Always a friend

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I remember seeing Wendy tearing open a pile of little brown envelopes and money tumbling out. These were her winnings from the Harrogate Flower Show, where her daffodils and tulips had come first, second and third. There was even a trophy to add to the other trophies she’s had over the years.
Her flowers were always amazing, but she was quite modest about it, as if anyone could cultivate such perfection and beauty. She not only grew flowers, she knew them, Latin or common names, show her a plant and she could tell you what it was, give her a palette and a brush and she could paint it for you too.
Wendy, who passed away on Saturday, was my mother-in-law, she was also my friend. I’ve known her for about 18 years and the more I got to know her, the more I admired her.
We’d regularly turn up at their Wakefield home to find it full of their friends and family, eating something delicious that she would whip up, just like that. She was used to mass catering with five children and their families. Though more often than not they were not at home, usually not in the country, gallivanting off to foreign parts in pursuit of something horticultural.  We’d find out where they were when we got a postcard.
They’d head for the mountains, seeking out rare daffodils and tulips in their native habitat. With James, her husband, not being that keen on heights, she’d trot off up something scary to investigate and report back. Or they’d be at the Chelsea Flower Show, or giving talks just about anywhere in the country, or visiting friends, or having yet another adventure.
She was a voracious reader and writer, penning many articles particularly for horticultural publications. She was interested in everything, with eclectic tastes, including classical and rock music and old Mr Chuckletrousers himself Leonard Cohen.
We’d regularly get an envelope through the mail, addressed in her beautiful flowing hand, inside would be a newspaper clipping, or recipe, or article she thought we’d be interested in, we always were.
She also delighted in the world around her. I remember us taking the pair of them to the French Alps via the beautiful floral town of Yvoire. She walked around smiling serenely at the blaze of colours and heady perfumes of the flowers.
They have lived in the Wakefield house for nearly 50 years, spending thousands of hours on the massive, sloping garden, it was hard work. I remember once seeing Wendy yank up something with a huge tap root, it took some doing, but came up twisted through a dog’s skull. Ah yes, she said, it was a neighbour’s dog buried there many years ago, adding matter-of-factly that it was good for the soil.
The last time I saw Wendy, it was a couple of weeks ago, we’d called in to help with the gardening, which she always found amusing as the gardening gene certainly missed Noel, he says it brings him out in hives, I think it’s just an excuse. She was sitting reading, making plans, looking forward to yet more adventures.
Yes, she was my mother-in-law, but she was always my friend. I can’t believe she’s gone, I’ll miss her terribly.

Yorkshireness on Yorkshire Day

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Atop Malham Cove

August 1 is Yorkshire Day. It’s not an official holiday, not yet anyway, but it’s only a matter of time. When that happens, the white rose flag will be flying from every pole in the county and saluted by the doffing of flat caps and exclamation of ‘sithee’ before retiring to a local hostelry in the hope of someone else buying the first round.

Yorkshire is the largest county in the UK, nudging County Durham in the north and Derbyshire in the south, with the Pennines, the spine of England, separating us from rainy Lancashire. We have two national parks of our own, the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, and a share of the Peak District National Park. We have two World Heritage Sites at Fountains Abbey and Saltaire and an Area of Outstanding National Beauty in Nidderdale. The Museums of the Year this year (the Hepworth) and 2014 (Yorkshire Sculpture Park). Not that I’m bragging or anything.

There’s a lot of Yorkshire on the large and small screen, including Harry Potter, Calendar Girls and the Full Monty and of course the popular Emmerdale, Heartbeat and Downton Abbey. Famous Tykes include the Brownlee brothers, Geoff Boycott (that’s Sir Geoffery to you) , David Hockney, Henry Moore, Dame Barbara Hepworth, Corinne Bailey Rae, Ed Sheeran and the Arctic Monkeys. Not forgetting Dame Judy Dench, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean. Oh I could go on – it’s a Yorkshire trait, but I won’t show off too much, because we’re humble, us Yorkshire folk. But you get the picture, and what a picture it is.

Yorkshire Day isn’t really that ancient, it only started in 1975 as a way of cocking a snook to the re-organisation of local government which tried to tell us that Yorkshire wasn’t one big county. Now, each year, there’s a bit of a do with every expense spared, we like to look after our pennies, we do and then chunter about the cost, one of our mottos is ‘how much?’ repeated at least twice, getting louder each time.

My friend Maika now proudly tells anyone who cares to ask that she’s from Yorkshire. Rightly so, she’s thinking of establishing a Yorkshire enclave in her second home of Japan. To celebrate this transition to Tykeness, we presented her with a white rose Buff, Yorkshire flag and copy of The Dalesman, the quaint publication that used to be found in doctors’ waiting rooms and took her to the Yorkshire Dales.

As we picked her up, she dodged the raindrops and announced it was ‘coming down like stair rods’, adding, with that dour Yorkshire tone we have taught her so well, ‘but it’ll burn off’. And so it did and we celebrated in style, with a mug of tea and slice of cake on top of Malham Cove. Yorkshire, there’s nowhere like it.

Who’s the coolest?

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The Dutch, the coolest at RIAT?

Even before we reached the showground the sky was blasted by the sounds of screeching and ripping, aviation fumes permeated the air and there was a strong whiff of testosterone. While I never actually heard anyone say, ‘Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast’, I know that’s what they were thinking, in many languages.

The Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) at RAF Fairford is one of the biggest displays of air power, hardware, software, one-piece flight suits and embroidered squadron badges this side of Moscow. Air forces from all over the world come to strut their stuff on the ground and in the air. It’s an impressive and rather scary sight.

If Noel was to appear on Mastermind, his specialist subject would be aircraft. Any aircraft, any era, any country. His knowledge is encyclopaedic, he can tell an aircraft just by the smell. Given that he has spent many any hour accompanying me in pursuit of my specialist subject, shopping (any era, any country), I couldn’t say no to a day looking at planes, plus there was a rumour that Maverick may be there.

We went with a couple of friends, Chris is a former RAF engineer, another self-confessed lover of all things aviation, and his wife Jane, who, on balance, probably prefers shopping, but she’d heard the Maverick rumour.

While the boys talked planes, we compared the different airmen to determine who was the coolest, purely in the interest of research, there may be a PhD in it. Somewhere along the line there will be a Coolness Scale, but at this evidence-gathering stage, we were just observing and taking notes. Here’s our findings.

The Americans were garrulous and polite, they had great teeth and top-of-the-range Ray-Bans, their F-16s where rather impressive, but very showy. The Brits were chatty, helpful and frightfully polite. The French had that Gallic shrug after screeching through the sky in their Mirages, but no, none of these were the coolest. The Danes came close to being the coolest, they were based in Greenland and had a very shiny plane. The Germans had magnificent helicopters which were very cool indeed. The Belgians got a special award from us for the uncoolest hats, red, white and blue berets balanced on their heads to outshine the regulation khaki, what WERE they thinking?

Anyone piloting a Spitfire or a Lancaster is automatically cool and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight must have blown up some fine dust as I certainly had something in my eye…The Red Arrows knocked everything else into the Vauxhall Conference League, they are pure class, there is no better flying team, anywhere. Fact. But they weren’t the coolest, not quite.

On the ground, the coolness award went to the Dutch, they sat on the top of their plane and played rock music through loudspeakers, they clearly know how to party.

But Top of the Cool Pops was the Italian Air Force whose C27-J Spartan took to the skies and did things an unwieldy propeller plane had no business doing,  Looping the loop, banking, and all without spilling their rather fine espresso. Yes, Italian Air Force, it’s official, you are the coolest, well, in my book anyway.

Unfortunately, Maverick didn’t show, he was buzzing the tower somewhere, so I had to make do with coming home and watching Top Gun, for the 50th time, I’ve certainly not lost that lovin’ feeling…..

The train took the strain

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Flying out from the UK is getting to be more of a faff, what with all the ridiculous security at airports, weight restrictions, no liquids except the tears you shed waiting coatless, shoeless and beltless to be frisked by a burly officer. And don’t get me started on rip-off prices for mediocre food and dishwater coffee or having to buy bottled water because there’s nothing drinkable in the taps.

So for our ski trip  to the French Alps, we thought we’d let the train take the strain while we still have free movement to Europe through the Channel  Tunnel. There’s no  restriction on luggage and you can carry all the water  you can drink. Queues are negligible and there’s more freedom of movement and space, precious space. The faff factor is low.

Noel had always wanted to travel on the snow train,  that’s a train direct to the snow from London. He had this romantic notion of falling asleep in one country, waking up in the mountains, throwing on our ski stuff then hitting the slopes. Well, two out of three isn’t bad.

I thought we’d have comfortable beds with little curtains, maybe a chocolate on the pillow (both for Noel, sugar-free February continues). It turns out the overnighter has no beds, it used to be the all-night-booze train, but now there’s no booze, in fact alcohol is not allowed on board, unless it is bought from the bar. Not a problem for us, breweries would go out of business if everyone drank as little as we do, but the lack of bed was going to put a serious dent in the energy reserves needed to put our skis on.

It was definitely worth paying the extra for first class travel. Bigger, more comfortable seats, passable, even good food, and a sleeping kit including a blanket, eye mask, ear plugs and neck pillow, though no chocolate. And we would have slept well had it not been for Mr Tedious and his drunken friends. They’d smuggled litres of alcohol aboard in their own bellies and spent the entire journey talking complete bollocks in loud voices. We were all too British to tell them to shut the f#ck up, but if they are in the same carriage on the way back, they’ll feel the rough side of my tongue.

It turns out we were wildly optimistic in thinking we could ski straight away, but we did manage to ski after a couple of hours kip.  Meanwhile our chalet mates arrived late into the evening, exhausted after an extended coach trip from the airport. We’ll also get to ski the day everyone else leaves, that’s if my legs survive, before retiring to our comfortable-ish seat on the train.  Yes, I think we’ll do this again. Probably.

The Great Unblocking

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That’s me on the left, my friend Caroline on the right

Early Sunday afternoon as Yorkshire puddings were digesting in full bellies across the county, Yorkshire Water suffered a Star Wars-esque Great Disturbance in the Force as the drains coughed and spluttered under the strain of mud washed from 800 pairs of legs.

Engineers with super-size plungers and industrial-strength drain rods were on standby, extra sets of temporary traffic lights were hired in ready for the roads to be dug up and the blocked pipes replaced. As it turned out the lagoons of mud, sludge and other sticky liquids picked up at the Barnbow fields didn’t quite tip the balance, but it was a close thing.

The fourth race in the now very popular Peco cross country series promised to be a mudfest. It was a perfect storm, heavy rain, soggy fields and more than 800 runners in luggy, spiky shoes, just right to stir it all up.

The men were sent off first, mainly so we could watch and snigger as they took the tight, slippery corner on one leg and landed in a pile in the mud. By the time it was our turn,  the field was mud soup and it didn’t smell too good either. The start was uphill, even so, I could swear I was moving backwards, the mud was like a conveyor belt in reverse, no traction at all. The girl next to me lost a shoe, I don’t think she ever found it, another sacrifice to the Mud God.

It was one of the toughest five miles I’ve ever run, slipping, sliding and splashing all over the place. Thank goodness the brambles and spiky bushes stopped me from falling. I had so much mud on my shoes, I finished five centimetres taller than I started.

The post-run shower was like a geological sampler kit, different layers peeled away, I saw coal, I saw grit, I saw something brown that I don’t think was inorganic. The plughole protested but finally gave way and I was clean again – until the next time.

 

My life on my wrist

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A few years ago when I left my last permanent job and plunged full-length into self-employment, my colleagues, staff and friends bought me one of the most thoughtful, enduring and evolutionary presents I’ve ever had.

I didn’t really know what to make of the stretchy steel bracelet with Nomination stamped on each link. Jewellery isn’t high on my list of things to buy myself, so it was touching to receive something so personal. For several of your English pounds (several more after Brexit, dammit), the links can be replaced with little gold and enamel pictures that can tell your own story and display it on your wrist.

There are 19 Nominations to be replaced and they started me with the twin masks of comedy and tragedy to represent both the job I’d just left and my love of theatre, a snowflake because I actually love that cold, white stuff,  and a four-leaf clover for luck, which I was going to need in a salary-free world.

Since then it has evolved, links have been replaced with little bits of stories of my life, including a mini scroll for when I got my MA, a camera as I have several and love photography, a skier because I pretend to be one, a runner because I pretend to be one of those too, the Chinese symbol for a dog, yes, I am a dog, and, to celebrate receiving dual nationality a mini Irish flag.

With my recent birthday and a generous cash gift from my dad, I  added the final three links, a Bialetti stove-top coffee-maker because good coffee is one of the true pleasures in life, a treble clef because music makes the world go round and, of course, cats. I know cats aren’t for everyone, but one little stray who turned up one day and moved in with us made me happy when I was sad, he became a big part of my story and so has a rightful place on my bracelet.

It’s full now, and I can’t stop looking at it, every link has a memory and makes me smile. Maybe I’ll have to start another one – I need somewhere to put the mini allotment and Eiffel Tower and of course a representation of Noel.

Sugar and spice and all things nice

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If I was ever to be on Mastermind, my specialist subject would be Cakes, Sweets and Puddings of the 20th Century. Although I say so myself, I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things cakey, sweety and puddingy, thanks to prolonged and extensive research and field work, as my dentist will attest.

I blame my grandmother, she was a fantastic baker, producing sticky, sweet cakes dripping with water icing topped with crunchy coconut or plump glace cherries every week. I think she must have had shares in Tate and Lyle, she served golden syrup on bread, with butter of course, well something had to stop the sticky stuff soaking through on to the plate. And to encourage me to eat apples, she’d chop them up and dip each slice in sugar, it worked.

Best of all was that she was a big pal of Mrs Ripley who ran the local sweet shop. We would visit every Friday afternoon, I drank tea like a grown-up and helped myself to four sugar lumps for the drink and a couple for my pocket for later on, crunched with added fluff. Access to the living room was through the shop, past the counters groaning under the weight of confectionery and shelves full of biscuits. In those days puddings were confined to Heinz treacle sponge, steamed in the tin, with such a high sugar content it came with a highly inflammable warning. I knew them all, I tasted them all, loved them all. Any new sugar-based product was comprehensively market-tested, by me!  Quite how I wasn’t the size of a house and completely toothless is a dietitian’s mystery, but that sweet tooth chewed on to make me the sugar mastermind I am today.

Now I’m older and wiser, I know that sugar is bad for me and I know I eat too much of it, so I try to avoid too much of it. But it’s difficult when the office has stockpiles of sweets and biscuits and everyone seems to have three birthdays a year and brings in cakes. Add to that the ridiculously low cost of large tubs of goodies and it’s goodbye tooth enamel, hello elasticated waistbands. Thank goodness for Sugar Free February, Cancer Research’s annual gentle reminder that sugar is not only bad for us, it can kill us. Every day this month I’m saying no to sweets, cakes, biscuits and puddings, instead it’s nuts the cheeseboard or nothing. Day six and we’re doing fine, let’s see how this ends! And it’s not too late to join me!