Normal for Now

I was sitting in the bar area of the Barfleur on its way into Cherbourg, reading Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ when I glanced up as we were gliding past the Irish ferry, ‘W B Yeats’.

I’d just reached the part in the novel where Trinity student Connell gets totally wasted during his summer break and is lured back to the flat of his former secondary school teacher where she has the intention of ravishing him [until the excess of alcohol precludes the act].

I got to thinking, then that I’m pushed to recall the names of any of my secondary school teachers. I can remember my very first teacher, Miss Hunter, who I loved. I can almost   remember the name of my next teacher, in the juniors, Mrs  Someone. We moved. I know who my next teacher in the juniors was because it was my dad.

I passed the ’11 plus’ and had the dubious reward of going to Wisbech High School, where our newbie form was ruled over by an austere and frightening Scottish woman whose name escapes me, but might have been ‘Miss MacFarlane’. I was anxious the entire time, for two terms. Then we moved again and there was a plethora of remote characters who entered classrooms, delivered their notes and left.

In the sixth form, studying English literature, among other things W B Yeats was on the syllabus. I developed a lifelong dislike of W B Yeats’ work and to this day I shudder when I hear mention of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. We were never given a chance to explore and enjoy the work; never had the background explained or saw how it related to Irish history and politics-let alone to my own, teenage self.

‘Normal People’ explores a teenage love story from more contemporary times. In the story Connell connects much more to the texts he is studying. As students, he and Marianne drink, do drugs, party in much the same way that I did during my 70s student-dom in London. How long ago it all seems now-and it is!

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Now here we are in Avranches in the warm sunshine of an April evening, having driven off the ferry to travel hopefully and with the relief of the Brexit delay wrapped around us like a snug blanket-for now. It is pleasant enough to sit outside in the square with a beer and survey the elegant decadence that is commonplace in French architecture.

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When we pulled into the ‘aire’ there were already French motorhomes in place. We reversed back just as a couple were leaving to walk the few hundred metres into town. They turned, smiled and waved in greeting and I realised I was almost holding my breath until this moment. Maybe, just maybe we are still as welcome as ever in the places we love and will always love to go…

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Trolling Through Norway

I can’t recall the last time I visited a European country for the first time. [I say ‘European’ advisedly, owing to the fact that ‘Europe’ has come to mean a variety of things in these times; but here I’m using the word in the old, traditional sense-that of the collection of countries immediately surrounding our own, squidgy little UK.]

I have not ventured much into Scandinavia, except four or so years ago to Denmark, so this expedition to Norway is a new departure. I love to see new places. I want to know what grows, what people do, what their homes are like, what they like to eat and how they fill their leisure time. Here are some conclusions I’ve made about Norway so far:

  • The country consists almost entirely of rock, water and trees-with a bit of farmland and a few cities thrown in.
  • Owing to these constituents it is an obscenely beautiful place-that is for fans of snow-capped mountains, vast lakes, cascading waterfalls and gushing rivers. If your preference is for deserts, shopping arcades and uniform rows of parasol-clad beaches I suggest it is not for you. Go to Dubai instead.
  • The weather is a little capricious. It is capable of warm sunshine although this cannot be guaranteed. You might say the changing weather patterns are part of its charm.
  • In order to get anywhere by road you have to accept that tunnels and ferries are a huge part of the deal. There are nearly 1000 road tunnels and more than 100 ferry crossings plus numerous bridges. Some of the tunnels are spectacular in themselves, housing junctions and in one we encountered a fully-blown roundabout, all lit up in blue like a spaceship.
  • Pizza and hot dogs are ubiquitous and popular offerings getting an enthusiastic take-up by travellers and locals alike. This was told to me before departure by my friend Anne-Marit and she was not wrong! We have not ventured into any restaurants due to my next observation, that…
  • Food prices, while not as expensive as we had feared are dear, as is alcohol. Norwegians are bound by strict rules regarding booze. Fresh food items such as vegetables and meat cost the most but staples like bread are not so prohibitive.
  • Living roofs are everywhere-green swards peppered with wild flowers covering every building from barns to homes to bus shelters to public toilets to mail boxes-often entire communities sporting them-everywhere as are…
  • Trolls-probably too many, to be honest-

What else? There is a good deal of graffiti in the cities-but very little in the way of advertising hoardings-nothing along the roadsides or in fields. Most homes are constructed in wood [of course] and many are self-builds. There is a glorious profusion of wild flowers which includes lupins [at least-now in summer!] and the clover, in particular is enormous. Everyone speaks fluent English –and all are pleasant and welcoming! What’s not to love?

Writing Superstardom

Congratulations to Richard Flanagan, the winner of the Booker Prize 2014 for his novel, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep South’. I have yet to read it, but fully intend to, not just because the judges were unanimous in their praise for the book but because I like to think the act of reading such an acclaimed and feted novel is a piece of research. Maybe there is a remote chance I will be able to uncover the secret of writing superb and successful prose by reading it.
When casting around for something new to load on to my Kindle I often turn to the long or shortlisted books that are in the race for a prize. I learned some time ago that Amazon reviews are not to be trusted [with the exception, of course of my own reviews]. I have posted before about the ghastly mistakes I’ve made-most notably in the case of the tedious ‘One Day’, a predictable rom-com set in the eighties [not a thrilling decade]. The book prize method of selecting reading matter is not always reliable and needs backing up with additional reviews, generally from a respected newspaper.
The only 2014 Booker contender I have read so far is American writer Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘We are all Completely Beside Ourselves’, a story which captivated me for a number of reasons. It is both laugh-out-loud funny and tear provokingly tragic. The subject matter-the tale of a child growing up with a chimpanzee as not only a sibling but a ‘twin’ is unusual and compelling. The book raised many issues including parental, children’s and animal rights. It is certainly a book I would have been proud to have written.
There was something of a shumuncous regarding the opening of the Booker prize to anyone who writes in English. I can see that widening the field does increase the competition, but perhaps it also leads to more diversity. As time goes on it becomes harder to find new subject matter. It is accepted that there are only seven basic story lines and that each and every tale is based on one of them.
The two world wars have spawned an explosion of literature both fiction and fact, much of which is very good-[Helen Dunmore, Sebastian Faulkes] and so any further foray into war territory must necessarily attack from a new angle. I gather Richard Flanagan’s novel is inspired by his father’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war. It is the author’s sixth novel and one that took him twelve years to write, a fact I find most heartening given that my novel 2 is stubbornly resistant to progress!
I wonder how winner Richard is feeling-beyond the euphoria of victory of course. There could be an element of pressure, I imagine, as once the excitement recedes the pressure must surely mount to produce another blockbuster, Hilary Mantel style!

Herwig the Hoaxer

                This post is dedicated to Bosswachter, who we met recently in an Antwerp bar and who provided us with a dash of entertainment before the long drive home.

                Following our mini sojourn in Amsterdam, having been spectators [of sorts] at the marathon and witnessed a satisfactory outcome, we’d planned to break the return journey by taking a quick look at Antwerp.

                There was an ‘aire’ at Antwerp, Husband reassured me. The ‘aire’ was furnished with water, electricity and [best of all] a shower block. It was near the centre of the city-no more than a short cycle into the town via dedicated cycle tracks. Antwerp, with its cobbled streets and tall, gabled buildings is another historic gem of a city to rival Bruges or Ghent.

                We arrived to the ‘aire’, were greeted, as promised, by a manned reception and handed a bag for rubbish. So far so good. ‘Did we have a toilet?’ enquired the receptionist, causing my heart to plummet into my boots. Of course we do have a miniscule, basic porta-loo, for night purposes; not the gleaming, walk-in, capsule type of facility offered by larger motorhomes [of which there were a few, parked up on the hard standing area of the site].

                I might have known there’d be no washing facilities. The fabled shower block was there, yes, but had fallen out of use, the doors locked, the water extinguished. Having, by now, however achieved a sixth sense about these situations I’d taken the precaution of showering and hair washing at the beautiful Amstelveen site before we left that morning [see previous post]. Phew!

                We cycled into Antwerp. It was easy-a level, off-road path-until nearer the centre, when the path disappeared and it was necessary to share the street with cars, trucks, buses and trams.

                The old city is wonderful and boasts a plethora of souvenir shops to rival Bruges-lace, chocolate and beer. There is a grand square with an ornate town hall and an enormous, verdigris encrusted statue spouting plumes of water, the square bordered by a fringe of bars, cafes and restaurants. As evening descended we sat at a table and ordered Flemish stew accompanied by wine and beer. Heaven!

                Returning later by night we opted for a last drink at an out-of-town bar nearer to the site, where an almost lone landlady stood polishing glasses behind the counter. As we sat, resting elbows on the bar top, we were accosted by a solid, whiskered gentleman who assailed us with a stream of Flemish, seeming to be in the nature of an enquiry. We did not speak Flemish? OK, how about Francais? ‘Un peu’ I replied-my stock answer. We conducted a halting conversation about our travels and where I’d learned French, culminating in his excusing himself to visit the toilettes. He reappeared, smiling. ‘Now’, he said, ‘we can speak English!’

                He was, of course, delighted with his prank-delighted enough to have infected us with the merriment of it, despite the joke being on us…well, if I’m honest…me.

                Anyway, cheers, Herwig! See you next time!