Opening muse

In recent years I have cut my blogging teeth over at laidbackviews, though my regular readers will need no reminding that it has been somewhat stagnant of late, tired even, perhaps stale.  I have begun to examine reasons for that, and with enthusiasm on the rise once more decided that a fresh outlet is needed, and here we are, at LaidBackMuse.

I will continue some of the topics we have covered over the years, especially on the love of books and the continual quest for fine writing.  Food and drink too are essential parts of life.  That old recumbent bike still finds me lying back for occasional trundle round the lanes and I’ll let you know what  I come across, as I poke around the hedgerows or see what’s perching on the phone poles.

And we’ll cast an eye further afield, to the horizons and beyond, looking at what nature has in store, and what the landscape has to show.

One significant change on how that old site evolved is that these pages will remain free of political comment, even though these times get more interesting with each passing year.  We’ll leave the politics for other outlets.  Promise.

In short the aim is to refine, and to improve, expanding on familiar themes, but only some of them.





Winter Warmer

There’s a new concoction in the cauldron this week, and as it comes with the name Ottolenghi attached to it, and thus guaranteed to have the taste buds dancing, I thought I’d share it with you.

For Yotam Ottolenghi’s Chestnut, Fennel Seed and Caraway soup, here’s what you need:

6 garlic cloves, 4 whole with skin on, 2 peeled and crushed; 1 small butternut squash (ergo Aldi rather than Lidl), peeled, de-seeded and cut into 3cm chunks; 1 tbsp maple syrup; 60ml olive oil (as always I replace with Scottish rapeseed oil), plus a little extra for serving; 4 tsp caraway seeds, lightly toasted; 4 tsp fennel seeds, lightly toasted; salt; 2 onions, peeled and finely diced; 400g ready-cooked and peeled chestnuts, roughly chopped; 800 ml vegetable stock; 225ml vegetable oil.

It’s pretty straight-forward, tweaked  in a few places, and I see the soup fairy’s been on the prowl since it came off the hob.  Heat the oven to 200c/gas6.  Wrap the four unskinned garlic cloves tightly in foil and place in the corner of a large oven tray lined with baking paper.

Put the diced squash in a bowl and add the maple syrup, half the rapeseed oil, half the caraway seeds, half the fennel seeds and half a teaspoon of salt.  Mix to combine, then spread out the squash on the oven tray.  Roast for 30 mins, until soft and golden-brown, then remove and set aside.

Heat the remaining two tbsp. of rapeseed oil in a large pan.  I use my soup pot here, for reasons that will become obvious.  Add the onions, crushed garlic and another half tsp or so of salt (I’ve reduce from the recommended three quarters in each case), and fry for about seven minutes, stirring often, until the onions are soft and golden.  Add three-quarters of the chestnuts, leave to cook for three or four minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the stock.  Bring to a simmer, leave to bubble gently for three minutes before taking off the heat.

Heat all the vegetable oil in a small pan and, once hot, fry the remaining chestnuts and a teaspoon each of caraway and fennel seeds for four minutes, until the chestnuts rise to the surface.  Strain and transfer the nuts and seeds to a plate lined with a kitchen towel, sprinkle generously with salt and pepper, set aside.

Add the squash to the soup pot of onions, chestnuts and stock, scraping in all the seeds and oil from the tray.  Unwrap the roast garlic and squeeze the cloves out of their skins directly into the pot.    Add in the remaining teaspoonful of both caraway and fennel seeds.  Get your wand blender out and get blitzing until it’s smooth.

Heat up the soup and serve, sprinkling the fried chestnuts and seeds, drizzle with oil and serve.  Don’t be shy in dipping in with some home-made bread.  Delicious.





From Schooldays to Dreams Fulfilled

‘Twas but a few weeks ago that I wandered through the wildcats at Kincraig, learned of the efforts of Scottish Wildcat Action.  And what do I find but wildcats and SWA in the opening chapter of John Lister-Kaye’s latest volume, The Dun Cow Rib.  That should be no surprise given that I know of JLK’s long-established Aigas Field Centre, and much of what took him there from the tragedy of the death of Gavin Maxwell and onwards.  For John Lister-Kaye has long featured on the reading list.  I will treasure the memories of his talk at the East Neuk Festival a few years ago, of browsing the travel section of the Cambo House library in the fine company of Gavin Francis (and he too must be due to serve up another fine volume soon).

The Dun Cow Rib marks a change from recent works though, more memoir than nature as I thought as I rummaged through young John’s schooldays.   Whilst life might have seemed easy, to the manor born, wandering corridors of stuffed and mounted trophies, discovering decades of death in the family’s Game Books, and a wilderness on the doorstep with freedom to explore.

But there were dark times too, packed off to boarding school at a very young age, his sister at a separate school, due to the frailty of his mother who pioneered much of the heart surgery we take for granted today, on the wrong side of the operating table.  The early school years were not easy; then there were a few terms at the village school, with alien creatures, travelling folks, and girls.  Prep school followed.

And then, at last, a settled period, and a school with a Natural History Society, and a boy discovers himself, his differences from others, his aims, and his talents.  Wildlife.  Nature.  And this volume will find a richly deserved space on the nature shelf, beside his others.

Schooldays end.  I’d really quite like to be a writer, in response to a query from his mother.  Follow your dreams.  Some years later the same answer was given to the same question.  Why aren’t you, the response from Gavin Maxwell.  Terry Nutkins it was who’d driven young JLK north in those heady days of the late 60s.

In time, after more surgery for mother, he made the break, gave it all up, and joined Maxwell, having spent time researching a proposed book venture for him and agreed to join the group on Eilean Ban for a wildlife project.  Maxwell died within days of his arrival, Teko, the last of the otters, just a couple of weeks later.  It was Lister-Kaye who carved the inscription on the memorial stone you’ll find on the island today.

The Dun Cow Rib is a terrific read, beautifully written, even if those days of Maxwell and his otters mean little to you.  Allow me to indulge you with a short passage, a fishing trip with his widowed father, on the loch at Aigas:

Over and over again his dry fly looped elegantly through the air to land well out on the glowing water.  The loch was as still as a mirror.  On gossamer wings and with long caudal filaments streaming out behind them, mayflies danced around us, touched the water with their dangling legs and lifted weightlessly off again, hovering tantalisingly over their own reflections.  Trout rose in barely audible swirls, mouthed lazily at the flies and vanished again.  ‘You’ve got too much competition,’ I teased.  He smiled, pulled on his pipe and cast again.  I was impressed.  Fifteen yards or more, the line peeled itself out and gently dropped his fly in almost perfect emulation of those around us.

Unknown to either of us, deep below, a fine 2lb brown trout saw that fly land.  it fired into action, torpedoing towards the surface just as my father wiggled the line to give it life.  High above the boat, emerging unseen from the gleaming white of the clouds, the burning binocular eyes of an osprey had also spotted that trout’s move.

It happened so fast and so unexpectedly that it made us both jump.  My father saw the trout curve to the fly; I glimpsed the shadow of the diving osprey.  Delta-winged, blue feet thrust forward, talons spread wide, it crashed into the loch right beside the boat.  Even as the trout saw the danger and swerved to dive, the osprey’s black talons plunged into its olivine back.  They crimped and held.  For four seconds that exquisitely handsome fish hawk decked in mocha and cream lay with its wings outstretched across the swirling surface.  its amber eyes boiled with fire for a dazzling moment of triumph before its long wings rose on folded elbows to scoop bucketsful of sunlight and heave clear of the water.

I don’t know why I’ve been fooling about in industry all my life, quoth his father.  I’d really like quite to be a writer, the words of the son decades before.  And I’ll need to complete the Lister-Kaye collection, though there’s only a couple to add.  A real master, even beside Maxwell.

The Name’s Fleming

Ian Fleming.  In 1959, 2 November to be precise (the day I became a grand two months old) he set off with a round-the-world ticket, first class of course, at the behest of The Sunday Times.  The ticket cost £803 19/2.  He drew a further £500 in travellers’ cheques, and off he went, after a few jabs from the doc.  Having read the articles that followed I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more funds may have been needed along the way.

The following spring saw him set off again, by road, the European leg.  By road means at the wheel of a Thunderbird, all 50 horse-power, seven litres of throbbing engine.

The series of articles written were brought together and published, in 1963, as Thrilling Cities.  He may have been a somewhat reluctant traveller, certainly a reticent reporter.  The Sunday Times wanted more of the exotic backgrounds with which Bond readers had become familiar, tempting Fleming with the prospect of collecting more material for his fictional hero.  Fleming though was conscious that he watched with the eye of a thriller writer, rather than a sightseer.  He may have been wary too of stepping into the world his elder brother Peter had mastered, in that golden age of travel and of writing, from the 1930s – as well as Peter Fleming, think Robert Byron, Ella Maillart, Richard Halliburton, to name but a few.  Masterful writers in fascinating times.

Thrilling Cities takes us to the world’s tempting spots, and it is difficult to shed Bond’s tuxedo as you visit the slot machines of Vegas, the roulette wheels and card tables, and even the pachinko.  Fitting it is that he ends his travels in Monte Carlo.

Along the way he dines with his ‘set’, Coward and Chaplin among them; contacts from his military days or sources for his writings, school chums and more.  It is a world that is alien to us now; the empire crumbling in those post-war years.  But he takes us to Hamburg, to the Lippizaners of Vienna, and much further.  The Far East, across the Pacific, across the States, Bond on his shoulder.

I first came across this book when Lucinda Hawksley included a few brief extracts in her wonderful The Writer Abroad, earlier this year.  A few brief lines, from a city that didn’t feature, a mere re-fuelling stop on the flight east, had me hooked.  That man can write narrative non-fiction, thought I, and a book quest began.  Still in print today says it all really, though I had to find the original, which I duly did and at a sensible price too.  If he hadn’t died so ridiculously young, ie younger than I am now, we might have had much more from Ian Fleming, more than the couple of Bonds and of course Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, published posthumously, following his death the year after Thrilling Cities appeared on the shelf.  But then he had lived hard, thrillingly so, shaken perhaps, but definitely not stirred.

It’s a good one, especially if you hanker for times gone by, people and places, and fine writing.





Bake; Off

It is that time of year again, school holidays, and that means I have an empty for a few days.  The house is quiet, Ophelia having departed.

It is also the time when we celebrate the last birthday of the year in the household, and it’s not mine.  So quandary of quandaries, having set a precedent last time round.  Do I take a day out my far too busy schedule, and head off to the northern wastes, with a cake?

Well, the cake bit’s done, so no excuses on that front.  Chocolate was the request.  I’ve found a new one.  From the wonderful Cardamom Trail, here’s Chetna Makan’s Chocolate & Coconut Cake.

Here’s what you need:

150g unsalted butter; 300g caster sugar; 2 large eggs; 1 tsp vanilla extract; 250g plain flour; 50g cocoa powder; pinch salt; 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda; 150ml buttermilk; 150ml boiling water; 25g creamed coconut.

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4.  Grease & line 2 20cm baking tins.

Cream the butter and sugar, then add eggs one at a time.  Mix in the vanilla extract.  In a second bowl mix the dry ingredients together.  Add these to the egg mixture a couple of spoons at a time, followed by a little of the buttermilk.  Repeat until finished, mixing well.  I lazily used a stand mixture with paddle attachment throughout.

In a jug mix the measured boiling water with the creamed coconut.  Slowly add to the cake mix, whisking until well combined.

Pour the batter equally into the two cake times.  Bake for 30-35 mins until a skewer comes out clean.  Rest in the tins for 10 mins then turn them out and leave to cool.

Then the icing:

250g cream cheese; 50g unsalted butter; 50g dark chocolate, melted; 400g icing sugar, sifted; 2 tbsp. coconut cream; 1 tsp vanilla extract; 60g dessicated coconut.

Beat the cream cheese and softened butter until smooth.  Mix in the melted chocolate, then slowly add the icing sugar, a little at a time, alternating with additions of the coconut cream.  Add the vanilla extract and mix well.  If needed more icing sugar can bring it to a spreadable consistency.  Like the cake it’s a doddle keeping the mixer paddle turning throughout as you toss more in.

A layer on one sponge, then add the second on top, before smothering and smoothing as you choose.  Toasted coconut strips can be added for decoration, unless you’re adding birthday candles…

So, the cake’s done, there are presents from far and wide in the boot of the car.  Do I enjoy a day of quiet once the work’s done, perhaps a trundle round the lanes on the bike or more likely a long hard walk with the mower; or take to the road, cake and presents for the birthday boy.

Eight hours in one day mainly on the A9 is not for the faint-hearted, a younger man’s game.  But if you can’t get a hold of me on the morrow that’s where I might be, no radio, no phone signal for much of the trip.  Either that or lying down with an empty cake plate, and a gurgling belly…





Looking Back, Looking Forward

Fifty years ago it was, 2 November 1967 to be precise.  Back then I was but a boy, grey flannel shorts, legs stinging in the hail, the school cap de rigueur.  And it was a foul, wet day; but it changed our world.  The school I walked to then stands yet, a business centre now and more on that later.

I was privileged to attend a book launch recently, timed to mark that 50th anniversary.  On the platform were author James Mitchell, Fergus Ewing MSP and Christina McKelvie MSP.  Ewing was there to speak of his mother, for Mitchell’s book, Hamilton 1967, told her tale, and much more.  For Fergus is Winnie’s boy, and Winnie took Hamilton by storm back in 1967, changed Scotland in a heartbeat.  Mitchell gives us an engrossing read, a trip back in time, and a glimpse into the future.

The scene is set, the times as they then were.  In Hamilton the voters had given Labour a seat since the end of the war, the first one that is.  Such was Labour’s impact that one million people left Scotland’s shores in that time.  The big contest of the day was the one to select the Labour candidate, the man guaranteed a job.  Alex Wilson got the nod, a former miner from Forth.  The disappointed candidate was a certain John Smith, which begs the question of how his career may have developed if he had then fought a losing campaign.

Labour had taken a ba’ hair shy of half the vote right across Scotland in the year before.  Scotland was theirs.  Home Rule for them…  Winifred Ewing had the SNP nomination, in place long before the by-election was called.  She was a lawyer, in the wrong community, and she was young.  And female.

But Winnie ran a campaign, and Labour were invisible, expecting their rights.  The activists got the vote out and the HamAd had to run a second edition.  The Zambesi Hotel had never seen a night like it.  Ah the Zambesi Hotel.

This was the 1960s.  Mary Whitehouse was in Motherwell.  Harold Wilson was forced into devaluing the pound.  Ludovic Kennedy wanted a pact with the SNP.  And there was Ted Heath, the Unionists as they then were.  That was not the Unionists we know today, it harked to back to the days of Union across the water, with Ireland.  There was Ian Paisley too, at Hamilton Town Hall earlier that year.  He could have filled each of the 1,500 seats seven times over.  The HamAd reported the night as ‘all good-natured bigotry…’.  Larkhall was in the constituency.

The press barons then were not as we know them now.  The Scottish Daily Express and The Scotsman stood accused of fanning the flames.  Can you believe that one today?  Magnus Magnusson was a supporter.  And Marks & Spencer opened in Hamilton that same year.  There was something stirring.

But the surge did not last, and Winnie lost the seat as the votes returned to Lanarkshire’s rightful home in 1970.  She won in Moray in ’74, holding that for a parliamentary term.  Later she became the only person, so far, to have been elected to Westminster, to Holyrood and to Brussels.  And of course she was there when the Scottish parliament reconvened, stealing Steel’s thunder with her opening address.

In that 1970 election the SNP lost in South Ayrshire, Labour taking it in the form of one Jim Sillars, author then of Don’t Butcher Scotland’s Future.  He seems to be going back to his youth, devoid of Margo’s guiding hand.  There’s another Hamilton connection, the late Margo, again young, vibrant and female.

There are many anecdotes in Mitchell’s book, many more told at the launch from those who could say I was there; and a great many more hinted at that could not be repeated in public.

Hamilton 1967, it changed our world, even if back then you may have been aware only of football teams winning trophies, the Accies not being at the foot of the Scottish leagues, and the hail stinging your bare legs.  Winnie Ewing was back in Hamilton, in 2011.  Her task then was to open the office of the recently elected constituency MSP, in that old school of mine, where Christina McKelvie now has her office, following in the footsteps.

It’s a great wee read, of lives and of times.  Politics don’t come into it.  Mind you we wouldn’t be where we are today, but for those events in Hamilton fifty years ago.

The Cake

So here it is, as promised.  I see that I first typed out this recipe, to pass on to others, way back in 2009.  Copying the article into wordpress doesn’t work too well with the formatting, but imagine below three columns set out, separated in this version by forward slashes.  In essence you work with three bowls – fruit, wet mix, and dry.  I’ve added subsequent tweaks in italics.

Tamasin Day Lewis – Country Christmas Cake

First List /Second List/ Third List

1.2kg mixed dried fruit /225g salted butter /340g plain flour
55g chopped candied peel /225g soft dark brown sugar /1tsp cinnamon
55g glace cherries, halved/ 4 organic eggs /1tsp ginger
85g pres ginger, chopped /1tsp pure vanilla extract /1tsp nutmeg
Zest & juice orange, lemon/ few drops almond essence /1tsp cloves
1tbsp bitter orange marmalade/ – / 1tsp mixed spice
1tbsp apricot jam/ – / 1tsp baking powder
225g stewed apple/ – / –

I usually add a few ounces of cranberries, and may be heavy on the cherries and ginger. Needs a 9inch cake tin, deep, heavy duty for my oven. For peel I use Sundora Candied Peel, rather than the little tubs of ready diced stuff.

Since then my fruit mix changes slightly every year.  Barberries are my current favourite addition, though I’ve added sour cherries this year for the first time.  I’ve also moved from preserved ginger to crystallised.

The fruit and spices for this cake need to sit and commune with the juice overnight before you actually make and bake (I give it up to a week, with a good dose of brandy), so plan accordingly.

The brandy back then was a Croatian plum, the cake being the ideal use for bottles that come home from travels.  More recently I’ve been using Framboise, a clear spirit from Luxembourg, though 2017 will be the last for that one.  Next year I may dabble with gin, perhaps a fresh and zesty Blackwoods, or one of the Rock Rose variants – which I may have to test extensively between now and then…

Mix all the ingredients on the first list in a large bowl. Turn them over thoroughly. Cover and leave overnight, preferably several nights, mixing daily.

Preheat oven to 170C/Gas 3 (this is real hit or miss cooking on a Rayburn). Gather the ingredients from the second list. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one by one and add the vanilla extract and almond essence.

Put the flour, spices and baking powder from the third list in a bowl and stir them together. Mix the fruit and flour mixture alternately into the creamed butter and sugar, a little at a time. Line a 20-23cm cake tin with three layers of greaseproof paper and a final layer of bakewell paper. Pour in the mixture and decorate with blanched almonds unless you intend to marzipan and ice.

I wrap the tin with a triple layer of greaseproof, on the outside, and a similar lid.  You need to ensure the lid overlaps, to prevent burning, the cake being in the oven for four hours.

Bake for 2 hours before turning down the heat to 150C/Gas 2 for a further 2 hours.

For my oven I reduce the heat after 1hr 45mins, and put on the extractor fan to cool the oven quicker.  I use a top baking sheet, which Aga/Rayburn users will be familiar with, and also reduce the level of the sheet when turning the temperature down, the cake itself being one rung up from the bottom of the oven.  Giving the tin a quarter turn every hour helps too.

Remove the cake from the oven, puncture it with a few holes with a skewer and pour in the booze – an extra tbsp or two won’t hurt. Leave the cake to cool in its tin.

Next day remove cake and peel off greaseproof etc. Wrap in fresh greaseproof and keep on airtight tin or firmly sealed with foil for at least a month. I’ll spare you the recipes for the marzipan and icing, given that I cheat and use ready to roll stuff.

Marzipan now made, to Tamasin’s recipe, but the icing is still ready-rolled for that perfect flat and smooth finish.

Long Lost Muses

Oh it’s been a while, I know, I know.  People have begun to talk; people I didn’t know read these musings.  So an apology, I have been remiss, side-tracked, life gets in the way.  A wee summary is long overdue.

Books, of course, remain close to the heart and though I have not written up any reviews for a while that is not because I may have stopped reading.  The one thing I did was to continue to update the year’s favourites over at The Bookshelf.  But as to reviews, well they’ve been restricted to occasional comments and updates at the marvellous weekly Tips, Links & Suggestions column over at The Guardian.  It’s a must for readers, and a great source of To Be Reads.

The Birthday Bunny has been again, replenishing the never-empty TBR shelf with some real gems, some of which may have been gleaned from comments on that TLS blog.  There’s a new volume due to arrive imminently, an Ian Fleming first edition, Thrilling Cities.  That’s one gleaned from the writings put together by Lucinda Hawksley in her brilliant compilation The Writer Abroad.  I found a copy of Fleming’s narrative at Oxfam Books, just the £750 for that one.  Hard to find books, in the right condition and at the right price – what did we do before t’interweb?  Needless to say the volume in the post is not from Oxfam…

The summer has not been without interest.  Lower Saxony was the venue for the family holiday, and a grand time it was too.  The German Health Service was wunderbar, and delighted was I to still have unfettered access.  Luneburg was a highlight, and a tour of the Rathaus, which dates back just the 800 years or so.  In the Upper Drapers Hall there’s a magnificent painted ceiling, and standing out in one corner is the original hand-painted version of a symbol we all know today – the VW badge.  The story was lost without translation, photographs not permitted, but I think I’m right in saying that the Beetle, and indeed Volkswagen, doesn’t quite go back that far.

Bergen-Belsen was an eye opener.  My notebook has one word only.  Overwhelming.

Photographs were banned too more recently, Culross Palace, not quite as old as the Rathaus, but rammed full of history.  Arriving via the new Queensferry Crossing was meant to be a highlight, but being in the east there was mist and haar and little to see, not even another bridge other than the slightest glimpse of a girder through the gloom.

Meanwhile life is blooming on the home policies.  Through the kitchen window the other day new life was appearing, twins in fact.  There’s a small group of Holstein-fresians, brought close to the farm, birthing by the day.  Miserable they were that dreich morning, but in time little  pockets of clean and shining black & white motley appeared.  All well.

The lapwings are back, murmurrations, drifting and swooping.  Like children though they tend to go to ground, an inner sense of camera shyness, even from a few hundred yards away.  I’ll get them yet.  A Deceit of Lapwings, I’m told, from my chums at Out of Doors the other day, sometimes a desert, both terms seeming strange, not quite up there with that Murder of Crows.

There has been local activity too, with both the Round Strathaven 50 cycle run, and then the Strathaven Hot Air Balloon Festival.  Both were grand events.  The former brought Andrew Cuthbert, from Larkhall, to my attention.  I found him pounding up the steepest of the many hills on the route, that climb out of Millheugh.  And I met him again as he crossed the finish line a few hours later.  Ignore the shorts, take the T-shirt, he called.  And from there his story emerged.  One arm re-built, then learning to walk again.  He decided to test himself, on this his first outing since all that trauma, with just the fifty miles round Avondale’s countryside.  Quite a guy.

Hot air balloons are quite magnificent, and the annual SHABFest brought the crows in as always.  The balloons managed a few flights, taking to the air in the calm hours of dawn and dusk, drifting, a bottle of the hard stuff for whatever farmer hosted the landing and the recovery vehicle.  I had the good fortune of a prime seat for the Saturday evening tethered glow, from the basket as the flames roared overhead and the sounds of The Proclaimers boomed out from the stage.

And then, some may have noticed, it’s been cake time again, as it always is in September, with birthdays and then the three month countdown, the maturing period, the big one.  The Christmas Cake is now sealed in the tin, to be brought out in a few months for the marzipan and so on.  I’ll put the recipe up shortly, just in case any laggards haven’t started yet.  It’s by far the best recipe I’ve come across, tried and tested, tweaked, always good.


The End of an Era

It is 22 years since Robin Hobb first introduced us to the world of the Farseers.  We started with  a young urchin born on the wrong side of the sheets.  And now he is no more.  Much has happened over the years.

Robin Hobb’s writing has taken up increasing space on the bookshelves.  Assassin’s Apprentice back in 1995 promised to be the first of a trilogy.  Assassin’s Fate, published just a few weeks ago, is the 16th full novel in the series, and the last.  Maybe.

In between times Hobb has dredged every emotion from her readers.  The royal bastard was taught the dark arts of the spy, creeping silently through little known passages around the castle.  He learned to work with potions and weapons, a master of his craft.  The court jester entranced us, and what a character he became, in several guises.  Both now are gone.

From the castle we travelled far.  The second trilogy was a bit of a hard slog at times, vaguely related.  Serpents, hints of dragons, pirates.  Then back came our heroes, and the adventures continued.

Four more volumes, away from that original castle, dragons, new characters.  But through the years it was all inter-twined.  And in 2014 the first of a final trilogy appeared, drawing it all together, linking people and places, expanding the lore.  New characters, new twists, old friends.

Through it all we have the wolf, and the bond between men and their beasts; the magical world of the dragons and the skills of their keepers, adapting to changing places.  Others sought riches, by fair means or foul.  I haven’t even mentioned the ships yet, or their figureheads.  Now there’s a tale, which of she course she weaves in and through, captivating.

The final volume is a belter, an 850 page epic which pulls all these threads together, puts us through the mill and back again, several times.

Twenty two years I have been reading Robin Hobb, including a separate and unrelated trilogy in the midst of all this wonder.  I’m sure she won’t have put down her pen, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she has us back at Buckkeep, or Bingtown.  Even without Fitz and The Fool, without Nighteyes, there’s more magic to come.  There is, isn’t there?  Please.


A Rare Sighting

It has been far too long, so much so that the thought of the pain made procrastination easy.  But the weather has been settled, warm and sunny at times.  Ah but, ah but, there’s that cold north wind; and the school bus will be due; and there’s mail to post, food to buy for dinner.  And any excuse that came far to easily to mind.

I could put if off no longer, and with another sunny morning, one without the wind, and a window in the diary, it had to happen.  The garage door was opened, the bike wheeled out.  The tyres needed a bit of air.  The cranks turned, but the chain stiffened, solid.  Grease time.

Then the rider had to be prepared.  It had been a while.  The eyes protested at the mere sight of contact lenses; and the lycra stretched far more than it should have.  Six months have passed, and many more pounds.  This was going to hurt.

But it didn’t really.  Oh the old muscles are complaining, but having been up and down the gears a few times we soon settled into a very slow rhythm.  As often happens the route changed, as I opted for a relatively flat return, quickly realising that there’s work to be done and climbing needs to be kept to a minimum, which isn’t easy in these parts.  But the level route back came without the usual battle into the wind, a no-brainer really on this first wee jaunt.

It was when the first of the buzzards lifted languidly from a stand of spruce that I began to forget that it was the knees and not the gears that were creaking.  She flew over us, curious perhaps.  I watched for the bomb doors opening, but escaped.

And from then I began to enjoy a wee hurtle round the lanes.  The hedges throbbed with life, and with song.  Overhead a lark somewhere sang me on my way.  A pair of blue tits gathered mosses and midgies.  The morning was welcomed by a cockerel in full flow, as I trundled by the cattery.  One of her brood announced the safe arrival of her daily lay.  A grey head, ears, and a white bib, rose above the grasses, whiskers twitching, and a ginger tom watched her, preying perhaps.

Back home the birds and the cats had left their mark too.  The garden had been carpeted with grey feathers on the previous evening; and then I found the remains of one of the three collared doves that call by, usually together.  I suspect it was Tigger, the tortoiseshell, that had got lucky, for old Jake’s beyond the hunt these days, other than the occasional mouse; and little Tina spends her time in the hedge, eyeing the siskins and the goldfinches, salivating, which might explain the green feathers on the bathroom floor.

The seasons have changed since last I rode these roads.  Winter has been and gone.  Lambs have appeared, and grown.  The coos have been let out once again, still frisky on the new grass.  Swallows line up on the wires, when not swooping, feeding, gathering.  And the house martins are back again, white bellies darting across the fields.  It is a couple of years since they’ve stuck their mud under our eaves, but they’re still in the area, coming back year after year, perhaps a little late in arriving this time.  They might struggle for mud at the moment, unusually.

It’s great to find the right moments to get back out again, to put the busy days to the side for an hour or two.  No more excuses.  It’s only a couple of months till the bikes get taken on holiday, and on the evidence of a few slow miles, there’s much work to be done.  Still, if the sun shines, and the birds are singing…  Nag me folks.

Two States or One?

A talented, young writer, Nir Baram, whose father and grandfather were both ministers in Labour governments in Israel, brings us a thought provoking volume as he guides us round his home territories, through East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

A Land Without Borders, translated from the original Hebrew, arrives in English fifty years after the beginning of occupation, one hundred years after Balfour’s intervention.  Our news bulletins may suggest that matters in these lands are worse than ever, a solution never further away.

But Baram manages to find hope for us, from both Arab and Jew.  Then despair once more.  It is a volume I will gladly find space for on the shelf, beside those from, amongst others, Amos Oz and Raja Shehadeh, beside Sebag Montefiore’s massive history of the city.  I may even look out some of his earlier fiction writing, for he has a knack for telling a tale, of people and places.

In his journey he touches on the Oslo Accords, on Camp David, and recognises that one side wants to talk about 1948, and the other 1967.  Free passage and sovereignty, it matters not how many states, seems to be the mood of those living through it all.  There is fasting, an initiative to link Ramadan with the Seventeenth of Tammuz.

We visit checkpoints and settlements, talk to soldiers and the bereaved.  There is hope in The Field.  He takes us to Temple Mount , to al-Aqsa.  But is it all too late?

I will leave you with these thoughts, from Yakov Nagen, rabbi and author, NEW York born, and listed last year as one of the 10 Israelis you should know:

“These are the principles: One, opposition to violence.  Two, it is a religious value to live in peace with one’s neighbours.  Three, Islam and Judaism believe in the same God.  Four, we must live in a society with fully equal civil rights between Jews and Arabs.  Five, recognise the Palestinian religious and historical connection to the holy land.”

It’s an intriguing read, whether you’ve a special interest in the area or not.  The area needs us to take more interest, for it is melting.