Tuesday, 14 October 2008


Like most writers, I'm an avid reader - getting through a couple of books each week, not to mention newspapers and magazines. I rave to my husband and friends about books I have enjoyed and moan about ones that have disappointed me. So, I thought I would start posting some of my 'rave reviews'. If I don't enjoy a book, you won't hear about it - but I'm going to make a noise about the good ones.

You can find these reviews directly via the link on the right hand side of the screen or set up an RSS link to http://elizabethducie.wordpress.com/

I hope my reviews help you find some new books to enjoy.

Thursday, 25 September 2008


Ellie was having a wonderful birthday. Aunt Zoe (not her real aunt, but Mummy said it was more polite) had bought her a silver locket with inscription: “the best god-daughter ever”. She had invited seven friends for tea – with cake, jelly and ice-cream – and games. Joe had won musical chairs – again! Sarah had won “Pass the Parcel” and loved the pack of fortune-telling cards (they would have fun with those in the playground tomorrow). The best game had been “Memories” where daddy had put lots of items on a tray and after studying them briefly, they had to write down all they could remember. Ellie had got them nearly all, but had forgotten the auburn hair dye and the business card. She had remembered the withered poinsetta – but, so had everybody else.

After everyone had gone home, she went to write up her journal. As usual, she chose from the jar of sharpened pencils. The dusty radio in the corner played a new song by Simon and Garfunkel – somehow, she knew that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was going to be big.
As Ellie grew sleepy, the room started to spin – gently at first, then more quickly. She closed her eyes – and when she opened them, she was staring at her brand new laptop. She glanced across at the bottle of herbal medicine her friend had given her to protect against flu. “Sure is powerful” she thought, as she started to type up her journal.

Sunday, 17 August 2008


It's a balmy evening in Florida. Six of us meet by chance outside a well-known restaurant. We have arrived from the States, Europe and the Far East for a conference and we know the next few days will be hectic. We decide to spend our last free evening together - a twenty-first century version of Ecclesiastes: 'eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we work our socks off'.

The restuarant is crowded, but Hannah, our waitress, finds us a table right away. She is older than the norm and heavier than one would expect of someone used to running between tables all night. But she has a great smile; a smile that never falters all evening, despite provocation. We quickly get menus and she reels off the specials. The noise level is high and not all of us can hear her words. However, we are more interested in ordering our first drinks. Hannah suggests a pitcher - both the Sangria and the Mojitos are recommended. We plump for a pitcher of Sangria, a glass of Mojitos and a coke. Then we wait - and wait - and wait. Other table around us are served - Hannah has disappeared.

Finally she arrives, bearing a tray aloft. Pitcher of ice, six glasses and a variety of bottles - she begins to mix. One or two of us, more familiar with Sangria than others, look confused. Why is she opening a bottle of champagne; where is the Spanish wine? Finally, someone says - what are you making. Flashing us her smile, she says patiently 'I'm making the pitcher of Mojitos you ordered.' We remind her of our order. 'Oh, OK' she says and picks up the tray to take it away. Suddenly, the thought of sitting here even longer without food or drink is intolerable. 'Leave it, carry on - we'll have the Mojitos.' She shrugs, carries on mixing and then trys to serve all six of us from the pitcher. Our teetotal companion reminds her she has ordered a coke and she's still waiting. She will have to wait for a while yet before it arrives.

Hannah pours our drinks, picks up the tray, including the pitcher - and leaves. 'Hey, that pitcher's not empty' someone says. A few minutes later, she returns, carrying the pitcher and tops up the glasses. We will never know whether this is normal procedure, whether she forgot to put the pitcher on the table - or whether she heard our plaintive comments as the pitcher disappeared.

Finally we get to order our food. A mixed bunch, with a variety of levels of hunger and jet lag, some order starters, most didn't. One of our number orders the Tapas special, to be delivered at the same time as our main courses. Once more we wait - and wait - and wait. Other diners finish their meals, pay and leave. We begin to check our watches.

Next time we see Hannah, she is bearing another tray, with the makings of the house salad. Maybe the kitchen is very small; maybe mixing ingredients at the table is meant to involve the diners in the experience - but in reality, there are far too many tables for this to be done in comfort - and by this time, we just want the food on our plates in front of us. Once the salad is mixed, she plates it out in three portions - the correct number, but tries to give it to the wrong people. Having sorted that out, she offers another pitcher of drinks - an offer we rather foolishly jump at. Too late we remember this woman can only do one thing at a time - and if she is mixing drinks, she's not serving food.

The next pitcher of drinks is finally mixed and served. Hannah makes another plate of salad and tries to serve it to one of us - even though the dirty plate in front of her is a dead give-away that she's already eaten her salad. The coke finally arrives.

Eventually, Hannah appears once more with the Tapas special, artistically arranged on what looks like a Victorian cake stand. It is accompanied by six plates. We point out this is the main course for one person. She smiles, hands out the six plates and leaves. A suspicion grows - she thinks this is a second course for everyone. 'Help yourselves' our companion says 'there's far too much for one person here.' We hang back, too polite to take him at his word. However, we gradually realise she's not coming back until it's all gone - and as our hunger grows, we start, one by one, to pick up our forks. Finally, when there is nothing left, Hannah appears at the table once more. 'Another pitcher, guys?' Her smile is unwavering. 'Maybe later' someone replies. 'For now, can we just have our main courses?' She shrugs as if to say - you only had to ask. 'Sure, no problem - they're on their way.'

At last, after nearly two hours, we all have a huge plate of food in front of us. By this time, we've eaten all the bread, nibbled at the Tapas and finished two pitchers of drinks. To say the edge has gone off our appetites is putting it mildly. No-one finishes all their food; Hannah continues to smile as she clears away the debris.

Too drained by this time to order (and wait for) dessert or coffee, we call for the bill. We question briefly whether we will add a tip; we can't really say we've had good service. But then, we realise we don't know why she's so bad. Does she have problems that keep pulling her mind away from the job? Is she ill and on medication? Has she been working all day, on her feet without a break. We tip more generously than necessary and leave before we have time to change our minds. Hannah's smile follows us into the night.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Music and Other Creativity

I've just been transported back 40 years. My husband bought me the new Neil Diamond CD as a present to welcome me back from a business trip. Listening to the wonderful melted choclate voice, I remembered one of the first LPs I bought as a teenager - a much earlier version, a much younger voice - but still the same gentle guitar playing and comforting tone. I'd forgotten all about that LP - but suddenly, I'm back in the dining room, doing my maths homework to the strains of Sweet Caroline, with my parents telling me to 'turn it down and concentrate'.

I've had a week full of music one way and another. My business trip was to Russia, where my clients know my love of classical music and always try to indulge it. We had two trips to the ballet, including a fresh, lively version of 'Swan Lake' with the happy ending, which is much more satisfying - even if less authentic - than the traditional one. We also spent an evening at the philharmonic hall for the closing concert of the season - a cocktail of classical suites and overtures follwed by a compilation of music from Soviet films - not unlike the sort of scores we would expect from John Williams and the like.

Throughout these evenings, I was enthralled by the creativity of the composers and their ability to 'hear' and interweave the themes for numerous different instruments. I can't do that - my musical talents stretch to piano lessons as a child - long forgotten. However, it made me realise that creativity is within all of us; we just express it in other ways. For some, it's notes on a stave; for others brush strokes on canvas. For me (and many others like me), it's words on a page. Writers often say that their main joy comes from delivering the words - that they write for themselves and it doesn't matter if no-one ever reads those words. I wonder if that's really true? Would the value of a Tchaikovsky ballet be as great if it remained on the page and was never staged? I doubt it.

Friday, 18 April 2008


Browsing through my file of writing exercises, I came upon this piece written a few years ago. I've yet to write the book - but when I do, this will be the starting point.


I have been travelling the world for nearly 20 years, meeting thousands of people in over fifty countries. I have seen wonderful sights and truly dreadful ones. I have had experiences I will always treasure and others I would willingly forget – if only the nightmares would go away. I have met friendly, welcoming people and ones who were much less so. I have learnt that generosity is often inversely proportional to wealth and that to admire something is frequently to be offered it as a present.

Many of the trips were to Russia and the Former Soviet Union. I first went there in 1993, just after the collapse, when communism was in tatters and people starting to learn a new way of life. I have visited many parts of the region, including Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan and the evocatively named Kabardino Balkaryia, plus more towns in Russia than most of its citizens, with their history of travel restrictions, would ever dream of seeing. This book tells the story of those years.

It does not look at the wider picture, the political changes or economic development. These will be charted in documentaries and history books for many years to come. It does not make judgements about the events of the day, although inevitably, it will be coloured by the perceptions of someone growing up in a capitalist country, believing Russia a world superpower, not to mention ‘the enemy’.

It tells the story of the people themselves, through the fresh eyes of a visitor. It deals with details so commonplace, they are only seen by outsiders; the minutiae of the day to day, the mundane. I had thought of entitling it (with apologies to Bill Bryson) ‘Notes from a Large Country’.

Some of the original writing for this text was done in the form of a diary. However, rereading it in the cold light of day, I acknowledged that the level of detail with which I record meals, business meetings and other boring aspects is probably not appropriate for general readership, unless there is a gap on the shelf marked Cures for Insomnia.

I therefore decided to focus on the key points that tell a story – or a series of short stories. There are no real central characters– just an array of people who flit in and out. Sometimes they make repeat appearances; sometimes it is a one-off performance, but each one is memorable to me – and hopefully interesting to others.

For many years, a key recipient of my stories was my mother. I was on a mission to persuade her my travels were exciting experiences, which I was lucky to have, rather than a series of dreadful, compulsory events that should be avoided if possible. Every time I phoned to tell her about a new contract I had won, a new experience I was about to enjoy, her standard response was ‘Oh dear’. Once, when I was working in North Carolina and someone was murdered in New York’s Central Park, she woke my father in the middle of the night, worrying whether it might be me, even though I was hundreds of miles away. The first time I visited Nigeria, I didn’t tell her until I came home again.

Despite her maternal concerns, she was always eager to hear my stories once she knew the dangers were past. Firstly, I would send her postcards or the occasional letter; then I would phone or visit her on my return to share my adventures. When the internet became a reality rather than the stuff of science fiction, we bought her an email telephone and, after that we could be in daily contact.

My youngest sister had given us all email nicknames: I was ‘IJSCOI’ (the highly ironic International Jet-Setting Captain of Industry) and my mom, after my dad’s death and promotion to ‘Heavenly Dude’, became ‘The Big Chief’. For several years, I would use internet cafes and clients’ offices to prepare these ‘Emails to the Big Chief’. Even after her death, I often described my travels to myself and other people in the same format and so it feels appropriate to use it in this book.

These are the memories that spring to mind when I think about that part of the world. Haphazard, not sequential; collated by somewat tenuous threads on occasion. I hope they bring a smile to your faces but also challenge some assumptions.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008


I was delighted to find out I won first prize in the Mary Gornall Memorial short story competition run by Ashby Writers' Club . The Second Pair of Slippers tells the story of Olga Petrovna and Alexander Ivanovych, two people caught up in the events of election night in Ukraine. You can read my story here: http://www.freewebs.com/barneyc/shortstorycompetition.htm

Sunday, 24 February 2008


I mean, why would we need a new boiler - the old one worked well enough. OK, so the pump screamed occasionally - and the pipes knocked alarmingly when trapped air passed through them. Sometimes the radiators were hot enough to take the skin off your hands - and sometimes they would barely warm. But the system worked after a fashion. Still, we've just moved in - we're doing the place up - so we thought we'd get it sorted out now rather than later.

The planning phase went well. We found a wonderful plumber. Yes, I know those are two words that are rarely seen in the same sentence, but it's true. A local man with his own company. We agreed the price, paid the deposit and left for a two week business trip.

We were smug when friends said we were taking a risk. We wouldn't be there during the work - but we would come home to a nice new system and a warm house.

At the start of the second week, we had a call. Our wonderful plumber had been in bed with flu and was only just starting. But not to worry - he'd have most of it done before we got home. It was the word 'most' that worried us a little.

When we got home, we found all the radiator values had been replaced with thermostatic ones, as per latest regulations. So, we can now control the temperature in all the rooms separately. However, the old boiler was still sitting like a malevolent presence in the corner of the utility room.

We lost our heating the following week - right in the middle of a cold snap. For three days, we sat huddled over a hot air blower, a tiny island of luke warm air in our huge ice-box of a house. We piled on extra clothing and waited. For one whole day, the water was switched off. The irony of buying a house with three loos and being unable to use any of them!

Finally, the new boiler was in and the water turned back on. The water pressure, previously quite low, is now much higher. So high it can pin you to the back of the shower cubicle. So high, all the air has gone from the system and the pipes sit contentedly full of hot water. So high, it blew one of the fittings in the wall in the bedroom. I returned home to a frantic plumber, resigned husband and a mini Niagara flowing through the ceiling into the newly renovated kitchen.

Yesterday we found another leak - in the celing over the bathroom. Actually, we didn't find it - it found us. It rained down on one of the ladies I'd booked to blitz the house after all the work had been done. She bravely continued working as water dripped on her. Lying on the landing floor, burrowing under the insulation in the loft, I found a small copper pipe from which water was spurting. Our plumber tells us it is most unusual for holes to develop in the middle of a pipe. He's fixed it. The system works. We're holding our breath - but at least we can no longer see our breath - and the house is really toasty at last.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Emails to the Big Chief: Day 8 - On the Road Again

As I returned to Moscow, I saw two sides to Russia. Many of the houses, especially in the countryside, are falling into disrepair. There’s a high level of engineering – but little regard for aesthetics. The snow has mostly gone, but a resulting layer of dirt remains on all surfaces.

On the other hand, exquisite carvings or painted decorations adorn many of the houses; the carpets are being beaten and paintwork cleaned; scaffolding around many of the churches points to repair work in progress when money permits.

It’s as though Russia is waking, not only from the long hard winter, but also from the harsh realities of Soviet times. Could it be that this country’s journey, if not ending, is at least going places at last.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Emails to the Big Chief: Day 7 - Dancing Shoes

Everyone passed their final tests today and proudly received their certificates. Ten years ago, we had ransacked one of the warehouses, a real Babushka’s Bazaar, for prizes for each delegate. The guy with the highest marks got a guitar and the top woman got an ironing board. Despite my misgivings, I was assured that she would appreciate this – and they were right.

We finished today with a small party with Boris.

‘Elizabeth' he said, looking at me over his thick Georgian moustache, ‘have I told you the history of this project and how we got to be where we are today?’

One hour later, he presented me with a beautiful gold watch and then sent us into town for a celebratory dinner. He said he wouldn’t come with us in case he got drunk. Seemed to think we would lead him astray.

At the restaurant we were seated next to a table of twenty, a raucous birthday party. Since most of the group was male, we were much in demand as dance partners. There was little time for eating but Russian restaurants are always like that. Dancing to music frequently deafening, drinking and food – in that order. I finally got away at 02:30, aware that I had to hit the road early in the morning.