Saturday, February 13, 2016

Bedizened and Bedecked

Today

In the local shopping centre yesterday,  Carmen was irresistibly drawn into Claire's accessories where we bought some hairclips and a cute little keyring. 

I noticed some packs of jewellery for children - bright pink and plastic.

In my day

From the age of about three the girls were given pocket money. Becky used to spend hers on her growing collection of Britain's farm animals, but Lizzie liked to buy jewellery. These sets were available in newsagents and toyshops and usually consisted of bracelets and necklaces of varying styles and lengths.

They were just as highly coloured as the ones I saw yesterday: bright pink being the favourite, but by no means the only one, lurid green, acid yellow and turquouse also being available,

Lizzie couldn't decide on her favourite so she would wear them all.  She would go about clanking and weighed down with plastic trinkets rather like a tribal woman whose jewellery indicated her value.

Her childminder used to say "do I have to take her out with her wearing all that lot?" "Well," I would reply " it's up to you, but you're on your own trying to get her to take it off!"

In later years Lizzie took to wearing bangles of all sorts, eventually totalling about fifty on both arms  until no more would fit on. These were not taken off for several years. She also sported an impressive collection of earrings, including, if I remember correctly, several skulls, lots of cats and a cute pair shaped like apple cores. Like the jewellery at Claire's, they could all be bought pretty cheaply so you could be well bedecked for about a fiver. And it was very easy for people deciding what to give her for a present.

Carmen hasn't asked for jewellery yet, but I think that the time can't be far away. Time to start the pocket money.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Push Button

Today

Becky was telling me about her recent weekend in Spain and how, as they disembarked from the flight over and seeing the cockpit door open, she was allowed to take Carmen in to meet the captain. He was very charming, apparently, and let Carmen press a button on the dashboard. I bet she was excited.

In My Day

These days, cockpit doors are usually firmly locked during a flight, for fear of terrorists, but it wasn't always like that.

In 1980 we flew Freddie Laker to JFK as part of our great Canadian trip. Freddie Laker was the Ryanair of the '70s and '80s and buying tickets was almost like an auction, whereby you scanned the papers for availability and rushed to buy your tickets.

We managed to find seats together and settled down for a long flight. Becky was not quite three. Both the girls were excited about the very fact of going on a plane; in fact, I think it was a first for all of us. I'd brought provisions and blankets and thought of ways to keep the children happy. This wasn't too hard for seven-year old Lizzie who loved watching the cloudscapes out of the window.

Becky, being younger, needed more entertaining. She slept for some of the time and was allowed to run up and down the gangway when the cabin crew weren't busy. Like Carmen, she was a cute blonde toddler and she was soon invited to meet the Captain. This was while we were in flight, security being a lot less tight in 1980. I think it must have been Paul who took her into the cockpit as I don't remember going in and I also am not sure whether Lizzie went too. Becky loved it, though, and the event helped to break the appalling tedium of the journey. 

She even thinks she remembers this, which is wonderful. Air travel has become an everyday experience for many of us, so it's good to see some of that excitement and freshness being experienced by Carmen.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Grammar Geek

Today

There's been a resurgence of interest in correct English grammar lately, Facebook abounds with quizzes and tests to analyse how much you know. A fair number of grammar grumblers rail about their pet hates, and siblings and friends are unhibited about correcting others' posts ("your" you're" "could of" and could have" are especial favourites).

In My Day

The grammar of the English language is queer mixture of usage, foreign words and nonsensical rules. At some point someone tried to impose order and invented such rules as "i before e", the split infinitive (English is uncommon in that the infinitive is two words, not one which of course you can't split), never ending a sentence with a preposition. We were taught these at school and then given long lists of exceptions with the absurd statement "the exception proves the rule". 

Daddy was a master of English grammar and wouldn't allow the smallest error through in our speech, wilfully misunderstanding us until we'd said it correctly. Favourites were misplaced phrases (along the lines of "piano for sale, one owner, with carved legs..") and split infinitives.

It did focus the mind and I and my siblings are pretty sound on basic grammar. Becky said to me once, "it's just as easy to get it right as wrong." 

Of course there are absurdities; one of Mamma's favourites was this one: ...... "up with which I will not put."

When I was training to be a teacher there was a prevailing idea that too much insistence on good grammar stunted creativity and the emphasis moved away from accuracy. Personally, I think that a sound knowledge of basic rules can actually help creativity because you have a properly stocked workbox, so to speak. No-one suggests you do better in maths if you can't add up or that you are a better musician if you can't read music etc. This resulted, a generation down the line, in teachers who themselves had no grasp of the basics. 

At Flare we used to run a grammar quiz in our monthly staff newsletter. There was a small prize for the first correct answer. We only published the winner and the answers, so no-one was named and shamed, and it was very popular at all levels.

The question is how much does this matter?  I think there are lots of reasons, mainly to do with clarity, powerful use of language and fluency. "To go boldly" would have a very different ring from "To boldly go".

My own pet hates? Incorrect pronouns ("this was given to you and I"), "lay" and "lie" confusion ("lay down" and "lie the baby down") and everything thing to do with incorrect apostrophes. I also slightly regret the gradual disappearance of the subjunctive ("if I were you" "I suggest that you be careful").

I feel quite sure that readers of this blog will be very quick to point out all my errors....

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Soup Kitchen

Today

Paul commented on my soup today. "This is delicious. You could sell this in a restaurant as 'winter-warmer broth'. What's in it?"

"Well", I replied "it started out on Tuesday as butternut squash and carrot soup. Then I added the leftover Indian-style aubergines from yesterday, then the unfinished courgettes and carrots from today's lunch, gave it a whizz and, voila!"

In My Day

Back in 1970 I worked one Summer as a relief waitress. For much of my time I worked at an Italian restaurant situated between St Bartholomew's' Hospital and Smithfield Market. There was always a "zuppa di giorno" which was different daily. After a while I began to notice a pattern.

"Why", I asked the chef "does the soup seem to get darker and stronger throughout the week?" He explained to me that fresh soup was made on Saturdays. This could be asparagus, cauliflower, anything light. The next day leftover soup was added to with, say tomato, mushrooms or peas, all of which were left over from meals, and rejigged on Sunday as Minestrone. This went on until Friday, usually culminating in oxtail on Fridays; the overpowering taste of the beef concealing all the previous incarnations. I don't think he was joking and it certainly explained things. And, after all, why not? It was perfectly good soup, nothing was wasted (I have to assume that Friday leftovers were either chucked or taken home) and it certainly was different each day.

There's a school of thought that says that there are optimum days to eat out; when food is most likely to be freshly prepared and cooked, although this article suggested that things may have changed. But I note that the writer was eating at a pub that served snails on toast for lunch, which is hardly average.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Ring Cycle

Today

It's interesting just how much unused stuff many of us have. When we start to look more closely we sometimes find that, not do we never use or look at the items, but there may even be some value in them which we can use to improve our lives.

In My Day

When my mother died in 1981 she left a little pearl and diamond ring to Lizzie. Lizzie was only nine so I kept it tucked away safely. About three years later, when we were at Montfort Close we found ourselves in financial difficulties. For several months I couldn't quite see our way to paying the mortgage. First Paul sold his model railway stuff. That kept us going for a while. Then we sold an antique roll-top desk that had belonged to his father.

Even with that I felt our heads slowly sinking between the waves. I took Lizzie's ring to a jewellers to have it valued. They told me about £600. That was a colossal amount; enough to get us all on dry land.

Back home I took Lizzie into my confidence, explaining the whole situation clearly and asking permission to sell the ring. She agreed and, after I'd allowed a "cooling-off" period, I sold the ring and we straightened ourselves out.

I never really thought about it again until a year or so ago when we were talking about the extent to which children should be shielded from family troubles such as ours. Lizzie said "I remember you asking me if you could sell the ring. I felt so proud to be involved and able to do something to help." I was really touched by this as I think I hadn't wanted to think that Lizzie felt coerced into the decision. 

Since then we have helped each other out in so many ways and I don't think the Lizzie has missed the actual ring itself one bit.

I think there's Doris Lessing short story about a diamond merchant who gives a precious pearl to a girl he loves. She marries someone else. They meet again at the end of the war in Italy when she is poverty stricken and desperate. She shows him the pearl and proudly says that she's held onto it through thick and thin and he's furious that she's missed the point: it's just a pearl - stuff - which could have kept her and her family alive.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Shears

Today

I saw a very funny picture showing a D'Artagnan-type character swearing to deal with the bounder who'd used the fair maiden's fabric scissors for paper.

In My Day

There are some professionals for which the sharpness of their implements is so critical that they impose draconian rules about their exclusive rights to them. Chefs, hairdressers and dressmakers, to name three.

When I was learning to dressmake I was taught the importance of buying the perfect fabric shears. Dressmaking shears are uneven; one side is level so that it can run level with the cutting surface - as in this picture - and the handles allow several fingers to be inserted at the bottom for better control. For most fabrics you want a fairly heavy pair that sits comfortably in your hand.

Saying goodbye to sizeable chunk of my student grant, back in 1970, I bought the best shears that I could afford. Razor-sharp and good for fine and heavy fabrics. 

In 1974, one of my friends was being married and I offered to make her wedding dress. We chose a very pretty white figured lawn and I set about creating the pattern and design. Eventually I laid the cloth out onto the table and went to get my shears for the moment of truth. I began to cut. Quite frankly, I could have done a better job with a bread knife! I stared, aghast as the scissors ripped raggedly through the delicate cloth. I mentioned my problem to Paul as he sauntered by. Only a little probing revealed the truth. "Oh, I used then to cut some sheet lead for a little project of mine," he airily explained. "They were very good, nice and heavy." I showed him my disastrous results and explained to him so forcefully about the sacrosanct nature of my shears; they are used for nothing but fabric (not even to trim patterns or cut threads) and by nobody but me, ever, ever; that he has never dared to touch my shears again

I grumpily went out and bought another ruinously expensive pair and managed to salvage my friend's wedding dress.

My family is  afraid to go near my scissors although I formally accuse Lizzie of using my embroidery scissors to cut her nails back in about 1985.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Waste not, Want not

Today

Recently, I heard tell of someone who spent £1400 (forcing her husband to do double shifts to pay for it) to feed a total of eight guests each day on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Now. I'll defend anyone's right to spend as much as they want, wisely or unwisely; but what shocked me was to learn that she threw out all unfinished food after Christmas Day and started again with new on Boxing day.

In My Day

As I have described in previous blogs, our Christmas lunch when we were children was pretty unvarying: tomato soup, turkey, stuffing, boiled bacon, red cabbage, roast potatoes, sprouts, chestnuts, Christmas pudding with custard. 

There was always plenty left over, and for the rest of Christmas Day and Boxing Day we could pick at the food at will. After that the left overs continued to be used up. Red cabbage reheats well and lasted a long time. The meat went on for several days, appearing in a number of forms, usually finishing with a fricassee that I didn't much like as it seemed to have all the chewiest, gristly bits of the turkey concealed within. Once the carcass was stripped of meat. Mamma would boil up the bones to make stock for soup.

I don't think we questioned any of this; it was perfectly logical that uneaten food was eaten at another time; anything else was wasteful. We didn't have to be regaled with stories of starving children in Africa - we ate up everything and not just at Christmas. While I rebelled at eating dripping (the type made with goose fat was the nastiest) I accepted the rest.

I don't quite know what happened to the "joint-on-Sunday-cold-on-Monday-pie-on-Tuesday" sort of housekeeping; in some ways it's easier today as we all have freezers so left overs don't have to follow on day after day relentlessly. 

This year I overbought rather, in anticipation of our "Secret Santa" event, and the girls bought even more for New Year. But I've ploughed on through it all, though I don't want to eat Ratatouille for some time to come (and I've frozen quite a lot too), and have given two unopened bags of potatoes to my cleaning lady.

The saddest thing about the whole story was that her husband said he'd give it all up so that he could spend more time with his children.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Humbug

Today

My niece posted her view of Christmas today on Facebook. She deplored the commercialism, the consumption of meaty things, the cutting down of trees; the whole, as she saw it, charade. She even said the "H" word.

Now, my niece is a sweet-natured and joyous person who feels strongly about waste and corruption and does her best to contribute to creating a more honest and clean world. So, what made her react in this way? And should her feelings make me re-evaluate my own about Christmas?

In My Day

I love Christmas, just about the whole thing (except the Coca-Cola ads), so it seems appropriate for me to try to trace the source of the whole joyous feeling I get.

When I was a child there was definitely a sense of not just anticipation, but waiting. There was an exciting event about to happen. From the moment Mamma hang up the austere Advent wreath on Advent Sunday, there was mounting excitement as each day passed. The Advent calendar doors were opened for the delight of seeing the celebratory and biblical pictures; there was no chocolate; and you always knew that the 24th door would reveal a beautiful nativity scene.

The house was decorated, including a tree (and these are farmed nowadays, not ripped out of virgin forests), which I considered magical. It was like putting on glad-rags for a party.

At school we worked to produce nativity plays and  carol concerts. Without heavy-handed bible-bashing, we learnt the story that lies behind Christmas. Although I don't now confess to the Christian faith, I am constantly touched by the story: its absurd hope that somehow mankind will someday live in peace, that we can all love each other, will live forever, and by the solid human quality of the protagonists (always excepting the angels). There were also a slew of Carols that reminded us that the festivities (at least in Northern lands) are also a solstice celebration; when the darkness begins to recede and the land regains its fertility.

These are all things to celebrate with friends, family and feasting. As the charity collector in A Christmas Carol said, "want is keenly felt and abundance rejoice".   I read A Christmas Carol every year to Paul, just as my Father did to us, and, like him, have difficulty getting through some parts of it.

The gift giving was a shared opportunity to show how much you understood and cared for your loved ones - we were all doing it together. We sang carols and songs and played games. This was proper together time. I confess I didn't like the meaty part of Christmas either, but that is easily managed.

I remember someone who, when asked how she'd enjoyed Christmas with her boyfriend's family, said, "Well, you know, TV and quarrelling", That sounded truly dreadful, and no amount of charming John Lewis commercials and present giving can sweeten that. But gifts kindly given, homemade or otherwise, and kindly received, and time spent generously with people, meets the criteria for the season, whether Christian or Pagan. We have the power within ourselves to resist the oppressively commercial aspects of the time and embrace all that is positive.

So, I can't really say "humbug" I long to see all my large family and especially love welcoming them to my home for shared feasting and fun. And I happen to be quite good at vegetarian and vegan cooking....

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Proper Person

Today

After a few weeks of agonising, we at last made the decision to say goodbye to Abby. She went quietly and peacefully on my lap at the vet's. It's going to feel strange, not to have her on my lap each night and hear her little greeting chirp each day.

"She was the only cat I know", said Lizzie "who thought she was a person."

In My Day

We first saw Abby in 1997 at a friend's garden party. (That was also the occasion that Paul rescued Tessa the tortoise from the pond). She had been nicknamed "Baby" because of her habit of crying until you picked her up and crying again the minute you put her down. Paul fell instantly in love, we anagramised her name to Abby, and picked her up a few weeks later. 

Here are few little memories: 


This is Abby during her collar-wearing stage.
When she jumped up and knocked her feeding bowl out of Paul's hand and onto her head, from which the other cats ate up her food while she looked bemused.

Inspiring a friend's two-year old son to his first proper sentence "She's got little feet on her!"

The incident with Arietty and the Father Christmas (see blog 1/12/09).

After her accident in 2008, figuring out how to get out of the catflap wearing a "lampshade".

The travelling cat; coming down to the Brighton flat with us on numerous occasions and also to Becky and Richard's flat. How she objected to roundabouts, giving a little yowl whenever we went round one.

How she came to the door to meet and greet visitors. 

Being the cat that cat-haters loved - by my cat-resistant neighbours at Mead Close and by another friend who would cuddle her for ages, saying all the while, "I don't like cats".

Her little cannon ball body careering down Mead Close at supper time.

And she was Carmen's first great love, outside parents; saying her first word at eight months: "Bah! Bah!", meaning "Cat! Cat!" and trembling with excitement.

As Lizzie pointed out, Abby, you lived with us longer than she did; and I miss you already.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Stage-Struck

Today

In my last blog I said that my education seemed to offer the best teaching to the best pupils, creating a greater divide as time went on.

In My Day

I can think of one glaring example of this. At Selhurst there was a class banding system in place and then streaming for specific subjects (French, Sciences, Maths, if I remember correctly). English was not streamed.

Thus it was that I found myself in an average class band  but in the A stream for French. My far and away best subject was English. Grammar held no terrors for me and I was an avid reader and fluent writer. I also loved drama.

Our class teacher for the first couple of years was a Miss Hutchcroft (I think that was her name). She was also an English teacher so, by default, took our class for English. She was a dumpy, cheerful and voluble soul whose greatest love was the theatre. She always produced our school plays, often with great skill.

She pretty well never taught us any English; the lessons were almost entirely taken up with anecdotes about the theatre, plays and stage personalities she had known. 

Now, as I have said, I had a natural flair for the subject, so managed all the grammar and language exams with ease. Not so my colleagues. With the unerring snobbery of schoolchildren, we'd noticed that on red-letter days, Miss Hutchcroft wore no cap and gown, so that meant we had been saddled with a teacher of inferior status. For the most part, we were good grammar school material and preferred to pass exams if at all possible. During revision time my classmates looked around for someone with good grammatical knowledge and their eyes soon lighted on me.

"Julia, what is  the subjunctive?" "What's the difference between subject and object?" "Should I put an apostrophe here or not"? and so on. I was only too happy to help; pleased, possibly, at my sudden and unusual popularity. 

Passing an English Exam under Miss Hutchcroft was done in spite of her, not because of her, and natural levels of ability weren't disturbed one jot by her influence.

I have no idea why the powers that were didn't pick up on this and shuffle her into a thespian corner, to give us all a chance. But education seems to me to be a bit chancy at the best of times.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Vault

Today

Whatever did we do before Facebook? Today someone posted a picture of old-fashioned school gym equipment which provoked a flurry of nostalgic comments about climbing up parallel bars and playing pirates on the ropes.

In My Day

Both my schools had reasonably good gymnastic equipment. At Junior school the dining hall doubled as a gym and much work had to be done before you could use anything.

At grammar school we had a purpose-built gymnasium. It sported a terrifying array of wall bars and ladders, and ropes could be swung across from the ceiling. It was also marked out as an indoor netball pitch.

There were vaulting "horses", benches and other pieces of movable furniture. All very nice, you might say. I hated everything. I had no physical confidence (how, exactly, do you climb up a rope?) and struggled to achieve anything. When the ropes came out I got well into the centre of the fray and hoped no-one would notice me. The wall bars were simply frightening, struggling with a vertical climb was so hard and there was nothing to break your fall. I think Beatrice did actually fall off them once, was concussed which may have caused or contributed to her epilepsy,

The worst of all was the vaulting horse. For this you stood in a queue and then rushed at it, hoping to get over. I generally failed to get even close and there was no place to hide. I think I once did get over it, but I had no idea how, wasn't encouraged in any way, and never succeeded again. One teacher even scolded me publicly as "sloppy". 

Looking back, I think that the method of teaching was designed to help those who could do it anyway get better and, probably unintentionally, left those who couldn't in a humiliated limbo. In fact, I'm not sure that wasn't true of nearly all my schooling; the best received the best teachers, the worst had to follow as best they could.

I rather regret that I wasn't taught to develop better confidence and feel that I missed out on an essential skill.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Dippy

Today

On Facebook yesterday Becky had posted some pictures of a day trip to the Natural History Museum. "What a wonderful building this is!" I enthused. Just to walk in the doors inspires awe and wonder which primes you for the natural wonders you are about to see.

In My Day


Visits to the Cromwell Road museums were a regular part of my childhood and something that I continued as long as I lived in London. The amazing displays and fascinating collections never lost their wonders and it seemed as though  the possibilities were inexhaustible.  

My last visit to the NHM was for a rather different reason. One of our regular conductors in the Laetare Singers was a man named John Thackray. He was with the group from 1986 and always brought new insights to our music. He had, I always felt, a dancing spirit and would sometimes do the morning warm-up at Cropthorne by having us walk around the lawns singing "The Silver Swan" without music, and another time he had a small group of us serenade the others at the start of dinner with Tallis's "Non Nobis Domine" as grace.

So, it was with sadness that we heard of his death, aged only fifty, from cancer back in 1999. Soon after, his widow asked us to take part in a memorial performance of the Brahms Requiem. This was to be performed at the Natural History Museum, where, we learnt, John had been chief archivist for many years, as well as president of the Society for the History of Natural History

We joined forces with other musical groups with which he'd been involved. After a long rehearsal in a church in Prince Consort Road we performed to a selected audience in the great hall at the museum. What an amazing way to be remembered!

The choir was arranged on the stairs at the back with orchestra and soloists in front and the music echoed dramatically among the great Byzantine arches. The audience sat in the main part on either side of the great diplodocus (Dippy), who, I hope, found the work uplifting.

Earlier this year the NHM announced that Dippy had to go, to be replaced by a blue whale skeleton. Dippy, however, is still there, because, it would appear from browsing the museum website, that they can't find another museum big enough who'll give him houseroom!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Against the Wall

Today

Facebook throws up some funny things. Today someone posted a picture of girls playing with balls against a wall. "2 balls against the wall - how many did this?" the poster asked. Well, me, for one.

In My Day

Despite having what is colloquially known as a "wall eye" which is lazy to boot, I have always been good at throwing and catching. I was good at rounders as a fielder and was a fair goal shooter in netball.

As a child one of my pleasures was to play with two balls - usually tennis balls or something with a similar bounciness. I would throw them up one after the other - a sort of juggling really which makes me wonder why I never progressed to three or more balls - catching them one at a time. My hands were too small to catch them both at once so the trick was to keep one ball in the air at all times (that's also true of juggling).

4BH also had plenty of exterior wall space so I would spend hours practising playing with these balls against the wall. When I used to awake early, after a night riddled with nightmares, I'd go out into the garden in the dawn light and play, alone, for a long time, until breakfast was called or until the treacherous bright morning gave way to clouds and rain. I'd practise underhand and overhand throws, high or low on the wall and one-handed. I am always interested in how hard children will sometimes work to prefect a minor skill. I think I once broke a window while engaged in this pastime and reluctantly owned up.

I don't remember my siblings being involved; it certainly is in my memory as a solitary game. 

What is curious about the Facebook posting is the suggestion that it isn't something done today and I can't imagine why not, tennis balls still being available.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Giddyup

Today

At Becky's last week I was asked about my thoughts and ideas on moving child-safety up a notch as Carmen becomes even more agile and inquisitive. One thing I threw away was a broken music box in the shape of a teddy sitting on a drum. "Put it on the windowsill, please, Grandma" said Carmen. I told her no and showed her the spike emerging from its ruined insides. She eventually seemed to understand what I was saying and agreed with me "in the bin!"

In My Day

When Lizzie was about three Paul and I had occasion to visit an antiques fair or shop. I can't quite remember where it was - Wisbech, I think. While there we saw a Mobo horse. Mobo were manufacturers of pressed steel toys and this was a sprung toy horse, about three foot tall. I think it was painted blue. This picture shows the sort of thing it was.

We thought that Lizzie would love it and stuffed it into the back of the car and drove home. (We were stopped on the way by police who were looking for a criminal antiques dealer, but that's another story).

So, we got the creature home and ensconced in Lizzie's bedroom. It was enormous, relative to the size of Rowan Avenue, and as our house filled up with Becky and a range of long-term visitors, it was moved from place to place, ending up in our tiny front porch which also housed a chest freezer. We could hardly get in and out. One day I'd had enough. To my knowledge, Lizzie had never actually got up on the horse, nor shown any interest in it and visiting children ignored it as well. So one day I just got rid of it - I can't remember by what means.

Cue tantrums from Lizzie. She bewailed the loss of her horse as though it had been her best buddy. Even Paul glowered at me and I felt like a criminal myself.

Well, it was too late, and Lizzie eventually got over it. Looking back, I do think that if I had simply discussed it with her  first (as I did with Carmen over the drum) all might  have been well.

Although, given the way Carmen remembers things, I fully expect her to complain for months to come that I threw out her music box.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Old Chestnut

Today

This year's Sainsbury's Christmas ad is very delightful in which Mog the cat manages to wreck the whole house. In one sequence chestnuts start roasting and flying all over the kitchen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuRn2S7iPNU

In My Day

We rarely roasted chestnuts as children, although some were sometimes bunged on a shovel and put on the fire at Guy Fawkes. More commonly, we had them peeled and simmered in turkey stock to go with Christmas dinner.

Paul often used to extol the delights of roasted chestnuts as enjoyed when he lived in the 17th century Dial House. He conjured up visions of roaring log fires, cosy family evenings full of simple home-spun pleasures.

Picture this: It's evening at Rowan Avenue in about 1975 or 76. Lizzie is  tucked up in bed and we're relaxing for the evening. Suddenly there's a sound of gunfire; spasmodic loud explosions. Was there a shoot-out in the street? Should we call the Police?  Hang on! Weren't they coming from the kitchen? Looking panic-stricken, Paul rushed to the kitchen and opened the oven door. More explosions, this time firing straight at his face. He slammed the door shut and switched off the oven.

Thinking to please me, Paul had put some chestnuts in the oven to roast. How delightful it would be to recreate his childhood experience in our bare 1970's semi! However, fantasy needs to meet reality at some stage if disaster is to be avoided, and what Paul had never noticed during those cosy evenings was that every chestnut had a prick in its shell so that it could expand in the heat.

I think we scraped a few chestnuts off the tray and I'm not sure that I ever got the oven quite clean.

They say it's the thought that counts but that saying is a bit of an old chestnut as well.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

You Know You want To

Today

Reactions to Thames Valley Police's Tea Consent video about rape have ranged from the derisive to the amused to the "I know what they're getting at".

I'm mainly in the last camp; although whether this will affect the number of rapes is another question.

In My Day

Back in about 1987, Lizzie had invited a bunch of her schoolfriends over. They were all about 14. Somehow the subject got onto rape and one girl (speaking from her vast experience) talked about it as though it was something you might want and even enjoy. In her mind rape was just slightly more forceful sex. Maybe she'd read too many bodice-rippers.

"Look, Vicky," I said, also forcefully  "It's like this: supposing you really like Mars Bars and have let it be known that they're your favourite. A person offers you a Mars Bar. You don't fancy one at the time so you say no. They say, 'go on, you know you want one'. You say 'Really, no thanks'. They come closer to you, telling you want a Mars Bar right now. As you continue to refuse they grab you, force your mouth open and stuff it down your throat."

I paused for effect while Vicky looked a bit sick. "Rape", I told Vicky and the other girls around the table "has little to do with sex and everything to do with violence, and don't any of you confuse the two."

No matter if you love sex, no matter if you like wearing short skirts or going clubbing, you have the right to refuse and to be respected. As I write, rape is a way of life in countries around the world, as well as being used as a weapon of war in many, and we must do all we can to change this.

So, full marks for trying, TVP, I just hope your video doesn't have a trivialising effect on how we view this crime of dominance and hatred .

Monday, November 02, 2015

Puke

Today

On Facebook my niece was describing how one of her dogs had guzzled down a bottle of coconut oil and the resulting mess when the dog's body rejected the oil.... "Dogs seem to have zero self-control" commented Lizzie.

In My Day

Caspian, our dog, had all the best qualities of a mongrel. He ate whenever there was an opportunity, clearly having no faith in the regular arrival of his next meal. Food never seemed to touch the sides and you couldn't leave him alone with it. 

In our garden at Montfort Close there were a couple of conference pear trees. The fruit was nothing special but Cas used to sit beneath the trees, crunching on windfalls, earwigs and all. He could consume 20 at a time. He never made the link between how bad he felt the next day, shivering and vomiting, and these orgies.

He once stole 5 kilos of cheese after I carelessly left a shopping bag on the floor and another time spent a night at the local chippy in Crowborough devouring the contents of the bins.

On another occasion he  took a flying leap into someone's picnic when we lived at Southampton, stealing a Marmite sandwich just as its rightful owner was lifting it to his lips. And I routinely had calls from the butcher at Stoke St Michael to tell me that Cas had got into his bins.

His worst hours came after he'd found a catering pack of mixed dried fruit. He consumed the lot, only to lose it all on the patio a couple of hours later, feeling very ill indeed.

What he also never understood was why we had to starve him for twenty-four hours after each of these excesses to give his body a chance to recover, and that a visit to the vet might also be necessitated.

I don't think that self-control is in a dog's dictionary, Lizzie, so we have to try to have it for them! At least in Sarah's case the accident necessitated an huge house clean, which might be a good thing, only I doubt if that was how she had planned to spend her Sunday.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Bloody Cheek

Today

There has been much publicity recently about whether the government will or won't remove the VAT on women's sanitary products.

Ever since the introduction of VAT they have been classed as "luxury" items which beggars belief and reinforces the feeling that we are still ruled by a misogynistic elite.

"Many men", I told Paul this morning "are disgusted by this simple reproductive fact".

In My Day

It is true that we are more open about these matters these days. But when I was young the subject was still rather taboo and our family was unusual in the way in which this fact of life was explained.

Daddy simply broached the subject one evening after Mamma had been displaying some (to us) inexplicably irrational behaviour. He not only gave us the reason why but explained the biological process. He didn't make a song and dance about it; in fact, I think we had just finished supper and were all round the table.

Later, as I approached puberty, Mamma took me to one side and explained how to manage it when it occurred. This meant that when I had my first period, I had only a moment's surprise before remembering Mamma's advice so that I was able to speak to her quite normally.

Even in our plain-speaking family there still had to be a euphemism "The Circus" my mother called it, presumably because of the regularity with which it came round, and my mother-in-law called it "The Curse".

I had a colleague who had been educated by nuns and was completely ignorant about the whole thing. When she awoke to a pool of blood one morning she thought she was dying. She spoke to the nuns about it and they said "It's a cross we women have to bear", and left it at that. It was years before she was able to accept this part of her life as normal.

While I think that that menstruating is a personal matter and that it's crass to make jokes a la Jo Brand about the function, maybe it's a necessary part of the process of bringing it out of the shadows of disgust and into the realm of normality.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Don't Feed the Animals

Today

A few days ago, we took Carmen to Longleat. She seemed to enjoy her day, especially when we stopped to look at the giraffes and zebras. Until you are close up to a giraffe you forget just how huge they are.

In My Day

I think it was in about 1987 and I was caring for a friend's child who was of a similar age to Becky. One day I decided that it would be a treat to take the girls to Longleat. I packed up a nice picnic and off we set.

I was using my car to drive round and we stopped in the area where the zebras, giraffes and camels were. These days you  don't walk amongst these animals; you walk on a raised walkway and view from above.

I was carrying the picnic bag and decided in my wisdom that we didn't need to go into the designated picnic area; what was wrong with sitting on the grass?

We sat down and I unpacked the picnic: hard-boiled eggs, new potatoes, cans of pop, crisps etc. We began to tuck in. Suddenly I noticed a giraffe striding toward us. He was about twenty foot tall and his intentions were plain. He wanted our picnic. I began to pack up as he loomed ever closer. I had two urgent anxieties. One was to get the children and myself away from those enormous hooves. The other was to grab a ring-pull that was lying on a plate, as I feared that this might kill the giraffe if he accidentally swallowed it.

Just as he reached us I grabbed all the hardware, leaving Becky's unfinished picnic to meet its fate and we scrambled into the picnic area.

The giraffe really enjoyed Becky's picnic, although using his mouth, which is adapted to eating leaves, to attempt to spear the egg and potato was fascinating to watch, He rolled them around, eventually getting them into his mouth and down the hatch.

We were very lucky that there weren't worse consequences. It's easy to think that a herbivorous animal with a reputation for gentleness can't possibly hurt you, but of course they are all equipped to defend themselves very ably, and I learnt a lesson in respect that day.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

soulless

Today

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

Gnaw

Today

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

Today

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

Today

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

Today

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

Today

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

Today

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

Today

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.