The Halloween Tree – Ray Bradbury

The front cover of The Halloween Tree

I have just finished a book that was recommended to me by a friend and fellow blogger, Kat. It’s a small book and could be finished off in just a half day if you have that to spare, but it took me three smaller sessions.

To me, Ray Bradbury is a sci-fi writer for adults, creating dystopian nightmares. I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man and loved them both for that aspect. This, on the other hand, is a children’s story.

A children’s story that demands to be read aloud, with a very poetic musicality. There is alliteration and rhymes in lines, and a sing-song galloping rhythm. The whole style reflects the energy and zeal of the group of boys dressed in makeshift Halloween costumes ready for trick or treating high japes.

In one vast swerve, one doglike trot and ramble, they circled round and down the middle of the cobble-brick street, blown like leaves before a storm.

It was published in 1972 but feels older. The boys have an innocence similar to Kay Harker in The Box of Delights, or the children in Swallows and Amazons, even though they’re at the beginning of their teens. That doesn’t detract from it but I wonder if today’s readers need to be a couple of years younger in order to get into the spirit of the book.

This is the story of Halloween and some of its origin stories. The boys swoop across time and space with the help of a strange creature called ‘Mr Moundshroud’. In my head, he is a cross between Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and ‘The Gentlemen’ from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (you might need to look them up!).

They are ostensibly going in search of Pipkin, their dear friend and the best of them. But the idea of an incredible adventure is a big pull too. Their search takes them from Illinois to Egypt and countries farther still. It takes them to the depths of history, when the Sphinx was brand new and Romans hadn’t yet marched in England. The ceremonies to mark the dead and the beginnings of Winter are witnessed up close and fleetingly as this rollercoaster must end before midnight.

And before Halloween ends they must also make a Faustian deal to finally save their friend…

I really enjoyed the book, and without a suitably aged child to read it aloud to, I had to be content with the child in me. And that will have to do.


Run To The Hills

I was saying to Sue last night that …

Well I wasn’t so much saying, as gasping, barely able to get a syllable in, between the short and desperate inhalations.

Despite my wheezing, we managed to hold a conversation of sorts and I was explaining that I’d not done any hill training for two, maybe three years. And it showed.

I’m not talking about going for a run that has hills in it. These are the more repetitive, and therefore somewhat more challenging, efforts that I inexplicably volunteered for last night at the club.

I was at the back. At the back during the 1.4 mile ‘jog’ to Teals Way, and at the back during the repeats. However, it’s an exercise that I cannot do with the same amount of push by myself. I would have walked some of it. I would have gone slower. I would have given myself a million excuses not to do it in the first place because I wouldn’t have been accountable to anybody but myself and I am a rubbish taskmaster!

A small section of our hill – courtesy of Google Maps

Those excuses were obviously listened to as I’ve not done hill repeats for years and there are plenty of hills in my vicinity. Red Hill Road and Rest Hill Road are neither red nor restful but they are both several levels above ‘undulating’.

So here I was, slightly knackered before we’d even begun, at the bottom of Teals Way pulling off my extra layers on a dark but rather warm evening. Andy, our drill instructor, is a deceptively smiley chap. He looks on you kindly and gives you encouragement and then blows his whistle.

The first ten minutes was to go up and down at a steady pace to get ‘a feel’ for the hill. Up to the first bend it’s a gradual incline. Then you veer gently to the right and you can feel your lungs starting to work as it gets a bit steeper. A bend then to the left again and this is the ‘pinch’, the steepest section and your breathing has shallowed as you try and get oxygen in as quickly as possible. It levels out a little at the top as you go right, and around the green electrical box and finally down the hill again, you pull in deep breaths to recover. Then you do it all again!

I think I managed about three hills to everyone else’s six and this one was the easy exercise! However, as I explained, haltingly, to Sue, during the second ten minute drill (she had popped up here as she’d been late getting to the club and this was the only group she knew the location of – that’ll teach her to be late!), my participation, and my uber slow circuits should just be an encouragement to all the runners who think that hill running with the gazelles is too daunting! Someone will always be last, and sometimes, like yesterday, someone may be last by quite a distance. But absolutely nobody will mock you and you will get a nice sense of achievement for some hard work done.

The second and third drills involved sprint sections: the second before the ‘pinch’ and the third, actually on the steepest bit itself. I didn’t have the lungs to sprint but I did attempt to lengthen my stride and pump my arms more for those bits.

We could see the silhouette of a man looking at us all from his bedroom window: hard to imagine how normal people may view this merry crew? Sue stayed with me even though, given her ability to string a longer sentence together, she could have gone faster. We managed to do one round of the final drill before I suggested making an early exit. I knew that the 1.4 miles back to the club was mainly uphill and I figured that, for a first stint in ages, I’d done alright.

The one good thing about doing these hills on a dark night in October is that there is less likelihood of tripping on tree roots as Teals Way is a wide, quiet and well lit road.

Of course, the other good thing is that it will, eventually, make me stronger. If it doesn’t kill me first!

Life, Travel

Northcote Hotel

I realised, whist reclining in the bath, during a one-night stay at Northcote, that I should have brought the pumice stone.

Handmade chocolates on a bed of cocoa nibs
Not the stone but handmade chocolates at the end of our meal. Something to entice the reader.

It’s a dark grey holey piece of rock (probably actually scoria rather than pumice) and looks like a torture device. It has sat sadly neglected in the drawer at home since we became shower-only, so on those rare occasions we visit an establishment with a bath we should bring it along.

Northcote Manor sits in the Ribble Valley between Blackburn and Burnley. It holds a Michelin Star restaurant presided over by Lisa Goodwin-Allen. She was the chef who won three of the six final dishes in the 2020 season of The Great British Christmas Menu, pretty astounding considering how many top chefs were in competition with her. We caught an idea of her star quality when on checking out the following morning, Anne saw a menu at the desk, with a request that the kitchen staff sign it!

When everywhere was closed during lockdown last year, Northcote started doing an uber-posh version of a ‘Deliveroo’ service and sending out rather sumptuous three-course meals, but I could never manage to bag any of them before they had sold out.

I don’t have expensive tastes, but I really, really enjoy eating, and every now and then, I like to try a little bit of the high-end stuff. So when they put out an offer of an overnight stay with a five-course menu last December, I couldn’t resist it. I used the excuse of our wedding anniversary to present the voucher to Anne, but you know it’s the perfect present when you can enjoy it too! We decided to book for October, partly as it was more likely to happen after all the lockdowns, and partly because at that time, October did not seem like a busy month!

Well, we drove up two days ago, on a journey that should have taken us under an hour and a half, but was nearly three as a lorry had turned on its side and across the central reservation of the M56! We saw it as we climbed the slip road at junction 10, and felt like terrible voyeurs but it is hard not to look.

Thanking our lucky stars that we were not involved, we continued incident free to the manor. It looks rather grand from the outside and our room on the inside did not disappoint. Old fashioned elegance and a really comfortable bed, so we had a nice afternoon relaxing and reading (Anne on the bed, me for bath no 1, and then the chaise lounge) before our meal.

A hotel bedroom at Northcote
Our bedroom for the stay.

For a very expensive restaurant, in the back of beyond, on a Wednesday night, the place was packed, and apparently, according to a waiter, this had been the case since they opened up again. We weren’t the only ones who had heard of Lisa, it seems. It was a late dinner, half eight by the time we got taken to our seats, so it was handy that we didn’t have far to go after.

This was possibly the poshest meal I’ve ever had, and I was grateful for the bread!

The thing about haute cuisine is that it’s beautiful, and the tastes, in this case anyway, are amazing, but it’s tiny! It did mean that we had space to properly savour each of the courses and Anne was sated on the just those. I needed the artisan bread and the home-churned butter to fill in the gaps and then I was good.

The following morning, I enjoyed another chapter of my book in the bath and that’s when I remembered the stone. Apparently Douglas Adams (of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) spent a lot of time in the bath and had his most creative ideas there. That creativity obviously doesn’t work with me, if all I could think about was a lump of volcanic rock.


O. U. Crazy Thing

Open University logo

So I’ve decided upon a course of action.

A few weeks back, as in the first part of September, I decided, after a half hour of deep consideration, to step up.

I’m putting my money where my virtual mouth would like to be, and going on a course. Specifically, an Open University Post Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing.

Because it’s a post grad, I had to dig out and send a picture of my original degree certificate to show that I had the credentials. Well, I almost had the credentials, as they preferred a 2:1 or above, and I’d barely scraped a 2:2 for my non-efforts at the time. However, because of my entire nine months’ worth of consistent blogging which showed that I’m going to be more serious about my education this time around, they have actually let me on. Perhaps I should be taking the undergraduate course, but that costs way more and you have to commit yourself to longer than a year and I really need to take this thing one step at a time, so.

Suddenly, week one has finished and I’m already a little shocked at how much actual writing I’ve been expected to do, on top of the reading. There. Is. A. Lot.

My main discipline is going to be ‘creative non-fiction’, as I’ve realised in this past nearly-year, that it is far easier to not have to make stuff up. Although, that assumption is quickly being dispelled now that I realise just how much research one needs to do to, like, do it properly. Luckily the one page sound bites I put up as blog posts don’t need much in the way of prep as it’s just basically what I’m thinking of in that moment. But apparently, if you want to do something a little more meaty, you need to actually work at it.

There will also be a minor dabble in fiction too, as you get to pick a secondary, so I can dip in my toes and see how that goes.

I’m basically saying all this in order to explain why I may not be writing my blog as often as I have been, but I won’t be stopping completely, because this girl still has to run sometimes, and occasionally may even travel.

So wish me luck, and if you notice an improvement in the calibre of my posts please do let me know.

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Sunrise on Leith

Dawn beyond the apartment blocks and docks

I didn’t get around to posting this on the day we had a chance to be tourists around Edinburgh but I’m getting it out there now, for completeness. The title is a riff on that beautiful song by The Proclaimers, ‘Sunshine on Leith’ and the musical of the same name, which used many of their songs, and is a joy of a film.

20th September 2021

Having had about two hot baths in the aftermath of the race yesterday, I woke up early and my limbs felt nicely mobile, but, to be absolutely sure I had another quick one this morning. We got rid of ours at home when we renovated the ‘bath’room a few years ago. Ever since then, whenever we stay in a hotel, I feel I need to make up for lost hours, or something.

Anyway, it was lovely and restful, and I got out in time to see the sun coming up behind the flats on the water front.

I’m not normally up with the lark but I had almost fallen asleep at the restaurant table last night much to Anne’s amusement and we’d had to take the rest of the meal to go! So I was blissfully snoring away by about 8 in the evening.

Leith, or the part of it that we were in, has a lovely European vibe going on, especially when the sun is out, which it kindly was for us. There was water all around us with the small river, docks and canals. And the cafes and restaurants had a good footing on the pavements creating a convivial atmosphere along the streets.

A view from along the bridge

If we come back in a year or so’s time, the tram link will have been set up. Currently there are road works all over the place here as it gets laid. If a vocal minority of Leith had their way then it wouldn’t get built at all. They consider Leith to be a town in its own right and not just a ‘burb of Edinburgh, which is what inevitably happens to the satellites of main cities.

However the ease of getting in and out of the city will definitely make our life as tourists a lot easier. This morning though, after a fine breakfast in a local café, we walked, the fairly straight road into Edinburgh. It’s not really that long. You could speed walk it in under 40 minutes, but we leisurely ambled and later puffed up the last hill to the Palace.

We had tickets for a little tour around Holyrood, one time residence of the monarchs of Scotland, and still an occasional bolt hole for Queenie and her progeny. I’d never been inside it before so I was looking forward to seeing a bit of the history and be a voyeur on how the other 0.05% live.

The tickets included those handy little headsets to give you a guide to each section of the building and gardens. It is worth taking a couple of hours to stroll around the place if you like a bit of history. They ham up the murder of David Rizzio, the secretary of Mary Queen of Scots, by her husband, Lord Darnley, which happened near her rooms (you can still see the bloodstain on the floor!).

A 'blood stain' on the floor where David Rizzio was murdered.
How often does this stain need to be touched up?

Her own chambers, we found, were absolutely tiny, compared any of the other rooms in the palace. Mary is definitely the most intriguing past resident of the Palace and made me want to go away and read more about her life.

Because the day was so warm we were able to finish off the tour with a nice bit of coffee and cake sitting outside, at the Palace Cafe. I was definitely ready to put my feet up by then so we ordered an uber. We picked it outside the Scottish Parliament building which stands splendidly next to the Palace grounds. Apparently, there are guided tours here too so maybe one for us next time.

I managed to sit through the entirety of the evening meal this time, at a lovely restaurant called Fishers, handily a stone’s throw from the hotel. If you like seafood, which we very much do, I highly recommend it. The evening wrapped up a really enjoyable long weekend for us, and has me seriously contemplating doing the same again next year. Hmm, would be nice to try and improve on my time on the same course.