.

That aside, there is a definite heirachy of mugs, with favourites used time and again while others are destined to be shoved to the back of the cupboard, only to be pulled out when you haven’t washed up and are desperate, or need something to put a spare egg yolk in.

The qualities that make a good mug are impossible to define. It isn’t down to design, good gods no. It much more intangible than that. But there are rules:

China for tea

My monarchist mother keeps me supplied with royal-themed china mugs, gifting me a new one every time the royal family do anything, and thank the lord for it. Tea has to be drunk out of china, and you get more in a mug than a cup, and don’t have to faff with a saucer (because only a brutal-minded heathen would drink from a cup WITH NO SAUCER **clutches pearls**).

China royal mugs

Two royal commemorative china mugs, boxed and waiting ready for tea action

But never for coffee

Coffee out of china mug is disgusting and not to be tolerated. We will never speak of it again.

Not too small

I have many cute little mugs, including a dear blue spotty Cath Kidson one from a dear friend. But there are few things that can leave you with such a feeling of desolation as coming to the end of a cup of tea or coffee before you are ready. The sense of loss stays with you all day. So these mugs are used for various other purposes, like whipping up an egg, making a tiny amount of glace icing or scooping out pasta water to add to the sauce (as recommended by Nigella).

Not too big

Coffee is a life-saving beverage and tea is the curer of all ills, so you would think the bigger the mug the better. But no. Too heavy, too clumsy, the drink goes tepid, it dribbles down your chin. And you look stupid.

A big Sports Direct mug

The poor unwanted Sports Direct mug, proof that bigger is not always better

Unless it’s hot chocolate

You can never go too big when you are making hot chocolate, as you need the extra inches for cream, marshmallows, sprinkles, a dessert spoon etc. The only exception is the massive Sports Direct mug (and every other house has one, even though no-one has ever, ever paid money for one). This is far too big and stupid to be any good as an actual mug. Ours is in the garage, filled with odd screws (there’s a metaphor there for the company itself if I could come up with it).

Not too thick

Hard to describe, but some mugs feel as if they have been made by a six-year-old at a drop-in craft workshop. They are really thick and heavy and fill your mouth up with clay instead of coffee. Without even knowing you do, you always reach past this mug.

It doesn’t matter what’s on the front

You buy a mug (or get it bought for you) because it matches your kettle, or has a witty slogan or is tea-snortingly rude or it is a souvenir. “Oh ha ha,” you say, when your workmates at the presbytery give you a mug with a winking nun on the outside whose clothes fade away once hot water is poured inside. And then no-one ever comments on it again. When it comes to mugs, it is how it feels that counts.

(This post was inspired by a tweet from Jen Williams, author of the superb Copper Cat trilogy and the EVEN BETTER Winnowing Flame series. Giant bats, drone armies, alien (or are they??) invasions, green fire witches. There’s nothing not to like there.)


Four small mugs

The egg yolk mugs – all lovely but far too titchy for tea

Why working from home is both brilliant and rubbish

working from home

I have spent a lot of time working from home and its good. But not that good.

There’s a lot of crap talked about home working, the main one being that you can work in your pyjamas and set your own hours. Neither of these has been are true for me.

I started working from home when we wound up with four children in four different schools across two counties, with varying hours, start and finish times. Before then I did evenings and weekends – I know the bleak horror of the Sunday night 2.30 – 10.30 shift.

How Ikea think your home office should look…

My (childless) boss, while cheerily agreeing to me doing a couple of shifts from home, remarked that it was a good idea as I wouldn’t need to pay for childcare.

This ain’t happening.

It depends on your job, of course, but if you are looking after a child and attempting to work you aren’t doing either of them properly.

Working from home isn’t the answer to your childcare problems. What it does do, though, is enable you to juggle and balance like a circus acrobat.

messy desk

… how it probably actually is

Working from home means you can:

  • Take your kids to school and be there when they get home. This is the main benefit of being at home, the one that wipes out all the disadvantages.
  • Do the washing. I do at least one, sometimes two load of washing a day. Washing is really important.
  • Not commute to work. You save on petrol and stress and spend your time more productively (doing the washing).
  • Not commute home. You finish work and walk straight into the kitchen (and the washing up). If you value family life, this is bloody brilliant.

Additional benefits:

  • You never have to give to leaving collections.
  • Office politics passes you by.
  • You don’t waste time in meetings.
  • There are less distractions, so you actually get more done.
  • You don’t have to make tea for the whole room every time you want a drink, or put up with someone else’s vile attempts at a brew.
  • You are always in when Amazon call (v important).
  • It is company for the dog.
  • On slow days, you can paint your nails at your desk (though I did actually used to do this at work).
  • You can knit while reading emails and not look like a weird cat lady.

But it can also be shit. Here’s why:

  • You are isolated. Don’t underestimate this. You don’t get to hear what’s going on at work, little things can get blown out of proportion because you have no context, you feel out of the loop. There is no ad hoc learning – picking stuff up from colleagues – and you miss out on the camaraderie that can make a shite day at work just about bearable.
  • Office politics. Good to be out of them – not good to realise you have just asked for advice from the biggest arsehole in the office, only you didn’t know because you are not there.
  • You daren’t complain about old equipment or being overlooked because you know everyone thinks you are on a cushy number working from home anyway.
Fingerless gloves

The chilly plight of the home worker…

  • Heating bills. This was a genuine surprise. In the House of A Thousand Draughts, I need the heating on all day, and still have to type in fingerless gloves. The office is a tropical haven by comparison.
  • Agoraphobia. You get so used to not going out and talking to people you forget how to do it.
  • Disturbances. If something happens, you have to deal with it. Once a pigeon got stuck in the chimney and I spent half an hour trying to get it out before it flew around the room, scattering soot everywhere. Another time, someone had a heart attack outside my house just as my shift started. I spent an hour on the pavement waiting for the ambulance.
  • People thinking because you are at home you can be interrupted, chatted to, called on etc. They would never call into your office and start doing that.
  • The fact your home is your work, so you never leave it, and the area you work in becomes tinged with work dislike.
  • You work when you are ill. Employers are often oblivious to this, but you are much more likely to work when you are poorly or in pain if all you have to do is drag yourself downstairs, instead of cope with a stressful commute and an unsympathetic office.
  • No office lunches, and breaks are spent unpacking schoolbags and emptying the tumble dryer. I used to love office lunches – big breadcakes squeezing out Coronation chicken and salad (‘do you want onions with that love?’), followed by a curd cake or a Russian slice. Now it is a packet of own-brand tortilla chips dropping crumbs into the keyboard.
  • You are reliant on your tech, the IT department is 35 miles away and you only have one computer. I once had to drive into work to finish my shift, and go in the next week because pikies had nicked our village’s cable and we had no broadband.


  • That you don’t have to pay for childcare. Eh? Looking after children is a full-time job. Doing your paid job is a full-time job. Two into one doesn’t go, unless you have a baby who sleeps eight hours solid or a toddler who will play alone silently, get its own meals and change its own nappy.
  • That you are sat in your dressing gown. I get up at the crack of sparrow to organise my many children and walk my needy dog. Can’t do that in slippers.
  • That you are sat in bed. Maybe some people do this, but I’d end up with a cricked back and cables everywhere.
  • That you are simultaneously holding a coffee morning/going to the supermarket/renovating your kitchen. Yeah right. I get so paranoid about workmates thinking I’m not pulling my weight I take the phone into the toilet with me.

Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #15: The Rain

Bunker door

Apparently the British don’t like dubbed dialogue – I think it must be childhood memories of The Flashing Blade which was first terribly and then hilariously dubbed.

We prefer to struggle with subtitles, meaning you can’t take your eyes off the screen.

But Netflix have now decided that reading is just too much of a drag and have dubbed their Scandi thriller The Rain, claiming people only notice the dubbing 20 minutes in.

Alba August as Simone in The Rain

Simone (Alba August). Good to know you can still get your highlights done in post-apocalyse Denmark

This isn’t true – you notice straight away, because it is so awful, but forget after 20 minutes, because the rest of the show is even worse.

It does mean though that I can iron and still watch, without burning holes in the laundry.

To be fair, the first two episodes of The Rain are pretty good. It kicks off straight away without any tedious scene-setting. Within the first ten minutes our heroine Simone is hustled from school by her father and into a car with her mother and younger brother Rasmus.

As they head out of the city, escaping an ominous rain cloud, she demands to know what is going on and her parents don’t tell her.

Why do they do this in dramas? Why the hell can’t the grown-ups just say ‘we have to leave because blah blah so we are going to blah blah and then blah blah will happen’. Is it supposed to create tension? Because it doesn’t.

Instead, they all shout and argue and have a car crash, luckily very close to a secret underground bunker her father knows about. The father immediately heads off, but refuses to say where he is going, why, what for etc.

Then, basically because she hasn’t been told what is going on, stupendously stupid Simone opens the bunker door and gets her mother killed. Which kinda serves Mum right for trying to make hot chocolate instead of explaining to her panicking kids WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON.

What is going on is that the rain carries a vicious virus that induces fits, vomiting and death within minutes. And Simone and Rasmus’s disappeared dad has something to do with it.

Rasmus (Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen). Surprisingly buff after six years in a bunker

Fast forward six years – yep, SIX YEARS – and the food is running out so Simone and Rasmus – now a sulky 16-year-old – have to head out into the forest. They are found/capured by the inevitable band of hard-bitten survivors, and so the fun begins.

Or it would, if the stroppy teens did anything else other than bicker, look soulfully at each other, have shouting matches, discuss whether they are virgins or not and do utterly stupid things.

Thing is, unlike Walking Dead, which is set in America, where any kind of madness goes, this is set in Denmark, where they are into pastries and good coffee, not brutal torture or callous killing. We like the Danes – they are civilised. So the sense of real menace that hangs around other post-apocalyptic stuff just isn’t there. We know they will be ok, because it is Scandinavia.

After six years there is going to be no food left – nothing – yet no-one has scurvy or appears anything other than buff and healthy. And, except where it helps the plot, no-one seems that hungry either. The gang move from place to place because Simone wants to find her dad, when surely staying in one place and planting something would be the clever thing to do.

But clever thinking doesn’t feature much in The Rain. Why do they wander through the streets with bulging rucksacks in the open in broad daylight when they know people are going to be a mite peckish? Why don’t they have any weapons apart from a single rifle (which, to be fair, does have infinite ammo)?

This is the gang. They are hungry and angry but at least they have shiny hair

Why are massive buildings still standing? Nothing is overgrown or collapsed, there are just a few badly parked cars (it is a rule in post-apocalyptic dramas that all the cars must be badly parked) and a bit of rubbish blowing about.

The storyline is a bit barmy, but you can forgive that if everything else – characters, dialogue, setting etc – is up to scratch. But by the time we finally get answers we don’t care much, because none of the characters are worth caring about.

Things I shouted at the TV while pressing creases into skirts

  • Don’t open the door! Don’t open the door! Why did you open the door? Close the door! Close the fucking door!
  • Why did the missing father plug in his phone to recharge it and then walk off without it? Just to leave a great big humungeous clue behind? Surely not.
  • OK, so everyone needs a back story, but does it have to involve some naive Christian getting drugged and raped by her classmates at the first party she ever goes to? Couldn’t the writers have come up with something more convincing and a damn sight less cheap and lazy?
  • That dog that was sniffing around minding its own business. Is it ok? Did it find something nice to eat?
  • Why is everyone’s hair so shiny? How do they wash it when the water is all poisonous?
  • How come no-one has a beard, where are the razors? How come they are all so clean when the water is poisonous?
  • They just shot a woman because she put one foot in a steam and the water is poisonous. Yet earlier, how come they all tramped through a forest where it had been raining and no-one got a drop of poisonous rainwater on them?
  • Don’t go on the roof, it’s just been raining! There will be rainwater everywhere, on the railings, on the floor – and the rainwater is poisonous. Oh. You’ve gone on the roof.