Sunset and a Fussy Librarian

The sunset was incredibly vivid last night, with giant purple clouds boiling up all around. It looked both beautiful and slightly menacing.

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And by the way, nothing at all to do with sunsets, my latest book “I Wish I Could Say I Was Sorry” is being featured on Monday 28th October at The Fussy Librarian, a new website that offers personalized quality ebook recommendations. You can choose from 30 genres and indicate your preferences about content. If you like sex and violence, you can have it. If you don’t, you won’t be offered it. The Fussy Librarian gets to work and sends you daily suggestions suited to your personal reading taste. It’s pretty cool — check it out! www.TheFussyLibrarian.com

“I Wish I Could Say I Was Sorry” is a memoir of childhood in Kenya, the breakdown of our family which would have repercussions for decades, and a small grey pony called Cinderella.

I can’t say I’m sorry.

In fact, I’m very pleased that Awesome Indies has awarded their badge of approval to “I Wish I Could Say I Was Sorry”
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As part of the Blackbird Digital Books autumn promotion, this week The Valley of Heaven and Hell and Best Foot Forward Kindle versions are both available to download at 99 cts/77p.

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Click image to buy

Workaway – how did it work?

Early last year, a cycling nutter tweeted me that he’d read and enjoyed my book about wobbling through the Marne Valley. He said he was planning to spend two years cycling around Europe and Wwoofing, and I replied that if he found himself near us, he’d be welcome to a beer, or a bed for the night.

He ended up living with us for over two months, and worked like a Trojan to help re-roof one of our barns. He  was great company and a perfect house guest. I had never planned on having a stranger staying with us for so long, but it worked really well.

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Millar, the cycling madman, and perfect guest in an untypically serious mood

Millar introduced us to Workaway, a scheme to link people from all over the world who are looking to travel and enjoy cultural exchange, living as working guests, to host families. Being possibly probably the world’s worst housewife, with a pathological hatred of housework, I was hesitant. What would people think when they saw the daily coating of wall-to-wall dog hairs, the chewed-up sticks, shoes and yoghurt pots, the bedding the parrot shovels out of her cage, the shaving foam smeared all over the bathroom mirror, the daily burnt porridge pan soaking in the sink, the shredded blankets the dogs drag wherever they go? How would they react to two exuberant, large dogs monopolosing the comfy chairs, the chickens pooping in the house and the disheveled hostess still in her nightclothes at midday? Could our chaotic lifestyle qualify as a cultural experience?

Well, nothing ventured …. I posted a profile on Workaway, and had an almost instant reply from a young school teacher from Switzerland, surely the cleanest country in the world. Still, she seemed very keen, so I scraped down the walls and swept the dust into the corners.

Andrea was the sweetest, most helpful guest we could have hoped for, and felt like part of the family from the moment she arrived. The Workaway terms specify that guests agreee to work for 4-5 hours a day, five days a week, but I couldn’t stop her. After spending the mornings tidying the garden, she spent the afternoons scrubbing the house. Really scrubbing. From top to bottom. She turned out the kitchen drawers and cupboards (mortifying when I saw the state they were in!), cleaned the windows. She said that she loved her job, but it was stressful and she found peace and relaxation in cleaning. She was also a great conversationalist and we successfully sorted out all the world’s problems. A perfect ambassador for Workaway.

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Lovely Andrea

Our next guest was a charming French gentleman who came to us to improve his English. His friends had teased him about sharing our vegetarian lifestyle, but he tucked in and enjoyed our evening meal. Unfortunately after a day here he had to leave suddenly to deal with a family crisis, but we kept in touch and I recommended him to a friend earlier this year , which led to a very successful exchange for both of them.

This year we had a less than enjoyable experience with our first visitor. There was a chasm of cultural difference, and a personality clash. We are easy going and get on with most people, but this case was an exception, and having a house guest who didn’t fit in was uncomfortable for all of us. We would have asked them to leave ahead of the agreed date, but they didn’t have anywhere to go and apparently no money to support themselves. Dumping them at the railway station was out of the question and so we all soldiered on and sighed with relief when they eventually left.

“No more,” said TOH. “I don’t want any more of them here. We can’t have people living in our house and behaving like that.” I agreed, having found the experience extremely stressful.

“I’ll delete us from Workaway,” I said. Before I had a chance to do so, an email arrived.

It was a dignified message from a Spanish man who was in a very uncomfortable situation with hosts who were using him as unpaid labour in their business. Although Workaway is a voluntary agreement between two parties, with no legal contract, he had undertaken to continue slaving working for them for a further three weeks despite their treatment of him, as their business depended upon him, but at the end of that period he was looking for a new host.

My feelings about Spanish cruelty to animals have never been a secret, nor my contempt for the galgueros, and the stupid elephant-killing king.

If Spain is looking for an ambassador who defines dignity, honesty, kindness and generosity, then I nominate Miguel. What a lovely man. He voluntarily worked long, long hours, always smiling and cheerful. And he’s a fantastic cook – like us, a vegetarian – and most evenings he volunteered to cook for us, which was such a treat. Offhand I can’t think of anything that tastes better than his tortilla. We also shared similar tastes in music, and he restored our faith in Workaway.

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Miguel smiling up on the roof

We were so sorry to see him leave after his three weeks with us, as we waved him off to his next host. But he came back, to our great delight, a couple of weeks later. It isn’t my place to describe the strange experiences he had with two of his hosts, but I will say that we were shocked, angry and amused by some of them. Workawayers are not slaves; they are temporary family members and deserve and expect to be treated as such.

During his time away, Miguel had met another Workawayer whose situation wasn’t ideal. I’ll only say that her accommodation where she was staying was in a small tent. He gave her our email, and a couple of days later, Lydia arrived, a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. She had just returned from working as a volunteer in Togo, and entertained us with accounts and photographs of her life there. She also co-opted Miguel and TOH into yoga sessions in the garden. I participated in the role of official photographer.  🙂

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Lydia’s yoga session

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Miguel didn’t seem totally convinced. 🙂

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Tally never did understand what he was meant to be doing 🙂

So by a wide margin, our experience of Workawayers has been very positive, as has that of several friends, although at least one did find themselves lumbered with a very unacceptable “guest”.

The beauty of the system is that you can read feedback for both hosts and volunteers on the Workaway site, and my advice to anybody considering using the system is to check out the experiences of others before making a commitment.

A final note. Having a number of American friends, among them not one has tasted Marmite without pulling a face and declaring it to be inedible at best, and downright disgusting at worst. Lydia’s initial reaction was polite disbelief that anybody would eat it. However, next day she tried a little more. And by the time she left, she was converted and wondering if she would find anywhere to buy it back home in the United States.

Here are Miguel and Lydia having breakfast:

And here they are at the end of their stay with us. We’d love to see both of them again one day, they enriched our summer and our lives. Thank you both.

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PS  If you wondered why we know him as the cycling nutter, have a look at Millar’s checklist AFTER he dispensed with the trailer.  😀

The importance of being upright

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Lambretta (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I could sit back and enjoy the views.” So writes Sarah Hague, known aka St Bloggie de Riviere.

And she’s not talking balcony in sunshine with a glass to hand. She’s writing biking – riding pillion on a motorbike for two hours on backroads. Presumably bendy, twisty backroads. A thought that makes me sit down swiftly in a four-legged, stable, stationary armchair. For I am a two-wheeled travel wimp.

The bicycle was bad enough, with it’s hard, intrusive saddle, perpetual punctures and violent brakes. But it was a daily necessity during my teenage years for travelling to and from school, and more importantly, to the stables. This was nothing, though, compared to the nightmare of the Lambretta owned by a hefty girl where I worked. With references showing she had worked as PA to the Beatles, she landed the plum job as secretary to the General Manager, who spent his working week playing golf, leaving her to deal with his correspondence and spend the rest of the day reading. She was held up as a model of efficiency, and never had he had more free time. She was known, rather unkindly, as Large Miss Wonderful.

One Saturday lunchtime she offered me a lift home on her scooter. For a few minutes I felt rather racy in my mini-dress, sitting nonchalantly on the back as we weaved our way through Nairobi’s traffic. Ahead, the traffic policeman stood on his raised platform, khaki shirt and shorts, puttees, red fez. As we approached, he raised his arm into “Stop” mode. Large Miss Wonderful had turned her head to say something, and didn’t notice the car ahead of us had stopped until we were about to crash into it. She jerked the Lambretta around sharply, and it tipped onto its side, depositing us both on the hot tarmac. The policeman blew a whistle loudly and waved his arms wildly, attracting attention to where we lay. LMW heaved and writhed until she freed herself from the machine where it lay upon us. She hoisted the Lambretta upright, and I scrambled up with as much dignity as was possible with the mini-dress rucked up around my waist. Back we climbed and set off again, and as we approached a corner I was sure the machine would tip over again, so with all my 6 stone weight I leaned as hard as I could in the opposite direction. LMW shouted something as she fought to make the turn, and never offered me a lift again.

After she left the company, her replacement noticed a large bump beneath the carpet in the office. Pulling it back revealed several hundred unopened letters.

Later, a rather handsome Greek boy invited me out to dinner. Dressed to the nines, mini-skirted and stiletto-heeled, my heart sank when he roared up on a motorbike. But handsome Greek boys were scarce, so hoiking up the skirt I climbed aboard. Off we thundered. I clung to his jacket like a limpet to a rock. As we approached the first bend, I anticipated and leaned out of it, using all my strength to pull him upright, as he tilted the machine at a perilous angle. When we reached the restaurant he asked if I’d enjoyed the ride. No, I said, not very much. Could he please keep the bike upright on the way home. He chuckled and advised me to wrap my arms around him very, very tight and go with the flow. I tried, but it wasn’t for me, handsome Greek or not. My naked knees seemed to almost touch the ground as we took the bends.  I wrenched at his jacket and leaned away from the bends. He didn’t ask me out again.

Years later, I went riding on a pacer. For non-horsy readers, a “normal” horse trots on the diagonal, so whichever front leg is going forward the diagonally opposite hind leg is also going forward, while the other diagonal is earthbound. A pacer moves differently, with both legs on the same side going forward at the same time. That old familiar feeling overcame me. We were going to fall over. Once again I found myself trying to apply my weight to counterbalance the horse.

There’s something unnatural about turning a corner at 45°. It’s like sitting on a chair with only two legs.

So chapeau! St Bloggie. Nice gold lame knickers, too.

The British Bulldog

Statesman, leader, painter, poet, historian, hero, bricklayer, boozer, animal lover; belligerent, bellicose, irascible, indefatigable, unreasonable, indomitable, invincible, overbearing, vain. Sadly, we shall never see another Englishman of Winston Churchill’s stature.

In Winston’s day, we were proud to be British. Who can possibly imagine what he would say if he could see the state of the country now.

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As much as for his war-time leadership and bulldog spirit, Churchill was renowned for his wit.

But how did he feel about homosexuality?

His enemies and detractors could list innumerable faults, but false modesty was not one of them.

“We are all worms,” he said. “But I believe I am a glow worm.” The perfect epitaph.

How brightly he would glow among the limp, dull grey worms in Parliament now.

Suffer the little children

Save the Children executives shared a “performance related” bonus of £160,000 this year. On top of their handsome salaries.

The Against Malaria Foundation quotes the cost of a mosquito net as ‘about $5’, which at the current rate of exchange is about £3.

The ‘performance related bonus’ would therefore buy more than 50,000 mosquito nets.

Can’t help wondering if donations to Save the Children are being well-spent.