Monday, February 20, 2017



Yesterday I went to St Pancras in London for a rehearsal. Once I reached Waterloo everywhere was heaving.

"Hmph!" I grumped to myself, fighting my way down the escalator,  "time was, London was quiet on a Sunday."

In My Day

This was really true once upon a time, especially in places like the City or Holborn. Shops were shut on Sundays, so Oxford, Regent Street and Tottenham Court Road were all empty.

One of the ways in which David liked to entertain himself (and me) on Sundays was to buy a "Red Rover" bus ticket. These tickets allowed you to travel anywhere on London on any red bus for a whole day. Bargain!

As usual, David was in charge of operations. He was very knowledgeable about buses and showed me how to differentiate between RTs and RTLs and gloried in the magnificence of the new Routemasters. We'd jump on the first bus heading citywards. Armed with bus map and timetable, David would then orchestrate the day. We'd get off at places unknown to me or only from looking at underground maps.

We'd cover quite a distance, too. On one occasion I remember going as far west as Barnes Bridge and as far east as Saffron Hill in Clerkenwell. I made some sketches of Saffron Hill, which later I turned into an oil painting which I still have. I think it was after this trip that Daddy first told me that he'd been brought up in Clerkenwell.

David's choice of buses seemed to me quite random, which I doubt they were, at least in David's mind; he always being methodical in his fashion. And I saw lots of interesting unsung places in London.

One thing, however, the buses were pretty well all empty.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017



Last Saturday, with the greatest of sadness, I said goodbye to my brother David. As the church filled up the organist began to play. "That's Messiaen", I whispered to Paul "La Nativité du Seigneur."

In My Day

Without David's influence there would be a great deal of music that I would never have thought to hear. His enthusiasm and surefootedness made an enticing combination. 

During the late '60s he and I were cultural companions in London; going to concerts and the theatre together. One day he told me that he had tickets to hear "La Nativité du Seigneur" played on the organ of Westminster Cathedral.

I don't think that I had ever set foot in the cathedral and was suitably awed by this yawning Byzantine space. The Messiaen music simply swept me away. While I could never really grasp the musical jungle that is Turangalila, this pared-down, ecstatic music had me transfixed. The music is an evocation of the birth of Christ, but never lapses into sentimentality, even the lilting shepherds' melody fits perfectly into the design.

At the time it even inspired me to art: this drawing in pastels which hung on my sister's wall for many years, entitled "Dessins Eternel".  At school we were asked to write a poem inspired by a piece of music and I chose "Les Anges" - also from the same work. I can't comment about the quality of either poetry or art, but it's enough that the music haunted me to such an extent.

It's impossible to work out just how many pieces of music entered my head, courtesy of David. It's his eternal gift to me, and I wish him a music-filled eternity.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017



Yesterday the new term at choir started. One of the pieces we're are performing is Bach's Cantata 68. The first aria after the opening chorus is "My Heart Ever Faithful"

In My Day

When I was a child 4 Beulah Hill was always filled with music. I preferred, even then, to listen to songs and choral music. And I remember this piece so well. It was sung by Isobel Baillie and I couldn't get enough of her delicate high soprano. I think that I was about nine at the time and I wonder whether I saw her at the proms singing this as I also thought that she was so beautiful. She sang it in English with a sprightly sense of joy that was totally unselfconscious and I have longed ever since to have an opportunity to sing it myself, although that has not so far occurred.

Looking at this picture, it's easy to see how very much she was of her time (aren't we all, but just can't see it?), but also how a young, over-imaginative child might adore her.

Last night I listened to three versions of this piece. First Isobel's with its simple unornamented singing with solid, somewhat staid orchestra. Next a recording by the Thomanerchor, a boy's choir in Leipzig, the descendant of the choir that Bach used to direct. Their performance was assured with an awful lot of woodwind, but with an air that this was just the day job. Finally a performance under the baton of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. This one ticks all the boxes in many ways, with crisp playing on period instruments with a nice young-sounding soprano and, of course, sung in German.

Well the jury's out, but I may still find for Isobel's joyous interpretation and forgive the hefty orchestration.

Thursday, January 05, 2017



As usual, Beatrice brought heaps of her leftover food when she came and then left without eating it. So I came back from my New Year break to find some very overripe bananas perfuming my kitchen.

"I'd better make banana bread", I said to Paul.

In My Day

Back in 1980 when Mark, Beatrice and Nick lived with us at Rowan Avenue, it could be dull work trying to provide tasty and varied meals on a limited budget.

Thinking to cheer things up, Beatrice and I suggested that everyone choose a different dessert each night. What were we thinking? It was bad enough rustling up spotted dick and other standards after a day's work, but when Mark enthused about the banana bread his mother used to make I had no idea what he was talking about and he certainly knew no more than it contained bananas.

To the rescue came a "World Cookery" book that Mamma had given me. Since this was the book that spelt bhajis "budgies", I was't entirely confident about the quality of the research. But there, in the Canadian section, was a recipe for banana bread. So I made it and it turned out to be a tasty, moist cake. Not really pudding, but add some custard and all was fine. Mark pronounced it a perfect replica.

The picture shown is what I hope mine will be like when it comes out of the oven, Cheers, Mark!

Saturday, November 26, 2016



Yesterday evening Beatrice, with an air of surprise, pulled a £20.00 note out of her top. "I'd forgotten all about it," she said "I put it there when we walked to pub to keep my hands free. Very useful, bras are, to keep things in. Mamma used to do that."

Me too.

In My Day

I think it must have been about 1992. My choir had been asked to give a concert at a local church (Bruton, I'm certain). I was secretary and had told the organiser that we charged £200.00.

Dressed in our best we arrived at the church to deliver the concert. During the interval I went up to the organiser and said "How do you want to settle this?" "Oh, I've got the money here", she said, and handed me £200.00 in £10 notes.

As I looked at the wad, the conductor called us back for the second half. I, too, was not carrying a bag. Nothing for it; I stuffed the notes into my bosom and joined the choir for the rest of the concert, where the notes crackled alarmingly during the quiet bits. I hoped that no-one would notice it or my lopsided appearance.

It was the first time I've sung with a bundle of the readies nestling next to my heart and I expect it to be the last.

Thursday, November 03, 2016



I'm feeling rather annoyed with myself as I managed to trip over something or nothing coming down Dye Lane three weeks ago and have fractured my upper proximal humerus. "Proximal" means that it's adjacent to the shoulder. This fracture is "notoriously painful" as the A&E nurse cheerfully said (I can vouch for that) and is healed by a long process that doesn't involve plaster.

I've had many sympathetic and kind messages from people, but they are peppered with "what, again?" and "take more water with it, leave off the high heels" comments.

In My Day

So, do I fall over a lot? Well, I don't know what the average is, but maybe. Looking back over the past ten years or so, I recall tripping over a kerb in 2006 whilst delivering a box of fabric scraps to a friend, which resulted in a lot of bruising and a dent in my buttock that is still there. In the same year I felt over some uneven paving in London with no injury.

In 2012 I accidentally put my foot in my workroom rubbish bin, while carrying too many things as well as failing to put the light on, and fell against the wall. Some bruising resulted which I treated with appalling amounts of every available painkiller till it went away.

In 2013 I fell down the terrace steps at Spencer House when a paving slab broke. More bruising.

And in 2014 I slipped in a wet carpark, damaging my sciatic nerve

That's an average of once every two years. Mostly I just get bruised, rather than broken and I think that it's not the tripping that's the issue but a poor ability to right myself.

With regard to the other comments, I almost wish they were true because, not only would they give people something to laugh at, there would also be obvious solutions to the problem. The fact is that most of my tumbles have been in daylight, stone-cold sober and wearing trainers or Oxford brogues. The Dye Lane fall was down a steep-ish slope in the dark, which is probably why I did so much damage.

Well, it's all rather frightening, just how easily we can be upended and break bits; it's enough to make you wish we'd never decided to walk upright all those years ago. I'm glad to say that my recovery is rapid and I'll try to heed all the well-meant advice I've been given.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Slumming it


I've been watching, with great interest, a BBC2 historical reality series, in which a London slum was recreated and where modern families attempt to eke out a living.

It is interesting in itself, but also sheds a bit more light on family history.

In My Day

As I have before blogged, Daddy, who was born in 1893, lived out his childhood in the slums of London. His father was an habitual drunkard whom his mother eventually left, preferring to find a way of managing on her own. I'm not sure that she was very good at this. I think that they lived in Clerkenwell and Daddy told me that she used to sell newspapers outside Old Street Station. She also did some sewing and he used to tell me of the speed at which she could stitch by hand. Daddy earnt a few pennies as a "dirt boy", sweeping away horse dung at crossings so that ladies could keep their skirts clean, in the hope of earning a 6d (reminiscent of Joe in Bleak House). I have just discovered that the slums that Dickens wrote about in Oliver Twist are based on those in Clerkenwell.

Often they couldn't afford the rent and, more than once, he and his mother did a "flit" with the help of an uncle who had a handcart into which they could load their scrappy belongings and flee at dead of night. I'm sure that their "landlords" were almost as poor as they were. He had a lifelong hatred of dirt, having lived with mice, rats, bedbugs, cockroaches and so on from the start. Many books written in the 19th century describe the mud of London streets and the complete lack of sanitation in the slums. Slum clearance often simply resulted in displaced people ending up crowding into another, even worse, place, or sleeping on the streets.

One of the new laws that came into effect during the 1890's was education for all children. Daddy's mother had tried to give her boy a love of learning and they would sit down together and work out the meaning of articles in the newspaper. although she was clearly semi-literate,  but now he went to school.

This was the start of Daddy's journey upwards. He told me that one day he just decided to walk out, having watched the rats running around his mother's home one too many times, which included turning his back on her as well.

I can't really blame him; times were desperate and, if you could, you just had to use any means out of the pit.

I wonder whether the children who participated in the series will return to their well-fed, relatively lazy lives with a little more respect.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Roaring Seventies


I just love to watch Strictly Come Dancing and slightly regret that, despite having learnt ballroom dancing as a teenager, I didn't live at a time when this was the norm. Disco dancing and the like had become the way of dancing in the 60's and, quite honestly, most people just jiggled around without form or rhythm.

One of this week's contestants was Lesley Joseph, who celebrated her 71st birthday while on the show. Now, Lesley is pretty raddled and looks her age, but she danced the Charleston with such verve, style and rhythm that it was a joy. "I love the Charleston, " she said "and I've waited all my life to dance it!"

In My Day

Paul's Mum, of course, was young at a time when people could actually dance; when a dashing young man would ask for your hand and whirl you off into a foxtrot, waltz or quickstep. And there were plenty of dashing young men in Mum's life.

Her eyes would sparkle as she told us how she and her sister, Joyce, would knock 'em dead at various events. "Of course, it was Joyce all the men were after." she'd say, undervaluing how alluring her ready for anything, joyous quality was.

She would whirl and twirl telling us all this. She remembered her ballet lesson and talked about (and demonstrated) plies and rises and the first five positions to the novice Becky. Her eyes would mist as she recalled how her mother scraped up the money out of paltry wages to afford ballet shoes and classes and spotless white socks.

But it was the Charleston that she loved best. She was a teenager by the mid 1920's and just loved to escape from the oppressive strait-laced atmosphere of her aunt's home for the joy of short skirts and crazy nights out. She had good legs and lovely figure and she knew it; and the crazy heel-kicks and cheeky rhythms were right up her street. 

I have never had good looks, legs, or dancing ability like Mum's and am slightly in awe of the fact that she was still able to give us some Charleston high kicks when she was nearly 90. 

Go for it, Lesley, you're never too old!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Longest Day


Part of the development of Carmen's life is partying, with a Hallowe'en party in the offing right now. I've noticed these days that the parents of guest children have a way of staying during parties. Whether that adds to or detracts from the stress, I couldn't say.

In My Day

Back in the day, the drill seemed to be that you dropped off child and pressie and buzzed back about two hours later, all bright-eyed and bushy tailed, to collect your sticky, overtired offspring from a hostess who was able to give you a glassy smile before going into private meltdown.

Giving parties required a deal of meticulous planning unless you were wealthy enough to hand the whole thing over to a children's entertainer or hire a venue. Firstly, just the guest list was a social minefield. Family members were easy enough, but it was quite possible that the child who was your daughter's best friend at the time of the invitation, was her mortal enemy by the time the party came round. There were children who, although very friendly with your child elsewhere, were so shy that they simply hid under the table and refused to participate in anything. Should you drag them out? Coax them? Give them some Smarties and leave them alone?

For the party to be a success there had to be a continuous stream of entertainment. Pause for a moment and you were in danger of mayhem, and, unless you were an experienced primary school teacher, you'd never restore order.

Coming to your aid were the games everyone expected to play. Pass the parcel, musical statues, oranges and lemons, pin the tail etc. If it was summer time it was all easier as races would help to let off steam and food could be served out of doors which was much less stressful.

Little moments stick in my mind: The party where I plated up the food for each child and noticed one little girl, who'd been taught to eat everything on her plate, trying to stuff it all in, until I rescued her. 

A party for Jacob on a day the week before his birthday, which we dubbed an "unbirthday" and did all the games in reverse (wrap the parcel, unpin the tail, slow racing etc). 

Alice wearing a cardboard box (devised by Matthew, her older brother) to be a robot, and falling over while trying to navigate downhill in Mead Close and arriving screaming and covered in blood.

What they all had in common was how long those two hours used to feel. Maybe having the parents there isn't such a bad idea, even if they do drink up all your wine.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Rest in Pieces


Last night I watched. mesmerised, as a heavy item fell from the worktop and smashed straight onto my mixing bowl which I'd just placed in the dishwasher. I bewailed this fact on Facebook and Beatrice demanded a blog.

In My Day

Any family that does serious cookery will have a large mixing bowl. Mamma used to have a ceramic one which was beige on the outside and white inside. Although. bizarrely, she used to tip pastry ingredients straight onto a wooden baking board and mix them there, the mixing bowl was used for everything else.

I can't remember when I bought mine, which was Pyrex; at least forty years ago, I think. The inside of the bowl had myriad marks where spoons and mixers had scraped the sides. It has spent long hours sitting in airing cupboards, holding bread dough as it rose overnight. Cakes and pastry have been mixed therein. Eggs have been whisked and cream whipped, nut and cottage cheese loaves have received the final stirrings. 

Apples have been pushed through sieves into it to make apfelmus. And I couldn't make my famous spinach roulade without this bowl. 

Many a Shrove Tuesday has been celebrated by making pancake mixture in the bowl from which I would dip cupfuls to pour straight into the frying pan.

Children have excitedly given the Christmas pudding a stir and made a wish, or have happily dipped their hands into flour and butter to make scones. And, of course, they were always allowed to "lick the bowl" after cake mixture had gone in the oven.

The bowl also did service at parties to hold industrial sized quantities of potato salad.

Becky asked me if it was the one that Paul once used disastrously to make instant whip. No, that was using a smoked glass fruit bowl that had been Mamma's. Bored with the prospect of whisking by hand, he decided that the best tool was his power drill. Somehow he attached my rotary whisk to the machine and got going. I went into the kitchen to find out what the noise was to see Instant Whip and shards of glass flying everywhere. We dumped the bowl, together with its splinter-filled mixture and went without Instant Whip that night.

I shall have to buy another one today, Pyrex again, I think. Pyrex is guaranteed for 10 years against the effects of heat, but when broken it smashes into an unbelievably large number of pieces that spread a long way, rivalling the experience with the drill.

I hope that this one will last long enough to be passed down to my grandchildren.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

First Edition


I popped over to my neighbour's house this morning to collect my keys, following her doing a spot of cat-sitting. The inevitable tea was offered and, as we chatted, she showed me a book she's been asked to sell for someone else. "It's the most valuable book I've ever handled", she said and showed me the most beautifully bound book of Audubon plates. "I love Audubon", I enthused "and I have a book of his pictures, but nothing like this".

In My Day

When I was in the sixth form at Selhurst Grammar School for Girls, one of my subjects was English Literature. We were studying "Mansfield Park" and we were expected to do a little reading around it. We read Northanger Abbey" alongside it. One of the English Teachers, who had a flat in South Croydon, invited some of us over to her place one Saturday morning. Over coffee and biscuits she showed us her collection of first editions: "The Castle of Otranto" by Horace Walpole, "The Mysteries of Udolpho" by Ann Radcliffe and "Evelina" by Fanny Burney are among the ones I recall seeing. We tenderly touched the pages and marvelled at the beautiful binding and engravings. We feared they might turn to dust.

Imagine our amazement when she told us to take any that we fancied to borrow! What an honour! I remember taking home "Evelina" and enjoying the humour very much as well as the beautiful engravings. Later I read "The Castle of Otranto" about which I remember little. I think we went back again a couple of times to talk about what we had learned and also to return the books.

It was one of those moments that make education seem such a precious thing.

Friday, July 15, 2016



My garden at Spencer House is full of trees. Some are specimens, planted by the Victorian designers of the Manor, others are self-seeded and now grown to massive proportions. The oak tree threatens the stability of the garage and the beech once again is touching the roof of the house and brushing against the windows. My poor ash has die-back, with new growth failing to put out leaves. So, they all need a prune and some have just got to go, something I'm a little sorry about.

In My Day

4BH was also a Victorian house with a large garden bordered with trees, as I have before blogged. There were all beautiful, especially the copper beech. But most had been there for about a hundred years and it's only oaks and yews that grow for three hundred years +; most reach the end of their life in seventy to a hundred years. And some were huge - the limes at the front were almost as tall as the house which was a four-storey dwelling.

So there was always the possibility that a tree would come crashing down without warning. I remember two instances of this. 

The first was when the laburnum in the front garden came down under the weight of snow on December 30th 1962. This was early in the great winter of 62/63. The tree simply subsided and fell right across the main road. Traffic (including buses) was backed up in both directions. It was a Sunday, so no chance of getting help. Instead a huge family effort was initiated, with Daddy and the boys slicing up branches and the trunk and the rest of us wheeling away logs in wheelbarrows in the still falling snow. I had just come home from a massively extended (on account of the snow) paper round and was pretty tired, but had to knuckle down and help.

On another occasion a large maple at the back just silently collapsed across the lawn. There was a pram  in the back garden (was it Beatrice's?),  although empty. Daddy shoved it a bit closer to the tree, took a dramatic picture and sent it to the local paper with an equally dramatic fictional news item all about close shaves and lucky near misses. I learnt a lot about journalism that day.

I shall be most sorry to lose both oak and ash at the same time as I always enjoyed watching to see which one would come into leaf first and prove or disprove the old saying.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Seen and (not) Heard


 Last Saturday we were discussing the way that modern day parents talk to and share conversations with their children compared with our own experience. "Well", was Paul's contribution "my stepfather would say 'when I want your opinion, I'll ask you'". One of our guests said, "Well my upbringing was pretty much of its time, I guess - seen and not heard."

"Oh!", I replied "we had a family council."

In My Day

We did, indeed have a family council. We met approximately every three weeks after Sunday lunch. No topics of family interest were excluded and we discussed holidays, Christmas, budgets, domestic chores, garden management, events and dates etc. Mamma and Daddy had right of veto over matters financial, which was fair enough.

We were all given an opportunity of making our case. On occasions, children were united and parents had to cave in. It was extremely good training for the future and certainly we three oldest became quite good at cogently defending a position. I'm not entirely sure that Beatrice was quite old enough for this, at least at the start, and she soon became pretty bored.

It was also a concentrated example of the way my parents ran the family. "I'm not a Victorian Father!" Daddy would proclaim. By this he meant that he didn't just make edicts which we were all, including Mamma, expected to obey without question. He generally explained his reasons and methods, and, while I'm certain that we were as often disobedient as not, we did have a sense of family involvement. This is something that I so often find out was lacking in other families, where father was a forbidding distant figure and where mothers still said "you wait till your father gets home....." making father even more terrifying.

While I've never been afraid to insist on proper behaviour and a degree of obedience, I much prefer to involve children with family life in all its aspects. That way they naturally become your friends in adulthood, a privilege that I'm now enjoying. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Dancing Queen Take II


Becky sent me a most delightful picture of Carmen dancing. They'd been to a festival in the local town and Carmen had quickly made friends with another girl. Soon they were whirling around the square, to the great amusement of the locals ("they were more entertaining than the band", Becky told me).

In My Day

I have before blogged that Becky has always loved to dance. I remember one occasion, back in about 1982, when Becky was four. We had decided to go, along with a group of friends, to a "Last Night of the Proms" event that was being held at Leeds Castle in Kent. It was a beautiful Summer day and we convoyed off.

The event was out of doors and we found a spot among the crowd where we could spread out our picnic and also have a good (if distant) view of the event.

I think the Philharmonia Orchestra was playing so the playing was of a high standard and the sound quality was good. we all had fun listening to all the pot boilers, drinking wine and relaxing in the evening sunshine. Inevitably "Blue Danube" was played and Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers" from The Nutcracker.

Becky stood up, alone among the crowd. "I want to Dance!" she proclaimed. And dance she did, twirling and swaying gracefully in time to the music. Gradually, couples stood up and danced together, following Becky's example. 

I think that her response to the music was highly appropriate and added a dimension of involvement that was otherwise lacking, although that changed somewhat when we all launched into "Jerusalem".

As they say on Strictly, Carmen, keep dancing!

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Underworld by Design


On Radio Three's building a record library today they were comparing recordings of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, including the celebrated Sadler's Wells production of 1961 which was revived several times during the decade.

In My Day

During the years 1966-1969 I was a student of theatre design at the West Sussex College of Design in Worthing.  

We were offered classes in set design and making, props and costume. The department head was a plump woman called Sheila O'Connor. She was rather a slap-dash teacher in many areas (I remember a lecture on interiors where she talked about "Indigo Jones". When a student asked "Isn't it "Inigo"? her reply was "You say it your way, I'll say it mine".) So the respect we gave her was minimal. She did get in some good teachers: a expert costumier named Sonya who had teeth to rival JS-P's, and a very good carpenter with much stage experience, from whom I learnt how to make mortise and tenon joints and to stretch a canvas.

Predictably, it was costume that really attracted me and under Sheila's tuition I made corsets, a "Shakespeare" shirt, designs for Brecht's "The Good Woman of Szechuan"  and a handsome 18th century caped coat.

One day she came in with an exciting project. The local operatic society was putting "Orpheus" and she had designed all the costumes. This was more like it! What lovely designs! So funky and stylish. With a renewed respect for Sheila I got to work, cutting and stitching. I stayed late, attaching black sequins on can-can dresses and carefully sewing lace skirts. We got it all done in time and felt very pleased with this creative effort.

Some time later I actually saw the Sadler's Wells production and it was clear that Sheila had simply copied the costume designs. So much for creative genius. Although that doesn't take aways the creative skill with which I constructed those can-can dresses!

Thursday, July 07, 2016



Driving into Wells today I listened with pleasure to a recording of Stanford's "Justorum Animae". I've sung it many times but one occasion was the most memorable.

In My Day

I think it must have been 1993. My neighbour decided that she wanted to have a fancy dress New Year's party. One day in November she trotted over to discuss it with us. "What should the theme be?". We tried a number of ideas without coming up with a solution. Eventually I had a brainwave. "Why don't you have a pre-party party to decide this? Invite people who live in walking distance down to yours one night and we'll soon sort it out!"

Carolyn agreed and a couple of weeks later about a dozen or so of us gathered at her house one Saturday night.

Very quickly we decided on the theme: comic strip characters. Now what? the night was young! I regret to have to report that the rest of the evening degenerated into drinking games, at which I had rather less experience than some of my younger neighbours

At some point in the early hours I left amid tearful farewells and found my way home next door.

Now, normally, all that would have happened is that I would have passed out and woken up with a corker the next day and spent Sunday getting over it. However, some weeks earlier, I'd agreed to help out the choir at St John's Church, Glastonbury in the morning service. Rehearsal was at 8.30, the service at 10.00.

How I got out of bed is now lost to my memory, but I did and drove (I'm pretty sure I was still well over the limit) the fifteen miles to Glastonbury. Among other things we were singing Justorum Animae in which the top soprano has a very lovely sustained top G.

I did my best, I really did, but I was trembling from lack of sleep and excess alcohol and gave the only performance of my life with a vibrato. A wobbling, uncertain vibrato, when what I had been hired for was my pure top notes.

They haven't asked me back since...

Monday, July 04, 2016



Someone posted one of those little sayings on Facebook today: "No matter how old you are, the first person you want to talk to when you're upset is your Mum".

"Not me", I said to Paul.

In My Day

Mamma was not an overtly emotional person. I don't remember cuddles and kisses being part of my childhood landscape. But she wasn't forbidding, either. She was pretty laissez-faire about many things and I don't think she ever shouted at me or smacked me.

But I also don't remember confiding in her, either. What I'm not sure about is whether this is saying things about me or about her. Maybe my siblings can shed some light.

I had a few things to contend with in my childhood, some abuse that is now common knowledge, bullying at primary school, over and above the normal things that upset children. so why didn't I talk to my mother about these things?

I was a very chatty person (still am!) and contrived to appear very open, whilst concealing everything. I have mentioned before in these blogs that Mamma realised that I was "secretive"; should she have probed more? She herself was keeping many of the details of her experiences in Nazi Germany close to her chest, so she might have seen that this is sometimes necessary and respected my privacy.

On the other hand, I was a child; and maybe could have used some help. Who knows, perhaps she was wise enough to see that I was developing the strength to deal with challenges without needing support. While this has proved true in my case, it was a chancy strategy and resulted in a sense of childhood isolation, despite being in a big family. 

What I do know is, that I reached my 60th year without really confiding my problems or anxieties to anyone. These days my daughters do, indeed, talk to me when they're upset and I now do the same to them. And I hope that Becky and Carmen will be able to share their hopes and fears as time goes on.

Sunday, June 19, 2016



I've just returned home from visiting Becky and family at their new home in Spain. We bought Carmen some toys for the garden and Paul bought her an enormous cuddly puppy, that's almost as big as she is. She loves it and drags it everywhere. She also has with her a newly purchased cuddly cat, a range of "unicats", a beloved monkey and a tiny white teddy. 

Carmen  loves her cuddly toys and allegiances change often. At Spencer House she has about eight cuddly toys and the rest of her collection is in store and totals probably about another twenty or more.

In My Day

As a child I had few toys. It was the '50's after all and money was generally tight. I remember a rag doll, named Judy, that spent a fair bit of her life on top of the (defunct) service lift shaft where Chris used to throw it and a walkie-talkie doll called Alice. I did rather love her and spent pocket money on dresses for her.

Cuddly she was not. I had no cuddly toys at all, not even a teddy bear; something that I secretly resented. There was Pooh Bear being read to us on practically a daily basis; what about me? I don't think I ever mentioned this to my parents; I was generally secretive and anyway might not have thought of it in those terms.

I met my nemesis at Christmas 1959. Beatrice was given a cuddly panda. I was so envious. How I wanted that panda! As I was nearly twelve, it was beneath my dignity actually to to express this need.

Instead I started a sneer campaign; telling Beatrice that having a cuddly toy was childish and calling her a baby and other rude epithets. I think I hoped that this would cause her to reject it so that I could mount a rescue mission and adopt it. No such luck. Beatrice loved her panda and very wisely ignored my nastiness. I believe she later gave it to one of her charges while she was training to be a nursery nurse.

Many years later I told Paul this story and about twenty years ago, he and Becky went out and found me the loveliest little teddy, just right to cuddle. I call it "Panda".

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Gallic Tendency


Last night I made a ratatouille for the meal I prepared for wine circle. I make these often and one of the secrets is plenty of garlic. Carmen was eating my ratatouille from the age of 7 months and loves it.

Garlic is now a staple of English larders and restaurants; garlic bread and garlic mushrooms are served in the most unimaginative of pubs. You can buy it in any supermarket fresh, in jars, "lazy" garlic already shredded, roasted and smoked.

In My Day

I don't remember having garlic at 4BH at all. Paul's mother used to talk about garlic as though it was at best a nasty culinary necessity, at worst too disgusting for words. She used to tell of the dashingly handsome "Monsieur" who taught them French at school. She talked swooningly about everything except his garlicky breath which made her swoon in a different way. (She never explained how close she had to get to be aware of this!)

In a way, it was a sort of xenophobia relating to France, as only the Gallic people ate garlic (apparently) and it just wasn't British to do this, like eating snails and frogs' legs.

One of Paul's Dad's culinary tricks was to rub the inside of a wooden salad bowl with garlic, before discarding the offending vegetable.

Daring people used to extol the virtues of garlic salt sprinkled onto Scotch eggs. This condiment, it seemed to me, managed to make your breath very garlicky, without actually tasting of garlic itself.

Garlic was also seen as a kind of medicine by the fruitloopery brigade: you rubbed it in your hair to make it grow, on your pillow to stop hayfever, ate garlic pills to prevent heart disease. All this meant that you went around stinking without ever having tasted the delicious bulb.

And, finally, a few strings of it will keep off the vampires. There's a town in America where garlic is planted at every road entering it to ensure the safety of the citizens.

So when did things change? The cuisine in England has been becoming more and more cosmopolitan during the past forty years and I think that we now have a wonderful range of meals from all over the world to enjoy. Garlic came along for the ride.

I enjoy it cooked in stews, risottos and Indian food, on its own, baked, whizzed with butter to make garlic bread. There is also black garlic with has been slowly oven dried until it;s sticky and caramelly and great with cheese. I sometimes pick garlic leaves in the Spring for a lovely addition to a salad.

There is a garlic farm on the Isle of Wight. There you can buy garlic beer and chocolate and I bought the largest garlic bulb I'd ever seen, which roasted a treat.

All I can say is, if the fruitloopers are right, I'm protected against just about everything, including vampires.

Sunday, May 08, 2016



One of the smaller pleasures that Paul and I enjoy as the weather warms up is to share a bottle of cider with our lunch.

Yesterday, as we we sat out in the late morning sunshine, Paul announced that he was thirsty and would like us to share our cider before lunch. I agreed and soon we were sipping some very nice Henry Westons Vintage Cider. It was pleasantly light and dry, and slipped down easily. Paul suggested another one. It was only then that I noticed the 8%vol label. Despite knowing that downing 500ml of 8% cider at lunchtime would have only one result I went ahead. The idea of making lunch was abandoned and we staggered upstairs for a very nice 2-hour sleep.

In My Day

We live in the land of cider, with a cider factory just down the road in Shepton Mallet. I became aware of the treacherous nature of this drink before we moved here by virtue of my brother David introducing us to the joys of scrumpy as made by Roger Wilkins at Land's End Farm at Mudgeley. 

Even the village name had an appealingly fuddled sound to it and Roger's farm was perched on a last outcropping of the Mendips, overlooking the levels towards the Poldens and King's Sedgemoor. Land's End indeed. This visit was the first of many.

There was a farmhouse and a large barn. Inside the barn were barrels of cider, At the end, through a little doorway with a handpainted sign "lounge bar, members only" and down a couple of steps, was a smaller area. There you could sit on rickety stools or upended barrels. "Whas'll 'ave"? Roger would enquire "sweet, dry or medium?" He then took a glass of dubious cleanliness from a tray, rinsed it under a cold tap and held in under the relevant barrel. Medium simply meant that he filled half at a dry barrel and half at a sweet.

The cider was a pale greenish-brown, thick as soap suds and not at all fizzy. It tasted like a compressed apple harvest (which is what it was, I suppose), light and appley. There seemed no limit to the number of times this was refilled at no cost, and whyever not? It wasn't very strong, was it, just apple juice really. Eventually you attempted to get up. This was much harder than it seemed. "I'll have a gallon of dry and one of sweet, Roger", one of us would slur "oh, some home-made pickle and strong cheddar."

Roger did once demonstrate to us how the cider was made - apples went up a great hopper into a funnel where they were crushed and slid down into sacking-lined wooden crates. these were stacked and pressed and the juice dripped into a bath underneath the floorboards. Fermenting was an entirely natural process, using the yeasts in the fruit. this picture shows the juice oozing out through the sacking.

The designated driver then had to carry home the load of snoring passengers. The cider, in plastic jars, was still fermenting and, if you didn't drink it up fairly quickly, tended to make the sides of the jar swell alarmingly and little white blobs of naturally occurring yeasts float about. Best drink it soon, then.

Someone once said to me that wine goes to your head, but cider goes to your feet, which is a nice summing up. I think.

Friday, April 22, 2016



There are often postings on Facebook showing pictures of objects or activities designed to generate collective nostalgic "aahs" from readers of a certain age. 

Today the object pictured was slices of Spam being fried in a pan. "Fried Spam, yay or nay?" was the comment.

In My Day

As a child we ate "luncheon meat", or that was how my mother described it, although it was probably Shoulder Pork and hAM. It was a homogeneous  cuboid lump that was sold in tins that had to be opened with a key. The keys often broke, leaving you trying to fork this lump onto the plate, at grave danger to your fingers on the jagged edges. One on the plate, this lump was sliced evenly and served with lettuce, cucumber and salad cream.

Shortly after I met Paul he went to the Police Training College at Sandgate. He bemoaned the fact that he was putting on weight and partly blamed the spam fritters which featured regularly (I don't suppose that the many pints of beer consumed had much to do with it). I had never heard of this culinary horror, but then noticed it on the menu at my college and tried some. Eeew! was it possible to have a greasier meal?

I later experimented with frying slices of Spam and found that it was one of those items which contained so much fat that you didn't need to put any in the pan; it just oozed its own fat. But dint of much sizzling over a high heat it was possible to get a little crispiness to the edges. Once you'd discarded the excess fat, it arguably tasted  better than straight from the tin. Coating it in batter and then deep frying would have sealed in all that lovely piggy grease as well as adding the layer from the deep-frying. Yummy.

So my answer is "nay" and gives me another reason for being glad I'm a vegetarian.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Straying From the Path


Our new family member, Amoss, has settled in well. After our dear little Abby died we were hesitant as to whether we wanted to embark on another spell of cat-ownership. But Amoss was in need of a good home. Lizzie and Wesz had taken him in as a stray and had brought him into good health and condition, but he couldn't settle with their other cats and it was becoming very stressful for all.

So he came to us and was so immediately at home that it seemed that we were offering him the place he'd been waiting for. Lizzie and Wesz can still visit and he's always very pleased to see them.

In My Day

People talk glibly about cats being "strays" when they're not homeless or abandoned; they've just wandered a bit off-piste or are in the habit of visiting several houses.

Abby was of this type. She regularly visited a little girl who lived three doors up in Mead Close. I think this was partly because she was allowed on the child's bed. The little girl called her "Jessie" after Postman Pat's cat and I couldn't persuade the parents not to feed her. But they never for one second thought she was a stray.

When we acquired Albinoni and Agnes in 2008, Abby was very affronted and decided to leave home (see blog 9 Nov 2009) she stopped turning up for meals or her daily cuddle. We asked around the Close but found nothing. Then, one day, after about four weeks absence, she turned up with a bulging fat belly. Clearly someone was giving her food - way too much. We grabbed her and didn't let her out until we'd bought a collar with identifying tag.

Shortly after this she disappeared again. But the collar was effective; a few days later we received a call from someone, clearly local, who said she was at his house. He sounded very mysterious, as though he didn't want to let us know where he lived. However, last number redial has its uses and I later called and spoke to his partner Ali, whom I knew pretty well from the village. 

Apparently, Abby had been going through their catflap, intimidating and eating the food of their cat. Because of her appetite and readiness for a cuddle, they hadn't discouraged her. "I thought she was a stray," said Ali by way of extenuation. I thought better of asking her why she imagined that a well-fed, glossy, flea-free cat could possibly be a stray and we came to a deal whereby she would stop feeding Abby and chuck her out in our direction at mealtimes. In this way, Abby came back into our lives and we found new homes for the Kitties with Lizzie and Wesz (quid pro quo, really).

I've seen pictures of Amoss when he first came to Lizzie's and he was a mess; clearly no-one had looked after him for a long time, so the description "stray" seemed the right one, and nobody has yet turned up to claim him. He was lucky to have arrived at a place where good care was taken of him, so that today he's the beautiful creature he was meant to be.

What I also find touching is that his need for human company is so strong that he doesn't have any nervousness and anxious behaviour at all. Welcome to the Barrett Family, Amoss.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Feet of Cley


Recently I've broken my habit of catching the coach to London and have been driving instead. The drive takes me past Cley Hill near Longleat. This hill has been much reshaped by Iron Age farming and its steep and stepped sides dominate the driver's view for a long distance.

In My Day

Back in about 1991 or so Beatrice often used to drive down from Sussex to see us. Jacob was about ten and he became fascinated with Cley Hill; maybe by its shape and also by the fact that its appearance signalled that he was nearing the end of  a long and tedious journey. 

One time Beatrice said when she arrived, "I've promised Jacob that we'll climb Cley Hill this year." All right, whatever you want, Beatrice. So, on the day in question, we packed sandwiches, put on our walking shoes and set off. Cley Hill is owned by the national Trust, but it's hardly a tourist spot. We wedged the car in beside the stile that bore the fingerpost to the hill and set off.

Some things are just better observed from a distance. First there was a dullish walk along a flat footpath that led to the hill that took much longer than we expected. The hill seemed to be receding. Eventually we started the ascent. This was steep and hard going. The hill was grazed by very large cattle and there were cowpats to avoid wherever you tried to put your feet. This didn't impress anyone, least of all Jacob who protested loudly. "Now we're here, we going to the top", Beatrice said firmly, marching forward. 

You never really can predict what the weather's going to do in the West Country. As we toiled upwards the sky came downwards. Now we were avoiding cows and their leavings in a nasty mizzley mist. Plus Jacob was hungry and hell hath no fury like a hungry pre-teen boy. We couldn't find anywhere to sit that wasn't wetter than ourselves and I can't now remember what my carefully prepared sandwiches tasted like. We might have been better off with Kendal Mint Cake. The view from the top now didn't exist at all and it wasn't only Jacob who was complaining. We slithered our way downwards, back to the car and gratefully home for hot tea.

They say that Cley Hill was created when the Devil, carrying some soil to dump on Devizes, dropped it, appalled by how long it would take him to get there. I don't know about that, but it was a Devil of a day.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Cooking with Baby


Today, my Honduran cousin posted a picture of the cooker she used when she was first married. Pretty basic, as you can see,

In My Day

Many, if not most, of us started out our adults lives with a selection of hand-me downs and second hand purchases.

When we were married in 1971 and moved into our first flat at Belmont in Brighton I used a cooker with the deceptively cute title of a "Wee Baby Belling".

Cute it was not. It was a tiny electric stove, probably designed for bedsits (come to think of it, I had a version of one of these in my Bedsit in Christchurch Road in Worthing, on which I used to make onion omelettes and just about nothing else).The one I owned was certainly second-hand and actually boasted two hotplates and a little grill and tiny oven. 

It sat in our tiny kitchen and I used it daily. The hotplates took about ten minutes to get lukewarm and the grill was so slow you could take a bath while making toast.

I got used to it, as you do, and I certainly cooked our first Christmas dinner on it  - turkey, sprouts, roasties, red cabbage et al. I don't know how I managed to keep things hot while something else cooked and there was a fair bit of pan-sharing. But I did it and everything was done to a turn. I baked Lizzie's first birthday cake in the toy-sized oven and generally managed to provide culinary miracles with it.

I used it until our neighbour, Leslie Clay, became homeless and moved in with us together with her gas cooker, which was certainly larger than the Belling, if as ancient and clapped-out.

How uncomplaining we used to be about having to cope in this way; I think it may be because we were young and confident that life could only get better. Which it did.