A Ghost Story for #Christmas!

Decorations, reindeer and jolly, rotund gentlemen are all very well, but there’s another tradition of Christmas which I love as much as the aforementioned, and that is a cracking good ghost story. The last few weeks I’ve been hooked on Netflix series, ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ directed by Mike Flanagan. The series is loosely based on the book by Shirley Jackson. Horror writer, Stephen King, describes the series as, ‘close to genius’.

Memories or Ghosts?
The story is told through two timelines; switching between one summer the Crain family spent at Hill House when the children were growing up, and their lives as adults in the present. The story is told over ten episodes in a non-linear way and we get to know what led up to a night in Hill House that changed the family’s lives forever. We also learn why the truly terrifying Bent Neck Lady haunted Nell Cairn when she was a kid and still haunts her in adulthood long after leaving Hill House.
THoHH plays with that numinous area between emotional vulnerabilities and supernatural possession suggesting that we are all, like the Crain family, ‘haunted’ in some way; perhaps by family trauma, relationships that went wrong or wishes that never came to fruition.

Inspired by Poe
When I was at secondary school, we had to write a story in response to Edgar Allen Poe’s tale, ‘The Black Cat’. I wrote about a girl walking in a wood at night who witnessed a murder through the lighted window of a log cabin. She didn’t see the actual figures but events unfolded in silhouette on the cabin wall. I was really proud to be asked to read it to the class. My first published short story had ghosts and witchcraft, but since then I have generally stayed away from the horror genre because of its reputation as trashy entertainment, and the fact that it’s so easy to get it wrong and end up with something farcical.

Can we learn from the horror genre?
My opinions on horror changed however, when I went to a workshop at a writers’ conference a few years ago. The tutor explained how fiction writers, regardless of genre, can learn so much from the horror story. All stories need powerful antagonists, and horror stories have to deliver on that score. Readers must care deeply about the main character and at the climax of the action you know that your MC will be isolated and face-to-face with the antagonist. The classic three act structure of fiction; inciting incident, building to a climax, and resolution is already blue-printed into the ghost story.

Jekyll and Hyde
In many horror stories, protagonist and antagonist even merge into one, so that hitherto ‘good’ characters step over to the dark side. Indeed, the characters’ struggles with light and dark forces are major plot points in THoHH. This merging with dark forces also happens in Stephen King’s novel, The Shining. King famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s film of his book. In the novel, protagonist, Jack Torrance, tries his utmost to resist the evil forces in the haunted Overlook Hotel, retaining traces of his humanity almost until the end of the story. In the film, lapsed alcoholic, Jack, quickly sides with malevolent spirits and carries out their evil bidding without resistance.

Why do we need ghost stories?
Kubrick said that, ‘The Shining,’ is a positive movie because any evidence of life after death offers reassurance to mortals.
Ghost-story doyenne, Susan Hill, theorises in this Guardian article that we all enjoy thrills in a safe environment and in doing so prepare ourselves for the real frights and dangers in life. And Stephen King suggests that it’s much more diverting to be scared of ghosts than it is to worry about the true horrors of life such as serious illness, loss of loved ones and the grim reaper.

What about you? Do you like ghost/supernatural horror stories? Which ones are your favourites? Maybe you are a rationalist who has no truck with ghosts, fictional or otherwise?

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Coffee, Cake and Furry Friends #catcafe #jippies #haarlem

Haarlem is so close to Amsterdam that Frank and I often go there for a day trip. It’s much more civilised than Amsterdam. The Red Light District there is quite small which means it doesn’t attract the amount of low life and spin-off criminality that Amsterdam does. Many streets are pedestrianised and it generally has a calm feeling which you can’t find in the centre of Amsterdam.

So, after heading to Haarlem and doing a little bit of early Christmas shopping for such essentials as Dachshund-shaped Christmas baubles and mince pies from expat shop A Taste of Home, we decided we needed some rest and sustenance. Good fortune favours the brave and we happily stumbled across Cat Café, Jippies. I believe that this concept of allowing cats to mix with customers while they enjoy their beverages originated in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1998 but it truly became a ‘thing’ in Tokyo, Japan. More about the history on this Wikipedia page.

There are ground rules for each individual cat café however; washing your hands before entry, not picking up the cats, and not giving them titbits from the table. Seemed reasonable enough, so before we knew it we were sitting down being largely ignored by the seven rescue cats that grace customers with their presences at Jippies Katten Cafe

In case you’re wondering about hygiene, the food preparation area is totally sealed off from the cats and they have a separate area at the back of the café where they can escape to whenever they want to. There were no smells of cat either; the café was scrupulously clean. You can leave a donation for the cat’s welfare if you wish, but by patronising the café you also contribute to the upkeep of the seven rescue cats.

Cats, or pets in general seem to engender ‘gezelligheid’ which is that Dutch word no one can really translate. It’s often translated as cosy, but gezelligheid also says something about  a sense of community. At Jippies, instead of being strangers with a load of other strangers at separate tables, it felt like an informal gathering of mutual cat-lovers. The cats’ antics got people chatting and so the ice was broken. So the friendliness brought about by the cats was another bonus. Needless to say, the sticky banana cake wasn’t bad either. So if you are ever in Haarlem in need of a furry friend and sustenance, head to Jippies, Katten Café!

Keizerstraat 10
2011 VS Haarlem
Open Wed thru Sun 10am to 5.30pm


Watch Haarlem vlogger, Marit, at Jippies. (all in Dutch)

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This Little Pig Likes to Frolic #Endthecageage #CIWF

Can I Play Outside?
I grew up on a smallholding so the welfare of farm animals has always been an important issue to me. I believe farm animals should live without pain and discomfort and be able to fulfil their natural instincts. At the end of what is hopefully a pleasant life, abattoirs should be local so that hellish journeys are eliminated. Killing should take place under humane circumstances. Sounds easy doesn’t it? But with 600 mega-farms in the Netherlands alone, it’s a long road ahead. Whilst big numbers don’t necessarily mean bad animal husbandry, it often leads to overcrowded conditions and a focus on profit margins rather than quality of the meat/eggs/milk and animal welfare. It’s all too easy to blame the farmer but consumers and supermarkets play a greater role in their need for low prices and high turnover respectively. The Dutch government isn’t helping much, it even subsidises mega-farms outside of the Netherlands in developing countries. Go figure.

No Meat Today
I guess you are thinking I am a vegetarian. I’m not, but I do have meat-free days which makes me a flexitarian. If we all made a few adjustments to our diet and gave up meat once a week that would significantly reduce the need for intensive farming methods. Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday, campaign encourages us to have at least one meat-free day a week. That would have a huge effect on the amount of green house gases produced and significantly decrease the need for intensive farming and the spin-off animal suffering involved. Small changes on a wide scale can have a huge impact.

Supporting Campaigns
For many years I have made annual donations to Compassion in World Farming. They have just started a Crowdfunding campaign, to send the pig sculpture (pictured below) on a tour of the Netherlands. The aim is to raise awareness amongst consumers about the nightmarish circumstances some farm animals live in. The impressive ‘Ode to a Pig,’ is made by artist, Jantien Mook, who made ‘Ode to the Wilderness’ which I blogged about here.

Get Involved
Please sign the petition, End the Cage Age. Or better still crowdfund the campaign so that happy pig gets to go on tour in NL, CIWF campaign is open for funding till 8 November. Right now he’s in the Westerpark, Amsterdam, on the edge of the playing field. Why not leave meat off the menu for one day this week? Plenty of tasty recipes via the Meat Free Monday link. Good luck and on behalf of the pigs, thank you!


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In Praise of #Amsterdam Parks

Well designed and well-kept parks are good for people’s mental and physical health. In Amsterdam we have parks and green spaces in abundance. My favourite park, because it’s less than 100 metres walk away, is the Erasmuspark. When I moved to this neighbourhood in the 80s it was run down and more or less a no-go area because of danger of harassment or mugging. Since its renovation in the noughties and the addition of Terrasmus café, the park has grown in popularity. Events are organised there throughout the summer and it is a nice place for dog owners and young mothers to interact. While one wouldn’t think of striking up a conversation when walking along a regular concrete street, it’s far easier to chat to other dog owners or neighbours in a green setting. Nearby is also the Rembrandtpark, and of course Amsterdam’s famous Vondelpark. This time of year after the flocks of tourists have flown back home, even the Vondelpark is a pleasant place to be.

The parks have looked so lovely the last few days, I couldn’t resist taking some photos and sharing them with you. Try and head out to inhale some greenery if you can, even five minutes in a park can boost your mood. Catch these last few halcyon days of an Indian Summer.


Day of the Dog Event in Erasmuspark. Filmed by Peter Eijking



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Living the Dream Inside a Chocolate Box

Those of you who follow my blog will know that Frank and I enjoy house-sitting and caring for animals. Looking after pets is a big part of the reciprocal agreement between house-sitter and owner. Often feeding the garden birds is something we are asked to keep up during the house-sit. We were once even asked to feed Aldi bread to a seagull called Sidney and his missus Samantha. So far we have looked after; horses, cats, dogs, fish, ducks, chickens and geese.

Dry Your Eyes
Now, my intention was to write a blog about how not to get too attached to the pets while looking after them. But I have failed miserably as I got very attached to one of ‘our’ wards – his name is Harvey – a miniature, long-haired Dachshund. He has the most soulful brown eyes and very soft, long fur which makes him an ideal lap dog, filling that gap for a pet owner who wants the fun and affection of a dog but the sofa-sharing convenience of a cat. Anyway, I have dried my tears which I shed on saying goodbye because the home-owner is keen for us to come back to house-sit next year’s holiday and I have even put my name on the list for a pup should they ever breed from him.

Bumper Harvest
This year has been a bumper harvest for house-sitting wonderful properties, meeting new animals and people! Neither of us were really familiar with the counties of Wiltshire and Hampshire but the rolling wheat fields in the slanting sun of the evening are breathtakingly beautiful. Avebury with its mysterious standing stones and quaint pub (encircled by the stones) was also a highlight. Does anyone remember the 1970s kid’s TV series, Children of the Stones? It was filmed in Avebury and scared the bejesus out of me.

Hampshire is also filled with pretty chocolate-box worthy villages and is only a stone’s throw from London where I visited the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A. (Great exhibition but the V&A has really dumbed down, read my Tripadvisor review here – I even got food poisoning from their restaurant food.)
On a more positive note, Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is filmed, is also just up the road in Berkshire. We spent a very enjoyable sun-drenched afternoon there, eating our own packed lunch, much cheaper and probably healthier!

Hobnobbing with the Locals
We were absorbed into the community on our house-sit in Worcestershire, making friends with the neighbours and being invited over for oven-baked pizza, Prosecco and a game of croquet on the lawn. The summer of 2018 will go down in history as a hot, dry one. Frank easily spent a couple of hours a day tending and watering (I chipped in occasionally) the extensive garden so it wouldn’t look like the Gobi Desert on the green-fingered owners’ return. Our dear friends, Cathy and David came to stay and David took some stunning photos of the garden and chickens. The village of Rock, near Kidderminster certainly tops our list for friendly and welcoming communities.


A Film Star’s Home
Below, a few pics of the highlights of our fabulous nine-week sojourn in the UK. We had originally planned to stay for a shorter period (seven weeks) but due to a cancellation by another house-sitter we had the chance to look after two dogs and two cats in the stunning village of Monxton in Hampshire. The 300-year-old thatched farmhouse formerly owned by film star, Gordon Harker (1885- 1967), is like something out of a fairytale. See more pics and Harker’s Bar on the Airbnb listing. Harker starred in three silent Hitchcock films and had an acting career which spanned the 1900s through the 1950s. Evidently he liked a drink as he built a bar in the cellar to entertain his film star friends. Maybe even Hitchcock had a tipple in the eponymous Harker’s Bar! We have yet to try it out as it’s decidedly spooky down there…



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Nostalgia and Spitfires in Bewdley

During a Sunday afternoon visit to the small town of Bewdley, Worcestershire situated on the River Severn, Frank and I stumbled across a 1940s-themed event along the Severn Valley Railway Line at Bewdley train station. GIs, Tommies, civilians, landgirls and glamorous ladies were out in their glad rags strutting their stuff up and down the platform. How wonderful to be transported back to a simpler time when we didn’t have omnipresent, tyrannical technology at our heels. But I told myself I shouldn’t get too nostalgic; I wouldn’t have enjoyed rationing, air-raid shelters, blackouts or indeed any of the fears and deprivations that ordinary folk endured during WWII.

It was pure escapism though on a very hot day with tunes from a less cynical age such as Mairzy Doats, playing in the background. Old-fashioned trains shunted in and out of the the station without much care for deadlines or timetables; time slowed to a more manageable pace. On the other hand, I was also quite glad it was 2018 because it meant I could take a few snaps with my phone and share them with you. Toodlepip! Until the next blog!

Two cool ladies that went the extra mile to look good!

Two cool ladies that went the extra mile to look good!

Taking a picnic along - love the sun umbrella

Taking a picnic along – love the sun umbrella

Welcome shade while waiting for the train

Welcome shade while waiting for the train

Found this vintagey dress at the open-air sale behind the ticket office so quickly changed!

Himself in front of the iconic Spitfire that epitomised Britain’s fighting spirit during the darkest times of the Battle of Britain.

More photos of our train trip in 2014 along the Severn Valley Railway Line.

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Celebrate National Flash Fiction Day!

16 June is National Flash Fiction day! Founded by writer, Calum Kerr in 2012, this relatively ‘new’ genre of micro-stories is growing in popularity and there are more and more opportunities for writers to submit and see their work published online or in print. Indeed, now we are all so busy flash fiction can be the ideal form of entertainment to fill otherwise redundant time when sitting in a waiting room or standing on a station platform. Its brevity makes it perfect for reading on a mobile device.

Anyway, I will cut to the chase! My story, ‘Swanning Around’ went live on the National Flash Fiction Flood between 6-7 am CET this morning  but you may read it at your leisure via the link below. It’s a 500-word piece about a late bloomer, a stroppy swan and an ice sculpture. If you are intrigued how these disparate elements form a story then please click and don’t forget to bookmark the link for other stories! There will be new ones posted throughout the day and they have all been curated by experts in the world of flash fiction. Enjoy! My piece, Swanning Around






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Sing for your supper, or is it dinner, or perhaps even tea?

A Dutch student learning English once asked me when British people have their supper. A deceptively-simple sounding question, isn’t it? One which I could have answered simply enough by telling him that supper is a simple snack of a sandwich or biscuits with a hot drink before going to bed. But then, if I did that I would have missed out on the chance to explain (or at least attempt to) the rather complicated English class system. It’s always easiest to start with oneself as an example so here goes.

Soap for Tea
Growing up as a smallholder’s daughter in 1970s Britain I believed myself to be working class with middle-class aspirations. We mixed with people from all levels of society through our love of horses and that included upper and middle-classes whom we got to know through show-jumping and Pony Club membership. At home breakfast was cereal or toast (from the Rayburn) with a few rashers of bacon, dinner was a substantial hot meal served about 1pm, tea was a cold meal, bread & cheese and cold meats followed by cake at 6.30pm. This meal always coincided with watching the Brummy soap series, Crossroads on telly, and then if still feeling peckish around bedtime, a cup of tea or Ovaltine accompanied by crackers or biscuits was in order for supper. Having hobnobbed a bit in the tuck shop at Pony Club Camp with posh people’s children I learned that they had supper around our teatime and that it was a hearty warm meal with two courses eaten in an informal manner.

The Rayburn

The Rayburn with toasting fork

Tea table at home

Tea table at home

Supper snack

Supper snack

After tea, washing up

After tea, washing up – All sketches by yours truly anno 1979

Class Divisions
When I went to university I was suddenly surrounded by middle-class people who had their main hot meal or dinner in the evening, a light lunch around noon, tea was something sweet eaten between lunch and dinner and supper a pre-bedtime snack. Are you getting confused? Believe me, I was. After finishing university and learning about garlic, avocado and Liebfraumilch wine, I travelled overland in Africa with a group of northerners and unsure of my provenance they quizzed me about what time of day I had dinner. Even though I had adopted some middle-class habits and nomenclature during my student days, dinner was still firmly embedded in my consciousness as a warm midday meal. Happy I had given them the right answer, I was warmly taken into the fold! Northerners consider themselves generally working class; the hard-working webbed feet of the elegant swan that is England anywhere south of Nottingham.

Source of Comedy
You’ll be relieved to hear I didn’t go on at length to my student as I have done here but I simplified my answer somewhat. But even so, being Dutch and wanting a straightforward answer to a straightforward question it probably sounded waffly. In the Netherlands you have ontbijt, lunch en avondmaaltijd and that’s it.

Is it perhaps time to ditch this outmoded way of pigeon-holing people into working, middle or upper class? But then where would we look for rich sources of comedy? So many of our best loved sitcoms were based on class idiosyncrasies. Only Fools and Horses, The Good Life, Are you Being Served, To the Manor Born, Dad’s Army, Keeping up Appearances and Hi-de-Hi are all built upon observations of the different layers of English society exaggerating each group’s aspirations and absurdities. Maybe that’s why there are so few good comedies being written today as society merges into one homogeneous whole in which everyone is vaguely middle-class. I’m curious to hear what time of day you have supper? What class do you belong to or perhaps you consider yourself classless?

Further ramblings on supper on The Guardian.

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Hair, it’s our Crowning Glory

At least that’s what women are led to believe from an early age and the beauty industry is more than happy to divest us of our money in pursuit of that ideal. I’ve been thinking about fictional characters’ hair a lot recently. In films and novels Caucasian women often have character-defining hair. Black; witchy and duplicitous, red; fiery and vivacious; blonde; angelic or tarty, brown; plain and intelligent, grey/white; wise and intellectual, curly; unpredictable and bubbly, straight; cool and calculating. This left me with a dilemma because I was struggling to choose the hair colour and type of my young, female protagonist, but I didn’t want to push her into any of those stereotypes.

woman-586185_640 (1)
In a Tangle
So I began to tackle the problem in a circuitous way and by happy accident discovered the fascinating, non-fiction book, Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair by Emma Tarlo. Now, like you, I knew that both men and women can need wigs for a variety of medical, cosmetic or religious reasons but I had no idea of the global, largely covert, billion-dollar trade in the procurement and processing of human hair into wigs and extensions. Sourcing hair generally starts in third world countries. Some women sell their hair to barbers for a short-lived respite from poverty in China, India, Myanmar and Pakistan. On the other side of the world, relatively wealthy women choose to boost their income by selling their hair directly to the client via the Buy and Sell Hair website. The reasons for sale are as various as the hair types on offer. Hindus have their hair tonsured in Indian temples as a way of showing thanks, or to seek rebirth; indeed the vast temple of Tirumala acts as a magnet for pilgrims drawing people and hair from all over India. Each year the tonsured hair adds around 20 million pounds to the temple’s coffers.

Giveaway Hair
Sometimes, hair donation is purely altruistic as in the recent case of the Duchess of Cambridge donating seven inches of her locks to the Little Princesses Trust (based in Hereford) for children and young adults who have lost their hair through cancer treatment. How bizarre to think that a sick child somewhere will be wearing our future Queen consort’s hair. Truly a crowning glory! The hair is sorted anonymously so no one will ever know that their wig contains Kate’s tresses.

Decisions, Decisions
While all these hair stories make fascinating reading, it isn’t taking me nearer a solution in my writing dilemma! What it does show me though is how important this decision is and how much identity and status are invested in luscious locks or lack thereof. Would Dennis the Menace be as naughty without his black, unruly mop? Could Heathcliff have been blonde? Could Pippi Longstocking have had mousey-coloured hair? Would Bond villain, Blofeld, have been as menacing if he weren’t bald? How do you decide your characters’ hair colour and type? Can you think of fictional characters defined by their hair? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Embed from Getty Images


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Tulips, skunk cabbage and the BFG meet in Yorkshire

On our second house-sit of the year looking after a cat and Koi fish in Yorkshire, the sun came out and because we probably won’t visit the Keukenhof this year (my husband isn’t a fan of the regimental neatness and selfie-stick wielding hoards) we went to Harlow Carr Gardens in Harrogate instead. Spring has been a long time coming but at last; tulips and daffodils are in abundance, lambs are gambolling in the fields and the Koi fish we are looking after will probably need feeding as they become more active. A few photos of our day out below. Nice and jumbly, The Big Friendly Giant (Roald Dahl) enjoyed the sunshine as well. Really eye catching (and smelly) were the bright yellow Skunk Cabbage plants lining the side of the stream. And of course, a visit to the unsurpassed, Betty’s Tea Rooms was in order to round the day off perfectly…


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