Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Stock Phrase


This morning on Facebook someone posted a list of things that their mother used to say. Some of them are pretty funny and ring a bell with me as I remembered how my mother used a range of stock expressions.

In My Day

So what were the stock expressions my mother used? When table manners were under discussion Mamma's strongest term of condemnation was that we were behaving "like lorry drivers", I don't know what her experience was of lorry drivers; whatever it was, the expression conveyed a deep horror of vulgarity.

Another deeply irritating remark related to minor injuries, "Never mind, it'll be better by the time you're married." I wanted sympathy and time off school, if at all possible, and anyway, what if I never got married?

"She" was certainly the cat's mother, occasionally grandmother, not that we had a cat. And living in a barn obviously had no merits.

Many of the expressions on this list I first heard parroted by schoolmates. The most scary was the one about the wind changing while you were making a funny face. What if it were true? Maybe that explained my squint and face that only managed to rustle up "handsome" as a description.

The worst one was in response to our asking "why" to an instruction - "because I said so". This always made me grit my teeth and I swore that I wouldn't say that to my children. And, what's more, I didn't, which resulted in my giving long and detailed explanations that made their eyes glaze over. I expect they gave in just to shut me up.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Fly Away Home


While in Bexhill recently I went to a charming little exhibition celebrating Ladybird books. There were original designs and rows of books. How thoughtful and elegant were the illustrations and no subject was too difficult or obscure. 

Whatever has happened to Ladybirds?

In My Day

When the girls, especially Lizzie, were small, Ladybird books were a normal part of the reading landscape. They were compact, cheap and you could almost always find one that was relevant to the learning stage of the children. I can't remember all the books that we had, but a couple stick in my mind.

One was "Rapunzel", a charmingly illustrated version of the tale from which I understood for the first time that Rapunzel is actually the name of an edible salad vegetable - something that is lost in translation. "Lettuce, Lettuce, let down your hair" doesn't have the same ring.

The other one was the Ladybird book of the stars. This was used to arbitrate in a discussion that Lizzie had with a teacher who was a signed up flat-earther. The question they were asked was in which constellation you can find the Pole Star. Lizzie researched in a range of heavyweight tomes and came up with Ursa Minor. The teacher told her that it was in Ursa Major. 


How to get the point across while letting him know at what level we thought his astronomical skills were? Ladybird to the rescue!  There was a picture of a darling baby teddy bear with the pole star shining on his tail! Lizzie took the book in to show him.

Ladybird books still exist and they offer some very good learning to read systems. But I was disappointed that the illustrations are all dumbed-down bright cartoons, are really only for children up to age 5 and regrettably some feature Peppa Pig,

Rapunzel is still in print, however, and I have bought one for Carmen to enjoy when she's old enough.

Saturday, January 17, 2015



Today Becky told me that Richard was showing Carmen (aged 17 months) how to go up and down the escalators at their local shopping centre. "That reminds me...... "I said.

In My Day

It's 1975 and I have just been transferred to Lewes Tax Office with the grand title of "Tax Officer,  Higher Grade". This necessitated a couple of weeks' training and I was booked into the training centre at Stanmore in London. Lizzie was about two and a half years old and I arranged to stay with my brother in London and for their au-pair to look after her while I was on the course.

I set off to London on the train. When I reached Victoria I had to use the underground to get to Highgate where my brother lived. This meant negotiating the escalators, something which Lizzie had never seen before. I was carrying a suitcase and pushchair. I was also very suitably dressed in high wooden wedge-heeled sandals on which I could hardly walk even when unencumbered.

We stood at the top of the escalator. Lizzie looked down the horrifying steep moving steps. I explained to her how to get her feet onto the top step so that she would travel downwards. She was having none of it. Clearly mother was up to something, trying to persuade her down this instrument of death.

She reacted in the way two year olds do best - by screaming and refusing to move. Encumbered as I was with luggage and buggy, I couldn't simply pick her up and cart her down. I couldn't even really hold her hand properly. London crowds surged around my as I reasoned, cajoled and bullied the howling child. I began to panic as well, wondering what to do next. I think, in the end, Lizzie finally decided that I was more fearsome than the escalator, gave up screeching and listened to me and we got down the steps after about half-an-hour.  

So I congratulate Carmen for having learnt this essential city-dwellers' skill so young!

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Knees Up


On radio 3 this morning there was an unexpected piece - an arrangement of a Venezuelan conga. I did a twirl around the kitchen.

"I seem to remember us doing the conga all around Montfort Close one year", remarked my husband. Oh God, yes!

In My Day

New Year's Eve has always meant party time to me. Despite my brother Chris suggesting that having my birthday on NYE means that I only get half a New Year's Eve party and half a Birthday party, I like to think of it as a double celebration.

Tricia, Dennis, Me and John Levett
When we lived in Montfort Close in 1982 we felt that the house was big enough for a cracking New Year party. I'd lost some weight and was feeling good so I bought myself a very skimpy dress in the sales. We invited neighbours, friends and work colleagues. Tricia was spending Christmas with us. We flossied ourselves up, laid out the food and cracked open the wine.

What do I remember about this particular party? I remember much dancing, much drinking and the degree to which my dress attracted male admirers. Dennis, the husband of one of Paul's work colleagues, a small, weasely man with a whiny, nasal voice, kept telling me that it wasn't so much the dress as what was underneath! I'd rather not speculate too closely on what he was actually saying, but he repeated this ad nauseam and more frequently as the night progressed. 

Eventually midnight arrived, with its Auld Lang Syne, party poppers and kisses. Somebody mentioned first-footing. While we hesitated to knock on doors at half-past midnight, it seemed perfectly logical to get ourselves into conga formation and go skipping around the Close. "La la la la la la-la!" in our skimpy party clothes, high heels and all, off we went, We ignored that fact that some people might be asleep (what? on New Year's Eve? Impossible! and anyway, they were awake after we'd finished) and the freezing cold and arrived back, laughing and ready for more dancing. 

Well, nobody complained, and the celebration went down as one of the Barrett "greats".

In fact, I'm rather disappointed that my wheezy coughing put a stop to my dancing at 1.45 am this year in Portugal!

Sunday, December 14, 2014



Here is Christmas, knocking on the door once more. We have bought some child=friendly Christmas tree decorations and, a few weeks ago, I picked up a box of 14 very pretty baubles. In fact, I now have so many Christmas decorations that I could trim about a dozen trees and have offered spares to Facebook friends.

We have also fixed up the fairy lights, outside and in, and hung a variety of wreaths and garlands up.

"We are so much more affluent these days", said Paul "when I was a child the decorations were wrapped up so carefully and used each year." "So have these", I said "but the trouble is, I keep buying more..."

In my Day

This conversation made me think about decorations at 4BH. No fairy lights, for one thing. The main decorations were: the tree (of which I've written in previous blogs) and the crepe paper decorations. Each year we would buy packs of coloured crepe paper from Woolworth's. These came in a variety of colours; red and green being prominent, but there were others - a sickly pink shade comes to mind. 

When you got home you removed the outer wrapping and then cut slices, about 2 inches thick across the width of the paper, through all thicknesses. This was quite a tough job for my little fingers.

Once that was done the strips were laid out; Daddy would heave in the tall ladder and attach the end of the strips to the central light fitting, securing with pins, Generally colours were alternated. Next the ladder was moved to one corner of the room and a strip would handed to Daddy. He would twist this so that it formed an elegant spiral and then fixed the end to the corner. The right amount of twist was essential; too much and the paper formed a knot, too little and it drooped dismally. Sometimes pieces were too short and had to be joined. Daddy went round the room in this fashion till we had a sort of pavillion of bright colour above us. I can't find a good picture of what ours looked, but this picture gives you a shadow of an idea.

These would stay until Epiphany when they were taken down and, indeed, preserved until next year.

In my teens I became rather snooty about these and would spent hours making giant snowflakes or paper angels to hang from the ceiling.

But they were a jolly show for little cash; pity we don't have ceiling light fittings at Spencer House!

Friday, December 12, 2014



We've both been feeling a bit rough for the past few days and I haven't felt up to much cooking. "Oh"said Paul " let's just have pasta; that's always easy." So I made some rigatoni with a high-class commercial sauce, pine kernels, rocket and Parmesan.

In My Day

When I was a child, Pasta was certainly not the easy option. You could get macaroni and, in very smart shops, unfeasibly long spaghetti in blue paper wrappings. At home, we only consumed macaroni cheese.

Later on, the main pasta staple of many households was Heinz spaghetti, which came in tins and was often served on toast and fed to un-numbered unsuspecting infants in the '70s and '80s. I certainly had tins in my cupboard, as well as alphabetti-spaghetti for special treats.

I think it was Clement Freud who described this food as "Worms in tomato sludge" in a Sunday supplement article. He also, I believe, introduced the terms "al dente" into the chattering classes' lexicon of cookery terms. 

By the time we lived at Rowan Avenue in the late '70s, I had mastered the art of cooking spaghetti al dente (having an Italian sister-in-law helped) even though my cupboard continued to sport those Heinz nasties for some years to come.

I remember one occasion, when my sister Beatrice and her husband-to-be, Nick were living with us. Beatrice and I had a long walk home in the cold from the station and that night the chaps thought they'd surprise us with dinner on the table when we walked in the door. Paul heaved out the spaghetti in the blue wrapper. "How long do you cook it for?" he asked Nick. "I don't know; 20 minutes?" hazarded Nick. Maybe he thought that pasta was just an Italian form of potato.

We walked through the door to a delicious smell and plates heaped with home-cooked worms in tomato sludge. We tried, we really did, to eat the dinner, but eventually the thick slimy white ropes defeated us.

Do you know, a few years ago, a friend of mine so yearned after some Heinz Spaghetti hoops on toast that Paul bought some specially and made them for her as a nostalgic treat.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Having it all


For both parents to be able to continue working after the birth of their children, several things need to fall into place. Your health, ability to hold down a job, the health of the child, reliable childcare are all essential components. In fact, a house of cards, one might think.

In My Day

After Lizzie was born, I called the council for a list of childminders and was given details of one. She didn't live too far away and I went to see her. She seemed a little on the elderly side but otherwise good enough to my inexperienced eyes.

Just before I was ready to return to work I received a letter from this woman. She'd broken her arm severely and couldn't commit to caring for a newborn for at least six weeks. This was a disaster! I called the council again and they gave me details of a local co-ordinator, a very vigorous-sounding woman. "I'm full up", she told me "Although I might squeeze her in for a few days. I know! There's a child-minder I know of who de-registered because her kindness had been abused by previous clients. You sound alright to me - I'll call her and see if she'll change her mind."

In this way we were introduced to the amazing Pat Bird. She was mother to five sons. Shortly before Christmas we tucked Lizzie up in her nice carry-cot and made our way to the Bird's ground floor and basement maisonette in the Lewes Road in Brighton. Pat was a small, bustling woman who, we later discovered, had overcome an abused childhood and created a solid marriage and family. Her three youngest sons were sitting at the table with some friends, making Christmas decorations with an air of disciplined enjoyment that was impressive.

She looked at Lizzie and gave in immediately. "You needn't worry", she said "I won't just leave her in the pram; she'll get taken out to the park and shops and have lots of "talkies" and cuddles." This was reassuring and started a relationship which lasted until we left Brighton three years later. I relied more on Pat's good sense and experience that on my mother's. The whole family offered Lizzie much love; the boys were delighted to have a girl in their midst and she repaid them by rewarding them with her first smiles.

When, during a measles outbreak at the Birds, I used the original childminder for a week and discovered that she did, indeed, leave the baby in the pram all day, I realised what a lucky break her broken arm had been.

Over the years many people have attacked my being a working mother on the grounds of wanting to"have it all". Looking back at this crazy balancing act, I realise that it was more a matter of trying to do it all, and that's a great deal harder.

Friday, November 28, 2014



I read an  interesting article the other day about attempts to develop antibody treatments against superbugs, mainly clostridium difficile that threatens so many hospitals. It seems that hospitals, which should be havens of health, harbour more dangers to human life within their walls than any private dwelling.

In My Day

When you're a student, you'll do almost anything to earn some money to tide you over the long vacations. There's a sort of jungle telegraph that tells you about various opportunities. I suppose (because I can't remember how else I knew about this) that this was how I found out about what was probably the most bizarre of the many temporary jobs that I did.

Back in 1967 or thereabouts, one of the large London hospitals (St Thomas's, I think) was plagued with something somewhat larger than a superbug - Pharaoh's ants. These creatures apparently love a bit of nice central heating and their handy habit of continually forming new colonies meant that their spread throughout sprawling Victorian buildings was unstoppable. So, pretty difficile in their own way.

So they called in the pest controllers and I, together with about fifteen students turned up to await instructions. I don't think I knew anything about the ants and probably imagined that they formed marauding hordes that destroyed all in their path. like the African army ants that just leave skeletons behind.

Our job was to lay bait. The bait consisted of tiny parcels of poisoned meat which we taped at (apparently) strategic ant crossroads throughout the hospital. We were given rubber gloves but no kind of protective clothing. And we weren't told what to do if we actually saw any ants. I think that the job lasted several days and by the time we'd finished the hospital floors and corridors all had fetching borders of foil-wrapped meat.

I have no clue whether the treatment stopped the infestation; certainly I wasn't asked back for a second attempt.

Reading up on these creatures I find that they are very hard to eradicate and that just about the only thing that really gets rid of them are bed bugs. Now that is a really interesting choice for hospitals!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Nine Lessons


Although Advent Sunday has yet to arrive, Christmassy feelings are all around. Last week a contingent of my choir went to the local outlet shopping centre to usher in the switching on of the Christmas lights with a selection of carols.

Although the crowd was invited by the presenters to join in with the singing, they were reticent as English crowds often are. And maybe they didn't know the carols. Later, when we were singing around the shopping village small children absolutely loved to hear us and clapped with enthusiasm.

It's a shame that so many lose that instinct for music as they grow older.

In My Day

As earlier blogs have described I love to sing and join in whenever I can. When I was at Selhurst Grammar School for Girls, back in the '60s I was no different. We had a daily assembly at which traditional hymns were sung and I definitely had my favourites.

Each Christmas we would give a carol service which was based on the "Nine Lessons" service popularised by King's College, Cambridge. Our stately headmistress, Miss Harley-Mason would introduce it and say a short prayer. 

Then we launched into the service. I think I loved every bit of it. I was usually picked to deliver one of the "lessons" as I had a clear speaking voice. The choir would lead the audience in all the popular carols. How lustily I sang the descants vain, as always, of my ability to pitch the high notes!

When I reached the fifth form and joined the madrigal group I was introduced to a wider range of Christmas carols and songs "A Virgin Most Pure" "Masters in the Hall" and so on.  I can still sing most of them by heart.

There was a move to modernise hymn and carol tunes during the '60s and '70s, not always successfully (there's a very nasty modern version of "Away in a Manger). Also, there was also a move away from routine Christian-based assemblies in schools (with very laudable reasons) which has meant that generations after mine do not have a solid base of communally-known hymns and songs.

I don't know whether we are the poorer for this, but, religious beliefs aside, it must be said that Christianity has produced some very good tunes.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Naked Threat


On Facebook today my niece said, without much hope: "Maybe one day I'll leave the house on time in the morning". This triggered comments along the lines of "maybe when the kids are all grown up etc.."

In My Day

Even though I had the blessing of Flexi-time when I worked for the Inland Revenue, there was still pressure to leave on time. There were trains to catch, school buses that didn't wait and the start of the school day to consider.

When the girls were very small and therefore portable, this was fairly easy as the only person that had to be organised was me.

Once both girls were at school the whole thing became more complicated. When we lived at Montfort Close, school was only a two-minute walk away, but this compounded the problem along the lines of the fact that it's the people who live closest to a location or event who arrive late.

I tried to get breakfast into the girls while nagging them to get dressed, washed and their hair into some semblance of tidiness. Becky's hair needed plaiting to keep it out of the way. Maybe it was because she was older or because she didn't much like school, but Lizzie was by far the harder to heave out of bed.

After I'd persuaded the more compliant Becky to come down for a slice of toast and hairbrushing, I would still be shrieking up the stairs at Lizzie to get up. At some point and matching me shriek for shriek,  the half-undressed Lizzie would appear for her slice of toast. By this time it would be about ten minutes to school start time. I would point out in no uncertain terms the situation. Sometimes this applied to both girls as Becky became absorbed in playing with her growing collection of My Little Ponies and forgot the time.

I'd become more and more irritated; not only were the girls going to be late again, I was going to miss my train and have to wait half an hour for the next. Even with flexi-time a late start meant a late finish.

On many occasions the last card was played. "If you are not down here, dressed and ready in two minutes," I'd yell "I'm taking you to school as you are, even if you're naked!" The girls respected me as a mother who didn't utter idle threats so they didn't dare test me on this one. They'd scramble downstairs in the nick of time and we scrape to where we had to be.

Someone once asked me if I would've carried out my threat. "I don't know," I replied "I guess I'd have had to"

This conjures up a horrible picture of me dragging two semi-naked, screaming children up Westham High Street in the rush hour and I'm sincerely glad that the girls never pushed me that far!

So keep on trying. Phil, you know now what you have to do!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Westward Ho


My niece has been staying with us for a few days. Just before leaving she set up her satnav for home. "Turn east onto the High Street", intoned the satnav man. "Not that would help me", said Andie "I don't know my east from my west or the north from the south." 

In My Day

At one point, during our time living at Stoke St Michael, we were on the village hall committee. One of the regular fund-raisers was a "car hunt". To do this you devised a set of clues, leading from place to place. Contestants paid a sum for the clue sheet and filled in the relevant answers; these could vary from  a signpost, ornament on a house, landmark etc. The prize, donated by a local garage, was a tankful of petrol. In the meantime the committee made a tidy little sum, especially as the event usually ended with a buffet and drinks etc in the village hall.

One year, with about four days' notice, Paul and I were asked to create the clues for the hunt. We rose to challenge magnificently, producing cryptic clues in rhyming couplets. This was such a raging success that we did it for several years.

The clues had to incorporate both directions and hints as to the actual item that was the answer. The total run would be about twenty miles and was expected to take a couple of hours. Just before the day Paul and I would do the circuit, checking accuracy and making sure that nothing had changed. Sometimes we had to trim away brambles and other vegetation that was threatening to obscure some vital clue.

The first clue, of course, had to set people off in the right direction. One year the first clue incorporated something along the lines of "go in the direction of the setting sun.." We watched, mesmerised, while a bunch of local yokels stood outside, scratching their heads at this. They turned to another local who was sauntering by. "Which direction is the setting sun?" they asked. "Well.......," came the reply "that depends on what time of day it is...." 

Was this a serious reply or a wind-up? We had no idea, and watched while the lads set off in a southerly direction, not to be seen again (at least not that night). 

Not exactly wandering off into the sunset.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Memory Board


As I chopped vegetables and grated cheese tonight, I found myself thinking of my sister Carol.

In My Day

I think it was in 1988 that Carol and her grandson Tyler came over to visit. We had planned a visit to Fowberry Moor in wildest Northumberland and Paul and I, Becky and cousin Izzie, Tricia, Carol and Tyler drove in two cars the long journey up the A1.

We had a lovely time and when we all got back to Stoke St Michael, Carol had enjoyed herself so much that she wanted to buy me a present. 

She had noticed me using a chopping board that had belonged to Mamma. Actually, it was half a chopping board as years of soaking in in water had eventually split the wood lengthways. "Let me buy you a new one," begged Carol. We went into the posh kitchen shop in Bath where I selected a very large, plain wooden board.

Carol was rather disappointed with my very practical choice and tried hard to persuade me to buy a fancy round breadboard carved with little ears of wheat. "It's so cute!" she protested. But I was adamant and the plain board was bought.

I don't know whether a cute round board would have lasted as long; it certainly wouldn't have been so useful.

The large plain board is in daily use after twenty-six years; thank you so much, Carol. And I never soak it in water.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Triple Decker


My nephew Jacob was singing the praises of peanut butter this week. "if someone had told me peanut butter was this good, I'd have started eating it before last week" he enthused.

In My Day

Peanut butter was certainly not part of my life as a child. If I'd heard of it at all, it was as an inescapably American foodstuff, like molasses or bagels.

At the end of 1979 my Canadian nephew Mark came to live with us for a few months. In order to fund the rest of his travel plans, it became essential that he get a job. He talked his way into a manager position at Unigate Dairies in Eastbourne. The day started early and ended in time for him to collect Lizzie from school.

Breakfast at five-thirty was not an option for Mark. He scrambled himself off to work with nothing but a gulp of coffee inside him and ate nothing till he returned home. He discovered that he could buy peanut butter at the supermarket and his daily breakfast/lunch, eaten at about three pm, was a triple-decker sandwich constructed thus:

white bread, butter, peanut butter, jam, 
white bread,  butter, peanut butter, jam, 
white bread. 

I guess it looked something like this picture, but I seem to remember it as a toppling pile that took Mark quite an effort to get his teeth around.

He always said that butter was an essential ingredient as it stopped the peanut butter sticking to the roof of his mouth. I can't remember what his favourite jam was. Personally, I thought it looked dreadful and wondered about its nutritional and calorie value. And, even now, I don't much like peanut butter, although I have used it to make biscuits.

But no doubt it's part of what has made Mark the man he is today!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Genetic Mutation


A silly thread on Facebook yesterday included my indignant assertion that Lizzie is a trekkie owing to my influence and that the tendency might be genetic.

In My Day

Mamma used to enjoy the original series and had rather a fancy for Captain James T Kirk. Over the years we watched Star Trek in any form we can -  the Original Series (even in its digitally remastered form), The Next Generation, Deep Space 9 , Voyager and Enterprise. I think we have succeeded in seeing all of the feature-length films, including the new prequels Star Trek and Into Darkness, some of them several times.

In 1984 or thereabouts the concept that you could download the entire set of Star Trek films, order pizza and settle down for a trek-athon from the comfort of your rarely left sofa was non-existent. To have a Trek-athon you had to go to the pictures.

Which is what we did. The local cinema in Eastbourne advertised that it was showing all three Star Trek films consecutively, Clearly not an event to be missed. We packed up the girls and trundled off to the cinema. There was already a long queue.

The screening started at about 7.30. We bought our tickets and found seats in the crowded theatre. Along with everybody else, we had coffee flasks, sandwiches and blankets. At this time Lizzie would have been eleven and Becky six or seven. We all hunkered down and watched, riveted. I think that Becky fell asleep and woke up several times and ended the evening fast asleep, being carried to the car. But Lizzie stayed glued to the screen. Cinematic effects were nowhere near as convincing then as they are today but they were magical enough for us.

The whole event ended at about two AM and we. along with many other families, staggered out under the stars, clutching sleeping children and went home dazed by the wonder of it all.

Somehow, Star-Trek has an enduring fascination that sets it apart from other sci-fi. I understand that Star Trek III is coming out soon - I shall heading for the 3d cinema as soon as it's released, probably in the company of Lizzie.

Friday, September 19, 2014

All Mapped Out


What with postcodes, satnav, and our very obvious position opposite the old brewery, you'd think we'd be easy to find. Not so. Yet again today, a van driver called us on his mobile to get us to talk him in. 

These days it seems that people not only can't read maps, they've also entirely lost their sense of direction.

In My Day

I've always loved reading maps and somehow always assumed that other people could read them. This is not only not true, but people also don't like to admit it. They will gamely offer to navigate, holding the map upside down on the wrong page, while the driver struggles to deal with roundabouts and traffic with absolutely no idea of where they are.

I think it must have been about 1989. Paul's mum was visiting us. One day we thought it might be fun to do the Bath "Ghost Walk" - one of those city tours which tell you a lot about the city while trying to spook you with various creepy tales. We were both working and it seemed like a good idea for Mum to have a day in Bath before we had our evening jaunt.

Mum and I arrived in Bath. I took her up to the Flare offices, which were pretty central, got her a cup of tea and discussed the day. We agreed to meet for lunch. I gave her a street map of Bath, marked our location, mentioned some good places to visit and turned her loose.

I got on with my day's work, hoping that Mum was having a good time. There's plenty to see in Bath, sights are well-signposted and there are also lots of nice shops to browse. About half-an-hour before we were due to be reunited, a call was put through to me from the police. Apparently Mum had wandered round, completely unable to read her map or work out which way was up. Either she accidentally stumbled on the police station or a policeman and asked for help.

There was nothing for it; I cancelled my afternoon's appointments, collected the panicking Tricia and spent the afternoon calming her down preparatory for the evening walk, which she much enjoyed. What did become obvious, without much probing, was that she had no idea how to read a map; I could have given her a map of Timbuktu without her knowing the difference, but she was ashamed to admit it.

I am rather sorry now for my presumption, as well as forgetting that Mum was seventy-six, so unlikely to be able to learn new tricks.

What I have just done is ask the council to add a road sign saying "Manor Place", which is officially the bit of the High Street where we live, in an attempt to help panicking van delivery staff in the future.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Murder on the High C's


At choir we are performing the Kodaly Missa Brevis. "how are your top C's, Julia?" asked the music director. Well, for the first rehearsal of term, a bit wobbly, to be honest. Nothing that a bit of practice won't sort out.

In My Day

When I sang with The Byrdian Society and the St Matthew's Choir, back in 1965 or so, I was routinely assigned the top line. I didn't have any training, but it seemed that I could open my mouth and out would come the high notes.

For most of the choir repertoire a top b flat is about the maximum, but there is one famous piece that goes further.

Our music director, Colin, was rather prone to putting on under-advertised and over-ambitious concerts, mostly, although not always, involving polyphony. On one occasion, combining the forces of both groups (giving us about fifteen singers), he put on a concert which included the famous Allegri Miserere. I think we had an audience of about fifteen.

There are two choirs for this ideally; singing alternating verses. In every other verse there is the famous top C. There I was, expected to deliver it solo. And deliver it I did. In fact, the main problem was controlling my descent to the lower notes as I had no proper breath control training, so that the final top G was often quite wobbly from lack of breath!

A friend of mine, with whom I sang in those days, commented recently that he still thinks of me whenever he hears the work, which is sweet.

What I have discovered as I get older it that what comes naturally at eighteen, requires a lot more training and technique at sixty-six. But it's getting better, with a choir member describing my efforts this week at "ethereal". And no wobbling, either.

Thursday, September 11, 2014



My nephew had a little rant this week about people who say "haitch" when they should say "aitch". He said that it was to do with delusions of grandeur, but I'm not so sure, I think it's more ignorance and confusion about the fact that the letter aitch is aspirated in actual use while the word to describe it isn't.

In My Day

When Paul was in the ambulance service in Sussex, back in the late '70s, his daily work was delivered via the radio by an officer working in central control. Training standards were not high in those days and I sometimes suspected that otherwise incompetent officers were shunted into control because they weren't safe on the roads.

He's had control officers who couldn't pronounce place names "I've a call to an address in War-Cester villas" "Don't you mean Worcester?" (Pronouncing it correctly) "It says 'ere "War-Cester".

Then there was the time they were sent to an accident "At the roundabout in Lewes". "There are three roundabouts in Lewes, Control, do you know which one?" "I dunno - you'd better try them all". Which might explain why ambulances sometimes took longer than they should to arrive at their destination.

The ambulances all had an alphabetical call sign, relating to the location; thus, Lewes was "L" or "Lima". Paul much enjoyed this communication to a vehicle operating out of Hove:

"'otel one, 'otel one, please h'attend a h'accident at h'acres the bakers in 'Assocks for an 'ead h'injury".

Who knows what that particular control officer's aspirations were?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014



It's always fascinating when children learn to talk. They approach the problem in such a variety of ways and at very different ages, too. Carmen has a few words now and she definitely uses them to communicate directly, rather than merely repetitively. Ask her where her rocking horse is and she'll point and say "there!" in triumphant tones. She'll point to her duck unprompted and say "duck!" as though she's never noticed it before. and tell you "no" if she doesn't want to be moved or eat more food.

In My Day

When Lizzie was a baby, I'm not sure that I had any expectations as to how and when she would learn to speak. Few of my friends had children the same age and Lizzie was the oldest of her cousins.

I don't know how she learnt the significance of the phrase "what's that?" but when she was about sixteen months she would point at an object and say "wassat?" We would give her the answer, e.g "dog".  She would carefully copy it then move on to the next thing that caught her eye - "Wassat?" "butterfly." That was a bit of a poser, so she would ask again "wassat?" to make sure she'd heard us correctly. This would continue until she'd mastered the word and could carry on to the next and so on.

I don't think I've ever seen a child make such a determined effort to amass a vocabulary. It was as though her brain had suddenly realised that, if you can talk, the world is your oyster. Somewhere I have a letter from Daddy after a visit to Dorking, in which he describes his delight in observing how Lizzie hoovered up words. In a very short time she had a vocabulary of several hundred words and it was then a short step to putting them together to form sentences. I also remember how hard she worked to try to say the word "Ambulance" when Paul joined the service in 1977.

And, of course, she was right; with all those words at her command she could ask for things, engage in conversations, enjoy bedtime stories at a new level and be understood.  She is still a vivid talker with a large vocabulary and can make her point verbally with emphasis.

I feel sure that Carmen who is observant and has good powers of concentration will soon make that leap into proper conversation. I can't wait!

Monday, September 08, 2014

Liberal Studies


This morning my nephew was grumbling at the prospect of giving a training course to a group of reluctant students. "A good trainer," I sanctimoniously told him "Should be able to make almost anything interesting to almost anybody".

In My Day

When I worked for the Inland Revenue, back in 1983, I was asked by my boss if I would carry out some training requested by the local sixth form college. The idea was that, in order to prepare them for the real world, the students should attend a series of "liberal studies" classes or lectures.

I would be giving a forty-minute session on the subject of tax to a class of seventeen year-olds - a topic which they would be sure to find fascinating. I didn't really know where to start. I drafted a few notes and trotted off to the college well in time. I met the form teacher who asked me if I wanted her to be present. "You see", she said "when the man from the Abbey National came to give a talk about savings and mortgages he was so dull that there was a lot of misbehaviour and he lost control."

This cheered me up a great deal. "Well", I replied"My job isn't discipline, so please stay in the class."

The students filed into the classroom in an uncommitted way and took their places. As the teacher introduced me I wondered how I was going to fill the forty minutes. After deciding that running screaming with panic out of the classroom wasn't an option, I started with a brief introduction on the English tax system. 

Clearly this wasn't going to keep them riveted - I glanced around the room at the bored faces and decided on a new tack. "That's just an introduction", I said "I'm now going to take you through your adult lives with some information about the tax consequences. I need two volunteers." I pointed at a girl and boy "your names? Right, Darren and Sharon, let's see what you might encounter."

I then proceeded to sketch out their lives - they had jobs, married each other, had babies, mortgages, company cars, were divorced and lived abroad. Darren and Sharon loved being the centres of attention and the rest of the class were so busy running behind me to see what I'd dream up next that they didn't have time to misbehave. The forty minutes flashed by and I breathed with relief.

I continued with these sessions for the next couple of years and the form teacher marvelled at my uncanny instinct for spotting the potential trouble-makers and making them my focus. (I'm still not sure what it was - a little swagger, a challenging look at me, a little admiring entourage who followed them in?)

But I proved my point - you can make almost any subject interesting to the most reluctant group and I'd rather come away with a sense of a job well done than simply coast through it as some of my nephew's colleagues suggested to him. And it seems that Chris took my advice and did such a good job that more training has been requested. 

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Window of Opportunity


As Carmen becomes more active, we become more aware of the dangers around her. Last week, while I was caring for her I noticed that she is working out that it's possible to climb up on things to give her more access to the forbidden. Her home has enormous Victorian sash windows which have spent most of their time open during the warm weather, and she is already attempting to rig up a way to look out, or maybe climb out, of them.

In My Day

We moved to Rowan Avenue in Eastbourne in 1975. Lizzie was about three and had a little bedroom at the front overlooking a quiet path and, at that time, fields. The windows were modern and just had a small top casement that we kept open during the warm summer months.

One evening, after we'd settled Lizzie and were at last relaxing together, we heard the most terrific rattling and banging from her room. 

We stared at each other for a moment, aghast. What could be happening? We rushed upstairs to find Lizzie with one leg out of the window, clearly attempting her escape. Somehow, she'd clambered onto the windowsill and up the window and opened the catch fully. I don't know whether she would have succeeded and there was a porch roof beneath to break her fall, but it doesn't really bear thinking about.

We heaved Lizzie down, admonished her and shut the window. The next day saw us at the hardware shop buying a lock that would allow us to leave the window open a fixed amount and prevent baby-mountaineering in the future.

Lizzie seemed relaxed about it and the next time she attempted to leave home it was through the front door, carrying provisions and accompanied by her best friend, at the age of about six, but that's another story.

My great-nephew has a more laissez-faire attitude to his baby's explorings, saying "she'll only do it once!" But she isn't walking yet and they say that a baby has to do things ten times before learning it. I'm not sure that I'd want to risk the first nine attempts.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dog's Hair


My nephew Mark and his wife are on their way from Canada to spend a few days with us and to celebrate a family wedding. Becky & family and my sister will arrive by the weekend.

So I've been laying in supplies. Among other items were two bottles of pomegranate juice. "I remember when I first had pomegranate juice," I said to Paul.

In My Day

It's New Year's day 2006 and we are waking up at Marks' house after a long and jolly celebration the night before that involved a murder mystery, dancing and much champagne.

As we surfaced and started the clear up, we realised that there were a number of half-finished bottles of champagne, that still seemed to have a bit of fizz.

There seemed to be nothing for it. "We need Buck's Fizz!" I announced. I don't know what I was thinking; maybe I thought that a few dog's hairs might do me good.

Hindy found a small quantity of orange juice that would barely cover a round of Buck's fizzes. My sister Carol joined us and held out her glass. Gradually we finished the champagne, working our way through Mark and Hindy's supplies of fruit juice. Eventually we reached the pomegranate juice. Dark and rich in flavour it brought our morning's (maybe it was long past morning by this time; I  don't know!) imbibings to a satisfactory close.  We all returned to our beds, happy that we had done our duty and hadn't left any champagne abandoned in forgotten corners. 

If those bucks of yore had had pomegranate juice I feel sure that our range of juice-laced fizz would have been much enhanced much earlier. 

Although I don't insist on my guests adding champagne to it.

Monday, August 11, 2014



Much excitement today at Carmen's ability to recognise and say the word "duck". She loves the Muppet "Rubber Ducky" song and enjoys playing with her ducks in the bath, so it's not surprising.

In My Day
My mother always said that my first word was "duck" and I loved to play with my ducks. We had a garden full of chickens, geese and ducks (a remnant of war time efforts to be self-supporting, I believe). So I probably saw them from my vantage point in the big pram; the big pram being where I, along with most other children of my generation, spent a lot of time.

Me inspecting new-born geese

We didn't have many toys back in the post-war years, so I don't suppose that the ducks had much competition. But I apparently couldn't bear to be parted from mine.

Sometime later, I first encountered penguins. I logically made the connection between  my beloved ducks and the fact that penguins are upright and spindly and called them "pinducks" - a name that was used by the family for years.

Carmen is  visiting this weekend and we have a  flotilla of ducks, who actually say "quack" quite a lot, swimming on the stream, so we are watching out for her reaction when she sees the real thing. I don't know whether she'll graduate to "pinduck", despite having a photo of a penguin on her bedroom wall.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Night Life


So sad to see Eastbourne Pier go up in flames. There was a chorus of regrets and memories from many people.

"My first visit to a nightclub was on Eastbourne Pier", remembered Becky.

In My Day

In 1989 Lizzie and Becky went to stay in Eastbourne with my friends the Levetts. I'm sure that they had lots of fun together and on one occasion, paid a visit to the night club on the Pier.

Lizzie and Becky went with friend Frannie. Becky hadn't gone to Eastbourne equipped for clubbing so my friend Beverley lent her a dress (probably an LBD). Hair was washed, makeup applied and the girls set off on their jaunt.

The rules of the club were strict; no entry to under 18-year olds, which explains why Lizzie, aged 16, Frannie aged, 15 and Becky bringing up the rear at age 11, were able to get in with ease. Becky hadn't reached her full 6ft in height by that time, but she was tall and elegant and Beverley's dress, which I suspect was rather too short for her, added to the impression that she was older than she actually was.

At this distance I shan't ask how they managed to wangle their way in, nor how they entertained themselves while they were there, since they are all safe and well and I didn't know about it until afterwards.  If I had known, would I have prevented it? Probably not, as I have always been laissez-faire about this sort of thing.

It remains to be seen what attitude her parents will have should Carmen want to go clubbing at age eleven.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cracking the Whip


In a recent letter my sister was commenting that her place of work scans and shreds every document so that there's hardly a scrap of paper in the place. A far cry from the Inland Revenue (HMRC) with its rooms full of files, she said.

In My Day

When I worked in the Inland Revenue the system was that a file was created for every taxpayer. In the PAYE section there was also a card on which the basic tax code and annual P60 details were entered. The cards sat in "hods" which lived in the desk drawers of the officer dealing with the relevant cases. The files were placed in huge shelves. When I worked at Eastbourne these shelves were all down the centre of the main office.

Now, for the vast majority of PAYE taxpayers, the files were never looked at again. The tax was collected by the employers and the P60 details were entered annually on the cards. A quick check was made that the amount collected was correct within a given tolerance and that was that. Very efficient, PAYE is.

In 1984 the powers that be woke up to the fact that across the country enormous amounts of valuable office space was devoted to these useless files. This was before scanning so Head Office was reluctant just to chuck everything out. However, they did have access to central space at their sorting office in Kew. So it was decided that a rolling programme of file clearance was to take place. Guidelines as to what was to stay and what was to be sent to Kew were issued, together with the time slot in which the job was to be completed.

At Eastbourne our slot was about ten days before Christmas. The job was given to the clerical staff on PAYE and was simply piled on top of their everyday work with no provision for overtime or extra staff. I was the manager in charge of the PAYE administration group. I looked thoughtfully at my grumpy team. Clearly they were going to drag their heels over this one and I would have to become some kind of mule-driver wielding a whip, not a prospect I relished.

I marched into the inspector's office. "Permission to consume alcohol in the office" I requested. He was a mild man so he merely blinked and said OK. I went back to my team. "Right!" I said "This is what we're going to do"

I went out to buy wine and mince pies. Then I rolled up my sleeves and got cracking alongside the clerical assistants with the sorting and movement of the files into great crates. At coffee and tea breaks we had wine and mince pies. The job went with a swing, was done in half the time and I never once had to get out my whip.

Within two years the computerisation of PAYE had been completed so the files and cards became redundant anyway. And hardly anybody works in local offices any more.

I guess that is more efficient than the days when on officer could easily have six hundred pieces of unanswered post sitting on their desk, but I personally still feel hesitation about throwing out paper documents and devote quite a bit of my space at home to storing them.

Sunday, July 13, 2014



I'm in the process of making a waistcoat for my brother-in-law. He bought one off "Handmade by Julia" but had failed to take into account the fact that, like all of us, he's not as slender as he used to be. So I'm making another one.

I have several waistcoat patterns and when I pulled out the one I'm going to make I found myself reminiscing about the first time I used it.

In My Day

Like many of my creations, the idea for the garment came first from the fabric. Back in 1999 I'd picked up a remnant of foil-printed cloth with a design of metallic musical notes. "That's ideal for a waistcoat for David!" I thought. I found a pattern with a rather swanky low-cut front with curved collar and set to work.

I'd never used foil-printed fabric before and quickly discovered that a: it's very slippery and b: it's slightly see-through. Pas de probleme - I would just interface it. However, I only had white interfacing in my stock and the design was printed onto black. 

It was a few days before Christmas and I was working in Bath. So I nipped out to the local fabric shop to buy what I needed. The shop was off the main road and had a high step to get into the front door. I bought my interfacing, enjoyed a jolly chat with other fabric inspired ladies and turned to go. Alas! My foot slipped on the steep and slippery marble step and I sprawled onto the pavement inelegantly. 

I knew straightaway that standing up would be a bad idea. A small crowd gathered asking if I was OK? No. I was not. The lady from the shop kept popping out to offer me cushions, water, tea. Eventually I replied firmy - "Would you just please call for an ambulance?" She scuttled off to do this. A kind passer-by crouched down in the damp and cold and gently elevated my leg, resting it on her knee. A curious bystander asked if she was practising Chinese healing. "No", she said "I'm holding up her leg!"

I was taken to the hospital where an x-ray revealed that I had fractured my right navicular bone and sprained the ankle; a very painful combination. The plaster was removed after a couple of days, so that I could treat the sprain with frozen peas.

Well, you might ask, did David get his waistcoat in time for Christmas? The answer is yes. I managed by working at it over frequent very short periods, resting when the action of my foot on the machine pedal was too painful.

And I believe he still has it, although it was later recycled for some event or other by covering the crotchet-covered fabric with a bright shiny leprechaun green, a style of which I'm not so fond.

I wish I'd known the name of the kind lady who held my foot up out of the cold and wet. I'd like to thank her.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Degree of Separation


Carmen has just started her trial run at nursery. After more than ten months at home, it's a big step. Sometimes, things long in the planning have more capacity to create anxiety than last-minute decisions.

There was a discussion on Facebook in which other mothers shared how they felt on their child's first day away. "I can't remember", was my contribution, "I just lumbered on from day to day".

In My Day

I had neither the protection of generous maternity leave legislation, nor the money to take much time off after Lizzie was born.

I had taken the full three months then allowed by the Civil Service, but Lizzie's late arrival meant I actually only had two weeks' paid leave left when she was born. I took a month's unpaid but then it was straight back to work.

I had no particular system or routine in place, I barely knew my baby, and was so tired that I think I often felt quite sick. Thank goodness that Lizzie was an all-night sleeper! I also had very little technological help. I splurged my maternity allowance on a spin-dryer but had no washing machine. Every morning the dirty nappies would go in a bucket of Napisan and the previous day's clothes soaked in detergent. Nappies were less efficient than they are today, so there was often a wet sheet as well. My first job when I got home from work was to rinse and spin the nappies and clothing. I did this before we ate.

It was just a question of doing what I had to do; there was no room to worry about my baby. I found her a great childminder and kept my eyes fixed firmly forwards. I don't remember feeling hard-done by; in fact I don't remember feeling anything at all. I did, indeed, just lumber on.

I don't feel any resentment about this; I just marvel that I did it at all and that my Lizzie was unharmed by it all. And I feel very happy that today's mothers' and babies' needs are properly recognised by legislation and employers alike.