• Greenhouse Cleaning for Arachnophobes

    I must admit that in all my four and a half years of owning the greenhouse that came with our house, I have never actually cleaned it, beyond a quick sweep out and a wipe of the panes.  This might be because the skull and crossbones symbol on the bottle of greenhouse disinfectant I bought when we moved in frightens me a bit.  I calculated that if it is that dangerous for humans it probably isn’t too good for the wee beasties of the world either.

    I like beasties.  They have their place in the food chain, though thankfully distanced from ourselves by a few larger, tastier beasts.  My favourite of all the beasties is, or at least was, the spider.  I’m not entirely sure why, I have a vague memory about one saving Scotland at some vague point in history (and a slightly amusing mental image of a spider wielding tiny claymores in its eight legs).  I also know they eat some of the nastier beasties that eat my veg.  As a result, I am even able to remove one from the house without killing it and without excessive levels of hysterics.

    What I don’t like is large hairy versions of the species, along with the dessicated remains of their last six month’s meals, landing on my head when I’m trying to clean my greenhouse.  I don’t like the way their sticky webs adhere to my cleaning cloths and then to my clothes when I try to brush them off.  I don’t like the way their thousands of tiny babies erupt without warning from spindly little nest balls, threatening to run up the exposed gaps in my clothing.

    But I do feel a little guilty disrupting them in their homes when they are not doing any harm.  This brings me to pose a question, is it really a good idea to disturb the nesting places of beneficial insects at a time of the year when it is too cold for them to survive outside.   Do we really need to clean our greenhouses quite as thoroughly as we do?

    In all my years of not cleaning the greenhouse I have only ever had one pest problem, an aphid infestation last year when frankly there were so many greenfly around that if you went out in a white top you came back looking like Kermit.  Despite investing in an expensively marketed organic spray that turned out to be soap, in the end it was a new infestation, this time of ladybirds, that killed them off.

    So as I was removing the nests of spiders from my greenhouse I was torn between a zen sense of guilt at uprooting a creature of the world, and one that might potentially eat my garden pests, and, as they attempted to run down my neck, a pressing desire to leap on the little buggers and smash their spindly little bodies into mulch.  I’m not sure either of these thoughts were good for either the garden or my psyche.

    Of course there are necessary parts of greenhouse cleaning, removing dead plants, removing and cleaning old pots.  This year I cremated my old wooden greenhouse bench, which was untreated and was more likely to function as a hotel for pests than as useful shelving.  The bit I like best is the immensely satisfying feeling of pulling out the little squelchy carpets of moss that form between the panes.

    But I’ve done the dirty deed, the spiders webs are gone, the floor is swept.  It isn’t perfect, there are still plenty of stour lurking in nooks and crannies.  I’ve no plans to run a toothpick along the cracks.  I’ve convinced myself that little bit of dirt is a good thing.  And at least now I can see through the glass.  I’m sure I can rely on the good old Scottish climate to finish off any bits I’ve missed.

    My tips for greenhouse cleaning:

    • Replace broken greenhouse panes first.  That way it’ll be warmer inside when you’re cleaning.  I used to buy polycarbonate because it is supposed to retain heat but found the panels kept popping out with the wind.  Pathhead nurseries near St Monans sells glass panes for £3 which is cheaper than polycarbonate and I find is less likely to fall out.
    • Wear tough rubber gloves.  It’s a mucky job.
    • Use lots of hot soapy water – finish with a hose rinse if you have one (mine doesn’t stretch that far).  Many people recommend horticultural disinfectant.   I wasn’t sure about how good it was for the environment, so I haven’t bothered.  Instead I’m planning to do lots to attract aphid eating species such as parasitic wasps, and to just keep things generally neat and tidy.
    • Newspaper and vinegar is great for giving you sparkling panes and the vinegar has disininfectant properties too if you don’t want to use chemicals.
    • Keep it clean throughout the year – less pots and compost lying in the greenhouse means less nooks and crannies for pests to set up home.
    • If you can bear it, try to capture your spiders and set them free in a friendlier place, so they can go save some more countries or something
    • A stiff bristled, long handled outdoor broom dipped in hot soapy water is the best thing for scrubbing paving without doing your back in.
    • Unless you’re in rehearsal for I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, it’s a good idea to wear a hat, and to seal up the gaps in your clothing.  There are a lot of beasties out there! 
  • Why fire is good for you

    The temperature has lifted a degree or two.  But the earth is still too solid to move, so this week’s gardening activity has been limited to setting things on fire and watching them burn.

    Why do we love watching fire?  Perhaps it takes us back to our primeval roots, and to watch my slightly hairier than average husband as he messes around with sticks and bits of paper, trying to raise the flames, you’d be forgiven for thinking we hadn’t actually moved on a few thousand years.

    But I think the explanation may be more scientific, due to an entirely unscientific theory I have.  SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is at its worst in the dark winter months.  The feeble light that comes from our domestic light bulbs is not enough to counter this.  Even those of us who aren’t prone to depression can get a bit low at this time of year.  Sometimes, in the late afternoon, I light candles around the house.  It seems to help, and I think watching fire has the same effect.  There is something cheering about the bright light, the flickering of pure energy, a sign of warmer, livelier times to come.

    Fire is also a great way of getting rid of unnecessary stuff.   For the past four years, we’ve been cultivating our own personal landfill site at the bottom of the garden.  It’s full of the usual rubbish, wood from rotten sheds, bits of plastic pot, nicely topped with a thick layer of grass clippings, and a layer of perennial weeds which has now mulched down into a lovely crumbly topsoil, effectively turning our mound of rubbish into a small hill.  In retrospect, perhaps we should have left it alone, landscaped it a bit, sown some grass seed, let the kids erect some sort of makeshift fortress on it.  Instead we decided to tear it apart, save the compost, burn what is burnable and take the rest to the dump, or find some use for it in the garden.

    I did find some recyclable items.  Some rolls of chicken wire (no I don’t have chickens and I have not yet turned into Felicity Kendall.  The people here before us had a small menagerie of animals and this is the remains of both their chicken and dog runs, which we took down shortly after we arrived.)  I’ve stashed these behind the shed – they might come in handy for supporting peas.  There were also the heavy metal ends of an old garden bench.  These may come in handy for weighing things down (tarpaulin, bird netting, errant children – joking).

    There was also a remarkable amount of fairly dry wood.  This, added to the masses of prunings that are too big for the compost heap, meant we had enough for a rare old blaze.  So for the first time I dug out my brand new incinerator (Around £30 from Wickes, though it’s just a metal bin with holes in the side and a lid so I’m sure a homemade one would be possible).

    But I did have a fleeting moment of environmental guilt.  Was it bad to have a bonfire?  Were we unleashing gallons of Co2 into the atmosphere?

    A quick google revealed that opinion is divided.  The debate on whether or not burning wood is carbon neutral appears to be a live one, judging from the hundreds of tediously long posts on the subject.

    However Dave Reay, author of Climate Change Begins at Home, argues that burning wood is carbon neutral because the same amount of CO2 would have been released into the environment anyway during the decomposition process.  Obviously this would have happened a lot more slowly than in one afternoon of  incineration, leaving time for a new tree to grow in its place.  On the other hand, a piece of decomposing wood would not have kept us warm, and you can’t cook a sausage on it.

    More importantly, if we had lugged all the wood to the recycling centre, we would have had to make several car journeys to get it all there.  The people at the tip would have made another lorry journey to get it to the landfill, only for it to release the same amount of Co2 as would have been released anyway.  So overall the carbon impact would have been greater.

    So with these convenient excuses in mind, here’s my ten reasons why everyone should have a bonfire in January:

    • It’s probably better for the environment than driving it to the tip
    • You can cook your dinner on it (try baked potatoes or salmon in tin foil, or heap it all into the barbecue and wait until it turns to charcoal).
    • It keeps you warm (this is only energy efficient if you remember to turn off the heating in the house).  A little wine or whisky helps with the process of internal warming.
    • It makes you happy in the depths of winter.
    • It gets you in touch with your primeval roots (especially if you are my husband).
    • It smells nice (lots of council websites mention the bad smell – how can something that smells like barbecues smell bad?).
    • If you buy wood from a sustainable source you are supporting the growth of more trees.
    • It produces ash that you can feed your fruit trees with (don’t put it on blueberries as they like acid soil – the ash makes it more alkaline).
    • If you don’t like your neighbours you can annoy them by starting it when they put their washing out (for the record I like my neighbours which is why I stick to January!).
    • It is good for family bonding.  This last one only works if you can entice the children away from the telly to come and enjoy it with you.  If pleading and coercion don’t work, try sausages, or as a last resort, chocolate buttons melted inside bananas, held over the fire with sticks.  Yum. 
  • Writing Short Fiction – Dundee

    From October I will be teaching a 9 week course at Dundee University Continuing Education in Writing Short Fiction.  The 9 week course will consist of a combination of exercises and workshops, giving students the opportunity to discuss their own writing. It will consider factors such as style, structure, language and audience, and also the writing world itself, including literary magazines, writing for the web and writing a weblog.  There are still a few places left.  For more information or to enrol visit the Dundee University website

  • Scotsman review

    The Scotsman logo

    The Scotsman review of The Captain’s Wife: “What McKenzie excels at is using period detail in the right way: just enough to give a feeling of authenticity but never so much that the history outweighs the story.”

    Read the review in full on The Scotsman’s website

  • Closed

    Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/bradfolkens

    Closed: a short story by Kirsten Mckenzie

    You are behind the door when the knock comes at last. Three hard hollow raps, the crack of bone on wood.

    You hold the air tight in your throat. You can hear the swish of coats wet from the rain, the shifting of feet. They’ll be looking for the bell. You can almost see them, running a hand up the inside of the doorframe, scanning the door, catching a finger in the brushes of the letterbox. But you’ve never had a bell. Not in fifty years. In those days your door was always open.

    Not a soul in their right mind would leave their door open now. You used to know them all, old Mrs Gaffney, dead now, Davie Henderson, sad when the old ones go, your old friend Moira MacKay on the top floor. She moved out to Davidson’s Mains, you’ve not seen her for years. Now you know nobody, you shuffle quickly up the stone stairs, past the scuffed doors, faded names on sellotaped paper.

    It seems you’ve stood still a long time. Your back is beginning to ache, you were never good at standing still. You move your eye to the peephole, and see a mass of black; they must be close to the door. Then one of them steps back and you see the top half of his body, warped by the glass of the peephole, a tall man in a black suit, his face the pale green of skimmed milk. You see his face expand, his straight nose swells as he moves closer. You shrink back as you see the big eye sweep into the peephole, a flash of lashes and purple blood vessels. ‘Not in’, a female voice murmurs.

    ‘Oh she’s in’, says the man, his mouth inches from your face, your bodies separated by a thin layer of painted wood. You hear him breathe. Then laughter as the footsteps move away from the door. You press your eye to cold metal, until you hear the trill of next door’s bell.

    You brush through the carpeted hall. The bedroom door is open and through it you see the clumsy feet, boots still on, jutting from the edge of the bed. You shut the door as you pass; Bill hates an open door. Sandy’s long body slips through the narrow space. You stoop down to touch him, steady your hands on his pale fur.

    “You’ll need something to eat, I suppose,” you say, and you move on into the kitchen, the cat arching its back as you pass. You open the fridge. There’s a half pint of milk, enough for today’s tea, and a few slices of bread, still wrapped in the packet. It’s about time Bill went out for a few messages, you think. The tin is in the door and you take it out, leaning to scoop the contents into the cat’s dish.

    You place the empty can back in the door of the fridge, pausing. A feeling. Something you’ve forgotten to do. You straighten your back and stand for a moment, comforted by the slop of the cat’s jaws gnawing at the food.

    You make the tea, a cup for you, a cup for Bill. You take it into his room and set it on the bedside table. The room feels cold, so you switch on the electric blanket. Nice to wake in a warm bed.

    In the sitting room your tea steams on the table beside you. You peel off the wrapper of a Kit Kat that you found on the windowsill and eat. You don’t see the glossy chocolate ring that forms around your lips. Then it comes to you again, that fear, a growing sense that you’ve lost something. It grips you now as you set down your tea and pick up your handbag. Your hand shuffles the contents, stamps, pens, sewing kits, a free facial wipe you got on a plane trip to Majorca ten years ago.

    You take out your cigarettes and matches. You only smoke in the evenings but now, with summer nights long and light, it’s hard to say where evening starts. You know you are smoking more. Too much. You’ll cut back. Soon. You light one now and lean back in your chair.

    Bill doesn’t like you smoking. You always said you would stop. But the years just went by and you never did. There’s no point now, and in any case, you like to smoke. You take out another and set it on the table beside you, ready for later.

    No, you think, you’ve lost nothing. It’s just the door going like that. It gets you nervous, a knock at the door. For one thing you never know who it is, you see it in the paper, the weird folk that hang around these days. And then what if it was a visitor, what would you do then, with the place in the state it’s in. The carpet not hoovered for weeks, you can peel the dust off the sideboard, and no food in the cupboards except for a couple of those frozen meals from Farmfoods that you never quite fancy.

    You should make a pot of soup, you think. There was a time when there was never a pot of soup off the stove. You made it every day, back then, for the visitors, first mum and dad, Katie and John and the kids. There would always be a bowl of soup on the go. The smell of it filled the house always. A good stock, you think. The secret is in the stock. Chicken, a ham bone, a shank of lamb. The butcher used to give them away. Then sometime, you can’t remember when, he started charging, a pound a bone. You sit up at that, at the thought of it, even now. You’d been so outraged, the greed of it. You went straight to Iceland and bought a packet of Knorrs stock cubes. And they were alright, once you got used to them, those stock cubes.

    You inhale a last gulp of smoke, the tug of it in your chest, almost like eating. Better than eating, you think, eating is too much effort these days. All that chewing. You rub the end into the big Younger’s ashtray, the logo long smothered by a tarry smudge of tobacco. Every so often you empty the contents of the astray into a plastic bag at your feet and tie it up, because there’s nothing so common in a house as a full ashtray. It could do with a wipe, you think. You’ll need to see to that, soon, before Bill wakes up, later, when you don’t feel so tired.

    The sun has slipped behind the rooftops and two lights are on in the windows opposite. You like this time of night, the deep sky, the orange eyes of windows, before people think to close the curtains. From where you sit in your chair you can watch the movements of tiny figures, standing by a door, talking, dancing across a room, dishes stacked up by a kitchen window, the blue flash of someone else’s TV on someone else’s wall. You play a private game, where you turn on your own TV and guess by the pattern of the changing lights which channel they’re watching, changing your own until you’re watching the same thing. It makes you feel you know them, the white haired old lady or the bald man in pyjamas. You think they laugh when you do. They turn away in half disgust, at the same time you do. In the adverts, you go together to make the tea.

    You get up from your chair now and shuffle to the window. Your head is soft, feather-stuffed full of sleep and you try to guess the time by the light that is left. It’s something you’ve started to do, this falling asleep in the day, and it bothers you. You like to know where you are, what’s the next thing to do, the next meal to make, the next room to clean. There now is most of the day gone and almost time to go to bed, even though bed for you now is the sitting room chair. And there it is again, that feeling of something lost. There’s a bill on the sideboard, from the gas board. Maybe it hasn’t been paid.

    Voices echo in the stair. A door slams. More footsteps. Not much of a job, you think, traipsing about the town at this time of night. Jehovah’s witnesses, that’s what they are. But still, you can’t shake that uneasy feeling. You check the chain on the door, firmly in its metal latch. Then you shuffle back towards the door of the bedroom and go in, leaning over the silent body of your husband. Sitting on the edge of the bed, you lean over and kiss Bill’s cool forehead – cool even with the heat of the electric blanket now radiating through his body. You touch his face, it seems fatter, swollen. And on his cheeks, you notice now, something new, the faint ooze of a pale waxy cream below the blackened eye sockets.

    How long .since you last left the house? Sandy has used his litter box, but the thing is beginning to smell, the house is full of the smell, and he’s squirming around the doorway and whining to get out. You pick him up, feel his quick heartbeat. You hold him tight, bring his wet nose to your face, the small, rough lick of his tongue. Your throat is closed with tears that will not come, your eyes sting with an acid heat. The cat squirms, you hold him tighter still, sat there, sat on the edge of the bed, the cold rise of your husband’s body behind you, and you hate the cat. Hate the sharp gloss of his eyes, his nervous warmth.

    The pain slices through your forearm as the cat falls to the floor with a snarl. Blood drips onto Bill’s dark skin.

    You lift the pale green sheet, letting it float onto his face. Then you go to find a plaster, you’ll have one in your bag. You leave the room, closing the door behind you.

  • The Independent

    Review of The Chapel At The Edge Of The World from The Independent

    The story of the Italian Chapel of Lamb Holm is one of the Second World War’s most rousing tales of reconciliation. An unassuming, tin-and-tat Nissen hut on the wild Orkney island Lamb Holm was converted by Domenico Chiocchetti, an artist-turned-soldier, and his fellow Italian prisoners of war, into a place of worship to which they would have proudly taken their mamas to Mass. It still sits perched on the exposed island lid, relentlessly buffeted by squalls and the North Sea breakers. Kirsten McKenzie has taken this remarkable building and its beginnings as inspiration for her debut novel. It’s a compliment to the band of Italians who laboured almost 70 years ago that the result is as sturdy and distinguished a construct as their Catholic sanctuary.

    McKenzie’s protagonists, Emilio and Rosa, are childhood sweethearts. However, the rise of fascism finds Emilio, a talented fresco painter and fictional stand-in for Chiocchetti, conscripted and shipped off to North Africa. Rosa is left tending to her mother’s lakeside hotel. After a swift capture, Emilio is exiled to the Orkneys along with 500 other Italians to work on “Churchill’s Barriers”, the concrete naval defences protecting the anchorage at Scapa Flow. Meanwhile, Rosa finds herself juggling the precarious time bombs of a new suitor and political activism.

    The emotional core of this book focuses on how love evolves when two parties are separated. “Rosa was still there, carrying on with a new life, and growing and changing with time, while time for Emilio had been slowed down, each day merging into one featureless whole.” Will absence make the heart grow fonder or will it be a case of out of sight, out of mind? The answer, which McKenzie finely tunes as the novel develops, is a conflicted blend of both. There is an unsentimental truth exhibited in this torn relationship.

    Life on Lamb Holm, bleached by isolation and the pounding weather, is well portrayed. When the prisoners are offered the chance to create a chapel, the project forms a timely respite from their predicament. As the build and decoration progresses, cynicism dissipates and bonds between captor and captive are spun like belay lines across prescribed wartime allegiances. In a place where “not even rucola will grow”, hope blooms.

    Chiocchetti, the real-life Emilio, returned to the island in 1960 to view the restored chapel and renew his ties with the Orcadians. In a letter to the islanders he expressed his joy of seeing again “the little chapel of Lamb Holm where I, in leaving, leave a part of my heart”. The publication of The Chapel at the Edge of the World arrives on the 10th anniversary of his death. I can’t imagine a finer tribute than this lovely book.

    Read the review in full on The Independent website

  • The Guardian

    “Mackenzie’s unusual, fluently written novel is based on the true story of a chapel created by Italian P0Ws on a remote Orkney island during the second world war. Rosa and Emilio are childhood sweethearts, ambivalently engaged at the beginning of the war. Then Emilio is captured and shipped to the wilds of Scotland. Rosa continues to help run the family hotel near Lake Como, but a chance encounter with an old friend, Pietro, prompts involvement in the partisan movement and an intense love affair. Emilio’s very different war experience is no less dramatic – cold, hunger and deprivation lead to feuding and violence among the prisoners. Boredom and opportunity culminate in the painstaking transformation of an abandoned hut: a literal and symbolic transfiguration at the heart of this unshowy, absorbing read.”

    Visit The Guardian online

  • The Times

    In the middle of the Second World War a group of Italian PoWs found themselves on the tiny island of Lamb Holm, in the Orkneys. Using a couple of Nissen huts and any scraps they could find, they built a chapel, now a world-famous symbol of human ingenuity and hope. This was the inspiration for McKenzie’s moving first novel. Emilio and Rosa are childhood sweethearts — but can their love survive war and separation? While Emilio channels his frustration into the chapel, Rosa is getting involved in the Italian Resistance, and starting to ask herself what she wants from her life — is marriage to Emilio enough? A warm, humane and finely written debut.

    Visit The Times’ website

  • Sunday Herald

    If you only read one book this summer, though, make it The Chapel At The End Of The World (John Murray, £14.99), the debut novel by Kirsten McKenzie, out on July 9. Inspired by the building of the Italian chapel on Lamb Holm, Orkney, it tells the story of childhood sweethearts Emilio and Rosa at the height of the second world war. Engaged to be married, fate intervenes when Emilio, one of more than 500 Italian soldiers captured by allied forces in North Africa, is brought to Orkney as a prisoner of war to labour on the Churchill Barriers. Increasingly frustrated with the slow passing of the days, he comes up with the idea to turn a Nissen hut into a chapel, he and his fellow prisoners salvaging whatever they can find to transform the building. Rosa, meanwhile, must endure the war at home near Lake Como, finding herself drawn into the complex loyalties of the Italian resistance moment. McKenzie portrays the contrasting landscapes of Orkney and Italy with a colourful and vivid accuracy as, across the miles, the young couple are left wondering if their love can survive the tumultuous separation. For those who crave a thriller fix, there’s the enthralling Still Midnight by Denise Mina (Orion, £12.99), published on July 1. This latest novel from the doyenne of tartan noir delves into a baffling act of violence in an otherwise sleepy suburb of Glasgow. It seems, at first, a motiveless crime: a gang of masked gunmen burst into a family home and demand millions of pounds, before kidnapping the father and disappearing into the night. As the police investigation unfolds, however, the growing web of intrigue becomes ever more tangled, keeping you gripped.

    Visit the Sunday Herald’s website