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I’m not a great dog lover. I mean, they’re a bit like horses, I like the idea of them, some are very beautiful and they are fine from a distance but I don’t really want one in the house. I don’t much care for the poop scooping. That applies as much to horses as dogs, although let’s admit it, the horse poop is good for the garden. On that note, nor do I care for those who scoop the dog poop and then leave it dangling in a bag on a nearby tree. I don’t think the faeries are after that kind of offering folks!?

Anyway. Dogs. I like them vicariously. I like to see people and their dogs around town or country. I like to see them jump into water, or run through woodland. There is a lot of free spirit in a dog.

Today, on my way back from town I walked through the park. I say walked, I use the term under caution at the minute due to the looseness of my right knee. I’m basically playing knee jenga and might topple at any moment so I’m there with my sticks. In the recent past these sticks have freaked out a spaniel and a beagle and some big hairy breed I didn’t know the name of so these days I’m always wary. For instance, there was that pit bull that tried to trip me last week in the tunnel. “Tizer! What do you think you’re doing?” asked his owner in outrage and, moments later, apology. I think he was attempting to fetch one of my sticks.

So, this morning, I’d done a bit of a loop and so I’d opted to sit on a bench taking in the breathtakingly bronze January sun. A rather severe looking woman walked by, hunched into her coat, her hair spiked so stiffly it was weaponised. She gave me a disapproving glare and so, instantly, I was interested in what she was about. She appeared to be on her own and not in a good mood. Her clothes were stiff and those kind of clothes where someone thinks they are stylish but they’re not, the scarf just slightly too formal and woolly at the turned up collar of the three quarter length car coat. Yes, car coat. That’s what we called them back in the seventies when you had to wear your coat in the car along with your driving shoes and your driving gloves. Anyway, she is walking with a measured and military pace and my writer’s brain is clicking and whirring to catch at the story. Black Slacks is what the story will be called if it ever gets written so I watch Black Slacks make her way up the main drag. She looks pissed off, sorry for the expletive but the phrase is the most apt of descriptions at this point. Miffed doesn’t quite do it. Peeved is not up to the task. I am wondering what sort of day she’s had. Clearly she has not been able to reprimand anyone at work this morning because, I am guessing, she is retired. It is annoying her that she can no longer bully the young girl on the training course and she can’t sneer at Gemma in admin for being fat. This woman is thin, the kind of thin that takes the celebration out of cake, the type of skinny that has an emphasis on skin; dry and stretched over the joyless bones. Whoa there, Helen, going in much? Harsh. Good grief I don’t like her. My Pagan brain, primeval and wild, is going a bit mental about now due to the vibe that is emanating from her. Somewhere crows are warning me about this person. It is like that. They should test for this anthropological wave field in the large hadron collider at CERN. This woman would probably blow all the circuit boards.

It gets worse. As she wanders further away my attention is distracted by a dog in a fleece coat who trots into view. He is a small Westie, old and hinting at grey rather than white and while he looks spry he does not look cheery. He looks harried and can’t enjoy the buffet of smells that the park is laced with because he’s got one anxious eye on having to catch up to his owner.

Where is his owner? I look behind, expecting to see someone bustle up and indulge in a bit of banter with the little Westie. They might possibly be armed with one of those long ball thrower gadgets so you don’t have to touch the slobbery toy. There is no such person. Who is he with? I scan the park and then make a horrible realisation.

Black Slacks has turned her head, scornful, and the little dog trots towards her.  Only now do I see the wind-up lead in her hand. In my defence her arms are folded, the lead clenched in the hand that is stuffed up under her arm.

I have never seen anyone walk their dog like this. There is no interaction, no chivvying with ‘Come on Hamish you old duffer we need to get the kettle on’ nor is there even  a more draconian whistle or command. Silence. The woman walks on, further, further, only pausing at the war memorial to check that he has not been snatched by the dognappers, she’s disappointed, obviously, that he is still behind her, and carries on. Hamish, (I have by now christened him absolutely and totally) attempts to sniff at the bench leg, at my leg, at a puddle, at a stick, but he can focus his attention on nothing because he knows in his little canine heart, he is being left behind.

I watched them as Hamish cut across the grass to meet his mistress at the corner of the path by the bandstand. She was not eager for his return, there was no greeting exchanged and she did not clip his lead back on. Instead she walked on ahead before he arrived, oblivious and at a pace guaranteed to make the wee chap hurry slightly. They move out of sight by the crane at the new flats development.

I know nothing about this pairing. I have made it all up in my head from my observations, from body language.  For all I know Hamish might be an abusive little git behind closed doors, demanding choice cuts of Cesar and bowls of spring water. He might live in a small tartan dog palace. Somehow, I think not.

At night, Hamish sobs into his Iams Eukanuba, his tears making the small nubbins of nourishment just a little bit tastier. When he dreams, he dreams of thrown sticks and a small boy’s hugs.

 

I’m not a petrolhead, let’s make that clear. The most stupid thing I’ve seen this week is someone driving into Ikea Bristol in a Lamborghini. Whatever they purchased would have to be packaged like origami to get it into the tiny boot. Or perhaps they were going to strap a wardrobe to the roof. Either way, stupid car.

I do, however, have a soft spot for Land Rover Defenders. It isn’t just the name, reminiscent of an armoured guardian to take you hither and thither, it’s something about the styling, the practicality. I appreciate that the one I was parked next to in the supermarket yesterday was a top of the range model, it was the SAS of Defenders, sleekly grey and with all its windows in tact. It was a great, vast bus of a thing looming over our Peugeot. They are the yummy mummy sort of vehicle, I know, the kind of off road vehicle they chug round Chelsea with. In all honesty they are not really the Defenders I am talking about.

If I happened to go to a dealership it would have to be one run from a tumbledown shed, probably in Devon. The cars would be ranged in mud puddles and hiding in the hedgerows. There would be chickens roosting in the big old green one. Another would be up on blocks awaiting new tyres from the nearest scrapyard. Rust would play a part in the colour scheme. I like  a Defender that is a grand old girl, something knocked about with no heater and holes in the skylight windows. The bench seats in the back will have been shat upon by weasels. There might be an emergency pork pie rammed into the glove box. The gloves of course, gauntlets.

My love of this vehicle stems from student days. I went to Warwick University and lived in Leamington Spa at one point and in order to get to campus I had two options; catch the bus, always a lovely ride, or hitch a lift. We had a hitchhiking system in place which was to keep us safe. There were specified ‘Hitching Points’ in Leamington where students waited for other students and on occasion, lecturers or professors, to sidle by in their cars. We would all pile in and pay 20p for the fare into campus. It worked alright. I was a nicely brought up young woman, taught to fear everything from paper bags to shallow water  and so hitchhiking was quite the adventure. I didn’t do it on my own at first, my other half was keen and so we hitched in together once or twice. Another time I had missed the bus and my hand was forced. Hitching was the only option because, as a nicely brought up young woman I understood it was impolite to be late for something like a lecture. I was also brought up that it was rude to brush your hair in public or put your lipstick on on the bus. I leave psychiatrists to pick the bones of all that.

In the end hitching appealed because I liked to get into other people’s cars and smell the smells and see the rubbish or lack thereof. There is a lot of personality in a person’s car and so, as a budding writer, I found it more fascinating than earwigging on people’s conversations on the bus. I soon got into the habit of hitching.

One morning there were three of us waiting. No one I knew so we all stood there in studenty silence. I’m quite cheery in the mornings, to illustrate, just think of Snow White tra-la-laing in the dwarves garden and all the birds gathering on her fingers and shoulders to help with the chores; got that? That’s me in the morning. I know, terrible for those who are otherwise; hungover, half dead or morose. However, at that point in my life I was much shyer so I did not try and engage anyone in annoying small talk. Several cars wheeled by and no one seemed in a mood to take us. Then, a rackety old Defender pulled into the kerb and we all piled in. Through the back door. A hatch really.

This old girl was venerable and it was the first time I had travelled in such a vehicle. I was smitten from the moment the back door swung free of its crust of mud. Inside the bench seating was scuffed and torn, there was a crack in the skylight of the roof so that the drizzle and the wind dropped in. The whole chassis rumbled and thundered along.

In the front seat the driver was a student. I have no idea who he was, I never saw him or the Defender again, but I remember him vividly. At least, the side and back of him.

He was in the driving seat, obviously. Beside him on the long bench seat (torn/worn) was a paper bag and a wholemeal cottage loaf. As we chugged along his hand reached out to pick morsels from the body of the bread. There were crumbs everywhere and a scent of bread mixed with the scent of damp upholstery stuffing and diesel. Penhaligons take note, this is a fragrance opportunity. The young man was scruffy in a cord jacket that had clearly been passed down, probably through a hedge or the digestive system of a cow. His shirt was softly old and worn and his skin had a patina of dirt that any antiques expert would have swooned over. His hair was mouse brown, I mean that in a rustic and animistic way, wildly curly and also matted here and there, a stranger to a brush, as my grandmother might say. I couldn’t tell you anything about any of the other travellers that day. This student held all my attention. I had never seen anyone so at home in themselves. He was slight and wiry.

There was no sound save the engine growling, no music playing, just the whistling of the window in the roofline, broken as it was. He did not once speak or acknowledge us, his eyes on the road ahead, and at journey’s end, we dropped the coins for the ride into his outstretched, breadcrumbed hand.

Whenever I see a Defender  I always think of that ride, of the soft pinch of grubby fingers in newly baked loaf, of the cold metallic scents of the car. Always. It was one of the most perfect journeys I have ever made. I have no idea why.

 

Photo from Cornwalls.co.uk Cornwall Guide: a Defender in the wild.

 

 

We were at St Fagans the other day, in the blistering heat and popping into the wonderful bakery. I love St Fagans with its collection of historic buildings saved from all corners of, well, Wales actually. It is the Museum of Welsh Life and its worth a visit any time of year.

It’s one of those places where you can time travel. The fires are lit in Winter and there is always the idea that you’ve just stepped into someone’s house while they were out. If you like rollercoasters and white knuckle thrill rides then it probably isn’t going to float your boat but if, like me, you like history, then Boom.

Funny thing, history. There are certain periods of time that appeal to me greatly. Don’t misunderstand me, I studied history, I’m aware of the horrible social conditions and the lack of welfare state of the past. I have no illusions that things were ‘better in the past’, far from it.  They were interesting and they had  better clothes. Hats, in the main, there are not enough hats these days.

Where were we? Napoleonic. Regency. I feel at home in a Georgian house and by that I mean one that is open to the public, not one that someone has torn the heart out of in order to instal a modern kitchen. I’m not into modern kitchens. I like a scullery and a turnspit. Kitchens are my favourite part of any visit to any stately home. If you want to get in touch with history then the kitchen is the place to do it. Imagine it bustling with people, poorly paid servants, think of them dragging buckets of hot water up to slipper baths and you start to get a real feel for history.

Victorian. Good grief, how any student of history shakes their head at the idea of ‘Victorian Values’. Yes, they were innovative and inventive and they put style and panache into their public buildings but they did this by paying my great grandfathers tuppence ha’penny to cut timber and glaze windows. That said, I love the feel of Victorian buildings, from the grand public spaces like the V&A and the Pitt Rivers to the more personal spaces of well, say for instance, my living room.

I live in a Victorian house. Only just. It was built at the tail end of the era and it was very welcoming on the day that I first viewed it and said to my husband  ‘I think I’ve found the house’. We were, at that point, living in a Victorian terraced house, another lovely, warm welcoming place. My kitchen there was tiny, a galley kitchen par excellence. I loved that little kitchen and the yard beyond.

I grew up in a Sixties box house. My dad bought it when it was a patch of dirt and Mr Potter said ‘This is what it will be like.’ There were many happy years in that house. Light, bright, picture windows and, best of all, a hatch through from the kitchen!

Tudor/Medieval. I can go with that.  It’s a lovely walk from Stratford on Avon town centre out to Anne Hathaway’s cottage and you feel as if you’re coming home.

Castles. I think we all know my thoughts on castles.

Iron Age/Roman/Bloody Long Time Ago: Skara Brae, say no more, the Neolithic spread for Country Life, complete with ‘stone dresser’, yes folks, dresser.

1930’s/1940s. Nope. Can’t go there. I’m being serious. There is something about that era that makes me shiver. In museums please do not expect me to walk through the 1930s exhibit of the drapers shop or air raid shelter.

At St Fagans they have a small terrace of mining cottages. They are dressed in different times, from the earliest 1805 to the last one 1985. The one I dislike the most is the 1930s cottage. There is something about the furniture, the mantelpiece and fireplace, the squareness of an armchair, the antimacassar. What is going on? I feel cold and uneasy. This is not the first time this has happened to me.

What I feel is unease and fear. My writer head suspects that in a past life the 1930s was not the best place for me and that if was to be regressed back it would not be a great recollection. There is a recurring dream folks and a house in that dream that holds something undisclosed and terrible. Guess which era the house is from?

The 30s and 40s were turbulent times,  you might say, possibly it is the idea of war and destruction, but then so was the Civil War and I’m quite happy wandering the tents and battles of any re-enactment from Richmond Castle to Chalfield Manor House.

Who knows what is behind my irrationality, all I know is that next time H G Wells decides to pop in and suggest a Day Out, I’d better watch where the dial is being twiddled to on the Time Machine.

 

The pic, btw, is Wentworth Woodhouse, near Sheffield, well worth a visit too.

If you are at a loose end and fancy a free book, how about signing away your sanity and receiving The Ice King? http://www.helenslavin.com/signup/  Just a thought…

 
 

‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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