Thursday, 27 September 2012

On Extermination

I grew up in suburban Surrey with a fascination of pond life... nose close to water surface, you can witness battles as exciting on any safari. Visiting the home I grew up in this week, I had time to dip into another treasuretrove: my Ballymena-born Dad's library. An Ulster Childhood (written in 1922) caught my eye and the author bio made me smile. Lynn C Doyle is a pen name: say it out loud and you'll hear linseed oil.
Doyle's writing style is lovely but I was a touch offended when I read that rural people of Northern Ireland seem to diss pond-dwellers. They used to say....
"A newt [is] a 'man-creeper', a wicked insect [sic] that if you fall asleep by a waterside crawls down your throat and exterminates you."
I like newts, especially crested newts: they give a touch of the exotic to an English puddle, pond or stream. So what is it about such benign, belly-crawling creatures that scares people so?
Is it that we need creatures to fear (in Ireland there are no venomous snakes)? In Nepal too people have unfounded anxieties about the shiny pin-striped skink - a fine and beautiful reptile that villagers say kills on contact.
Fortunately that is complete twaddle too.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Home help

I've spent the weekend with a lovely lot of children's authors - at a conference in Reading University. We talked of books and writing and entertained each other. Our poor beleaguered publishers are having to be more and more careful about money, and can't spend huge sums on so-called mid-list authors. The consensus was that we writers must make more of an effort to engage with our readers. With that in mind - and with the help of my techie son - we've filmed a snippet read from my about-to-be-launched travel memoir; this extract is about the challenges of finding home help. If you like it you'll find two more readings from A Glimpse of Eternal Snows on YouTube.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


We’d stopped rowing after a tough, one-kilometre ‘piece’. My mop of unruly hair was annoying; it tickled my face and was in my eyes and mouth. Finally I had a chance to show it who was boss – tame it with a bungee. I took off my glasses to polish off the steam. They caught awkwardly in my wild hair and I saw them catapult into the river. I lunged for them but all I achieved was to rock the boat. ‘My glasses!’ I shrieked. C at stroke tried to grab them too but they sank amongst ribbons of long green weed. ‘I’ll go in!’ C said, but cox forbade her. I considered disobedience. I could feign a swoon and tumble into the river. Or stand and dive in. While I was dithering, they disappeared into the murk.

Cox sympathised but said, ‘It’s really deep here. There’s no chance of finding them.’

That was a challenge I couldn’t resist. I was a SCUBA diver. I was a cave-diver. I’d swum across a fjord. I’d find them, even if sometimes I’d temporarily lose them when I put them down on the bed at home.

We stacked the blades and eight in the boathouse and while still steamy from the row, C & I returned to the site of the sinking. We knew where my glasses were, but they were light, and could have floated away from where I’d dropped them. The river on the Stourbridge Meadow side was thigh deep where I slipped into the water. I’d kept my trainers on for fear of broken glass and hypodermic but could still that the bottom was squidgy. The water was colder than I expected. Much colder. This was summer, for heaven’s sake. Why was it so cold?

I allowed myself to fall forward. Sheesh, it was f-f-freezing. The cold made me gasp and pant however hard I tried to slow my breathing. How was I going to be able to hold my breath and search the river bottom while I was gasping and spluttering? Then there was the issue of brain freeze. I tried to get all the pain over in one go and dipped right under the water. I was assaulted by pain in my scalp. This was daft. C was shouting encouragement from the bank. I had to do a few dives at least.

‘Two-thirds of the way across. There! You’re in the right place, Jane! Try there!’

I did. Head down, legs in the air to take me down. It was deep. Brain freeze. I grabbed my nose to clear my ears. Further down. It was about three metres deep here. Who’d have guessed the sleepy old River Cam at Cambridge is three metres deep? I couldn’t see much. I reached the silty bottom. Quick feel around. My hand closed around a shell.  Out of breath. Swam for the surface. More gasping and panting. Breath back. ‘Anything?’ C asked.

‘A freshwater mussel shell!

‘Can you see anything?’

‘Yes. More than I was expecting – even without my glasses on.’

‘You’re opening your eyes?’

‘Yes... but it’s sooo cold.’

Brain aching, I surface-dived again. Managed to feel around on the bottom for a second or two. Found a lager can. Saw the red of a Coke can. A silt-covered wine bottle. A hunk of wood. Searching raised the sediment and made it more difficult to see. Need air. Up to air. I surfaced, spluttering and disorientated, in the middle of the river. I swam back to the place of sinking. Dived down. Gulping. Anxious not to swallow any Weil’s-laced water. Cleared my ears. Not much time searching.

‘I’m coming in!’ C shouted from the bank.

‘Wow! Really? You don’t have to.’ And she was in, gasping. Fighting the cold.

A few dives later, with C trying to convince herself the water temperature was ‘refreshing’, we concluded we needed masks.  C had a wetsuit too. ‘Yeh but I’ll do a few more dives. I’m getting used to it. A bit.’ My scalp wasn’t aching any more and I had better breath-control. And I’d found a bit of river with long ribbons of weed just like where my glasses had sunk. I dived down, swimming between the clingy Carlsberg-green strands, searching. The glasses could be caught amongst the weed. I found a traffic cone, a bit of fence, a fishing weight, and various unidentifiable items. I needed a mask. Up for a breath.

Down again, I reached a patch of cabbagey plants, and a big block of concrete.

A different kind of cold was getting to me now and I needed to get out. I was grateful to C for helping me out of the water. My muscles were seizing and it was hard to clamber onto the lovely soft grass of the meadow.

Next day, Sunday morning, I’d unearthed some past-their-sell-by-date contact lenses and was back with mask snorkel and fins, with A this time. I thought of David Walliams and others who promote ‘wild swimming’. They’re clearly tougher than me – although lots wear wetsuits, I guess. After my fjord swim this summer I’d even thought of trying a long swim in the Cam, but now I knew this was utter madness. I’d wondered about the temperature. If the river was mostly ground water unheated by the sun, it would be not much more than ground temperature which at this latitude in England must be around 12C. It felt that cold. I was surprised to discover that the Olympics pool is kept as cold as 25 but most of us swim in indoor pools kept around 29C. Wild swimming info implies that 15C is likely in English rivers. Does anyone know?

I slipped in watched, without interest, by several well-fed fishermen. It wasn’t any warmer. There hadn’t been much sun all summer. While I was standing unenthusiastically in the thigh-deep water before that first unappetising plunge, a cruiser came by. The engines were quiet, but I was surprised just how much it unsteadied me. It – and others – would churn up the water and my lightweight glasses could have floated anywhere.

I had to get in. I felt like I was drawing attention to myself. I swam two-thirds of the way across the river and made my first brain-freezing dive into murky greenish water. Even with the fins on, it was a long way down. I’d dropped my glasses into the very deepest part of the river. My antics made scullers uneasy. Disapproving oarsmen were perhaps thinking of anarchists in the water. A joined me in the river for a short while. Our attempts to search were interrupted by passing boats. I chatted briefly to people from my rowing club.

A quad approached. The cox asked ‘Lost something?’

‘My glasses!’

‘They’re on your head!’ His whole boat liked that quip.

One of the oarswomen asked, ‘Why’s your son on the bank while you’re doing the searching?’

‘He’s needs more subcutaneous fat,’ I said pompously.

A heard the cox translate, ‘He’s too skinny!’

I continued diving until I started recognising the jetsam I encountered – the same drinks cans, that concrete block, pieces of water-logged tree... I was ready to quit, but A suggested searching downstream.

The cold was starting to get to me again. ‘Three more dives.’ I spluttered.

My left calf started to cramp. Time to get out. Not so easy. Limbs not working any more.

A – now warmed again by the sun – took photos. He didn’t help as I thrashed around trying to get out of the water. I thought of the Ulster dialect word – to sprockle. My Belfast-raised Dad used the word to mean floundering about in an ungainly and ineffectual manner; often people are laughing at you as you get up and try to regain your dignity. That was me on the bank – sprockling. A took more photos to prove it. And I hadn’t even recovered my glasses.