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Monday, 29 April 2013

Patience is a virtue

My grandmother used to have a saying:-

Patience is a virtue and virtue is a grace
Both put together make a very pretty face
Now this probably explains a lot because apparently one of my favourite expressions when I was very small was:-
What a charming child I sound! But I have felt as powerless as that child for the past nine days because I haven't had any internet connection. All we did was change our tariff but our provider has made an almighty cock-up of what should have been a simple, stress-free procedure. One week of very expensive phone calls later we seem to have got to the bottom of the problem but they can't (or won't) re-instate our broadband until 7th May. That's another whole week away! I have explained that I work from home and am dependent on the internet. Do they care? Not a jot.
Anyway, looking for silver linings to this situation, I have realised, (not that I didn't already know), how much time and time-wasting can be involved with the internet. So I have had quite a bit more free time. These are some of the things I have done with that time.
I have baked a cherry and almond cake.
I have planted quite a lot of seeds; leeks and onions, some runner beans and French beans for my sister-in-law, marigold seeds saved from last year by my friend Jan and some heritage pea seeds called Clarke's Bettany Blue from my friend Bridget.
I have been shopping and bought some summer clothes in the eager anticipation that we are going to get some nice weather. (Cold North-Easterly winds have resurrected themselves in the East Midlands and yesterday it felt and looked like Winter for the first cricket match of the season).
I have spent quite a lot of time planning my talk for some school visits in June - but now I have decided it is not right so need to start all over again! The internet being down has actually done me a favour in that respect because otherwise I would have sent my ideas off to Templar for them to put together some slides so it's a good thing I didn't.
I have also got down to some uninterrupted writing of young fiction. It is a story which I'd already begun but wasn't totally happy with. So I've done myself a pin-board, had a good think about where the plot and characters need to go and started to re-write it. I'm actually quite pleased with the progress so far.
I do miss the e-mail contacts though and browsing through some lovely blogs and having information at my fingertips. (This morning I have come to my husband's office to access that elusive internet). But there's nothing I can do so I have to exercise patience whether I like it or not and I suppose that is good for me. Who knows, by May 7th I may even end up with a prettier face!
Thank-you for reading and I hope your week is straightforward and stress-free.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Happy Hedgehog Story

Sometimes you get up in the morning just expecting it to be an ordinary day and then, in an instant, and totally unexpectedly, something can lift it out of the ordinary and turn it into something really special. This is what happened to me a few weeks ago when the phone rang and my friend Jan asked

"Would you like two hedgehogs?"
Who could say no to that? Certainly not me! Especially as we've lived in the same house for over twenty years and in that time have only spotted 2 hedgehogs in the garden. But, because of the very cold weather in the U.K.,  we had to wait - and wait until they could be re-homed. But finally, last weekend, the weather warmed up, and the ground softened which means there will be enough food around for the hedgehogs to eat and so they arrived. They are huge! This is Jan holding one of them.

 We have called them Joyce and Mildred - I would explain but it is complicated!
Jan is a volunteer for the Leicester Hedgehog Rescue and has been looking after Joyce and Mildred since last October. They were handed in at the end of July 2012 when someone moved a shed. There was a hedgehog nest underneath containing five babies and unfortunately the disruption meant that Mum scarpered. To begin with the hedgehog babies are hand-reared, fed every 2 hours with colostrum from goats. After they have been fed you have to rub their tummies to make them pee and poo. Those volunteers really are dedicated people! I am overcome with admiration for them. Jan takes over the rearing when they are a little bit older and fattens them up so that they can survive hibernation. They need to be a minimum of 800 grams and preferably weigh 1000 grams before they can be allowed to go to sleep. 
The hedgehog is on the list of Britain's 10 most endangered species and there are estimated to be 300,000 less in the U.K. than there were a decade ago. As well as being attacked by predators thousands die on our roads.  In some places there are actually signs warning people to be careful of hedgehogs when driving. This one is in the West Midlands. But we could do with more of them.

Hopefully the only hazard in our garden is the pond and we have put in extra stones so that if Joyce and Mildred do fall in (and apparently hedgehogs can swim quite well) they can get out easily.

The word hedgehog derives from around 1450, hog because its snout looks a little like a pig and hedge because they like to scurry around under hedges. Another name for them is hedgepig. There are loads of children's books written about hedgehogs. Two of the best known must be:- 
The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-winkle - Beatrix Potter
The Hodgeheg - Dick King-Smith
But there is also Fuzzypeg in Little Grey Rabbit by Alison Uttley and there are hedgehogs in the Brambly Hedge series by Jill Barklem. And of course there is Sonic the Hedgehog.Then there were those  poor little hedgehogs in Alice in Wonderland which were used as croquet balls and I do love the toy hedgehogs from Sylvanian Families. Maybe I'll even write a hedgehog story of my own one day.
In the 1960's and 70's in the U.K. we had The Tufty Club which was part of a road safety campaign for children  and a more recent campaign for has featured hedgehogs singing the Bee Gees Stayin' Alive
On a happier note our hedgehogs have a little house which we have placed at the top of the garden under the shade of some rhododendron bushes.

 It is close to our vegetable patch and I imagine them patrolling at night, snacking on slugs and protecting my produce. But if they can't find enough to eat or are feeling lazy they have a feeding station which contains a saucer of cat biscuits.

There are lots of hedgehog friendly places at the top of our garden and in the garden next door too so I do hope they'll stay around. But hedgehogs are fickle and like to live in 5 or 6 different places so if they find somewhere they like better I won't take it to heart. I'm just grateful that through Jan and the Leicester Hedgehog rescue they've at least had the chance of a happy life.

 From 5th - 11th May it is hedgehog awareness week and there will be lots of hedgehoggy activities going on around the country. Hopefully with everyone's help we can get the hedgehog off that endangered list.
 Thank-you for reading. Maybe you have hedgehogs in your garden? I'd love to hear about them.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Public Speaking for the Terrified

The rule of three is legendary in writing. There are beginnings, middles and endings to start with. Then there are theTthree Little Pigs, the Three Blind Mice, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Well I have a theory that humans are susceptible to the rule of three too; there are those who like to sit at the back in church, at school or when attending a talk, those who make a bee-line for the front and those who hedge their bets in the middle. At school I always gravitated to the back row and that tendency hasn't left me. It is my suspicion that those of us on the back-row are the ones who like to keep our heads down, avoid being asked questions or having to (God forbid!) stand up and say something in public. So dear readers I have a bit of a challenge appoaching. With the publication of my book in June I have been asked to do some public speaking. How will I cope without looking and feeling like this?

Fear of public speaking is called glossophobia from the Greek 'glosso' for tongue and 'phobia' for fear. According to some reports it is actually most people's NO. 1 FEAR, ahead of death and spiders. This actually makes me feel a bit better because given the choice of making a speech in public, holding a tarantula or dying I know which one I'd choose.

I have done public speaking and school visits before but I've always felt that I could have done better so this time I decided to enlist some extra help.  I have had a couple of sessions with a drama teacher, Ann Mulraine who works for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and she is a truly amazing person. She was recommended by a friend and I honestly feel as if I have struck gold.

I have a quiet voice and thought that if I gained more confidence in the power of my voice I would feel more confident in my ability to deliver. (This would actually have been very useful when my children were smaller too but it's too late now. They've had too many years of being able to ignore my quiet pearls of wisdom!)

We began with 'opening the voice' using breathing exercises and facial work. (The latter I have had to practise in private so as not to frighten my family!). I have learnt that my inter-costal muscles are actually extremely active (apparently a lot of people can't get them to work - I put my success down to years of practising The Alexander Technique) and that my breath control, which I'd thought was complete rubbish, is actually a lot better than I realised. Ann encouraged me to hum and to practise reading out loud every day. As a result of this I have re-discovered some wonderful texts and poems and Ann's enthusiasm has raised my love of language to a new level. There's nothing like really focusing on a word, feeling a sentence as you read it out loud to make you connect with the text.
These are a few of the things I have read and loved:-

I Dream of a Place - Walter de la Mare
Kubla Khan - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
My Hat - Stevie Smith
Extracts from The Secret Garden, Winne the Pooh and Roald Dahl's The Landlady
I have learned about modulation, pitch, pace, posture and the power of pause. I always thought that my diction was pretty good but hopefully now it is better and my sentences don't 'fade away' at the end.
We have talked abou the value of eye contact and connecting with your audience, as well as using and filling the space around you. There is so much to learn and I wish that I had done this years ago. I also wish that I'd done drama at school.
Ultimately though the whole public speaking issue boils down to a couple of things - trusting yourself and feeling that you have something of value to share which may help others. I love writing and reading. It has given me so much over the years and if I can encourage or inspire others through my experiences that is all I ask.
Each opportunity to do something you fear, is an opportunity to dilute that fear. I know that even with Ann's help I'm not exactly going to be an oasis of calm.

But I reckon that a little fear is a good thing. It gets the adrenaline going. It means that you make more of an effort. Preparation helps too of course and realising that your audience don't want you to fall flat on your face.
There is an old English proverb;
Sometimes the most difficult achievements are the ones we are most proud of. With Ann's help I have gained confidence in my voice. I know now that it will not let me down and that in itself frees me up to concentrate on what it is I actually want to say. I shall report back on my progress in a few weeks time. In the meantime if any of you have a public speaking engagement coming up and are feeling a bit nervous about it I would really recommend finding a good drama teacher. And if anyone has any tips for me, apart from industrial quantities of Dr. Bach's Rescue Remedy, they will be gratefully received. Have a good week and thank-you for reading.  

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Signs of Spring

I do like living in a country which has four distinct seasons but gosh this has seemed a long, cold winter. Everyone in the U.K. is trying not to complain about the cold but it seems to be going on for ever. We had snow again a couple of days ago and Humphrey the guinea pig has had to spend a lot of time inside, instead of being on the lawn munching lush new grass which is what he should be doing in April.

I too feel as if I have spent a long time inside this winter, not getting out for so many walks and I have barely been able to do anything in the garden. This does have a plus side because I have got a lot of writing done. I have completed my second children's book for Templar which at the moment is called Sitting At the Top of the Stairs and whilst waiting for the edits to come back I have finished a romantic fiction book for adults which I am planning to issue as an e-book within the next few weeks. But now I really would like Spring to arrive so I can replenish my vitamin D levels, plant my potatoes (Arran Pilot, which is the variety my father always used to rate very highly), stop wearing ridiculous layers of winter clothes and take my ten week old grandaughter out in her buggy and point out all of the beautiful things in the outside world.

Here are a few other things I am looking forward to in the garden:-

My primroses flowering around the pond.

And for lovely fat splodges of frogspawn to appear in the water.

The daffodils everywhere are so late this year. I am waiting for mine to stretch out their petals.

And my tulips, which are in pots dotted around the garden, to stop looking as if they want to shrink back into the soil. Hopefully this is what they will look like in a few weeks time.
I am waiting for the ferns underneath the beech trees at the front of the house to begin to unfurl.
Aren't they beautiful when they do that? Like little green sea-horses.

And I am absolutely longing to see my weeping cherry blossom in flower.

I would even quite like to see Lily looking for mice or frogs amongst the heather.

I don't have to worry about her catching anything because she soon gets bored!
The birds do seem to sense that Spring is on the way. We have chaffinches, greenfinches, goldfinches, bullfinches, blue tits, great tits, coal tits and an adventurous robin fighting for ascendancy on our feeders. And all of the birds are singing more lustily too. But one thing which would really signal Spring would be the sound of the cuckoo. They usually arrive in late March/early April and it is a sound I remember vividly from my childhood where the cuckoo used to perch in the branches of the walnut tree and call 'cuckoo, cuckoo'. In Shakespeare's time cuckoos were apparently so prolific as to be seen 'on every tree' but they seem to be a rarity now.  I'll finish this post with some words from William Wordsworth's famous poem To The Cuckoo:-
Thrice welcome, darling of the Spring
For me there are many 'darlings of the Spring'. Hopefully next time I write this blog the temperature will have risen and some of them will have arrived in all of their glory. In the meantime thank-you for reading and have a good week.