Here I am.

Sitting at my desk.




After last week’s tense, stressful wait for the prof’s immigration status to be legalised when his first visa reached its end date. (Normally done without too much hassle by contacting immigration, signing papers and paying payments.)

After panicking when he was silent for 24 hours, during which I thought he may have been arrested by the immigration police. (It has happened before, I was with him, well, until they took him away to a police vehicle by the side of a road at a road block, that is. Just so you know this is not my idle imagination at work.)

After finally seeing it all come out right in the end…

… except it hasn’t.

Let me explain why I get involved, for those of you who think I should just stay out of it, let my best-beloved sort out his own problems in the field. Aside, of course, from the fact he is my best-beloved.

First of all, I have no choice but to keep an active eye on our bank balance while he’s away. The Zambian Kwacha is not what you might call a widely recognised currency and he has to pay his way, largely in cash, by taking out large quantities from working ATMs.

I have not used our joint account since he left, so he could have free rein. And luckily I have a small separate one of my own for just this reason. From which I can top ours up if necessary.

I also keep a weather eye on his inbox – with his permission – so I can see any bear-traps in the offing. Sometimes it’s impossible for him to communicate across continents in a timely enough way to get things done when a famed Zambian  ‘just now’ fails the upgrade to ‘now now’ .

Which is why, on Friday, when I imagined all was well, I did wonder about the emails about exports, about invoices, about … university finance replies unopened.

And sure enough, this lunchtime, an email.

Please contact [names supplied].

Tell them the invoice for import agent clearing (an invoice a month old in Kwacha, only on Friday deemed unacceptable, must be in dollars or pounds) and a so far non-existent one for export, have to be paid or he can’t bring any of the valuable kit he imported with great difficulty – and at great expense – back home again.

Which I am guessing means he would have to leave without it as his new, temporary visa says he must “wind up and leave”.  See his latest post here. [Done on Sunday when the bandwidth stretched far enough to cope]

I am always willing to help, if not always happy.

And what I am definitely not happy to do is to sit here doing nothing except metaphorically biting my nails (there’s nothing real left to bite – thanks to all the cleaning 😉 I’ve been doing) while receiving ‘helpful’ advice.

Which is why I don’t usually share such hassles. Because then I get:

“Tell him…”

“Can’t you…”

“Have you tried…”

“Why doesn’t he …”

“Why do you have to…”

Well,  you know what? It’s just not that easy.

If there is no bandwidth there is no email.

If the Zambian phone (which makes lousy connections anyway) doesn’t have enough credit it won’t accept my call.

If he doesn’t have his UK phone on I can’t call that and of course, ditto.

If he’s not in his backpacker hostel (yes, I rang their landline and he isn’t) then I have run out of options.

Forget WhatsApp and Facebook calls and Skype everything else.

We’re talking a place where you can’t depend on electricity at all times, let alone communications.

And today we cannot communicate.

So, yes, I call university finance. They are sympathetic and helpful.

Yes they are ready to jump through hoops to get the things paid. But there are no invoices that are payable.

They cannot pay non-existent invoices.

And the prof cannot write them, the export/import agents have to do that.

And the time is an hour different in Zambia. An hour later there, so the afternoon ticks away…

And I am tired, anxious, fed up and have done next to no creative writing in over six weeks. Haven’t even submitted the novel, the first planned task of this stint ‘alone’, to more than two agents.

‘Real’ writers say, I can’t not write, I will always find time to write, come what may.

Well, I’m obviously not a writer.

Yes, I have set up a website, created a couple of items – words in hardcopy for sale. Organised ISBNS. Bought specialist packaging and all that stuff.

I’ve blogged for six years (though only once in the last six weeks).

I compose in my head the whole time.

But if I were a ‘real’ writer I could be writing.

Not worrying.


And people wonder why I call this memoirs of a husk.

But fortunately there’s a remedy for temporary huskitis.

“Tea tempers the spirit and harmonises the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thought and prevents drowsiness.’

Lu Yu, the Sage of Tea, born 733.

Now, just to choose which one.



Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Words for sale

No easy way to do this, sorry.

I hate selling. But it’s ready now. The new website via which you can buy my re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Little Match Girl.

Sparingly re-titled as, A Little Match Girl, by me.

It’s been lovingly typeset on historic equipment and printed by hand (see this post on my other, nerdy blogging site for more detail).

It’s short, that’s why it’s listed under Short Reads (there’s only one so you won’t get confused).

The Long Read (you guessed, there’s only one) is my Zambia-based crime fiction novel, A Wake of Vultures, which some of you have already bought and/or read, thank you. It’s available on Amazon for Kindle (link on the website) but the paperback comes complete with a tiny ‘chitenge’ bookmark until I run out of Zambian fabric. But since they are so small I doubt I will. Run out.

A Wake of Vultures was published in 2012, so not exactly hot off the presses and I have to be honest, I failed abysmally at the self-marketing thing that is so essential.


The British High Commissioner for Zambia recently read and enjoyed it (I hope he won’t mind me saying) and just this week had an animated conversation with the prof (who’s nearing the end of his field season, see his latest blog post here) about one of the characters (my favourite, I’m not telling who, but it’s male).


Here’s the link, please take a look:


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Catching no worms

I’m not an early bird, I said, as I bid a fond farewell to three women, strangers to me before last Friday.

They were planning an early walk, today, before leaving the place we’re all staying.

This is where I’m staying, the others were by the other mill through the woods. I’m to the left of the tunnel over the old wheelhouse which was in the glassed in area behind the arch and have beautiful views to the back of the block as well

It wasn’t just the hour. True, 8.30 am sounded rather more chore than fun, but I also suspect they’re hardy trompers. And I’m more of a casual ambler, two miles for me a decent walk.

So we hugged and parted. A sparkler clasped in my hand as I waved goodbye, a souvenir of their companionship and a parting gift to celebrate Emily Bronte’s 200th birthday.

Davindra, Rashda and Margaret, wine buff and explorer, who brought the very special bottle of champagne

Emily was the prime reason we had all assembled at the old mills in the lush valley. And I, fortunate one that I am, stay on.

Of course he interviewed Rashda and Margaret after the last evening’s event at Haworth (wouldn’t you?)

A slightly fuzzy self portrait (right) in silhouette on the marquee as the two are interviewed

But my words came back to haunt me this morning. I woke at 4 am – and half an hour later was still a very long way from the Land of Nod.

I opened the curtains, stared at the grey-green world outside and thought, why not?

Why not throw on some clothes and walk?

Ten minutes later I left my lair and shut the door quietly behind me.

No-one else would be up so early, would they? And I didn’t want to disturb any of the other guests.

But as I stepped into the dawning, I noticed a man, standing on a doorstep at the far end of the mill. I began a smile, raised my hand and quickly dropped it back again.

There was no answering greeting, no twitch of the face or hand. At least, I didn’t see any such acknowledgement. Perhaps, like me, he wasn’t quite ready for his part in reality.

And so I went on my way. Through the tunnel and past the pond, along the path beside the water.

Was it coming on to rain?

I stood a moment. All was still in the water, the dim light reflecting the trees above as clearly as at high noon. But in different hues.

Water lilies still slumbering

Further down the path, Bent’s Mill snoozing beyond the trees

As soon as I moved the ‘rain’ began again and followed me as I padded down the path in my (it will soon become clear why I mention this) blue and white, made-of-textile shoes.

The raindrops were water boatmen, water skaters, detecting me, busying themselves with evasive manoeuvres. Tiny creatures,  but alive and alert.

I was no longer alone – if ever I had been.

I plodded on, trying to notice the shapes of things, the muted colours, the light, the shade. Smelling the air. Listening (in vain) for the owl I heard yesterday.

Accompanied by the chortling brook, cheered, I imagine, by two days of rain.

Darkness still winning – just – beneath the trees

I peered up through the trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of deer between skinny trunks that interspersed others too sturdy for hugging.

To no avail.

Ah well.

Magic comes best unbidden, unsought. Surprise an essential part of the spell.

I came to the end of the broad path approaching the other mill. Saw a little bridge. Turned my steps and bore left.

Treading carefully over chunky gravel, so as not to disturb any nearby sleepers, I left the route-well-trodden.

The sheep were having none of this anonymous nonsense and several raised their voices.

‘Bear,’ they bleated. ‘Bear, we’re here.’

I think Bear’s their pet name for everyone.

Over the bridge the path became a narrow strip of coarse grass cut through a lush meadow. I tromped on, then upwards.

Anyone who has ever sung English folk songs will know that we should beware of the morning dew. And what a heavy dew lay upon the grass this morning. That and the remnants of yesterday’s rain.

By the time I’d stopped several times, to marvel at umbellifers, grasses and teasels, my feet were thoroughly sodden.

Ah well, nothing I could do. And once so wet, they wouldn’t get wetter.

A branch of a tree hung across the path and I debated turning back, but something drew me on.

I blame the earliness of the hour – I wasn’t quite as alert as I might have been.

And anyway, I’d really stopped hoping.

I caught a glimpse of beigey brown, saw branches and leaves roughly ruffled, disturbed.

Heard the thudding of deer’s feet leaving.

Stood a while, willing them not to be frightened.

Frightened? Of me?

But I knew they would not be back, or not soon.

Their magic nestling in my heart like a random gift from a stranger, I turned and squelched away.

And as I sit here writing, I catch a glimpse, now and then, of a speck of gold on my hand.

A tiny heart. A temporary tattoo from last night’s revels.

Random gifts from strangers.

Or not so random.

And not now – the three humans anyway – strangers.

Lucky me.

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then, Nature notes, Yorkshire | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Butterfly kisses

As afternoon mellowed to evening, a skittish east wind began to play. And with it, the unmistakable smell of smoke made its now-nightly debut.

It seems some people get a kick from lighting fires on our tinder-dry moorlands and natural spaces.

Some in ignorance, perhaps, enjoying the freedom of wild camping, not appreciating how quickly a fire can spread in this dry weather (I’m being kind, I actually think it is the height of selfishness and stupidity).

But some – I find it hard to believe – do it deliberately. There have been arrests.

Emergency services are stretched and coming from far and wide. Dwindling supplies of reservoir water are being dumped by helicopters on widespread fires on peat that will burn – and burn – and burn.

That’s tens of miles away. But even here, in our beloved dunes and pines, a fire was started – and, thankfully, put out.

I just don’t get it.

But anyway. Back to my Sunday evening.

It was some hours since we had walked on our local dunes. I took with me my latest toy, a new old camera. New, in the sense that I bought it on Saturday, old as in second hand.

In fact, I think for once ‘pre-loved’ is a valid description. Although it’s electronic, with touch screen and megapixels, it came with an old leather carrying case, all the instruction booklets, the guarantee (long since redundant) and a lingering air of reluctant parting.

I was frowning over the manual when the prof went inside for the first of two pre-arranged  evening phone calls – this from a nephew who will be visiting him in Zambia this summer.

I gave up in exasperation and instead started examining the first crop of photos. And as I did so the battery ran out. Clearly I need a back-up.

It was then …

… but no, first, let me share our dune walk.

The soft, silky sand was hot underfoot, the going hard up the steep inclines. But early on we began to notice how varied the effects of the weather have been.

Beginning the walk, up the first hill, hot, soft, dry sand and the golf course fence bleached in the sun

While grasses were parched and bleached in most of the upper areas, there were also sides of dunes that were lush and green. Valleys with leafy trees and, as we discovered, cool remains of brimming pools in the dappled shade of the slacks.

A lush slope. the only telltale sign it’s a sand dune the paths rising up it

The slack I saw a couple of months ago now lessened but still a magnet for wildlife

We disturbed a large bird of prey, I saw only the shadow of its departing wings – the prof saw a yellow beak – and it flapped off to find better sanctuary. Or to hunt.

A chance feather left a clue to its identity.

Unfortunately the slack was also home to horse flies and we departed in a hurry.

The scent of honeysuckle wafted over us from time to time and pointilistic clumps of flowers spattered occasional bursts of colour amid the arid patches of sand.



We’re hoping these are tracks of a sand lizard – one of the protected species that ensure all this coast remains an SSSI – a Site of Special Scientific Interest

This fuzzball fell from the sky – sensible bird that dropped this one!

The neighbouring golf course looked dry. The golfers hot.

Sun trap for golfers

And though the views of the sea were glorious – if distant – an hour was enough. No beach walk beckoned, but rather our little plot, the pines, the birds, the butterflies and – phone calls.

And so it was, a cold beer in our local village and a selection of appetisers later, that I sat with my battery-devoid-phone, perusing the camera’s manual, when a little piece of wonder descended upon our outdoor table.

A small, pale brown butterfly settled on the booklet. My hand was sitting next to it, so rather than frighten the creature I left it there, in the hot sun that the butterfly – a rather moth-eaten (so to speak) Wall Brown – plainly craved. Their wings being organic solar panels, generating the heat that keeps their warmth-craving bodies happy.

And as I sat and watched, the butterfly moved. Adjourned to my hand.

I bent quite close and watched, but it seemed unperturbed.

And then.

It uncurled its little proboscis, into the gap between my ring finger – the one wearing a silver copy of Charlotte Bronte’s wedding ring – and my little finger.

I was a human reservoir! A secret reserve of salty water for my thirsty little companion.

The coiled and uncoiled strand of butterfly anatomy was so delicate, so tiny, so gentle, I felt nothing. Though I did feel the fleeting touch of the creature’s movements.

And as it finally flew, its wings brushing my hand, I was back on my mother’s knee. A child of four, or five, or six.

‘Give me a butterfly kiss,’ she would say, bending close, just as I bent over my butterfly.

And I would bat my lashes against her cheek.

I’ve always wondered if butterfly kisses were a ‘just our family’ thing.

But now, I know. They’re real.


If you are interested in the wider local wildfire situation, here’s a recent report from a Manchester newspaper.

Posted in Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Nature notes, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The poet-tramp-novelist and the dragonfly

An old post of mine, brought to mind by the sad news of the death of Danny Kirwan of Fleetwood Mac, there’s a link to his magical song about the dragonfly in here.


No time to stand and stare. You know the quote, don’t you?

Or do you?

‘What is this life if, full of care/ we have not time to stand and stare?’

[A classic example of the importance of commas, btw, but that’s not what I’m writing about.]

It’s taken from a poem called ‘Leisure’, one of a series of ‘Songs of Joy’ by Welsh poet –and tramp and novelist – William Henry Davies. He died in 1940. The poem was published in 1911.

Among the vagaries of his life was an accident jumping freight trains in Canada that left him without a foot and needing a wooden leg. He came back across the waves at that point, living rough in London doss-houses, writing poetry, self-publishing at a time when it was far from easy.

Out of that experience he drew his book, ‘Autobiography of a Super-Tramp’ – which reminds me…

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The other side of beauty?

The grass could do with a trim. But there’s something stopping me taking out the push mower. I simply can’t do it.

It’s not because I’m tired after a long weekend spent in the company of friends I haven’t seen for years – though I am. It’s not because I can’t be bothered, though that does tend to happen. And it’s all the more likely when I know anthro-man willbe back soon and will see to it as a priority. He does like an orderly patch of grass.

Why then, this reluctance of one woman to go to mow our not-even-nearly a meadow?

It’s because of the jewels, the picture, the vignette nature has painted for me in one corner. I simply can’t disturb it.

The sun is fitful, but as I stand and stare, several paces away, it’s beaming full down on our little garden. Gorgeous colours glint where its rays fall. Jewel-bright flashes of emerald, sapphire, ruby. Well, not quite ruby. More a crimson mixed with scarlet which glistens, rather than glints.

The jewels are in motion. Rising and falling. But the red is still. Motionless. Resting on a lattice of ivory white bones.

Yes, bones.

There is a blackbird nest in the garden. Not very well sited, I fear. And here, in the corner, not far from that nest, are the raw red remains of a young one. Not a baby, not so small. A meatier size than that, a blackbird adolescent.

The feathers lie some distance away. Most of the flesh has been stripped, but the vibrant red remains offer plenty of sustenance for the flies.

I can’t go anywhere close, I know I would feel sick. Squeamish suburban westerner that I am.

But I still, reluctantly, see the beauty. I see it in a fleeting way, for a particle of time before my knowledge of the substrate kicks to the surface, the beginnings of admiration turning to disgust.

And I think of John Clare, a poet I find easy to read, and easy to admire.

Does knowledge of his troubled life and death in madness make his work more appealing to me? Or is it simply his vision of another world, a world more connected with all other living things?

Here is a poem I go back to now and then, fascinated by his innocent view of flies.

These tiny loiterers on the barley’s beard,

And happy units of a numerous herd

Of playfellows, the laughing summer brings,

Mocking the sunshine in their glittering wings,

How merrily they creep, and run, and fly!

No kin they bear to labour’s drudgery,

Smoothing the velvet of the pale hedge-rose;

And where they fly for dinner no one knows –

The dew-drops feed them not – they love the shine

Of noon, whose sun may bring them golden wine.

All day they’re playing in their Sunday dress –

Till night goes sleep, and they can do no less;

Then, to the heath-bell’s sunken hood they fly,

And like to princes in their slumber lie,

Secure from night, and dropping dews, and all,

In silken beds and roomy painted hall.

So merrily they spend their summer day,

Now in the cornfields, now the new-mown hay,

One almost fancies that such happy things,

With coloured hoods and richly burnished wings,

Are fairy folk, in splendid masquerade

Disguised, as if of mortal folk afraid,

Keeping their merry pranks a mystery still,

Lest glaring day should do their secrets ill.

Later in life, in Northampton Asylum, he wrote of ‘House or window flies’:

These little indoor dwellers, in cottages and halls, were always entertaining to me; after dancing at the window all day from sunrise to sunset they would sip of tea, drink of the beer, and eat of the sugar, and be welcome all summer long. They look like things of mind or fairies, and seem pleased or dull as the weather permits. In many clean cottages and genteel houses, they are allowed to creep, fly, or do as they like; and seldom ever do wrong. In fact they are the small and dwarfish portion of our own family, and so many fairy familiars that we know and treat as one of ourselves.

I wonder, would he have felt the same had he known the secret of the fly? Its hidden payload of life-threatening germs?

I also wonder, seeing jewels where Clare saw fairies, if jewels – the hard, cold ones we set in rings and regal treasures, crowns and tiaras – are equally ugly, or even cruel, beneath the glamour? Signifiers of conquest? ‘Mortals, mere mortals, look on us and beware.’

Blood diamonds, if they could speak, would surely answer yes. But perhaps the hard labour of the poor on which almost all jewel mining depends makes them all things of conflict, of pain, of darkness.

Beauty, feeding on pain.

I leave that thought with you.

Time to wash the dishes after breakfast. To bring some order back into the domestic chaos before the wanderer returns.

But I’m leaving the lawn, with the legacy left it by those beautiful birds, the magpies, to him.

The bowl hides a real well The garden is very small and we wanted nature to have a little more room so added this Corten steel bowl which the water boatmen love

Posted in Nature notes, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Student satisfaction – what does it take? And is it edible – sorry – ethical?

Student fees in England are high. And as someone who received a grant to study from a local authority – as almost all students did, back in the good ol’ days – I feel sorry for the youngsters who have to shoulder a debt into the world of work before they’ve even earned their first full-time, career-type-job pay cheque.


Today, yet again, stories of student dissatisfaction are in the news.

They don’t feel they’re getting value for money. Specifically, many of them, don’t rate the teaching and cite – irony of ironies (read on) – lack of contact hours.

And the more work they have to do, the happier they are, it seems.

Well, I thought those of you who studied before the advent of the internet might like to know – and marvel at – what resources today’s students have available to them at my husband’s university.

First, the online handbook, which is introduced to students at the beginning of the course. This details what the course they’ve chosen entails, its requirements, deadlines for assessment, essay questions, reading lists and timetables for classes, lectures, exams, dissertations, etc.

And everything on the reading lists, btw, should be accessible from the library at the click of a link.

Thus, it’s a doddle to find out, in an instant, what’s expected, when work is due and to access the resources needed to complete it.

Lectures are filmed – the lecturer wearing a mic to record the content.

I hate this idea. I’m sure it hampers a lecturer’s style, knowing throw-away, controversial remarks and dad (or mum) jokes are forever accessible online. Not to mention my own feeling that it’s dodgy in terms of copyright. Lecturing can require not just a lot of personal research (and constant updating) but plenty of original thought.

But never mind that now. Back to spoonfeeding.

So (to start this sentence as so many academics irritatingly do now) the lectures are available online if a student misses a class.

The PowerPoint slides are online.

The notes are online.

Thus, if the student fails to attend any lecture, the material is there to work from, no excuse.

So far, so good. And arguably, so valuable, yes?

Here are a couple of examples of what actually happens.

Student turns up to session, week before presentations are due. Previous week lecturer told students what’s expected – details of format, style and content – this is simply a reminder. OK?

So (again). Student arrives for class. Unusual in itself.

‘What’s the presentation about? What are we supposed to do?’ s/he asks. (I’m leaving personal pronouns vague on purpose.)

The subject was discussed in the previous week’s lecture. The actual lecture was online. The PowerPoint was online. The online handbook detailed what was required.

That same student is now applying for postgraduate courses.

With a lousy attendance record, you might think s/he would consider choosing a referee whose course s/he had attended diligently. And you might think s/he’d ask the lecturer first.

But no. A reference request arrives with no warning.

Now, cut this student some slack. S/he’s far from being the only one. And given all that’s available online, you might not be surprised attendance can be pretty poor.

So (getting used to this ‘so’ starting?) let’s move on, to assessment. Of lecturers and courses, not students.

Students are routinely asked to rate their lecturers and course material in end-of-course evaluations. It’s pretty much the norm in higher education and is used in deciding on the allocation of funds, curriculum development, performance rating of academics – and so on.

A brilliant first class student recently marked down my husband’s course because (wait for this) that student felt s/he had just done badly in a class test.

The students had access to a previous test online, had been given a detailed week by week review of topics to study – and this was all two weeks in advance (and filmed and available online).

The student actually received first class marks. But by the time s/he knew that, the damage was done.


So (I’m getting the hang of this), to return to the question of the title, what does it take for students to feel they have value for money, to rate their lecturers and courses highly?

I have the answer. It was reported in the i newspaper earlier this week.

Chocolate biscuits.

Dr Manuel Wenk, as reported in the i, is one of the authors of a study to be published in the journal Medical Education.  That study:

found that those groups who had received chocolate cookies evaluated their teachers as being significantly better than those who received nothing.

They also considered their teaching materials to be better and their scores for the overall quality of the course were significantly higher than those of the control group.

Dr  Wenk, according to the i:

warned that while the research may at first appear light-hearted, the fact that teacher evaluation could be so easily influenced revealed the “total inadequacy” of such important teaching surveys.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

So (last one, promise), to return to the title once more, my advice to lecturers in England is: stock up on chocolate digestives, Choco Leibnitz, whatever.

In fact, why not invest in choux buns with fresh cream and chocolate icing? Or gateaux? You know there will be an escalation now the truth has been revealed, don’t you?

Whatever you do, feed ‘em – and watch your obese ratings swell your university’s rankings.

Birthday cake from April, made for the prof, in the form of an excavation square and stone tools. Just for illustrative purposes. No students were bribed as a result of ingestion of said cake 😉

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments