About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Canary Island Winters - Part Six: More Animals

Muriel's home
Many boats lying at anchor in Los Cristianos bay had resident dogs and cats - quite a sensible precaution when there are rats about. One small yacht managed to accommodate a massive Newfoundland dog which came into its own whenever his owners went ashore. Unbidden, the dog would leap into the water, grasp the painter firmly in its mouth and tow them ashore in their inflatable dinghy, waiting patiently at the harbour until they came back from their shopping trip, whereupon he would repeat the process in reverse. He seemed to enjoy the whole thing enormously although the smell of big wet dog aboard a small boat must have been overpowering. 

Then there was Muriel. I loved Muriel. She lived on an old trawler which lay at anchor in the bay for months on end - a small black and white mongrel dog. The trawler also had a resident black cat. Every time her owner went ashore, Muriel would sit on the deck, raise her muzzle to the skies and howl in uttermost despair until he came back again. The cat, meanwhile, would walk along the guard rail, peer scornfully down at her distraught companion, and then stalk off to stretch out in the sun. You could almost hear her saying, 'What on earth are you making all that fuss about?'

I actually immortalized Muriel in a piece of writing called Diary of a Seadog. I changed her into a 'he' and made her owner a bit younger, and invented a whole story about their voyage to the Canaries. My dad, who was an extremely good artist on the side, as well as a scientist, did some lovely, quirky pen and watercolour illustrations for me.

My agent - as with so much else that has become inexplicably popular since then - didn't think she could sell it. But I still have it. And I have the illustrations. And if you can bear to wait a little while, sooner or later, it will turn up in eBook form.

Doggi
Finally, there was Doggi. Doggi was local. He was a stray - there are plenty of strays on these islands, dogs which scavenge for food and sleep on the beaches. But Doggi had been injured at some point down the harbour at Santa Cruz where he lived, and for a little while he wandered about in great distress. Alan had seen him on a previous flying visit and been horrified by his condition, but had lost sight of him and hadn't been able to do anything for him.

By the time we went back, things were definitely looking up for Doggi. He had more or less been adopted by the harbour. When boats left, they would pass him on to other people. Somebody must have paid for a vet to treat him because he was fit and well again, he had an oil drum kennel with his name painted on the side and he looked well fed and very happy with his life!

Doggi's house

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Canary Island Winters - Part Five: Harbour Life

Spinning Jenny of Lune

When you're lying at anchor in a busy harbour for any length of time, you make friends with a great many people and a regular sense of community begins to grow. Los Cristianos was no exception. We met all kinds of interesting people during that winter in the Canaries, from those who were on their way around the world in impossibly small craft to early retirees who had decided to fulfill the dreams of a lifetime by wintering aboard their boats in the sun.

All these years later, there are people we still remember and talk about. Bob and Mary Mason had a beautiful yacht called Spinning Jenny of Lune. She was built of concrete (yes - it is possible!) with a pretty little tender called Mule - naturally. Bob had retired early from his own business, built a boat and with Mary had headed south. We were rafted up alongside them for quite a while, for companionship and security and we got to know them very well and like them very much. In fact we still count them as friends.

Beautiful Mule
We were all afraid of cockroaches and with good reason. Once you get cockroaches aboard a yacht, they're very difficult indeed to get rid of and there are plenty of them in the Canaries: big, brown cockroaches. I hated them with a passion. On one memorable occasion, Alan took a party of charterers ashore at the big port of Santa Cruz. landing them at the fish quay, which was the most convenient place for putting them ashore at the time. They were very smart people and they had dressed up for a night out on the town, the women in lovely strappy sandals. As they walked across the hard standing, one of the women remarked that the gravel underfoot was quite uncomfortable to walk on. 'I didn't like to tell her,' said Alan afterwards, 'that the crunching underfoot wasn't gravel at all. There was no gravel. It was a carpet of cockroaches.'

One day, Bob and Mary decided that it would make sense to buy a whole stalk of bananas to last them some time, so we went ashore with them, drove to a plantation, wrestled an enormously heavy and cumbersome stalk of semi-ripe bananas aboard the dinghy and ferried it back to Spinning Jenny. It weighed a ton and took four of us to haul it on board. Then, a day or two later, somebody told Bob and Mary that the banana plantations were infested with cockroaches and that they laid their eggs among the bananas. Thoroughly alarmed, they decided that they would have to wash all their bananas. If you wash them, they ripen in double quick time. For some weeks, whenever we visited Spinning Jenny, we weren't allowed to leave without eating one or two bananas. Mary discovered new and exciting ways of cooking them: bananas fried in rum and brown sugar were a particular favourite. Although after a while, even those began to pall a bit.

Bob and Mary and a whole lot of bananas

Then, there was handsome Mirek who owned a classy sandwich bar (back when such things were new and exciting) in central Glasgow and one of the classiest yachts in the harbour to go with it - a sleek and elegant Amel, made in France with everything about it just perfect. I must confess I'm a bit of a fair weather sailor, but even I could see that it was something really special. Mirek was a lovely guy but terrified of rats and cockroaches invading his beautiful boat. With good reason.

Rats are as ubiquitous as cockroaches, especially in the bigger harbours. Sometimes you would see them peering out at you from holes in the wooden piles as you sailed in. Alan would cut plastic water or lemonade bottles in half, crossways, and slide them along the mooring ropes so that the rats couldn't scurry along them once you were tied up. One day, Mirek returned to his gorgeous Amel to find little ratty footprints crossing his pristine pillowcases. He turned the whole boat upside down looking for it, but it had been a temporary visitor and he never saw or heard it again. It didn't help his stress levels though. For some nights he would lie awake, listening for sinister rustling. 

We met another couple, a property developer and his wife. She had answered his (perfectly genuine) advert for a cook, fallen in love with her boss and married him. They had a beautiful yacht, much bigger even than Simba, bigger than your average house. One day, he remarked to Alan that he was considering buying some property in Tenerife. Alan thought he meant an apartment, but it turned out that he meant a whole village. They were, however, as sociable as all harbour dwellers at that time and in that place. They had a new baby and an elderly parrot, who would walk about the saloon and every so often, tweak up the skirts of women visitors to peer underneath. The bird always seemed faintly irritated by what he found there. Not quite sure what he was looking for, but much later on, I put him in a novel! (The Physic Garden)

During that winter, we had many evenings where everyone would gather on one boat and contribute a course and a bottle of wine to what was generally a very hilarious meal. We still have happy memories of rowing across Los Cristianos Bay in a dinghy, well, Alan would be rowing (since we were aware that we were going to be drinking rather a lot of alcohol, we wouldn't take the outboard) and I would be clutching a large and wobbly trifle or something similar. Returning to Simba was even more of an adventure since Canary nights are warm but very dark, Alan would, of course, be rowing backwards and I would be peering into the gloom, trying to find our anchor lights in the distance.

Running Bear


We would invariably sing as we rowed. It was always Running Bear. With its 'Oompa Ugga' chorus. I still can't hear it now without smiling. 






















Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Tale of Two Canary Island Winters - Part Four: Charterers

Charterers who are still friends.
A yacht, however roomy, demands a certain amount of tolerance from people who are flung together in such a small space. It says a lot for the essential good nature of sailors that most of the people who chartered Simba were pleasant and interesting. The quartet of people on the left (that's me in the very middle with the gigantic sunglasses) became - and remained - friends, especially the couple on the right, Frank and Anne Mapes of Millport. If you've ever had the good fortune to visit the lovely little isle of Cumbrae, off the west coast of Scotland, and cycle round it, there's a fair chance that you'll have hired your bike from 'Mapes of Millport' - a wonderful cycle hire and old fashioned toy shop in the middle of the town. The couple on the left (with Barbara's head obscured by the boom) are their friends, potter Barbara Davidson and her husband Brian, of Larbert pottery fame.

They spent a fortnight aboard Simba and we divided the time between sightseeing on Tenerife, and sailing to La Palma and La Gomera. Sometimes they would eat out - often inviting us to join them - sometimes we would cater for them aboard the boat - with quite a lot of the cooking done by yours truly, a fact which still amazes me in retrospect. Of late, I've tended to subscribe to the Deborah Meaden school of catering. She once said on the television programme, Dragons Den, and much to the amazed disbelief of the other dragons, that she 'didn't cook.' And I thought, yes, I could live with that. But back then, I was young and energetic and didn't much mind catering. Or not in the Canaries with its abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables and wonderful seafood, anyway!

San Sebastian, La Gomera. The governor's tower, where Beatriz de Bobadilla lived, on the right. 
Two incidents helped to cement our friendship. The two couples had paid for a skippered, catered charter which meant that we were to sail wherever they wanted to go within reason and on the advice of the skipper who always has the last word, for reasons of safety. But a day or two before they arrived, we realized to our horror that the boat's account, which was meant to be topped up by the company in Scotland, hadn't received any money for a long time. Frantic phone calls ensued and money was promised. It didn't come. The reasons why were too complicated to go into here but it's always a hazard for yacht skippers working a long way from the parent company. The fact remained that we had four people arriving for a two week holiday, and we had nothing but the boat and - given that Alan wasn't exactly handsomely paid and I wasn't paid at all - a tiny amount of our own cash in the bank.

Panic.

Alan did the only thing possible, took Frank to one side, and explained the situation. To his eternal credit, Frank reassured us that it wasn't our fault, financed the whole thing, and said, 'Don't worry about it. I'll make sure I get my money when I get back to Scotland. And believe me, I'll make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen to you again.' He was as good as his word.

The second incident involved our first proper visit to the beautiful island of La Gomera, although Alan had sailed there before to top up with their excellent water. High on the hill above San Sebastian, the port and main town of La Gomera, you can just make out that there is a large statue standing on a hill. Alan's boss back in Scotland, who had spent a little time in the Canaries, assured us that this was a statue of Christopher Columbus, pointing west. Now Columbus did visit La Gomera, and is even reputed to have had an affair with the wife of the governor, the Princess Beatriz de Bobadilla, of savage repute, before heading off to the Americas. So it seemed perfectly feasible that a statue would have been erected to him.

Alarming cactuses and starry tabaiba bushes.

Feeling energetic one day, we and our four charterers decided that we would hike up the hill to pay our respects to Columbus. It was a longish climb up a steep hill. We managed to find our way out of town and passed by small houses, asking various people who were sitting outside in the sun, watching the world - and the visitors - go by, if this was the right way to the statue of Cristobal Colon. This is, of course, the Spanish name for Columbus and we were quite pleased with ourselves for knowing it.

Now the inhabitants of La Gomera are deeply, instinctively polite and kindly. So they all smiled at us, and nodded vigorously. Although we were aware of a certain puzzlement, nevertheless. You know what it's like when you think somebody's a bit odd, but don't really want them to know you think so, because it would seem rude? Well, that. We soon left the houses behind and hauled ourselves up the hill, past prickly pears and monumental cactuses and starry tabaiba bushes, closer and closer to the big statue, looking west.

Except that it wasn't Christopher Columbus at all. It was Jesus Christ, with a crown of light bulbs for stars, blessing the harbour. Some of his fingers had been damaged, which made it look - from a distance - as though he might well be pointing west. Not only had Alan's boss been just a little remiss in the matter of payments into the boat's account - he had also told a few porky pies about climbing to the top of this hill. We did the only thing possible, laughed a lot, sat in the sun for a while enjoying the stunning views, and then headed back to the boat for a few beers.


Not Columbus after all.















Monday, June 10, 2013

A Tale of Two Canary Island Winters - Part Three: Settling In



Simba lay rocking gently at anchor in Los Cristianos Bay. It was January. The sun was shining, the air was soft and warm and I was unpacking my bag and stowing away my kit in the tiny amount of cupboard space allocated to me.

Simba was by any standards a roomy boat, with a huge saloon and three cabins. Naturally, the two biggest and best cabins, each with a double bunk that was more like a double bed and its own large en suite shower, were reserved for the customers. Sometimes they were paying customers who chartered the boat from the company which owned it. Sometimes they were guests of the director, back in Scotland. A lot of the time we had the catamaran completely to ourselves. The skipper's cabin was smaller, but not uncomfortably so. And there was a toilet and shower next door, for our own use.

It was surprisingly easy to slip into the rhythm of living aboard, even for a fair weather sailor like me. Especially for a fair weather sailor like me. But I have to confess, I was still happiest sitting at anchor in Los Cristianos bay and watching the constant small procession of activities of this busy but essentially laid back port passing me by - as well as reading and writing. I did a lot of writing.

When we had visitors, we had to sail, which made my husband very happy.

It made me very sick.

I made several interesting discoveries on those voyages. One was that seasickness medication doesn't agree with me. The second discovery was that seasickness does eventually go away. It took me two weeks. (I counted every miserable day!) After two weeks spent aboard, sailing between islands, being literally prostrate with sickness, unable to even sit up without feeling dizzy and disorientated, it quite suddenly ceased. After that almost nothing would have made me sick. As anyone who has sailed will know, if you've been on a boat for a few hours, when you get off the boat, you can still feel the land moving - a very curious sensation. After the seasickness disappeared, this effect disappeared too. I was comfortable at sea and on land. But it took two weeks and the effect only lasts while you're living on board. If I were to do it all again, I'd have to go through the same uncomfortable process.

Simba was one of the biggest, flashiest and most beautiful yachts in the harbour so it wasn't surprising that she attracted a lot of attention. My husband was young and fit and - having spent most of the winter so far working aboard in the sunshine - looking particularly bronzed and attractive. I took a sort of perverse pleasure in stationing myself on the seaward side of the deck. Girls would hire pedalos in Los Cristianos and - assuming that Alan was alone on board - pedal out in the hopes of chatting up this 'rich' man with the fancy boat. They would circumnavigate Simba only to find me waving at them from the other side, whereupon they would lose interest and target another yacht and yachtsman.

We went ashore for provisions most days, in the big dinghy, leaving it tied up against the low wall of the slip. Sometimes we used an engine and sometimes we rowed, heading for the supermercado and then ferrying everything back to Simba.

When you're living on board a boat, everything takes time. When you're living on board a boat in the sun, you don't really mind. There are some things to remember though. Most of all, you have to remember not to block the sea toilets, being very careful at all times what you put down them. (Unblocking them is a hideous job for obvious reasons.) And you have to be careful never to waste water, since - even aboard a boat with big tanks - refilling them can be problematic. You become, by default, environmentally friendly.

There can be few things more irritating and alarming, incidentally, than hearing your latest charterers taking a ten or fifteen minute shower, even when they have been tactfully reminded that water is a finite resource. It doesn't happen with experienced sailors - but it sure happens with the other kind.  I got used to taking a pretty good shower using a bucket of clean water. A bucket and a half meant that I could wash my hair and do a bit of washing at the same time. Fortunately, the washing dried within a couple of hours when festooned about the boat like a curious collection of flags.


Water is at a premium in the Canaries, especially in this hot southern part of Tenerife. And it isn't very drinkable so you have to treat it or boil it. Or treat it and boil it. On the other hand, the water on the island of La Gomera is very good: fresh and sweet and clean. So we used to sail to La Gomera quite often. It proved to be one of the most magical places on earth. I knew I was going to have to write about it. And - eventually - that's what I did.


Saturday, June 01, 2013

A Tale of Two Canary Island Winters - Part Two: Simba

So there I was, on a flight to the Canary island of Tenerife, joining my husband aboard a 50 foot catamaran called Simba, moored in Los Cristianos Bay. Packing had been a challenge. Simba was a big boat but as anyone who sails knows, space on board is always limited and I was going to be there for a few months. Fortunately, the weather was predictably good, so shorts, tops and pretty cotton skirts were the order of the day.

My husband Alan is a very experienced professional sailor which is more than can be said for me. He had worked as a trawler skipper for some years and then as a commercial diver off the West Coast of Scotland. Later, he ran a small business with his brother-in-law, David, diving for clams. Then, he did his RYA training and eventually became a yacht charter skipper as well as spending some time teaching sailing for the Scottish National Watersports Centre in Largs.

When we first met, he and David had also built a small sailing boat called Striker II  (The first Striker had been the clam boat) which they kept in Troon and sailed for pleasure. It was aboard this little yacht that I had my first taste of sailing.
I wasn't a natural. And it wasn't very pleasant.

The West of Scotland waters are beautiful, but the weather is uncertain. I was hideously seasick. My husband, on the other hand, has never been seasick in his life, so doesn't know how horrible it can be; not just the sickness but the general malaise, the intense depression, the awful disorientation. You begin by fearing the boat will sink, start to realize that you wouldn't care if it did and finally you really wish it would. And soon. The only way I could cope with it, when it was at its most intense and debilitating, was by lying flat on my back. As soon as we were in quiet waters, I was fine. Alan may not have been seasick, but he was quite used to people being sick on him. You can't work as a yacht charter skipper for any length of time without people being sick on your shoes and they frequently were.

There's an interesting fact about seasickness. It does go away. Eventually. Of which more in a future post.
Striker II was a yacht called a Seawitch and she was tiny. She would sleep four at a pinch, but you had to know each other very, very well. Intimately. We had a few uncomfortable but frankly hilarious trips - usually to the Isle of Arran for the weekend -  four of us together, myself, my husband, his sister Jackie and her husband David. The toilet facilities involved a plastic bucket, situated under the bunk where Alan and I slept. I still remember Jackie, wrestling with it in the middle of a very rough night in Lamlash Bay - victims of the notorious Lamlash Lop - declaring that this would be her 'last sea voyage ever!' Alan had crewed on and sailed much bigger boats, but even he, presented with the opportunity to skipper a 50 foot catamaran, had to pause for thought. Well, he paused for a few minutes anyway. And Simba was a big strong boat, for which he was mightily glad, as they battled through hurricane force winds on the way south. I was just glad I'd elected to fly instead.

I spent my first married Christmas back with my parents, but then I flew south in early January of 1986. I had never been to the Canaries before. I still remember the soft warmth of the air that hit me as I stepped off the plane into the Tenerife evening. The force of contrast with the wintry Scotland I had just left was acute and enticing. Alan, alone on the boat, had suggested that I get a taxi to the Gomera Ferry Terminal where he could pick me up on the dinghy and ferry me over to Simba which lay at anchor in the bay.That was my first problem. The last ferry of the day to the beautiful island of La Gomera had left (which was why Alan had suggested that he could pick me up from there) but the lovely, concerned Spanish taxi driver didn't want to drop a young woman off there all alone. He kept trying to take me to a hotel instead! With the help of a phrase book, and a few words of Spanish, I managed to persuade him that my husband was a sailor and I was joining a yacht. To be perfectly honest, I may have said to him that my husband was a yacht, but it did the trick. And there she was, our  home for the next few months: Simba.
She was nothing like Striker II.

A saloon big enough to hold a party in!
She was huge. Catamarans (unless they are stripped out racing catamarans) have a lot of internal space and this one was no exception. You could, and we sometimes did, hold a party in her saloon. She had two big master cabins, a captain's cabin, three showers and lavatories, a (disappointingly rather small) galley and that big, comfortable saloon. She lay at anchor in Los Cristianos Bay, amid a cluster of other, interesting yachts, big and small. She was one of the most beautiful vessels in the bay. The air was full of that fabulous Canary Isles mixture of sea air and flowers with a little hint of diesel.
I felt as though the birthday of my life had come.