A couple of months ago, I realised that even though I love music, my range is embarrassingly limited. I’ve never knowingly listened to a Bruce Springsteen album all the way through, or a Velvet Underground, or a Leonard Cohen, or even a Bob Dylan. And as with other things recently, I’ve been getting that nagging feeling that life runs out eventually and I want to colour in some of the pictures before it’s too late.

I’m not sure how these huge omissions happened. Music was with me all the time as a teenager but then I got involved in other things, and it got buried under marriage, work, and raising children and goats. I forgot who I was in so many ways.


When I was young, it was all about being the same as everyone else. I listened to Pink Floyd, Focus, Cat Stephens, and The Moody Blues, and loved them. But I couldn’t admit to my friends that I also loved the quirky wit, spectacular timing and fabulous orchestration of Frank Sinatra. And years later when the children developed their own musical interests, they were decidedly prescriptive about what we could listen to.

Now I want to know what I like.

So, I’ve started out Continue reading

A Truth That Should Be Universally Acknowledged



Photo: Anthony Albright

A few weeks ago I completed something that has been on my list for a long time — reading all of Jane Austen’s novels. I’ve written previously about the trouble I had in getting through Mansfield Park, but on the fifth attempt I managed to finish it and surprised myself by liking it best of all. For those who are similarly list-minded, then Emma came in at number two.

Having done that, I decided to round off my treat by having an indulgent morning out, Continue reading

Lucky Knickers


We’ve still got builders working busily round us as we settle into our new home. They’re finishing off various bits and pieces in a very good-humoured way and I’ll miss them when they move on. Usually we manage not to trip over one another too much but the other day I was on my way to the dustbin when I realised that the path was blocked. I could have simply ducked under the ladder that was propped against the wall but instead I chose to wait patiently whilst Paul the builder finished sawing a piece of wood. As I stood there holding a bag of rubbish and getting wet in the drizzle, I wondered whether I could dispense with my superstitions—I’m embarrassed to say that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Old habits run deep and these have been passed to me through my mother who was full of odd notions. She wouldn’t open an umbrella in the house, she threw salt over her shoulder, and she said that if you accidentally put your clothes on inside out then you mustn’t take them off and put them on the right way. I’ve never been convinced by that as I don’t recall her ever going out and looking strange. Perhaps she just gave lip service to that one.


Annoyingly, I acquired a new superstition a few years ago when a friend told me that failing to greet a single magpie brings bad luck. At the time I was in the midst of some tricky life events and didn’t dare risk making them worse so although it was something new to worry about, I started doing what my friend does, which is to salute them. It quickly became a reflex action and suddenly these imposing black and white birds seemed to be everywhere, hopping about like lone delinquents. Then I met the man who is now my husband. As we drove through the New Forest on one of our first dates, I was aware out of the corner of my eye that he was looking at me curiously. We were both wary at this early stage of our relationship, and eventually he asked why I kept jerking my arm up to my head. We stopped for a drink in the garden of a pretty little pub and I tried to explain. But it sounded silly and as a confirmed scientist he was bemused.

Of course I know rationally that superstition is nonsense. It’s just a collection of odd habits and an unquestioning trust in magical beliefs. The psychologist, Professor Richard Wiseman found experimentally that people who use superstitions to ward off bad luck were no luckier than those who were not superstitious.


Perhaps it’s time to drop the funny habits and salutes. Particularly as some of Wiseman’s other research into luck is thought-provoking and much more useful. He got people to rate themselves as either lucky or unlucky and then compared them. The reality of luck is that people who believe they’re lucky aren’t inherently luckier than those who consider themselves unlucky. They’re no more likely to win the lottery, for example, because that’s simply down to probability. But where the difference between ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ people starts to matter is in the way they create their opportunities.

People who believe they’re lucky have different personality characteristics from those who feel unlucky. They’re more extrovert so they keep in contact with people better, smile more and make more eye contact. These social skills create opportunities. ‘Lucky’ people are also more open. They welcome unpredictability and are not bound by conventions. As such, they tend to travel more and to welcome new experiences. Wiseman describes a man who noticed that he always talked to the same kind of people at parties. So he decided to disrupt the routine, make life more fun and create new opportunities by thinking of a colour and gravitating towards people wearing that colour. At one party he only spoke to women wearing red, and at another to men wearing black.

Even those ‘lucky’ people who have real bad luck, tend to turn it round. I saw this with a dear friend who was dying of a dreadful disease. She never asked, “Why me?” Instead she said in her final days that she felt very lucky because she was surrounded by love.


I recently watched Inside Obama’s White House and there was a wonderful moment when Obama had to struggle with a difficult decision about healthcare. ‘You’ll need to be lucky for it to work,’ said his advisers. He stood still for a few moments and stared out of the window. ‘Where are we?’ he asked. ‘Sir, we’re in the Oval Office,’ came the reply. ‘And what’s my name?’ he said. ‘President Barack Obama,’ replied the aide. ‘Then I feel lucky every day,’ he said.

The United States of America is going to need some luck on Tuesday and I for one, am not taking any chances. I’ll be saluting those magpies, keeping my fingers firmly crossed and wearing my lucky knickers. I only hope that Hillary’s wearing hers too.


Dances with Goats


This week I was walking home and met a couple of cats. The first sauntered across the pavement, arched its back, yowled and invited me to fuss it. I can’t help but feel honoured when a cat deigns to talk to me so I stopped and stroked it but within seconds it got bored and wandered off to find someone else. Later, when I reached the golf course at the back of our house, a second cat darted out of the long grass and wound itself round my feet.

At the moment I have no animals of my own but there was a time when I had rather a lot. There were cats, dogs, chickens, geese, goats, and from time to time some lambs and pigs. We had a bit of land and in the morning I would lead the two goats down to the tangled woods where they would browse contentedly all day amongst the brambles. In the evening I would bring them back to their shed and lock them up for the night. That was the general plan but sometimes life didn’t go smoothly Continue reading

Home Thoughts


I’m keen on lists but am well aware that this divides people – many of my friends and family avoid them at all costs. But for me it’s a love affair. I even wrote a book about a list. And I particularly like ranking things—I just can’t seem to help it. For years my favourite book and favourite film have been unchanged. There’s something about knowing that Remains of the Day and Cinema Paradiso are important to me that helps define who I am. The Great Gatsby and Don’t Look Now are my second-favourite book and film; 101 Dalmatians and The Shawshank Redemption come in at number three, and Far From the Madding Crowd and The Railway Children are at number four.  I could go on…but there’s a strong chance that you’re not as keen on rankings as me, so I’ll stop there.

“Which do you prefer?” I asked my husband when we first met – “Beatles or Stones?” He looked mystified and said Continue reading

Beginning, Middle and End


Molly, my youngest, went off to university this week and this set me thinking about the cycle of life. I’ve had the odd brief message, just enough to know that Fresher’s Week is going well and that she’s making friends and getting used to living in London. This has nudged my twenty-eight years of parenting into a new phase—being there for them, but not all the time. People often talk of empty nest syndrome but right now even though she’s gone, the nest isn’t empty Continue reading

Word Journeys


I was at a large branch of Sainsbury’s this week, and one of the items on my list was a pack of pens. I wasn’t sure where to find them so glanced up at the signs hanging from the ceiling and was surprised to see one that said ‘Stationary’. “Look at that!” I said to my daughter, Molly who was helping with the shopping. “A major company and they can’t even spell. It’s ‘ery not ‘ary”. An elderly man overheard my rant and chipped in. “Yes, it’s like the apostrophes,” he said. When I thought about it later I couldn’t be sure whether he was supporting me with my gripe or mocking my pedantry.

But does the spelling matter? A lexicographer from the Oxford English Dictionary seems to think it does. She argues that Continue reading

Someone to Poke

siblings 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about siblings this week because of an important anniversary in our family. ‘What do you like about having siblings?’ I asked Molly the other day. ‘Having someone to tease,’ she said. ‘And when I was little there was always someone to poke on car journeys.’

Over the years there’s been a lot of research into parent-child relationships but sibling relationships have only attracted serious interest more recently. And yet they’re clearly very important. Psychologist Daniel Shaw put it well: Continue reading

A Mixed Diet


Photo: Guillaume Tell

Earlier this week I spent half an hour trudging through my online supermarket order and thinking about the advice on eating a varied diet. As I dutifully included a multi-coloured assortment of fruit and vegetables, protein and so on, I wondered, not for the first time, why human food has to be so complicated and take up so much time. There’s the shopping, the planning, the cooking, the serving, clearing up the spills, cleaning the fridge—it seems a great deal of effort. After all, cats seem quite happy with cat food, cows eat grass, and reindeer warble flies survive perfectly well on reindeer tissue.

cow grass

Indeed, not only do most animals have a narrow diet, but a varied one can be positively harmful. During the Second World War Continue reading