My Life On The Shelf / The Museum Of Crap

A Georgian sand shaker, a cast iron model 24lb artillery piece, a rather rude statue of Greek men wrestling, a 1980s brick shaped mobile phone, a WW2 officers’ compass, a metal AA badge, a (full) tin of corned beef from 1935….these, and other relics, are my life. On a shelf. To which more than six decades of memories have been relegated by the Curator of the House – Mrs B. She has called it ‘The Museum of Crap.’

Once, my treasured possessions were scattered everywhere. People would come across a curious conical piece of metal and say things like ‘Ooh, this is interesting. What is it?’. ‘Ah-ha’ I would answer. ‘That fits inside the barrel of a 12 bore shotgun and reduces it to a 40 bore, thus taking really small shotgun cartridges for shooting at really small things. Not many of them about.’

Or ‘what is this odd thing like an inverted allen key on a wooden handle?’ ‘That’, I could inform them with confidence, ‘is a tuning key for a zither. Not many of them around either.’

IMG_9611People were often entranced by my collection of stuff, planted seemingly at random in corners, on shelves, tables, in the loo, anywhere in fact where guests might gaze. To them it was like walking into a living tableau of QI. At any moment they might stumble on something for the first time in their lives and wonder what it might be. To me this was the essence of engagement – conversation opener, instruction, satisfying curiosity. As well as being a 3D history of my life.

The Curator took a different view. ‘Everywhere I look there’s crap’ she said sternly. ‘I trip over it at every turn; it gathers dust; it clogs the place up; the whole house is like some mad storage facility for an obsessive hoarder. It won’t be long before I have to tunnel through piles of newspapers to find you. Mind you, when that happens, I won’t bother. I’ll just set light to it.’

I have been unable to explain the joy it gave so many people, and the comfort it brought me as I roamed happily past a wooden horse with a broken leg, a pair of pewter mugs, a small collection of wartime cap badges, a lovely little pile of stones in a wooden bowl, a sign from a German train saying ‘Essen wie Gott in Deutschland’, and more. Like the warehouse for the Victoria and Albert Museum only in miniature.

The Curator is a hard hearted woman. I think objects have no meaning for her. And so my life in objects sits dejected on half a shelf above my desk.


Mr B is quite wrong.  I hold many objects dear to me.  They have sentimental value, tell a story, evoke a memory, transport me to another place in time, or recall a feeling or a person I hold dear.  I have, for example my prized Blue Peter badge, earned as a runner up in a TV competition in 1977, it lives in a small box of pins and badges collected over the years.  I also have Penny Panda, my very first teddy now missing one eye, and threadbare – she lives on a shelf with five other small soft toys from my childhood.  I have 30 years’ worth of programmes from intoxicating nights at the theatre – my great passion, they are all stored in one fabulous vintage tin box.  Do you see a pattern here?  My items are curated.  They are together in collections.  They are ordered. What I don’t do is random.  The problem I have with the Museum of Crap is that it is utterly random.

IMG_9610The Museum of Crap currently offers tours at a fiver a pop (see photo).  This is extortionate.  There isn’t so much as an ice cream included in the price, or even a glass of Prosecco, and frankly I’d need a whole bottle if I were to make it through the guided notes for the 53 items currently on display.

So let’s treat my visit as hypothetical – if I were to fork out for the Museum of Crap, I would want some order to my tour, to undergo an enriching sensory experience by appreciating the objects lovingly hoarded by my husband in a way that is meaningful.  But that wouldn’t happen. There is no order to his stuff.  There is no order to his stuff, because there is no order to his brain.  There, I’ve said it.  His brain is very good; exceptional even.  It’s just lacking order.  And so is the Museum of Crap.

It’s true that people are often ‘entranced’ by Christopher’s collection of stuff but they are usually aged 6 and a random pile of tut is the stuff of wonder.  Six year olds generally think Christopher is beyond wonderful.  It’s a niche market for a museum though.  It’s still quite a lot of a pocket money for a small person of primary school age to save up for, and unless Christopher decides to include a bag of Monster Munch and a carton of Ribena on the tour I’m not sure he’ll meet his sales targets.  We don’t have coachloads of tourists queuing in the lane for a chance to take photos of the vintage tin of corned beef alongside the small statuette of naked Greek men wrestling and the painted wooden horse which only has three legs (and the fourth leg is propped up next to it).

What this collection can be described as is a Channel Five documentary waiting to happen – ‘The Men Who Collect Random Tut and The Wives Who Dust It’.

The Boxer’s Back

There has been a Boxer shaped hole in our lives for just over a year, when we lost the love of our lives, Dottie. There’ll never be another Dottie, but a couple of weeks ago, Tilly arrived, and we have another Boxer in our lives. And indeed in Mabel’s life, which has taken her by surprise.

Tilly is skinny, wiggly, chewy, and as bonkers as only a Boxer can be, with a face like a gremlin, and paws like a lion. Sarah has been in training for a year now, with the amazing Brian at LoveK9 ). The consequence of this is that her dog owner, Mabel, has been able to instruct Sarah on the best way to accustom herself to a new dog in the house. And the training has paid off brilliantly. Mabel explained patiently to Sarah that it would take a lot of work to get Tilly properly trained up, but she needed to start by not allowing Tilly to become a bedroom dog. This is in Mabel’s best interests of course, because Mabel is a bedroom dog. The second most important thing Mabel instructed Sarah on was the need for plenty of training treats, especially for Mabel, so she could show Tilly what they were for and how to eat them. This has worked extremely well, and Mabel will be going on a diet shortly.

IMG_8015The other important thing, Mabel says, is that Tilly does exactly what she tells her to do.  If Tilly doesn’t do what Mabel wants, Mabel gives her a very thorough face wash.  Tilly isn’t very good at doing what Mabel wants her to do.  So Tilly has a very clean face at all times.

Mabel says that so far as us humans are concerned, our main job is to ensure plenty of the right kind of food, ample cuddles, lots of treats, several walks a day, tummy rubs, and a lot of praise. After that, we can turn our attention to the puppy. But not too much attention.

Tonka is not impressed. But then it’s very hard to impress a tortoise.




The Case Of The Choking Tortoise

I’ve not updated you on Tonka for a while.  Tonka, for those of you who don’t know, is the immigrant Greek Marginated tortoise who, we suspect, travelled all the way from his homeland after the devastating tortoise wars of 1965, made it over the channel by hiding in someone’s suitcase, then landed up in our garden.  Anyway – he’s been up and about for some time now this year but he had an extra long hibernation over winter.

About four months. This is because had we taken him out of his fridge earlier he would have had to live in the building site that was our kitchen. And we didn’t want to stir old and traumatic memories. So we woke him when the kitchen was completed.

It took him about a week to wake up. Sarah, smart as usual, compared that with me. I was, of course, worried throughout this week, as I always am when he emerges from hibernation. Will he eat/drink/wee/poo/be able to see/recognise me? In the event he did all six eventually although I still suspect that ‘recognise’ is more to do with knowing that my fingers represent food, and my foot represents the enemy. So he bites my finger sufficiently hard to draw blood, and head butts my foot.

It also seemed that his beak had grown considerably while he was asleep. Sarah pointed out that our fingernails and hair grow while we’re asleep so why shouldn’t his? (Nails, not hair. He hasn’t got any hair). I countered – cleverly I thought – that hibernation was not the same as sleep. His entire system shuts down to almost dead. So nothing would grow, surely. Sarah hit back immediately by pointing out that his beak was definitely longer and in any case it needed filing.

This is not a job for the faint hearted. However – and I am loathe to admit this – Sarah invented a brilliant way of doing it without holding him upside down, pulling his neck or anything else distressing for a tortoise. She feeds him using the emery board as a spoon. Tricky, but it works gradually. He pulls food and rounded end of emery board into his mouth, clamps it shut and then gets his beak filed as the board is withdrawn. I think we might put this up on a veterinary on-line advice notice board.

However, I then nearly killed him by trying to feed him with some new mixture purporting to be the perfect tortoise food. Pellets made of flowers and seeds and so on. The label said ‘do not over-water’ and ideally ‘feed dry’. These are quite big pellets. Tonka has been hand fed a slightly mushy mixture along with dandelions, which is all he will eat. Anyway, I put one of these dampened but not dissolved pellets in with the rest and he started to choke! I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen a tortoise choke. It’s very alarming. His mouth opens and shuts wide, his tongue sticks right out, he makes a sort of gagging gesture, and rubs his leg on the side of his head.  Sarah said he wasn’t choking as he was still breathing he just had food stuck in his throat which was entirely different – but for dramatic effect can you please go with me on this one – I thought he was CHOKING.

IMG_2884 I was completely paralysed with horror. I rubbed water on his mouth. He was still alive and gagging less so I wondered if whatever it was had been swallowed. I tried a tiny bit of soft mushy food. Same result – gag, rub, gasp, tongue. I started to research vets who specialize in tortoises, wondering if it was at all possible to anaesthetize a tortoise, cut open his throat, remove a piece of stuck food, sew him up again, and hope he’d still be alive.

I tried to make him drink, but to no avail. Eventually Sarah gave him a bath and for some reason, which still makes me cross, he stuck his head under water and had a long drink. Which seemed to do the trick.

The long and the short of this is, if you have a tortoise with an overgrown beak, and who then starts to choke to death, don’t ask me. Get Sarah along.

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‘Great’ North Run? – You Bet

On Sunday I did the Great North Run.  It was the second time I’ve run it but I’ve also enjoyed the event as a supporter in the past.  And it gets me every time.  It is truly the most uplifting, exhilarating, good feeling, supportive event that I’ve had the privilege to participate in.  Many of you will have watched the coverage on the BBC and been swept up in the atmosphere – it’s palpable through the TV screen – but actually being there is very special indeed.

I’ve run in plenty of events in recent times and – by and large – they all feel good, so what’s so special about the GNR?

It’s that the people of Newcastle, Gateshead and South Shields own this race.  They adopt you for the day and their generosity of spirit knows no bounds.  You aren’t just a visitor – you’re one of theirs.  It’s their gift to you – freely bestowed, gladly and humbly received. It’s the sea of smiling faces and the friendly calling out to you when you need that extra boost as you run past and they read your name from your bib.   They aren’t your own Mum or Dad – but today they could be.  Your own folks might be hundreds of miles away – but someone calling for you makes them family.

It’s the children all the way along the route with their permanently outstretched arms waiting for you to high-five them as you run past (I reckon I’d be at least five minutes faster on my finish time if I didn’t do this – but I don’t care – it’s every bit as important to me as running).  It’s the feeling of familiarity – of ‘home’ – as you reach regular markers along the way; the kids of Felling handing out ice pops, the glorious women at mile nine offering plates of biscuits (just when you’re feeling desperate and have raised a wry eyebrow at the sign for the crematorium!)  , or those a bit further on with trays piled high with orange segments – the smell of which alone keeps you going for a mile. Or the sticky handfuls of jelly babies (just in the nick of time when your sugar level has gone through the floor).  Then – just when you regret not running through the shower station and are about to overheat – there’s some wonderful bloke with his garden hose standing at the end of his yard ready to spray you if you raise your hand as you run past.  And when you think you can’t run anymore a lovely woman shouts ‘C’mon Pet – make the North proud’ and so you keep going (even though you’re now sobbing at her kindness) because you can’t let her AND THE WHOLE OF THE NORTH down – let alone yourself now can you?!

And when you aren’t smiling and laughing at all of the good humour and support, you’re running with tears streaming down your face for every message that you read  on the back of your fellow runners’ shirts that make you pause for thought: ‘For Mum’, ‘Miss You Dad’, ‘Little Jamie’, ‘We love you Bex’.  Hoping that aside from your own charity, on some level you’re showing your support for everyone’s personal cause, private tragedy and hope for the future just through the solidarity of joining other runners on the start line and sweating your way through the 13.2 miles while willing everyone else to do the same.  And for all the well-known national charities with teams of runners raising much needed funds, there are hundreds of small charities too for causes you’ve never heard of and this absolutely makes you feel ashamed so you promise yourself to Google them afterwards and raise your own awareness in a bid to somehow show your respect for everyone who has challenged themselves to raise funds on this day.  And it’s a promise you absolutely keep.

It’s the volunteers along the way.  The reassuring St John Ambulance folk spending hours dolloping Vaseline into grabbing hands of chafed and sore runners as they pass with a cheery question ‘one lump or two Love?!’.  It’s the bands on the run who give you back your rhythm when your legs begin to feel like they don’t belong to you anymore (and either I only run at one speed or they only have one song – but that fabulous band on the roundabout at the turning for the Tyne Tunnel were playing Mustang Sally when I got to them last year too!).

It’s the fact that when you trip or stumble, someone you’ve never met before, and won’t ever see again picks you up and checks you’re ok, despite the fact they’ve just added 5 seconds to their time.  Or that when you’re desperately trying to gain some speed and dodging through the crowd banging elbows and scuffing heels  –  no-one minds because you’re all doing the same thing – so a smile and a ‘sorry mate’ – is all it takes.  It’s the effort put into the cheeky, funny homemade signs along the way that keep you going – ‘There’s a Pint at the End’ was my favourite this year.

And at the end of the race standing in line to get your medal – this year the woman doing the honours for my queue wasn’t just handing them out, she was presenting them to each and every runner as though we were on a podium.  It didn’t bother her a jot that it was taking her twice as long – it just mattered to her that we had our own moment.   And we did – each of us felt every bit as triumpGNRhant as Mo Farrah in a fleeting moment of recognition that WE’D DONE IT TOO!

My Dad said after I’d got home – that ‘this is what sport is really about’, and he’s right.  Yes – essentially it’s a bloody big running race for all abilities, all shapes and sizes but it’s so much more than that.  While the elite compete for records, the rest of us compete as a collective – it’s about finishing as one – for sure it’s our own personal day, our own personal cause, our own personal result – but not at the expense of someone else’s.  In a sense it’s only because you’re achieving your goal that I’m able to achieve mine.  We do it together.  Your goal might be running, it might be volunteering, it might be baking biscuits, giving out jelly babies or just shouting out names until you’re hoarse and smiling until your cheeks ache.  But the goals are achieved together and that’s what makes it special.  It’s community in the biggest sense of the word.  And while I’m sure this is replicated in lots of similar events around the country and I applaud them all – this is the one where my heart lies.   It’s a day that reminds me what it is to be part of something.  And it’s the best feeling to be part of something.  And that shared experience is simply – humanity.  And we lose sight of that all too often in our daily lives.  The people of Newcastle, Gateshead and South Shields I salute you for setting us such a great example, it’s an honour to take part in the Great North Run.

Sarah’s Big Cauliflowers

IMG_5167Sarah has enormous cauliflowers. Simply gigantic. You can’t see her if she stands behind them.  They’re too big for the vegetable rack, and would cause chaos if we just kept them in the kitchen which is, as I am sure you know, an oasis of tidiness. Although since we embarked on building an extension which will more or less double the size of the kitchen, we’ve given up worrying so the kitchen is littered with tupperware that won’t fit in cupboards, a lot of Sarah’s wellingtons, my work stuff, off-cuts of oak from the builders, and often Tonka the tortoise.

The extension has created its own problems not least of which was removing large parts of the roof. Once the builders had successfully done this they went away and then it rained. It rained in a way that would have pleased Noah. His ark would have floated in 12 hours rather than 40 days. It rained so hard it hurt. And the kitchen ceiling poured water. So I spent a large part of this deluge dominated day on the roof struggling with tarpaulins and bits of lead to try to stem the Niagara that was gushing into the house.

Since most of it came down through the light fittings, we now also live in the dark.

But back to vegetables. Sarah’s cauliflowers may be colossal but her tomatoes are tiny, and there is one cucumber about the size of a small carrot. Our horticultural expertise doesn’t extend to knowing why the veg has remained determinedly dwarf or suffers from gigantism but nothing is normal about any of it. We even have spherical courgettes.

Meanwhile in the animal world, we now also provide the country’s most expensive eggs. I worked out that, if we produce 25,000 a year they cost about 50p each since in order counter the continued assaults by most of the local badger population, we had to install six foot double fencing dug into the ground another 18 inches, coupled with a double strand of electric fence at badger nose height.

The badgers ate 11 of our chickens, including most of next year’s adults, which meant that the remaining chicks had to grow up in the house. And guess where, specifically, that was. Yes, my study. The conservatory had been knocked down to make room for the extension; it’s obviously a health hazard to us having chickens in the kitchen, and a health hazard to them having a dog there too. Bedrooms are not appropriate. So it was my study. Where they grew up accompanied by Tonka.

The badger problem did have one ray of light which was that we met Martin from the East Kent Badger Group. Martin is a cornucopia of knowledge about badgers and gave me several handy hints about keeping them at bay, one of which is to get a cheap transistor radio, put it in an upturned bucket, and play Radio 1 all night.

If I was a badger, I’d definitely move to the next farm.