Personal News

Ceredigion, December 2009

Marian and Matthew

My mother Marian died in January at the age of 90. She had remained physically and mentally active well into her eighties, but in the last couple of years had gone into a rapid decline and was in and out of hospital frequently, which she hated. I was finishing various tasks at work before going on sabbatical when we heard she had taken a turn for the worse; we set off for Portsmouth that evening but my brother phoned while we were on the way to tell us she had died. She had brought up three sons and two nieces, and had four grandchildren and one great-grandchild, as well as looking after a succession of dogs. Her funeral was a secular one, and various members of the family described their memories of her. For myself, I remember how she used to sing constantly round the house: Bye-bye Blackbird and Put Another Nickle in the Nickelodeon were two favourites, both played at the funeral.

In February I took up a Hawthornden Fellowship to work on my novel in a castle near Edinburgh. It was the second time Iíd been there. Five writers are in residence at a time, and you work in your room in silence all day (a packed lunch is left outside your door), then gather in the evening for dinner. I got on very well with the other writers, and we all took a day off each week to go walking together. There have been improvements since my earlier stay: the central heating now works well (last time one of the writers used to spend an hour a day in the bath in an effort to keep warm) and the footpaths are better Ė itís close to Roslin Chapel of Holy Grail fame so the area is now on the tourist track. I wrote 68,000 words in the month, which got the novel going again after a slack period. Afterwards Creina came up and we spent a couple of days in Edinburgh before returning via Yorkshire, where I gave a reading at a Quaker school and London, where I gave a lecture.

The novel is now called The Book of the Needle, and is the most ambitious piece Iíve ever attempted. Iíve been working on it for three years, and my deadline is next September. After Hawthornden, my progress got slower until by this autumn I was desperate to get back to the concentrated work Iíd been able to do there. Creina suggested I use the downstairs flat in our house as a writerís retreat. Now, when I have a writing day, I sleep in the flat, shower there, get my own breakfast and lunch and work all day in Hawthornden-like seclusion, only emerging at supper time. This has been so successful that I am hoping to follow this regime for all my writing in future.

In May we took a holiday in the Dordogne, staying with our friends David and Jennifer Shales. They were very apologetic about the weather, which was not at all bad by British standards, but should have been sweltering at that time of year. Itís limestone country, and we visited a troglodyte church and a prehistorically-painted cave, with some touching remains of the nests which ancient bears had scratched out of the stone to hibernate in.

The orange wine we made last year to a Regency recipe was put to good use at a lunch we hosted for the Welsh Jane Austen Society. It was an intimate occasion as the few Austenites in Wales are widely scattered. I made a chicken salad called a salmagundy, with a lot of herbs and flowers in it (Creina raided a nearby grass verge for feral nasturtiums) and a syllabub with the orange wine. The wine itself tasted like alcoholic marmalade.

In September Creina went to London for a reunion of her old school in Rhodesia, Umtali Girlsí High School, which took the form of a picnic in St Jamesís Park. There were other reunions held in different parts of the world and the boysí school and the town of Umtali (now Mutare) as a whole were included. This has set off a lot of reminiscences and emails to people she hadnít met for years.

We took advantage of the good weather in September to get the outside of our house painted by our friend Roy, who decorated the inside when we moved in six years ago. He also removed a small tree from a chimney, and repainted the council-owned bollards outside which protect us from cornering lorries. These now have a gold band round them, and on Christmas Day I am planning to add a couple of gold ribbons which should ensure we have the fanciest bollards in Ceredigion.

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