Suspicious minds

A funny thing happened this week.

I volunteer at a charity shop raising funds for abandoned and abused animals. Mostly I am in the book department, where we have a vast quantity of both hardback and paperback books donated by well-wishers and which are sold for 1 euro each.


The ‘shop’ isn’t exactly a shop in the conventional sense. It’s a collection of barns and outbuildings selling quality bric-a-brac, furniture, linens, clothing, children’s games and toys, electrical goods, DVDs, CDs and the aforesaid books. There is also a tea shop where shoppers can spoil themselves with the very best of home-baked cakes and pastries.

Anyway, a lady came in on Tuesday and selected a number of books, and when she came to pay I noticed that a couple of them were written by me.

I said to her, “Oh, I hope you’ll enjoy these – I’m the author.”

She stared at me and said, “What?”

“I wrote these two books.” I tapped the covers. She looked at the books and then back at me, and didn’t seem convinced.

She turned her attention to my apparel, which was suited to mid-February in rural France. Fleecy trousers and tops, scarf, boots and woolly gloves all topped off with a red nose.

“Then what are you doing working here,” she asked. “I thought writers were rich.” ūüėÄ

Contrast that with what happened many years ago in the Brighton branch of the greatly missed and much-lamented Borders Bookshop, where you could sit and read for as long as you wished on a comfy sofa, and drink coffee and eat cakes, when one of my titles was newly-released and piled up on a table at the front of the shop. The friend I was with walked up to the person behind the counter and said: “This lady is the author of that book – she’ll sign some copies if you like.”

So the man came from behind the counter, found me a chair, and not only did I sign every copy, he found other titles of mine on the shelves and asked me to sign those too.

Without asking for any proof that I was the author!

Looking back I suspect he must have been relatively new or very confident that the books would sell, because bookshops cannot return unsold books to the publisher once they’ve been signed. My agent, the lovely Maggie Noach had told me that. Luckily for that man the title sold well and I don’t recall that¬†there were ever any returns.

Here’s the King, never been equalled.

One swallow ………..

…. does not a summer make.

Neither do fourteen, it seems, as Midsummer day is almost upon us and the weather continues to be cool, damp and grey¬†with frequent heavy downpours and occasional violent storms. This afternoon we are threatened with¬†a hail storm. Given the choice of excessive heat, or excessive rain, I would choose the latter, but it really has been a dismal start to summer,¬†and from the forecast it doesn’t look as if we can expect any improvement¬†for another few days at least.

The garden is luxuriant both in terms of plants and weeds. The rose bushes are bent beneath their own weight, but the blooms are ragged and soggy. The lawn never dries out sufficiently for mowing.


But on the bright side, the swallows are flourishing. The four who arrived in mid-March are now fourteen as far as I can count, all feathered and flying. Hopefully there will be more to come, as they often raise two broods before they migrate in the autumn.

A consequence of all the renovations that have taken place in rural areas is that swallows and owls have lost their ancestral family homes. All the barns and previously deserted houses in our hamlet have been converted into either permanent or holiday homes. It is really heart-breaking to see the swallows, when they arrive, flutter around windows that were once empty gaps, as they try in vain to reach the beams where they had nested for generations.

Although we renovated one tiny old house as a holiday home, several years ago we stopped using it for that purpose and instead use it for storage. I leave the upstairs windows open throughout the year for ventilation, and as soon as the swallows discovered that, they were in like Flynn and building their nests. They also established themselves in the little wooden chalet in the garden. We are able to watch at close quarters as they work through the daylight hours to fill the gaping mouths of their young. The birds are quite used to us being in close proximity.

Hungry swallows

Last year we met a couple who were temporarily without accommodation, and offered them the opportunity to ‘camp out’ in the small house, on the understanding that there would be birds swooping in and out and around the bedroom. They reported that as the young fledged and began practising flying, lying in bed was like being on the platform at Waterloo during rush hour. ūüėÄ

There is an obvious consequence of having birds living indoors, but clearing up their mess is a small price to pay for the pleasure of knowing we have given them space to raise their young in safety. Once they were a common sight here, but over the years their numbers have dropped alarmingly. We must help them in every way we can.

As I am writing this I can see a dozen or so swallows swooping around the garden, plus the goldfinches, blackbirds, wagtails and woodpeckers. None of them seem discouraged by the weather, although the swallows look rather soggy.

Soggy swallow-2

While discussing swallows, I thought I would mention for those who don’t know, that my book ‘Swallows and Robins – the Laughs¬†and Tears¬†of a Holiday Home Owner’ is a finalist in The People’s Book Prize 2016. The winner is chosen by public vote, and the award ceremony will be broadcast by Sky News on 12th July at 8.00 pm. If you would like to vote for me, here is the link to click. If you voted for me in the first round, thank you, please do continue to support me by voting again. Finalists are listed in alphabetical order, so you need to scroll down.

PBP Finalist
Click image to go to voting page.

I know that we are not alone in having unseasonable weather, and that while some are suffering floods others are suffering heatwaves. Here’s hoping that for all of us we soon have some relief and can get out of the house without being either drenched or baked. ūüôā




Gendarmes, or rhinos?

When Spring comes, peel back the bark or ivy growing on a tree or open shuttersGendarmes that have been closed over the winter, and you will more than likely find these delightfully patterned and polished bugs. Zillions of them, stirring from hibernation.

Pyrrhocoris apterus,¬†common name Fire Bug, and more often known as ‘gendarmes’ (policemen) in France.¬†They are harmless little creatures, despite their numbers, and don’t bite, sting or eat your plants, except for certain seeds, especially from linden trees (we have two very large ones which may account for the vast numbers of these bugs in our garden. You can safely leave them alone.¬†Have you noticed¬†they have rather cute faces? Some are frightened, some are smiling, others are mournful. Isn’t nature marvellous?


Why they are known as policemen nobody really seems to know. A particular characteristic of the Fire Bug is that they tend to go around in pairs, end to end, in push-me-pull-you style. That’s how they mate – a lengthy procedure that can last for days.¬†I haven’t heard anything that makes me think that practice is common among French policemen.

Meanwhile rhinos are being poached to extinction for their horns, which are sold for astronomical figures to gullible Asian men who believe that powdered rhino horn (which is comprised of nothing more aphrodisiac than keratin, so will produce¬†the same effect¬†as chewing hair or fingernails) will restore¬†their floppy virility. This foolish belief comes about because the rhino mates for up to an hour.¬†In comparison¬†with the protracted copulation of the gendarmes, the rhino’s performance¬†becomes rather feeble.¬†So here is my idea, with apologies to the ‘gendarmes’ – but they are abundant, and rhinos are not.

There’s a lucrative market to be tapped, producing an organic Viagra. Plenty of raw material that can be easily and safely harvested – unlike ‘harvesters’ of rhino horn – or poachers, as we call them, who¬†risk being shot on sight at best, or at worst a lengthy prison term. Note: these are my personal preferences. Poachers may feel otherwise.

Given the volume and availability of the raw material, gullible old fools end users would be able to buy directly on-line for a fraction of the price that they are now paying for a similar worthless powder performance enhancing product.

It’s a win/win solution. Except for the¬†Fire Bugs of course, but they may agree that their sacrifice is worthwhile for the greater good of the rhino.

Our little visitors

It’s been a busy week, little-visitorwise.

Firstly there were the ants milling around on the doorstep, and two days later mysteriously appearing in their hundreds on the pile of clean laundry on the bed.

Then there was the earwig that I found dozing on my pillow (!) two days ago.

Next I found a shield bug clinging to a lampshade.


By Pudding4brains – Own work, Public Domain

And then there was the bee. It was lying on the floor in the hall looking very tired and barely able to keep itself upright. I administered first aid, first with sugar water, and then with honey, but it didn’t respond, so I put it outside near the rain-battered remains of the grape hyacinths.¬†As soon as it scented the flowers the bee began hauling itself up the stem to try to reach them, but kept falling back. I picked it up and held it while it probed into the flowers. It took quite a long time before it started to be able to hold on for itself, moving from one¬†bloom to another until it had its fill. I checked on it throughout the afternoon and it seemed to have regained some of its strength. Later in the evening when I went to look for it, it had disappeared.

Pity¬†it’s not a better photo, but it does show it sticking its proboscis into the flower.


That evening I undressed for bed, put my foot down and let out a yelp as what felt like a red hot needle went through my toe. There, on my sock, was the bee. I have always understood that once a bee stings, it will die, as the sting is attached to its stomach, so I was (a) cursing at the fire in my toe and (b) thinking how I had wasted most of an afternoon trying to rescue the bee, and ended up inadvertently killing it. I put the sock with the bee still attached outside the bedroom door.

Next morning, the bee was at the bottom of the stairs, still rather groggy, but definitely alive. So I repeated the grape hyacinth treatment, and the last I saw it was flying away. It left a souvenir behind it – my toe is still itching!

We’ve also been catching mice regularly in the humane trap beneath the sink. Whether it’s the same two who keep returning, or another group, I don’t know, but every day there are at least two.

I know that some people have a horror of insects, but they generally¬†don’t bother me. It may be because growing up in Kenya you soon got used to them. If you had dogs or cats – and this was long before there were any effective deterrents – not only would they host fleas and ticks, but the fleas would get into the crevices on the floor, and it was quite normal to find them on your legs, or notice them on somebody else’s legs. You learned to pick them off and squish them between your thumb nails. Ticks were another matter, sickening creatures bloated with blood; they either found themselves ground into oblivion by a stone, or flushed down the loo.

If you didn’t find ants in the sugar bowl, you’d suspect there was something wrong with the sugar. They were quite harmless, unlike the ghastly safari ants whose¬†powerful pincers can give an excruciating¬†bite.

During the rainy season male termites Рalso called flying ants Рwould appear in swarms. People rushed to collect them in 5 gallon drums Рthey are regarded as a delicacy and apparently taste like chicken fried in butter. They used to swirl to the ground beneath the outside light on my house, where they would be gobbled up by the toads who waited for them, gorging themselves until they were too fat to move, and sitting with wings poking out of their mouths.

We always sifted our flour very carefully to remove weevils. You banged your boots and shoes and turned them upside down to evict any spiders or scorpions that may have taken refuge inside them.

‘Nairobi eye,’ is an attractive small beetle with alternating¬†black and amber segments. ¬†Whilst they don’t go around like mosquitoes looking for somebody to sting, they do secrete a highly toxic acid that can lead to severe skin blistering.


Image by Elsen Karstad @

Mango flies laid their eggs on laundry spread out to dry in the sun. If those eggs rubbed off onto your skin, they would penetrate and a couple of weeks later a disgusting maggot (mango worm) would wriggle its way out through your skin.

Spiders – we won’t go there – eeek!

These creatures were a fact of life¬†that you quickly learned to live with,¬†so I’m seldom perturbed by insect life here in south-west France apart from the dreaded harvest mites. Too small to see with the naked eye, these minuscule¬†monsters seek out those places on your body that you would least wish¬†to be seen scratching, but scratch you must. The itching is beyond description. And¬†I’m still not very good with spiders, and¬†TOH usually has to remove them.

Luckily we have no conifers on our property, nor in our surroundings, so we are safe from the processionary caterpillars that are such a danger to dogs and cats.

While I am loathe to kill anything, there are exceptions Рfleas, mosquitoes, ticks and all the biting flies are on my hit list as they can transmit diseases to the dogs (and us), but the rest of them are either relocated or ignored.

Why kill anything if you don’t need to?





Quick dog update

Peering out very briefly from beneath the 61,000 words I have so far drafted for the new book, I just wanted to share news of Hayley, the poisoned Spanish dog who was rescued from life on the streets with her four pups.

While being treated in veterinary hospital for the effects of rat poison, she was also diagnosed with leishmania. She is now home at Galgos del Sol, undergoing long-term treatment. Her pups are being hand-reared, as the cocktail of drugs she is taking, as well as her depleted condition would not allow her to feed them.

If they had not been found when they were, none of them would be alive now.12644895_1126917143994750_6451172264882507503_n

It will be a while before Hayley is out of the woods, but she is in the best possible hands, and all the supporters of Galgos del Sol are looking forward to when she is well and strong enough to be reunited with her pups.


An update on Hayley

There is hope!


From the Galgos del Sol Facebook page:

“Hayley is continuing to improve after being poisoned!!!!!

Now here is the tough part. Her bill is up at 1000 euros and we would like to ask you if you could give up your Starbucks or cigarettes today to help her? If your answer is yes please donate to Р or check out for more options!

We feel pretty confident she will be coming home! Watch her rescue video here¬†”

Well, that’s just great news for we dog lovers, although¬†of course 1,000 euros is a huge bill for the association to find. But worth every last cent to save the life of a dog who would have died an agonising death if she hadn’t been rescued when she was. Not to mention what would have become of her four helpless pups.

Anybody who would like to contribute, the links are above.

Poisoned dog (2)

The terribly sad incident of the rescued galga, Hayley reminded me of a strange, quite creepy event that happened decades ago when I lived in Kenya and had three beautiful Standard Poodles, Bijou, Pepe and Lulu.

I was invited to a coffee morning by a woman (who subsequently stole a whole shelf full of my books, but that’s beside the point.)

There were several other women there, all strangers to each other. During the morning one¬†of them went and sat next to another, and took her hand. She said: “Don’t worry, this time everything is going to be fine. You’ll have a beautiful, healthy daughter.”

The other woman looked stunned, and it came out that she had had several miscarriages, but had learned the previous day that she was pregnant again. She hadn’t told anybody. (The prophecy did indeed come true, BTW.)

This led to the first woman claiming she was a white witch, like her aunt who was some kind of senior white witch in England.

I didn’t really think much about it for the rest of the morning as the subject changed, and I my only¬†conversation with the ‘white witch’ was to ask¬†if I could pass her¬†another slice of cake.

When we were leaving, she caught up with me at the door and grabbed my arm.

“Please be careful,” she said. “You are in danger. You are surrounded by a powerful smell of¬†bitter almonds. Be terribly careful what you eat. It’s a sign of poison.”

That’s when I thought she might be a bit loopy.

Back home, I had a nap after lunch, and dreamed a weird, frightening dream, of fires and masks and drums beating, really quite disturbing and woke up feeling panicky.

The cook came to say that the man had come to read the water meter, and he would shut the dogs in the garage. Although they were the most playful and sociable dogs, most Africans were very cautious around them. So he shut the dogs away. The man read the meter, and we let the dogs out.

Two minutes later the cook called out urgently: “Lulu is sick!”

She was lying on the ground, foaming at the mouth. She was rigid, her back so arched that the back of her head was almost touching her tail. toxicology-lec-48-638.jpg

I rushed her to the vet, pushed past the people in the queue and shouted for help.

They laid her on the stainless steel table. By now she was floppy, yellow foam gushing from her mouth, covering her chest and legs. The vet put his ear to her chest, and shook his head. “She’s gone,” he said.

And then he began pounding on the table with his fist, with all his strength. Her body flew¬†up and down, crashing onto the table. He kept pounding the table, and then he put his ear to her chest again. “We have a heartbeat,” he said.

He took a sample of the foam and sent it for analysis.

Lulu was breathing very, very faintly.

“She’s been poisoned,” he said. “Probably¬†strychnine in rat poison. There’s very little we can do; it’s in her system, and there’s no way to¬†get it out. I’m going to give her a very strong sedative to make her sleep through the night and allow her body to fight. If she¬†is strong enough, she will¬†survive. Either she will wake up in the morning, or she will pass away painlessly during the night.”

I took the sleeping dog home and put her in a basket in my room. She was sleeping peacefully, and still hardly breathing.

The vet rang later. “I was strychnine,” he said. “Rat poison. Let me know what happens. If she doesn’t wake up, at least you will know she hasn’t suffered.”

After this drama, it wasn’t until later that evening that I remembered the strange conversation I’d had with the ‘white witch’. Maybe it was a coincidence, but if so it was very close to home, so I phoned her.

When I told her what had happened, she said “Oh I am so pleased to hear from you, and to know you are OK. There was absolutely no question in my mind this morning that you were going to be affected by poisoning. But I thought it would be you, not your dog.”

She asked me to go to a seance, but I wanted to stay with the dog, and declined.


“I’m really not a believer in the occult,” I said. “Although events today have made me think,¬†it’s not something I want to get involved in.”

After assuring her that I would let her know about¬†Lulu the next day, she ended our conversation saying: “Just one thing I’d like to say. Whether or not you believe in the occult, that doesn’t matter, but please, never play with a ouija board, even for fun. It’s very dangerous.¬†Just take my word.”

Lulu and I both slept through the night.

We both woke next morning. She made a full recovery.

I’ve never touched a ouija board.

Seeing my dog in such a condition, hearing the words “She gone. Poison. Strychnine,” I had virtually no hope that she would survive. And yet she did, so there is¬†hope that Hayley too will be able to come through.