Thursday, 31 October 2013

My latest article on The Huffington Post

This week I have the pleasure of speaking with Paul Pellew (The Viscount Exmouth) about his recently released autobiography, A Prisoner of Fortune.

Please click here to read the article: The Passage of Time and Things That Matter (Part Five)

Paul Pellew (Viscount Exmouth)

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Things I saw in the woods today, part 52

The Autumn brings a subdued, misty light that is haunting and evocative. This abandoned iron gate speaks of an era that has long since gone. No one pushes the gate open anymore but it once was the grand entrance to the estate now covered with Autumn leaves that no one sweeps away....

A very scary looking spider deep in the woods today. He was guarding an enormous hole in a tree which was the entrance to his lair. I am convinced he only had one eye...

A strange mushroom:
And finally, the sky as seen though Autumn leaves...
Not in the woods but the view from my house the morning after the Storm of 28th October.

All photos copyright SvD.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The passage of time

There are cliches about growing old. Life is determined in cycles and there are three- what crawls in the morning, stands upright at noon and has three legs at sunset? Man.

I have always wanted to be old- ever since I was a child. I hated being told what to do. I liked my independence and as soon as I could, I made a home for myself on my own terms. True freedom when you're a nascent adult must be playing the Rolling Stones at full blast in the middle of the night while drinking too much alcohol!

I yearned for lines on my face and gnarled fingers. Somehow lines, and wrinkles signify a type of wisdom.  I LOVE my grey hair so much so that when people stop me in the street- to gasp in admonishment that I don't dye my hair, I laugh all the more. I am free of the slavery of maintaining a myth. I stopped smoking the year my father died and I was livid to find that despite having smoked for  24 years I had no withdrawal whatsoever. It was as if I had never smoked ever in my life! But the bondage of dependency really sucks at the life force and once I had given up the nicotine rush, I felt unleashed. It was an awakening.

Giving up fear was the second best thing I ever did. Becoming detached. Thinking that whatever happens however terrible, well so what? Accepting that when one surrenders, one becomes stronger.

Being a slave to anything, TV, popular culture, are all things that make me want to live on top of a hill and spend the rest of my life in contemplation. Politics? Well, don't get me started.... I recently ran into my dog-walking friend, the undertaker: "People who go into politics have to want to help others," he exhorted, "they have to want to change the world for the better...." Yawn. How do you know when a politician is lying? His lips are moving.

What is so terrible about getting old? I rather love the way it makes me feel- crumpled in parts, wobbly in other bits but content and calm. Surely that state of saying, "apres moi le deluge!", is what really matters? To know that one has earned one's stripes, earned the ability to laugh in the face of adversity and maybe even thrive when faced with challenge and hardship.

But getting old can be an obstacle course- what's the point of being old and miserable? There is a man who walks his dog that I see often and I estimate the last time he smiled was in the Stone Age. How is it possible to be so darn miserable? To lose the ability altogether to say hello, smile at your dog's happy face and not look like you had a bucket of sour lemons for breakfast?

When I look back at my life there have been older people who crossed my path and now I can see them: branded by the past as if a hot iron had scarred their minds forever. Bitter, embroiled in never letting go, never moving on, never getting away from what sends you into a permanent state of kissing the bottom of an abyss.

There are older people who I have met who turn a thing around and around and around in their heads forever as if the words beginning and end  had never entered the English language. The past becomes the present and the future is now. Bitterness engenders bitterness. Miserable people don't have happy friends. And if they do, they want to squash the smile right out of them because it makes them feel good.

Getting old can be sexy- hard to imagine in our sex-obsessed society but in the true etymological meaning of the word: lustful for, yearning for

We are never too old that we are dead. And when we are dead then it is quite simply the end. But until then, do yourself a favour. Chuck out the botox, the hair dye, the viagra, the wrong wife and most importantly, burn the illusions of being anything but who you really are.

Photo copyright SvD.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Things I saw in the woods today, part 51

A sunset on the way home with the hound after our walk.
Steps in the woods - I walk up these steps most days and very occasionally will see anyone. Our Autumn landscape is still green and will remain so until the very cold weather sets in late December when winter truly begins.
And these acorns are all jostling for prime position in the mud so that the strongest will become an oak. Someone/something has to come along and push the acorn deep into the earth. One in every 20,000 acorns becomes an oak. Which one do you think it will be?

All photos copyright SvD.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Things I saw in the woods today, part 50

We've had nothing but heavy rain for the last few days so my attempts at taking photos have been limited. I did pass by the ghoul today- he's still there and still looking terrifying. Whoever/whatever he is, he remains the guardian of the woods.

Photo copyright SvD.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Friday, 18 October 2013


Late afternoon, I had gone to lie down;  for the first time in years, I felt that I really could not cope with what had happened in my family. I pulled open the covers and stretched out on the bed, fully clothed. I fell asleep instantly.
I was standing on a terrace of some sort with my faithful hound who was sniffing around as per usual. The air was clean, fresh. It was night time. We walked along the terrace. It was dark but we felt safe and carefree. At the far end of the terrace was an enclosure made of brick, painted white,  and upon closer inspection, it was a room with a door to it. The door appeared slightly ajar. The hound and I approached closer and pushed open the door. Inside was a man sitting on a chair and a dog at his feet. The man was looking out of a window that was held open on a hinge. I called the man: "Arnie! Arnie!" I called the dog: "Purdey! Purdey!" Neither acknowledged me or looked at me. The hound and I entered the room. We were so close to the man and the dog. "Arnie, it's me, Sam, your daughter. Purdey, this is Rufus, your son." The man looked up. "Oh! Is that my name?"

"Yes, you're my dad. Are you a ghost?"

"I suppose I am. Yes. I am."

"Let's walk a little. I'll just close this window in here in case it starts to rain..."

"No. Please leave that open. That's where I come from."

"Where do you come from?"

"I don't know."

"OK. We'll leave the window open. Purdey, don't you recognise Rufus?"

We walked around the terrace for a while.

The man/ghost/my father couldn't remember me at all. He didn't know who I was anymore. He was happy enough although in an indifferent kind of way. The dog/ghost/Purdey ambled around and Rufus didn't seem to see her although I could.

"Goodbye. I will go now."

The man/ghost/my father just walked off abruptly with the dog. He said nothing. Did nothing and felt nothing.

My past suddenly ended. My new life suddenly began. I understood by this final sign that I had done all that I could; my mother, father and the family of my childhood had all gone with the ghost who was slipping away and who I couldn't stop because he didn't even recognise me. There was nothing left for me to do. My beloved father had become a memory and would forever remain so. He now belonged to a place where it no longer mattered what I felt or thought because all I had left was the present and if I chose, a life on my own terms. I was alone, of course. And I would have to be brave.

Photo copyright SvD.

My latest article on the Huffington Post

Please view my latest article here: Existential Nettles, Astrology and Other Props, Learn to be Still and How to Make a Bird Bath

Photo copyright SvD.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Things I saw in the woods today, part 49

An edible chestnut emerges from its spiky enclosure. Our chestnuts are a fraction of the size of the same species in France- reason being that our climate is colder and wetter.

Photo copyright SvD.

The poison ivy flowers late in the year- in Autumn to be exact.  I use the flowers in my Christmas wreaths. These flowers are just beginning to open now.
Photo copyright SvD.

And here are some minute yellow mushrooms growing on a rotting log. These mushrooms appear every year on the same log so the spores manage to survive. This is my third year observing this log and these mushrooms. The mushrooms are very small- no bigger than the tip of a pencil. I have magnified the size with my camera. There wouldn't be enough to feed a mouse but of course, these are deadly poisonous so please do not try and eat them!

Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Useless information...

Staggering up a steep hill with the hound in the rain this morning, I observed these nettles just as we reached the top. I like the buzz nettles give when they come into contact with the skin but as I went to hold the leaves, nothing. Nettles don't sting when they've been rained on! The rain neutralises the painful sting. There you go, learn something useless every day.

The Romans brought nettles to the British Isles for the sole purpose of thrashing each other with them- stimulates the circulation. Oh, those lucky Romans....

Photo copyright SvD.

Sunday, 13 October 2013


Autumn is in full swing now and as I noted in an earlier post, I can smell and feel this third cycle of the year. Autumn or "Fall' as our North American cousins call it, is a period of transformation, a word which infers a state of movement towards something. Indeed, Autumn is a period of raging storms, blustery winds and cold rain which mark an abrupt end to Summer, the time of plenty and warmth. Autumn is also the beginning of Winter and the start of the cold, dark days. Soon we will be freezing, catching colds and flu and hunkering down under duvets clutching our hot water bottles and gargling with neat whiskey.

During the Autumn the last of the berries falls to the ground as do the seeds in the hope of transmutating the following Spring into a new life and in order for the cycle to begin again. If you haven't made that blackberry jam yet it is simply too late. Nature  is now shutting down in preparation of the Great, Big Sleep which will last until May.

In the woods I can smell the Autumn: the dampness as the rain pelts down with no sun to dry it out, the rotting leaves, the fermenting fruits which send the deer into a drunken stupor and make the wasps very angry. I can hear the Autumn too: the incessant tock, tock, tock of hard rain from the storms and saturated atmosphere landing on the leaves in the woods, the plop of chestnuts, beech nuts and acorns as they catapult onto the soggy earth.

Photo copyright SvD.

It looks like Autumn too: The sky appears lower as the clouds gather constantly above our heads and the horizon has all but disappeared. The days are getting shorter, duller, all grey, brown and black.

Autumn is a time to begin storing for the Winter like the squirrel who although he forgets where he buries his treasure, keeps stealing, collecting and foraging in the hope that when he does need a square meal he'll remember where to find it. The squirrel, along with his mammal friends and even the birds, made his babies earlier in the year who are now fully grown. Now all that is left for him to do is to settle in to wait, watch and hope for the Spring.

Photo copyright SvD.

Your happy memories 10/13 | Blog talk radio

I continue reading from my book Maestro (after a two week absence! Thanks for all your messages of support.).

Your happy memories 10/13

Friday, 11 October 2013

Thursday, 10 October 2013

How to make perfect roast potatoes (aka fool-proof cooking)

Two things:

1. A very hot oven (220 degrees C, preferably)
2. Fat - lots of it

Anyone watching their weight, look away now (but I eat everything and walk for miles- you choose).

A floury potato works best.

Pour off the fat from roasting pork- apologies to my Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist friends and all other denominations who don't eat le cochon. Cut the peeled potatoes into quarters or eighths, depending on size. Toss the potatoes in the fat and place in a shallow roasting dish in a single layer. Add some salt and pepper if liked. Place in a very, very hot oven that you preheated or the roast meat has just finished cooking in and is now resting (meat tastes best when left to rest for up to an hour).

Turn the potatoes every ten minutes or so to enable them to brown evenly.

Result: crunchy on the outside, soft and buttery on the inside. Cooking time: thirty minutes max leaving you plenty of time to read this blog....

Photo copyright SvD.

Things I saw in the woods today, part 48

The hound goes all Exorcist on me. How this happened, I do not know.
A chestnut about to pop open and release its cargo onto my head:
The chestnut has landed on my head and broken open (this is one of the sounds of Autumn which I will write about later):
There are mushrooms everywhere. This is one of the smells of Autumn- the musky, earthy scent of mushrooms. A normal-looking specimen:
A not-so-normal-looking mushroom which seems to resemble a mini iceberg. I could not identify it in my book of British and European mushrooms of which there are over 400! Perhaps someone out there can help? There were three altogether growing on a rotting log.

I have counted over thirty different species of mushrooms today. There are many, many more hidden under the dense carpet of fallen Autumn leaves. Look under oak and beech trees which are preferred by all types of mushrooms. Pine trees less so. Every October, when I lived in Bordeaux, I would set out with a long stick and seek out the cepes (boletus) in the woods. Very often it was necessary to dodge a hunter's bullets and the hoarse cry of 'cretin!' would be interspersed with firing bullets! I was regularly mistaken for a pheasant but luckily, remain here to tell this tale. I found the exercise of releasing live farmed pheasants into territory only a few metres from their cages and then only to be fired upon, slightly odd. But then who I am to judge?

All photos copyright S. van Dalen

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Many rivers to cross... sang Jimmy Cliff in 1989, in true West Indian fashion. I have had my crosses to bear recently and none of them has been easy. Many years ago, a friend remarked that God gives to those who can accept the responsibility. I wish I didn't have the burden of having to be so brave.

This life is sent to try us, to make us stronger and most importantly, to turn us into a better and improved version of ourselves by the time we get to the end of it. Whatever you believe, maybe the vision of this mountain will help: we all struggle like hell to reach the top and may never even get there especially since there's no trodden path already in place to guide us. Luck, courage and a belief that we might make it. That's the best we can hope for.

Photo copyright SvD.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Chance meeting in a house of God

On a stormy, rainy day as the end comes, a drive to an old spiritual haunt nestled at the top of a hill where a church and monastery remain. The morning had been slow, the heat and birdsong were forcing me away from contemplation, making me irritable, snappy. I wanted desperately to find a calm, silent place and most of all, to feel the ache in my soul disappear.

We drove there at our leisure. The morning had been slow. Each time we decided to set off, the 'phone rang or another call needed to be made to sort out the chaos surrounding the dying matriarch.

Almost two hours behind schedule, we finally set off. The rains had dissipated temporarily but the sky was darkening again.

The road was steep, winding and barely wide enough for two Trabant-sized cars. We were directionless, the road signs being non existent. A type of second voice began to whisper, "slow down, turn right not left, careful, a car is coming down the hill towards you."

We parked. A Rastafarian was busy mixing concrete by hand on the side of the road. We approached and asked directions to the shop. "Go up and turn right. You can park there." We retreated our steps back to the car and turned around. Up along the sharp bend and suddenly into the courtyard, the rococo church bearing down on us.

My heart leaped straight into my mouth. I couldn't believe my eyes. I recognised  that same gait, the quick, purposeful strides, the same petiteness. I jumped out of the car, the engine still running. "Sister Monique, Sister Monique! Remember me?"

She didn't wait to reply but hugged me, that type of hug where the arms go tightly around the waist.

"I'm trying to remember. Tell me, help me out....I know your face but...."

"We were neighbours. I grew up..".

"Oh yes! Samantha!"

We clutched on to each other, embracing again. Stunned at the zillion-to-one chance that we would meet here and so far away from our respective homes. Her, some thirty miles and at a place where she had no reason to be other than a last minute change from her usual daily routine. Me, some 12000 miles away from my home and the last time I had been even near that church was 1987. The chance of that happening?

The sky quickly unleashed its cargo and  the black clouds, by now stationed firmly above us, burst loudly, scattering ripe, plump drops of warm rain.

"Quick! Run!" Into the church.

The years dissolved into the present moment after we had revisited the past. I asked her about the signing of the will. Her memory ached as she revived those forgotten thoughts. She had been the second witness. She could answer the question: Was he forced to sign? Were you there when he did?

"Come," I say, guiding her gently by the arm, "please pray for my father."

We walk towards the front pew, the entire church empty, silent and waiting for us. We kneel. I weep as she prays. "Father," she whispers, "please protect Arnold, Susie and Samantha. We thank you for guiding us here..."

Our unplanned meeting after so many years, we couldn't attribute it to anything but...

I knew then that I had to go on.

Copyright Samantha van Dalen, 2013. From my soon to be released book, Memories.

 Photo copyright S. van Dalen

Saying goodbye

I had travelled across a deep, blue sea to say goodbye to my mother. Imperious, haughty, beautiful, difficult, generous, kind, bitter, loving, irascible, loyal, are all words I would use to describe my mother. But she is still my mother.

Our first encounter after the many, many years I stayed away was one of profound sadness. I burst into tears but she did not. We had difficulty embracing but she wanted to even though she was attached to tubes, her frail body all but invisible under the sheets . I struggled to hide my shock at what she had become. She recognised me immediately and within five minutes we were arguing. Just like old times. I flounced out of the room vowing never to return. I was wrong, of course. How could I not try to make amends, to build bridges, to forgive and to learn how to forget?

I returned the next day and we both relaxed enough to smile, to talk, to figure out how we got to this miserable state. I cried and cried and cried at how I wished for the past to change. I longed for a magic wand to regain all the time we had lost bickering, trapped in a hateful silence, in a state of apathy so toxic that it would scythe though the air between us over and over again, slicing through the silvery thread that binds a mother and her child.

The sight of a once beautiful woman ravaged by old age and sickness was enough to make me want to never, ever, get old and so diminished that I would be at the mercy of others. The sages say that a peaceful death comes to those who have lived a good life. Do we choose the end which awaits us?

My mother was once the belle of the ball in an era where a date consisted of going to the cinema and sharing a bunch of grapes (!). The world has changed. We have changed.

Our parents bring us into this world and then they leave us. We are left to go on. My mother is taking her place in the morning mists that move across the hills and as they rise, will become the clouds.

Despite my fragmented relationship with my mother, I owe a lot to her. My love of cooking, my wanting to do things well or not at all, my vanity. My mother wasn't perfect and neither am I.

"I love you, Susie. And thank you."  I'm sorry I never got to tell you that.

My mother, Susie