I’ve been sorting out our dining room, which also houses my desk.    The latter is (in its contents) a dangerous and murky item, its depths rarely visited, and whatever long forgotten heat seeking missile of written work I’ve thrust into it lurks there long past the point when I’ve resolved the problem, hopefully without recourse to deadly weaponry.

I worked my way through it all, burning some items, shredding others, and returning some to the half life limbo of lingering in my desk.

At the same time I’ve been complaining about the unsatisfactory endings of some books and TV dramas, where either the plot is so complicated by the end you’ve forgotten the beginning (the Belgian drama, Salamander), or even with two of you watching, at the end you’re not at all sure what actually happened (Line of Duty), or although we enjoyed it the plot became quite implausible and concluded more with an eye to the next series than any satisfactory conclusion (House of Cards: Netflix).

So I regarded it as a challenge when I came across a half completed short story, entitled, The Helmsman and the Navigator, and here it is, completed.   You can tell me what you think of the ending, and whether you would have preferred one of the alternatives.   But of course if you re-tell the story, you can end it however you wish.   That’s the privilege of the narrator.




Long ago in Viking times there was an ambitious young man who decided to build himself a boat.   He was tall and strong, with a handsome face and grey intelligent eyes.  To refine his skills, he offered himself to assist the best boat builder on the fjord and as he was both hardworking and practical, in time he became a skilled boat builder.   When he had saved enough money he built one of the finest, fastest boats their fjord had ever seen.   He practised seamanship relentlessly for many months until he was also among the most skilled and daring helmsman of his generation.    Thereafter he and his boat and his crew were always called on to be part of any raiding party, though being young he was not yet in charge of the raid, nor did he win all the races.     When his navigator came to him and said he would like to go, now his bones were getting old, to his daughter’s house in the next fjord, the helmsman paid him off handsomely and thought he would take his time choosing a new navigator, but he never quite found one to suit.


One day a woman sailed in to their fjord in a very small boat.    No-one knew where she came from and she never told much.  She stayed for the winter and worked in the household of the chieftain until very early spring when the helmsman found her packing up her boat.


“Why are you leaving so early?” he asked.


She looked at him carefully, as if she trusted nobody.   Then she said, ‘The Chieftain’s wife does not want me to stay any longer.’


The helmsman thought of the chieftain’s wife, and the beautiful woman still packing her boat in front of him, and he fully understood why the chieftain’s wife would not wish this girl to remain in her household too long.    Just to prolong their exchange, he asked, ‘Do you really sail that little boat in the waters beyond the fjord?’     To his surprise, she gave him a scornful look.   ‘I am a navigator’s daughter.’


Then he heard himself say, ‘Why don’t you remain until the winter storms clear in my house?’


The woman raised her eyebrows.    ‘What service would you wish me to give you in exchange?’


He thought hastily.   ‘My housekeeper is an old woman and her eyesight is no longer good.   Can you sew?’


‘Of course.’


‘You could help her with the linen.’


The woman nodded and he hauled her boat clear of the water line and picking up the heaviest of her packs,  he led her to his steading, where he gave her the room his mother had slept in.    Though she was clever with her needle, and willing with the household tasks, his housekeeper was surly.


When the Spring arrived, she came down to the water to watch him launch his boat.   ‘What a superb boat’, she said, stroking the wooden side of the boat lovingly.


‘Built it myself.’


‘Will you take me out in it?’


And so they let the wind fill their sail and they raced up and down the fjord.


She was the best navigator he had ever seen.   And she was beautiful.   He waited to see if any other  man  found favour in her eyes, but there PPP was no rival who could stand against him.    So he married her.


With his magnificent boat, plus himself, the greatest helmsman of his generation, and finally with her, so skilled a navigator she could feel the hazard approaching before it could be seen, they were unstoppable.   She could sense the way the water was flowing, know the wind would change before it did,  she could feel the floor of the ocean rising up towards them.  She could ‘smell’ an enemy boat and frequently identify it before anyone else could hear the splash of the oars.   She could not explain how it was done: there was magic in her navigation.  He had strength and daring, he knew how to play the wind, how to command the oars, he took great risks and sailed close to the wind, but he had fine judgement.


His kinsmen sniggered when he took his wife as the navigator, but they soon fell silent when the helmsman with his technical skill, his cunning and his daring, backed by his mysterious navigator, pulled away from them at the races.   The helmsman was rarely beaten.    Now he led the raids;  he was a chieftain of the tribe.   He travelled all over the world with her, and he did whatever he liked for years and years.    They had two sons and three daughters.    They sacked cities and they plundered and they brought all their treasure back to the fjord.    The helmsman’s fame ran before him.    Men sent their sons to crew on his boat.      He grew rich.   He built a farm.


As for the navigator, she would only sail in the helmsman’s boat.   Decades passed and all was well.


And then they grew older.  The navigator became less willing to set off on long sea voyages.    She said to the helmsman she wished to enjoy their farm, and help with her grandchildren.   The helmsman swore his Viking oaths, and said a man’s worth was in the speed and audacity of his boat, and he would get another navigator.   The navigator said he was neglecting his duty.  The helmsman was astounded;    he was always the first to plan the voyage, and the first to the battle when it came.   The navigator scorned this  reply, and said his sons would never be chieftains if they had not got better boats, but he never had time to help them select the timbers and build the vessel.


The helmsman was seriously displeased.    He went on some short raids taking his sons as navigators.    They did their best. But at heart they were helmsmen like their father.   He could not discover if his daughters had the gift for they were other men’s wives and had households to run and families to raise.


So one day he said to his wife, Let us go for a voyage together;  I will not take risks – you will enjoy it, and if you do not, we will not go far and we can  come home again.    But what he thought was that the navigator had loved the sea, and once she was on the water, she would be herself once more.   She agreed, and when she sat near the dragon head of his boat, and her dark hair, now streaked with gray, flowed behind her in the wind, the helmsman felt that all was right in his world, and with her on his boat, he could sail the seven seas again, and the very mention of his name would strike terror into the hearts of his enemies.


But after a time, the navigator became uneasy and said, Let us return now.   The helmsman looked around;  it was sunny;  the sea was calm;   the winds were light.   He had not taken his warship but a small boat they could easily manage.  Where is the danger? he asked.    It is all around us, she replied.    He laughed, and ignored his wife.


Then he heard the sound of something falling into the water, and to his horror he realised that his wife and taken off her amber and gold necklace which he had sailed up the Volga to procure and had paid a king’s ransom for and which she always wore, and had flung it to the water god, and was praying to the god to spare  his life.   He roared at her that he did not need prayers, and he had been going to trade that necklace for   another farm, and how had she become such a fool?    She flung him a look full of reproach, and then, her face very white, she stumbled on the polar bear fur  at her feet and collapsed on to it and lay there insensible.


He was debating whether he could leave the rudder unmanned and go to see what was wrong with her when he glanced behind him and realised he was being over taken by a great wall of luminous mist.   In only a few minutes the boat was shrouded in white fog.  The wind was rising and the sail was pulling in his hand, the boat was rearing and bucking in the roughening water, and he was sailing extremely fast and he had no idea where he was headed.



And so, gentle reader, how shall I conclude the story?


He could sail on into the white mist and they would never be heard of again.


He could make his way to the front of the boat, find his wife gone, and allow his boat to be driven on to the rocks and perish.


When he reached his wife, they could quarrel, and one of them – you can choose which – fall into the water and be lost forever.


He could hear the voices of his sons and his kinsmen calling to him out, indicating a safe route of return.


But I am the Narrator so I think I’ll end it thus:


The helmsman lashed the rudder to the boat and through the roaring storm with the boat jerking and tipping like an untrained horse, he managed to go forwards and lower the sail.   He could see that his wife, though very pale, still breathed.    He returned to the helm, and using all his strength and skill, managed to keep the boat afloat.    When a few hours later, the storm abated, he fell into an exhausted stupor.    When he came to, the water was calm, visibility was good, his wife still lived, but he had no idea where they were.   He hoist the sail a short distance and they began to move through the water.


The navigator muttered.


“What?” said the helmsman.


“This is the wrong way.”     The helmsman thought, you can’t see;  you’re lying down in the boat.   You’ve been insensible for hours.   But he said not a word, just turned the boat round and headed in what he thought was the wrong direction.   Every half hour or so she would issue some further direction, and eventually they sighted land, and to his amazement, when they came nearer he could see the entrance to his own fjord.


He had to carry the navigator to their steading, and the women had to nurse her for several weeks before she  recovered.


The helmsman assisted his sons to build the biggest, fastest ships of the fleet;  and the navigator taught one of her grandsons, who had a crooked leg, all her skills.   There was no river so shallow that he could not find a channel in it; and he became as famous and as sought after as his war like brothers.


They lived on in the fyord for many years, and the navigator always joked that when they left, they would have to sail out together, for how would the helmsman ever find his way into a safe haven; and the helmsman would reply, that she could not leave before him, for she could not sail the boat.


But who knows when and what any ending of a saga truly is?   The narrator can tell the tale however he pleases, but in the end, every man’s destiny is his own affair, within what is laid down by the gods.


Unless, of course, the narrator is a prophet.   But this tale was not about prophecy.



liz and rory

When we came down to Sussex in 1987 to look at the place and buy a house, we began our search in Brighton.   I was horrified, when I saw it, at the prospect of living there.   I liked living by the sea.   But my idea of a seaside town was an ancient county town with sturdy old granite buildings, twinned on the other side of a beautiful bay, but divided by a lovely river, with an active fishing port, all in a remote and Northern location.   So you will understand that Brighton’s colourful and somewhat rackety charm did nothing at all for me.

So we came back up  the line to ‘that place withe all the trees’ (Haywards Heath).   During our visit we came quite by chance upon Kew’s garden at Wakehurst Place and fell in love with it.   We sat on a seat overlooking  the Himalayan Valley while our children played, and a bird landed on John’s hand.   (This has never happened again.)   I said to him, It might be OK, living here?   So, we are here, because of Wakehurst.

We have been there most weeks since.   We take all our visitors there.   I like seeing the huge garden moving through the seasons.   I like the variety of plants, the beautiful trees.   We enjoy a coffee.

So it was with disbelief that we read recently that it was considering that it might have to close.   Apparently the land was leased to it on condition that National Trust members get in free,  It is by far  the most visited ‘National Trust’ (though it belongs to Kew) site, yet the National Trust does not make it any allowance from the income generated by the members.   It presently operates at a loss.

The proposal is that it charges for parking, £1 for l hour, £5 for 2, £10 for the day.   Now we are rich in gardens here so we c ould easily transfer our visits to one of Sussex’s other lovely gardens.   But we so love Wakehurst, w e can’t simply abandon it.

One of the options being offered is that you pay an annual subscription to Wakehurst of around £50 which entitles you to free parking.   That would work out for us at around £1 per visit.   I think we’ll pay.

I can’t imagine living here without Wakehurst.   It’s like a labour-free extension to our own garden – so much so that we can unreasonably irritated if the Head Gardener has the audacity to alter any garden feature without having previously consulted us!

The picture above, courtesy of John, shows Rory and Elisabeth as teenagers taken in the Iris garden at Wakehurst.


Recently we set up a new group, where we meet once a fortnight in each other’s homes for two hours of sewing / knitting / other craft work.   I find this very enjoyable for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, it’s nice to meet in a relaxed setting with friends.    You hear people’s news on an on-going basis.  Not everyone can attend every time, so the dynamics are always subtly different.

Secondly you don’t often set aside 2 hours of peak working time to concentrate entirely on your work so you make encouraging progress.

Thirdly it is amazing and stimulating to look at the truly lovely things that others are producing.   My colleagues’ work makes me feel that my efforts are somewhat bodged and pulled together affairs;  but I love watching them progress.   We have people just learning new skills, and we have extremely accomplished craftswomen.   There are beautiful quilts being made, a gorgeous patched silk jacket, articles for babies, tapestry work, knitted garments.   During the few months the group has been operating, I have completed:  a quilt and a bag to hold it for Dana, a nightdress for Erin, the dog blanket dress, a yellow and black quilt for Rory and Sarah’s new room, a mat made of African animal pictures, 3 cushions with the same animal for Ewan, curtains, 2 cushion covers and a tie-back for Elisabeth, a Harris tweed bag for Joanna,  a cord and plaid handbag, a pair of man’s pyjama bottoms, and a black and yellow dress.   They haven’t all been made at the group meeting of course, but I usually show my colleagues  (hoping they don’t examine the stitching too closely!)

You can always ask for advice; borrow a pattern;  acquire a nice button or a ribbon from somebody else’s collection;  borrow a craft book;  use their pinking shears etc.   Also if you feel so inclined, you can just go and sit with your work in your lap, and let 2 hours slip past while doing nothing at all.   How often can you do this in pleasant, easy company?



I’ve always regarded myself  as a lucky woman: and indeed I still do.    I think that element of confident optimism – a belief that if you do your utmost everything will eventually turn out for the best – though possibly not what you thought would be best;  you regard every day as a fresh adventure;  and you endure what is difficult with a cheerful spirit – then that attitude alone attracts good fortune towards you.

A small miracle happens to me nearly every morning.

Our bedroom faces east, so the rising sun illuminates it in the morning.   I like mirrors – there are three in this room, and by a happy coincidence, and entirely unplanned by me, the sun – at this time of year around 8 in the morning, shines into the mirror above my chests of drawers, is then reflected into the long mirror at the foot of our bed, and shines back on me, full in my face.   This lasts for perhaps a minute and it fills me with delight and wonder every day.

I understand, on a smaller scale of course, how our ancestors must have felt as they stood in the tomb at Maes Howe, Orkney, in the winter darkness, surrounded by the bones of their forebears and – if they were lucky and it was an unclouded day – then the winter sun for a few glorious and magic minutes, flooded the chamber with a golden light.

My mother used to announce, apparently with mild surprise, on some day in Spring, “We have survived the winter.”   I was young and foolish then and took my survival for granted and did not realise what a blessing it was.    My mother has departed and her love no longer shines upon me.   But when the sun kisses my face in the morning I remember my mother and her reverence and wonder and pleasure in the natural world, and I count myself a lucky woman.

(I think originally I took this photograph in the evening sun in Livingston, West Lothain, Scotland, but it comes to me via Eugene’s archives.)


John and I watched This Week recently, with the pugnacious Andrew Neil, and his two political guests were Alan Johnson, whom I’ve always liked, who talks sense, and is also a dangerous assassin when he chooses, and Michael Portillo, a man of parts and secrets, but not without a certain grace and charm.    (He’s not nearly as quick thinking or fast in the draw as Johnson, however.)   The issue arose of Scottish independence, and Johnson I felt was reluctant to be drawn, but pressed, he spoke gracefully for the Together campaign.    Portillo was asked for his view, and I listened, stunned and horrified.   Scotland, he said, was a nation of benefits culture;  it depended on handouts, and it would be totally unable to survive in the modern world.   Johnson shifted in his seat but he kept his face blank.

I thought, to hell with pleasant train journeys, and charming perambulations through Spain, and my being stupid enough to think he was a better sort of English Tory.   This was the real Michael Portillo speaking, insulting, threatening and dismissive.    Like Cameron.   How dare they?    Is that really who they think we are?    If so, do they want to retain us as an act of charity, so they can continue to sustain our feckless and improvident nation against hardship and injury?   This is very kind of them and we should indeed be grateful (not.)

A few weeks ago, I was oddly disappointed when the document outlining the bid for Scottish independence was launched by Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.   It took me a few hours to work out why, and I think it’s because the case for voting Yes should not be decided upon economic issues.   If the Scots are only going to be persuaded to vote Yes by a belief that they’ll be financially better off, I suggest they move South and live in England.   That’s not to say I don’t think Scotland would prosper on it’s own.   We can do whatever we set out to do, and Scots skill and drive in commerce, work ethic, aggression and determination was part of what built the British Empire.   But Economics is  a doubtful art, and who knows what the future will bring, what challenges may arise?

What is it to be a Scot?   It’s to be part of an independent nation.   Wherever you go in the world, when you say you’re a Scot, people know who you are, and that you come from a beautiful country.  It’s one of the great privileges of being a Scot, that you are welcome wherever you go.   As a generalisation, a Scot is proud to be a Scot and would be reluctant to change his nationality.   We are bold, enterprising and industrious and we can go and live anywhere in the world and make a success of it, and Scotland is still ours.

When it comes to the day before the vote Alex Salmond has to make the speech of his life.   I think if they run a collection of these insulting and condescending speeches from the likes of Cameron, Osborne, Hague and Portillo, one after the other, they can use the mealy-mouthed negatives as a positive incentive.   If the Scots vote No, they accept the role that these bullies allocate them.   On the morning of the vote, every man and woman has to look in the mirror and say, who am I?   Will I accept the view of the Together campaign that I’m too feeble and dependent and lesser and useless to be in charge of my own destiny, and go crawling back to Westminster saying, we’re sorry we aspired to be a nation, please let us come back in, we won’t cause any more trouble, and can I have some more gruel now please?

I still think that the best solution would be the four nations in a federal reformed government under the crown, but the Better Together campaign actually acts for me on behalf of the Yes vote;   and one thing is absolutely certain, if the Scots do not have the courage to stand up and vote Yes, no progress will be made on reforming any of our out-moded government arrangements.

As for the threat that the EU  would not accept Scotland, who are the English to solicit this view when they themselves – and especially Cameron’s party – are forever hovering on the brink of exit?   Scotland was historically friendly with Europe when England was not.

There’s a lovely Scots love song (can be heard on You-tube) called, Will ye go, lassie go.    I won’t be accompanying that despiser of his ancestors, Portillo (his grandfather came from Kirkcaldy in Fife), on any more journeys.   But if Alex Salmond were to ask me, were I a Scottish voter, Will ye go, Lassie: I wouldn’t hesitate.