Saturday, August 29, 2015



This morning on Facebook someone posted a silly picture of two cats agreeing that (presumably mice) don't have souls.

In My Day

On my first trip to join the Laetare Singers at Holland House in 1994, I hesitantly made my way down to breakfast on the the first morning. I didn't know anybody so joined a group of people at a table where there seemed to be a space.

An animated conversation was going on. "I say," said a pompous-looking man, who had a small and meek-looking wife beside him, "Have you seen Stella lately?" No-one had. "Only I was wondering if she was planning to come to the Belshazzar's Feast workshop next week." Someone volunteered that she wasn't because her dog was terminally ill and she had to stay and nurse it. "And miss Belshazzar!!" said the man incredulously. "That's terrible!" He didn't seem to think that a beloved dog dying was terrible at all.

"Quite, Quite." agreed several. "She should just get the dog put down", said another. Others agreed and I listened to this conversation with fascination for a while. Eventually I said "You wouldn't suggest this if it were Granny." "Oh, but dogs don't have souls" was the reply. While I digested this piece of nonsense, the little wife was meekly nodding her head to all her husband's outrageous remarks.

"Well", I said "I wouldn't know about that, but I do think that if we take on responsibility for an animal we have a duty to care for it. We can't just kill it because it's inconvenient." There was silence. Then little wifey spoke up "I quite agree", she said in a prim voice. Hubby looked daggers at her defiance and the conversation shifted to safer topics.

If having a soul means something about the capacity for  life after death, I couldn't say. If it means having a personality and capacity to express emotion, any pet owner will disagree with the "soulless" statement vigorously.

Monday, August 24, 2015



A friend of mine reported that she was looking after a neighbour's  hamster. This hamster escaped, so there was much panic until food lured him back.

In My Day

There was an occasion, back in about 1989 or so when our neighbours asked us to feed their Siberian hamster while they were on holiday. Siberian hamsters are very small. All went OK, except we had to go away for a couple of days ourselves, so we delegated the task to another neighbour. This was all very well, but these two neighbours didn't get on at all well, so we had no intention of revealing what we'd done. We'd be back first; what could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, actually.

When we got back, neighbour number two (Kim, her name was). told us that the little blighter had got out because she'd failed to latch the little hatch on the cage properly. We were horrified and Paul went over with Kim to try to find it (remember Siberian Hamsters are very small).

They went over several times and were in fits of laughter as they hunted all over the place. Food was left out and it was eaten but the creature would not be found. How were we going to explain it? Whichever way was bad. We'd either lost the hamster ourselves,  showing us to be unreliable, or we had to reveal that we'd handed their house keys to hated neighbour Kim. 

Eventually, having failed in our search, we stuck a notice on the door so that they wouldn't accidentally let him out of the front door and gave up.

Fortunately, our neighbours found the whole thing funny too and the little blighter eventually turned up, but not before he'd chewed through a TV aerial cable.

In general, I think, agreeing to look after any creature smaller than a Guinea-pig is a liability and should be avoided!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Hello, Campers


Carmen is having her first experience of camping today. I wonder if she'll enjoy it.

In My Day

These days I avoid camping as much as possible but back in 1974 it seemed like a very good way to have a cheap holiday. We went into a camping a shop behind the London Road in Brighton and confidently bought a large frame tent, an airbed, sleeping bags, camping stove and a range of other apparently vital items. It cost more than our combined week's wages but we reasoned that this would more than pay for itself over the years.

We decided to spend our Summer holiday at a campsite near Lynton in Devon. Lizzie was about twenty-two months old. Well, we found the campsite and somehow got the tent erected. Exactly why were the tent poles joined in the middle by a sort of spring clip? (It was years before we realised that this natty convenience allows you to do all the fiddly bits with the tent at half-mast, so to speak, rather than stretching up to 6 feet.) The airbed was pumped up and I mastered the art of the camping stove.

Actually it was a capacious tent for two people and a toddler and I was relieved by the existence of inner zipped bedrooms that would (I hoped) keep earwigs and mozzies at bay. I think that the Summer of 1974 wasn't too bad. There was a little drizzle, but mainly the sun shone.

Lizzie discovered that the communal tap in the middle of the site was leaking and she spent many joyous hours playing with the water and a little bucket. And we explored Exmoor, discovering a beautiful grassy bank on Weir Water near Robber's Bridge where Lizzie played in the shallow fast-running stream and Paul lost a contact lense and taking Lizzie to spend lots of time on the beach and at Watersmeet. 

As with many of life's experiences, camping had its proper time and place in our lives and I'm glad I don't have to do it ever again if I don't want.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Catch a Falling Star


Last night we decided to sit out late to try to catch some of the lightshow known as the Perseid meteor shower. We don't have much light pollution in Oakhill, although we do have a lot of trees which slightly obscured our view of the sky.

The night was warm, there was no moon, the sky was filled with stars and we seemed to be sitting right under the Milky Way. After an hour the clouds began to creep across and we went indoors.

During that time we saw 2 shooting stars.... Hardly a shower, more like a couple of drops,

In My Day

Back in 1969 on my great hitch-hiking holiday, I spent a week or so in Crete. We stayed at the (then) hippie resort of Matala. There were lots of other hitch-hikers and travellers and we joined a loose group of about half-a-dozen Americans. The days were hot and the nights dry and warm. There was no point in trying to find accommodation (anyway, we had very little money) and the caves cut into the cliff faces were very stuffy and only useful in the event of rain.

So we just slept on the beach. After eating omelettes with raw onions and tomatoes and drinking local red wine, we'd lie back on the sand, quietly chatting, singing and dozing. Crete has a dry climate and at that time was undeveloped as a resort, so the night skies were black and clear. I would lie and gaze and gaze at the stars above. and there were often shooting stars. I don't think that I really knew what a shooting star was; perhaps I actually thought they were stars, not fragments of a comet. The show was wonderful and added to the dreamy quality of that time.

It's only now that I realise, the month being August, that I was probably witnessing the Perseid shower.

It's a slight compensation for the fact that a: I like to go bed earlier and b: the night skies in Blighty are often cloudy, that I have had this experience.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Fly my Kite


My Nephew posted a picture this morning of his family flying kites on the beach.

In My Day

I don't think I had much experience in flying kites as a child but we did have a brief dalliance when the girls were small. It was about 1979 and Paul and I had spent a very good day Christmas shopping in London. Among the things we had bought was a beautiful silk and bamboo chinese kite shaped like a butterfly, which we'd bought in Liberty's Oriental department. This was duly given as a gift to Lizzie for Christmas.

On new Year's Day we and our neighbours Beverley and John decided that the best way to cure our hangovers was to take all our children up to Beachy Head and fly kites. I think they had a kite as well. We unpacked the butterfly and
constructed our beautiful kite. This picture shows the type of thing that it was.

Off it went! How lovely it looked, with the wings flapping realistically and its eyes revolving in its head! How quickly it came down again; Paul & I not being the world's best kite experts. Off it went again! This time we managed to keep it up for some time. When it did come to rest it did so in the middle of an enormous thorn bush (there are lots of these on the Downs), and we had to try to retrieve it. We couldn't simply pull it; that would rip the silk. The answer seemed for me to climb onto John's shoulders and lean in to gently disentangle it. I succeeded and we were off again. That kite must have had a particular love of thorn bushes as this sequence was repeated time and time again.

Eventually, John couldn't take the strain anymore and the children were starting to freeze. So we wrapped up the kite, never to fly it again and went of to the cinema to watch Snow White.

I guess kite-flying is a skill like any other, but it's probably wise to keep away from trees and bushes and stick to the beach.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Power of Dreams


Nobody really knows, even today, why we have dreams and what function they perform. Last night I had a trivial dream, involving finding a pair of knickers for a small child, from which I awoke with a pounding heart, the effect of which hasn't gone away in over three hours.

In My Day

I think it would be true to say that my dreams in childhood formed a sort of night-time country which I inhabited. Some I even remember today - fish with huge blue eyes that swam around close to my face, great swollen visages that seemed to press onto me.

Falling asleep with my light on always resulted in nightmares and I found myself with a dilemma. Reading my books at three a.m. was a way of helping me get back to sleep and getting up to turn the light off would break that drowsiness. But I began to dread the awful visions of the nightmares and struggled to keep awake. Often it was only with the dawn that I allowed sleep to overtake me.

Often these light-on dreams involved my trying to walk or run, but finding that I couldn't lift my feet up or that the way became steeper and steeper, or I was trying to run in treacle-like mud. Sometimes wild animals were roaming around the house and I spent the dream in attempting to conceal myself. Then there were the dreams in which a half-naked me was trying to hide the fact of my inappropriate dress.

Once I dreamt I was being strangled and actually awoke to find the pillow on my face. How had that happened?

My parents slept on another floor from us and would probably not have heard if I had cried out (and sometime I was forced out of a dream by trying to shout or scream). By morning I was keen to enter the daylit world and rarely mentioned what my nights were like. Maybe my Mother half-guessed which is why she later called me "secretive".

If dreams are a way of processing daily experiences, what were mine trying to do? They mostly had the effect of exhausting me and making me anxious about sleep altogether. Even today, I submit to sleep, rather than welcoming it. 

Do you know, there are some people who say they don't dream, despite what the scientists say. And I say, happy for them if they can lay down their heads and wake up seven hours later without a thumpy heart or tearful eyes. Ah! If only!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Art of Lute


Last night was Cantilena's Summer concert, We entitled it "the Art of Love" which we explored through Italian and English madrigals and the poetry of Johnson, Marlowe and Spencer. We also had a lutenist who gently played some English and Spanish tunes to set the 17th C mood.

In My Day

I'm not sure when it was, about 1993, I think, when I was approached by someone who told me that a friend of his was learning the lute and would I like to sing with him. I was very interested and contacted this person.

He told me that  he was a widower, formerly a dentist, who had been a semi-professional guitarist. He had now decided to take up the lute and was working on Dowland's Lachrymae. He lived at Lydford near Shepton Mallet and one sunny Sunday I drove off to meet him.

He was a tall, rather raw-boned man, probably in his mid 60s and lived in a modern shambolic bungalow, the ground floor of which was full of  furniture and unused. He himself lived in a little attic annexe. Thither he took me and offered me a delightfully prepared light lunch. He fluttered around anxiously, offering me tea, wine, water etc. 

Eventually it was time to start and he took up his lute and I began to sing. About 3 bars in he stopped to replay a missed note, which slightly threw me. We started again. This time he faltered at the 4th bar and replayed a couple of notes. We started again. Things got worse and worse with him constantly stopping to go back. I said to him, "When you are accompanying you can't really do that; you just have to keep on going, otherwise I won't know where I am, We can tidy things up afterwards." He started again, getting more and more flustered. "I've practised and practised!" He cried despairingly.

We agreed that we would meet again, a week or so later, to give him more time. Each meeting was a repeat of the first. We never got past the first 20 bars and he would lament (rather like Dowland) that he had been practising until the small hours and then he would go all to pieces when we tried to put it together. I even tried singing the whole song without him so that he could hear what it sounded like. He was always so upset and flustered and I began to suspect that he was a little in love with me.

Finally, I decided that I couldn't sacrifice any more Sundays on this fruitless enterprise and we parted. I saw him occasionally at Cantilena concerts when he always sported very loud jackets in citrus shades.

Embarrassingly, I can no longer remember his name. I hope he eventually played the Lachrymae without any tears of his own.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Great Escape


It's funny how a minor disaster makes people more friendly. Yesterday, although the cause was not minor, it being a person hit by a train, the effect on me was only a 90 minute delay before my train left Paddington.

I and my neighbour, a pleasant young woman of about eighteen, got chatting. We talked about travels and I regaled her with tales of my 1969 hitch-hiking tour. She was especially amused/horrified by my story of our escape from the Algerians.

In My Day

When my friend, Angela and I started on our trip, we had very little experience of anything really, let alone hitch-hiking. We disembarked at Calais and set off heading, we hoped, for the Rhone valley.

Our second lift was with two men who said that they were also heading South and were avoiding Paris. We put our rucksacks into their boot and climbed into the back. When they explained that they were leaving the Route Nationale because of the peage, that seemed reasonable. But soon the roads they took became smaller and smaller.

Angela spoke nothing but English but my French was pretty good in those days, and I became concerned when I realised that our hosts were talking to each other in a dialect I couldn't understand. They spoke regular French to me, and I gathered at some point that they were French Algerians.

It was getting dark and the narrow road was now winding through a thick forest. The driver stopped and the men asked that we change places so that one of us would be in the back with one of them, the other in the front. I didn't like this at all and challenged them. When they wouldn't alter their request I said that we wanted to go and demanded that we have our rucksacks back. I had to push for this, eventually accusing one that he intended stealing our belongings. He opened the boot. We grabbed our bags, ran away from the car and scrambled into the forest as soon as we could.

Somehow we got away from the road and crouched among the trees while the Algerians turned their car round and came slowly down the road looking for us. They did this, back and forth a few times, while we stayed hidden. Eventually it seemed they'd driven away. It was pitch dark by this time so we unravelled our sleeping bags and tried to find a comfortable spot among the undergrowth.

We dozed fitfully. At one time we heard something large crashing about in the undergrowth. Was it the men come back for us? We hadn't heard a car; maybe it was a wild boar. We stayed very still until all noises had ceased.

At last the dawn broke and we emerged onto the lane (that's all it was really). We had no idea where we were and just had to keep walking until we found a main road. After that we became more careful, never being parted from our rucksacks and generally refusing lifts in cars with more than one male.

Given that I survived the experience, I much enjoy telling these tales of my early adventures and they don't seem to lose any of their entertainment value in the telling.

Monday, May 04, 2015



One surefire way of getting Carmen to sleep is to sing "Ten Green Bottles" - maybe she finds it reassuring or maybe it's just so dull, but she's usually nodded off by the time we get to five.

Now this is a song that we all know and it got me thinking about these kinds of songs and how it is that they enter our consciousness.

At English Concert Singers get togethers we always sing "And when the Saints" with decorations, and every football club has its song, roared out drunkenly at matches. And we all know "Happy Birthday".

In My Day

There were a number of songs like this which we sang as children or young people, often when we were passing the time, waiting in a queue or travelling in a coach. 

"Ten Green Bottles" was clearly one at the simpler, juvenile end, along with "There Were Ten in the Bed". We sang "One Man went to Mow", adding more and more strange items to his lunchbox and equipment, and "Clementine".

We progressed onto "On Ilkley Moor Bar T'at", much enjoying its gruesome ending (actually, that might have contributed to my wish to be buried under a strawberry plant) and by this time we were able to add harmonies and little riffs. We certainly used to sing these while queuing outside door 2 at the Proms. Our knowledge of anatomy was helped by "Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones". There were shorter interludes: "Lloyd George Knew my Father" and "My Eyes are Dim" - these sung to hymn tunes. We  added the more melodic "Kumbaya" and "Michael Row the Boat Ashore".

One strange song was "Green Grow the Rushes". This was sung progressively, like "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and we had scant idea of the meaning, though I think it was religious in inspiration, and it kept us going for a good long time.

 I'll sing you one ho
Green grow the rushes ho, What is your one ho?
One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.
I'll sing you two ho
Green grow the rushes ho, What is your two ho?
Two, two the little white boys clothes all in green ho, ho!
One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so
Twelve for the Twelve Apostles
Eleven for the eleven who went to Heaven
Ten for the Ten Commandments
Nine for the nine bright shiners
Eight for the April rainers
Seven for the seven stars in the sky
Six for the six proud walkers
Five for symbols at your door
Four for the Gospel makers
Three, three the rivals

Were these songs just a feature of our times and are they being replaced with new ones? I don't know, although these days there are people who don't know "On Ilkley Moor Bar T'at". But at last Saturday's Britain's got Talent, the audience all roared along with "Let it Go" from "Frozen" in much the same was as we roared out our ditties. So maybe all isn't lost: it's just changing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Adventures in Baby Sitting


Becky was making arrangements for her babysitter. First, making sure that she and Carmen had a chance to meet, second, that the babysitter had a comfortable somewhere to sit and third, that there was a nice supper available. All right and proper and pretty standard stuff, you might say.

In My Day

When I was between fifteen and eighteen I belonged to the St John's Church Youth Club in Upper Norwood. One of the things we offered was a babysitting service. The customers had access to a pool of young people whose credentials they could trust and we earned some very useful pocket money.

Clients came in all forms. The best were those who invited you to meet the children; maybe read them a bedtime story. Then they showed you the kitchen where there would be tea and coffee, a snack or access to biscuits etc. If you were lucky you had a very comfortable evening during which you watched TV or got some "A" level work done (I think that I completed most of my theatre design coursework while babysitting) and had peacefully sleeping children.

There was one family whose idea of meeting the children first was to leave their four sons (aged between about three and nine) racketing about their very untidy and dirty house while they scooted cheerfully off. I considered it a real achievement if I could get them all in bed before the parents got home. I rarely had time for a snack and a sit down (anyway their sofas were all pretty grimy). They did pay well, though.

At another home the little baby  never stopped crying. The parents would tiptoe out, leaving baby and me to get acquainted as best we could while she screamed her poor little heart out. I guess she got to know me in the end but she still cried and I think that the parents were unwise not to give us any stress-free time together before bedtime.

I had two extreme clients. There was a couple who simply had no idea of time. "Home by eleven" could mean home by two am. I would be getting more and more anxious; had there been an accident? Dare I have a little doze on the sofa? How was I going to get up in the morning? They did pay well, but that wasn't really the point. On the final occasion that I sat for them, Daddy called at about one am, understandably worried about me. When I said that the parents weren't back he announced his intention of coming to get me. He had to walk there and twenty minutes later he turned up, frothed into a right rage. He told me to come with him. I said that I couldn't leave the children and we were still arguing when the parents breezed in. Daddy told them what he thought of them and then marched back up the hill, refusing a lift,  while I was driven home. I didn't go back there.

Much the best were the parents of little Paul. They were quite well-off and his mother used to leave out a lovely meal for me and was very friendly. They came to trust me with Paul with whom I got on famously and invited me to join a family party at Marazion in Cornwall where a ruby wedding was being celebrated. My job was to look after Paul and his little cousin when the family went out for evening jaunts. The rest of the time I was free and I took advantage of this, walking along the coast and drawing pictures of local objects and  St Michael's Mount. The cousin cried rather a lot when she was with me, but she was very young and we hadn't been introduced, but otherwise it was a very enjoyable salaried holiday.

I was completely untrained and these families trusted me with their little ones. Whether this was a tribute to my reliability or a comment on their difficulties with childcare I can't say. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Rejoice and Sing


I don't know why or how some tunes suddenly arrive unbidden in our heads, but this morning I've found myself humming Hava Nagila 

In My Day

For some reason, when I was in the sixth form at school we all knew this song. I don't think that we had much of a Jewish contingent at Selhurst Grammar School for Girls and I suspect that there was more than a little snobbery in the fact that we even knew the Jewish words. We didn't know the meaning of them, I think.

I remember an excursion to the theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon to see, I think, Julius Caesar, which was one of our A-level texts. The trip involved an overnight stay at a hostel, a visit to Ann Hathaway's cottage and other sites. At last we arrived at the theatre, far too early and had to wait for the doors to open. How to spend the time? We joined hands in a circle and danced round, faster and faster, singing Hava Nagila, also faster and faster, until we fell apart, laughing. I've no idea what other people thought of a dozen or so seventeen year-old schoolgirls dancing crazily; today we would probably be regarded as some kind of street theatre, but we were quite uninhibited and kept the dancing going until the theatre opened and we could be thrilled by "et tu, Brute".

Here's modern video of proper Jewish people dancing it:

I've since discovered that it's a fairly modern song, that the words basically mean "sing and rejoice" and are sung at Bar/bat mitzvahs. Not so unsuitable for girls on the threshold of adult life to sing joyously.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Changing Trains


There was a recent thread on Facebook in which my nephew was wondering about trains to Stockport. "All trains change at Crewe!" I airily remarked "not these days", said my nephew. "Unless you want to go to Cheltenham from Birmingham New Street!" I added.

There's some history to this:

In My Day

On 8 March 1996 a train carrying liquid CO2 suffered an axle failure and collided with a mail train at Rickerscote, near Stafford. One of the trains came to rest against the end wall of a house.

This meant that it was several days before the loco could be removed and trains in this busy area get back to normal.

At the same time I had business in the North West and travelled by train from Bristol Parkway to Preston via a number of train changes at Birmingham New Street and Nuneaton.

I'd had a chilly, lonely, but productive week, and was very anxious to get home on the Friday. After much struggling (Nuneaton featured again, I think) I eventually got to Birmingham New Street by about nine at night. The station was chaos; flocks of people milled around trying to find their platform and announcements contradicted earlier ones.

At last I found the platform for Bristol. The train  was a long time coming. Near me on the platform were a jolly couple of men, both aged about 60. They were cheerfully drunk and I gathered from their conversation that they'd done quite well at Cheltenham Races that had been on that week. They both had broad northern accents and discussed vociferously whether they were on the right platform. "All trains change at Crewe!" announced one old geezer. "Quite right", slurred his mate "all trains do change at Crewe".

Shortly after this the train trundled up and we all piled in, the two ageing drunks with the rest. The train stayed for some time and our companions regaled the compartment, talking about how great the '60s had been "Easy Rider - best film ever made", said one guy as though he'd spent his youth on a motorbike road trip, not drudging away up North. "It's like wartime", agreed his friend "maybe we should all sing some Vera Lynn". And he lifted up his voice in "We'll Meet Again."

The train began to pull out "Great!" said drunk number one "We'll soon be home". "Oh, yes! All trains change at Crewe!" 

As we got going one of the men leaned across the gangway to a young women and said, "Where are you going, love?" "Bristol Temple Meads", came the reply. There was a long silence while a ripple of laughter went round the compartment. 

He looked accusingly at me "You knew we were on the wrong train." "How was I to know?" I replied. "You haven't spoken a word of sense since you got on the train!" 

It turned out that they were trying to get home to Stockport and had to leave the train at the next stop which happened to be Cheltenham. So they had to spend their hard-earned races winnings on overnight accommodation and fresh train tickets.

So, you are right, Chris, not all trains change at Crewe. But that incident cheered up a long and tiring journey and has made me smile ever since.

Friday, April 10, 2015



Becky sent me a gorgeous picture showing Carmen wearing her new sunglasses. Very cool.

Everyone these days owns sunglasses; they're are seen as essential, even in cloudy Britain.

I don't much like them for myself and hardly ever wear them. In fact, I am only using them now because of my recent cataract operations. 

In My Day

I don't think we had sunglasses as children. In fact, nobody we knew had them. My parents never wore any and, day to day, if I saw someone wearing dark glasses I assumed that they were blind or partially sighted and wore them for protection.

Paul's Mum used to wear sunglasses by the time I first met her and told of an occasion when she was in her 80s when she forgot them and sat sunning herself in the Italian garden in Eastbourne and damaged her eyelids. But then Tricia was also inclined to sit in the sun rather too much. This picture taken during the '50s shows her and friends in Hastings where none of these otherwise glamorous mums are wearing sunglasses. They probably weren't wearing skin protection either.

I remember once buying a little pair of sunglasses for Lizzie when she was about two and Mum disapprovingly telling me that they would "draw" the eyes. I asked her what she meant and she said "well you know, draw". Which clarified things perfectly.

What I am wondering is whether our eyes are the better or worse for this as surely we must be adapted as a species to a reasonably high level of light entering our eyes.

Well, chacun etc and one generation's luxury is another's essential and Carmen does look rather cute in hers. And I doubt whether her eyes will be any the worse for them.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015



Today is something of an anniversary, it being just about 10 years since I started this blog. While I've actually blogged 476 times, I've noticed that I write fewer blogs these days and have been wondering why this is. Is it because I'm running out of memories, is it that some memories are not right to share with the world at large or is it that I've already told them so many times that they are becoming repetitive?

This has got me thinking about the memories that we share and how and when we share them.

In My Day

Mamma and Daddy both used to share memories of their younger days with us. Daddy's were mostly harrowing tales of his slum childhood, days in prison as a conscientious objector and stories about his toxic second wife just before and during the War (although the objective truth of this last one is a little called into question by reading his diaries....).

Mamma told us tales of her comfortable childhood in Germany where it seemed that she was involved in all sorts of community events and enjoyed a rich cultural life. She described life at the "Household School" where she was taught all the housewifely arts and told me about walking in the Hartz Mountains with her father where she experienced terrifying thunderstorms. 

Although we knew about the impact of Nazi Germany on her life, horror stories didn't come from her; it was mainly Daddy who filled in the gaps. Even stories about time spent as a lowly gardener or nanny took on a shine as she regaled us with stories about the quirks and oddities of the people she worked for and sweet stories about children she cared for. And her gardening knowledge seemed to be an endless store. She seemed to be able to give a spin to stories many of which, as I became older and learnt more, were actually stories of repression and hid the deep frustration she must have felt about losing her opportunities and family life so brutally.

I loved these stories and didn't mind how many times I heard them. Sometimes she'd preface them with "Stop me if you'd heard this one before", and, being brutal as children so often are, we'd shout her down vociferously. In truth, I think that many tales can stand repeated telling, like good books and films, and it may be that my memory of what my parents used to tell is partly so good precisely because of that repetition. 

Becky and Richard have given us a book in which to put various bits of family history as a future gift for Carmen. I think it's quite a sweet idea, but I hope she also reads my diaries, blogs and books when she's older and lets me tell her tales of my life endlessly .....

Sunday, March 22, 2015



Tonight's supper is Florentine pancakes. This simple dish involves pancakes, spinach and a yummy cheese topping.

In My Day

I first discovered this delight at the Strode Arms in Cranmore. In the early years at Stoke St Michael,  we were frequent visitors. There wasn't much for vegetarians - saute potatoes topped with grated cheese often did duty, although the amount of cheese varied and you weren't allowed to order this in the restaurant.

Florentine pancakes, however, were a very good dinner and Becky and I often had these. I suppose it must have been at least fifteen years ago, maybe more, and Becky and I fancied a night out. We ordered our usual, but, to be truthful, these weren't the best we'd had. The spinach was grey and a watery liquid enveloped the cheesy-ness. Still we ate it and decided that another glass and a pud were in order.

Becky went up to the bar. The landlord (now deceased) was a man called Rod. As Becky went to place her order he asked her what she's thought of her dinner. "Well, not the best", said Becky honestly "there was a lot of liquid from the spinach so it was rather soggy."

"I don't know why you bother to come here", replied Rod heatedly "you're always complaining, you're a pain in the butt." Becky walked back uncertainly to our table, clutching the refilled wine glasses and told me what had happened.

"That's out of order", I replied equally heatedly "let's go." I went to the bar "We'll be off, Rod", I said "we won't be wanting our desserts." He waved his hand at me, in a way that indicated that he wouldn't be taking my money and we left. 

Needing pud, we drove up to the Waggon & Horses on Doulting Beacon and had a nice Tiramisu, while airing our grievance.

I wrote to Rod, but received no reply or apology, so we never went back to the Strode until after Rod's death and a change of ownership.

Even had it been true that Becky was always complaining (which she wasn't) I have always thought that the initial rudeness was bad enough. but the failure to climb down afterwards was pure bad customer services and lost him some custom.

The cheese is browning nicely on my version, tho'!

Monday, March 09, 2015



Over the past couple of weeks we have been asking ourselves, "did Carmen actually catch Chickenpox?" Her cousin, with whom she played, certainly had a mild dose and a few little spots did appear on Carmen's face. But it all faded away very quickly, so who knows for sure?

"Best to get it over young," said many people knowledgeably.

In My Day

Mamma always said that I had Chickenpox so mildly that only she and the doctor knew. I was about the same age as Carmen is now and caught from my infant-school-age brothers, who both probably suffered more than I did. I had a few spots in my hair and showed no sign of unwell-ness. The same is true of Measles, German Measles and maybe Mumps. I have been in contact with these diseases several times in adulthood with no ill-effects.

The idea that these illnesses are worse when you're older is certainly borne out by my sister Beatrice's experience, as she had both Mumps and Chickenpox in her 20s. She told me about the mumps and how she could only eat porridge for about a week and how much it hurt.

Chickenpox she had whilst living with me in about 1979. She was very unwell, with a high temperature and lots of nasty, blisters on face, body and legs. The illness took a couple of weeks to clear, but its effects were felt for considerably longer.

The first effect was that one at least of the sores on her legs triggered a cellulitis attack, because of her Milroy's disease. I remember the argument with the doctor's receptionist who would not allow me to collect the necessary Flucloxacillin on her behalf, nor agree to a home visit for the incapacitated Beatrice. We attempted and failed to  manhandle her into a taxi. I called the surgery and attacked the receptionist so fiercely that she eventually passed me to a doctor who agreed that we could have the medication. We collected it but several precious hours were lost. So poor Beatrice again had a sky-high temperature and was laid up for another ten days or so.

At last we were free of infection and one Sunday morning I was just heaving a sigh of relief when I heard a huge shout from Beatrice's room. Up I dashed to find her in the middle of an epileptic seizure; the high temperatures having weakened her defences.

So much for Chickenpox being worse when you're older; I sincerely hope you have had it, Carmen, and will be immune in the future.

Sunday, March 08, 2015



My nephew was on Facebook bewailing the fact that he'd chosen to go to Ikea on a Sunday. There was  chorus of "what were you thinking?" in response.

In My Day

Although friends and family had been extolling the virtues of Ikea for some time I wasn't persuaded into a foray until the year 2000, following the creation a new bedroom at 7 Mead Close. We needed bedroom furniture; simples! Off to Ikea - everybody was doing it and it's Scandinavian so must be a Good Thing. We set off to Bristol with Becky and a friend of hers one Saturday afternoon.

Having to join a queue to enter the carpark ought to have been our warning. We should have turned around right then and there. But, having come so far we weren't going to be deterred. Eventually, about half an hour later, we managed to squeeze into a place.

We confidently walked into the store, planning to go to the bedroom dept, buy what we wanted and leave. Oh no, that's not a possibility at Ikea. The only way to get where you wanted was to walk through every department. Little jolly footprints on the floor marked the way and there were no shortcuts. In fact, I don't think I've ever been in a shop, other than Ikea, that uses this bullying sales tactic.

The shop was heaving, children ran uncontrolled through the aisles. We became more and more irritated and still hadn't seen what we wanted. At last we got to the right place and saw a useful wardrobe, bedside table, wall mounted cupboard and glazed cabinet. Perfect! Now to buy them.

This turned out to be almost as hard as getting into the carpark. Clutching our little dockets which told us in which aisle in the warehouse our items were, we then had to go through the entire rest of the shop  before getting to the warehouse. There was scant help if the items you were after were on the highest shelf or were too heavy for you to manage.

At last we dragged our overloaded trolley to the checkout where the queues were about an hour long. We waited and waited and waited. Ikea's only solution to the problem was to come round with dishes of boiled sweets as though all we needed was a sugar top-up to maintain our stamina and good humour.

We eventually got out and home and unloaded our stuff, only to discover that one item had a crack in it and the only solution was to take it back. I called Ikea "Which is your quietest time?" I demanded. "Tuesday mornings" was the answer, so we trekked back to change the item the following Tuesday, growling "never again".

I took proper umbrage a few years ago when a friend, admiring an original painting on my wall, asked, "Is it from Ikea?" (It was actually by Alce Harfield). Ikea is not my standard for art with which to adorn my walls!

I can't even avail myself of the consolation prize suggested by some, which is just to head for the cafe and wolf down meatballs, as I'm a veggie.

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!