Reading my morning story in Menston library. Next to me is our wonderful leader, Ruxandra Moore, who founded our writers’ club

Our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe, yesterday gave story reading sessions in two local libraries yesterday, Menston Library and Ilkley Library. The theme was ‘winter’ or ‘Christmas’. This follows similar readings in just Ilkley for Autumn and Spring. As we expect families to our readings I wrote two ‘children’s stories’, I’d hardly call them ‘fairy stories’.

They were both inspired by children I know, in a way.

Here’s my introduction to the morning story in my local Menston village library: “We have a very special young lady in the audience this morning. Last year our writers’ club ran a competition to find the young writer of the year and she, then just six years old, took second place. I think she got that place for her creativity and that creativity inspired me to write a story just for her. The rest of you might find it rather strange. Her story was about a shark in a rather strange situation.

To read my story which she inspired go to:

The shark that ate half of Father Christmas

For the afternoon I was inspired by three even smaller girls who I know only through their mother’s blog. Following their daily lives gives me a great deal of pleasure so although the story is fictional it is not entirely so.

To read it go to:

Spiders

Our ‘star turn’, David, a great story-teller, does a bit more than ‘read’

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This is a very simple recipe but my wife has said it is the best ‘vegetarian’ food she’s ever tasted. We are not vegetarian but eat ‘without meat’ twice a week. The recipe isn’t truly ‘vegetarian’ either as it has Parmesan cheese.

I got the basic idea from somewhere but cannot remember where so apologies for no acknowledgement.

This week’s version was slightly different to that of last week as I did not have one of the ingredients – spinach – but I’ll give last week’s recipe because although that of this week was good that last week was better. As usual, I didn’t measure anything so apart from the cream cheese, everything else is an approximation.

Ingredients

3 large flat mushrooms; 1 packet of cream cheese (200g); about 50g Parmesan cheese, finely grated, with a little more to sprinkle on top; 3 cloves of garlic; 4 large handfuls of ‘baby spinach’; 1/4 tspn freshly ground black pepper; 1/4 tspn chilli or cayenne pepper; 1 tblspn good olive oil.

Method

Wipe the mushrooms with some kitchen paper. Carefully break out the stalk. Finely chop the mushroom stalks and garlic and fry in the olive oil (careful not to burn the garlic). Allow to cool. Mix together the cream cheese and parmesan, then add the pepper and chilli and mix well. Finally add the fried garlic and mushroom stalks, again mixing well.

Meanwhile heat the spinach in a large pan until it is wilted and allow to cool.

Squeeze as much liquid out of the spinach as possible then put 1/3 in each mushroom top. Then put 1/3 of the cheese mixture on top of the spinach. Finally, grate a little more Parmesan on each.

Lay a sheet of non-stick baking paper on a baking sheet then put on the stuffed mushrooms and put in an oven preheated to 200degC for 1/2 hour or till just browned on top.

Comments

Goes well with baked potato soaked in butter (has the advantage that this too can be baked in the oven at 200degC, put in 1/2 hour before the mushrooms).

The recipe would probably work with creme fraiche, but I haven’t tried it.

If you don’t like ‘hot/spicy’ leave out the chilli/cayenne.

It’s interesting to me that so many of my favourite bloggers are in eastern Europe. Romania is no surprise as I know the country well and speak the language. Latvia is more of a surprise as before coming upon the blog by chance I knew little of the country. The same can be said of Slovenia, though I had visited before when it was part of Yugoslavia. The blogger in Poland is no surprise; he’s a ‘tyke’, not so grumpy but the only male in this small band. So what do they have in common?

I’m finding it difficult to answer that question but I’m going to explore a few of them ‘out loud’ here and see if the answer comes.

Latvia

I can’t mention all the Romanian ones, which as I said are no surprise, so I’ll begin in Latvia. Ilze is a Latvian mum who lives in ‘the forest’ (common in a way with tyke Eddy in Poland) with her three delightful little daughters and husband. She just blogs every day about what she and/or the family has been up to – cooking simple meals, DIY, celebrating a Latvian holiday, going to the circus, just going for a walk, craft work at which she seems to excel (DIY too!). Ilze, formerly an IT manager, is a bit of an entrepreneur, currently making handmade greetings cards for companies. I feel privileged to be allowed to drop in on this loving family each day through her blog and I always feel a little better for having done so.

Poland

I first encountered ‘Eddy’ in the early days of him building a strawbale house in the wilds of eastern Poland, having moved there with his Polish wife Gosia. At the time I had done an ‘away day’ (team building day) with a noted UK strawbale building expert and was considering doing the same in Romania so the combination of tyke and straw was irresistible. Since then the family has grown by one (the human family that is) with another on the way. Now I’m tied as I use the natural soaps produced by Gosia for everything – washing, showering, shampooing and shaving. All the costly sprays and lotions have been thrown out and my wife says my skin feels wonderful. Easy to travel light and a big advantage when flying – no liquids. If you want to try the soaps go to:

Gosia’s soaps

Romania

I have been in love with Romania, its people, its culture and its food, from not long after I went there in 1993 so, as I said, it’s not surprising that a few Romanian bloggers get into my list.

A fairly recent one with whom I feel a special affinity is Iulia, an English teacher in Bucharest. It’s not because she is an English teacher as I was for much of my time in Romania, it’s about the poetry and prose she writes – in English – on her blog and, leading from that the relationship which has developed through corresponding with her (and indirectly with her husband) off the blog.

Unlike Iulia, Monica – also living in Bucharest – blogs in both English and Romanian – I ignore the first unless I’m ‘stuck’ as it’s good practice for my Romanian. What she does have in common with Iulia is being an entrepreneur although she’s only 18 years old, younger than that when I first began to follow her. It was that entrepreneurial spirit in someone so young which first attracted me to her blog, then the haiku she writes, a form of which I’m enamoured and try to write, her love of her father and her blogging of his poetry (often about love) and finally her book about being an adolescent, which is truly astounding.

There are one or two others but this post would get too long. Maybe I’ll do a post in the future about other Romanian bloggers who post in English or both English and Romanian.

Slovenia

Kristina in Slovenia is rather different to the others but she is an English teacher and a writer with one book of a trilogy published and the second in progress (when she can put down the one she is currently reading – a true bookworm, which I have rather grown out of). What attracted me to her blog? Probably that she is a strong advocate for women, which I hope I have been for most of my adult life (in fact it was initially one reason for setting up my grumpytyke blog).

Pioneers

What have all the above in common? The only thing I can identify is that they are all, in their own way, pioneers. And, despite never having met them (a couple of near misses with Eddy) I regard them as friends. That will have to do.

Today was the fortnightly meeting of our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe. As usual, two weeks ago we were set a theme to which to write something: gardens/gardening or the like.

I chose to write a short story in a genre I have not tackled before. I called it:

The gardener

His speciality was potatoes. Every day he was out there, first digging deep trenches which he half filled with horse manure brought in enormous black plastic bags on his wheelbarrow. Then he shovelled the soil he had removed on top, forming long straight rows from within a foot of the back of his house to the end of his garden. It was not unusual for him to be out there digging and shovelling long after dark. Later, I understand when depended on what varieties of potatoes he was planting, he dibbed holes in those long rows, dropped in a potato then shovelled a little soil on top.

Our garden was mostly lawn but I sometimes had a brief chat with him over the fence when I was cutting it. Joe wasn’t very talkative, but not unfriendly. I did ask him about the potatoes. He told me he grew so many to get some superb ones for the village show. Evidently his potatoes always won their class.

Once or twice he gave me some unusual ones, pink and odd shapes, but really tasty.

His wife Rose was not happy about it. We often heard them arguing on the other side of the garden fence which divided our two properties. “Why can’t we have some flowers like next door?” she’d ask, “just a few outside the house.”

I’m not good with flowers,” was his surly reply.

Over the two years we had been there the arguments had become more and more acrimonious. Rose had a habit of extending her finger, emphasising each complaining sentence with a jab in Joe’s chest. The arguments became so loud that we could hear them when they continued in the house. Then they stopped. “She’s left me for a bloke who grows championship dahlias,” he told me in one of our chats over the fence. I wasn‘t surprised, she’d surely had enough of potatoes.

He must have been taken into hospital when we were out as the first I knew of it was when I saw a woman I’d never seen before looking down the potato rows. A new girlfriend I thought. “Do you like potatoes?” I asked as a way of making her acquaintance. “Not especially and I prefer to buy them at the supermarket. I suppose they’ll rot now Joe’s not around.”

What, has he left too?” I asked.

Oh, you didn’t know? He had a heart attack last week and died in hospital. I’m his sister and am just here to clear things up. Look, if you want some potatoes just come and dig some up. Take as many as you like. The side gate’s open and there’s a garden fork outside the back door which I suppose Joe used.”

I don’t mind a bit of digging and the thought of those tasty little pink potatoes had me round there the next fine day with a large bag. Sure enough, the first fork lifted a clod filled with those ugly but tasty little morsels – fur apples I think they are called.

Seeing one, long and slender covered in soil left behind I bent down to pick it up. It didn’t come up easy. There must be a big bunch of them down there I said to myself, giving it another pull. It still wouldn’t come free. Grasping it tightly between thumb and first finger of both hands and giving a mighty wrench at last it was free, with something between a squelch and a dull crack.

The detached finger, a bloody bone projecting from the rotting flesh, was silent now, but just as angry as it pointed at my small haul of potatoes.

§

Today is going to be full of chores so it’s a good opportunity to post something about our walk yesterday, our favourite short walk around our village of Menston. Cold with a biting wind coming up the valley but a  beautiful sunny day. I had hoped to catch Petronela’s namesake but she refused to play and hid herself somewhere in the bushes.

When we arrived Sue our friend was preparing Sunday lunch so we had a wonderful ‘catchup’ sitting in her cosy farmhouse-style kitchen while she peeled potatoes. Her son and his lady have just moved in while they renovate the barn next door to be their home (it’ll take a year) so we made new friends too. P enjoyed chatting with him, also a teacher, while I enoyed chatting with his lady (who said “of course”?). My camera for some reason refused to play ball too so unfortunately no pix of Sue or her offspring (man of the house Simon had lost himself in ‘the garden’) but I must at sometime do a post on this amazing couple, who always have us laughing. P was still giggling about one episode in bed last night!

 

 

 

 

 

I wasn’t able to post here for a couple of days but I must have a grump on a couple of themes, one from UK news on Friday, the other ‘news’ from the school in which Petronela is teaching. Those themes? The continuing treatment of women as second class citizens; the disgraceful state to which education in the UK has been ‘allowed’, or forced, to fall.

Women’s pay

The ‘news’ that, beginning this weekend, women are effectively working for free till the end of the year is a generalisation, a simplification, but it makes the point very well I think.

Women in the UK are, in general, paid so much less than men for doing the same job that half way through November men will have earned the amount that women will have to work till the end of December to achieve.

How on earth do we accept this over a century after Emily Davison was killed protesting at the Epson Derby?

Children in UK who cannot read or write at 11

On Friday Petronela began to teach a ‘low ability class’. Of course some children may be ‘brighter’ than others; whether they should be ‘streamed’ as such is an argument I will not get into, it’s basically the same argument as whether grammar schools should be reintroduced. I have mixed feelings about both. However, she was ‘warned’ there are children in this class 7 who cannot read or write. This after being at school, primary school, for six years.

I’m not suggesting that all parents should, or could, teach their offspring to read and write before they go to school – at five years old in the UK (as my mother did for me, for which I’m eternally grateful). What I am suggesting (not a strong enough word) is that children should not be moved from primary to secondary school without being able to read and write at some basic level at least.

That they are gives the high school teacher an impossible task and disrupts the learning of other students.

UK lowest literacy among developed countries

Way back in 2012 there was an article in ‘The Independent’ newspaper giving some reasons why the UK is lowest for literacy in developed countries (confirmed in recent OECD survey and report) which is still relevant.

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-obvious-reasons-why-uk-literacy-and-numeracy-skills-are-among-the-lowest-in-the-developed-world-8871402.html

It is almost the same with numeracy, but I will not get too much into that, except to say that I completed the first five questions in a recent GCSE maths exam paper in my head in a very short time. I could not have done that with a GCE ‘O’ level paper, despite all the assurances that standards have not dropped.

I remember well when Petronela was studying English for GCSE so she could teach in UK (at the time she was working as a teaching assistant) she came home with the question “How do you spell ‘read’?” I was surprised as I thought she knew very well. She told me that a teacher had written something on the board with the instruction to students to ‘Reed this’! Since then we have had letters from school, doctors, hospitals, the local council, etc, with basic spelling mistakes and appalling grammar.

C’ grade is not, in my opinion, a high enough grade in the GCSE English exam to teach any subject, as is the case now. Again, I do not believe all the assurances that this is the same level as was needed to get a pass at GCE ‘O’ level. I am sure that it is not.

I sometimes, as a writer/blogger, indulge in some passages which are not grammatically correct but I know I am doing it, for effect. I sometimes indulge in some ‘journalese’ for similar reasons. I may well have done it in this post. But I would not do it if I were teaching a lesson in school.

I used to tell my students in Romania that you cannot learn to use correct English fluently in the classroom, and vocabulary almost not at all. To succeed with these you have to read, read, and read. What chance do those who cannot have? Little.

To add fuel to the fire libraries are being closed, or threatened with closure, across the UK. Our local village library has been rescued by a team of volunteers.

As I said, reading from an early age is one of the many things for which I am grateful to my mother.

A photo of the repro Dansette in the shop window

The ‘Dansette’ in the shop window

I set out this morning with the intention of resuming work on my ‘long short story’, yesterday having been taken up largely by ‘chores’. On the two or three hundred paces from where I can park the car to my ‘early morning’ haunt, Wetherspoon, I pass a few shops and was stopped by a ‘Dansette’ in the window of one of them, straight – it seemed – from the era of my story.

USBs and flip flops (bistable switches)

Of course it was not (though you can still buy the genuine article in Leeds market – I’ve often been tempted), the disguise pulled off by “allows you to record all your vinyl to a USB stick”. A USB stick has typically millions of little electronic switches, flip flops we used to call them; I remember being proud of making just one, the size of my little finger nail, at the request of my then director of research who asked for it to be “as small as you can possibly make it”. That was less than ten years before the time of my story, when I did own a model of this portable record player.

Picture of an original Dansette

The real thing

The Dansette features in my story; in some ways it is a principal character.

Now if the offer recently from my dear friend Iulia (teacher of English, poet, writer and blogger in Bucharest) to read a draft of my story when I’ve knocked it more into shape were not enough motivation to work on it (it is), then that ‘Dansette’ should set me off.