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.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Singalong

Today

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

Today

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

Today

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vx9DTDDG8lc

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

Today

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

Shades

Today

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

Decade

Today

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

Pain

Today

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

Pox

Today

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

Queue

Today

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

Today

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

Today

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. 

http://www.space.com/15567-north-star-polaris.html

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

Escalation

Today

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

Today

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

Bauble

Today

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

Sludge

Today

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

Today

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

Difficile

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Nine Lessons

Today

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

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

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Naked Threat

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Westward Ho

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

Not exactly wandering off into the sunset.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Memory Board

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Triple Decker

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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