Do you watch Countryfile?

Do you though, really?

You can tell me, my lips are sealed.

If you are a secret Countryfileophile, now is the time to come out of the gilet-closet and stand up and be counted, because you are far from alone.



I read this weekend the startling news that Countryfile is the most watched TV programme in the COUNTRY – seriously, it is.. And in the towns and cities too. In fact everywhere in the whole of the land.

More than lavish Ruskie bloodbath War and Peace. Incredibly, even more than Call the 50’s-Stereotypes-on-Bicycles-My-Contractions-are-Very-Close-Together-Nyaarrrghhh.

And that has Miranda in it.

But then, in one of those 360 degree turns that characterise modern life, 24 hours later Countryfile was in the Naughty Corner and everyone was OUTRAGED. Let me give you a little sample:

‘I may never watch it again’ Countryfile viewers enraged as show ‘glorifies slaughter’

COUNTRYFILE viewers were left fuming during tonight’s “brutal” edition of the family landscape programme as Matt Baker talked butchering.’

LOL, as the young folk say. LOL again.

So the viewers of Countryfile, or at least the OUTRAGED ones, are ASTONISHED to find that meat comes from dead animals and sometimes a person has to SLAUGHTER them. This disgusting practice is called – whisper it now – BUTCHERING.

As so often these days, I feel like the satirists should just pack it all in as a bad job and go home. I know that it is a requirement of modern life – a duty even – that we are supposed to be OUTRAGED about everything all the time. But surely people weren’t really shocked to see the odd dead animal on a programme called Countryfile, or do these shocked viewers think that farmers just wait at the side of the field until the baa-lambs die of old age?

I think the most telling phrase in this shock-horror report is this one – ‘FAMILY LANDSCAPE PROGRAMME’. The country is marketed as a ‘landscape’ – a setting, a cosy place to get your Hunters a bit muddy and let Persephone and Horatio get all rosy-cheeked and tired out inthe fresh air for bedtime. God forbid if this imagined rural idyll is shattered by some people Doing Farming.

Every so often the local paper here in the Village will have a story about some townies moving to the countryside and complaining about mud on the road, cows being too moo-ey or the bells ringing on a Sunday morning. But this is a step further: townies complaining about the countryside without even leaving their sofas.

This is the weird thing about the countryside – everyone wants to live there, but no one wants to, you know, LIVE there. Only 18% of us live in the countryside, so why is every other shop called Go Outdoors? Because the countryside has become a hobby and a lifestyle, not a way of life.

Waxing lyrical about the richness of the agricultural soil, but not actually wanting to till it.

Admiring the lovely cows in the fields but not wanting to pay a decent price for the milk producers.

Pootling around the lovely isolated villages at the weekend but conveniently allowing the bus services that connect the old and the young and the poor with the towns and the work and effectively suck the life out of those lovely isolated villages.

Yes, Countryfile looks beautiful, but the country life in The Real Life isn’t a landscape.

You can trust me on this subject.

Maybe I should start offering my own little tours of the Real Countryfile. I can start by chucking manure at your car, lobbing a pheasant at your windscreen till it shatters then leaving you at a windswept bus stop for a service then was cancelled in 2011.

Let’s see what Matt Baker makes of that.

Picture credit

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

As I was young and easy

Young Dylan

Today is Dylan Thomas’ 100th birthday.

Now God knows I would have loved to have invited him round for a cup of tea and a cupcake – for Dylan I would have even cracked out the cake tin and checked the flour for mites and made him one myself, and not even my daughters get that on their birthday.

Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly for a poet in love with the bottle, Dylan was dead long before I was born.

He never saw 40, let alone 100.

Thomas’s poetry has never been less than loved, by the public at least, in his lifetime and after. His centenary has been the subject of many events, centred around his semi-mythical writing shed. (Like many writers, he did a lot of things in his writing shed, very few of them actual writing. Thank God there was no internet in those days, or he would never have got anything done.)

In intellectual circles, though, Thomas can be treated a little sniffily. The Wikipedia entry for Thomas describes his work as ‘accessible’, which is code for ‘a bit TOO popular, often read at funerals’.

Well, whatever. I adore him. I can recite big chunks of his poetry, and often will, unprompted. It’s hard to get me to stop.

I first saw Under Milk Wood as a little girl, when my sister performed in the play at school (‘call me Dolores like they do in the stories’).

Before I saw Under Milk Wood, I was a reader. But after, I fell in love with words. Drunk on assonance, seduced by the lavish imagery. And the alliteration! Oh the alliteration.

If you have never listening to the beginning of Under Milk Wood read by Richard Burton then I envy you. I have heard it, read it, countless times and it can still make me shiver, go all goosebumply.

Back then I couldn’t have told you why Dylan’s words got so tangled round my heart. It wasn’t his rock and roll roistering reputation. I knew nothing of that back then. He was just a name on a page; he looked pretty respectable.

Now though, I can tell you why his poetry was so potent. It is that combination of sweet and sprightly melancholy, lyrical but imbued with sadness. I can tell you this because it has given me a taste for energetic sadness; for poetic, word-heavy morbidity that runs through my record collection – from The Bluetones to Johnny Flynn – and my dvd shelf.

Cheery sadness – so long Dylan and thanks for all the paradoxes.

There was something else though. Thomas wrote about ordinary people in the most passionate and compassionate of ways.

In Under Milk Wood we see his sense of the sacredness of humanity. The high point of this is the description of Bessie Big Head, the lowest and the least of the people of Milk Wood.

Look up Bessie Bighead in the White Book of Llaregyb and

you will find the few haggard rags and the one poor

glittering thread of her history laid out in pages there

with as much love and care as the lock of hair of a first

lost love. Conceived in Milk Wood, born in a barn, wrapped

in paper, left on a doorstep, bigheaded and bass-voiced

she grew in the dark until long-dead Gomer Owen kissed her

when she wasn’t looking because he was dared.

That is the beautiful tenderness at the heart of Thomas’ writing – that life is precious and must be treasured – the one poor glittering thread of her history laid out in pages there with as much love and care as the lock of hair of a first lost love.

But in the end he didn’t take any love and care with his own life, it seems. Dylan had a lot to say about death, did Dylan (hence his popularity at funerals). Like much of his writing and his life, it is contradictory, ambivalent. But mostly he thinks death can bugger off. And death caught up with him all the same, as it does with all of us.

His wife Caitlin outlasted him for many decades. She died in 1994 and on the front of the paper the next day they printed her death notice under this:

‘Listen. Time passes.’

And so it does.

Dylan Thomas portrait:

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

By destruction, dwell in doubtful joy


This Sunday at 5am, when all sensible people were sleeping off the effects of a high-summer Saturday in the sun, I was lying in bed 200 miles from home squinting at a live stream of a little bit of my heart being reduced to rubble.

I am aware that to most people, the idea of being attached to some cooling towers, concrete monstrosities, and eye-sore on the landscape, seems bizarre at best.

I wrote last year about the sorrow in Didcot when the coal-fired power station was turned off for the final time. Since then, we’ve swapped tower-related gossip and rumour – when are they being demolished? Couldn’t they be saved, somehow, to loom above us as they have always done?(No, said English Heritage. They aren’t ‘unique’ enough to be listed, despite their pleasing aesthetic qualities. Pfft.) And if their days WERE numbered, how could we mark their passing?

There is no doubt that there is real affection for the towers. We even have nicknames for them. The Milk Bottles. The Cloud Makers, after the ways the steam would gather into soft fluffy cotton wool balls and sheepy fleeces, particularly on clear days. The Bumper Cars (no I don’t understand that one either). Didcot Cathedral or the Cathedral of the Valleys.

In fact almost everyone I speak to in the town and the surrounding villages feels extremely fondly about them. Their dads and granddads, uncles and brothers helped build them, sometimes losing their lives in the process. I have heard more than once that ‘my dad’s signature is on one of those bricks’. For many people in the town, there are happy memories of working there, part of a community of workers. They were an unmissable part of the landscape for 40 years and naturally we wanted to be there when they disappeared.

For sentimental reasons, so we could be together when it all ended, but also because bloody hell who wouldn’t want to miss three 100m cooling towers get blown up? That’s not the kind of thing you get to see every day. Also, possibly, we were kinda hoping the debris might squash the neighbouring Daily Mail building, thereby destroying Didcot’s REAL eyesore.

But RWE Npower, who had snaffled up the power station for a bargain price in the great Tory Asset Jumble Sale of the late 20th century, had other ideas. Like a killjoy over-anxious grandma, Granny Npower was determined that we should all just stay indoors in the warm and dry.

‘It will be too dusty! It will be too loud! You can watch it from Far Away on a hill! Oh no, actually you can’t because that would also be too exciting and you will get all dust on your nice clean clothes. Anyway we don’t know when we might demolish it. Could be 2am, could be 3, might be later, look just come after a nice nourishing breakfast, when we’ve had chance to run the hoover round and get the Mr Sheen round the place so it’s spick and span.’

So it was hardly surprising that 3000 people signed a petition to persuade Granny Npower to move the demolition to a later time, so that we could all get up early to watch the towers we had driven past every day come crumpling down.

Granny Npower wouldn’t budge, but then neither would the Didcotians. They DEFIED Granny Npower, dressed in her high vis vest, tutting into her walkie talkie about health and safety; they stood quietly on public roads and footpaths, or sat patiently on deckchairs on high ground in the early morning gloaming to see the old girls finally sink to their knees and film it on their iphones. Anarchy in the 21st century is a blurry video clip shared on Twitter (#didcotdemolition).

Not me, though. I am in deepest Wales, and after bidding a sniffly goodbye on Saturday morning I was forced to watch the gut-wrenching moment on my phone via a live stream with my dodgy rural internet connection.

What the hell am I crying for, though? I only moved here ten years ago but I never found them ugly, only pretty awe-inspiring up close, sometimes taking my breath away like standing under the side of a ship or at the foot of a great cathedral. From a distance, I loved the clouds they made, and (sometimes, excitingly) the Didcot Snow that fell. I particularly loved the way the pinky-mellow evening light would reflect off them like gently curving cliffs.

Most of all I loved the things they represented. The story I hear over and over is that they were a landmark, the first sign of coming home. They certainly meant that for me, but they held another meaning for me as well.

The towers, like the power station, meant the town was connected to the outside world, a living breathing place. Like the factories and pit heads and slag heaps I grew up with, they may not be picturesque, they might even look ugly to most, but for the people who live and work here, this is what makes a community. We might not have a castle or a stately home or a cathedral, but the Cathedral of the Valleys was a place that brought the town together, linked us with one another, made us who we are – the people that made the lights come on when you flicked the switch.

RIP – and if anyone can nick me a chunk of rubble, I am DEFINITELY interested.

Watch the moment of final destruction here (it’s actually pretty coolio).

Some wonderful photographs of Didcot, including some great ones from this weekend, here:

What the towers look like today…




Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

A fan, not a friend



Twenty years ago I was having my passport checked in some godforsaken Turkish airport, and feeling more than a little nervous.

I had recently seen Midnight Express and although the strongest thing in my back pack was some spearmint tic-tacs, that didn’t stop the waves of paranoia sending the sweat trickling down my sunburnt back.

Suddenly the heavily armed, scarily uniformed guard leapt down from his stool to embrace me warmly.

‘Forest! Brian Clough!’ he yelled, failing to notice me wincing as he slapped me warmly on the back in a state of high excitement.

He was, unlikely as it might seem, a Forest fan, and he had noticed my place of birth was listed as Nottingham.

That’s what being a fan is about – connecting with other people with whom you have absolutely nothing, and yet everything, in common. Turkish passport guy felt this strong affinity to me because I had been born in a place many thousands of miles away from his own home; he was nothing short of thrilled to feel that connection over a very halting conversation about Archie Gemmell and his ability to be all at once literally ALL over the field.

My first experience of being a fan, though, was not watching Brian Clough’s Red and White Army. I LIKED watching Forest play, but I am not a football FAN. I see the beauty and the poetry of the game but it doesn’t sing in my blood.

Though I like a lot of bands, I was only ever a fan of Queen.

In fact it’s not an exaggeration to say that being a Queen fan defined my teenage years. Being a fan in those days was a pretty serious business. It involved scanning the magazines and the papers to make sure you got all the right clippings. Queuing up outside the record shop (Selectadisc, RIP) for newly released records. Sending off my SAE to the Jackie at the Queen Fan Club – still going strong, incredibly enough, and in the Guinness Book of Records too.

Fandom was – still is – a great outlet for all those raging hormones. When all the boys around you seemed, well, a little dull somehow, there was always Freddie oh and Freddie was never ever dull.

Feeling like you belong to something can be a lifesaver in those dark teenage days when you feel like you are the only one who feels SO ALONE, so disconnected from everything. But it isn’t just a question of belonging, it was a way of being too. Queen weren’t just a band for me, they were the philosophy, the design for life – the camp, the sarcasm, the excess, the lust for life. Over the top, and never taking yourself too seriously – ‘if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.’

These days I am, of course, way too old and sophisticated to be a fan.


Fandom is one of the things you are supposed to grow out of, like acne and wetting the bed. Well I have pretty much grown out of both of those (apart from the ONE TIME) – but I haven’t grown out of the desire to connect with something, to be passionate and even fanatical about.

Looking around me, lots of people still feel the same way, still paying good money to go and see – and maybe even scream at – their teenage heroes: Robbie Williams or McBusted. Following a football team is a for many a lifelong commitment; there’s no divorce proceedings that can stop you following the same team. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. (So watch out One Directioners – you’re in this for the longhaul….)

It’s not Queen for me anymore though. My fangirl tendencies now point in an almost comically different, and certainly unexpected, direction.

I liked a lot of bands in the 1990s; The Bluetones weren’t even top of my list. I loved Nirvana, Green Day and Blur; I thought Jarvis Cocker and Thom Yorke were incredible performers. I played Jagged Little Pill till I could mimic every one of Alanis’s annoying vocal catches.

But somehow, when all the CDs started gathering dust, I just kept playing The Bluetones until the lyrics were as familiar to me as the Bible verses I learned as a child and these days much more meaningful.

Like every fan, I am a little embarrassing, even gushing, on this subject; I am ready to tell anyone who wants to listen, and many who don’t, about how the poetry of the lyrics, the delicacy of the melodies and the subtlety of the harmonies all combine to create something magical.

These songs, the poetry of them – well it’s hard to put into words the way that they have accompanied my life, the passionate love affairs, the low moments and the painful, poignant corners.

They give me the feeling that someone else knows what it is like to be my kind of human, my kind of weakness and joy and love. Mark Morriss writes about, sings about, what is in my head and heart.  The feelings that are not always easy to express in words, the feelings that are common to us all but at the same time entirely unique.

But fandom now, for me, is a little different, from the days when your heroes lived in a golden land far far away. (Or in the case of The Bluetones, Hounslow.)

Nowadays my heroes live on my Facebook friends list and my Twitter feed.

I helped to crowdsource Mr Morriss’s last album. We have chatted, awkwardly; I have even bought him a drink (which was, I have to tell you, a high point for a fangirl, even a middle aged one). I know his bar order, and can have a pretty good guess at his neuroses. (Which is not a criticism – if he wasn’t neurotic, then his poetry would not be so excruciatingly resonant.)

But, I am still a fan, not a friend.

And standing in the crowd last night with the other fans, feet sticking to the floor, exchanging glances when he mixes up the lyrics (to be fair, there are a LOT of lyrics), feeling a sense of belonging to something, is still a pretty wonderful place to be.



A history of Selectadisc here:



Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Halfway house



This week is – incredibly – half way through TicTacGirl’s degree course.

(Though TicTacGirl is no longer really TicTacGirl; a year and a half of an Oxford education means that she is probably now most aptly known by the Native American name of StinksOfBooks.)

HALFWAY THROUGH?? How did this happen? It seems barely a twinkling of an eye since she was gnawing at her revision notes for GCSE AllTheSubjects, and now graduation is within chomping distance.

And it occurred to me, while I was wondering about the ridiculousness of the passing of time, that maybe right now I am more or less half way through my LIFE.

I am 44 now, 45 this year; in this day and age I can reasonably expect to last till 90, I reckon, especially if I eat a bit more fruit and not just the stuff you find squished in between the mint in a Pimms and lemonade.

And there is something magical, something potent, about being halfway.

The halftime whistle, the interval curtain.

All still to play for, all still to be revealed and resolved.

The best conversations are struck sitting halfway up the stairs, like I had with my friend AngelCake the other day. It’s a liminal space, not quite here or there.

(But halfway is one thing; the middle, well that’s quite another. Middle-aged-spread, stuck in the middle with you, or indeed with myself.)

Without getting drawn into a discussion about whether I am or am not middle-aged (mainly because we all know the answer to that) – I wondered whether this might be the time to take a breather, now the half time whistle has blown, to chew on this orange and think about:

What I have learned in the first half 

I guess the one thing that many women my age talk about, the real thrill about being halfway there, is just not really caring anymore all that much about what people think about you.

I don’t mean not caring about other peoples’ feelings, but rather getting the very clear perspective that other people really really don’t care that much about your bushy eyebrows or if you have a ladder in your tights, and indeed the idea that they WOULD care is really pretty vain and self-obsessed of you. They aren’t looking at you, all those other people – they are thinking about what time the last Tube is and whether they left the straighteners on this morning.

And if, by any chance, they ARE sneering at your semi-monobrow, well what kind of person are they anyway? Petty, sneery and absolutely not worth your attention.

That is real freedom, if you can manage it.

Part of this freedom is not feeling you have to be interested, or pretend to be interested, in things that you really don’t care about.

Especially the things that you think you SHOULD care about. I will never give another thought to, inter alia, tennis, golf, almost all sport actually, anything on the financial pages, anything to do with soap operas, anything written in any woman’s magazine, what clothes/colours/lipsticks are fashionable, almost anything on the telly, and jazz.

This has freed up loads of time to do the things that I really want to do which – it turns out, now I’m half way through, now I have a bit of perspective – is mainly centred around hanging out with my friends in a variety of locations talking about things.

For example, if I was to ever see StinksOfBooks again, in the unlikely event she ever leaves the library, I might remind her of the other thing I have learned – that we are all of us Works in Progress.

I acknowledge that in my teens and twenties I was a bit snarly, a bit hard-edged. Rather intolerant with the faults of others, and even more angry even at my own flaws. Especially the ones that I couldn’t seem to change. (Sorry for those of you who had the dubious pleasure of my company back then.)

I am not quite sure what happened but as the second act unfolded, I started to get a bit softer around the edges.

My wonderfully kind sister, who will surely be sainted one of these days, always says – be kind to yourself.

Sounds simple but once you can manage it, then you can start practising with everyone else too.

You, me, that woman sneering at my monobrow, that man who left his straighteners on this morning (which is a problem because he hasn’t told his mum he uses them).

Recognising the pure and simple humanity in yourself and others, and reminding yourself of it whenever you can. Forgetting what you can, forgive the rest and just move onto tomorrow and try again.

Because the other thing, maybe the last thing for today, is that you don’t really know what’s halfway.

Another 45 years would be wonderful, but one thing you can only really feel the force of from this halfway step is – how many people didn’t make it this far.

Stop fretting about what other people think, stop being so hard on yourself and enjoy every minute and every step.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment