Hoarding Stories


In the past ten years or so, I’ve moved house five times and now it won’t be long until I move again. Several of those moves have involved significant downsizing and each time I’ve pruned my worldly goods a bit harder. But now as I edge into a new phase I’ve become even more ruthless. Unless an object is useful, beautiful or of genuine sentimental value, it goes. I’m trying to rid myself of delusions about what I will use, wear, read, watch or listen to in the future.


Fantasies about what we might be or do are a justification for holding onto things but so is the need to leave a trace. Without tangible reminders then there’s no proof that we ever existed. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently since my friend, Helen, told me a story. She was helping one of her friends to clear some space and found a whole room full of memory boxes, each labelled with a different year. “Let’s look at this,” said Helen, lifting the lid on the one marked ‘2002’. At the top was a Motorola manual. “Have you still got the phone?” asked Helen. “No,” was the answer “but it might come in handy. I’ll keep that”. Then came several dental appointment cards. There were cinema tickets, too. The name of the film had faded past recognition but the fact that they’d been part of an Orange 2-for-1 deal was still legible. “I’ll hang onto those,” said the friend grabbing them, protectively. Next out of the box was a leaflet for the sexual health clinic. “You surely don’t want that, do you?” enquired Helen. The answer was inevitable.

I’ve found a different way to prove my existence to myself; I’ve written a book. Four and a half years ago I set out to have sixty treats before I was sixty. At that stage it was just a way of reconnecting with life. Many things had been on hold while I’d raised children and dealt with a few tricky blips. Each treat sat in the wings of my list like characters in a play and I didn’t know when they would step on-stage. But very soon after the first character, ‘Tate Liverpool’, spoke up, I realised that these were going to be rich experiences. Each was valuable because they were all things I’d longed to do, and I wanted to find a way to pin them down before they slipped back into the dark corners of the wings from which they’d come.


Three hundred years ago, young aristocrats on their Grand Tours of Europe would commission artists to record what they saw. Today we rely on photos. But that was never going to work for me as I’m a haphazard photographer. And even when I remember to point my camera in the right direction, they’re only a partial record. Photos can’t recount stories of the people I met, the information I discovered, the smells and tastes I experienced, and the unscheduled branch lines I darted down. Only words can do that. I mostly eschewed souvenirs too. That’s just a further route to ‘stuffocation’. So, what I did was to make some notes.

Then after six months something unexpected and devastating affected my world and I was thrown off balance. It was a great support to have family and friends but I knew that ultimately I had to create my own path through the chaos. So I turned to the characters who were waiting in the wings and like the best of friends, they revealed hidden depths in a crisis. ‘New York’ was a sassy friend who took me out and provided stimulating distraction. ‘Italian cookery’ cajoled me to eat when everything tasted like cardboard and ‘Riding’ provided a moment when the sheer physicality of being on a horse counterbalanced the unhappiness and I tipped into joy.


Throughout all of this I kept jotting down notes and gradually those notes became a few chapters. And somehow by a miraculous process, those chapters grew into a book. We all have certain things that grate on us and mine are the words ‘feisty’ and ‘suited and booted’. I’ve avoided those. Nor have I said anywhere that I’ve ‘been on a journey’ unless I have physically moved from one place to another. And I’ve been authentic to the best of my ability. Blagging only gets you into trouble as the novelist Ruth Rendell discovered. When she was a young journalist she filed a story about a local tennis club dinner and said that everyone there had thoroughly enjoyed it. The problem was that she’d failed to attend and therefore also failed to mention that the after-dinner speaker had collapsed and died half-way through the speech.

Now, at last after many stages the book is finished and next week I’ll receive the first printed copy complete with illustrations by the talented artist, Jo Dalton. I’d be delighted if some of you would read it when it’s published in May. And if you do then I hope that you’ll find something you can relate to from within the mixed hoard of stories.



Flirt Like a Rhinoceros

valentine heart

I’m always pleased when I learn a new word and this week it was ‘murmuration’. The BBC News website has a stunning video of an estimated 70,000 starlings soaring and swooping in unison over an Oxfordshire nature reserve. It’s described as aerial ballet and the term murmuration comes from the sound of the birds’ beating wings. No-one knows for sure what triggers this phenomenon but there are probably many reasons including grouping together for safety and warmth, and for exchanging information about feeding areas.

Seeing this video reminded me of the plight of the passenger pigeon. At one time these birds were amongst the most common in North America. The skies above the prairies would turn black and blot out the sun as billions passed overhead. An account from 1855 describes people in Ohio witnessing this event. Children screamed and ran for home, horses bolted and women hurried for the shelter of shops, gathering their long skirts as they ran. Some people knelt down and prayed in fear. Then the seemingly impossible happened: they became extinct—wiped out through shooting, netting and forest fires—with the last one dying in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.


I learned about this extraordinary demise from watching David Attenborough’s Life of Birds. This is part of my Life on Earth treat. There are nine series covering all aspects of the natural world from the deepest oceans to the furthest reaches of the Poles and jungles. I wrote about Life in Cold Blood in a previous post—Serpent Tales.

Aside from the passenger pigeon there were a number of other moments that stood out in Life of Birds. As so often happens with treats, they filled in gaps in my knowledge of the world and gave me new things to relate to. Having kept poultry myself, I was particularly pleased to find out about chickens’ eggs. I’d often wondered why they only lay once a day, and now I have my answer. The yolk and the albumen sit in the chicken’s oviduct, and it takes a day for the glands to secrete enough lime to create the hard shell. Then I heard about the kiwi bird whose egg is a quarter of its own body weight; my eyes watered as I imagined giving birth to a baby weighing two and a half stone.


The grebes were remarkable too. They’re attentive parents and make their chicks eat feathers. These line their little tummies and protect them from being pierced by sharp fish bones.


The series was filmed in 42 countries and whilst many of the birds seemed unfamiliar and exotic, I was glad that the humble sparrow got a mention. I discovered that they have markings on their feathers, like Army ranks, which denote where they come in the pecking order. There are the privates that have to give way to their superiors, and then there are the colonels with their black bib markings. All ranks defer to them. This finding changed me in one of the small ways that I welcome. Now, whenever I sit at an outdoor table in a café, I’ll enjoy the antics of the sparrows even more by knowing that they’re not as random as they seem.


For me, though, the star was the bowerbird, also found in Australia. The male goes to great lengths to attract females. He builds a bower from sticks, positions it vertically, and then decorates the surrounding area with flowers, stones, berries, leaves, and coins or even bits of brightly coloured glass if they’re available. He then spends hours arranging and re-arranging them, whilst various females go from bower to bower, making their choice.


A clip from a different series gives some insight into the romantic preferences of another animal—the rhinoceros. We, the viewers see a male trying his damnedest to win a female whilst she heedlessly ignores him in favour of a bigger animal. She dances about and flirts in a way I don’t normally associate with rhinoceroses. The spurned male disappears for a while and we think it’s all over. Then suddenly there he is again. Back with a set of antelope antlers draped rakishly over his horn. Immediately Ms Rhino is bewitched and she trips off, following him enthusiastically.  I’d like to say that they live happily ever after but unfortunately relationships don’t always work out that way as you’ll see by clicking here.

So, for some that magic ingredient is good taste and possibly wealth. For others it’s individuality.  But if you’re a human looking for a mate then it’s worth bearing in mind an excellent snippet of advice I heard on Radio 4.  Marry someone cheerful. I intend to do that this summer.

Happy Valentine’s Day.