Friday, July 31, 2009

Giant's Causeway

The Giant's Causeway is a popular tourist destination in Northern Ireland - the curious come in spite of the weather to climb the basalt columns and hear the story of Finn McCool. McCool was an Ulster giant who liked to throw insults across the sea to a Scottish giant called Benandonner - "I'll beat you up with one arm and one leg tied behind my back!" He even built the causeway so Benandonner could walk to Ulster to fight him. When Finn saw Benandonner coming he quickly erected a giant sized crib. He lay down inside the crib, and his wife covered him with a blanket. When Benandonner arrived for the fight and saw the size of the McCool 'infant' he said: "What size is the father, if this is the size of the child?"
Panicking he ran back to Scotland, tearing up the causeway as he went.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


My very elegant sister and her sophisticated husband came for lunch today. He's a super cook, and a wine connoisseur so I usually take the precaution of filling them both with Bombay Gin before serving up my best efforts. But today was an unexpected success - I made Bacon and Turnip Soup, and served it with homemade wheaten bread (OK, I confess, the bread was a packet mix). And they loved the soup! So much so they took home the recipe.
Here is the recipe:
Chop and gently fry an onion in unsalted butter. Cut up a packet of bacon with scissors, stir into the onion, keep the heat low. Peel and dice a turnip and a couple of small potatoes. Add to the onion and bacon mixture. Stir. Add at least a pint of hot water with a stock cube dissolved. Simmer for about 20 minutes until the the turnip is cooked.
It's not necessary to puree the soup.


I've been tagged by Chic Mama to describe myself in seven words or less. Here goes:
I believe that manners maketh man.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


When I was growing up they told me: Clean out your ears with your elbows. Of course I didn't listen and since Thursday my ears have been impossibly blocked after a cotton bud malfunction. My doctor refused to syringe on Friday - she has insisted I must spend the weekend dropping drops into my ears in the optimistic hope that the wax will dislodge unaided.
Deafness is exhausting. I can clearly hear the sound of my own jaws chewing but for everything else I have to concentrate. I can't hear the telephone, absolutely can't hear the television. I never realised before how softly spoken Nick is: "What? What? I can't hear you!"
On a brighter note I also can't hear the tartlets squabbling...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Georgette Heyer

Do you know this lovely lady? This is Georgette Heyer who always travels with me when I fly. On this trip I'm taking Friday's Child. The blurb on the back cover says: Rejected by Miss Milbourne, the Incomparable, for his unsteadiness of character, wild Lord Sheringham is bent on avenging Fate and coming into his fortune. But the very first woman he should see is Hero Wantage, the young and charmingly unsophisticated chit who has loved him since childhood...
Of the book Georgette says:
I think myself that I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense, but it's questionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from flu...
Or flying for eight hours from the Middle East to Ireland in cattle class.

Monday, July 20, 2009


We're flying out on Thursday and the tartlets are getting excited. They want to know what they should do if the aircraft accidentally crashes into a very large bird - should they try to jump to safety? How high up will they be in the sky? Are there parachutes under the seats? Should they bring swimming goggles in their hand luggage in case they land on water?
I have assured them that statistically air travel is safer than driving around in my car.
I have also reassured them that should something happen to the aircraft we will all be instantly killed and go together to heaven, which will be nice since nobody is left an orphan. (Also I hate goodbyes...)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The House of Special Purpose

John Boyne
It’s that time of year again – the summer holidays! And if you’re lucky, you’ll be flying away for a fortnight of guaranteed sunshine. I notice the Lifestyle pages of newspapers and magazines are full of travel and holiday advice - what to eat on the aircraft; what bikini flatters what body shape; what to read by the hotel swimming pool….
Well, stop right there for I think I can add to the general confusion with my world traveller tips. And I speak as one who flew for a living, and lived by hotel swimming pools for years when I was an airstewardess.
My first bit of advice is: don’t eat the aircraft food. Even First Class aircraft food will give you constipation. Second, don’t wear a bikini if you’re over the age of twenty five, have had children, or weigh more than six and a half stone. A one- piece swimsuit is much more flattering.
And finally, what to read?
At the start of my airstewardessing career I made the mistake of taking slim volumes of literary prose to the sun loungers of hotel swimming pools but there’s something about the smell of suntan lotion which kills the concentration. Then I tried frivolous romance. It was easy on the eye but after a while so predictable I began to long for an unhappy ending...
Now finally, years too late, I think I’ve found the perfect combination of profound ideas and passion.
The House of Special Purpose is an imaginative variation on the conspiracy theories surrounding Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, youngest daughter of His Imperial Majesty, Tsar Nicholas 2, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, Grand Duke of Finland and King of Poland. Was Anastasia shot with the rest of her family in a house in Yekaterinburg, by Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, or did she escape?
Our story is told by Georgy Jachmanev, a peasant boy who after an act of reckless heroism is plucked from obscurity and appointed bodyguard and companion to Alexei Romanov, the Tsaravitch. Alexei is a haemophiliac; when he bumps himself his blood cannot clot; he bleeds internally, painfully and horribly, sometimes for weeks on end. Tsar Nicholas, his father, is off at the Front, protecting Russian borders against ‘Cousin Willie’s’ invading armies and his mother is so emotionally fragile she becomes dependent on hypnotic, sinister Father Gregory – also known as Rasputin.
With everybody so distracted, Georgy illicitly courts the gorgeous young Grand Duchess Anastasia.
Intercut with this teenage romance is the present day story of the much older Georgy and his wife Zoya who live quietly together in London. Georgy works at the British Library, Zoya likes to cook for him. They have one child, now dead, and one grandson. Zoya suffers from depression and has suicidal tendencies. She believes she causes bad luck to everyone around her. Her mental anguish is symptomatic of post traumatic stress disorder and her devoted husband is at all times sympathetic and patient with her.
When Zoya is diagnosed with terminal cancer Georgy agrees to her unexpected request that they travel on holiday to Russia, the country they escaped from together, sixty years before, during the Revolution...

Friday, July 17, 2009


I admit it quite freely, I'm not a dedicated Harry Potter fan. Today when I took the older tartlets to watch the movie of the Half Blood Prince it was only to catch up with vague eccentric Luna Lovegood and the luminous Evanna Lynch who plays her. I have a special affection for the vague and the eccentric - I was branded both, growing up. Even now my husband tells me I float away inside my head, when I'm writing a novel...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Enchanting Alice

Northern Irish author Sharon Owens was invited onto Arts Extra, BBC Radio Ulster this evening to talk about her choice of summer reading. She chose Enchanting Alice -the story of Jane Costello a seventeen year city girl who marries a shy farmer, Michael. The piece Sharon read describes their wedding:

The wedding reception was at the grandest hotel in Derry. There was free drink and after a couple of quick ones Michael stood up and spontaneously announced he was the happiest man alive.
"That's the drink talking!" Cecily (his mother) muttered but she had the grace to twist her cross little face into an approximation of a smile for the photographs.
Cecily had good reason to feel sour for it was the rural tradition in Ireland that the newly weds move into the farmhouse and live with the old pair. From now on Jane would sleep in Michael's bedroom, she would be welcome to sit in the parlour; she'd have part of a shelf in the scullery to store her own food. Jane was marrying Michael but the reality was she would be living with his mother.
Nobody asked Cecily or Jane if they objected to this claustraphobic set-up, as intimate as marriage but with none of its compensations. Nobody asked if they felt they could tolerate each other in sickness and in health, for better, for worse, until death parted them. This was the rural Irish tradition. If you didn't like it, you didn't marry a farmer.
The Costello women, town people born and bred, loudly voiced their objection to wee Jane being made to move in with her mother-in-law.
"A young couple need their own house."
"Nonsense!" said Old Dave. "Temple is big enough for everybody."
"I give it three months," said Kathleen.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


On Sunday morning I rode Loki without stirrups. It's a brutal but effective way of learning to sit deep in the saddle. Especially at a canter when the survival instinct is to grip with your legs. This is Wrong Wrong Wrong! One must relax the legs, in fact one must lift the legs out sideways from the saddle and make contact with the horse only with one's bottom. (Believe me, this is a true test of mind over matter.)
On Monday every muscle in my back was aching.
Today I rode again. My bum stayed in the saddle at a canter. It looked good, it felt great, but now I'm suffering from a curious complaint - I have friction burns, two pretty pink stripes, on my buttocks. Allegedly caused by my bum making contact with the synthetic saddle. I'm trying to think positive, I'm calling them my badges of honour, but I'm in agony every time I sit down.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Glorious Twelfth

It's years since I was in Northern Ireland for the Glorious Twelfth. I remember it as the most colourful part of my dull rural childhood for my father was Worshipful Master of a tiny Orange Lodge, and on the 12th July we were taken to watch him marching through the local village behind a raggle taggle accordian band. He wore his best dark suit, his shoes were polished and his hair was slicked back with Brylcreme. This was the early 70s and I was too young to understand the tribal connotations of the marching Orangemen - my favourite 'tune' was The Green Grassy Slopes of the Boyne.
Now I realise most Orangemen have never seen the Boyne river. The infamous battle between William of Orange and King James that is commemorated with band parades in Northern Ireland took place in what is now County Louth, in the Republic of Ireland and Orangemen rarely cross the border, even nowadays.
My father is one of the lucky few. I went to university in Dublin and for four years he had the job of driving me there, and driving me home, with my bicycle strapped to the roof of the car. There was no motorway and we always stopped for a picnic on the green grassy slopes of the Boyne.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


My first iPod!
Now I've all the music in the world at my fingertips to download and listen to except - I haven't a clue about music! It's probably not the most feminist thing to admit but most of my music collection was left behind by old boyfriends - Jim Croce, Chris de Burgh, Queen, Mozart, Elgar, Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, Bob Dylan, Thin Lizzy...
Please help!
What do you think I should download?
Sharon Owens suggested Cosmic Love by Florence and the Machine. I've listened to it, it's excellent, and something I'd never have tried. Thanks, Sharon!
And I'll make one suggestion for you. Let's see - Hurricane by Bob Dylan. Tell me what you think.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Fat Face

The tartlets are allergic to shopping - it makes them hyperactive. I've always bought all their clothing on-line, twice a year, a bulk buy in the Boden sale,, it's fab.
This morning Maud announced she'd rather like to choose her own clothes. For a change. In a shop. Like normal girls. Just Mummy and Maud and no chorus line of: "I have to go to the toilet," and "Is it time to go yet?" and "I'm bored" etc, ad nauseam.
We went to the shopping centre and Maud kept trying to drag me into fashion victim shops with hooker clothes on the mannequins and I kept saying: "Over my dead body, you're not wearing that!"
“Oh Mum, you’re so frumpy and boring...” said Maud.
It was starting to get ugly until I found Fat Face. They sell elegant earth warrior clothes for adults and children, beautiful quality, everything 70% off. Maud liked the clothes, I liked the clothes, we bought everything left in our sizes, then rounded up Nick and the rest of the tartlets and bought everything left in their sizes.
Now we're the Fat Face family - though I did draw the line at a lilac straw Stetson for Maud.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Ten years ago I bought a set of MAC make-up brushes. They were very expensive but I look after them well and they look after me. They’re so clever and experienced now they can almost paint my face without me lifting a finger.
This evening Nick and I were going out and I couldn’t find them anywhere. Not one make-up brush. Not even the littlest one for filling in my scanty fair eyebrows. Panic washed over me – I began to shout: “Where are my make-up brushes? Who has taken my make-up brushes? I’m going out for dinner with daddy’s boss and I’m not going out without eyebrows.”
There was silence among the tartlets; a scuffing of feet; an inability to make eye contact; the smell of guilt.
I said in a terrible voice: “You have until the count of five to tell me what you’ve done with my make-up brushes.”
They said: “We thought they were paint brushes.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

RIP Roman Blinds

It’s a year ago today that I finally admitted to myself that the seven Roman blinds in my kitchen were faded. Horribly. Embarrassingly horribly. So embarrassingly horribly that when friends popped in for a cup of tea I was prevailed upon to casually remark, “Do you think my blinds have faded?” To which they would invariably answer: “But you bought the fabric and had them made up in that posh shop where you need a blow dry and a spray tan before entering…”
So I shovelled on my make-up and unstrung a blind and took it back to the shop, with a wee bit of extra fabric, the size of an ostentatious napkin, which had not been made into a blind and had not faded.
I was frank and honest. I was even apologetic. I said, “I know you will be as shocked as me that your fabric has faded so horribly. Look at the discrepancy between this unfaded piece fabric and the fabric of my blind...”
They weren’t particularly anything in the shop. Not rude, not helpful, not anything. The owner was on holiday. Leave it with them, they said.
So I left it with them, and left it with them and after a month I phoned. There were shouted instructions from the background, I couldn’t fail but hear them. The owner was back from holiday and she was shouting: “I don’t want to talk to that woman about her Roman blinds...”
And that’s how it’s been for a year. The owner refuses to talk about the fading of my Roman blinds. In desperation I have sought professional legal advice but the owner replies to the solicitor’s letters with frivolous, joking suggestions: “We have beautiful fabrics in this shop. If your client doesn’t like the fabric she originally chose for the blinds perhaps she’d like to come in and chose another fabric?”
Tonight Nick attempted to file a claim, on line, in the small claims court, but before he could fully explain in 2000 words the history of the faded blinds, ‘time up’ occurred and he was automatically logged off and all his form filling lost.
The rest of the windows in our farmhouse are hung with cheap and cheerful curtains, bought at car boot sales and in Next Clearance shops. None of these curtains have faded. And the moral of the story is...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Scary Enid

Three of the tartlet children have been reading Enid Blyton short stories, during the reading hour. I have managed to stay awake only because I'm so traumatised by the content of Enid's stories! In Enid's world naughty children who don't try hard at school and are rude to Mother have ruthless comeuppances - Santa Claus does not leave presents, Mother finds a new little boy to love, the spoilt child is packed off to boarding school. The tartlets, who are ridiculously spoiled and utterly indulged, are also traumatised. They have started to have nightmares. One woke up screaming last night - "I love you Mummy, please don't send me away..."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Chase Me, Charlie

I'm not a person to malinger with regret at the natural end of a love affair. So much better I always think to look back on 6 good months with happy fond memories, then move onward and upward to the next bit of cerebral excitement...
The Revenge of Lady Muck has now been with the publishers for a week, and today I had an idea for a new novel. Our heroine is another pineapple tart sister - Jennifer Gordon - last seen at her shotgun wedding, heavily under the influence of lashings of gooseberry wine. Jennifer's husband is charming Charlie; they live an idyllic existence in a splendid old house with Charlie's ancient grandfather and lots of horses and dogs.
But dig a bit deeper and we discover charming Charlie is an ugly philanderer. He's the talk of the county set - 'Chase me, Charlie' they call him. Jennifer puts on a brave face, but it's really not very amusing to find discarded lingerie in the horsebox, and flights to Paris on their joint credit card...
In desperation she confides in her sisters that all is not well in paradise.
"Do you think, perhaps, I should leave him?" she asks.
They say: "How terrifically defeatist you are!"
And together they hatch a plan to teach Charlie a lesson about chasing women he will never forget.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


This is Loki. He's dark and handsome and when I ride him it's like having a conversation with a friend.
It wasn't always this way. The first time I rode him I was terrified for he has a reputation for 'fun' - in horsey speak this means he likes to buck. I was so scared I was trembling and it was all I could do to sit deep in the saddle with my chest stuck out, smiling madly (first rule of riding - 'tits and teeth').
Fear is a physical thing and no joking matter. "Pull yourself together," are the most useless words in the English language - for of course I would pull myself together if I could only first banish the lurid vision of my body sprawled, broken and limp, on the sand of the jumping arena.
I jumped Loki round a small course while the howling banshee of fear screeched:'Hang up your jodhpurs, you irresponsible woman, there are four little children depending on you'.
He bucked once but it wasn't so awful, he didn't drop his shoulder and he didn't twist - I've been bumped more violently over speed ramps in the car.
Second time I rode him, he looked pleased to see me. He blew in my hair when I tacked him up, he dropped his head into the bit. He stood like a gentleman to be mounted, and we managed the gate perfectly together. A car backfired, a helipcopter came overhead very low, a dog barked furiously at him - there was no bucking, no shying, no bolting. At one point I actually thought he turned his head round to smile at me. We jumped a bigger course at a canter; it was like flying. My fear disappeared.
Now I'm not afraid anymore I can enjoy the 'fun' side of Loki - the exuberant bucks with his tongue hanging like a halfwit are, in Ireland, what we call 'eejiting around'. There is no malice involved. Should I fall off, I think he'd be as shocked and disappointed as me.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Molly Fox's Birthday

I share a book page on the Belfast Telegraph with talented author and artist Sharon Owens - check out her website: Today I'm reviewing Molly Fox's Birthday which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009.

Deirdre Madden

In order to properly enjoy Molly Fox’s Birthday may I recommend you take a sneaky sick day from work? Phone in and claim to be bedridden, switch off your phone; make a nice cup of tea. And relax into this complex and absorbing story of a woman whose life has never moved forward since she was at university.
They say the friends you make at university are the friends you keep your whole life. Can this also be said of the lovers you take at university? Our nameless narrator is a Catholic girl from rural Northern Ireland. Her friend is Andrew, a Protestant boy from the mean streets of Belfast. They meet in the neutral territory of Trinity College Dublin in 1980s.
It was love at first sight for her – ‘I used to watch him studying in the library’.
The best we can get out of him - “I must tell (my father) some time that I’m good mates with someone whose brother’s a Catholic priest. That’ll be laugh.”
There’s nothing to laugh about though when his brother, Billy, a Loyalist Paramilitary, is murdered in an internal feud. Billy’s violent, untimely death shrouds the rest of Andrew’s life.
Molly Fox’s Birthday opens with great innocence. Our nameless narrator is now a well known playwright, she’s house sitting for her good friend, the actor Molly Fox. She can’t resist a bit of gentle boasting: ‘Molly Fox .... is generally regarded as one of the finest of her generation.’
That may well be the case, but in this story, Molly is cast in a supporting role.
Our narrator finds it impossible to admit she was, and still is, in love with Andrew. All through the story she makes disingenuous excuses for the fact she can’t stop thinking about him.
She tells us: ‘A hot day in the city always made me think of his last days in Dublin, now so many years ago.’
She’s incredibly proud of his academic and commercial achievements – he has become an art historian and a media personality. She gives us a meticulous description of his latest TV appearance – she repeats verbatim everything he says, she describes how he looks; she’s obsessed with him!
Today there’s a photograph of Andrew in the newspaper; he’s wearing eye catching cufflinks.
He’s answering a frivolous questionnaire – Reasons To Be Cheerful. One his reasons: The incomparable Molly Fox, our finest actress bar none.
Can it really be only coincidence that after reading this our narrator, who has not been mentioned as a ‘reason to be cheerful’, drops and destroys Molly’s beautiful irreplaceable milk jug which is the same colour as Andrew’s cuff links?
Andrew turns up unexpected on Molly’s doorstep with a bottle of champagne to help celebrate her birthday. Our narrator insists he open it and that they drink it together. He tells her he has finally managed to reconcile himself to the death of his brother – his new book and tie-in television show are dedicated to the memory of Billy.
All she can think about is the one night they spent together during ‘his last days in Dublin, now so many years ago’.
Deirdre Madden is originally from Toomebridge in County Antrim. She teaches in Trinity College, Dublin. She is uniquely positioned to study and observe university students in their natural habitat. And isn’t it reassuring for those of us who loved and lost when we were at university to learn that even now there are highly intelligent, ambitious young women studying in university libraries and attending university lectures while piteously pining after undeserving undergraduate men?

Friday, July 3, 2009

School Summer Holidays

School Summer Holidays - and this year it will be different. This year computer useage will be restricted to 15 minutes per child twice a day. We will use the timer on the stove with its deafening screech to indicate 'time up' - in past times we have relied on my deafening screech. Feeding times will be restricted to three hourly intervals - 0730, 1030, 1330, 1630, 1930 and the kitchen will be out of bounds at all other times (If premature babies require feeding only every two hours the tartlet children can stretch it to every three hours.)
There will be a compulsory rest period every afternoon for one hour, during which time each child will read to me and I will endeavour to remain awake during it.
Also: Footballs and roller skates are outdoor toys. Tennis racquets are not weapons. Teeth need brushing every day. Disney Channel talk is not acceptable. And please remember that sometimes your mother would like to pee in private.
I have tried a couple of times to read 'We Need To Talk About Kevin'. But honestly I just don't get it. It's the story of a woman who insists her son was born 'pure evil'. What a whingeing mother she is! Negativity spews from the pages. I always give up reading in depressed despair, less than half way through for she utterly misses the point of parenthood. Which is, of course: IT'S NOT SUPPOSED TO BE EASY.
And I pity her - that never once, after a brutal day, does she look at her little sleeping son and say, as I say every night, "How could I ever have been cross with them? They're so angelic, asleep."

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Wedding Anniversary

Nick woke me this morning with a kiss. He says we met fifteen years ago to-day. He says it seems like just yesterday. How bizarre to be in bed with my husband when I'm still dreaming about Lord Rupert Glass. I forgot about our wedding anniversary last week and my birthday the week before that - (there's nothing to celebrate, except that I'm a year older.)
It may take Little Black Dress a month to get back to me, to tell me whether or not they like The Revenge of Lady Muck. Till then I exist in a state of suspended animation. It's a little like waiting for exam results except the mark I receive for my novel, pass or fail, is subjective.
This novel was a commission. It sounds very grand, but it's not. The first novel I wrote, The Pineapple Tart, was about a family, the Gordon's; it was frothy and young and very light hearted. I wrote it when I was at university.
Little Black Dress asked me to write a stand alone novel about one of the sisters whose story was not explored in great depth in The Pineapple Tart. Sarah Gordon is a sexually repressed school mistress; precise to the point of pain. She has had one unfortunate relationship with Ian Flemming, an accountant who is heir to his father's fitted bathroom empire. Ian is now married to Alexandra, Sarah's headmistress at school. Alexandra is expecting a baby and it's not a beautiful experience. She's suffering from nausea and obscene paranoia; she thinks Ian is still in love with Sarah. Why has Sarah not had a boyfriend since jilting Ian at the altar?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Revenge of Lady Muck

I finished The Revenge of Lady Muck at 4 this morning. It's for Little Black Dress and it's as short and provocative as the frocks I used to wear when I was a pineapple tart. Only a month over deadline, and I was in love with Lord Rupert Glass by the end of it.