At the beginning of the year, my book, Able Seacat Simon, was published – a novel based on the life of the eponymous famous feline, who was ship’s cat aboard HMS Amethyst during the 1949 Yangtse Incident. He’s also the only cat to have ever been awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal.

So there’s the background. Now we move on to mid April, when an email arrives from a lady called Ann, writing to tell me that she has finished it, and to pass on some kind comments about it too. She also tells me how much her 83 year old mum loves it, and sends a couple of photos of her own cherished kitty, Patsy, and one of a crocheted cat tissue box holder she’s made. As opposed to crocheted cat-tissue box holder, which is quite different, and would be bonkers – everyone knows cats never blow their noses.

(I’ve been blessed with this particular book, by the way – so much lovely, and often humbling, correspondence. And I wonder – are cat lovers and retired naval officers a particularly warm and communicative group? I’ve never had such a plethora of letters.)ableseacatsi_hardback_1471151832_72

Anyway, cracking on, I reply, admiring both her darling cat and her crocheting skills – not least because my own needle skills are virtually non-existent. I’m still knitting a ‘stylish’ snood I began in 2012, and am still only a ball and a half in.

“Would you like me to make you a ‘Simon’ holder?” Ann asks, in her next email.

“Why, yes, I would,” I respond, because why ever wouldn’t I? I’m not really a tissue person – I generally favour a wodge of kitchen roll – but what’s not to like about being given a present? Particularly when that present is both personal and hand-made.

Fast forward a couple of months, to the arrival another email. Ann hasn’t forgotten me. The holder is finally now in progress. It’s just that she’s been busy – Ann works full time – and since her personalised holders take around four weeks each to make, she has currently got something of a backlog. She makes them, you see, for anyone who wants them, asking only that the recipient make a small donation to her local cat shelter, so they can buy much needed cat food.

We chat further. About her cat and our cats, about my friend Rose’s cat, Stan. The usual random cat stuff, because that’s the way we cat ladies roll.

And then, in October, comes the news that it’s finished. And a week or so later, my gift arrives in the post, along with six knitted catnip balls – she makes those as well – two each for my two, plus two more for my friend Rose’s cat, Stan.

(The catnip balls go down A STORM.)

Touched, I write to thank her, and also mention in my email that my tissue-holding Simon has already been much admired, my other friend Jane having been round when I received it.

Ann writes back immediately. Would Jane like one too? And, if so, what colour would she prefer?

I consult Jane – who is touched and delighted. I tell Ann ‘goldy-slash-beigey-slash-marmalade-catty’, as Jane’s Reggie, who was run over a couple of years back, had been a ginger tom. I also mention that I too have had something of a hectic week – because the children’s version of Able Seacat Simon has just come out, and I’ve been busy penning cat facts and feline fun stuff for my diminutive new readership.

Ann emails back, wishing both me and the book well, commenting that she will definitely look out for it in the shops, because her friend’s 10 year old daughter Grace will doubtless love it.

So I write back – would Grace like me to send her a signed copy?

She would. So I send one, duly dedicated and dated, and this week, Ann’s written to say how chuffed Grace’s mum Carol is, and that Grace herself has had her nose in it ever since.

Which is lovely. As I’m sure will be Jane’s goldy-slash-beigey-slash- marmalade-catty crocheted holder. But why exactly (I hear you ask) have I filled up this page with all this everyday, bland, boring schizzle?

Because Ann’s a happy bunny. Because I’m a happy bunny. because Rose is happy, and, once her holder arrives, Jane will be happy too. (Well, happier, which is what this is all about.) And, in turbulent times, full of mistrust and hate, young Grace has learned something positive about people – that unsolicited acts of kindness, by stranger, are still, in fact, a thing.

So no apologies for sharing. Indeed, please pass it on. This everyday boring swizzle is precisely the sort of thing that will  help heal us.

First Published in Western Mail Weekend magazine, Nov 19th 2016

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I don’t know about you, but, well, look, here’s the thing – shall we skip gaily over the US Presidential election? All this social unrest/ new world order/possibility of Putin rocking up the Bristol Channel atop a nuclear submarine with his shirt off /the general apocalypse-lite the western world seems hell-bent on getting itself embroiled in lately, makes me want to run away and just do something NICE.

As I write, I have no idea what kind of planet we’ll be living on now, only that both ‘different’ and ‘a teeny weeny bit scary’ seem a safe bet. Which is why it ‘being ever so close to Christmas’ is a manifestly good thing, because it means as you can turn your back on global politics , dust off your ‘fiddling about with seasonal glitter and glue’ gene, and cock a snook at all the grim sturm and drang.

In the name of research, I asked Pete about genes, and, once he’d

Let's create!

Let’s create!

given me a fifteen minute Reith lecture about the history of gene nomenclature (which was fascinating, obviously, but possibly best kept for another column), I deduced that there must be a ‘seasonally affective fiddling about with glitter and glue’ gene. And while its acronym needs work (SAFAWGG? Let’s just stick with SAFA) that it’s probably, though not exclusively, nestled somewhere in the crook of an X chromosome.

Not sure if you have one but pretty sure you might do? Here’s my handy cut out and keep guide to SAFA.


You probably have SAFA if you head into town bent on general, non-seasonal shopping, but find yourself in Paperchase and momentarily transfixed by the rows of tiny purple reindeer.

You are actively looking out for facebook posts featuring GIFs of Noddy Holder, singing.

You are a conscientious home-worker, with a pile of normally appealing professional work to be done, but keep sliding off-piste and going on Etsy.

You go on a country walk and instead of paying homage to the myriad wonders of Autumn you keep picking up logs with architectural potential.

You start saying ‘ahhhh, when I retire, I can’t wait to…’ and the words ‘scrapbooking, ‘decoupage’, and ‘hand embellished gift box’ feature heavily in your internal discourse.

You see Prince Harry’s gorgeous girlfriend (Meghan Markle – keep up) and while you, like, totally applaud her ‘I don’t want to be a lady who lunches, but a woman who works’ quote (and, of course, file it away as a mantra with which to bore your daughter/daughter in law/son’s girlfriend/any random young female who you think NEEDS to know this stuff) there is a part of you, well-hidden, because still you rise, and so on, that thinks, ‘yes, forget the lunch part, because that’s such a misunderstood and maligned trope, isn’t it? But could I not also be a female who smashes through the glass ceiling, but still has space in her diary for regularly fiddling about with glitter and glue?’

You are fifty seven, but you still have a fully operational ‘Children’s Craft Box’.

You have a yen to create any of the following:

A festive twig wreath.

A home-made advent calendar, filled with hand-made peppermint creams.


Anything whatsoever out of pine cones.

You develop an unlikely enthusiasm for going to the local garden centre.

You make an extraordinarily passionate case for work-life balance, citing the 76.6% of working women of the Netherlands who work less that 36 hours per week, and going ‘you SEE?’ to anyone who hasn’t run away.

The thought of transforming your kitchen windowsill into a spanglish winter wonderland – involving fairylights, clumps of berries dipped in silver leaf, and a lovingly crafted homage to Sinter Klass – feels like the most important creative idea you’ve had all day.

You wish you were so well-heeled that you could wake up on a frosty morning and think ‘sod work, today I am going to stud oranges with cloves and steep orchard fruits in home-made blackberry wine and just anyone try and stop me, okay?’

You wish you were so authenitically ‘ye olde peasantry’ that studding oranges with cloves and steeping orchard fruits in home made blackberry wine was, like, just what you had to do, to survive. Because you KNOW it would make you soooo happy.

You wish you had someone you could make a costume for.

Or is it just me?

Either way, I have a SAFA gene, and you’ll find me in my craft bunker.


First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine Nov 12th 2016

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I’ve been on something of a mission this week.

It was sparked initially a couple of days back after I wrote this week’s column, and realised what an astounding amount of angry capitals it contained.

So I had Pete read it too. And if you feel a sense of déjà vu, you’re right to, because his next words were, “but aren’t you being a bit ranty? You know – like, AGAIN?”

At which point, as one would, I went harrumph a couple of times, before telling him that sometimes a woman needed to rant – how else, pray, were we going to make the world a better place?

“Well, perhaps, at the end there,” he bravely persisted, “you know, where you’ve written ‘this is appalling!’ – you know, AGAIN – you could maybe end on something more positive?’

I told him I’d think about it, knowing I wouldn’t think about it, precisely because he’d suggested it. (Which is the way of writers sometimes, I’m afraid.)

But then, the next day, I re-read it, and had something of a perspective-shift, and then again, when I posted something about Donald Trump on facebook, and was told by a kindly friend to ‘calm down’.

Hence the mission. Which was to get into a Zen kind of mindset. Not that I’m sure what Zen Buddhism is, exactly. I just remember that it’s something about ‘being fully alive’, and that in time of stress, whatever your spiritual persuasion, the very best thing you can do is count your blessings.

So that’s what I did.

The branch of Lidl, for instance, just round the corner from Cardiff Uni.

More than any other supermarket, I find that Lidl branches have their own personalities (See also Caerphilly Lidl, which has the most amazing mountain view) and this one – whose clientele are, for the most part, students – is no exception.

Call me sentimental, but there is something almost viscerally joyful about being in the company of newly-minted 18 year old undergraduates, shuffling round the supermarket in sweet, benign posses, holding packs of mince, considering onions, scratching heads and torsos, asking, ‘didn’t Josh say he knew how to make meatballs?’ Or, ‘loo rolls. I mean, seriously. DO NOT forget the loo rolls.’ Or just standing in the queue, lightly sleep-fogged at two in the afternoon, looking dreamily into the middle distance while their baskets tell their stories. Here a tin of beans, here a packet of 19p pasta, there a bag of doughnuts or croissants from the bakery – which you know will be devoured before they are even home. Is it strange to say I want to hug them all? I hope not.

Then there’s a bright new academic year, bedding in for me too. I have a new crop of students every autumn and every New Year, and by week three, I feel the alchemy – feel the vibe begin to settle. The frisson of seeing talent. The pleasure of being useful. The potential of being someone, who, a little way down the line, might be remembered fondly, as having been an inspiration. Why else does anyone teach, after all? And as someone who works almost always at home, there is great pleasure to be had in the whole ‘dressing, driving, parking, entering my classroom’ dynamic. In the eager faces. The quiet passion. The fervour.

I have Glastonbury tickets. WE have Glastonbury tickets. We feel – no word of a lie, this – beyond, beyond blessed. Let there be mud! Any amount of it.

The mattress currently sitting in the middle of my hall. Georgie has a new bed so it’s heave-ho to the old one, but since our tip-going timetables don’t dovetail till the weekend, there it sits, in sprung stasis, before we take it. And we bounce on it. All of us. Because it is there. (The cats love it too. I have this week been abandoned. There they sit. Tiny lion-guardians of the temporary bedchamber. Unmoving. Stern. Statuesque.)

My dear friend Debbie – the greatest blessing of all, this – texting a picture of her newly decorated dining room. She’s been so ill. So frightened. So subsumed by the long months of chemotherapy, not yet finished. Yet this week, in a pocket of between-cycles energy she has painted her dining room. It’s a deep marine green colour, like the scales on a mermaid. It’s called fish tale, but it could just as easily be called sunshine – because seeing it is exactly like the sun coming out.

And the sun IS out.

Mission accomplished.


First published in the Western Mail Weekend Magazine Oct 15th 2016

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Funning old business, going running. I’ve always thought that, sometimes in the middle of actually running. Round some lake, up some hill, along a promenade, panting. No purpose, except for the one that’s inherent – you run, it seems to me, for the bit that comes after – being able to say how far you ran.

I jest, of course. Running is the best kind of exercise – unbeaten in the ‘jeez I am cream crackered’ stakes. (Unless, of course, you Iron Man or Tough Mud or Tri-ath. But you don’t count, because YOU ARE INSANE.)

Running’s also weirdly addictive. I know this because I look back and still find myself wondering. Did I really do the Cardiff half-marathon? Yes, I did.

I started running back in early 1985. And then stopped running. About half an hour later. Then tried again, in ’94 (we had just arrived in Wales then), dressing sensibly, putting the doorkey on a bit of string to wear round my neck, prepping a water bottle, stretching out, and so on. Had I been asthmatic, I would have also taken a puff of my inhaler, but since I wasn’t, I simply took a few preparatory deep breaths. You can do it, you can do it, you can DO IT. (Even though I doubted that I could.)

Duly pumped, I set off, on a perfect spring morning. And, apart from the first bit, when I thought I was going to die, I made excellent progress round the village. “There goes Lynne! Doing running!” I could imagine people saying it. Lynne, the runner. Lynne, who runs. Lynne “Forrest” Barrett-Lee. It was the beginning of an exciting new chapter in my life. A world of fresh air and exercise and exciting new apparel. Why, very soon I would go to a high-end running retailer and ask the important question – did I pronate or was I neutral? And at some point in the future, should they invent such a wonder, I might treat myself to some sort of clever doohickey that could not only time me, but plot my progress via satellite! Oh, imagine! Oh, I so hoped they would!

I eventually returned home (loneliness of the long distance and so on), flushed with bloodflow and giddy with success.

I had been gone all of eight minutes.

Seriously, though (because, as runners know, running is a serious business) it really was the start of something life-changing for me. Oh phooey. I hear you say it. But it really does seem like that, because becoming a runner marked an important psychological watershed. It took me from being someone who thought of themselves as vaguely unfit, to someone who thought of themselves as, well, as a runner. Hard to articulate, but enduringly precious. Not least because it’s a mindset that never seems to leave me. I can go months without running and expect, if I attempt to, that I will soon be so breathless and racked with pain that I will have to stop again.

Yet I don’t. Yes, it’s hard, but you soon find a rhythm, and a place in your head where the pain doesn’t matter. Where the miles amassed mean so much more.

And more still, if you run in the company of other runners. Where the term ‘the spirit moves you’ is so apt.

Not that I meant to run a half marathon, exactly. It was my sister’s fault – she’d won a Runner’s World competition, in which the prize was a Marathon Training Weekend. And guess what? None of her friends would go with her.

So muggins here – she of the fancy kit but strict ‘5K’ limit – agreed (not the word, quite) to go. And let me tell you, gentle joggers, it was not for the fainthearted. 5K? That was the pre-breakfast warm up. On BOTH days. Kenyan Hills? I have never been so terrified on two legs. Then the biggie. The far-as-you-like-and-probably-much-too-far training run. Through a forest (very scenic), en masse.

To this day I don’t know how, quite, but I ran for nine and a half miles. Nine and a half MILES. That’s fifteen kilometres. Another three and a half miles and I’d have run half a marathon. Half a marathon! Imagine! I could not have felt better. I was a lioness. A titan. A goddess in lycra.

Six months later, still a she-lion, I ran the Cardiff half marathon. Which – no halves about it – is a very long way. Good luck to everyone who is running it tomorrow. Especially if it’s your first. You can do it too.

First published in the Western Mail Weekend magazine. Oct 1st 2016

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Things I don’t believe in. Superstitions. Old wives’ tales. Destiny. Fate. Water divination. Astrology. (Oh, and that nonsense about how ‘they’ve’ apparently been forced to add an extra sign to the Zodiac, on account of the celestial bodies all having moved so much, and had to move the rest up the charts as a consequence, including me – ME!! – from Leo to Cancer. On. Your. Bike. I am NOT having that.)

But sometimes life does throw up curiousnesses. In this case, very pleasingly (and for you too, if you like your columns less ‘ranty old bag’ and more ‘lighter slice of life’) because, having got down off my high horse the week before last, I found myself first bitten by an arachnid (more of which later), then home, only to be overrun with cat fleas. Brilliant synchronicity building here, don’t you think?

It’s brilliant, period. Because cat fleas absolutely do not like me. Don’t even go near me, let alone scramble in droves up my leg.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Back to Spidergate. And what a political imbroglio it turned out to be, when only hours after the Brown Recluse spider became number one suspect (scientifically arrived at, I hasten to add, on grounds of distribution, habitat, and modus operandi, not to mention a lengthy analysis of the horrors on, which website I promise truly exists) when my cousin Shelagh pops up on facebook to tell me that it probably IS a mosquito bite, and that other family members have been known to react similarly.

Hmm. On the one hand, I’m pretty solid on the sciency-researchy-search stuff. And a quick spin round confirms it. That’s a lie, actually. There is no such website. Don’t be silly. But neither can I find pictures anywhere of mozzie bites that look anything like mine do.

Still, Shelagh helpfully posts her own impressively grisly image, of two impressive red weals up her leg. Which I study at length, because I don’t wish to appear to be milking a common or garden mozzie nip, just for the instagram kudos. (hashtag ‘I’m hard me’, hashtag ‘trump this, suckers!’, hashtag ‘that’ll beat your photo of a cupcake’.)

But two things strike me. One being that her weals are much more weal-ish. Oozy, even. Wet-looking. Which mine’s definitely not. No, mine’s still definitely in the spider-venom ball-park – the neat circle, the subcutaneous bleeding action, the total absence of weal, weep or pus.

So I stick to my guns, and get busy spooking myself ( again) about the venom tracking inexorably to my heart. Till more research reveals that the Brown Recluse, bad-ass eight-legger that it is, won’t actually kill me. And as flucloxocillin is a drug of great wonder, cellulitis won’t see my lower leg off either.

So on goes the holiday, and though I keep a weather eye on it, my bite all too soon stops doing two things a bite should – 1, hurting. And 2, garnering sympathy.

So that’s that. And by the time we get home in the wee hours, all things small and bitey are forgotten. Till Georgie’s boyfriend Llyr makes a deep but anxious noise from the family bathroom, that is.

I initially decide this must be a heartfelt Welsh profanity, but it turns out to be a strangulated ‘arrrrrgh!’. And this on account of a new family having moved into the family bathroom – one of seven and a half million cat fleas.

They were contained at least. We keep almost all the internal doors shut when absent, mostly to spare us other cat-related horrors, such as wall to wall mud, drying slugs and bits of rodent. But it seems our space-related stinginess has saved us even greater horrors. Because, despite the cats being de-loused just a scant four weeks previously, that ‘up to four week’s protection’ on the flea liquid packet is clearly not one to play fast and loose with.

For they have sat on the bath mat, having clearly been riddled. And with the heat and humidity of our shut-up upstairs, the fleas have been having a field day. There was certainly a field of them up Llyr’s legs. A field big enough to man several flea Olympics.(I hear they’ve run away from the circus.)

And the upshot, of course, is that we’ve a mammoth task ahead. Four days in and the little sods are still pinging everywhere, despite a full four bottles of spray being deployed.

So once again, it’s a case of watch this space. Only this time, in trousers, from a distance.

First published in the Western Mail Weekend magazine Sept 24th 2016

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I am with bite. Yes, I know. Hardly an earth-shattering news item. But, trust me, this has so far been the story of our holiday. And not least because of the furore surrounding the identity of its perpetrator, who, naturally enough, has long since left the building. Or, indeed, hire car footwell, or terrace, or table at Mr Noodles, or last table on the left, just adjacent to the Epping Massive, in Slainte Irish Bar on Avenida Gladioli. (Such is the way of things when your flight lands at midnight. You have no choice but to cut your cloth accordingly.)

There was, naturally, little fuss on my part. Not originally. I woke up the following morning with a slightly tender heel and, echoing the clarion call of holidaymakers everywhere, said  “**** I’ve been bitten!”. Followed by, “why do I always forget about the bloody mozzie cream till it’s too late?” Honestly, it’s so reliable that you could set your watch by it.

The day commenced as per. Got some food in. Hired some bikes. Applied sun cream. Headed to the beach. And I didn’t fuss, even though it hurt. I never fuss. I’m not a fusser. But by early afternoon the tender heel was fast becoming a serious annoyance. So I took a proper look at it, and then I did fuss, because it looked like it had increasingly begun to feel. Like a series of small incendiary devices had been secreted just beneath my epidermis, operated remotely, and over-enthusiastically, by a leprechaun of little intellect, on minimum wage.

“Don’t keep fussing,” said Pete. (I was doing a lot of it by this time.) “It’s just a mozzie bite. Welcome to my world.” (Pete is to mosquitos as black truffles are to epicurean Gallic pigs. I have sympathized a LOT over the years.)

“Do I fuss?” I spluttered crossly. “Do I ever fuss? Have I ever been a fusser? If I fuss, let me tell you, it’s because there is something to fuss about! Look at my foot! It is being eaten from within!”

So we all cycled home – up a challenging hill or five (in my case, painfully) – where some proper professional looking then ensued. Then the ‘poke’ test – he poked it, and I screamed  the place down – followed by some consternation that the state of my foot (which was now getting irksome even to walk on) was quickly changing.

It was now hot to touch, swollen, livid and locally haemorrhaging – the harbinger, in fact, of that most ennervating of holiday hell-fests; the possibility of having to attend the local emergency walk in clinic, there to while away many a merry hour being misunderstood.

‘Now we’re talking!’ I couldn’t help but think, despite the agony. I was finally at the epicentre of the bitten-to-buggery universe, and I was milking it for all it was worth. After years of being saddled with the knowledge that bitey things didn’t like me (a curiously FOMO kind of thing with me) I had a bite like no bite that had ever troubled the family. And with the spectre of it perhaps even getting worse.

“It looks infected, too,” said Pete.” We’ll have to keep a close eye on it. Could get nasty.” My emergency stash of antibiotics were duly administered, right away. But it still didn’t look like anything any of us had seen before.

“I reckon that’s a spider bite,” said our resident globe-trotting nature girl, Georgie. “A girl I was travelling with in Thailand got bitten by a spider and it looked exactly like that.”

And needless to say (we’re on holiday, in a hot place, the imagination tends to wander) – the idea of attack by unknown arachnid took root. It looked nothing like a mosquito bite after all. And isn’t that the miracle of the internet? I typed in ‘bruised swollen painful ankle red bite?’ and did an image search.

And as quick as you could say ‘help! There’s a Tarantula!’, up came the results. And forget mozzie. I had fetched up at eepy-eepy central. And it looked EVERYthing like a bite from the jaws of a spider. Which I hadn’t felt, much less seen, so which one?

Another search, then. Of the spiders of Spain. And it turns out that there are two possible species in the frame. The Brown Recluse (so Brown and reclusive they named it, um, Brown Recluse) and, oh, lordy lord, the Black Widow. Could it be true? Had I been touched by the kiss of the spider woman? Rubbish film, yes, but, oh my, watch this space…

(*which we didn’t. Lots of them in Spain too. Just a nod to my fellow Alice Cooper fans, who will get this :))

First published in The Western Mail Weekend magazine, 17th Sept 2016

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I have been instructed this week to get off my high horse. By Pete, this is, obviously. Though not in a stroppy way. Simply because he’s noticed, these past weeks (past months, truth be known) that my recent modus operandi on waking every morning, has been to whistle a happy tune, yes, as is my personal genetic gift (the birds sing to greet the day, I simply sing to thank them), then to connect with the wider world and get in a complete huff-and-puff.

Doesn’t matter how – it could be television, radio, or the post-modern joy of social media – but there is always something going on that gets my goat.

(Apologies for over-extending the four-legged metaphor, by the way. If I wasn’t so fully in the get-off-my-high horse zone, I’d be inclined to bring sheep in as well.)

He’s right, of course. So much annoying stuff is going on in the world currently. Where do I start? And should I even try? Typing certain words these days almost guarantees annoying someone. So I won’t. If you read me regularly, you’ll already know them.

So to horses, and the getting off of them, particularly if they are high ones. Of which, luckily, I do have some experience.

I got on a very high horse once. In a bleak corner of Suffolk. (Nothing against Suffolk, mind, toward which county I bear absolutely no ill will.)

“Horse trekking!” someone trilled. And why ever not? What’s not to like about horses?

Well, nothing. Gentle animals. Black Beauty was a childhood favourite. And since we were on holiday – at Center Parcs, where such simple joys are relentlessly encouraged – there seemed no earthly reason why I should cast any aspersions on my (yup, name and shame) sister Sherrill’s notion.

They don’t actually keep the horses at Center Parcs. That would be foolish, not least because of the risk of them being mown down by bicycles, or being coerced into attending a ‘Lavender Relax’ class. So off we went, in the ‘transport ‘, to some stable in the middle of nowhere. (Where ‘middle of’ means ‘pretty much anywhere you might fetch up in Suffolk’ and ‘nowhere’, by and large, just means ‘everywhere’.) And the horses, by and large (where ‘large’ translates as ‘all of them’) were huddled disconsolately in the patch of dirt between their noisome stables.

I can gloss over the next part as it consisted of just the following – being hoicked onto a grey one, being briefly instructed in some ‘reins’ stuff, heading out in a clip-cloppy crocodile to a path round a field, walking excruciating slowly round another six or seven fields, spending several moments thinking ‘remind me again why we are doing this?’, having my hand spot-welded to some ‘reins’, by the bitter, bitter cold, putting on a brave face (where brave obviously means effecting an expression that said “no, not at all! I’m not bored!”), then returning, now as disconsolate as our steeds, back into the stable block. Slowly.

Upon which, to paraphrase no quality novelist who ever lived, all hell broke loose. This when my horse – the grey one of no discernable personality – decided, for whatever reason, to fight back. From its meaningless existence? From the pathetic, apologetic, guiltsome kicks I was administering? (Who ever wanted to kick a horse anyway? Not me.) From the existential angst that had plagued it since foaldom? From the tyranny of the Center Parcs-endorsed horse woman who had enslaved him? Who knows?

All I know – and will remember for the rest of my life– is that it broke into a trot. An actual trot. A trot that very soon coaxed itself into a full –on, rebellious canter, off out of the stable block, off out onto the lane, off out almost into the main road.

(Off out – had he been given the chance – onto the frigging M11.)

Which was, of course, thrumming with traffic. Which was where we’d still be now, for all I know, squished under a Transit, had the horse woman not intervened, with some swift, arcane command, which translates from the Equinianese as ‘oiiiiiiiiii!’.

Upon which he stopped. And, with the whip-smart intelligence for which I’m rightly famed, I pulled my feet out of my stirrups and promptly got (where got means ‘fell’) off my high horse.

Probably sensible, in hindsight, that I don’t get on another. What with Politics. State of the nation. State of the Hunt. State of the pound. State of the union. State of the States of bloody America.

Henceforth, I shall be getting high only on kittens.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend magazine,

10th August 2016 

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“We have a secret in our culture, and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong.” – Laura Stavoe Harm


You have to laugh, don’t you? At the ‘news’ about motherhood. That new mothers (old mothers, tired mothers, all mothers) are the main reason why the gender pay gap hasn’t yet shrunk enough. That motherhood confers not only new human life, but a 33% pay cut compared to men.

You have to laugh. This is news? This is new? This is inexplicable? How can it be, when you remember it oh, so well?

So there you are. 1987. Business Titan of Thatcher’s Britain. Enormous shoulder pads. Decent car. Going Places.

But the clock ticks. And one day the alarm starts ringing shrilly. You are in hospital. Clutching your husband. In a small amount of pain.

And then, suddenly (how come this part wasn’t explained, quite?) in a staggering amount of new and stunning pain. And then, somehow, to your astonishment, you are handed a brand new piece of you. And the pain disappears – poof! – and you are changed.

You remain astonished. Joyful. Tearful. Groping through a fog. “Work?” you think. “Work?” You are already toiling beyond memory. You are with baby. You are immersed. You are your whole family’s baby trailblazer! And you variously waft and trudge, blinking, through an unfamiliar landscape.

But two days in (three, perhaps – day and night have lost meaning) your business partner/fort holder phones you. Muttering “bank”, muttering “overdraft”, muttering “client”, muttering “help!”. And you struggle to process this evil crime against your very soul, and another clock ticks, insistently, and ‘proper’ work beckons once again.

You cry then, bitter tears, because no-one explained that either. That leaving your impossibly tiny 8 week old baby will prove so herculean a task. The sledgehammer of guilt as he wails his desolation, the painful squeak and tug of your newly-minted heartstrings. The sheer physical effort – like being  both a foot-soldier and general in your own personal war – as you dress your baby, oh-so sleepy, and gather baby-clothes, and nappies, and the special breast milk picnic, for ‘while you are away’, while a part of you screams ‘but you shouldn’t be!’.

Then commuting, by car, train and tube, to your office, and wondering how you are going to manage to do this every day without going insane.

Weeks later, you’re astonished to find you’re still sane. And the hated, fetid train is now your friend. The train gives you moments that you never thought you’d have again. To read, doze and study. To feel a bit more like the you that came before.

Yet you’re not. And the feeling is chargeable. It’s paid in guilt, when you get home and the childminder tells you that today – oh, so sweet! – he rolled over.

It goes on. The tooth coming. The shape fitted into the correct hole. The way he pointed. Said “doggie!”. The dark place, especially, when you come home to fetch him and he clings to her, sobbing, like a pale pink koala, and doesn’t want to come home. To you.

And so it goes, your new life, and you work it. Sponge the sick from your power suit before heading out. Mop the milk from it, later, when those heartstrings make you leaky. You in one place, your mind in another place, daily. But eventually you adjust. You make it work.

And the months pass, and the years pass, and you “man-up” to working motherhood – heck, mums do this everywhere, don’t they?

(And the odd father, sometimes, and they are cooed over warmly, a sweet curiosity in Girls’ World.)

But you live now on a knife-edge of necessary efficiency. A veneer of coping, as brittle and fragile as spun sugar. Which snaps in a heartbeat, when the system skips a beat. I don’t feel well. My tooth hurts. I need this for school. There’s nothing for packed lunches. A hamster dies. The dentist. The washing machine is broken. A friendship is shunned. A show’s on. A reading book is lost.

And you think – you can’t help it – that this is no way of living. The heartstrings, though stronger, still often twang and shiver. You rue the school holidays for their nightmare childcare logistics. You weep when you hear of trips enjoyed, outings had, memories made.

Without you. So much of it without you.

And you read about making choices. And how it’s mothers who mostly make them. To fit quarts of precious, precious time into pint pots. Is it any wonder you aren’t CEO of Glass Ceiling Smashers Ltd?

No. You are too busy being all things to everyone.

You’re a mother.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine 27th August 2016




So, a bit of a thing turned up in the Guardian last week. Under the headline ‘Jeremy Corbyn does a decent thing thing on a train’ (or something) it showed a brief video of the opposition leader making the point that the train he was on was absolutely rammed and so, naturally, rather than come over all ‘I’m the leader of the opposition’, he shunned first class and made himself comfortable on the floor.

All hail that decent man who does decent stuff, was my obvious first thought. But then I thought a little more and a couple of other things occurred to me, neither quite so weighed down with love and awe.

The first being that, dammit, he’s giving a bad name to pretty much everyone who ‘lords it’ up in the big seats. Not saying he means to, but it’s clear from the comment threads (this shot round social media like an atom in the Hadron Collider) that this was serious high-five territory, as comment after comment praised his ‘stand’ as something wonderful, for sticking it so beautifully to The Man, the high falutin’, the over-paid and over-privileged, not forgetting the Tory Toffs at Westminster-On-Alien-Planet, who wouldn’t know a standard class ticket from an artichoke.

All very fabulous and principled. But hang on just a cotton-picking minute, St Jeremy. You might not be the originator of all class-related misapprehensions, but they certainly exist, and you sitting on the floor of a train carriage feeds into them. To shun a first class seat in your position is to suggest it’s at best an indulgence and, if you work in the public sector, and are paid from the public purse, it’s borderline immoral.

No, actually, lets scrub that ‘borderline’. Yet the one thing that defines the average first class commuter is that they tend to work, flat out, for the whole journey. Which is why their employers presumably consider it worth shelling out for the space, privacy and, yes, tea and entry-level biscuits.

I’ve seen all sorts in first class, from Ann Widdicombe to BBC grandees to captains of industry and baronesses and, trust me, it ain’t no crack den or pool party up there. Just the monotonous tap of weary finger on keyboard, with the odd fabulously thrilling (well, to my mind) conversation about the machinations of various executive committees, what the dastardly defence counsel might be up to, whether old Grouseby might be up for the chop soon, or where the £27 million pound grant should be going. (I’ve yet to hear the splish of a Tennant’s can being opened, but when I do, you can be sure I shall report it.)

So while I’m with Corbyn on his heartfelt ‘more and better trains’ thing (our railways are an embarrassment compared to those in Europe, and have been for decades) he should go and get a bloody first class seat, because he’s cluttering up the corridor and perpetuating the whole class myth/divide thing as well.

It was also – for heaven’s sake – the London rush hour. (Could he have timed his journey better? Of course not – this was a sound-bite.) And the London rush hour adheres to a principle we’re all familiar with – that supply and demand dictates that the ones that pay most get the worst customer experience, as he’d surely know if he tried taking his family to Center Parcs at half term.

Bad Commuting (there’s a film there) is something, moreover, that everyone in London’s done their share of, me included. I spent most of my teens and twenties doing Bad Commuting on buses, tubes and trains. And, yes, Jeremy, at this time, they WERE nationalized.

But there’s another reason I’m cringing about this whole sorry nonsense. It’s that image, which I cannot unsee. This is the Leader of the Labour Party, and whatever you think about his leadership, is this honestly how the Leader of the Opposition should BE? Crammed on the floor, suit all rumpled, peering up into the lens – it’s only marginally less wince-making that Neil Kinnock’s timeless pirouette-n-splat on that beach. And, bless him, at least poor Neil didn’t mean to.

Corbyn did. For the entire trip, if the Guardian is to be believed. Just to make a (pretty clunky) point.

But though he might have saved the taxpayer the upgrade on his fare (debatable, since he could have spent that time engaged in useful government work) for me, it’s at the cost of his dignity. We want our leaders to fight for us, always, but not BE us.

Statesmen, not men looking a state.


*… a train journey on the floor feels even longer. If it IS spent on the floor. Since writing this column last week, it’s emerged that Virgin trains – not to mention Sir Richard Branson aren’t taking Corbyn’s sit-down sitting down either.See why here…  


First published in the Western Mail Magazine August 20th 2016 


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Jasione Montana; The diminutive Sheep’s Bit Scabious

I’ve stumbled upon something that’s become a bit of a passion lately – identifying species of wildflower in the Gower, where regular readers will know I spend many a happy weekend. And last weekend, in my new role as unofficial floral ‘birder’, I found a tiny blue plant – apparently the miniature ‘sheep’s bit’ scabious – as well as the climber known as Old Man’s Beard. It was the scent that first attracted me to it – so evocative of my childhood – but it took a while to identify it (many thanks, facebook people) as the wild equivalent of our modern garden clematis.

And so, by extension, to Chris Packham. Also passionate, also wild. Is he now also threatened with losing his BBC tenure?

You might have missed news of the ongoing war between the Springwatch presenter and those with an interest in grouse shooting, including Sir Ian Botham. And though I’ve now read up widely, I’ll let you do likewise, and simply let you know that Packham’s role fronting one of my favourite BBC programmes could, theoretically, be ended.

This follows a comment he made last year in the BBC’s Wildlife magazine, in which he called the hunting and shooting lobby ‘the nasty brigade’, attracting both the attention and the ire of The Countryside Alliance, who, along with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, called for him to be sacked, and prompted a BBC enquiry.

Let’s be clear. I know at least one far–from-nasty sporting gun owner, but when it comes to the sport itself, I’m with Chris. No amount of justification – even from cricketing legends – will change my view that killing animals for sport (as championed by the Countryside Alliance) is unnecessary, anachronistic and cruel. And if doing so endangers wild species (in this case, our rarest bird of prey, the Hen Harrier) then unless such ecological rape can be 100% mitigated, it also becomes indefensible.

But that is not my point.

The call for Packham’s sacking – a PR own-goal, to my mind – is on the grounds that, as a BBC employee, he should be impartial.

But why on earth SHOULD he be impartial on such an important ecological issue? Why should any television presenter of his ilk?

The BBC obviously has a clear, constraining remit. A publicly funded broadcaster has to broadcast for the public, so, as a body, it cannot set its own agenda. Instead, it needs to represent its paymaster’s needs. And, of course, I respect and endorse that. Racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia – none should be given airtime, much less condoned. It’s also why I feel for them whenever elections (or indeed, brexits) come around, and the clarion cries of ‘bias!’ flood in.

But this is not that. This is programming. Filling slots in a schedule. One day baking, another music, another sport, another wildlife. And what do we want from our presenters of such programmes? Expertise. Experience. Enthusiasm. Passion. And, indeed, the BBC usually champions such attributes, particularly where issues dear to many of us are involved. Do they berate Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for lambasting food production practices? Censure Panorama for bringing to light all manner of foul play? (And, indeed, fowl play. Anyone recall their grim 2003 investigation, called The Chicken Run?) Do they tone down David Attenborough for pointing out the decimation of species due to centuries of human spread and ‘progress’?

And so to this. Conservation. Human dominance over other species. The sparking interface where uniquely human desires (aka fun and money) meet planet-saving imperatives.

It’s the place where many of our brightest and most passionate naturalists reside. Yes, it may be that Packham’s comment was considered  intemperate, but, since he’s toiling at that coalface, while many of us merely sympathise, I suspect he has good reason to speak as he does. And its worth mentioning again (I believe he’s already done so) that there is nothing controversial about speaking out against the wilful decimation of a non-human species for sport.

I could be quite wrong. I’m prepared to admit that. It may be that the BBC Charter has a bullet point in it that specifically forbids passion to spill into action, on pain of presenters’ P45s.

Or, to put it another way, that the job of the magic light box in the corner is to re-fashion the wild clematis, in all its rampant glory, into its much showier, more superficially pretty neighbour – nice to look at, but, ultimately scentless and disappointing. Well-behaved, but bland, without heart.

Oh, BBC, I sincerely hope not.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine 13th August 2016