Thinking of buying a book as a gift? Here’s some suggestions

Sarah Horrigan
Photo by Sarah Horrigan via Morguefile

The older I get, the more my Christmas and birthday gift wish list shrinks down to one word- Books, not that I can recall a time when I wasn’t super excited to receive one. From the Christmas Days of my youth when I had to be prised away from the latest annuals or a yet to be read Rumer Godden / Roald Dahl / Blyton and later on, the copy of the ‘Women’s Room’ given to me by a friend’s mother, to my now fast approaching ‘On Golden Pond’ days where the books are a little more reflective of one half century of interests,  I could never feel disappointed by a gift of a book. Even the piles of books from publishers and authors keen for me to review them hasn’t spoiled my pleasure and I look forward to a time when I can cancel all obligations and simply read my way into old, old age, preferably in some stellar location-  a rocker on an Appalachian covered porch, a maccia covered hillside in Sardinia, by the fishing boats at Woodbridge’s Tide Mill or a Georgian garden square in Bloomsbury perhaps. Until then, I will visit these places vicariously through the writings of others. Here are some books, newly published, soon to be published and a few old favourites too- books that somebody you know will love to receive, lend to others or to treasure.

Please note that you will find no Amazon links on this site. All books can be ordered from local book shops and from Waterstones and other nationals too. Please support your local traders and a list of some great East Anglian book shops are at the bottom of this feature. 

Food writing & cookery books

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My own preference is for a bit of writing with the recipes, lyrical, well researched and evocative writing that makes me want to do more than just cook. I want to be transported to the history, places and people behind the recipes. However I accept that this is my own quirk and so have also picked out some cookbooks that are very good examples of clear recipe writing, that don’t always assume prior knowledge nor a hedge funders means when it comes to buying ingredients. First off is the super engaging campaigner Jack Monroe and her second book release of this year, ‘A Year in 120 Recipes’. With the same consideration given to budgetary constraints and the paying of close attention to seasonality and careful use of a good store cupboard, Jack shows us how to bake (Peanut Butter Bread is yummy) and cook delicious soups and sides: a ‘pesto called Lazarus’ makes great use of innervated bottom of the fridge ingredients. As we go through the year, Jack shares with us some of the tumultuous events that cemented her position as a cook, recipe writer and social activist. Oh, and she found love too.

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I have been obsessed with the writing and recipes of David Lebovitz for quite a few years now and often re-read his first cooking memoir ‘A Sweet Life in Paris’ with its mix of wise before its time ex pat advice, scintillating food and wry observance of the often baffling nature of la vie en Paris. He has (thankfully not a moment too soon) published a new tome, ‘My Paris Kitchen‘ with the same mix of memoir, experience, culinary know how and recipes readers of his website will recognise as his trademark. Beautiful photography of his apartment and the city reflects the ten years he has lived in the city and the many changes Paris has undergone: a city embracing the cuisine and ingredients of people from all over the world. Cassoulet, coq au vin, wheat berry salad with radicchio (very good), cookies made with duck fat and that classically chic little chocolate cake are among the stand out recipes for me. Practical know how is great too- weights AND measures. Oy vey.

Baking books with a different slant to them are a particular weakness of mine and Trine Hahnemann’s ‘Scandinavian Baking: Loving Baking at Home’ combines functionality (recipes that work and aren’t too esoteric in technique or ingredients) with the quirkiness and lightness of touch possessed by Scandinavian food. The rosehip roulade for me, is the standout recipe and many of them are hugely appropriate for winter (and Christmas) baking. Out now.

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‘Rappers Delight: HipHop Cookbook’

Want to get your rap mad kid into cooking? Best suited for the younger cook, the ‘Rappers Delight: HipHop Cookbook’ contains thirty hiphop inspired recipes with sometimes (very) tenuous links to the music itself- think Wu-Tang Clam Chowder, Public Enemiso Soup, Run DM Sea Bass and Busta Key Lime Pie. No expletives and each recipe is accompanied by a bespoke piece of artwork created by one of 30 of the best upcoming illustrators.

The first cookbook from a popular London restaurant, ‘Duck & Waffle: Recipes and Stories’ features its eponymous dish, a confit duck leg sandwiched between fresh waffle and fried duck egg, drizzled with mustard maple syrup. One for lazy afternoons where you can take over the kitchen and use every pan in the cupboards. In complete contrast is are the Little Leon range of small cook books from ‘Fast Suppers’ to ‘One Pot Naturally Fast Recipes‘ with uncomplicated recipes, standard ingredients and a lower hardback cover price of around £5-7 making them a great stocking gift for students, less confident cooks and children.

Increasingly fashionable are cookbooks that focus upon a particular region and in the case of Italy this is particularly apropos considering it was not even founded as one nation until the 1860’s and still cannot be described as uniform in cuisine to this day. ‘Sharing Puglia: Delicious Simple Food From Undiscovered Italy’ by Luca Lorusso is a well designed example of a comprehensive regional cookbook packed with stunning landscape photography. Cook kingfish crudo with fresh fava beans, lemon, and Caciocavallo  or scampi with fresh chicory and pomegranate, pour some wine and dream.

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In Kathleen Flinn’s earlier memoir, ‘The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry’, she recounted the story of her departure from the corporate world to study at the world’s most famous cooking school- Le Cordon Bleu. In ‘Burnt Toast Makes you Sing Good’, Flinn tells the remarkable story of her large Michigan family and her Irish/Swedish roots, including her parents’ unlikely decision to pack up everything and go to California to help run an Italian restaurant, their abrupt move to a very basic Michigan farmhouse, and their risky decision to raise chickens with no prior experience. Memories of Family, fishing, foibles and food, accompanied by the recipes of the food mentioned makes this a great read for lover of food writing.

The Autumn sees the release of books by the big gastro-beasts that roam the earth –Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver, The Hairy Bikers and Hugh FW (full name not required). Ottolenghi’s ‘Plenty More’ firmly places vegetables under the spotlight and refreshingly refers from framing them in the context of fish and meat. Organised not by ingredient or meal type, but instead by cooking method- grilled, baked, simmered, cracked, braised or raw, the recipes (which remain ingredient heavy) number Alphonso mango and curried chickpea salad, roasted aubergine with a sweet black garlic sauce, seaweed, ginger and carrot salad and a variety of sweet honeyed cakes and tarts such as meringue roulade with rose petals and fresh raspberries. Sumptuous and clear in its layout, courtesy of well known designer Caz Hildebrand (of Nigella book fame), the recipes might not be swift or few in ingredients but they work and they look good. Jamie Oliver has abandoned his low cost meals laced with a soupcon of social concern; theme of his last book, to go all out in his latest tome ‘Jamie’s Comfort Food’ featuring carb and protein heavy meals that may leave you with a food baby alongside some pretty pleasurable satiation. NOT a book for dieters (or those watching the pennies), meals like katsu curry with its fried breaded coating, mighty moussaka, mushroom soup pasta bake which riffs off those post war American recipes using canned soup as an ingredient plus enough roasted cow to keep Dan from feeling desperate will please many of his fans.

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Got a coffee snob in the house? Then the ‘World Atlas of Coffee’ by James Hoffman might keep them from banging on about it for a few days. His profession as a champion barista and coffee roaster means his exploration of varieties, the influence of terroir, production and roasting methods down to actual brewing is extensive and informed. This is the first book to chart the coffee production of over 35 countries, encompassing knowledge never previously published outside the coffee industry. Another semi scholarly tome is ‘The Language of Food’ by Stanford University linguist and MacArthur Fellow Dan Jurafsky,  the book every person in the food business needs to read, thus hopefully releasing us from tedious menu’s full of boring descriptions like  ‘crispy’ and ‘juicy’. Jurafsky points out the subtle meanings hidden in filler words, homes in on the metaphors and storytelling tropes we rely on in restaurant reviews, and charts a micro universe of marketing language on the back of a bag of crisps. The fascinating journey through The Language of Food uncovers a global atlas of culinary influences. With Jurafsky’s insight, words like ketchup, macaron, and even salad become living fossils that contain the patterns of early global exploration that predate our modern world.

Gabrielle Hamilton, the famous chef proprietor of NYC restaurant ‘Prune’ is tiger to Anthony Bourdain’s pussy (cat). From the moment I read her first autobiographical book ‘Blood, Bones, and Butter’, sent to me by a dear friend in the States, I got hooked on her writing and was determined to taste her food. I have yet to achieve the latter but with the publication of her first and eponymous cookbook ‘Prune’ I can make do at home until I pick up the phone, book the flights and make a reservation at the same time. Gabrielle’s book is as no nonsense as her cooking style: there no introduction nor headnotes, because they are already covered in her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, which covers the evolution of her culinary ethos and style. There are stylish and tasty tricks to make the ultimate grilled cheese, the methodology for a bowl of grape nuts cereal with maple syrup that comes complete with a vanilla ice cream cone upturned on top and her ‘Youth Hostel Breakfast’: an assortment of wursts, olives, crackers, an egg, and tubes of fish paste. If I told you that her signature, for me, is the purest of recipes for radishes with salt and pale creamy butter, then you’ll either get her or you won’t.

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One of the first (and best) food bloggers is Molly Wizenberg of ‘Orangette’ fame and I can claim to be an early adopter, having read her from the start and bought her first book ‘A Homemade Life‘ pretty much straight off the presses. Basically when Molly recommends something or someone I get onto it straight away meaning that the book I was sent recently, ‘A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus’ by Rene Erickson (which had already impressed me greatly), took on even greater significance when her latest blog post dropped into my inbox. It turns out that Molly is friends with Ms Erickson and like me, cannot rate her food, which is basically French married with the Pacific north west, highly enough. Listen to the ethos of Rene: “I’m not a classically trained chef – actually, I’m not trained at all – so there aren’t a lot of rules about cooking in my kitchens. It’s more important to me that people are happy and comfortable than that they can crack an egg with one hand or slice a case of shallots in a minute flat. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to make someone else do it. I want my staff to have healthy lives and dynamic, interesting jobs that don’t entail someone hovering over them.” The cover art is glorious- paper art married with victoriana, all on a background of saxe blue making this a simply gorgeous cookery book to own as well as use.

I have often thought about a compendium of lemon recipes (I am a dweeb I know) and somebody has beaten me to it with this, the Lemon Compendium by Yasemen Kaner-White, packed with amazing and lesser known recipes. Recipes such as Latvian Celebration Cake are bookended by writings about all things lemony from health and beauty tips to historical accounts making this a lovely ‘refreshing’ book to brighten a dull and endless winter.

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My prediction for the next gastro-fashion is Hawaiian food. Diverse and kaleidoscopic with an amazing fusion of culinary influences that reflect the history of the islands, books on the subject are a bit thin on the ground in the UK. If you are prepared to do a bit of hunting though, Rachel Laudan’s book, ‘The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Extraordinary Culinary Heritage‘ is a fabulous introduction and guide to its history and food.  Part personal memoir, part historical narrative, part cookbook, the book kicks off with a series of essays that describe Laudan’s first experiences with a particular Local Food (the Creole term for the food), encounters that intrigue her and eventually lead to her tracing its origins and influence in Hawaii. Followed by recipes, over 150 of them and a glossary plus gorgeous photos, this is the book for those eager to acquaint themselves.

Children’s books

Children tend to lead mindbending lives, what with the imaginary friends, monsters under the bed and other manner of weird and wonderful imaginings and so we think Clive Gifford’s book ‘The Science of Seeing and Believing’ which has just been crowned winner of the Royal Society’s Young Peoples Book of 2014 is a perfect gift. And not only for kids: your average adult could always do with getting back in touch with all the wonders of the human brain. Packed with anecdotes about how the brain processes sensory information and a range of illusions, from Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s stunning motion illusions to Roger Newland Shepard’s L’egs-istential Quandary, this is a brilliant book.

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The latest Jacqueline Wilson book stars her most outspoken, fiery and unforgettable heroine yet: Opal Plumstead: schoolgirl, sweet factory worker and Suffragette, fiercely intelligent yet thwarted in her ambitions of university. A timely meeting with Mrs Pankhurst and her fellow Suffragettes via the factory owner, a meeting with a man she feels is her soulmate and the start of the First World War all conspire to influence the adventures of a brand new role model for boys and girls.

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Neil Gaiman’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’

It’s important for children’s books to reflect universal themes and emotions; it makes them relatable but they also need to inspire and transport through fantasy. Many an adult will recount a grim childhood redeemed by the escape they found in books. In time for Christmas with an early December release is Neil Gaiman’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’, a retelling of The Brothers Grimm’ darkest and most enduring fairytale.  Breathtaking and haunting illustrations from Lorenzo Mattotti complete a book to read and treasure and a book that indeed does transport the reader. Ruby Redfort,  supercool secret agent, code-cracker and thirteen-year-old genius is the latest of Lauren Child’s creations for slightly older readers. In this, the fourth book of the series Ruby must pit her wits against a seemingly invisible foe. How do you set your sights on catching a light-fingered villain if you can’t even see him?

The Photicular process uses an innovative lenticular technology, sliding lenses, and original four-colour video imagery resulting in a book that is more movie in your hands. Ocean offers not only a refinement of inventor Dan Kainen’s Photicular technology, taking readers on a virtual deep sea dive but through a text by Carol Kaufmann it offers descriptions and information in the form of mini essays. Escape here is provided via fantastical explorations of a world most of us will never see, the science bit explained accessibly and in some detail.

Cozy Classics by Holman Wang are a new range of books for younger children that seek to reinterpret classical literature in easy to understand illustrations and keywords. Twelve stunning images of needle felted illustrations accompany twelve child friendly words. From Moby Dick to War and Peace, these little books will introduce the classics to a whole new generation of readers. Mick Inkpen has built up quite a backlist now and ‘The Blue Balloon’ remains one of our families most loved children’s book. This tired, old and soggy balloon becomes endowed with fantastic powers which are magically demonstrated via giant pull out and fold out pages as the balloon goes square, multi coloured and very very long. 

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Alongside these well known classics, there are some great debuts and books by authors in the earlier stages of their careers. ‘A Dog Day’ is the stylish pen and ink debut of author Emily Rand, perfectly depicting the frustration of having to wait for the grown ups via a friendly terrier. He just wants to go to the park with his friends to play ball, but his owner has other ideas. Young Manga lovers and fans of Graystripe will be very pleased to receive ‘The Warriors Manga Box set’ by Erin Hunter capturing in mythical intensity, the journey of Graystripe- the ThunderClan deputy, back home to the forest and his Clan after capture by Twolegs. A good bedtime story never dates and stories about children who won’t go to bed had particular appeal in our house. ‘Max and the Won’t Go To Bed Show’ by Mark Sperring is a bit more high octance than most- you have to perform it alongside the telling so perhaps not one for tired parents on a busy school and weekday night. A rollicking parody of a circus performance with Max (and you) taming wild animals and performing magic tricks, if timed right, will tire out the most energetic of children.

Finally, if you haven’t introduced your children to some fine fiction from <ahem> times past, then here’s my guide to some of my favourites. Rumer Godden’sThe Diddakoi is a powerful and still relevant account of the prejudice towards the traveller and Romany community and its effects upon all class systems within a small country town when a young girl, half Romany, comes to live there. Godden’s ‘Miss Happiness and Miss Flower’ similarly deals with the loneliness and dislocation felt by Nona, sent to England from India and the two little Japanese dolls that help her. Another of her books dealing with the longing for a home in a strange place is ‘The Dolls House’ about the little penny doll, Tottie. Eve Garnetts ‘The Family From One End Street’ is a lovable chapter book about a large family living in working class loving poverty, somewhat romanticised but nonetheless a good starting point for discussions about this topic. A complete contrast in surroundings although not lacking in family love either are the ‘Milly Molly Mandy’ series by Joyce Lankester Brisley set in the pastoral idyll of an English village. Joan Aitken was one of my favourite short story writers for children and ‘From a Necklace of Raindrops’ contains eight classic stories conjuring up a world filled with magic, where wishes can come true. Well worth re-acquainting yourselves with her back catalogue too.

Travel, non fiction and nature writing for adults

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The Little Toller publishing house have been putting out some exquisite redesigns of classic nature writing and monographs including gems from HE Bates, Adrian Bell, Richard Mabey, Joseph Conrad and Gavin Maxwell. Created in 2008 as an imprint of the Dovecote Press, a family-run publishing company that has specialised in books about rural life and local history since 1974. Little Toller was started with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles and it has succeeded beautifully- these books are to be treasured forever. I dream of a bookcase filled with them. Some of my favourites? ‘Through the Woods‘ by HE Bates with its soft cover illustration of Bluebell woods set in Kent explores the woodlands that haunted his imagination and underpinned his writing. Bates reveals the changing character of a single woodland year and how precious they are to the English countryside and In ‘Men and the Fields’, local author Adrian Bell travels through East Anglia and lowland Britain, capturing the character of the countryside before modern agriculture altered the landscape and changed forever the way we eat and live. An introduction by his friend, Ronald Blythe enhances the literary desirability of this edition. Neil Ansell looks at what attaches us to a community in ‘Deer Island’ with his dual narrative of life in London and on a tiny isolated island near Jura. What do we mean when we call a place home? Are memories the only things we can ever truly own?

If you are looking to introduce somebody to good nature writing then I recommend purchasing the entire cannon of Roger Deakin, one of our best loved writers and sadly gone all too soon from this life. In his first book ‘Waterlog”, Deakin inspired a generation of swimmers to go ‘wild’ and get out among the rivers, lakes and seas of the United Kingdom, recording his experiences as he swam, combining dissent and observation perfectly in an often lament for our changing landscapes. ‘Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees” with its stunning jacket design takes us through a diverse yet connected series of essays; among them musings on driftwood artists and contemplations on the economic value of wood; classic pieces about his travels around great woods of the world and a study of the wooden beams of his home, whilst all the time establishing literary leylines to all the great nature writers and thinkers, from Thoreau to Blythe. Finally, published posthumously as an abridged collection of diary entries over the years in the form of one contiguous story of a year, we have ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’  – full of relentless curiosity, sharp eyed in its observation and absolute poetry to read. I was, and remain, deeply sad that he has gone.

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In her book ‘Wild’, Cheryl Strayed ‘Cancer Vixen’ by Marisa Acocella Marcettofollows the popular trope of journey as metaphor for self discovery and the vehicle by which we can develop an enhanced intrapersonal relationship, and reinvigorated this category of travel writing in the process. In her new book ‘Walking Home: a Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed’, Sonia Choquette marries the historical sense of pilgrimage with travel writing, reinterpreting what pilgrimage means for a spiritual as opposed to religious generation. Keen to regain her own spiritual footing after a series of personal life crises, Sonia sets out to walk the legendary Camino de Santiago, an 820-kilometer trek over the Pyrenees and across northern Spain in the footsteps of the many who went before her.

I bought ‘Cancer Vixen’ by Marisa Acocella Marchetto as soon as it came out, drawn to the quirky and distinctive style of this smart New York based graphic artist and writer and the intensity of her story-what happens when a shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic, about-to-get-married big-city girl cartoonist with a fabulous life finds . . . a lump in her breast? We laugh, cry and get angry alongside Marisa as she faces up to a potentially deadly disease, finds love, loses a lump and shows her not everyone’s reaction is one of kindness. Soon to be made into a film, it’s time to get re-acquainted with the book.

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Smart, modern writing on London with a great design ethos is surprisingly hard to find but Penguin Modern Classics is soon to re-publish Iain Nairn’s  classic treatise, ‘London’, a record of what ‘moved him’ between Uxbridge and Dagenham and an idiosyncratic, poetic and intensely subjective meditation on a city and its buildings. Seeing the beauty where others see dirt, possessed of an unerring eye for character beyond the obvious and vivid in its writing, this is one for anybody living there and all who adore this great city. Part travel, part food writing ‘In Search of the Perfect Loaf’ by Samuel Fromartz ticks both boxes emphatically well in my opinion. From Paris, to Berlin, to Kansas, we follow Sam on his quest as he shares his love for bread and the ‘baking secrets’ he learned along the way over four years. Perfecting sourdough and whole grain rye, meeting and picking the brains of historians, millers, farmers, wheat geneticists, sourdough biochemists, and everyone in between, learning about the history of breadmaking, the science of fermentation, Fromartz meets the needs of the bread geek in me and educates along the way too.

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I am a sucker from travel writing set in the USA and one of my absolute favourites is by Martin Fletcher and several years old now. ‘Almost Heaven: Travels in Backwood America’ satisfies my craving for the ‘other’ America and the less glamorous (and less obvious) everyday encounters with people. Written after completing his assignment as The Times correspondent in Washington DC, Fletcher possesses a reporters eye for detail and an absolute instinct for the story. My favourite section? His visit to Angola state prison and the interview with the editor of the famous in-house newspaper ‘The Angolite’. In complete contrast, Frances Mayes of ‘A Year Under the Tuscan Sun’ decided to take time off from her bucolic Italian life and travel around Europe, casting her poets eye over the history, culture and landscape of Portugal, Italy, Spain, Turkey, France and North Africa among others. Her observations in ‘A Year in the World’ are informed, lyrical and full of her love of poetry and art, perfect for cold winter days, spent dreaming of warmer climes, by a fire. Buy a copy of the poems of Lorca and Neruda to read straight afterwards because she loves them and quotes them often.

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‘Charming Package’ by Norman Rockwell, one of the paintings explored in Deborah Solomon’s book.

Lovers of Americana in art will devour ‘American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell’ by Deborah Solomon in which Rockwell’s dedication through periods of self-doubt, depression and marital tumult is both explored and paid tribute to. “It’s a fine story, how this odd and fastidious young man worked his way up through a cartoonish phase to become the most beloved American artist of the 20th century, his very name a byword for sentimental Americana — Main Street, the village church, the ball field, the soda fountain, the barbershop, the freckle-faced Boy Scout, the garrulous grandpa, the blushing bride — an odd-duck artist yearning for normalcy and community” writes Deborah Solomon, “a small-town Arcadia of his own imagining.” And Solomon tells this fine story in her own fine way too.

Margaret Forster is not the first writer to explore the nature of houses, home and their history with relation to their own lived experiences but in ‘My Life in Houses’ we are shocked out of our contented enjoyment of her reminiscences by the sharp intrusion of reality (and I will not give the game away here save to say is it not something I could have predicted). Forster understands that the home is the bedrock of social and economic history and that a roof and four walls comprise a psychological framework to human existence. From her humble beginnings in a Carlisle local authority house which nonetheless is seen as aspirational by her parents and her own yearning to live in the private houses nearby with indoor toilets to her current Highgate home, Forster ends this book with an assertion that a house has an indefinable influence: it both reflects its inhabitants and affords them something in return. That indefinable sense of home is what we return to in our minds and hearts and exists independently of its walls.

Llareta from the Atacama Desert in Chile and over 3000 years of age
Llareta from the Atacama Desert in Chile and over 3000 years of age

The artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe for the best part of a decade to discover and photograph Very Old Things or to be more precise, living things over 2,000 years old. She has now collected the most breathtaking of these into a single volume of photographs and essays in The Oldest Living Things in the World. This is a powerful and exquisite piece of work that transcends a single definition, covering science, art, philosophy and spirituality over seven continents. It asks us about the meaning of life when such aged organisms face destruction at the hands of humankind and intersperses such weighty matters with well written accounts of her adventures as she explores the world. This is a coffee table book that will actually get read, will spook, enthrall and educate.

Fiction and short stories

Busy people (especially parents), commuters or those with shorter attention spans can all maintain their engagement with the written word via stories in short form and I have recently had the pleasure of reading some great anthologies, recently published and not so. Always keen to promote East Anglian writers and publishers, I discovered Salt Publishing and had a look at their list. The ‘Best British Short Stories’, edited by Nicholas Boyle aims to reprint the best short stories published in the previous calendar year by British writers, whether based in the UK or elsewhere (their words) and includes pieces by Elizabeth Baines, Johanna Walsh, Christopher Priest and Jay Griffiths. The introduction itself, in which Royle explains his editing process, what was left out and why, is a masterpiece in itself. Baines little vignette with its descriptions of black lapping sea, mud flats and the smells of Autumn is particularly apropos for readers like me, based in the watery counties of East Anglia.

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove

From presidents reincarnated as horses to Japanese girls, drugged and producing silk from their bodies, the stories of Karen Russell weave the everyday emotions of folks into fantastical magical realism in her short story collection ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove‘ and in her debut, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”.  If you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then giver her a try. If you fancy reading Russell in long form, then go for ‘Swamplandia’, a tale of a Floridian alligator wrestling park owning family, left adrift after the mothers illness and defection of the heroines big brother to a rival park. Fantasy of a different kind abounds in Terry Pratchetts latest Discworld novel ‘Raising Steam’, still going strong after 30 years as Ankh-Morpork branches into the railway age. Packed with in jokes and references from the earlier novels, it is written with all the sly humour his fans have come to expect.

‘All Our Names’ by By Dinaw Mengestu brings together a Midwestern social worker and a bereft African immigrant and explores their relationship of shared dependency with truth, sadness and a keen, unsparing eye. Dinaw Mengestu continues to explore the violent uprooting and uneasy exile of his two previous novels, Children of the Revolution and How to Read the Air in this tale, riven with passion and an unshared narrative of the past. Isaac is from Africa and Helen is his social worker lover, although Isaac’s true name is never revealed to us, or her. The real Isaac is left behind in Uganda where 10 years of postcolonial rule are about to affirm the dictatorship of Idi Amin.

November 2014 brings us the latest novel from Stephen King who appears to be on a ‘revitalised’ roll (bad pun-sorry) with book releases coming thick and fast. His last book, ‘Mr Mercedes’ marked a departure from fantasy fiction and his own genre of horror into the wilds of crime fiction and was, as to be expected, readable with no great departure from the usual tropes- disillusioned and troubled detective, woman who (nearly) saves him, yet it was laced with his characteristic detailed characterisation and use of cultural iconography to enrich the stories sense of place. ‘Revival’ returns however to familiar ground- a novel about addiction, religion, music and what might exist on the other side of life- small boys, charismatic ministers, the passage of time and a pact between an addicted rock musician and an onstage showman who creates dazzling portraits with lightning. Another ‘big beast’ of the literary world, Haruki Murakami, publishes ‘ The Strange Library’ in early December, a story narrated by a young man who follows a strange old man into a subterranean reading room in the local library. The man has an appetite for human brains and with only the company of a sheep man and a girl who talks with her hands, how is he going to escape?

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Fans of Marilynne Robinson will be delighted to know that in ‘Lila’, her latest book,  we return to the town of Gilead in a story about a girl who lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder. Due out early October and talking of sequels, Rachel JoycesThe Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ takes up the story of the woman Harold Fry planned to walk the length of England to see before she died. I like eerie tales, perfect for those nights as they draw in and this, from Kate Mosse called ‘The Mistletoe Brideis named for the famous old folk tale that told of the bride who hid in a wooden chest to surprise her new husband and was never found, dying entombed as he hunted for her, evermore. As Mosse’s introduction states, some of the tales have been printed elsewhere previously, and at the end of each she provides an insight into their inspiration. She also tracks how these short tales show how she would later develop into the writer of books such as Labyrinth.

In Jane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’ we meet Frank, a difficult character to base the first of a planned trilogy of fiction upon, for Frank is a bit of a loner and disrupter with fraught connections to the wider cast of family members that populate the story. This first part of that projected trilogy called ‘The Last Hundred Years’ follows the story of a farming family from Iowa-the Langdons- from the early twenties to the mid fifties with a chapter for each year. Covering vast events, the Depression and Second World War to the start of the atomic age, we see these through the prism of the novels shifting point of view and as readers, we are kept on our toes by a narrative device that makes it hard to know what is going to happen next, no matter what our pre-existing knowledge of the wider historical content may be. The facade of family life, what it reveals, conceals and distorts is beautifully set against American life.

To the lives now, of immigrants to the USA, pitching up in a housing complex in Delaware in Christina Henriquez’s ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’. Arturo Rivera was the owner of a construction company in Pátzcuaro, México. One day, as his beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, is helping him at a work site, she sustains an injury that casts doubt on whether she’ll ever be the same again. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better. For Mayor Toro, the first glimpse of Maribel is love at first sight and the beginning of a friendship between the two families. Woven into their stories are the testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Central and Latin America, filled with hopes, dreams and sometimes, disappointment.

During the summer of 1929 four children come together and change the course of their lives forever in a novel by Doris Grumbach, ‘The Book of Knowledge’ which examines the ways that childhood experiences create transformative resonance that lasts throughout adulthood and beyond and in a lighter read altogether, we become reacquainted with ‘Emma’, the famous Austen busy body in this revisiting by Alexander McCall Smith.

Think about re-reading some of those famous eighties ‘sex and shopping’ novels, all of them pure trivial and enjoyable fun. Highly recommended is the uber-book of its age ‘Lace’ by Shirley Conran, a sumptuously elaborate ‘ages and stages novel’ set across continents featuring five women- four friends and the secret daughter of one of them. The scene with the goldfish is one that all us women who read it in the eighties will remember. Others of that time include pretty much the entire oeuvre of Judith Krantz- ‘Scruples‘ and its sequels plus her ‘Princess Daisy‘ and ‘I’ll Take Manhattan’;  The Watershed’ by Erin Pizzey and the many novels of Rona Jaffe but particularly ‘Class Reunion’, ‘After the Reunion’ and ‘The Best of Everything‘. ‘Decades’ by Ruth Harris and the ages and stages novels of Eric Segal’ -‘Doctors’ and ‘The Class’ are also worth reading too. All of these are effortless pleasure after the economic and time consuming vagaries of the festive season. Put on your pyjamas, a pair of woolly socks, sink into the sofa with some Christmas chocolates, a warm blanket and indulge yourself.

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Charlottes Web

And finally, to some beautiful books that transcend age groups. The Folio Society produces over four hundred titles, all special or limited edition commissions of classic books for all age groups. With introductions from leading literary figures such as Jeannette Winterson and Michael Morpugo and illustrated by award winning artists and designers, these books with exquisitely set type, protective slipcases, premium paper and bindings are destined to be read, re-read and handed down like the treasures they are. Our choice? Charlottes Web with illustrations by Garth Williams in the classic style of the original and Ballet Shoes, introduced by Jacqueline Wilson and illustrated by Inga Moore. For adultsthe stylish redesign of Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ with an introduction by Jay McInerney and artwork by Canadian Karen Klassen will definitely appeal. The blue cat on the spine of this edition is adorable and if American history is your passion, then the ‘History of the Indians of the United States‘ by Angie Debo with the sepia tinted cover image and gold and navy blue embossing, bound in buckram makes this meaty read something to treasure. For another sort of American history coupled with travel writing, Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ is introduced by broadcaster James Naughtie and is bound on covers of cloth printed with a resplendent panorama of mid century New York City.

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Charlottes Web

Book shops in Norfolk

Holt Books, Holt

Crab Pot Books in Cley and Wells-Next-the-Sea

Jarrolds Books, Norwich

Ketts Books, Wymondham

Norfolk Children’s Books Centre, Aylsham

The Book Hive, Norwich

The Brazen Head Burnham Market

Book shops in Suffolk

Aldeburgh Book shop, Aldeburgh

Browsers, Woodbridge

Chapel Books, Saxmundham

Harris & Harris, Clare

Kestrel Bookshop, Sudbury

Landers, Long Melford

There are also branches of Waterstones in Bury St Edmunds (2), Southwold, Ipswich and Norwich.

We review – To Kill a Mocking Bird at Norwich Theatre Royal

 

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I am not a natural theatre goer because I struggle to suspend disbelief – no matter how stellar the performance, I find it hard to overcome an awareness of my surroundings and the knowledge that the stage contains people pretending to be somebody else (a rather facetious definition of acting, I realise). I love to watch dance at the theatre, am engrossed by it but I do struggle with drama. On Monday night though, I felt the same joy, pleasure and despair as everybody else in the theatre when I had the privilege of watching ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, the new production directed by Timothy Sheader which has garnered excellent reviews to date. In fact, it was Tuesday afternoon before I could really organise my thoughts so affected was I by this production.

Director Timothy Sheader, who presented this most loved of books at London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre for the second summer running (it opened in 2013 to critical acclaim and sell-out audiences), has taken the production out on the road from September with Norwich the second stop on a national tour. Adapted by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee’s novel, this is an innovative staging of a story of racial inequality and lost innocence in America’s Deep South during the Great Depression and first published in 1960 – the novel still sells over 750,000 copies a year today. It has achieved popularity across every art form, from the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning book to the film adaptation in 1962 which won three Oscars out of the eight it was nominated.

From its opening moment, ‘Mockingbird’ retains the child at the centre- from our own childhood relationship with this most famous of books to the children from whose perspective the narrative unfolds. The cast  emerge from the audience, reading from their own copies of the novel, each edition with its different jacket design underpinning the fact that the story belongs to many generations. The childlike drawing of a neighbourhood map on the stage with chalk, referencing the maps at the start of many famous children’s books- Winnie The Pooh, Milly Molly Mandy and Harold and His Purple Crayon is another whimsical touch for the mental maps and psychogeography of a town will be very different for a child. The swirl of chalk rising in the stage lights, the yellow cast of the light itself mimicking a torpid dusty Southern summer all added to the languorous atmosphere- the dog days of summer bringing additional violence and intolerance to an already intolerant place.

There was dramatic contrast between the playful innocence and good sense of the child characters, Scout played by the accomplished Ava Potter who had the audience in the palm of her hand from the word go, Dill (Connor Brundish) , an imaginative incomer to the town and Arthur Franks as Jem, older brother to Scout, trying to negotiate childish concerns with a new found adolescent awareness of nuance. Not once did we see any slippage into stage school-isms and the lack of self consciousness and realistic depiction of the kinetic nature of childhood was impressive.

 

The deathly silence in the theatre auditorium was testimony to the engrossing and heartbreaking courtroom second act where Zachary Momoh as Tom Robinson broke our hearts with his bewildered acceptance of his fate. The rising anger of the audience, with our benefit of hindsight of the evils of segregation and Jim Crow Laws was palpable.

So often I end up conflicted about the depictions of well loved characters on stage and in film, they jar with the images conjured up by my own imagination, often ones I have held for many years. Daniel Betts however, is Atticus come to life as was Simon Gregor as the wicked Bob Ewell- played drunk and semi sober and played very well- it is so hard to do a convincing stage drunk and Gregor pulled it off. Victoria Ewick as Mayella Ewell was in turn defiant, knowing, broken and confused, twisting her legs and feet around themselves as her court testimony in turn twisted itself into knots.

I have no issue with the employment of British regional accents in the narrative sections as the world does not need yet another badly acted Southern cadence although Southern rhythms, turns of phrase- ‘Killt’ ‘Y’all’ simply do not work in regional British.  However the use of a more authentic accent was employed and in the main they pulled it off to my relief- at least to my English ears it didn’t grate.

The pain and pleasure of this communal experience, sharing a love of the book and its characters and a deep anger at the ugly history of such a beautiful part of the world will stay with me for a long time.

 

 

Eyes without a face – Lagerfeld’s new Barbie

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Photo from Karl.com

In the ultimate expression of narcissism + materialism + sexism, Karl Lagerfeld has teamed up with American toy brand Mattel Inc. to create an ultra fashionable incarnation of the most famous doll in the world, Barbie – in his own image. Due for release on the 29th September during Paris Fashion Week, the doll will be limited edition and sold at $200 each in select outlets including Net A Porter, more normally a bastion for the selling of fashion apparel to clothe living, sentient women. However the match is superficially a good one for what is Barbie if not an entity that buys, has and sells things, including whole lifestyles and attitudes to a (mainly) female audience apparently eager to lap it up?

WWD have released a promotional image of Barbie looking up to Herr Lagerfeld who is blissfully unaware of the fact that Barbie would be unable to hold up her own head let alone gaze adoringly at him, should her body shape and measurements be scaled up into actual, um, real human woman size. Her neck would be totally unable to support the weight of her head. In an earlier study, Finland’s University Central Hospital in Helsinksi even found Barbie lacking the appropriate percentage of body fat required for menstruation and if Barbie were a real woman, her measurements would be 36-18-38. Maybe Herr Lagerfeld could design a nice line of Chanel pearl and camellia encrusted neck braces and surgical appliances for this anatomically challenged doll?

In Barbie, Lagerfeld has found his perfect fashion female- voiceless, unable to hold any bothersome opinions, devoid of messy bodily functions (especially having to eat, something Lagerfeld has in the past expressed his own distaste for) and never ever at risk of gaining an extra pound of weight on her improbable frame. To add insult to injury, this latest incarnation of Barbie cannot even express herself through her clothing. She is dressed as doppelganger of the sartorially predictable Karl who applies none of his admittedly stellar creativity to his own Chrome Heart encrusted, leather gloved perma tanned self.

“Fashion is about dreams and illusion” he said back in 2009 in an interview with Focus magazine. It is also about selling those dreams and illusions to the emerging lucrative markets in China and Taiwan, Japan, Middle East and Russia, playing off of their love of the kitsch and playful. This is marketing kitsch and archness to adults but sadly losing some of their original, achievable appeal at the same time, for make no mistake, these dolls are not to be played with and nor are they everyday acquistions. They possess even less of the hopes and dreams and displaced aspirations of the millions of little children who once played with them.

In being marketed as intended for fashions pedestal, Barbie has lost all of the qualities that her creator Ruth Handler, co-owner of Mattel, stated she saw in her when the doll debuted at the American Toy Fair in New York City in 1959.

“Barbie has always represented that a woman has choices. Even in her early years, Barbie did not have to settle for only being Ken’s girlfriend or an inveterate shopper. She had the clothes, for example, to launch a career as a nurse, a stewardess, a nightclub singer. I designed Barbie with a blank face so that the child could project her own dreams of the future onto Barbie,” Handler said in her book, “Dream Doll.” “I never wanted to play up the glamorous life of Barbie. I wanted the owner to create a personality for the doll.” “ she said.

Sadly, Lagerfelds Barbie has now been totally stripped of those sartorial choices, no longer even in possession of her own admittedly blank, face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birth attendant to lizards & chasing tumbleweed- A Mexican childhood.

chiuahan desert Yucca, Creosote, and Mesquite typify the plants in the Chihuahuan DesertPicture the outskirts of Saltillo, Coahuila in Northern Mexico. My mother used to drive around the desert in circles, dust flying in her wake. We would stand on the running-board, hold on and scream in frightened hilarity as she tore about in her metallic-blue Beetle, THE car of seventies Mexico and driven by everybody. A favourite game was chasing the tumbleweeds and dust devils over the scrub, the sounds of the cars roaring engine rivalled by hollering kids clinging like barnacles to the rolled-down windows. We mapped the route of the tumbleweed via our pattern of tyre tracks; puttering along the switchback mountain roads only to screech to a halt whenever we saw a waterfall across the gorges or a lizard that had been awoken by the noise of our engine. Scaly backed and teetering down the road, the lizards would veer crazily from one side to another and we’d follow on foot or in the car.  In the desert silence, all we’d hear was the graze and bump of car tires on a stone and cement road with potholes and ruts large enough to lose a small child in.

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No father. Either taking the photos of us or away at work, the reason why we were all living there as migrants in this strange land with its cartoonish cacti, foul smelling creosote bushes, juicy leaved agave, heather-purple mountains and dead dogs in the road. Father. Work then home to sweep us away on road trips and holidays. There were overnight stays in motels-Holiday Inn- with their neon-brilliant displays and names lit brightly on tall metal stands, all scaffolding from the back view and glamorous ‘Vegas, Baby’ from the front. They had curving drives, white-painted rocks and car hops with one white gloved hand held out, the other tucked into the small of their backs. There’s some photographs of me by the motel entrance, hiding my face behind a naked Tiny Tears doll and stropping because I wasn’t allowed to go straight to the pool, cool and blue waters safely penned-in behind wire fencing with scrubby palm trees bent by the desert winds along its perimeter.

Playa de las Gaviotas- Gaviotas beach in Mazatlan

The females of the family wore baby-blue mini dresses to pose for the camera and even our mother matched due to the great affliction of the sixties and seventies- the coordinated family photograph. There’s us with tan knees scabbed from scrabbling over the desert rocks and our mother’s legs are encased in American tan tights in ninety-degrees of heat, not yet ready to discard them and go bare-legged. Garlands of white fabric Lily Pullitzer daisies appliqué our waist and neckline as we stand there in our cookie-cutter dresses with their princess shapes and sweetheart necklines; these are dress design names that describe our roles of girlfriend, mother, daughter or wife and our nature; demure, modest,on a pedestal, in the background. Always decorative and “a credit to you”. A tall Beehive from the late sixties is worn by some women and it’s slowly turning into the wilder leonine Raquel Welch and Baby-Jane Holzer mane of the seventies in the last few years of the sixties. We have dimpled soft arms, brown by British standards, pale by Mexican, and I have white-blonde hair, ringlets too, and often commented upon by locals because it is so different to their blue-black straight locks.

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Liz Taylor & Mike Todd in Acapulco

Imagine sliding glass doors onto a high veranda and balcony overlooking Acapulco beach with the mountains behind which are home to movie stars who remain in compounds with pools and guards. The grounds are kept pristine to await the twice yearly visits by Dean Martin, Liz Taylor, Frank Sinatra. We knew when they were in town by the fluttering excitement of the hotel staff. Liz is in her tropical floral kaftan, cigarette in an enamelled holder, sunlounger tipped back, and the waiters greeted by her sun-shy squint as they loom over to serve her a cerveza with lime and more cocktails, all Pucci-bright with parasols and fruit. Tiny lizards seek shade at noon under our loungers, lapping at the drips of melted ice which forms puddles and come out into the sun as shadows lengthen and cooler air pushes down on the heat still rising from the stone tiles. The Acapulco cliff divers, macho, celebrated local Gods, poise Cruz-like to fall, timed with the waves crashing in and out of the bay then stalk the beaches afterwards, seawater droplets on black curls, cadging cigarettes and nights with rich American women, beach-widows during the week and starved of attention. The young men steal away when the husbands fly in at weekends, tired and important. We children chase the lizards and catch them, make little homes for them with piles of rocks for walls and filled with flowers picked from the gardens. There’s a roof of ficus branches for shade. The staff disassemble them overnight as they clear the towels left by the pool and the cigarette butts, and empty glasses.

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We chase the gophers in the desert too, looking for their hiding places and poking sticks down dark holes. We watch collared lizards dart away when the shadow of an eagle passes overhead, only for them to emerge minutes later, standing on their hind legs, white bellies catching the sun. We wait for the female lizards to develop orange spots on their bellies which tells us they have laid their eggs and then go hunting for their nests which we patiently sit by, squatting down in the sand to await the hatching of eggs laid among the sagebrush, pinyon and juniper bushes that grow in raggedy clusters. We are eager birth attendants. Afternoons are spent walking along the dry stream and river-beds that fill in a flash-flooded instant, hours after the rain clouds dip low on the horizon- one of the biggest desert dangers and the first thing our housekeeper warns us of. Sometimes we poke sticks into the holes occupied by rattlesnakes, hearing the warning rattle deep down in the earth- there is time to retreat as long as you avoid the overcast cooler days when the snakes rest closer to the surface. Or the snakes sunbathe on flat dark rocks, swollen-bellied after a lunch of gopher.

We go in for our lunch. No Mexican deliberately chooses to eat outside in the midday heat and our housekeeper is insistent. Lunch, then siesta. Late to lunch one day- “‘Dónde estás. ¿dónde estás hasta ahora?” she calls then screams in horror, “Mi dios, peligroso!”- My God, dangerous, get away! There is a rattlesnake, sleepy and placid in the sun and I am sitting cross-legged next to it aged four, crooning, talking, singing to it, I cannot recall why. The neighbour comes, broom placed across the head end, followed by a swift decapitation with a spade and the snake is reluctant to die, writhing and opening its mouth for some time, emitting angry little gasps. No longer placid. This is a land where many things are adorned with snakeskin- hats, cowboy boots and our place mats have a strip of it decorating their edges.

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My sister & I in our paddling pool in the courtyard- snake attacking broom nearby

Food. Tamales. Damp bundles wrapped in corn leaves, puffs of steam as they are unwrapped. Belted in the middle like a badly fitted housedress, they are stuffed with masa, steamed and fluffy, encircling a dab of dark pork and mole, jab of radiating chile-heat in its dead centre. They are cooling on a hot day, stimulating sweat. Corn (or the typically Northern wheat) tortillas are made with the cast iron tortlilladora or a wooden press made from Encino wood, a hard white oak native to Mexico. Stuffed with mashed pinto beans, some avocado, some tomatillos, chillies and quesa fresca, wrapped into a half circle, they are eaten swiftly in three bites. Northern Mexico is the land of the vaqueros (cowboys), the shepherders, and ranch owners who all settled here and managed livestock, basing their diet on grilled meat (usually beef, lamb, or goat); built around wheat tortillas rather than corn. Cooler weather meant carnitas and carne asada- flank steak marinated in citrus, jalapeno, garlic and olive oil, and grilled or poultry-based stews. Fires are aromatic with burning bundles of mesquite gathered from behind our house: much better than leaving it to blow across the plains and become a lightning-ignited fire hazard during the frequent mountain thunderstorms that passed overhead each week.

Alfareros in Tiaquepaque- hand painted pottery in Guadalajara

We learned to eat on the street, not part of the British culture we had left, then and we ate corn-cobs, sooty from the fire, freckled with chilé, lime juice and piled onto a cart on every street corner, sweet and salt on the fingers. There was barbecued melon, cubed or sold in slices and kept semi frozen on piles of ice tinged pink with its juices and milk-soaked cakes with caramel sauce….all served as a portable lunch, breakfast and also our merenda, the after-school snack we would eat on the way home. We shared our housekeepers Cafe De Olla, brewed in a tall clay pot, scented with cinnamon, sweetened with sugar from the cane. Ours would be heavy on the milk, light on the bean. There was no hope for our uniform, a pale cream turtleneck tee shirt in the winter, which soon became stained with adobe-dark juices from food eaten from the hand as we ran and walked and jumped our way home. Summer smocks were limp from the heat of the day, creased from the school chair, from laying on the grass under the trees as we tried to keep cool at break times. Brown check and cream cotton and a red blazer for winter because the desert days could be cold.

Arriving home to play in the desert around our house with other local children- Austrian, American and Mexican, we drank the hand-squeezed jug of lime and water brought out for us and I still remember the taste of the clay drinking pots used by our housekeeper, all earthy and dusty – the taste of transformed mud against our tongues. Nibbling on it became a form of pica. At table we got the hand-blown glasses bought on holidays, on trips to the artisan glass-blowers of Guadalajara where we would watch them force air into bulbs of swirling kaleidoscopic colours, see the glass flexing and melding, the colours finding their place as the vase or cup or bowl swelled and formed.

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Church of St Esteban by Hopper

An artists paradise, Mexico, for Kahlo, Rivera and Patrocino Barela, O’Keefe nearby and Edward Hopper who stayed at the Hotel Arizpe Sáinz,during his visits to Saltillo in the 1940s. The hotel rooftop became artist studio and butt of his complaints about the view obstructed by walls towers and electric signs and the frustration at his inability to capture the blue purple green of the mountains in oil paints. The noise and bustle was not liked and eliminated from his landscapes which are a symphony of adobe, earth, rounded corners and buildings abutted. The colours of Mexico are captured in the Serape, the name of this blanket based garment originating in Saltillo although it is woven and worn all over Mexico and Guatemala. Ixtle fibres from Agave woven in bands of red and egg-yolk yellows and greens; then contrasted by the black, violet and bruise-purple colours of the land at sunset. They were one of the first things we bought upon our arrival, flung over beds and settees and as rugs and gifts sent back via shipping crates to relatives and friends. I still have mine but the fringed edges have become knotted and tangled over the decades.

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We are on the Saltillo to the Colombia Bridge border crossing to the West of Nuevo Laredo, all 192 miles. The Mexico 57 toll highway between Saltillo and the border is now four-lane but not then although it has always been clotted with lorries and tankers, the mopeds weaving crazily in and out of them, all disappearing towards the mountains as you travel deeper into Mexico. In the opposite direction, traffic slows as you approach the border, cars and vehicles stuffed with humans and their detritus, packing and unpacking bags for inspection, fishing in glove compartments for documents, reaching over seats to smack tired and scrappy children. “Sit still and behave! Or the guards will take you away!”

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We drive to the USA to buy Christmas gifts and back again and detour along the way to visit places known only to us locals, turning off the highway into the mountains proper, towards ravines and cuts, waterfalls plunging and gouging deeper pools and streams. The water is the same colour as our VW which is parked alongside as we paddle, sit on the boulders, eat our food and swim. Then, on the way back, a wrong direction is taken then an illegal U turn onto the highway is made after driving across a few acres of rough scrub, kitty-corner to the road. The police arrive, two young guys in limp, sweat-stained and tide-marked uniforms, rote in their application of the time honoured tradition of demanding and accepting payment of a cash bribe. Most drivers choose to pay up, the pervasiveness of corruption. “What would happen if we don’t pay, Dad?” “They’d shoot our our tires and leave us here.” They siphon off a gallon or two of gasoline also. Polite, friendly, one of them strokes my hair “Usted tiene una familia encantadora, senor”. You have a lovely family, sir. Gracias. We’d be anxious if our Father looked anxious. He is used to it. When in Rome and all that.

Salto Cola de Caballo- Horsetail falls near Guadalajara
Salto Cola de Caballo- Horsetail falls near Guadalajara

The combination of tradition and loucheness in fiesta abounds. El Grito de Independiancia on the 16th of September in the town and village Plaza marking our independence from Spanish rule; Los Dias de los Muertos with rituals both metaphorical and literal; Las Posadas and its commemoration of the long journey undertaken by Joseph and Mary, and their search for lodging in Bethlehem. The procession calling at homes along a route, me in cream heavy satin and an angels halo, an ‘angelic’ child with blonde ringlets chosen especially out of all the other children, despite the incongruousness of blonde in a story emanating from a Middle Eastern land populated by mainly dark-haired people. Birthdays and Christmas bought the ubiquitous piñata, Daisy Duck one year, a white reindeer another. Strung up high above the courtyard, a man at each end of the rope, standing on flat roofs opposite each other. Children blindfolded, hold a crepe paper-decorated stick and swipe purposefully at the piñata as it jerks and sways, the men making it more or less easy according to our age. Gradually becoming more tattered, wisps of paper from it whirl and float down with each ‘thwack’ followed by a sharp crack as the stick meets the claypot filled with sweets buried deep in its centre. Whoops and screams of children bounce around the courtyard as they jostle and scrap for the candies that are strewn everywhere. No gallantry. No mercy. Candies stuffed into pockets, into mouths, cheeks bulging. We are already sugar sick from too much Tres Leches Cake and American-style birthday cakes frosted in green, red and white- the colours of the Mexican flag.

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The plaza in Saltillo

Religious ritual and tenets both butt heads and dovetail too with local life. There’s the happiness of families, strolling at night through the streets, eating their honey and lime paletas in the plaza, men smoking short stubby cigarillos, women delving into straw bags retrieving hankies to wipe sticky baby faces and fingers. There’s animated chat and greetings floating across the cobbles, the church bells announcing the lateness of the hour. A time spent sleeping in England and now for socialising instead, punctuated by head splitting yawns until we acclimatise.

Huddled against the mountains, a thin dark line against their bulk is the shanty town. The wind in the right direction carries faint sounds- music, yip yips of stray dogs, a mans voice. A car exhaust trailing off into the mountains or towards the town. The lights glimmer until three, four in the morning, tempting those people who are trying to resist going there; people like our lovely family friend. Early Friday evening and there’s the usual tap at the door and “Can I drop this off for safekeeping?”, a brown paper paypacket left on the table, the door slamming behind him and trail of exhaust fumes as he hightails it towards the brighter lights than those left on at home. Funny, friendly and loved by everyone, our friend struggles with alcohol and will often return two days later, spent in money, begging my parents to hand over the rest of his pay, the money he intended for them to keep safe from his impulses. On those days, we stay in our rooms. He smells funny, and, like our wrestler neighbour who works as a Luchadore and sometimes puts on his mask to chase us around the courtyard in a game, “No exceso de rudezas, senoritas!” ‘not too violent, my little ones’, he is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. We enjoy feeling scared and thrilled by the neighbourly antics of the wrestler though; we know it is a game and one especially for us children. Not so with the friend of our father sadly and because we love him so, we worry for him. That is a wrestling match he will go on to lose.

Calle de Victoria in Saltillo
Calle de Victoria in Saltillo

The woman who live there in that place, we see them sometimes in our town, buying food, visiting the doctor or dentist or hospital. They are not so vivid in the daytime. They don’t need to be. We wouldn’t necessarily know the men who visit them because in the day they could be your father, your uncle, the village priest maybe. Or the doctor himself and they don’t want you to know where they go at night. Nobody seems to talk to the women although they are not strangers and everybody knows who they are. Out housekeeper hustles us along, she doesn’t like these women. She went to school with some of them, grew up on smallholdings next to their homes. I like their earrings, bigger than my little gold studs that I had put in two weeks after arriving here- a Latin American custom that I fought like a hellcat. Screaming, the pain of having a needle pushed through baby soft earlobes. The nun who did it, grim-faced. Not a tender-hearted bride of Christ.  The freeze of the ice cube held against the hole. And the ear stud pushed through bleeding raw flesh. I wanted gold hoops, brassy chandeliers that swayed and knocked against my jaw with every defiant shake of my head.

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Pinata

My fiesta costumes are swirling and bright, lace, tiers of stiff, crinkled petticoats, ribbons and covered buttons on dresses in petrol blue, pinks, grass greens; strewn with yellow daisies or pink cabbage roses, seventies bright and naive. Skirts designed to be held out with one hand making a dramatic half circle then released to flow out as I twirl and dance. Backwards and forwards across plazas and school stages, only interrupted by a push and slap fight with my best friend because one or both of us did the wrong steps. Pulled apart by teachers. A little shake “NO! Chicas Malas!” . We dance on, cutting glaring eyes at each other with each pass, making our skirt swirls more pointed, flounce and turn, chins tilted skywards, nostrils flared. Passions aroused by tempo and the shouts of “Arriba!”, the stomping feet of band and crowd marking the beat. Overtaking it sometimes, too. We are only six. The crowd laughed, amused by our fury. My mother, unamused and even less so when, at the end of the day, I returned home carrying a cardboard box, something peeping and scrabbling about within. A commemorative gift from the school.

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Myself aged five at my housekeepers smallholding.

Beverley the chick soon turned Beverley the cockerel, aggressive, spurred, savage killer of infant lizards and chaser of the brave Luchadore neighbour. No cockerel lived to sing through more than one spring in the farmyards here. Off to the housekeepers small holding went Beverley, Juanita’s axe and outdoor feather strewn table ready for him. then later on, a chocolate spiced, brick-red mole to go with the rooster stew, arroz-rice all for lunch with her elderly mother and even more elderly grandmother. To me, both seemingly as ancient as their Aztec ancestors. Profiles like the black onyx figures sitting by our front door, models of the Aztec Gods, holding their decorated shields. Tiny, weighty and cold to the touch, cooling against the back of a neck on a searing hot day. In this hot country, far from England.

Little roasted pineapple and banana cakes

 

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Despite its sunny, bright and tropical image, I am perverse in seeing pineapple as an autumnal fruit especially when it is roasted to bring out those darker, more complex flavours. The sharp bite of the uncooked flesh is mellowed by the oven and if you are one of those folks who cannot eat it in its raw state (because the enzymes start to digest the buccal membranes), this method should render the fruit tamed, a nicely domesticated beast fit for the tenderest of palates.

If you yearn for the pleasure a small dose of heat gives you, then go ahead and add a tiny tiny pinch of chile to the pineapple before you roast it. But keep it minimal. You won’t need to use a whole pineapple either; in fact this recipe only requires a scant two rings of it BUT you will have the glorious leftovers to chop up and add to vanilla ice cream or serve an extra piece alongside one of these cakes with a dollop of cream, ice cream or creme fraiche. Your call.

The recipe is basically my best ever banana muffin method, slightly amended. I tried it with larger chunks of pineapple but concluded that a messy shredded pile of fruit works best and prevents the fruit sinking to the bottom of the cake. Just to add to the joyousness, the fruit moistens an already damp cake crumb in a manner reminiscent of that seventies delight- pineapple upside down cake.

Makes about eight medium sized cupcake portions.

Preparation time 15 mins + chilling. Cooking time 18-20 mins. Preheat oven to 375F / 190c / Gas mark 5

Ingredients

For the muffins-

175g softened butter / 120g caster sugar / 4 oz soft brown sugar / 1 beaten egg / 3 ripe medium size bananas, mashed / 1 tsp Vanilla extract / 250g plain flour / 1 tsp baking powder /

For the pineapple preparation-

1 small pineapple sliced into rings about 1 cm thick / nugget of butter for greasing the baking tray / 1 and a half tbsp dark rum / 1 tbsp demerara sugar / a tiny pinch of chile (optional)

 

Preheat oven to 200C. Grease the baking tray with butter and peel and slice the pineapple into rings. Place on the tray and pour over the rum. Then scatter the demerara sugar over, the chile if using and dab a little dot of butter onto each pineapple ring. Roast in the oven for ten minutes or until the pineapple has started to brown and catch around the edges and the sugar has melted. Take out and leave to cool. and turn the oven to 190C / C375F. Then when the pineapple is cool, cube two decent sized rings (leaving the rest for another meal) and then shred them into small pieces – don’t worry about it looking pretty.

Place butter and sugars into a bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the egg until it is well incorporated then stir in the mashed bananas and vanilla extract. Sift the flour and baking powder together then sift into the mixture and incorporate, making sure you don’t over mix. Lastly, add the shredded pineapple and incorporate well.

Grease a muffin pan with butter or baking spray or use paper muffin cases inside a muffin pan (we do this). Take spoons of the mixture and add to the muffin cases/pan, filling them 2/3 full. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until done; they can vary a little in their cooking times depending upon the size of the muffins made. Keep an eye on them and remove when golden and a tester stick comes out clean when inserted into their middle. Allow to cool for as long as you can stand to wait then eat!

Apologies for the Warholian photo editing. I just could not resist!

Nursing at St Audrys – an oral history of a Suffolk psychiatric hospital

 

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Images from the St Audrys project

Originally a workhouse known as the House of Industry for Looes and Wilford Incorporated Hundreds established in 1765, St Audry’s became the Suffolk County Lunatic Asylum in 1827 and went on to be renamed St Audry’s Hospital for Mental Diseases from around 1917 although the name ‘Suffolk District Asylum’ was also retained until the early nineteen thirties . Finally closing as a psychiatric hospital in 1993, the building was converted into private residencies although parts of the main structure were listed in 1985 and preserved.  St Audry’s became home for many generations of Suffolk people with mental illness and they left behind their stories, some of which are recorded although, sadly, the majority have been lost. The history of stigma and fear associated with mental health services means that patients historically have been voiceless both politically and culturally and the public remain largely ignorant about the subject too- for example, how many people today know that a person under a section of the Mental Health Act legally cannot vote? In addition, data protection and privacy laws means that a hundred years must pass from the death of the last patient before any personal details can be released into the public realm, thus (rightfully) hindering historians from accessing the archives.

In 2012, a project was set up by the Museum of East Anglian Life to explore the hidden history of St Audry’s. The Museum, alongside Felixstowe Museum and the Suffolk Record Office, were recipients of the hospital museum collection and archive when it closed.  ‘Telling it like is: the story of a psychiatric hospital in Suffolk’ collaborated with mental health service users to create work to accompany a permanent display in Abbot’s Hall, part of the Museum. The project also explored and recorded people’s emotional connections with the St Audry’s site.

We spent an afternoon visiting Abbots Hall and the very moving (and at times troubling) exhibition, telling the story of St Audrys and the people who worked and were hospitalised there. Inspired by this, I recently interviewed a Registered Mental health Nurse from Suffolk who trained at the St Audry’s School of Nursing and was subsequently employed as a staff and then charge nurse at the hospital. Trained at a time when the introduction of new Antipsychotic medication meant patients experienced far less sedating effects and fewer side effects alongside the development of Nursing as a profession meant they saw some exciting cultural changes within mental health. Add to this the closure of the old style psychiatric hospitals due to the inception of Care in the Community and the Care Programme Approach and we see how many changes staff were privy to.

Here is this nurses oral history as told to me. Parts of their account include references to self harm, suicide and methods of restraint. 

“One of the back doors to one of the hospital blocks. I think it might be have been Rendlesham Ward. (the wards were named after local villages) – the rear door, when you looked at it from the outside, you could see the outline of a white nurses uniform and hat. And it wasn’t a reflection, apparently from anything else around, and the glass had been changed. This is the myth. They’d put fresh glass in but still this white nurses effigy remained as an imprint into the glass.

“When you looked at it you could see a white apron and triangle of the hat. It was most definitely there. Spooky. And I don’t even believe in ghosts or anything like that!”

“I started there Oct 16th 1978. It was still St Audrys school of nursing and the Ipswich student cohort came out there. In my final year, they developed the school of nursing and we decanted it to Ipswich General hospital. The hospital, by and large had a very friendly, family atmosphere. Many of the patients had been there decades, many months at least and they knew each other.

“Long stay patients went to different therapies…making garden furniture, paving slabs- breeze blocks I think they made. The staff sports and social club was actually built from bricks made in the grounds. and the paving slabs certainly were. They’d got rid of the farm when I was there. No more waste food could be given to animals from domestic or other food supplies- the new Health & Safety laws. We had a big food prep area that made industrial prepared potatoes/vegetables for other institutions such as schools and hospitals and our patients worked preparing the meals. Institutions were expensive but high value, for example with St Audry’s, about 5-10 yrs prior to its close, the boiler needed replacing. Amazingly enough it was more cost effective to install a new boiler than it was to run down the old inefficient one in the last ten years of its life.

“Supervision wise, they were supervised as workers, rather then psychiatric patients and this was an important part of developing and keeping their skills and dignity as working people. Nursing staff could be called in should a disturbance arise but we didn’t stand over them. We did have responsibility to ensure they were at work and we shared information- if a patient had an off day, supervision could be provided by OT, technical instructor (a non professionally qualified member of the Occupational Therapy team) or nursing staff. If somebody wasn’t performing at work, we had direct feedback that they might be relapsing. It helped contribute to the twenty four hour picture we built up of our patients and how they managed in the various environments they lived, socialised and worked in.

“Some of the OT staff and TI staff were hugely professional and engaged- they wanted to improve the social and economic functioning of their patients. NOT to make them ‘earn their keep’ but instead to improve the quality of their life and the value they held it in. Caring. At this time, we were in a relatively early stage in the development of the OT psychiatric knowledge base and the recent breakthroughs in drug therapy allowed therapy to become more modern. Occupational therapy took off because patients were better able to focus and engage and give feedback on how they felt they were doing and what they might like to do. Care became more proactive and nursing became less regimental.

“A lot of males went into psychiatric nursing whereas other areas of nursing  were more female dominated. Many of our original male staff were from national service/services backgrounds that had a heavily regimented and institutional control system and structure and this influenced how patients were looked after. Their background as enforcers of discipline and their physicality was relied upon when medication was very basic and primitive in its therapeutic effects. Patients often became very distressed and sometimes violent and the staff would use methods of restraint and control that nowadays (quite rightly) we have rejected. Patients usually knew where the boundaries were unless they were very unwell (and other patients would help those new to the wards) and the hospital was a microcosm of society: its social boundaries were rigid and hierarchical, it formed its own class system if you like based upon longevity of stay, type of illness, friendships and alliances.

“Even then when it was more commonplace I questioned the use of restraint and saw it as a failure of care. Only rarely could I ever find an absolute justification for it. I did what I could to discourage male C&R (Control and Restrain Teams) on female patients- just imagine what it is like to be pinned down by a man when you are so unwell you have even less capacity to understand why it is happening. As a staff member you have a split second sometimes to react and we didn’t always have enough staff or the wherewithal to use other methods, ones that involved pre-empting trouble, rows and aggression  directed at staff and other patients. I have been in a situation where a patient came at me with a stanley knife that the patient had managed to secrete about his person after spending time in the carpentry room with a technical instructor. I sensed the patient was behind me, whirled round and managed to talk them out of slashing me. Was I traumatised? I don’t know. I just got on with the rest of the night shift and reported it. Risk assessment wasn’t what it is now. Some patients were justifiably angry at being incarcerated and would take every opportunity to show that anger to us. We had to be on our best game, observation wise all the time. But it had to be subtle too.

“When I arrived, there were still charge nurses insisting on precision lined up beds- you could align the pillows all along the room, fold back of the sheets, all aligned. Not to emphasise high standards in care but simply because it was regimented. That was how you did it and all nursing in the seventies and eighties had yet to develop a professional knowledge base which expected you to account for why you were doing what you were doing and what the results of those actions might be. ‘Did it have an evidence base and was this best practice?’ was not a question nurses used to have to ask themselves. I mean, we knew then and know now that tightly tucked in sheets help reduce pressure ulcers because delicate or bony parts of the body laying on a crease or fold in the sheet fabric are more vulnerable to them, but in those days we did it because we were told to do it. The intellectual and scientific underpinning of our decisions and actions was less dominant. Wards had routines, individual matrons and charge nurses had their individual quirks, likes and dislikes that manifested as ward and care habits and practices and most of them were not rooted in objectivity.

“Minsmere House was the acute unit, very modern for its time (80’s)  and took all acute mentally unwell people, both male and female from aged sixteen to sixty four. New patients came into the services and were placed upon a regime of modern medications, O.T and pyschological therapies which encouraged independence and kept their personalities intact. Yet institutions required the enforcement of their rules which inevitably leads to the suppression of individual need to the needs of the group and organisation. Classic Talcott Parsons stuff. (Parsons described illness as ‘deviance’ with health seen as generally necessary for a functional society, thrusting the ill person into the sick role which came with its own ‘rights’ and obligations.)

I saw the sea change and both ends of the spectrum of care quite early on in my career. I saw the beginnings of community nursing through the formation of Community Mental Health Teams (CMHT’s). I saw people going from one type of care to another, we got to know their family backgrounds and saw them in context. I went from the families of inpatients at a relative distance, to us starting to develop the beginnings of community care plans that took into account, the needs of the entire family unit. For many nurses and other professionals, this was a big change and hard to adjust to for some.

A wide range of people were admitted to St Audry’s- people coming in, young in their illness with less of the dramatic symptoms you used to see when patients weren’t treated so swiftly or with effective drugs. They’d get admitted to wards for short term treatment to medium term treatment. Or end up on long stay wards up to thirty years. Also lots of elderly people, some ex workhouse with terrible, terrible experiences documented in their files (being ‘committed’ decades earlier, because they had given birth out of wedlock for example), some newly admitted people with dementia who one year earlier had been fully productive and engaged in their lives. No prior history of mental ill-health at all so a dreadful shock for their families who had looked forward to Grandad or Grandmothers retirement and now had to adjust to a very different future.

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St Audry’s

“Patients were not often confined to the hospital and its grounds unless they were too unwell to go out. I clearly recall one patient going down regularly, weekly. He’d have his weekly wages, buy his fish and chips at the local chip shop then nip to the Horse and Groom for a pint. He was severely socially dysfunctional in that he couldn’t relate to money. He’d hold his hand out with the money and they’d take it, the bar lady or shop assistant. The pub would only let him have his allowance of beer – they just knew what he should have as we went in there and obviously could have a quiet word with the staff alongside the patient so everybody knew where they stood. Everyone knew everyone and nurses would drink with some patients in the pub on our days off. I’d see patients in Woodbridge on market day – they’d walk there or get the bus. There was a certain amount of freedom with staff taking patients out on walks which would often entail a walk to the pub!  I recall taking bored patients out on Saturday which were slower days as occupational therapy was closed (this still happens on wards now) and there was no ward round or routine medical clinics to break up the monotony of the day. I’m not trying to make it into some bucolic ideal but there was a level of acceptance in the local villages and people generally did not take advantage, or tease or ignore.

“Weekends always a great cigarette crisis you see. Everyone ran out including the staff and we’d resort to smoking dog ends out the ashtrays- we called them dog end rollies. If you had papers, you’d remake the ends. Great attacks of nicotine withdrawal all round as in those days loads of psychiatric staff also smoked. You’d find inventive ways of taking up the slack and in the seventies and eighties, shops closed at weekends, there was little public transport and less staff drove so we couldn’t necessarily get to the metropolis of Ipswich nor spare the staff. Plus it was a village. If  the pub closed, there was no sales of cigs. Everyone had spent their weekly allowance, no shops, no money. Everyone went cold turkey. So we’d invent quizzes, put music on for dancing, walks, take them gardening, anything to keep them settled and take their minds off the lack of nicotine! We’d have Christmas parties and lunch with turkey carved by the psychiatrists, ward and hospital dances where male and female patients could mix. Quite a lively social life accompanied everywhere by great clouds of cigarette smoke. We all chuffed away like Thomas the Tank Engine.

“The minibuses- elderly patients used it for trips to local villages. The staff would try to visit where patients were from to help them reminisce and get them talking to each other. We would take people to Felixstowe and book the Red Cross hut out for the day. The Red Cross would provide staff and meals and we’d take wheelchairs, carry them over the sand so the patients could paddle in the sea, buy ice creams and sit along the front, summer and winter eating them. Alcohol wasn’t banned and we had wards where patients could have a drink. Every meds trolley had alcohol. Beer wine whisky rum and brandy could be written up on the charts for night- better than many other medications as drinking a tot was socially normal and social too. Wards still have a bottle of something in the dispensary now. We wanted to offer as many ‘normal’ experiences as we could because with the best will in the world, you couldn’t totally overcome the limitations of your surroundings. I can see that group outings can be as stigmatising as any of the other practices but it was the only way we could manage to engender a social life for so many patients, with the staff and resources we had. And they had friends, people they wanted to socialise with, even intimate relationships and going to the seaside was, truly, something to look forward to- for all of us.

The problem was that the Victorian nightingale wards were open, and you only got a curtain if you were lucky and a locker. So little privacy. The locker was lockable although only the staff member would have a key though. Several long stay patients saved up to buy their own beds, bought their own side tables and decorated their side rooms. Or family would bring in an armchair. Not often but it would be taken on board. No issues about fire retardancy and smoking on wards in those days and we did have ward fires. Although more fires started after they banned smoking in public and inside areas because patients, staff and visitors now hide away when they have a cigarette and then toss it in a place where it smoulders and sets things alight. The amount of small fires always went up when a trust banned smoking!

“There was a token economy of sex going on. Some patients would find ways of having a ‘finger’ for a fag- yes I know this sounds a crude way of putting it but that’s the truth of it and what many of them referred to it as. Sexual feelings don’t stop because you have a mental illness and nor does the need for human closeness, intimacy, comfort and pleasure. Some of the women got their cigs this way. The staff would encourage discretion because sometimes masturbation became addictive behaviour or a form of acting out and obviously sometimes the sexual activity might not be consensual or it was exploitative or the patient was especially vulnerable. We encouraged the use of private space for private activities. I don’t recall patients getting pregnant. Only staff and not only by their husbands! There was a fair amount of relationship problems and break ups among staff because the job could be stressful, there was a lot of staff and…well…live hard, play hard. Upsetting events at work can throw people together. They cling together like puppies in a basket and see their colleagues as understanding in a way that their partner does not. It could be an illusion or it could be the real deal.We had second generation staff- those born to coupled up nurses or nurses/doctors who came back here to work when they grew up!

“Sexual relations were not encouraged but they did go on, however a lot of medication related sexual dysfunction also happened, stopped some of the sexual behaviours and this is still a problem today. Sadly one of the biggest barriers to people remaining on medication that is otherwise beneficial to them in terms of preventing relapse and keeping them well and happy is the fact that it destroys their sex life. I did and do believe that patients have a right to open and honest discussion about sexual side effects and we don’t talk about it enough. We need to be trained to discuss alternative ways of maintaining sexual intimacy in relationships and we need to prepare patients before they start the meds, NOT wait until their orgasm is retarded or simply doesn’t happen.( This is a common side effect of SSRI’s, for example) We need to be able to refer service users for sexual therapy if they require it.

“I do recall that one male patient was with another lady in the cricket pavilion and he rushed back in a distressed state. She had collapsed and he mistook a seizure for sexual ecstasy. That curtailed their sex life! It kind of put him off.

“We had staff cricket matches- our social club had team and home matches which were quite well supported and we played matches and games in the grounds which were extensive. Some patients would wander over, others would be taken to watch. The kitchens would celebrate patients special events and birthdays with beautiful home baked birthday cake and other celebrations. They’d make match teas too. Staff related to their patients over a period of time and tried to make value of their lives, tried to make it constructive with events that would stand out in their mind, create memories that were happy and good. There were horrible staff, but not hugely. The kitchen staff tended to get on very well with the patients because they got hugely positive feedback for the food they cooked- it was a highlight of the day, sadly, and so patients would feel very warmly towards the chefs and cooks. They’d try to get in the kitchens and snaffle food too (and staff would be bringing up the rear!).

“With regard to the upsetting side of the profession and life in St Audrys- I recall one elderly patient got to their mid sixties and had been depressed for decades. They’d been in for MECT (modified electro convulsive therapy- what we used to call ECT), lived life for thirty years with depression. Existed really. Decided in their sixth decade that this was it so took themself into the bathroom with a bread knife, was found but took three days to die- They just couldn’t recover. This patient got the knife from the kitchen as the elderly ward was not secure. Even when the kitchen was out of bounds, if you looked at what patients made themselves implement wise- my god that was a cabinet of horrors. We’d be as careful as we could, counting tools and implements in and out, checking everything was secure but sometimes things happened. That death had profound effects upon me and others. The sense that all we’d done was postponed this person’s death for decades and decades because they had been so depressed for so long. The staff were very shaken by that and the patients too. This can trigger spate suicide attempts among them so we promoted a time of high awareness and modified our awareness of risk factors. Grief is not always shown in way you expect by people whether they are deemed mentally well or ill. In fact Freud stated that the times when man (and woman) are unreachable to both therapy and reason is during times of bereavement or when they are falling in love. Freud spoke some sense here.

“We question ourselves also. What could we do better? What was the point of our jobs? Yes- we ask that too when we work so hard to try to keep somebody alive when they themselves do not thank you for it nor wish you to do it. In other branches of medicine patients and relatives say “Thank you for saving him, Doctor and Nurse” and “Thank you for saving me, Doctor or Nurse”. We cannot be assured of that response. Of course now we have all manner of risk assessments and critical incident evaluation and clinical and peer supervision to help us manage ourselves and others when things like this happen. Not then. We went home or to the pub or staff social club. Or we just buried it in our minds and carried on. We developed a dark humour, still have that dark humour and it is psyche saving, it really is but of course we needed to be careful who overheard because not everybody understands that it is not something that truly reflected how we felt about our patients. Our peers and indeed many of the patients themselves got it. I remember the patients with the most immensely acute and sharp sense of humour and sense of the ridiculous. They knew everything that was going on and nothing got past them.

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“Patients lived for decades there and died there too. The hospital had its own morgue and graveyard and we buried patients in it if their families had no other plans for them. Or sometimes families chose our graveyard because after all, the hospital may have been their loved ones only or main home and of course their fellow patients grieved for them and had a grave to visit. Sadly now, the graveyard has not been maintained. I find this very insulting to the patients memories, in fact I get really angry whenever I think of it and I used to go and lay flowers there every time I visited the area. I planted loads of Spring bulbs too. I wonder what happened to them. The patients used to love the snowdrops and aconites.

“Staff had to deal with patients’ relatives dying too – breaking the news to them and of course there were marital break ups that we had to support patients through. Their parents start dying and when you’ve had schizophrenia since you were seventeen and you are now fifty, you are very likely to have no friends off the wards and those parents are the only relatives that visit you. Remember that stigma of mental illness was much much worse and families often did not mention their sick relative in the local psychiatric hospital. The patient with schizophrenia now is in NO way comparable to what they were like twenty, thirty, forty years ago. The modern meds arrest the break up of the personality that we used to see with the older drugs such as Chlorpromazine which wasn’t nicknamed ‘Liquid Cosh’ for the hell of it. On these old drugs they became ciphers, empty vessels. A very harrowing thing to see and difficult to work with as we all need that feedback from those we communicate with. Getting little response every day, little emotion showing. Very hard and very sad. And that is just our perspective- imagine what it must have been like for them. Our difficulties pale into comparison. When we saw a spark of the old personality struggle through the haze of drugs, well, it was painful to see. I still feel ashamed of the effects of those drugs- the extrapyramidal side effects as they are known such as the dystonias (abnormal muscle tone resulting in muscular spasm and abnormal posture), dyskinesias (impairment of muscle movement) and akathesias (compulsion to move, inability to be still). Once these had set in, they never went away, becoming entrenched and incredibly disabling. There are some even worse ones too and some, rarely, caused death through something called Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome (NMS). Ironically, I didn’t experience my first patient death to because of NMS until late in the 90’s when a patient had a totally unexpected and devastating reaction to a small stat dose of a antipsychotic medication, a decade and a half after we stopped using Chlorpromazine so freely.

“There were great minds trapped by psychotic conditions such as Schizophrenia. One person who was forty or close to it, had an ageless trapped face. His psyche was trapped. He used to move chess pieces around the board, take half of them off and it all looked random until you looked more closely and spoke to family. He was a chess champion, with a phenomenal brain, plotting seven or eight moves ahead. I worked in dementia too- these people have experiences they cannot always tell us but they are all great experiences. Remember their personhood. I used to ensure their rooms were plastered with photos, drawings, things that reminded us and them of their lives, their families and I brought in changes that were based upon some research I (and then some other staff) conducted into the effects of colour and other markers to improve mood and orientation. Remember that then, the research base for nursing was meagre and there was no real support in the UK such as grants and continuing professional development (CPD) in a formalised manner. We instigated those changes and they worked well. Twenty years after this Kitwood started his own exploration of dementia care and a lot of the principles he developed were ones that, all those years ago, I explored, although the trust then wasn’t that interested in supporting what we (and I) were doing.

“I recall this one patient, who’d been quite psychotic some 8-10 years. Had this belief that one day men would take a rocket ship into space, fly around, then land that same rocket back on earth. This patient was completely fixated on men flying into space- it absorbed so much of their thinking. Then in the year of the first space shuttle I was on the ward with them and the shuttle was making a final approach to land, all televised. I tried to engage them in discussion about this, tried to explain what was happening. They would NOT engage in the reality of it and then went back into their patter of ‘one day’ .”No mate, it HAS happened!” The actual reality of it was not the point for this patient. Their delusional framework was completely constructed around the future event and not it as reality and there was little success in challenging this. The patient wanted to retain that dream of a great and magical feat of science.

“There was often a lot of tenderness between patient and nurse- they would want to help us, offer to carry sports equipment and  would insist, fighting for the right to carry stuff back and we’d try to discourage this and guard against appearing to have ‘favourites.’. Anything they could do for you, they would want to try. Patients would know about your life. They would care. They knew the ages of our children, they would closely watch our faces and know instantly if we weren’t right, if we’d had a row with our partner before work. They would ask about it and we would have to manage boundaries without being seen to offend their genuine concern although I do think some staff get hung up about ‘boundaries’ and don’t have the skills to understand when, actually, it is appropriate to share, to let patients into your life a little more. When you work in a place for twenty or more years with patients who have been there for maybe double that time….well… There’s not much they don’t know about you, the hospital, the local area. You ended up all talking about the same thing- not because we didn’t see them as people who’d respond, but because we did interact with them. Patients would chip in and add to conversations and the ones appearing least engaged, would often surprise you. Patients would care about others too, taking you aside “keep an eye on….”They might not tell you why, but you knew it was to be taken very seriously. In fact ignore their observations at your peril.

Yes the old style hospitals have had their day and they were terribly institutionalising- patients often had communal clothing and the stories you hear of them sharing dentures in older times were true. That was untenable. BUT we have also lost a lot. No use talking about caring in a community that doesn’t actually care because it absorbs messages about the mentally unwell from the government and society as a whole- that they don’t matter, that they are not worth spending public funds on and should accept the dregs. That they should be housed in prisons and homeless hostels, in substandard housing or left to manage until they deteriorate to critical levels as opposed to being treated proactively so they maintain their lives in between any relapses in a way that is meaningful to them and to us all. People with mental health problems are so often valued according to the Marxist ideas of a person as economic currency which places untenable pressure upon them to manage within a work and social system that is not predicated upon the intrinsic value of people per se. It is the way we work economically that is broken, not the person with a mental health problem.

Our mental health system is broken and at least the old style hospitals gave the mentally unwell a bed, warm clean clothing, three meals and a sense of community. Now they are left to depend upon relatives with sharp elbows, trying to get the best care they can for their loved ones while government ministers pretend that cuts = better care.

“They must think we are all stupid”

To find out more about NSFTCrisis- the campaign for better mental health care in Norfolk and Suffolk visit them here. 

Telling it like it is- St Audry’s, the story of an asylum’.

 

 

 

 

 

We Review The Wharf, Southwark

 

We came here for Supper after an exhausting afternoon dragging around Winter Wonderland and finding everywhere else full of works Christmas parties, slowly losing hope that we’d find anywhere decent as a walk in bedraggled, Christmas shopping loaded family. The Wharf is a riverside restaurant very near to the National Theatre and other major South Bank attractions and the view at night of the river,Tate Modern spotted Damian Hirst decorated water taxi busying past, bounded by St Pauls Cathedral and crossed by softly blue lit bridges proved a major distraction from our plates of food. Utterly magical and worthy of a inclusion in the prime opening credits of a Richard Curtis movie yet this super prime city location was not reflected in what we were charged: The Wharf has a very reasonable price point and many of the local restaurants in darkest Suffolk charge more.

The restaurant doesn’t serve up cutting edge molecular cuisine and neither does it go for a loftier ‘Haute’ Italian. We are not talking Locanda Locatelli or River Cafe. Instead it has a small carefully chosen menu of classics- calamari, risotti, pasta and pizza all cooked fresh to order. Seafood linguine contained a decent portion of clam, mussels and prawns in a creamy wine-y sauce (couldn’t finish it as they gave us a lot), the risotti is made properly with a good ‘ripple’ across the top when you tilt the plate and the garlic prawns were crunchy, juicy and not something you’d want to eat the day before a hot date.(Loads of garlic!) A good cheesecake and non Italiano-trad brownie made up the bulk of the small pudding menu. Other options included Roasted Butternut Squash with goat’s cheese, roasted peppers, pine kernels, rocket and herb olive oil; arrabiata Linguine spiked with chillies and a classic warm apple tart.

The restaurant was full of locals, working away on laptops and families, latecomers to the groups coming and going, many seemed to know each other. Always a good sign. And that view <sighs>.

 

 

A stay at Alde Garden

The wonderful thing about Suffolk is that it is full of hidden nooks and crannies, winding lanes, pubs in hamlets, woodland that feels unchartered and above all, amazing people with a real commitment to the environment, to their customers and their businesses. Mark and Marie who own and run the White Horse pub in Sweffling, the Alde Gardens campsite and its adjacent hideaway holiday cottage called ‘Badgers Cottage’ are two such people, originally from Southend in next door Essex and now honorary Suffolk folk. Having started the campsite back in June 2010, inspired by their own love of camping and thoughts about how to do it better based upon the sites they visited and love of the environment, they used the revenue from early guests to renovate the White Horse pub, keeping its original character intact and saving yet another one of our country pubs from closure.

Set in the tiny little village of Sweffling a mere few miles away from Saxmundham, Framlingham and the glorious Suffolk Heritage Coastline, conveniently close to the A12 and on the National Cycle Route (National Cycle Network route 1, and the Suffolk Coastal Cycle route – Regional Route 41), the cottage, pub and campsite made for a wonderful and relaxing stay with our every need both anticipated and catered for. Forests (Rendlesham), nature reserves (Minsmere), great food (Farm Cafe at Marlesford) and many places to eat in the various villages and towns, the beach (Dunwich, Orford, Walberswick, Covehithe and Southwold) plus the location in the Alde Valley, a stunningly attractive and fertile farming region, punctuated by wonderful footpaths and views make this region a prime holiday destination whilst retaining its sense of self. People live and work here and this is not obscured by the very necessary tourism that brings in much revenue- there is no tourist ‘Disneyland’ feel about this part of the county.

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Badger Cottage

Alde Garden, as they named the campsite, is set in what was once a larger beer garden belonging to the pub and cleverly gives no hint as to its size and shape, tucked away as it is behind an existing perimeter of hedges and mature trees, criss crossed with pathways following the contours of this sloping site. Each accommodation option-Yurt, Tipi, Bell Tent, Romany caravan, shepherds hut, Hideaway among others, is discreetly placed so as to benefit from the privacy provided by shrubs and trees, wildflowers and woven partitions made from the branches from coppiced trees- willow and hazel…Clusters of indigenous plants have grown and self seeded or been transplanted, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this happens totally naturally. A wild garden requires great discipline and knowledge to ensure it remains balanced and manageable: Mark and Marie work very hard to achieve this and its seemingly effortless beauty  is deceptive.

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Communal facilities can be found grouped near the rear of the pub where a back door off licence serves ice creams and drinks and a nearby fire pit is bordered by log seats and tree stump tables which bore chalk drawings by children staying there (lovely). The jungle shower, ‘Treebog’, shower and bathroom block plus fridge freezer offer discreet, modern and eco friendly facilities whilst the Antipodean style open kitchen is extensively stocked with cooking and eating equipment plus eggs from the ducks, a goose and flock of chickens that roam free in the daytime. The honesty shop sells local products such as sausages, bread and milk, cans of tomatoes, pulses and bags of pasta- and yes these are locally sourced wherever possible too (although it isn’t always possible), this being a guiding principle behind everything Mark and Marie do. This kind of pride in, and loyalty to their home region is incredibly inspiring; even though they live in one of the most bountiful regions of Britain, it still takes considerable time and effort to source goods and services locally, ensure they are of high standard and maintain the continuity of supply for their guests.

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Two nights in Badger Cottage

We stayed at Badger Cottage adjacent to the pub and campsite for two nights and spent our last night sleeping under the canvas of the Dragonfly Yurt inside the camping garden proper- two different types of accommodation with wide appeal for those who want the full camping experience or those wanting to engage with nature but retreat to a bedroom with a ‘proper’ roof at night.

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A converted redbrick stable, adjacent to the pub yet perfectly soundproofed, (the only sounds we heard were of the owls at night and the clatter of the hooves of the Welsh Cobb that offered trips in a trap around the local area each evening), Badger Cottage has been beautifully restored by Mark and Marie, avoiding twee pastiches of country cottage decor and offering a surprising amount of space for a home so small. Is the ultimate convenient location for local ale lovers being next to the CAMRA recommended White Horse Inn. A  low-impact place to stay, renovations were carried out using environmentally friendly paints and other natural building materials such as lime, and re-using reclaimed materials whenever possible. Most of the furniture and fittings are either recycled, beautifully hand-made from reclaimed materials or sourced locally. Solar panels heat the water for the bath, and all lights have low energy light bulbs. The cast iron woodburner is a very efficient way of heating the living room alongside a central heating system for deepest winter and water is collected via a system of water butts for the garden and livestock needs.

Two days in, we were still noticing all kinds of handmade features for the first time: stone corbels with Acanthus carvings holding up sitting room beams and doorways, beautiful wall art made from reclaimed items and the detail on the stairs which themselves are stunning although families with very adventurous babies and toddlers will need to keep a close eye on them. The stairs are partially open to the mezzanine bedroom over the main sitting room so little hands needing to hold onto a rail will have to take extra care here. Mark and Marie have made atmospheric and decorative tableaux everywhere you look- a hand forged cast iron candelabra on the kitchen table, dark red wax dripping down the cups in front of the dramatic Ecclesiastical arched window, cushion covered chair pulled up in front; a stack of wonderfully scented wood built in under the stairs with fruit crate filled with bottles of beer in front and cast iron wood burner to the side, metal flue shining brightly and contrasting with the oldness of the walls; white cast iron bath with metal bath rack, space for a book and little vases with posies of Honeysuckle; rustic stacks of wooden coasters on a side table in front of the dramatic cast iron and wood stairs….

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There is WiFi in the cottage, the grounds and some of the camping accommodation, a TV, a DVD player and stack of films in the cupboard plus plenty of books, games and magazines to borrow, two comfy sofas to sit on and french doors to throw open, allowing the room to catch the late afternoon rays as you wind down after a day exploring Suffolk. The little sitting space outside the cottage has a woven hazel hurdle fence, a small table and chair set plus that glorious Virginia Creeper covering the cottage which was just beginning to turn flame red during our stay.

Both bedrooms, although mezzanine, offer a good level of privacy and noise proofing and they are accessed via different rooms- the front bedroom from the sitting room and the back room from the kitchen/dining area. The tiny front bedroom window with its attached bird feeders and thick curtains keeping out the early morning light was particularly attractive and as we lay in bed listening to the calls of a lonesome owl (He was shouting his head off, in search of a mate!) feeling sheltered and warm under the rafters of this cosy room, we could see how lovely a stay here in winter would be. The bedroom has the feel of a treetop hideaway surrounded as we were by beams and the furniture made of reclaimed wood and the guest bedroom balustrade has been made from sumptuous Vietnamese teak that was destined for the dump- a criminal waste that would have been! Lush throws and cushions, good quality squishy duvets and pillows and a deep deep mattress made the bedrooms feel super luxe-the draperies in the master room have been skillfully handmade by Marie’s mum. I had an impulse to bounce and leap up and down on the bed like a gleeful child when I first saw it but (1) that would have been very disrespectful to the mattress and (2) those cross beams up high would have knocked me out. Travel cots are available and need to be reserved at time of booking.

The second bedroom is on a private little mezzanine over the kitchen with wooden staircase and banisters, two wooden single beds and a little sofa overlooking wall art, high above the kitchen which is itself well equipped with a dishwasher, all the equipment you will need and a supply of tea and coffee. Warm rugs cover the quarry tiled floors. The bathroom is particularly lovely- a Victorian free standing cast iron bath, beautiful wash stand and simple, fuss free decor; the heated towel rail and toiletries from a local company will lure you into spending plenty of time soaking here. There is enough space to bath more than one child at a time (saves water!) whilst a parent can sit nearby with a book or glass of wine, keeping an eye on them. There is an over the bath shower, solar panels heat the water and electricity is also from a renewable source –the 100% renewable energy tariff from Ecotricity,

Reading the Saturday papers is one of my must do weekly rituals and sitting at the wooden kitchen table next to the arched window that overlooks the lane beside the cottage, cheese sandwich made from Suffolk Gold cheese and Pump Street Bakery bread bought from Snape Maltings farmers market, late afternoon sun streaming in, I felt peaceful and grounded, not something that is always guaranteed when staying in a rental home or hotel. Newspapers are available from the nearby small towns of Framlingham or Saxmundham and the Farmcafe at Marlesford on the A12 has free papers to read as you eat too.

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We waved to the tourists out on their pony and trap ride courtesy of Alde Driving (for bookings call 01728 746226) as they passed the kitchen window each evening and ended up going for a ride around  the villages of Sweffling and Rendham as a result, enjoying a chat with the driver about local history and laughing at his very nosy pony. Guests can book both short and long routes (from £25 per ride), rides are often available summer evenings and can be pre-booked for day time. Staying at Alde Garden and Badger Cottage offered plenty of opportunities to meet local people, other guests and the owners who encouraged us to mingle and get to know each other through spending time in the communal areas (fire pit, outdoor kitchen) and walking around the gardens. Yet we never felt either obliged to socialise (there are plenty of people who honeymoon here so clearly there is privacy to be had) nor did we feel that it was hard to find a private space. Guests here seemed sensitive if they saw you with your head bent over a book or sitting on a log staring dreamily into space.

Although the cottage is a little separate from the campsite- we had to go through a gate or set of steps past the rear of the pub (taking us on a wander through a romantic tangle of flower and leaf edged pathway) to access it, all guests of the cottage can use the campsite facilities. At night we wandered into the pub which was a whole twenty or so steps away and ended up retiring to the campfire afterwards, fairylights and solar path lights guiding our way in a part of Suffolk with very little light pollution, to talk to other guests, roast a few sausages, drink more local ale and just be. It is possible of course, to be completely private as guests while staying in the cottage if this is what you wish and it provides enough separateness to do this without leaving you feeling awkward and guilty about not ‘mingling’ enough.

A night in Dragonfly Yurt

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Our last night was spent in Dragonfly Yurt which has been designed and furnished with family and group visits in mind- it is camping but with a luxury edge to it, ideal for the first time camper in fact. Built on the site by Mark and Marie from locally coppiced ash and hazel, tucked away in a corner to the front right of the open kitchen, in sight of the fire pit and sheltered by a windbreak of hedgerow and within easy reach of the loo in the darkest of nights, the yurt is bright, spacious and airy. The intricately trellised structure, lit by fairy lights and casting shadows across the floor which is thickly protected by rugs and rustic matting is magical at night when the woodburner is lit (handmade again from recycled materials and featuring a delicate engraving of a Dragonfly), swiftly warming an evening which had turned unseasonally cold. The private outdoor area faces west so as to catch the afternoon sun and has a seating area carved from fallen trees and a little barbecue although the handbuilt pizza oven, fire pit and open kitchen also offer ample scope for cooking.

Peeping through the trees can be seen other accommodation options, each set in its own little area to satisfy the human need for personal territory. The Romany caravan has a history unknown although it is believed to be at least 100 years old. With the help of a carpenter it has been restored it in traditional gypsy caravan style & design, using lots of recycled materials and provides a double bed plus under the bed child’s sleeping area. I was smitten by the roof of the ‘The Hideout’ – a cosy little retreat tucked away in a small clearing amid the trees and shrubs, almost totally hidden from view of everyone else and accessed by dipping your head to walk under a woven bower of branches and plants. Two glass panels in the roof allow a wonderful view of the nature around you – whether it be dragonflies, birds & butterflies during the daytime or bats and stars at night and most wonderfully of all, this roof is tiled with old ’45 vinyl records rescued from landfill.

Waking in the morning to see the shadows of the Indian Running Ducks that roam the site freely, cast against the canvas of our yurt, slowly moving closer until they peered one by one round our open door was the quirkiest (and best) memory. The most intrepid (and nosy) of the ducks had spent the previous afternoon engrossed in watching a young couple erect their own tent near to the pond, ducking its head into the canvas flap opening from time to time, shaking itself free of stray guy ropes and investigating their bags strewn over the grass.

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Upright in shape, as opposed to the more traditional forms ducks take, these ducks provided hours of entertainment alongside the other breeds of chickens, fluffy of foot, tiny and swift moving and also prone to the occasional squabble as all chickens are wont to be. A rather mardy Gander lives in its own pen adjacent to the pub and it is advisable NOT to try to befriend him but the rest of the livestock is friendly although of course, children are discouraged from chasing. And dogs are not allowed on site. The children we met were content to sit and watch and scatter the floor with bird food supplied for this purpose and kept on the shelves of the communal kitchen. Watching chickens come flying over from all corners of the site after hearing the faintest of sounds as we picked up the container was hilarious, If they’d have been human sized, we’d have been knocked flat in the crush.

Scattered all over the site, there for you (and pint sized guests) to find are little bowers, nooks and hideaways. Whippy young stems are encouraged to grow or are tied into shape, log seats placed inside and all that is needed then is a child (or adult) with untrammelled imagination. The fact that these hideaways frequently house dust bathing chickens was a source of huge joy to the little kids we met there- Five year old bi-lingual Emily was certain that “Hadas y dragones viven aquí!” (Fairies and dragons live here) as she tucked herself inside one of them, shooing away the Bantam chicken inside and firing up her already very active imagination. We won’t give away the location of these- the fun is in finding them for yourselves. Mark and Marie have provided packs of chalk, pots of crayons and drawing paper by the shelter kitchen table with haybales pulled up to sit on, many children have decorated the pages of the guest books and written expansive accounts of their stay, whilst other children have decorated the outdoor seats and tree trunks with rainbows of chalk and happy messages. Emily took it one step further and draw elaborate designs all over our knees with both the chalk and the charcoal laying around the fire pit. She thus learned where artists charcoal came from.

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This part of Suffolk, although not as flat as many believe the county to be, is easily walked or cycled. Hills are gently undulating, slope gradually and offer plenty of stopping -off -to -catch-breathe-points. Hence, Alde Garden offers plenty of push bikes, some fitted with child seats (or one baby seat) and accompanying safety helmets for guests to use free of charge. Local bike hire companies can provide two seat cycle trailers, delivered to the site and Mark or Marie can suggest some great local bike routes that are suited to your energy levels or fitness. To be honest, we didn’t use these, nor did we explore the local region much by foot because the campsite is such a restful place and for us, the need to restore energy levels and be still was pretty important. We did notice plenty of families with car boots stuffed with scooters, trikes and various pieces of water sport equipment so clearly Alde Garden appeals to people who want more activity from their break than we did.

We had already heard great things about the White Horse pub as one of our friends is both owner and head brewer at Shortts Farm Brewery near Thorndon and he supplies Mark and Marie with his ales, Skiffle, Indie and Blondie. In fact, our first acquaintance with the pub came when Matt took us there last July and so we were very happy to have the chance to return and get very settled and comfortable in one of the deep sofas in the lounge bar. Having to drive great distances, therefore being unable to enjoy more than a pint (some of these real ales are, real strong!) means country pubs can struggle to attract a regular clientele outside of the locals living close by so being able to stay next door (and it really is next door!) was something we intended (especially my husband) to make the most of.

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The White Horse has had the life breathed back into it after being closed for 8 years, until Mark and Marie took it on. Over 200 years old, the pub shares the same values as the campsite and cottage with reclaimed and locally made fixtures and fittings.. A wood burning stove in the lounge bar and an old Esse range cooker (with back boiler to heat various radiators) in the public bar keep things snug too whilst eco bulbs and candlelight keep lighting low- you will not be assaulted by bright electric lights and the pub is reminiscent of how it must have been two centuries ago whilst not sacrificing modern comforts too. Rows of pewter mugs belonging to locals are lined up on hooks by the front door, a piano piled high with boxed board games; Othello and Scrabble among them, newspapers and local tourist info, Bar Billiards and a dart board are all the traditional markings of a village pub that is a hub. It would have been a tragedy for Sweffling had it been been sold and turned into a private house.

Don’t look for the bar when you walk in as it has an old-style tap room where locally brewed real ales are served straight from the barrel, proper ploughmans are made and dished up alongside a range of local ice creams- the lemon and ginger? So delicious I had two pots of it. In winter the owners make hot pies, using the wood oven and when we were there, several locals were eagerly anticipating the colder weather that would herald The Season of the Pie. Scotch eggs the size of a small planet, freshly made, locally baked Huffer bread made in a wood fire and served with local rapeseed dipping oil were the last items on the small but perfect menu. The pub also stocks some local spirits, a selection of local or fairtrade organic wines, soft drinks & a small array of speciality spirits. Don’t expect Coca Cola and Fanta or similarly branded soft drinks: the cola is by Fentiman made with proper Kola nuts and many drinks are sourced locally, from East Anglia and where possible, Suffolk. Any varieties of drink not available locally are sourced from Fairtrade or other similarly ethical or groovy suppliers. My favourite was Marie’s hot spiced apple drink with spice and raisin-y undertones whilst husband tucked into a range of local ales, Absinthe from Adnams and Papagaya rum (not all on the same night, thank goodness!).

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Staying here was the perfect recuperation after our wedding: a frenetically busy year at work and a recent burglary all conspired to leave us a tad ragged round the edges. The yurt and cottage offer two slightly different experiences and most of all, flexibility with guests able to choose how much they want to participate in campsite life, all in a glorious location.

A great marriage between eco awareness and the expectation of guests regarding their holidays means that newbies to the concept of low impact living aren’t put off (there is no proselytising) or made to feel inadequate. Rather they will go away with some ideas about how to make often very simple changes that benefit them, their purse and the world. In addition, Alde Garden is a great example of how holidays, not traditionally known for moderation and low consumption, whether this be in travel or fuel costs, buying unnecessary crap and over consuming generally, can be incorporated into a lower impact, more thoughtful way of living. Attracting families with young children is key to instilling these kind of values in a gentle, enjoyable way and Alde Garden does this cleverly with its little signs, activities and information showing kids why certain plants and environments are important (one example) and making water awareness fun- the Treebog and Jungle Shower are perfect fun for kids and adults too.

For us, the chance to meet Marie, Mark and many locals alongside the other guests was what made this short break even more special and we will definitely be returning.

Alde Garden website

Badger Cottage page

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Season of the witch in East Anglia

As a child I often drove past the roadside marker commemorating the execution of a witch near Hadleigh in Suffolk, causing me to develop a horrified fascination with this unpalatable aspect of East Anglian history. If I had known aged ten that the largest single witch trial in England took place in Bury St Edmunds in 1645 when 18 people were executed by hanging, I’d have flatly refused to travel there with my grandparents on market days.

Many people remain unaware of how Bury St Edmunds in particular influenced witch hunting and trials all over Europe and particularly in the United States. The presence of Matthew Hopkins, the self styled ‘Witchfinder’ led to East Anglia becoming synonymous with witch hunts and his continued activity was guaranteed by the fiscal benefits it offered- he made a small fortune because local parishes paid him a fee for his investigations. Suffolk and Norfolk had been made prosperous through the wool and other trades – the villages of Long Melford and Lavenham are testimony to this with their astonishingly dramatic churches built from wealth, and locals had money to spend in pursuit of proof of Puritanical compliance and religious devotion. It has been estimated that over 100 executions happened across East Anglia that can be attributed to the work of Hopkins. The 1603 Witchcraft Act brought an end to this in an era that had till then provided a ‘perfect storm’ of factors- a civil war, politics, religion and a belief in the supernatural underpinned by a collective external locus of control, which made Hopkins and his ilk so persuasive and successful.

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A drawing of Hopkins from his book The Discovery Of Witches

This frenzy that gripped the Bury area in the 17th century served as template and encouragement for the Salem witch trials in the States resulting in around 200 witch trials in the area in the mid-17th century- another more grotesque link to add to the already strong connections between New England and East Anglia.

Says James Sharpe, professor of early modern history at the University of York and author of the books Instruments Of Darkness and The Bewitching Of Anne Gunter on the BBC Radio Suffolk website-

“It’s a very important part of the history of Bury St Edmunds. I think there’s a recognition that the trials were important for the development of law and the price paid by innocent people because others had accused them of witchcraft.”

Thingoe Hill in the town was the usual gathering place for crowds to watch the public hangings and burnings of witches- in 1662 two elderly widows from Lowestoft were put to death after being accused of casting spells upon the daughters of a local fish merchant, Samuel Pacey. Amy Denny and Rose Cullender were stripped naked and Cullender was seen to possess a growth on her body that was believed to be a teat used to suckle her Devil’s familiar (a pig, a cat or a toad, usually) which, added to other ‘evidence’ – misfortune suffered by neighbours, the deaths of horses, pigs and cattle, and a man being infested with lice, sealed their fates. The eminent men who sat in judgement on the women, a respected doctor and an esteemed local judge meant the trial and its proceedings acquired the status of ‘case law’ and in Salem, the presiding American magistrates studied the report of the Bury trial and modelled their system of inquiry and judgement upon it.

As a result, East Anglia has a plethora of visitor attractions and events that seek to remember this interesting period of history from museums to special attractions at local stately homes and parks. In Bury St Edmunds, the local museum on Market Hill called Moyse’s Hall has well curated exhibits of witch bottles and accoutrements, dead cats and shoes, either donated or recovered from houses where they were bricked up behind walls to ward off witches/evil spirits. Usually single shoes and not pairs were entombed near doors, windows and chimneys. Sometimes other items were hidden with the shoes- coins, pipes, spoons, pots, toys, goblets, food, knives, gloves, chicken and cat bones.

Standing on one corner of the market place for over 900 years, Moyses Hall dates from the 12th century and can boast a rich and varied past as the town gaol, workhouse and police station. Serving as a town museum since 1899, it recounts the creation of the early town from the building and dissolution of the Abbey, to prison paraphernalia and artifacts of witchcraft and superstitions.

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Moyses Hall cats

The numerous house cats that were buried alive in the 17th century in the hope that they would repel witches still turn up in East Anglia as old buildings are reclaimed and restored. The Mill Hotel in Sudbury, overlooking the Millpond and famous water meadows immortalised by Gainsborough and Constable, has on display its own mummified cat, walled up behind protective glass at the rear of the main reception. Remains of a cat were also found in at the Dukes Head Hotel in Kings Lynn, in room 10 during October 2011. Elizabethan House on Great Yarmouth’s South Quay has, in its attic, a perfectly preserved skeleton of a cat underneath the floorboards (The attic is not open to the public but they generously sent us a photo which is below). This ‘little palace’ as Daniel Defoe described it is located in the heart of the heritage quarter and showcases life in Tudor times through hands on displays.

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Mummified cat at Elizabethan House by kind permission

Cats weren’t the only anti witchcraft technique used by domestic home owners. At the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum near Norwich, staff will tell you about how old pairs of trousers were found stuffed up a chimney, possibly to stop witches from flying into the house. When you consider the cost of fabric, the time it took to make and repair clothing by hand and the income levels of many working class families, their talismanic status is better understood. Giving up a pair of trousers was no easy decision.

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Witches bottle at Gressenhall

Halloween saw Gressenhall Museum celebrating all things spooky with their ‘Witches in the Workhouse’ over two days a few years ago and this year they have ‘Ghostly Gressenhall. Discover objects of superstition from the museum collections and spot the bats hiding in the collections gallery then take a witch-rich tour and hear chilling tales in the dark corridors of the workhouse. Among the museum’s artefacts collected from all over the region to illustrate life in Norfolk down the ages is a witch bottle from the 17th century. Found near the Tumble Down Dick public house at Woodton, these bottles served as talismanic protection against actual or threatened illness. They were usually filled with urine or nail clippings, sometimes from the sick person, with nails, pins, or threads added in too, tightly corked and either set to heat by the hearth or buried it in the ground. This, as Joseph Blagrave wrote in Astrological Practice of Physick (1671), ‘will endanger the witches’ life, for … they will be grievously tormented, making their water with great difficulty, if any at all’

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Tollhouse Museum

Great Yarmouth’s Tollhouse Museum, a 12th Century medieval former merchant’s house has been transformed into one of the town’s most important civic buildings with a vibrant timetable of family friendly activities and many exhibits commemorating the towns past history of crime and punishment, often with a maritime flair. Built about 800 years ago, grand home of a rich merchant with its sturdy stone walls, finely carved doorway and arched windows, it was acquired by civic officials whereupon it served as courtroom for various different types of courts, the town gaol with the notorious dungeon known as ‘the hold’, and a police station. Over the years it has been home to pirates, robbers and murderers as well as countless common crooks. It has been attacked by rebels and rioters and gutted by enemy bombs. Staff here can tell you the story of Marcus Prynne, a local gardener accused of witchcraft in 1645; not all witches were female, a commonly held misapprehension, and the gaol cells are the site for spooky Halloween story telling as visitors ‘meet’ the witches on trial and find out their grisly fate in atmospheric evenings of costume drama.

Drive up to the North Norfolk coast to Davenports Magic Kingdom in North Walsham and visit the largest collection of magic and allied arts memorabilia in Europe- a time-travel tour through the history of British magical entertainment and the place of one unique family in that story. Admission cost includes the ‘Witches to Wonder’ exhibition, a 30-minute live magic show, live Headless Lady sideshow and a visit to the re-creation of Davenport’s 1915 shop with its very own magician demonstrating magic tricks from the period.

‘Witches to Wonder’ artefacts on display include a first edition of ‘Discoverie of Witchcraf’t, written in 1584 and now recognized as the first published material on conjuring, and the full-size reproduction of Harry Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Tank, built for the film Death Defying Acts starring Catherine Zeta Jones.

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Fye Bridge

The oldest known bridge in Norwich is at Fye Bridge, down the road from ancient Tombland leading to Magdalen Street. A 13th century structure, it was rebuilt in 1829 and later widened and was once the site of a medieval ducking stool that was used for witches and if they survived they were burned to death. The Norwich author, George Borrow, writing in the 19th century commits to paper, some of the horror of Lollards Pit in Norwich where  people were burned to death for their religious beliefs. Walking through the thronged crowds from the Guildhall Jail over the Bishopsgate Bridge they would spy the faggots of wood piled high on their pyre and be handed over by the church to the authorities and executed. The location married both symbolism and practicality. The pits were formed after the excavations for the nearby cathedral and so proved handy, avoiding the need for the removal of bodies at a time when disease could easily be spread and their location was just outside the city walls, symbolising the casting out of the condemned from the church and decent society.

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Today the Bridge House pub (built over the holding cells) stands where once the pits and execution place stood and a plaque commemorating those who died so awfully is fixed to its wall. On the other side of the road, on the riverbank, is another plaque, hailing the executed as martyrs, naming up to a dozen who died all those centuries ago. It is said the screams of the people are still heard and witches can be seen crossing the bridge.

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Moot Hall

Moot Hall in Aldeburgh archives the life of this famous Suffolk seaside town which, around 1662, did not enjoy the relative prosperity and regard that it boasts today. Outbreaks of smallpox, loss of livelihood to marauding pirates, the three Dutch trade Wars (1652-74) which culminated in the terrible Battle of Sole Bay fought off Southwold in 1672 and the influx of sailors requiring help all caused hardship. Add to this a declining population less able to work and imbue the town with wealth and it is not surprising that the town was caught up in a wave of hysteria against so-called ‘witches’ which swept through East Anglia. Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witch Finder General, and widow Phillips, his search woman, were employed by the Burgesses to flush out witches in Aldeburgh. Seven women were imprisoned in the Moot Hall’s prison in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record. They were prevented from sleeping and watched for proof of their guilt – that is for the coming of their familiar spirits. Eventually, cold, hungry and exhausted, they may well have confessed and were all hanged in February 1646.

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Framlingham Castle

Framlingham Castle moat formed the backdrop to the ‘swimming’ of another suspected male witch named John Lowes, the elderly vicar of Brandeston who was accused of witchcraft in 1642. After being ‘swum’ in the moat, and found guilty after floating to the surface, Witchfinder Hopkins (Yes, him again) “kept Lowes awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath… till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”. Ultimately, Lowes ‘confessed’ to sending imps to sink a ship near Harwich and allegedly proclaimed that he “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”. Lowes was hanged at Bury St Edmunds in August 1645. A plaque dedicated to Lowes can be seen in Brandeston’s All Saints Church and an image of his hanging is on the village sign. The castle itself makes a dramatic day out for families with its majestic turreted buildings set at the edge of the small market town, surrounded by grassed park, a small pond and numerous places to eat and drink. The end of each October sees the castle putting on Halloween events based on witch hunting with children invited to participate in an interactive adventure.

The Millers Tale has gathered together some of the region’s best Halloween events in a guide here. From ghostly walks around Norwich to Scaresville at Kentwell Hall, there’s something for every age group.