Definition of boredom

deflated yellow balloon in a tree

I was walking the dog across a field last week.
In the distance, where the trees began, I could see something orange, bright in the dreary November morning.
It was near the base of a tree, and as I got closer, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was so out of place, so different from the usual, flat landscape.
I often see dead balloons caught on hedgerows, their nasty shiny plastic and tangled ribbon never rotting, forever proclaiming A Baby Boy! and Happy Retirement!
This though, was too big to be a balloon and too far off the track to be flytippers. This was interesting.
Or not.
It turned out to be a teeny tiny tent – the kind you pitch over your firewood or food store. It had clothes pegs on it and had obviously blown off someone’s line. I found all of this fascinating.
This was the single most interesting thing that happened to me all week.
I have to get out more.


The four books I bought when I was 12

Book token ad

Christmas 1979 and someone gave me a £2 book token. It was a slip of pink paper, a bit like Monopoly money, stating CANNOT BE EXCHANGED FOR CASH and NO CHANGE GIVEN.
It came inside a card with a robin on the front, and to spend it I was taken into Sheffield to Hartley Seed, a big, proper bookshop.

books on a bookshelf

Go on, choose just four

I had never been in a bookshop to browse before.
My pocket money was saved up and spent one volume at a time at the local newsagent, and I was building up my collection of Enid Blyton’s Five Find Outer books (so much superior to the stupid Famous Five and their soppy dog and silly island). With £2 I could complete the set with ease.
I don’t remember getting anywhere near the Blyton shelf. I was distracted by the rows of enticing stories, beguiled by their exciting descriptions and bewitched by their entrancing covers.
I bought four books – four! That makes that £2 book token equivalent to, say, £25 today.
I don’t know whether it was my impressionable age or the novelty of the situation but those books have had a lifelong effect on me.
Dick Turpin by Richard Carpenter

At 75p, the most expensive book of the bunch, but oh so worth it

The first one I fell upon was Dick Turpin by Richard Carpenter. I hadn’t realised you could buy books of TV series that weren’t annuals, and Dick Turpin was, along with Tales of the Unexpected and Sapphire and Steel, compulsory viewing for me at the time.
It was pricy – 75p – but a quick flick through was like watching the series all over again (this is the pre-video age, and I only had my memory to rely on when reliving Dick and Swiftnick’s hair-raising adventures).
I can still remember the thrill when I started reading the first page – that someone had sat down somewhere and typed these words out, and here they were, in a book in my hands. One day, I knew, I’d write a book just as exciting.
The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford

Lesson: Don’t judge a book by its blurb

The second book was a dud. Overwhelmed with the opportunities open to me, I was beguiled by the blurb on the back of The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford.
It was about two dogs and a cat who, for reasons I never fathomed, become separated from their owners and have to walk across Canada to be reunited.
I don’t like animal stories. I don’t even watch David Attenborough. It was a huge disappointment.
The three pets didn’t ‘escape death at almost every step’ and Bodger the bull terrier’s much vaunted ‘strong sense of humour’ must have lost a lot in Canadian translation.
In the following weeks I bitterly regretted not spending that 50p on The Mystery of the Invisible Prince by Enid Blyton.
The Search For Delicious by Natalie Babbitt

Oh lucky hand of fate that drew me to The Search For Delicious

But the third book was a dream. It, like Dick Turpin, made such a lasting impression on me I called the main character in Shriven after one of its characters. The Search For Delicious by Natalie Babbitt is a beautiful story, and the one by which I have measured all others, ever since.
It has everything a good fantasy story should have. The hero is a foundling abandoned at the castle gates. There are mythical creatures – a 900-year-old woldweller, cave-dwelling, apple-loving dwarves and a mermaid who lost her doll.
There is a baddie who brings war down upon the kingdom. There is a quest, a magic whistle and the most satisfying conclusion ever. The names are good. It even has a map.
The Search For Delicious was 50p. That left me with 25p. Even in 1979 it was going to be hard to find a book for 25p. But I persevered in the Ladybird section and came up trumps with Garden Flowers for 24p.
Garden Flowers, a Ladybird Book

Lovely pictures and non-patronising descriptions. A lesson for all childrens’ writers

This was written by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald and illustrated by John Leigh-Pemberton.
It isn’t a childish book, but a straightforward guide to some lovely English cottage garden flowers. I poured over the beautiful pictures for years, imagining I lived in the stately home you catch occasional glimpses of.
Many of the plants it features have done time in my own garden. Short sentences usually – I have the opposite to green fingers (blue toes?)and my lupins, pansies, lilies and alliums rarely last a year.
These were the four volumes I took to the till – dashing adventure, classic epic fantasy and the ultimate escapist garden. Oh, and a bunch of wet animals wandering about.
Their influence on what I read now, and how I strive to write, has been incredible – tight, clever plots, excitment, intriguing characters, tried and tested tropes, wry humour and a light sprinkling of magic. And no plodding pets.
And, despite the edict that no change would be given, the woman at the till took my voucher and gave me a penny change. Result.
Picture from Garden Flowers

The spark for a hundred stories

Picture from Garden Flowers

One day I will live here…

The tightness of time

I am writing a time travel novel with a chum. In fact, we have written TWO time travel novels and are just starting on the third.
They are really good, but what with working on Shriven Book IV (140,000 words and counting) as well as everything else work and family life throws at me, time is tight and we are finding it difficult to get them polished up and onto Amazon.
When I was at university, it was a constant struggle getting my essays in on time, and I had to negotiate an extension to one end-of-term missive. Why? What the hell else was I doing? What the hell else was there to do?

clocks on chains

You can have too much time

I lived in a tiny house with a friend (five rooms. Literally). So hardly any housework.
No meals to prepare (bakery across the road, Chinese two streets away).
No children or parents, no distracting PlayStation or Candy Crush. And what do I have to show for that three years? (Apart from a degree, obviously) Sod all.
I didn’t write any books, I wasn’t active in any societies or working nights with a swamp rock band. I didn’t even have a part-time job (this was the 80s).
Apart from the pile of Cosmopolitans I must have read, I did nothing apart from sit in smoky pubs and feel a bit sorry for myself.
I was single once for six whole months (serial monogamist, me), while living in my current house.
Just me to pick up after, to cook for (I lived on tortilla chips and Rolling Rock beer. Every now and then I would ‘cook’ – make pancakes), to wash and iron for (I lived in Lycra. Ironing took ten minutes once a fortnight).
Was my garden a lush haven of beautiful flowers and finely tended topiary? Nope, it was a chickweed-strangled netherworld.
Did I boast a finely honed yoga body thanks to the daily practise I had time to indulge in? Nope, my back was seizing up due to the marathon sofa sessions spent playing Tomb Raider and Resident Evil.
And the books I wrote…? You know the answer.
Resident Evil 2

Oh the happy, happy hours

Anyone who has ever spent a week in a tent knows you expand to fit the available space. The same goes for time. When it is all just stretching out around you, you automatically slow your pace.
If I had realised at the time how precious all those empty hours were, what could I have achieved? Sod all, actually. It’s only when you can feel the diminishing hours snapping away at your ankles that you find yourself moving fast enough to outrun them.

Did you squander virtue in a cubicle?

junk email

I went online to get double glazing quotes (yes, yes, NOW I know how bloody stupid this was) and the bastards sold my mobile number and email address on.
It turns out my spam filter is pretty good so this didn’t bother me much – until I was rooting around my inbox to try and find a real quote someone claimed to have sent me and opened my junk folder.
Oh wow, what a box of delights.
How do they come up with these things – by throwing a thesaurus at Google translate and seeing what comes out?
It was jammed full of spam email, and the subject lines were a joy.
Here’s a selection of the easiest to understand:

  • In event of you fail muscle on a bedchamber, this isn’t scary.
  • Require to bring about a fine offering to the mate?
  • If you hope gratify a monogamist in the bedchamber wasn’t an obstacle.
  • Would you be hankering to carry a mate in a cot?
  • Say NO! to droop, researchers got a plain decision.
  • I need to advise you, a choicest entity to clarify competition in bed.
Anne Boleyn's bedroom, Hever Castle

This is a bedchamber (at Hever Castle). No sign of failed muscles or ungratified monogamists

OK, so we’re offering something to treat erectile dysfunction here, yes? Although carrying a mate in a cot sounds like some Sheffield expression for not buying your round (“Nay lad, don’t ask him t’pub. He’s hankering to carry a mate in a cot, he is”).

‘Gratifying a monogamist’ may describe the act or married love, but it’s hardly romantic, is it?

Oh, and no-one has said ‘bedchamber’ since 1767.

Then we get these:

  • In case you squander virtue in a cubicle, this isn’t a botheration.
  • Demand to construct a neat boon to the yokefellow.

These are lost on me. Squander virtue in a cubicle – a cubicle?
I assumed yokefellow was some Medieval word for penis (as in ‘He claimed his yokefellow was of such a valiant design it could service three comely wenches in one night, so it could’). Then I looked it up and found it means close companion or colleague.
You won’t catch me giving any of my colleagues a neat boon anytime soon.

office cubicles

Cubicles. Well known for squandered virtue

  • Do you lack a corrective? Look here, we produce you a solve!
  • Awkward to animate your beloved? We can facilitate you!
  • Do you lack a medication? Click here, therein is a hit.
  • During you cut my injunction, you will not dissatisfy.
  • Meanwhile you take their tip-off and slap, you will not repentance.
  • Undergo mess in restroom? Workers own a best answer?

This last one was from someone called Emilio Mccluskey. If you know Emilio, I would advise you never follow him into the Gents.

These next ones follow a sporting theme:

  • The best girl is downcast? Acquire hers delight with our serve.
  • The wife is morbid? Grab hers entertainment with my contribute.
  • The girlfriend is pessimistic? Take hers fun with my serve?
  • The dear heart is distracted? Buy her satisfaction with my assist.

Then there are efforts to tackle the obesity crisis:

  • Did you inactive? Our concern is reappeared, groom your kindred with a little rate.
  • Did you flabby? We are refunded! Nurse healthiness with moderate prices!

And finally, I have no idea what this one is selling, but I’d love to know what an inveteracy lozenge tastes like.

  • Reputable frequenter! Inveteracy lozenge stand get new address!

A Demon Cycle of Slugs

Brown slug

In Peter V. Brett’s excellent The Warded Man we have a world where demons rise from the ground at sundown and attack the human population.
The only protection from the demons – known as corelings – is to inscribe magical runes – known as wards – around your home, your village, even yourself.
If you don’t maintain these wards, renewing them nightly and developing them so they become stronger and more complex, the corelings will kill you.
This summer, in my small back garden, I have suffered attacks from my own personal nest of corelings, and am desperately putting out wards every evening to try and drive them away.

Slug. Ugh

Yep, slugs.
The warm, wet winter, spring and summer has caused a slug explosion, and these slugs mean business.
There are hundreds of them, lurking beneath leaves, under stones, inside the hosepipe, sliming their way across the window and even squelching their way under the kitchen door (imagine padding across a dark kitchen in your bare feet to get a drink and standing on what you assume is a cold, half-sucked Haribo. Oh yes).
These aren’t just those tiny black slugs either, but the big shiny ones with ridges and blowholes, in shades of mustard gas yellow and diarrhoea brown.
They come out at night and eat everything, down to the ground. And they, like Peter V. Brett’s corelings, are getting stronger.
a grey slug

A grey one, the colour of old, cold death

I look out of the window in the morning and see them owning the back yard, long after sunrise. Slugs are supposed to be afraid of sun, but now, drawing strength from their vast numbers, they simply shrug it off.
It is impossible to sit outside on an unusually sunny morning, with a croissant and coffee (get me) because of the brown jelly shapes brazenly patrolling the paving stones, like tiny moving turds.
I started doing a regular slug patrol, scraping them up from the concrete and picking them out of the plants. I regularly fill a plastic bag with their soft, oozing bodies, which I tip into the compost bin.
Slugs in a bin

The corelings making a doomed bid to escape the Compost Bin of Damnation

But more and more emerge from the Earth’s core, eating my lily bulbs and leaving mocking trails of glistening slime on the garage doors.
I don’t believe in pesticides, because, y’know, the planet and nature’s natural balance and all that. But when they ate the poppy I bought at the local beekeepers’ plant sale I saw it as a declaration of war.
Poppies are about the only thing I can grow, and this one was multi-coloured beautiful. And it was from the beekeepers, and bees are Good.
I bought some wards, in the form of a tub of blue slug pellets, and laid them out before nightfall.
The Warded Man

If I ask Arlen nicely, do you think he’ll come and vanquish my slugs for me?

It was carnage. The next morning you couldn’t move for melted slugs, motionless in thick bubbles of brown ooze. I scraped them up with a shovel, hosed down the slime and enjoyed my croissant and coffee. The next day it was the same, the day after that – it rained.
This being August, it rained for three days and the slug pellet wards washed away.
At lunchtime today I went out in the drizzle and picked up thirty-five of the demon slugs, brazenly meandering across the yard.
handful of slugs

This is what a handful of 35 slugs looks like. Cosy

But they haven’t won. Because, ultimately, they will succumb to the same weapon that stopped Napoleon and did for Hitler – winter.
Frost is forecast for this week. And, for once, I will be welcoming it in.

You get what you pay for, especially vacuum cleaners

Vacuuming – how dated is that? Actually shoving some massive, noisy, heavy machine over every inch of floor to suck up dust.
Why, in the 21st century, isn’t there some laser wash that vapourises the dirt and turns it into rose-smelling smoke? Surely Amazon can come up with this, and schedule it to clean your home at 4am, leaving you with nothing but a hint of roses and an Also Recommended For You hologram?
We had a Dyson, when they were a new thing, and it was brilliant, really sucky and good. But after years of misuse hard work it started to flag a bit and I decided it wasn’t worth the cost of replacing the filters and the hoses so we tipped it.
I also decided that seeing as it was years since smug James Dyson had come up with the bagless revolution, every other vacuum manufacturer must have caught up and probably gone one better. So instead of taking out a second mortgage for a new Dyson, I got a cut price Vax.

What was I thinking??

***Rant Alert***

‘Let’s get started’. Let’s not bother, eh?

It sucks. Figuratively and literally. It sucks the grime, which is the only positive thing I can say about it. It also sucks rugs, cables (including its own), dressing gown cords, tubes of wine gums (still bitter about that) – anything within a two-foot radius it grabs and mawls. When it does this a red light blinks on and it cuts out and you have to stop and pull your shredded rug or charging cable out of the sweeper head. It oversucks. It totally sucks.
It also weighs three tonnes; fills up too fast; gets you filthy when you have to empty it; has a short, useless hose that keeps falling out; needs totally dismantling when you need a longer hose; has nowhere to store the stupid tools that come with it – which is actually fine as the stupid tools don’t fit on the hose properly and split and fall off all the time anyway; it can’t cope with any kind of change in height, so you have to pick it up and drop it down every time you go from carpet to floorboard (we have a lot of floorboards because we can’t afford carpets they are stylish and cool).
And, cardinal vacuum cleaner sin, the cable winding hook thingie isn’t big enough to take all the stupid cable, so it falls off in the cupboard and trips people up and gets wound round the ironing bag and sweeps all the shoes off the shelf.
Last week it sucked up some Black Jacks and got jammed. I needed to take the hoses off and ram a skewer up it, but they wouldn’t come off. So I spent half an hour looking for the manual (thinking all the while of the old faithful Dyson, which you dismantled in trice with the charming help of a 2p piece, no screwdrivers required).
When I found the manual there was no clue as to how to pull it apart, so I used brute force, eventually unjamming it and covering myself in fluff, loom bands, hairballs and sticky Black Jacks in the process.
Then, as you do, I texted my husband to tell him all about it.

I want one of these (the maid, not the machine)

That night he came home with a Dyson, a cordless, rechargeable one. It is a thing of beauty, despite only having 20 minutes worth of charge and costing the equivalent of two months’ groceries. Vacuuming now has to be planned and timetabled, so I can get the best out of the Dyson in between charges, with the hated Vax picking up the slack. But it is so much better.
My lesson is learned. For so long we have this idea that you are being made a mug of if you pay over the odds for something. Find the top price and the top brand then keep downsizing and downsizing until they are paying you – and its just as good, yes?
This works for Jaffa Cakes and Lidl coffee but not much else.
My father in law is a master at this, combing Amazon and eBay for cheap knock-offs that are – he claims – as good as the branded ones. They aren’t. Last year it was a smart watch, ‘just as good as an Apple – you can check your emails on your wrist’. Thing is, he doesn’t need a smart watch, Apple or otherwise. Six months later: “Do you want the smart watch? The strap isn’t very good, you can’t read the screen and it isn’t compatible with anything, but you can check your emails on your wrist!” Same thing went for the cut-price fake Go-Pro camera thing (“the picture isn’t great, and you can only record 30 seconds of footage but it is splashproof!”) and the £25 tablet (“it’s a bit slow, it keeps turning itself off and the charger is dodgy – but you can check your emails on it!”).

Things it is worth paying top dollar for – a list born out of bitter, bitter experience

  • Dyson vacuum cleaners. See above.
  • White Company bedsheets. Oh the sheer luxury of sliding between posh cotton sheets. So much better than anything you will get from Argos. You will sleep better, you really will.
  • Yankee Candles. Fifteen quid for a scented candle! But they last for months and smell divine. None of the cheap knock offs come close, and I have been through them all.
  • Hotel Chocolat. Thorntons seems greasy, Cadbury seems sugary, everything else seems bland after you’ve scoffed a box of these.
  • Dulux & Crown paint. Others are much, much cheaper. They are cheaper because you need twice as much to cover the same area, and then they peel off. Come and look at my stairs if you don’t believe me.
  • Apple Macintosh 1 computer

    The first and still the best. Couldn’t afford one then, can’t afford one now…

  • Apple iPads, iPhones, iMacs and Macbooks. Design classics, cost far too much but so much better than anything else. The first computers I ever used were Apples, and I’d still rather have them than the clunky Windows laptop I am stuck with now.
  • Antler luggage. Bust the overdraft eight years ago to buy a set of bright red luggage, which cost more than the clothes I packed inside it. They came with their own dust bags. Dust bags! They have been used dozens of times, for everything from cruises to Brownie camping trips, and are still rock solid and because they are bright red they never get lost at baggage reclaim.
  • Ghd hair straighteners. They cost five times as much as other brands but they get your hair six times straighter and sleeker, and in a sixth of the time.