Tuesday 8 December 2009


(January 4th - some direct links included but more to come.)
Miracles do happen: I've managed to finish the text part of this post before Xmas. However, after Xmas is all over and I'm sufficiently sober, I want to add some photos and direct links to some of the music I've been talking about.

So, all that's left to say for now is that I wish you all A VERY HAPPY XMAS/FESTIVE SEASON TIME/ HOLIDAY TIME AND A JOYFUL NEW YEAR!

To my great delight, I received a very long comment about this particular blog just a few days ago. Unfortunately, agentcoop had a very different experience to the one that John and I had.

In a few days time, I'll be posting that comment here so you don't have to do that endless scrolling down. And I'll also give my response.

Just to say, briefly, agentcoop, I remember the incident you were referring to. I, too, found it terrifying and I was on a balcony, not in the crowd. John was, though, filming the set, and when he returned, he found that one of his jeans pockets had been split open with a knife and the contents removed (just a useless battery to anyone without a specific type of camera).

So, I can agree with your comments whole-heartedly and will recount some of the problems John and I have had in Essaouira (for the sake of balance).

However, the bottom line is, we still go the the festival every year because the good bits, for us, far outway the bad bits. But YOU and your friends were definitely cheated and I'm so sorry for that.

Read your Essaouira tales with interest. I, too, was at this year's Festival and had quite a different experience.

I had been in Essaouira 7 years ago - not during the Festival - and loved the place at once. We stayed at the Hotel des Iles and loved every minute of it.

Thsi time we went back for the Festival and shared a house just up the road from Bab Marrakech with 3 other couples. The house was great but my experience of the Festival was very different to yours.

On the first night in Moulay Hassan, we were listening to Sixun, a French band and the mood was wrecked by conga lines of local adolescent boys constantly moving through the crowd and buffeting everyone. To make matters worse I had my pocket picked. Not a good night; we left early.

On the second night I saw Babani Kone in the square by Bab Marrakech - more families, less hassle and very pleasant.

The following night, on the long pedestrian street from Bab Marrakech into the heart of the Medina, someone tried to pick my pocket again (Stopped him just in time!) and by the time we returned to the square for the gig you mention with Karim Ziad and the German Orchestra, the crowd was huge and out of control.

Most of our party got scared and went back to the house but 2 of us hung on, determined to see/hear some music. It was OK for the first half-hour, give or take the usual business with the conga lines of adolescent boys again, but then a small fight broke out in the crowd near us, then minutes later a much bigger fight which cleared a circle about 50 yards across in the middle of the square.

Large numbers of people were simply running straight at us to get away and we nearly got trampled in the crush. That was enough for my friend Kathy, so we too left. I felt thoroughly cheated having managed to see only one complete set in three days... We watched the Sunday evening gig from one of the cafes on Moulay Hassan, but had to leave early as we had booked a meal back at the house.

By then, however, I will confess that I was feeling very jaded about the whiole experience. I would definitely go to Essaouira again, but definitely not whilst the Festival is on! To my way of thinking, the policing and crowd control are totally inadequate for a Festival of this size. I also found the locals much less friendly than on our prior visit.

I blog myself (agentcoop.wordpress.com) and may well follow your lead and write my version of Essaouira 2009 - sadly, it will be by no means as positive!


Have been giving your comments a lot of thought because I don't want any of you to think that the Festival is without its downsides.Because if you do fork out all that dosh to go there and then find that it's not all hunky-dory, then you'll be disappointed and I wouldn't want that.

I only starting blogging a few years ago and so have only posted our experiences this Festival and last year's Festival. Therefore I haven't shown how this passion has evolved over the years.

But I will now. (Come on, no groaning!)

There have been references in both of these blogs to some difficulties we have had but I guess we've learnt so much, particularly in accepting things that can and will go wrong, and how to minimise them. So they fade quickly from our memories once we get home and I tend to write mainly about what I've really enjoyed about the Festival and Morocco generally.

So, beginning at the beginning.

It was John who suggested and arranged a three-centre package holiday Xmas trip to Morocco some years ago. As a hippy in the sixties, he had stayed at the small village of Diabet (where Jimi Hendrix stayed) a few miles outside Essaouira. Great, I thought. Sunshine. A tan. Let's go.

It was not a brilliant holiday, though. For a start, it was raining when we arrived and did so for days. The clothes I had packed were summer clothes and it was so cold that I tended to wear lots of clothes at the same time just to keep warm (hardly a great fashion statement).

In particular, I only had open sandals so had to buy some sturdy, water-proof boots from a shop in the new part of Marrakech, which is hardly an inspiring place, although it's much improved now.

The hotel we stayed in in Marrakech was new and massive, with no character, surly staff and a disappointing breakfast in what was like a computer-belt canteen with poor service and even poorer food. Plus, the pool was too cold to swim in.

Then we spent several days in a beautiful retreat hotel in the Atlas mountains, which was definitely a plus. Log fire in the bedroom, gardens full of lush flowers and plants, enchanting bird song (one of the many things I like about Morocco). Two outdoor swimming pools, one indoors, but too cold to swim in. Plus, a group of us guests had to fight tooth and nail not to partake of the 15 course Xmas Eve meal, at a phenominal price not included or mentioned in the brochure.

Things perked up, though, when we returned to Marrakech on Xmas Day. The sun was out, it was fabulously hot,and lunch on a roof-top terrace over-looking the Square, watching all the wierd entertainment (transvestite belly-dancers, snake charmers etc), was exciting beyond words. A great way to spend Xmas Day.

Then the rain returned and we swashed our way around. Went to the famous souk: a vast indoors warren of extremely narrow streets lined with stalls selling Moroccan tat, mainly, and bursting with people and aggressive store-holders. Carts bulldozed their way through. It was very muddy and rain dripped from holes in the roof. I hated it.

Mainly because, agentcoop, and here's the irony - I hate crowds and can have a panic attack no probs if I feel too enclosed.

But, I did discover the wonders of the Moroccan hamans: vast, dark, hot caverns of steam, with Moroccan ladies who sure know how to give a good massage. Costs about a fiver (well, it did then) and you emerge back out of the uninviting, intimidating, tiny entrance feeling cleaner than you've ever felt before. (Many hotels have their own hamans now and charge a lot but the public ones are far more fun.)

Then it was down to Essaouira, which took A LONG TIME. But when we saw the glistening white city with the sea beyond as we approached from a height, I was overwhelmed by its beauty. The sun was now shining again and continued to do so for the rest of our stay.

However, the hotel we stayed at, some distance from the city, was another of these massive, modern, impersonal places that are springing up at an alarming rate in Morocco. No character. No atmosphere. And an unheated swimming pool so of no use to me whatsoever.

And by the time we had left our taxi and arrived at our room, my lovely new boots had 'disappeared'. So, yes, lots of possesions can 'disappear' in Morocco, one way or another.

But, I took to Essaouira immediately, far preferring it to Marrakech. It had a hippy, laid back feel to it and I relaxed into the less frantic, less noisy, less busy life style.

We found the cafe Chez Mustapha on the first day, on the street leading to Moulay Hassan (one of the main squares and right next to the Atlantic Sea). We just liked the look of it and found, straight away, that it was a good choice. Friendly staff, speedy service (not always the case in Morocco and that's definitely an understatement), delicious, inexpensive food, nous-nous (latte), lovely hot chocolate etc etc.

And the owner, Mustupha, was kindness and gentleness personified. A good looking Rastapharian (bet I've spelt that wrong) with impressive dread-locks, a beautiful, welcoming smile and a joyous greeting year upon year.

Sadly, he died a few years ago and his nephew, Hisham, has taken over. But he's just as lovely, just as welcoming. So, it's our choice of cafe in Essaouira whenever we return. And that's one of the secrets of a good holiday: returning to the same places. We do that in Italy, too, and so you build up a relationship that is far more than owner/waiter and customer.

I found a hole-in-the-wall hamman down a side street and had a hamman every day, which compensated for not having a swim, followed by a hot chocolate at Chez Mustupha with my damp hair swathed in a Morrocan scarf.

Took a taxi to Diabet and had an amazing lunch of omelette and bread in what is basically a shack, suitably called 'The Jimi Hendrix Cafe'. Loved the walk back to Essaouira on the beach, dodging horses and camels for hire.

Had fish soup at the restaurant right at the water's edge in the port. Marvelled at the brilliant sunset. Watched the stray dogs playing on the beach from our balcony. (Balconies play an important part in our Moroccan holidays).

Yes, Essaouira was more than alright. It had captivated me.

But what of the music, you may ask? What indeed.

It took approximately five minutes to have our first taste of Gnawa music, which neither John nor I had ever heard of before.

We were walking through our hotel lounge on our way out for supper in town and two young men in beautiful costumes and unusual instruments were playing this strange music. John asked them what it was. Gnawa music, they replied. It would have been nice to hear more but we were famished (actually, I was famished and had to chide John along) so off we went.

So, that was our introduction to Gnawa music.

But John's curiosity had been aroused and when we returned home, he trawled the web for info about Gnawa music and discovered that there was to be a Gnawa and World Music Festival in Essaouira the next June. Can't remember if this was actually the first one or second one. Anyway, it was still in its infancy.

Let's go, John suggested. Okay, I said but I want to stay in a hotel with a heated swimming pool, nearer to the town. So, we chose The Sofitel, just a bit further from town than the Hotel des Illes. I wasn't all that fussed about attending the concerts (because I don't like crowds) but the thought of returning to Essaouira, lounging by the pool, having hammans etc appealed.

Can we have a room that's facing inwards, though, I asked, because one of the venues was going to be on the beach opposite and I thought the music might keep me awake. Because, and here's another irony, I don't usually like loud noises.

This time, we stayed at La Villa Des Orangers, in Marrakech first. Travelling from Winchester to Essaouira in one go is exhausting, to say the least, so we usually factor in a night in Marrakech after arriving and then before leaving.

(We didn't manage this, though, on the return journey this year and since I had picked up a nice little bout of bacterial gastro-enteritis on the last day, that journey was a nightmare. (It was probably the Salad Nicoise with tap-water-cleaned lettuce that did for me). Shan't do that again i.e. travel in one day/have Salad Nicoise. I can't guarantee not getting a stomach bug again, though. No-one can.)

We'd already had a look-see at La Villa Des Orangers on that Xmas trip because it looked so attractive in the brochure. We'd had to wade through inches of rain water in the long entrance passage but fresh rose petals in large bowls of water were an encouraging feature. And as soon as we got inside, we knew this was the place for us: an old riad hotel, something out of The Arabian Nights. Beautiful beyond compare.

We go back there every year now and it's my favourite ever hotel and written about extensively in my 2008 blog. Plus, John has a video of it on his daftnot stupid site, set to music played by the two resident musicians, who play very traditional Gnawa music. I like to do my writing whilst they're playing - it's very soothing (although I do sometimes get up and dance a little.)

So, back to the June visit and off we went to Essaouira and The Sofitel. Again, we found that this is not our type of hotel because it's very large and modern and, again, we found the breakfast disapointing. But the pool was magnificent, a real pleaure to swim in, and our sea view from the balcony (no inward looking rooms left) gave a glorious view of Essaouira and the sea. (And I had no probs with the music on the beach).

And so to the music. John went mainly by himself but we did both watch a few sets at Moulay Hassan from roof-top terrace restaurants. But I just couldn't get enthusiastic about the Gnawa music. Too different, too loud, too repetitive.

Did amble along to see a set at Bab Marrakech, which was just a large piece of waste land then, and mingled with the crowd no probs but I left after a while. And then we tried to see an afternoon set in one of the smaller venues within the walls. Sat at a restaurant in the sun (to get a tan - STUPID) and waited and waited and waited. Food eventually arrived - grilled sardines, which I now feel dizzy just thinking about - but no music. Not a sausage.

And, of course, I got sun-burn and sun-stroke and spent a few very uncomfortable days feeling wretched and embarrasingly bright sun-burnt red. Tend not to sit in the sun, now, in Morocco!

John didn't suggest we go the next year, although he had really enjoyed it. I guessed he thought he might be pushing his luck (plus it's tres expensive). So we missed Zigi Marley, which still makes me want to spit.

The next year, though, John had come up with a plan. He'd noticed a hotel set in the walls opposite Bab Marrakech. The Hotel Blue. Extremely pricy but it had a swimming pool and we could watch some of the sets from the hotel's roof-terrace. Okay, I said, rather grudgingly. I suppose I can manage that.

And it was this, our second trip to the Festival, which changed everything.

But it was also the year that we had the awful experience I referred to right at the beginning of this post.

To get this into context, John is very tall and has no problems with crowds. I am five feet tall, have chronic muscle fatigue and a wonky back so I'm vulnerable if knocked. Plus, of course, I hate crowds.

We had discovered a quicker and less busy narrow back street branching off to the left about a hundred or so metres from our hotel to move around in within the walls. So, we used this back way to walk from Moulay Hassan, after the set there had finished, to get to our hotel.

All was well until, almost there, we approached the corner which joined onto a larger street. By this time, our back street had become very busy so turning round and going back wasn't an option. And what was in front of us was a mass of people, squashed together like sardines (bloody sardines again!) in a very confined space, all trying to go in different directions. It was not quite a stampede but had all the makings of one.

What had happened was that the set at the nearby Bab Marrakech, outside the walls, had just finished and people were trying to get inside the city through the gate. Other people, however, were trying to get out. So there were three streams of hundreds of people all jostling for space.

To make things worse, stall holders had set up food stalls right by the corner and along the wall, making a narrow space even narrower. Plus, there were lots of those infernal bikes, motor-bikes and carts causing obstructions (another negative of Essaouira).

We were so close to our hotel and yet so far away. At first, I froze in a blind panic but then realised that if I stayed still, I'd be knocked over and there wouldn't have been any space for anyone to bend down and pick me up. It was a momunmental crush and I was very frightened.

So, I said to John, I'm going for it and I did what I would never normally do: using all my strength, I pushed past people very roughly and headed for the hotel. For me, it was a case of the survival.

And obviously, we made it or I wouldn't be writing this now.

And when we got to our room, me weeping copiously in a state of shock, I discovered that I'd been pick-pocketed. I'd had an Adidas bag over my shoulders and the zipped apartment had been opened and my cigarette case (a lovely antique one John had bought for me in Portugal - not expensive but very pretty), lighter, credit cards and Rayban sunglasses had gone.

John cancelled my cards immediately and the next day, I bought new sunglasses (you can't be in Morocco without sunglasses unless you like eye-strain). But we were still alive and undamaged and, quite frankly, that was the main thing. Possessions can be replaced. Lives can't.

And, in fact, no-one was hurt. A miracle if you ask me. And as far as we know, no-one has been hurt in any of the festivals, despite the large crowds.

I remember that each day after that, I scoured every stall and rug sale for that cigarette case, because by now I was just angry. And if I'd seen it, I would have jolly well taken it back, making a big fuss as I did so.

So, you would have thought that that would have been IT for me. No more Essaouira Festival, particularly since I didn't 'get' the Gnawa music.

But strange things can happen.

Remember that it's the Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festival.

After that crush incident, we still went to Moulay Hassan, experimenting with different ways to avoid the crowds (going the long way round the walls on the outside is by far the best way), so we could watch sets there or, occasionally, watch Bab Marrakech sets from the roof of our hotel. But I was sure I didn't want to return the next year. It was just too much hastle.

But then, one night, after we'd returned from Moulay Housan and were tucked up in bed, about mid-night, a group started up just outside. We didn't have a balcony room so we couldn't see anything going on in Bab Marrakech. So, I lay there for a while, just listening and liking what I was hearing. Then my feet started to tap and I had an overwhelming desire to see this group for myself and hear the music more clearly.

So, to John's surprise, I jumped out of bed, threw on my enormous white hotel dressing gown, told John I couldn't stand it any more and rushed out.

He thought I had gone down to reception to complain about the music (!) but eventually he found me on the roof. I was dancing, shouting and waving my arms, in sheer abandon. I had never heard such wonderful music in all my life.

It was a Paris-based group called Thalweg, who you've probably never heard of, playing African/Celt music, and it was sublime. I wouldn't have minded if I'd died of happiness and gone to Heaven there and then. It was a very spiritual experience.

And thus the passion was born.

And clinched by the last set of the Festival, which we watched from our hotel roof-terrace. Yusou N'Dour. From Senegal. With an enormous band. He's very famous as a World Music musician (been in our charts, played at televised Africa Aid concerts etc) and with a voice like velvet cream.

He did a ten minute rendition of the song 'Africa' which still gives me goose-bumps. John videoed just a minute or so on his little digital camera and it's still one of the most popular posts on his You Tube site. Again, a very spiritual experience. A real feeling of an audience of different nationalities, faiths, gender, culture etc all united by the music.

And I think, for me, that wonderful sense of connection in a fragmented world then made the Festival more important than just the music.

So, we've been back every year and seen and heard such sublime music that you could weep with joy. And I even 'got' the Gnawa music eventually. It stopped seeming strange and discordant and , instead, I recognized songs (even though they're sung in Arabic so I don't understand the words), appreciated the skill of the dancers, understood the Gnawa tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation, loved the fushion with other musical genres and, perhaps most of all, felt the spiritual context of the music - a joyous praise of God. And as a Christian, that delights me. I am sharing praise with mainly Muslims and we are all praising the same God.

John, of course, just loves the music, which he first recorded for sound only (a few years ago) but then progressed to both sound and visuals.

Morocco is in our blood now, Gnawa music under our skin, and so we will tolerate all the crap that often comes with a visit. And that includes knowing that we'll always come back with fewer of our possessions than when we arrived. The Festival is notorious for its pick-pockets - it draws them in from all over Morocco and beyond. And they're very professional.

I was even warned about this by a Morrocan friend in Winchester just before the very Festival when I was pick-pocketed. I thought I'd been careful, but obviously I wasn't careful enough. And who would want a battery for a very specific type of camera? I bet that guy felt more than a little disappointed when he saw what he'd knicked.

But it's more than that. If you accidently leave something on a counter, on a table, under a table, even for just a minute or so, it will be gone. The quickest 'disappearing' of possessions occured somewhere between Gatwick and Marrakech airport - two engraved Zippo lighters. Other possessions that have gone walk-about have been another pair of sunglasses, a really nice black pashmina, a broach and some paintings that John bought. Probably more, too, but I don't keep a record.

We try to take as little as possible that's valuable and when John is carrying his camera, I walk a little way behind and bad-eye anyone who looks suspicious. It's quite exciting actually. I really am a 'have-a-go' person and it could well be the end of me but, quite frankly, I don't care.

So, back to the agentcoop experience.

That experience in the Bab Marrakech Square was the worst I'd ever seen. I truly thought that something really terrible had happened. If my memory serves me well, the groups actually left the stage for a while. And lots of people were running frantically to get away, many crying.

And then it all calmed down, the music resumed and what the f... was that all about? I thought.

We were told the next day that there had been a fight, involving at least one knife, and that's not the kind of thing you want to experience at a music concert.

As for security, though, there's far more than you realise if you're just at ground level. The police and army have numerous trucks below our balcony and we watch what they do. There are a mixture of regular soldiers/policemen plus a splattering of 'big-wigs' with walkie-talkies. Always restless, always watching, always liasing.

And there are a lot of plain-clothes policemen, too, who occasionally come out of the crowd dragging some youth along, accompanied be a group of the 'innocent' youth's friends, yapping away, trying, I guess, to say the police have got the wrong person. They often put their captives in a police truck but always let them go eventually. So, the fight within the crowd that you witnessed was probably stopped by under-cover policemen.

Plus, there are numerous check-points on the route to Essaouira. (We even got stopped on the way to Casablanca airport - had to show our passports). So, I think that the authorities are keenly aware of the need for security.

Well, I can hardly believe this - I've just about finished this response... well, almost. Just to say, if you are new to my site, don't have the foggiest about what I've been writing about, and want to learn more about the Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festivals, you can read my two blogs on the Festivals here and here in the posts section.

I've also written a post about our private Lila session at Maleem Mahmoud Guinea's home a few Xmases ago. That's posted here on John's daftnotstupid site. Plus, of course, a lot of recordings, the last two years' being visual, and recordings of other music in other countries, and not just World or Gnawa music. (He did have some superb recordings of Van Morrison at the Glastonbury Abbey Festival taken a few years ago but had to take them off because of copy-right reasons).

If, though, you've been put off by agentcoop's experience during this year's Essaouira Festival or you've heard the music and don't particularly like it, then I wouldn't blame you at all for not wanting to go.

All I'm doing in my blogs, and what John is doing in posting his recordings, is give you a taste of how incredible the experience is for us and we just want to share it with others. (No-one pays us to do this, by the way. Pity! Could do with some dosh to help finance it all.) And if you do like the music but can't make it in person, then at least you can get a flavour of it from our web-sites.

One thing, though. I've always felt that I'm missing out on the atmosphere of being in the crowd. Had been considering being more adventurous next June, if we can go. (God Willing.) But I don't like the idea of being jostled by hyped up young men being stupid or having a fight, so I think I'll give that a miss.

So, thank you agentcoop. You've done me a great service. And thank you for taking the time to write your comments. It's always good to get feed-back.

Essaouira 2008 - Maalem Hamid Kasri - Moulay Hamid - Crowd

A lot of this video is quite dark because John forgot to change the setting but you do get a sense of the audience and the music. I have never seen the square and adjoining roads so full before. But what the video shows is both the audience participation and the fact that there were no problems with crowd control.

Ky-Mani Marley at Essaouira 2008 - T8 No Woman No Cry

I've included this video, unashamadly, because despite having it on the 2008 Essaouira blog, I think it shows here what I indicated with the Hamid El Kasri video. Ki-Many came on after Hamid El Kasri and was, in fact, the last act at Bab Marrakesh.

Listen, at the beginning of the video, to the roar of the crowd when they realise what song he's started to sing. (There's a tremendous respect for Bob Marley in Morocco, plus a love of reggae music.) It was one of the most thrilling experiences I've ever had. The 'if I'd died then, I'd have died happy' type of feeling.

Essaouira 2008 - Coming into Esaaouira

Oud and Darbouka players at Villa des Orangers, Marrakech

Thursday 3 December 2009


I've just finished re-editing Chapter 10 of Cyprus Blues and need a bit of light relief. And since Xmas is loomimg up fast and furious, I thought I'd give you some tips on what to do/what not to do about Xmas presents (all of which has been learnt by personal experience).

So, here goes:-

* If you're a single parent, as I was once, don't overload your kid/s with too many presents to try to over-compensate. Not only does this enormous pile of presents take an age to wrap and then an age to unwrap, but totally devalues presents as such.

* If possible, don't leave present wrapping until the last minute. It totally ruins Christmas Eve and you won't enjoy the wonderful Carol Service on Radio 4 (how I love that station - best in the world) and all the goodies on TV (if there are any), parties (if you're lucky enough to be invited) etc.

* Don't be over-ambitious if you're making a present. You could easily run out of time and then feel stressed. (I once designed, made and decorated a wooden cradle for Lou's doll and was up until late on Xmas Eve varnishing the darn thing, which she actually never used.)

* Don't wrap up/make/finish off presents when you're drunk. It's not fun. And can be very messy. And puts you in a very bad mood for Xmas Day.

* If your offspring have that uncanny knack (and most of them do) of not only locating hidden presents but gently easing open the wrappings to see what's inside, then double wrap the present/s and sellotape securely around every edge. 'Louisa-proofing' is what I call it.

* The smaller the child, the more likely it will be that he/she/they will be far more interested in the boxes and wrapping paper than the contents. So don't bother with the present or choose something really small and then wrap it as if it's 'pass the parcel'. Kids love the excitement and anticipation and fun involved.

* Resist the tempation of being bullied into the'latest must-have' or 'I've got to have what my friend will get' because it will probably very expensive, climate-change unfriendly and often not used after the fist day. And if your kids get bullied at school because they've not got that new Blue Ray Game (whatever that is) etc, then remember that bullies are little shites and will get their comeuppance one day.

* Keep your presents small and simple and inexpensive and stuff that's actually NEEDED and that goes for all of your recipients.

* Golden Rule - if you can't afford it, don't buy it. The world's finances are in a total mess becuase too many people bought what they couldn't afford, like houses. And, like most things, sensible education concerning good finance begins at home.

* If money is really tight, don't fall into the trap of making a deal with a money-lender. You can use essential clothing etc for presents or scour charity shops. Lou still has the jigsaw puzzles I got for her in charity shops (and jigsaw puzzles take ages to do so it keeps your kids well and truly occupied, allowing you the luxury of doing what you'd like to do, e.g. snoozing). Even a large bag of sweets can be very welcome, which leads onto my next tip.

* Presentation is all. Choose goods that are easy to wrap, so that means a no no for e.g. chocolate boxes/ biscuit boxes that are a strange shape. However, a way of getting round this is to use a bright, cheerful carrier bag (keep all those that you get with purchases over the year), place the present inside and cover with crinkled tissue paper. Or,newpaper or magazine paper can be used or paper that groceries were placed in. Find something funky/different to wrap the present up in.

* Talking of tissue paper, although it's easy to use and less likely to tear than the shinny rolls so beloved of W H Smiths, Sainsburys etc, you can often see through it so that there is no mystery as to the contents. Double layer it or triple until there's a definite element of suprise.

* Avoid fancy festive strings to tie around your presents. I bought several boxes of such things, which came in a pack with bows, from Marks and Spencers (in the sale), and they're a nightmare to use - too thick, too unwieldly and too annoying for words. Also, bows come off very easily. Much better to cut and 'scissor' pieces of fine wrapping thread to provide a central display.

* Buy your Xmas cards, wrapping paper, bows, frills etc in the post-Xmas sales - they're so cheap.Even if you're a bit short of cash, you won't have to fork out too much.

* One way of spreading out the cost is to keep an eye open for bargains that you know your recipients will want. My very favourite store for doing this is Boots. (If Boots wasn't a privately owned company, I'd buy shares in it.) There are always 3-for-the-price- of-two / buy one get one free type of offers all the year round.

* And what about those unwanted presents that you receive? Find a little cubby hole and store them there, so you can give them as presents next year. We had a relative who always used our presents, as either birthday presents or Xmas presents for us the next year. Once we had got wise to this, we made damn sure that we gave her presents that we would love to have. And it worked a treat.

* Salvage whatever you can from the great unwrapping ceremony and recycle the next year.

* Attractive Xmas cards can be used as gift tags.

* If you were given some particularly gorgeous cards the year before (particularly if they're hand made - Lou's hand-made cards are particularly lovely), display them with this year's cards, otherwise it's a waste.

* If you're buying for people who already have absolutely everything, then think in terms of Oxfam's charity gifts to help people in developing countries (Oxfam have a brochure of a whole range of pratical gifts). But don't do that if your recipients could actually do with their own their presents. Otherwise it just smacks of liberal, Guardian readers, middle-class arrogance.

* And finally, above all, don't spend too much, enjoy the act of giving and receiving, support, if you can, such charities as The St Martins in The Field Xmas Appeal (always aired on Radio 4). And DON'T spoil your kids. We already have too many spoilt kids in this country and it's not good for them and not good for us.

Okay. Back to Chapter 11.

Saturday 21 November 2009


I don't want you to think that I'm reluctant to continue with my second novel - Winchester Blues. It's just that I've got writer's itch concerning Cyprus Blues and I want to scratch it. Must scratch it, actually.

Woops. Supper is ready. (John cooks on Saturday and he is a marvellous cook!) Must go. Will continue this post tomorrow.

Okay, so supper last night was great: roast pork, crunchy crackling, squash, cabbage, roast potatoes and oodles of red wine. Plus, John's home-made ice-cream afterwards.

(John has created several ice-cream recipes using his own ice-cream maker. One,for him, overflowing with cream and calories, and a more weight-watcher version for me. And that latter recipe was actually published in Saucy Shorts for Chefs (a paper-back collection of stories and recipes) to accompany my short story Rennaisance.)

Anyway, I was explaining to him over supper, gesticulating with my fork to emphasis my point, a valiant piece of squash bravely hanging on in there, about the lot of the writer.

"A writer needs two things," I slurred. "perseverance as well as talent. And, of course, patience."

"That's three things," he said, rather unnecessarily, I thought.

But the point I then went on to elaborate is that you can't just write something and accept your first draft as 'ready to go'. You have to edit, edit,edit and then edit again until, in your own eyes, it's as good as it can be.

So, having decided not to find a literary agent for Cyprus Blues, I had originally thought 'blow this', I'll just stick the whole novel on the web.But the more I thought about this, the more I realised that I don't actually know how on earth I would advertise it.

This led me to thinking that perhaps I should first try to find a small publisher, with low over-heads, who's prepared to take the chance with an unknown writer (relatively speaking).

(I have chronicled my editing of Cyprus Blues in my writing section so, technically, that is where this should be. However, it works better for me if I write in this general post section. To read my earlier comments, refer to those sections about novels I have written, short story writing and journalism.)

Anyway, it has been some time since my last edit of Cyprus Blues, which I thought would be the final one. But in gathering up the chapters, introductory letter and synopsis, I decided to have a re-read, just to refresh my memory. And horror of horrors, I saw that it could all be improved again.

So, I then had a choice - put it to one side and count it as useful practice in novel writing and leave it at that or re-edit.

And I chose the latter. This novel is way too important for me to give up on it now.

It has been a two-pronged re-edit.

Firstly, I have been reading a chapter at a time, making corrections as I go along, whilst having a coffee/hot chocolate and ciggie in any number of pub gardens, after I've had a swim and before I take Archie for a walk.

In fact, I totally surprised myself last week. I was at The King Alfred's Pub, outside, of course (groan, moan)trying to read the chapter where Big Al gives a potted version of the history of Cyprus.

Originally, I'd found this a very difficult chapter. The danger was that it might sound too much like telling (the big no no in writing). So, I'd had to work especially hard on it previously AD INFINITUM.

The weather was really blustery that day and I'd had to anchor down anything that could fly away. But I was so intrigued as the story of Cyprus unfolded, that I forgot that I'd written it and just kept reading, despite the fact that it was cold as well as windy. And that pleasure in reading it has given me the kind of motivation I need to push for a publisher.

Secondly, at home, I've made the corrections on the computer version. Pleased to say that I've only changed a small amount of text. The real changes have been in punctuation and sentence length.

I'd already re-edited the novel to minimise the use of ! (another writing no no) but had obviously not done a very good job of it because they were all over the bloody place!

I also recognised the fact that too many of my sentences were way too long STILL. So, I did a lot of separating into two. I'd also used a lot of : ; and -, which made my writing look more like a report than a novel.

And, I'd used loads and loads of conjuctions, particularly which.

Today, I was up to chapter 13 reading from my print out and chapter 8 on the computer, which isn't bad going. Should be finished before Xmas, when my itch to continue working on Winchester Blues will become irresistible.

However, in reading aloud chapter 8, I insinctively included a new term of endearment that Jack uses on Kate to butter her up, so to speak. 'That's so good,' I thought.

Trouble is, I'll have to include that in the following chapters and the only way for me to remember it is to write it in large letters and stick the message right in front of me on my computer. (Shall't tell you what it is. You'll have to guess when you eventually read the book (which I hope you will!).

So...I have perseverance...I have patience...but do I have talent? Now that's up to other people to judge. All I know is that I'm making this novel as good as I possibly can and then who knows...

Sunday 8 November 2009


Do you ever get cold callers phoning you up at the most inconvienent times and expecting you to divulge information to them - total strangers?

Well, if you do, click on this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IW5j--N5Plo to hear one unusual and effective way of dealing with such a caller.

John found this on the internet and emailed it to me;I find it an absolute tonic to brighten any grey day.

I don't know if this conversation was fabricated or actually real but it's so funny that it is doesn't matter either way.


And a thank you to the person who posted this in the first place.

Sunday 1 November 2009


* Too Close To Home by Linwood Barclay (Orion Books 2008) - read Sept/Oct 2009

One thing is for sure - Linwood Barclay does not write literary prose, which is why I like him!

The emphasis in his writing is character and plot and just like his last novel (his 1st?), he takes an ordinary family and puts them into a nightmare situation. For most of the novel you've no idea what the actual answer is, which makes for a perfect page-turner of a novel. He's easy to read and the story and characters pull you in effortlessly.

The plot of this novel goes like this: the central family of dad, mum, and teenage son live next door to a house where the family have just been murdered but they are far more involved than they care to be. I shan't say anymore. Buy the book if you're interested and need an easy, exciting read.

Maggie gives the thumbs up on this (like the music reviewers in The Independent newspaper)!

(Due to a slight technical understanding between myself and my computer advisor, and perhaps influenced by the tiredness of a very hectic week-end (or the large Bloody Mary I was drinking at the time), I inadvertently created a new post for this book review instead of putting it in the existing book review post.

I cut and pasted this into that review but couldn't delete it from here so here it stays as well. So, if you wish to read more of my book reviews, go to that post and feast your eyes on or disagree with my comments.)

Tuesday 6 October 2009


Found this poem the other day which I wrote about ten years ago and had totally forgotten about. Hope you enjoy it.

the thunderstorm

Trapped in my car
I watch the hard pellets of rain
machine gun into the windscreen
Shrapnel of spray
bounces back
into the darkness beyond

I recall the film 'The Birds'
and imagine each raindrop
as a
blackbird's piercing beak gouging
deep holes
into the re-enforced metal of the roof
Despite the claustraphobic heat
I shiver

I dare not move
The world beyond has shrunk into
a black unknown

I am only sure of what I see within:
my own sharp knees and rigid hands
the wide-eyed stare which stares back
the small mirror
in calmer times
for make-up

I am late
he will be gone
This is the only thing now of which I'm certain

Sunday 27 September 2009

Test colour sub-heads


Sunday 20 September 2009


the miracle of actually getting there

Have just returned from our annual holiday to Italy and it really was a miracle that I actually made it: having had two infections and then, oh great joy, catching swine flu had really knocked me for six and left me with severe post-viral weakness. So much so that we actually started to cancel our arrangements.

However, I kept thinking about not going and how the sea air, relaxation and not-having-to-do those boring little activities like cooking and washing etc would do me the world of good and so I came to the conclusion that as long as I could get on the plane for Nice then I would somehow manage. And luckily, we were able to rebook.

John always sets off several days earlier in the car with all the luggage and I fly into Nice from our local airport, Southampton, which is a smashing little airport.

view from John's hotel room in Tain

actually getting to Southampton Airport and then Nice

Now, you'd think that taking the dog to the kennels and then walking for just five minutes to the Railway Station for a seven minute train ride with a few minutes walk at the other end to the airport would be an easy accomplishment. But it seemed like Mission Impossible to me in the condition that I was in.

So, I took the totally outrageous decision to go by taxi. And so I got on that plane with no problems, spent most of the journey chatting with Nigel, the guy sitting next to me, and there I was - in Nice - with its beautiful blues of sky and sea - the elegance and excitment of this white city spreading along the coast and up the mountains behind - and an awaiting husband. Truth to say, I wept a little with sheer happiness, relief and pride that I'd actually managed it.

The Windsor Hotel, Nice

We'd never stayed here before but we certainly will again. It's just a few blocks parallel to The Promenade Anglais and very close to the wonderful art deco hotel - The Negresco.

I was very impressed when I walked into our bedroom. On the far wall were two enormous ceiling to floor double windows, very typical of the older buildings of Nice. And beyond the balcony (yes, of course it had to have a balcony) were luscious trees, plants and flowers of the garden beyond. The room was modern, restful and to be honest, I think I could live permanently in a room like that if necessary.

views from the balcony

Went to a haute cuisine restaurant close by for supper and John just had to take this photo of my fish course:-

The wide smile on my face reflects how happy I was to have actually got to Nice.

The coissants and bread for breakfast in the hotel gardens were superb but the coffee was dreadful. Why can't the French make decent coffee? Let me know if you'd ever had a good cup of coffee in France and where you had it.

the weather

It was unbearably hot in Nice - 35 degrees plus. I know we've had a lousy summer here but believe me, you don't want to have that kind of heat. Finding a parking space close to the old part of town, looking at the stalls of the Monday Antiques Market (more of a flea market these days) and lunch at Le Safari were not much fun in that heat and it was a relief to head off on the autoroute with the sea breezes wafting into the car.

I've probably mentioned this before but I'm going to mention it again. The panarama to the right as you drive along the autoroute into Italy is just spectacular, passing attractive towns which spread down through the valleys and towards the sea plus the exclusive Principality of Monaco, with those glorious blues of the Mediterranean beyond, and dramatic, stark mountains (really the tail end of The Alps) on the left. ( Taking the coast road is even more amazing but takes longer.)


Took about an hour and a half to reach our destination - the little sea-side resort of Laigueglia - and our small, family run hotel Albergo Teresa. We love it there because everyone is so friendly, the food glorious, the view from our balcony (!) overlooking the sea and the Liguria Coast just breathtaking. And it's really good value, too. 100 euros for both of us per night, including breakfast and evening meal.

views from the balcony with me in the way

It's the kind of place where regulars return so we know quite a few guests and it's always a joy to meet them. Last year, the nice Italian lady who used to bring her dog wasn't there because she was looking after a friend, but she was this year. However, the lovely friendly German man who is in his seventies/eighties and snorkels every day wasn't. I hope he's there next year. But our German friends Paulo and Michael were there and we took on where we'd left off last year - teasing each other merciously.

And one thing that I'd forgotten about was that you can hear the sea all the time in the bedroom, which is quite something.

the holiday

Normally, I walk everywhere, swim a lot etc etc but just couldn't do it this year. It was still terrifically hot here, despite the calming effects of the sea, so I stayed out of the sun for the first week.

I rested a lot in the room and John would come and pick me up, drive to one of our two regular beach cafes - La Scogliera (the wave) and Bagni Lino for lunch. Then John would drive us to the public beach for a lie down in the shade and a swim for me. This year I didn't even try to swim to the bouy. I just swam close to the shore and actually preferred it that way.

John at La Scogliera

There was, however, a nasty moment for me. The waves were quite fierce on one particular day so I only swam where I could stand up. But, coming out, an enormous wave totally knocked me over and winded me. I could feel myself going down to the sand below very quickly and there was nothing I could do about it. Had another wave hit me straight away, I couldn't have coped. But luckily, I managed to stand up in one go and eventually staggered out but I couldn't speak for about five minutes.

Respect the sea. It's more powerful than you and I.

gradual recovery

Each day, I walked a little further into town and was so chuffed with myself. At first it was about five mintes to get to Al Molo for a coffee and fag. And then I ventured half way along the town, to the Post Office and then back to Al Mole and then the room. And eventually, I managed to walk right to the end of town and back although that was probably too far for me. Needed a long time to recover.


Can't mention the holiday without the shopping, which is one of my delights. Prices have generally rocketted this year, which actually made the temptation to shop easier. The 5 euro shops in both Laiguelia and the next town, Alassio, have become over-priced boutiques, but there are still some quality bargains to be had if you know where to look (and I know where to look!)

Bought some smashing little cowl-necked tops, a few bangles, several pairs of ear-rings, fantastic candles with attractive decorations (for the Ch/X word presents), a winter jacket and my pride and joy - a pair of very classy sunglasses with red frames, which no doubt I shall sit upon and break at some stage.

the ear-rings

I bought several pairs in different colours because they weren't expensive and I liked the colours BUT and, with me, this is almost inevitable, the first time I wore one of the pairs on the beach, I decided it was safer(!)to take them off before swimming.

I placed them very carefully on my towel, reminding myself to put them back on as soon as I had towelled off. Only, I didn't. And by the time I remembered, they were gone, hidden in a vastness of fine sand. And to make matters worse, when I got back to the room, I discovered that I had actually put one ear-ring from one pair and another from another pair. It really is a good thing that I don't work for air-traffic control.

the food at Albergo Teresa

We normally have our evening meal in town mainly because there are four courses at the Albenga Teresa and I find that too much for me. However, because I was finding walking difficult, we ate in the hotel most nights. And the food really is DELICIOUS.

I solved the problem of over-eating by having a salad instead of the pasta dish. I was also going to be strict with myself about the puddings but I gave up on that idea as soon as I saw the choices. As well as chocolate mousse, creme brule and caramel cream there was always a cake or a tart (even better with a scoop of Italian ice-cream) or a meringue cake full of delicate rasberry and vanila cream (my favourite).

I was convinced that I must have put on a lot of weight, what with eating like it was going out of fashion, and consuming at least half a bottle of Italian wine (very good stuff) EVERY evening but, to my surprise, I have actually lost weight. Perhaps that's the answer to dieting - eat more - particularly meringue.

home comforts

I knew before we went that I'd be staying far longer in our room than normal, so I decided to take some home comforts: photos of Lou and Archie, our new throw for the bed made by Ellie of Loominellie, a brand new pillow, a kettle, a cute little mug, a jar of hot chocolate powder, and two teddies and two 'pups'. (Okay, so I'm sixty and have teddies. So what!).

I also had John's portable CD player so I could play music from both my ipod and his. Had forgotten how good Brian Ferry is. He was definitely my favourite this year.

Gulliver Travels in Laiguelia

Gulliver is the Easyjet teddybear I bought on the way to Morocco in June. Supposedly, if you sent in a photograph of Gulliver in some exotic place, you could win two air-tickets. Great, I thought. But when I looked carefully at the details later on, I saw that the location had to be somewhere famous, which ruled out my locations.

Plus, when I searched on the web for a selection of the photographs that had won (supposedly one a month) there was no trace of this competition whatsover. Undaunted, however, I still took photos of Gulliver in Llaiguelia which I think show off the town remarkably well. (Hopefully).

change in the weather

On the last Wednesday, the weather cooled down considerably, the sea roughed up so much that I didn't even try to swim, and it rained. Hard. Because the town is situated at the bottom of mountains and much of the town is medieval, it tends to flood very quickly.

So, I always have wellington boots and wet weather gear in the car for such occasions thus I was able to walk around town fully protected, which must look strange to the locals but so what. For someone who swims everyday it might seem an anomaly, but I hate getting wet when I'm wearing clothes.

And I watched with envy from our balcony the four surfers who were having great fun and managed to capture them on a couple of photos:-

Made me wonder whether I could find an all-weather swimming suit - not as heavy as a wet-suit but one which would keep all of me warm even if the sea is cold. Any suggestions?

The next day was sunny and hot again and it was a luxury lying on the beach all day just soaking in that warmth. Would have prefered the next day, our last, to be like that too but it wasn't meant to be. First thing in the morning, there was a threatening dark shroud over the mountains at both ends of the bay, which apparently was a bad sign.

Managed to fit in a swim (in a now very cold sea) and get to La Scogliera for lunch before it absolutely tipped it down, like cow relieving itself constantly, and a storm whipped itself up into a frienzy.

We sat outside under the awnings but quickly discovered that there were holes in it and so everything became damp.

Ironically, one of my published short stories - September in Italy (in Quality Women's Fiction, now The Yellow Room)- featured my two characters watching a storm whilst sitting at La Scogliera and it was very romantic, drawing the two close together after a rift. But the storm we witnessed had lessto do with romance and more to do with terror.

La Scogliera is in a very exposed position at a tip in the middle of the bay; at sea level and below the level of the road. To the left of the road is the tail end of a steep mountain with netting covering it to prevent boulders from crashing onto the road (and us, below). And to the right, a very menacing sea.

The thunder got closer and closer until it seemed to be right over us. One thunder clap, which set the two residents dog scuttling for cover and half scared me witless, was, so John calculated, just one kilometre away and I was beginning to wish that I wasn't there.

When we did make a run for the car (with all my wet weather gear in the boot and not on me) we were totally soaked. It was definitely time to go home.

However, there was a certain beauty about the place as this photo of St Thomas's Church in Llaiguelia shows. It has a wistful look of Florence about it.

This church dominates the town and if you sit, late afternoon, at Al Molo, the setting sun's rays fall lastly on the spirals giving them an ethereal golden glow, which is what you'd want from a church, reminding you of its purpose.

There is an element of irony, though, because on that last day there was far too much water for my liking and when I got home, far too little.


Felt much stronger on my return journey. It was hot and sunny in Southampton and I had no trouble in catching the train home. And I kept that wonderful holiday feeling right until I arrived home and walked into the kitchen.

On the kitchen table was a letter from a friend who had popped into the house whilst we were away to keep an eye on things, explaining that when she'd flushed the upstairs loo, the float mechanism jammed (calcified, I discovered much later) and water flooded out of a hole in the pipe on the other side, a hole we had no idea existed, and down the walls and into the kitchen below.

My friend asked a neighbour for help and the two of them turned off as many water valves as possible, so thankfully the flooding stopped.

The only problem was that I didn't know exactly what they had turned off. I soon found that the stop-cock had been turned off but when I put it on, water came pouring down the kitchen walls. Turned the stop-cock off, of course, but now I had no running water. Coudn't get in touch with my friend or the neighbour so made numerous phone calls to John but since we didn't know what else had been turned off, we were pretty stuck.

Phoned up our usual plumbers who do emergency call-outs but it went straight to answer phone and the emergency phone number given didn't work. Went to another neighbour, who had recommended these plumbers originally and asked if they had the correct mobile phone number. Yes, but it was the husband who had it and he was half way up a mountain in Wales. Isn't it always the case!

So, I thought I'd take pot-luck and look in the yellow pages. Found a large firm which did emergency call-outs in our area. Yes, a plumber was in the area and when he'd finished the job he was on, he'd come right round. It was going to cost £120 per hour plus vat and parts and did I want to sign up with them to be on their books at a price of around a £100 pounds?

By this time I wasn't thinking clearly. I'd had to pick up Archie from the kennels and do some food shopping so I was now exhausted. I agreed to the price but at least had enough sense to refuse paying to be on their books.

Was this refusal that did it? I don't know. All I know is that several hours later I was phoned up by the firm to say that their plumber couldn't come until the next day. His last job had taken longer than expected and he was going home. I thought you offered an emergency service, I said, but apparently only when they could be bothered.

Phoned John again, by now distraught. The thought of being home without water for three days before John returned was too much for me. He was outside a chocolate factory in Tain L'Hermitage when I called (their chocolate is to die for) and he patiently talked me through all the things I could do inbetween my pathetic sobs.

This meant crawling twice into the attic space, with the dog trying to lick me to death, searching for a screwdriver and testing taps for water flow. Eventually, he asked me to turn a screw on the toilet inflow pipe just 180 degrees, which immediately stopped the flow of water to the toilet. Yeah! And so, then I could turn the stop-cock on again and have water apart from the upstairs loo.

Success and water - at last.

Phoned up the company to cancel the plumber and gave them what for, which did me the power of good. (They even had the nerve to phone up the next day to try to rebook the appointment and so was able to voice my opinion of them again. Plus, we were saved an enormous bill, so all's well that ends well.)

(Another irony - my friend also had water running down her kitchen walls that very same day as the flood in our house because of leaking bathroom taps, despite the fact that a plumber had just 'fixed' them. So it's a thumbs down for plumbers at the moment with both of us. Sexist statement coming up here - perhaps a female plumber would have been more reliable/effecient.)

But, a total wreck, now, I crawled into bed and slept for several hours. And when I got up, I had a very strong Bloody Mary, which helped more than you can imagine. Somehow, I managed to make some supper and have a coffee, watching 'Strictly Come Dancing' for the first and last time. I loved the dancing but was irritated beyond words by Bruce Forsythe's unfunny bantering and the panels exagerations.

Just so tired now that I went straight back to bed, totally missing the film Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig coming out of the sea.

There's always something nasty waiting for you when you come back from holiday. It could be a letter or a phone call or your house has been burgled (has happened to us once). But I'm going to make very sure that the next time we go away, we turn the stop-cock off. And to remind me, I wrote a message to myself before I went to bed and stuck it on a cabinet door. It read:-


Just about summed up my state of mind at that moment.


It was a wonderful holiday. Good to be home, of course, but I have so many happy memories and sometimes I can almost hear that sea and imagine being on that balcony just watching the Meditteranean. Lost weight and got a bit of a tan, too, so it was definitely worth taking that taxi. (The young taxi driver was Asian and had never heard of the group 'Asian Dub Foundation'. Quite a surprise. Didn't get round to talking to him about The Wire but it was just a short journey.)

P.S. Feel totally humbled that I panicked about not having running water when I consider how many people don't have and have never had that luxury. We do so often take such things for granted in the West and we shouldn't.

P.P.S. A big thankyou to the daftnotstupid technical expert, John Knutson, for introducing me to the the joys of experimenting with different colours for headlines.

Sunday 23 August 2009


I've written about Chrissie Gittens before in one of my writing posts but we've just been in contact by e-mail and I've just finished her collection of short stories - Family Connections - which I'm going to review in my Reading Section so she's very much on my mind.

This lady is obviously one heck of a busy person but she still took the time some years ago to write out a list of publications for me that might consider my short stories.

She was 'Poet In Residence' at Ivydale Primary School, London, when Lou was teaching there. Lou told her about my frustration about not being published so that is why she wrote the list.

And two of those publications came up trumps:-

* Quality Women's Fiction where I had a short story published


*Mslexia , which is a superb magazine for writers with a mix of articles, stories and poetry. It was here that I read about Hazel Cushion and her new publishing press Accent Press, which I contacted and had two short stories published in the Sexy Shorts Collections. I also went to the launch party for one of the collections at Antony Worell Thompson's restaurant in London and met writers like Sophie King. I still subscribe to Mslexia - it really is a brilliant magazine.

And it was reading one of the recent Mslexia publications that I saw the name Chrissie Gittens, who had just had a poetry collection published by Salt Press. 'I know that name!' I thought.

So, I found that precious piece of A4 paper in my files and yes, it was the same name.

I then googled Chrissie's website, where I got her e-mail address and sent an e-mail reminding her who I was and how much she had helped me, and Salt Publishing and ordered a short story collection plus her new poetry collection. And within a few days, I had received an e-mail from Chrissie, thanking me for thanking her (and, yes, she remembered Lou) plus the two books.

That I ordered a poetry collection was a first for me. I studied a lot of poetry for my exams a long time ago, Yeats, T.S. Elliot etc, but none since until I started to read and enjoy the poetry in Mslexia. I realised how much I could learn as a writer from poetry and so buying Chrissie's collection was an obvious progression. I shall review it when I've finished reading it.

And having read her short stories, I'm pretty sure I'm going to enjoy the poetry, because the short stories were the best I've ever read. And it was no surprise to discover that a number of these stories, plus some plays, have been broadcast on Radio 4, which has an extremely high standard.

Also, I learnt on Chrissie's website, that Jo Good, who published Quality Women's Fiction but sold it to an American writer a few years ago and so I stopped subscribing, has just started up a new writing magazine - The Yellow Room - so that's an avenue for my writing again that I didn't know about.

So, thank you Chrissie Gittens. You're an absolute star.


I want to say a big thank you to my husband, John, of daftnotstupid fame for updating this blog site. I am well impressed.

The Dog in the Pram

The Dog In The Pram
a short story by
Maggie Knutson

This story was a runner up in The Exeter Short Story Competition 2009 and you can read it in its entirety here.

The dog would simply not budge. I hissed as loudly as I dared: “Scram! … Scat! … Scoot! … Push Off! … Get Lost!” but he just stood defiantly in my Grass Enhancement Area and fixed me with his gaze. I took my shoe off and hurled it towards the creature. It struck him on the chest and pain flickered across his eyes but still he would not move. I am not given to anxiety but I could feel panic spread through me like an injected drug. “Go away!” I breathed. “Please go away!” I sank onto my allocated Square Block of Patio and switched off my mind for a minute to gain some composure.

The dog sank down, too, his back legs sprawling outwards like plump, furry chicken legs and his front paws crossed comfortably, as if he had settled down to watch The Screen or was waiting for supper. One thing was for sure: he looked in no hurry to leave.

In The New World, governed by the only political party left - the B.C. Party (originally the Politically Correct Party, then the Be Correct Party and now just the B.C. Party) - there were three categories of dogs: Working Dogs To Help The Human Race, Laboratory Dogs To Advance Science, and Pet Dogs To Reward Key Workers.

If you want to read more, just follow this link

Maggie Knutson Copyright 2009

Sunday 16 August 2009


Sorry to harp on about this but I haven't been well since John and I returned home from Morocco at the beginning of July and not only is this really beginning to annoy me but I'm also wondering if I've actually got a new, unnamed virus.

It all started on the day of our return, when I got the squits, which has plagued me ever since, apart from, annoyingly, yesterday. I know I definitely had an ear infection (two lots of antibiotics) and then, hot on the heels came what my doctor pronounced as swine flu, although now I'm not so sure about that.

However, to be on the safe side, I isolated myself for a week, staying mostly in bed sleeping, which was actually quite pleasant, and spending about half an hour on my computer in the evening, which was a lovely distraction, plus re-watching The Wire Season One again, still marvelling at its brilliance.

Then, when I thought I was over the worse, I allowed myself the pleasure of crawling out of bed at noon, belting up the dog into the backseat of the car, driving to The King Alfred Pub on the outskirts of Winchester and parking in one of the few two hour free parking spaces in Winchester. (Since I wrote this bit, all the free parking spaces there have become 'verbotten' because road works are going on i.e. two blokes sitting in a large machine drinking tea and chatting - so that little treat is out for at least a week!)

Then I would take the dog for a brief walk (just in case he packed his bag and left the house in disgust because I wasn't giving him his essential walking rights); then have a hot chocolate in the pub's garden (the food is great there but the coffee is foul) plus a ciggie (don't even begin to lecture me about that - a girl's got to have some pleasures) and revising my character lists for my new novel.

Thus refreshed and re-energised and the dog back in the car (in the shade with the windows down in case you're going to have a go at me about that, too), walk the brief distance to River Park Leisure Centre, my swimming bag on my back, swim a pathetic ten lengths in the pool to prevent my muscles from seizing up, walk back to the car, go home and go back to bed. And for a while, this little routine worked well and I was feeling at least part way human.

But by last Friday, I had totally run out of steam, not only unable to do anything, not even a walk or a swim, but also having to recall John from work so he could drive me to my osteopath, Nick Harding, who is fantastic, for an appointment. So far so good until we got to Sainsbury's car park (Nick is based at the Surgery within the Sainsbury complex.)

And then I totally disgraced myself by weeping copiously, much to the consternation of passers-by, because my left shoulder and arm accidently received a hefty blow by the back of the passenger seat falling onto me (and I'm not going to say who was to blame for that; suffice it to say that it wasn't me) and it jolly well hurt.

Collapsed in a heap in the Surgery, again causing consternation, and only stopped weeping when I started to tell Nick about a radio play I had heard the day before.

The next morning, John took me to my doctor (yes, I allowed myself to get in the car with him again) where I said, rather pathetically to the doctor: 'help!'

My doctor was absolutely brilliant: prescribed another dose of antibotics for the gastroenteritis, took a large quantity of blood from me and gave me two two tubes for urine and the squits. I was to take them to hospital when the task was done and leave them in their out of hours box. On no account, though, was I to take the antibiotics until then.

No problem, I thought, anticipating the soon to be had relief gained from the antibiotics.


The peeing was fine - I could pee for England - but mysteriously, the squits had completely stopped. If I'd known that all I needed was to go to the toilet with a tube placed at the ready to stop the diarrhoea, I'd have tried it weeks ago.

I still had to wait in town for my prescription, thought, so I decided to use the opportunity to go to Boots (my very favourite shop) and use all the extra points and money off coupons before they expired.

Big mistake.

Whilst at the payout counter, I was so tired that I had to hang onto the rail and getting back to the car was agony. And no antibiotics that day, which at least gave me a chance to read the instructions carefully. I've never had this antibiotic before - Ciprofloxacin - and as well as the grim list of possible side effects, there were detailed instructions about what not to eat/drink unless you took the medicine one and a half hours before or at least four hours. So, just working out when was the best time to take these tablets was a major feat. It's like you now need a degree just to take medicine!

Success came on the Sunday, though, so now I could take the antibiotics using my dragonian timetable.

It's Monday today and already I'm beginning to feel better. Hopefully, the tests will reveal the cause/causes of this horrible malaise and I can build up enough strength for our famous Holiday in Italy in September, which is only three weeks away.

But something strange has happened during this time which could well be a new, as yet unnamed virus, which I am now going to name - The terrifying compulsion to tidy and clean virus.

Because, every time I ventured out of bed, I just had to systematically go through all my drawers and shelves in every room, sorting out what was to give away, what was to throw away and what was to keep. I would, have course, have to clean the drawer or shelf, too. And while I was dozing in bed, I would plan out what I would sort out next. It even reached a point when I had several tasks on the go at the same time, with little piles of books/magazines/cosmetics etc littered all over the place.


Lou was horrified when I told her I was writing this blog (believe me, it's a therapy for me because I hate waiting for the results of medical tests, just in case something really nasty crops up). 'Mother, you can't write about your tummy bug in such graphic detail,' she said.

Having felt compelled to do so, though, I'm wondering if I've actually got the unpolitically incorrect Jeremy Clarkson virus, going well beyond the bounds of civilised decency. However, there's one small flaw to that. I can't imagine Jeremy Clarkson has ever, in all his life, contemplated cleaning and tidying anything. And I bet he doesn't even wash/clean his own car/cars!

And I don't think there's a cure for either of these viruses - if they do actually exist. But if they do, I stake my claim to have them named The Maggie Virus.

But to finish on a positive note, a big plus during these last few weeks is that I have been listening to lots and lots of programmes on Radio 4. It really is the best radio station in the world and it's one of the multitiude of reasons to be proud of being British.

There really are some excellent programmes, although I have to admit that I tend to sleep through most of them, but that play I was telling Nick about was so wonderful that I actually cried (okay, not too difficult to do that to me at the moment but it was so beautifully moving).

The play in question was on Thursday 13th of August, at 2.15, called 'Dear Writer' by Jane Rogers and the starring the superb Anna Massey, whose voice is like a mature, smooth red wine.

Anna played a children's writer who was suffering from writer's block until she received a letter from a fan, pleading with her to write another book. And so a correspondence between the two developed. This young fan of hers, who was pretty unhappy about her family and her life, would tell Anna about various incidents in her life Anna started to weave them into a delicously descriptive and moving story.

But as the play progressed, I began to suspect that maybe the young girl was actually Anna's own inner thoughts and so the story started to take on a new depth. And the ending was just right - positive but in a very natural way. Brilliant.

If you wish to hear it, you can catch it on the BBC website until this Thursday. I'm certainly going to do that.

Plus, it's given me loads of ideas for my own writing, which I'm itching to start again.

P.S. I have come to a decision - to hell with agents and publishers. I'm going to post my novel on the web for free so it just needs John to set things up, unless by some miracle I can find a last minute publisher when I'm better. I'll let you know when it's available and then you can make up your own minds as to whether it's a great novel or a load of squits.

P.P.S. John has just posted my short story The Dog In The Pram next blog up.

P.P.P.S. The medical tests showed up nothing more benign than an infection - not pleasant but not life threatening.

Peace and good health to all of us.