Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Hare-raising

Today

I was browsing a Facebook page called "Girls that make stuff" and someone was displaying some beautiful images burnt into slices of wood. She asked for suggestions as to creatures that she could feature and I suggested a hare.

After all, you hardly ever see a real hare these days.

In My Day

I joined Cantilena Choir in 1988. When the day came for our Spring concert I found that the rehearsal time was so close to the performance start that I would not be able to get home, fed and changed and back in time.

A fellow soprano offered me a way out. "I live close by; come and have supper with us and you can change in my bedroom. I was very grateful for this and she took me to her rather beautiful home near Street.

Supper was served in the hall which was really a whole room in itself. As I sat down I looked about the room. The walls were decorated, not with paintings, hangings or photographs, but little plaques, each of which had a hare's foot mounted on it. I gazed at these grisly trophies in horror. I kept my eyes averted and tried to attack my food with some enthusiasm. .

However, there was no averting them from my colleague's husband who just then walked in the front door. He was in full regalia: a black tail coat. white breeches, shirt and cravat and black boots. Clearly he was a master of beagling, just come home from hunting. I found excuses to avoid future invitations.

I find it strange to think that there are people walking around for whom this is a perfectly normal thing to do.

It's no wonder that these beautiful creatures are in decline, although Becky tells me she saw one in Essex the other week. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Kitties Galore

Today

I guess it had to happen. Becky and Richard caved in (without much resistance, I'm sure) to Carmen's longing for a pet. To achieve this they went to a local rescue centre in L'Eliana. "Battersea, it was not", Becky told me. "There was a room full of adults and another full of kittens." From this melee they chose Rosie and Mac an unrelated pair of four-month olds who seem to be rather cute. 

In my day

After my cats Agamemnon and Amelia died in 1993, we were told of some kittens needing new homes. They were at a ramshacke farm cottage near Priddy. The Kittens were in an undecorated and unfurnished room with a board fixed across the door to keep them from straying. The mother cats - there were three, a mother and daughters - hopped across it at will, as did the farm dogs who jumped in to eat the cat food.

In this room there were fifteen kittens, aged between four and eight weeks old, all rolling about and playing. There was every colour from black to white, ginger, tabby and tortoiseshell. They were all more or less related. Our attention was drawn to a noisy little black and white - rather like the Felix cat food cat. We picked him up. "Do you know", the owner said, volubly "at one time we thought he was dead. we found him not moving, spreadeagled on the floor. But he's fine now." After that, there was no putting this little one back in the mix. We named him Amadeus for his musical and persistent Miaow, and decided to bring him home. (We later discovered that he had suffered a broken pelvis, and wondered if one of the dogs had given him a shake).

We wanted two cats and gazed at the heaving piles of babies, wondering who might be a companion to Amadeus. Suddenly there was a loud squeaking coming from behind a radiator. We rescued a little fluffy white and tortoiseshell kitten who had got stuck. Perfect! The owners said she been sort of reserved for a woman who wanted to give her to her one-year-old grandson. Terrible, we said. He's too little, she's too little. In this way we persuaded her that we could give her the best care and she was ours.

Lizzie named her Arietty and she did have a lovely life with us. Neither cat was as healthy as they might have been, being inbred and having had indifferent care. Both had to have calcium supplements for the first few months and Amadeus died suddenly at age 4.

But, life without a cat or two to share it? Impossible! And it seems that my daughters both agree.




Friday, July 28, 2017

Distance View

Today

This morning, as we took our constitutional up the High Street I noticed one of those "Baby on Board" signs attached to the rear window. Although this one, bizarrely, said "Waterbaby on Board".

I'm not sure what these are trying to achieve; maybe people think that it's OK to drive right up against someone's boot if there isn't a baby in the car. Plus these cars often still have the signs up when there's no baby in the car.

In My Day

Of course, having people persistently driving too close is very irritating and can be intimidating. Sometime back in the  '70s Paul decided to do something about it. First, with the help of his colleagues at Hannington's  he made a long pyramid shaped box - rather like a Toblerone - that would fit along the rear parcel shelf or our Zephyr. 

Then he made and inserted some letters that could be illuminated, reading "Keep your distance!" He wired it all up and put a switch on the dashboard. The idea was that he would flick this switch whenever someone was driving too close, telling them to back off a little. 

I think he used it quite often. Whether it caused people to  increase their distance or actually made them come closer so that they could see what the sign was saying, I can't say. Its effectiveness varied according to the time of day; in bright sunshine it was not very readable. 

He certainly didn't carry the idea over into future cars and I don't think we have been more or less pestered by "tailgaters" since.

I've just trawled the internet and find that there are many bumper stickers carrying this message, including a strange one that says "new driver, keep your distance" as though it's OK not to with an experienced driver.

The truth is, whoever or whatever may be on board the vehicle in front, the two-second rule counts.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Wedding Favours

Today

Last week I was disappointed that I had to cancel going to my friends' youngest daughter's wedding, because Paul didn't feel well enough to travel.

Lizzie went, though. "You received a mention in the speeches, Mum," she said "John said that he thought that you and Dad had paid the train fare to London for their wedding".

In My Day

Weddings always used to be so much more on a shoestring; at least in my experience. On New Year's Eve 1976, John and Beverley decided to tie the knot. Beverley had set her heart on having the ceremony at Caxton Hall in London, the same as her parents. This was duly arranged and we planned to drive as far as South London, then catch a train to Victoria.

The wedding guests consisted of Paul & Me, who were also to be witnesses. We drove up as far as East Croydon station, parked and hopped on the train. As we whizzed through Clapham Junction John looked a little wistful. "What are you thinking, John?" I asked. "Well", he said "I rather wish we'd gone for the whole thing, penguin suits and all....." A bit late for that, John!

We walked from Victoria to Caxton Hall and had a simple and  happy ceremony. Afterwards we walked back, buying a single of "Don't Cry for me Argentina" that had just been released. Beverley sent flowers to her Mum to let her know what had occurred.

Then back to Crystal Palace and to David's house, where we found the children perched on chairs to throw rice over the bride and groom and enjoyed a feast of Xmas left-overs.

We all drove in convoy back to Eastbourne where we had a huge party, confusing guests who weren't sure whether it was to celebrate my birthday, the wedding or New Year. Doh! All three of course.

I have no memory of paying for all our tickets; we were all equally poor at that time. If I did, John, it was a pleasure.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Speech Day

Today

This morning I was honoured to support Joan while she presented a new award to the local primary school. This was the David Dixon award for improvement in writing and it was given to a small girl who, with much effort,  had discovered how to get her ideas into written form.

The event was held at St Peter and Paul's church in Shepton Mallet  and was a happy affair. The teachers of the year six leaving class had put together an amusing description of notable events during the year and children presented a leaving teacher with beautiful handmade cards. Gifts of Bibles (it is a C of E school), alarm clocks and hoodies with the year and pupils' names on the back were given to each child in the leaving year.

Later, talking to Joan, I said "do you remember speech days?"

In My Day

At my school and, I am sure, at countless other throughout the country, we had an annual "speech day". We all gathered in the hall, teachers were flossied up in full cap and gown and we were harangued for quite a long time by various people whom we never otherwise saw. Governors were a fearsome bunch in those days, not at all like the ever visible and very local head of governors who spoke today.

We sang the school hymn - "The Skye Boat Song", and, predictably, saw the same high-flyers receive prizes each year. There were no prizes for students for effort, improvement, politeness nor for any other indications that some of us were struggling against the odds.

Prizes all seemed to be improving books, such as volumes of Tennyson, so they weren't exactly things to envy. It was more that, for most of us, it was an event to observe, rather than participate in. And, unless you were already very good at music, sport or classics, you could do nothing to change the outcome. 

And as for giving each child a reward or the teachers doing a bit of karaoke satirising the year's events and making light-hearted digs at pupils' and teachers' foibles, heaven forfend.

It's all part, it seems to me, of modern education being an experience shared between parents, pupils and teachers, rather than simply being handed down from high. 

I was glad to be part of this event and very much hope that the children will remember and treasure today.


Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Joint Enterprise

Today

There are so many miracles in today's medical world that it's easy to think that, once we are in the surgeon's hands, there is nothing more we have to do. Of course, that's not quite right; in most cases, it's a question of co-operation; working with the surgeons to achieve the right outcome.

This morning Paul at last received the go-ahead for a total knee replacement. The procedure is fairly routine, but in order to get full benefit, there are exercises to do, both before and after the operation. And exercise isn't really in my husband's vocabulary.

In My Day

Back in the day, there was much less emphasis on rehabilitation. Patients spent a lot more time in bed following treatment, which was not often the best way to recovery.

When he was seventy-four, my father had a stroke. This meant that Daddy's right side was severely affected, and he couldn't walk, use his right arm or speak properly. He was kept in bed at home and I don't remember seeing a physiotherapist or similar ever turning up.

Daddy, however, was a man of action, and being cooped up in bed was not, in his view, an option. So every day he struggled out of bed and attempted to walk; gradually bringing control to his limbs. When the doctor next paid a visit, after about ten days, Daddy got himself to the front door to let him in. The doctor was amazed and pleased at Daddy's progress. Clearly, there had been no provision to help him, but his ability to help himself was a matter for wonder and praise.  

And he was eventually able to walk again and use his right arm to an extent. He gave up driving when he found that his right foot couldn't quite make the transition from accelerator to brake fast enough for safety and his speech was always a little slurred after that.

But he lived on till eighty-six, only becoming immobile in the last year or so, mainly because of an unrelated health issue.

I hope that Paul will learn the lesson and see that his recovery is truly a joint enterprise.

Monday, May 29, 2017

First Love

Today

What an evening! Last night I went to the Colston Hall to hear a performance of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo by the Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir under John Elliott Gardner. It was semi-staged but this did not reduce the drama and quality of singing. Nor did the fact that there was no interval and we sat in our seats for two and a half hours.

"Ravishing!" I enthused "I felt Orfeo's pain. Best opera ever written!"

In My Day

As readers of this blog will know, I've been a fan of early music since my teens. When I was a student of theatre design at the West Susses College of Design in Worthing, we were asked to design costumes for Orfeo.

We were given a choice of Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice or Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. No contest! Alone in my group I chose the Monteverdi and splashed out on a vinyl boxed set of a very superior performance. I designed elaborate costumes, basing them on the sort of art used in the 17th century. I provided for Deus ex Machina moments (I don't think I got as far as working out the actual mechanics).

I've no idea what happened to those designs; another lost something from my life, but I listened to the music again and again. Orfeo's plea to Charon would melt the stoniest heart, I thought. Here it is:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYqF3TTaZcc

When I read that this was the first fully composed opera I was amazed and almost wondered why anyone would dare to follow it.

I've seen it several times since; once by Kent Opera in Eastbourne and once at the Theatre Royal Bath - a strange realisation that almost eclipsed the music.

But not quite; I still respond to this story in music of joy, pain and hope as though it was my first time of hearing. And, among, opera, it's still my first love.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Screwed

Today

If we'd thought about it a little more, maybe we wouldn't have chosen to travel home from Essex on the Friday of the bank holiday weekend.

Everyone was streaming out of London, many heading for the Isle of Wight or the West country. As we joined to M3 we saw a number of cars broken down - radiators steaming, bonnets up, people perched just beyond the barriers awaiting rescue. There seemed to be even more on the A303.

"How depressing", I remarked "there you are, all packed up for your holiday, kids in the back, bikes on the roof, sun's shining, and you've broken down. Not a good start."

In My Day

I remember how important it was, that vital break from work, when you could get away from toil for a week. In 1977, I was very pregnant with Becky and we had decided to take a week's camping in Wales. This was the Queen's silver jubilee and she had declared an extra holiday, which effectively meant that all shops were shut from Saturday evening until Wednesday morning.

On Saturday night we loaded the car up with tents and clothing and planned to leave at about one in the morning so that Lizzie would sleep through. After supper Paul went out to check a few last minute bits and pieces. He came back with a very long face.

"There's a problem", he said. "we have a puncture and I have no  decent spare and no safe jacking points."

I behaved the way all pregnant women regard as their right: I burst into hysterical tears and reminded Paul that it was now too late to do anything about it until Wednesday and we might as well abandon our holiday altogether and my life was completely ruined.

Paul went back to the car and came back ta bit later. "I have a plan", he said "The cause of the puncture was a nail which I've removed and I've screwed an enormous brass screw into the hole and pumped up the tyre. If it's lost no pressure by the time we are due to leave, we'll chance it.

Which we did. He drove fairly gingerly and that morning we arrive at our campsite, with the tyre having lost 2lbs. We pitched our tent and set about having a good time, despite the lashing rain.

When Wednesday arrived we drove into the nearest town and found a car repair garage. Paul spoke to owner, "We seem to have a slow puncture; could you take a look, please?" The mechanic removed the tyre and soon returned, guffawing with laughter and brandishing the screw. "You wouldn't have got far with that!" he chortled. We kept quiet and, not only did he replace the tyre, but found two wheels, complete with tyres,  that he let us have for a fiver. Without Paul's ingenuity, the holiday would have been well screwed

All of which give a whole new meaning to the expression Keep Calm and Carry on. 


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Spiritual

Today

At the moment I am immersed in preparations for our next concert, which will be based on American themes, including "I Got Rhythm" and a range of American Spiritual settings.

Among them is a setting of "Steal Away" from Michael Tippett's "A Child of our Time". I find myself suffused with the longing, despair and fearful hope of the music. "Steal away to Jesus, steal away home. I ain't got long to stay here"

In My Day

I think that these songs were called "Negro Spirituals" when I was a child and the first one I encountered was "Swanee River" which would have been in our News Chronicle Song Book.  Daddy would explain that the song was about the ending of slavery when the slaves became effectively homeless, although the tune always seemed a little jaunty. I almost had an idea that the ending of Slavery in America was a bad thing; that was until I became more aware. I used to sing this song at home and at school without much thought.

(Actually, Daddy was wrong, this song was written in 1851 when slavery was still legal) 

Later, in a number of choirs, I sang settings of bible stories "Li'l David Play on yo' Harp" and, even worse, "Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho". These were all arrangements by white Western  musicians and somehow we had to sing this approximation of plantation black patois. The songs seemed to me then and now, a failure, in terms of capturing the  passionate adoption of Christianity by the slaves as their only hope, and thoroughly patronising. And it's a rare white western choir that can make much sense of these pieces.

The Tippett settings are so different, and seem both respectful and relevant to today.

What is depressing is that nothing has changed; people are being bullied and oppressed all over the world and it's no wonder that so many believe in a religion that can offer them a future when this life doesn't.


Monday, February 20, 2017

Rover

Today

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

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

In My Day

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


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Eternal

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Faithful

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Bananas

Today

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

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Readies

Today

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

Me too.

In My Day

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Armless

Today

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

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Slumming it

Today

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

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

In My Day


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Roaring Seventies

Today

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

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Longest Day

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Rest in Pieces

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, August 09, 2016

First Edition

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

Friday, July 15, 2016

Fell

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Seen and (not) Heard

Today

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

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Dancing Queen Take II

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

As they say on Strictly, Carmen, keep dancing!

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Underworld by Design

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Vibrato

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They haven't asked me back since...

Monday, July 04, 2016

Mother

Today

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

"Not me", I said to Paul.

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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