Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cracking the Whip

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Waistcoat

Today

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

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 11, 2014

Degree of Separation

Today

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

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Biassed

Today

Today has all been about bias. Not the political kind, but related to fabrics. I needed some wide bias binding to edge some seat covers I'm making, but the local shop could only provide 25mm wide and I need at least 50mm so as to house the elastic.

Then I found myself ridiculously confused trying to cut out an envelope-style bias cut cushion cover, as though I'd never cut on the cross before.

"Bias" in sewing means cutting at a 45 degree angle to the grain of the fabric. Woven fabric is basically a grid.of threads at 90 degrees, with the "grain" being the warp, running down the length of the piece.

In My Day

When I was at college learning about theatrical costumes, I was told that in the 12th century dresses were cut on the bias without other shaping to give that sensuous Guinevere look. I'm not sure now how much of this is true and how much is just down to artistic licence.

I learnt that the even more sensuous look of fashion in the 1930's was down to bias cut, enabling the garments to cling and drape at the same time. You can use bias cut fabric to give beautiful cowl necklines which have no bulk, and bias cut satin unforgivingly clings to each and every curve.

When I made corsets, using a combination of bias on the more stretchy side panels and straight on the stiff fronts allowed me to produce curvaceous corsets of the type worn on the 1840's. 

By the time I went to Eastbourne teacher training college to train to teach needlework I had more or less worked out when it could be used to advantage.

The tutor in charge of dressmaking was affectionately know an "Auntie Vi". She was a rather Victorian type of lady who set strict standards and rules and would probably have had us stitching samplers if she had been allowed. I don't think she was used to having students who had done more than "A" level needlework and I guess she found me hard work.


Inevitably she had her favourite student, a diligent, neat, rather self-righteous girl who was never seen at student parties. One day she wandered in to the sewing room where I was busy cutting out a dress for myself. She watched in disbelief as I laid the bodice pieces on the bias. Eventually she could restrain herself no longer and gave me a short lecture on how Auntie Vi said that the centre front should always be on the straight grain. I listened, than gave her a short lecture on the principles of cutting across the grain. Here is a picture of me wearing the dress - see how nicely it fits my top half without the need for darts or other shaping!

I may still be able to remember the principles of bias cutting, but I wouldn't mind a bias in favour of being as slim as I was then!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Dicky Bib

Today

Carmen's progressed onto feeding herself, at least some of the time. Becky gives her a selection of chopped items to choose from. Quite a lot misses the mouth. "I bought one of those plastic bibs with a scoop," explained Becky.

"Oh, I used to call those Dicky Bibs," I replied

In My Day

Like all babies, Lizzie slowly learnt to feed herself. It was a messy business, involving the placing of a large plastic groundsheet under her highchair to stop bits from falling on our new carpet. This sheet had to be shaken out and wiped every day - a chore that I didn't much like having to perform. Plus, the towelling bibs she wore became grimed with food as well as soaked from spilt milk and water.

One day, in Mothercare, I saw exactly the thing! A bright yellow plastic bib with a curved up bottom to catch the food, It was called a "Dicky bib". What a fantastic idea! food wouldn't fall on the carpet, the fronts of Lizzie's clothing would stay dry and clean and the bib itself would just go in the washing up.

I carried this object home in triumph,  showed it to Lizzie at the next mealtime. and popped it round her neck.

Maybe I'd been too enthusiastic. Lizzie looked down admiringly at her yellow plastic front before starting her meal. Success! The food that didn't go into her mouth went into the bib's tray. My smile of relief that the thing actually worked turned to a grimace as Lizzie, dismayed at the way the nice new bib was being spoiled, put her hand into the tray and scooped the food out onto the floor. There! Now the bib was nice and clean again!

She smiled at me triumphantly, well pleased with her ingenuity, and I reinstated the plastic sheet.

Which just goes to show that something that works for the parent just might not be seen in the same way by the child!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Childhood Glory

Today

Walking along Bexhill Seafront the other day, Paul said "I performed in the De La Warr Pavilion when I was a child." He reminisced about saying little poems at South Coast festivals "Get upon a chuff-chuff" he declaimed "Ours is a nice house, ours is". and so on. He won prizes for singing ("I never won gold" he said, a little sorrowfully) and later for making a speech about life on Mars.

In My Day

Alone, I think, among my siblings, as a child I competed in the local competitions, entirely in the verse-speaking class.

My first ever poem was recited at the age of four and went like this:

"Goose, goose girl, come and mind your geese
They're making such a cackling we can't get any peace."

Over the next few years, I recited a range of poems. I had a clear voice, which elocution lessons made clearer, and a formidable memory, both attributes which I still possess. I was also pretty cute, which I certainly am not now.

In fact Mamma didn't think I was cute enough because she continually grumbled that I didn't win gold, not because I wasn't the best reciter in the contest, but because the regular winner was cuter than I.....

In these ways we shape our children's self-esteem.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Muzak

Today

On the way home from Market Harborough we stopped for coffee at a little tea shop in Moreton-in-Marsh. Maybe it was because we were tired, but when Paul went to use the facilities he came back complaining that there was even piped music in the vestibule leading to the loos. "Whatever happened to quiet?" he grumbled.

In My Day

Back in 1965 I and my friend Anne Bryant went cycling in Cornwall. One day we were peddling along and realised that we were very hungry and had no lunch with us. Anne spotted a sign to a restaurant and we cycled up a long track which led to an up-market establishment.

Full of bravado we parked our bikes and went in. There were no other customers and a youngish waitress ushered us to our seats at a table which was laid with impeccable white napery. We were hot and sweaty and clad in shorts. The menus were brought and we regarded the prices with horror. While we made up our minds that we really only wanted soup and bread, the waitress wounded up the background music. I think that it was rather tasteful stuff - maybe Mantovani or quiet chamber music. I remember that were rather amused by this.

We may have had posh accents but we didn't have posh money. The waitress took our orders for soup without comment.

I just hope she thought that we were worth all the effort - maybe any customers are better than none and we appreciated the music at least.

I heard about someone who, when the neighbouring club's high decibel offering drowned out the already unsuitable Bach's B Minor Mass muzak at the restaurant in which she was eating, was appalled that the waiter's response to her protest was to turn the B Minor mass up to max in an attempt to drown out disco hell!!

Monday, June 09, 2014

Too Posh to Wash

Today

Whilst having supper tonight I joked about some of the food having been on the kitchen floor. "That's OK", said Paul "I'll scrape out the spiders and bugs.. " "Well", I said "Why don't we just embrace upper class squalor?" "I think we have", responded my spouse.

In My Day

Noticing and caring about cleaning up stuff is a very middle-class virtue, I think. There are truly some people so posh that they don't notice trivial things like dirt.

One summer, about 1997 or so, Becky had Summer jobs as a Nanny. One of these took her to an Exmoor farmhouse where a couple with an unpronounceable Balkan surname lived. He was something in the City, she was an artist of sorts, and they were awaiting the arrival of child number two.

The whole exciting story of baby two's arrival on the sitting room floor is Becky's to tell. However, we became involved because the rough drive to the farmhouse which was all right for their 4X4, slaughtered the subframe of Becky's little Metro. So we ferried her down weekly.

The farmhouse certainly had Thomas Hardy charm. It also had Thomas Hardy filth. In fact, probably more than it would have done in Hardy's day, when people slaved night and day with brooms and hot water and soap. The quarry tiled kitchen floor had probably not seen soap and hot water for about a hundred years. Food vied with mud, doggy footprints and other unmentionables. We gingerly sat down on some greasy chairs and made polite small talk and admired the baby, wondering how soon we could escape.

It's not as though they displayed even the tiniest bit of embarrassment ("Sorry about the mess" etc etc) and they were certainly able to afford a cleaner;  they were simply above that sort of thing. I immediately dubbed their lifestyle "Upper Class Squalor"

 Becky always said that after the new baby was born on the sitting room floor there was a suspicious stain on the carpet that was never cleaned up, but more importantly, was simply never mentioned. 

Thinking about that has made me determined to steam clean the kitchen floor at the first opportunity Oh, and none of the food had actually been on the floor.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Naughty Kittie

Today

On Sunday, after a long day in the Bentley on the Mendip Classic Car Tour, I arrived home to find that Abby had slipped into our bedroom unseen and was asleep on our bed. I railed about this on Facebook and one friend commented, "I remember a cat called Ariadne who got up to similar tricks"

In My Day

When did I decide that cats on the bed was a no-no?

When I first had Ariadne I shared her. so to speak with a flat-mate. She quickly became "mine",  as I took responsibility for care during weekends and holidays.

4 Beulah Hill was a large Victorian house on four floors and my bedroom was in the attic. In addition to our family there were also some tenants living in a range of flatlets and other accommodation so it wasn't really acceptable for Ariadne to have the run of the house at night.

So she slept in  my room at nights. That effectively meant my bed of course. She would start out on top of the covers but she often ended up in the bed, once at least, right at the bottom where she kept my feet warm. On that occasion, I did slightly panic, worrying that there would be insufficient oxygen and I would be pulling a dead cat out of the bed. 

To be honest, there was something comforting about having a warm creature snuggled up with me, although when Ariadne took to bringing rodents in through the open window at the student house in Station Road, Worthing, that was altogether less comforting.

It was after my marriage, when Paul and I at last had our own place, that I put a stop to it. There were two reasons: the first one was that, quite frankly, a cat in the room interfered with our sex life. Secondly, however careful we were, the cats got fleas, and fleas, in my opinion, have no place in the bed!

Generally, Abby is a most mannerly cat who understand that the bedtime routine doesn't involve nipping upstairs to our room.  But, despite her seventeen years, she is sometimes quite cheeky and just decides that the price of being chased out is worth it for a few hours of blissful snuggliness in a place that smells reassuringly of us.

In 2008 when she had her dreadful accident, I think she imagined that she could sleep with us, as a child wants to climb into your bed when they're unwell. We found her not just on the bed, but tucked under the covers, with her head on the pillow and front paws on the bedspread. All this while wearing a "lampshade"!

Just be clear, Abby: your advanced age doesn't mean that the chasing out is going to stop!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Dough

Today

It's Good Friday and I have committed myself to making some hot cross buns to take to Wine Circle tonight. "Use your bread-maker!" cried my niece, "Buy some and pretend!" said my daughter. "No, indeed, I shall do things properly", I replied with dignity.

The dough is now rising in the airing cupboard.

In My Day

There are times when I can't quite comprehend how I used to cope. In the late 1970s and early 1980s I was working full-time, had two children, took in foreign students, made most of my and the girl's clothes, cooked fresh food daily, did a little extra sewing to make ends meet.

In addition to all that, walking the dog and doing the housework, I also used to make bread regularly, about twice a week. Before going to bed at night, I'd measure out the ingredients, make and knead the dough. I bunged it in a bowl, covered with a wet cloth, protected by plastic, put the lot in the airing cupboard and went to bed.

The next day, before getting the children dressed or going to work, I'd get the dough, which would by now be huge and spongy, knock it back and bake the loaf. Mostly the bread was pretty good, too. But I must have got up at about five am to do it and can't now imagine how I did it. 

I think bread-making was abandoned when I took the COP training job as I was now travelling all over the south-east.

I must say I found the hand-kneading of the dough rather therapeutic and am looking forward to the results. Although I doubt whether they'll be a good as the ones Paul's cousin Roger made, a picture of which was proudly posted on Facebook.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Jackdaw

Today

One of my friends on Facebook posted one of those statuses that ask, among other things. where you first met. Easy for me on this one: "Jackdaws!" I replied.

In My Day

Jackdaws is a musical education trust situated in Great Elm near Frome. It grew out of the Great Elm Music Festival which was started by Maureen Lehane Wishart and my brother Chris back in 1992. It expanded rapidly, there being much music talent in the area and Maureen, herself a renowned Mezzo-soprano began offering courses at her home, Jackdaws.

At first, they were open to a wide range of abilities. Later with grant money and patronage from Dame Joan Sutherland, it expanded in size and offered courses to a very high standard. They also offered extremely good food.

I myself attended several course, before deciding that my skills were too far behind that of the other students. I went to a madrigal course given by Evelyn Tubb and her husband who played the theorbo. They were both Tai Chi practitioners and every morning saw us barefoot on the lawn aligning our bodies with the Earth's natural rhythms and generally loosening up. Evelyn had refreshing take on madrigals and I found myself in one group singing "Strike up the Tabor" by Thomas Weelkes in broad Zummerzet while attempting to Morris dance.


Another course I remember well was devoted to Lute song. It was runs by the late Robert Spencer and included both lutenists and singers. His theory was that the words are everything and that vocal quality can be sacrificed to them. We all sang the Earl of Essex's Galliard, learning the reproachful story behind it and I sang some beautiful Thomas Campion songs. I met some very interesting people, some of whom with met up with on our visit to Verona later that summer.

The last course I attended was also run by Evelyn Tubb (see blog 16 Oct 2010) and was a study on Elizabethan and Baroque song. I learnt a great deal from her. What I also learnt that I was out of my league among singers who sang with passion, flare and a high degree of skill; beyond what I could hope to achieve.. I met my friend Cath there, although it was some years later before we regularly met up at Laetare events, and I was and remain dazzled by her commitment to song and ability to communicate.

Maureen Lehane died in 2010 but she lives on in this wonderful legacy. I feel privileged to have participated in even a small way.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fly Away Home

Today

Mother's Day and the sun is shining; what better than to spend a few hours doing a little garden tidying up? As I worked my way around the shrubs and tubs I met hundreds of ladybirds.

This is an image of ladybirds
 in 1976 in The Wirral
In My Day

There are still some of us who remember the great hot summer of 1976. It was not just hot; it was dry and long-drawn-out, following a dry and warm winter. We were living at Rowan Avenue and it soon became apparent that the weather suited ladybirds. They were everywhere, flying almost in swarms. 

To begin with this was fairly charming. The children loved to catch them; my friend's child Frannie caught a whole boxful which she presented to me! I persuaded her to put them onto her Daddy's roses which she did, one by one. I made a cake for Lizzie's birthday in the shape of a ladybird. We sang nursery rhymes about ladybirds and enjoyed the sunshine. What was there not to like?

After all, they weren't locusts, were they? And they are the gardener's friend, gobbling up aphids. But a few charming red and black spotted beetles are one thing. When they are flying in your face and into the bedrooms at night, clinging to net curtains and devilishly hard to remove it's something else. Our tolerance of the creatures came to an end when the moisture-starved insects started to bite. The first couple of times I thought that I was mistaken but it was true. Ladybird bites were reported everywhere and we had to caution the children about picking them up.

Somehow, though, we were still reluctant to swat or spray the insects - they are too firmly lodged in our childhood memories - and were delighted when Autumn brought deluges that more or less wiped them out.

But the roses that year were the best we'd had for years.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Brew

Today

Work is progressing in fits and starts on the conversion into apartments of the brewery opposite Spencer House. 

Paul is inclined to grumble about the back and forth arrival of large trucks, the vans parked in the road and the dust. "It's only temporary," I tell him "it would be much worse if it was still a brewery - there would be big trucks leaving in the small hours, constant noise and a terrible smell!"
Fuggles hops, before drying

In My Day

When we first joined the wine circle, Paul decided to try his hand at making beer. No kit-buying for him; he bought a large pan to mash the hops, sacks of dried hops and huge jars of malted barley (I'm very glad he didn't take to mashing his own malt).

He was retired by this time and on unpredictable days would be seized by beer-making frenzy. He'd browse through recipe books and get going. I could always tell before I reached home; the smell of hops would waft up the Close, and entry to the steaming, yeast-scented house required an act of courage.

After dealing with the issues arising from over-conditioning the bottles (One of our friends had a stain on her ceiling for years after the contents of one bottle flew skywards when opened), Paul became quite skilled at this particular art. He made all sorts of beers. His light wheat beer was very successful and much enjoyed by one of my nieces, although Paul was very affronted when another relative said "It almost tastes like real beer." ("It is real beer!" hissed Paul under his breath).

His stout was horrible, apparently, and found its way into the sewers bypassing the usual stage of being drunk.

The problem was actually drinking the beer. All the recipes tended to produce large quantities and home-made real ale doesn't keep very long. Paul, who constantly struggles to maintain a decent weight, found himself drinking more and more beer, just to use it up.

His swan-song was also his finest hour. It was the Queen's Golden jubilee and in accordance with tradition, there was a party in the Close. Paul laboured to produce a five-gallon barrel of "Jubilee Ale". As the residents gathered on the green he offered the beer. Most people were doubtful about home-brew, but neighbour Pete was game. "This is great!" he enthused "Got any more?" His enthusiasm spread and soon there was a queue of men at our kitchen door wanting to try the Jubilee Ale. Now this was no 3% fizz; it was the full 6.5% or so, not a drink to be taken lightly. This didn't stop our neighbours who between them emptied the barrel. The party went with a swing. Not so the next morning which saw a succession of head-clutching males trying to get on with their morning chores. Most still managed to croak "Great beer, Paul!" before dashing indoors for a little lie-down.

Paul doesn't make beer any more, preferring to select from the great range of real ales available in the shops, but does like to recall his finest hour. I, on the other hand, find the large pan very useful and am glad not to have the house filled with malty steam at random intervals. Although I must confess I'll also be happy when the builders have all gone home.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Hero

Today

My Niece posted a delightful video on Facebook today showing her children David and Dorothy running hand in hand up the street together. Apparently Dorothy calls David "Super Dave" and has decided that he is her hero.

In My Day
David and I as Yum-Yum and
Nanki-poo in the Mikado

I hadn't thought that Dorothy takes much after her great-aunt Julia but here is suddenly something we have in common. I don't quite know how old I was when I decided that my brother David was my "hero" (superheroes are a more modern invention), probably when I was about ten, certainly older than Dorothy. David was absent at boarding school most of the time so we didn't have the usual sibling sparring relationship which probably gave the glamour needed to create an idol.

We had much in common (except, maybe, an interest in buses) and I looked forward eagerly to the holidays and occasional Sunday get-togethers. He generally had an even temper and could do cool things, such as play the piano and compose music.

I wasn't at all inhibited about calling him my hero and wonder now what the rest of the family thought. Maybe it was an innocent way of having a crush on someone and David didn't disappoint. In our childhood and teenage time together we sang, rode bikes everywhere (I think it was David who taught me to love reading maps), and he was my protector at the Proms. We went Youth Hostelling together in Exmoor and enjoyed concerts and theatre visits in London. We collaborated on various crazy '60's projects, such as selling ties to Carnaby Street and attending weird John Cage and Cornelius Cardew musical "happenings". 

 As we have grown older our relationship has evolved into a normal, loving sibling closeness. I still have a residual feeling of admiration, but feel that it's more grounded in a real understanding of his talents.

What I must not forget is that my other siblings have also been  my heroes in many ways over the years and maybe I have been theirs too, on occasions. 

Your brother is pretty super, Dorothy, but so are you and I hope your brother never forgets it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pet

Today

There's been a distressing spate of stories recently concerning pet dogs involved in killing babies or children. It makes one pause and think about the way we handle dogs as "pets" and how, when we seem to be more protective of our children than ever, that this happens so tragically often. Some say that the dogs are stimulated to aggression by baby's cries or hands flapping about; who knows? - and it's not really the point.

Walking up the lane this morning I greeted a man who was attempting to walk his tiny dog. "I'd like to say 'hello'", I said to the animal "But I don't like being jumped up at." "He's only six months old", explained the owner, pulling the puppy away from me. "It took ages to teach my dog not to jump up", I remarked consolingly.

In My Day

Caspian the dog came into our lives in 1984. He was about two years old and was exuberantly delighted to have found a new home and family. The first time we came home having left him behind, he greeted us with joy, bouncing up to each of us in turn. Six year-old Becky was rather frightened by this and screamed and jumped back.

It did, indeed take us a long and tedious time to train Cas out of jumping up at us, but Becky had a different perspective on this habit. After we'd had Caspian for a couple of weeks, she rather dolefully said to me one day "Cas doesn't like me as much as the he does the rest of you". "Sure he does", I replied "What makes you think that he doesn't?" "Well, he never jumps up at me when we come home", was the reply.

"That's because you screamed the first time and he knew you didn't like it." In fact Caspian never, after that first scream, jumped up at any small child; he was perfectly aware that it signalled distress and that he shouldn't do it. 

In the fifteen years we owned Cas I never once saw him snap or display irritation at small children, no matter how much they cried or accidentally slapped him in the face.

We do need to think about exactly why people feel the need to acquire enormous animals which are often confined in small houses and under-trained and exercised. That doesn't stop me from feeling saddened for the children who lost their lives and for families who had to learn the lesson in such a hard way.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Solid Advice

Today

We have now reached the exciting stage of offering Carmen solid food. It seems that there are fads and fancies in when and how to wean as there are in most things. The current fashion is for infant-led weaning in which, it seems to me, you plonk food in front of baby and see what happens next. Those in the know say that you have to be prepared to food-proof your entire kitchen during this phase. Thankfully, Carmen is being offered the more normal range of puréed fruit and veg and shows a preference for sweet potato and pears.

In My day

When Becky was a baby, breast-feeding and I parted company at about five weeks old and she transferred happily to SMA. She might have been an ill baby for much of the time, but this didn't dull her appetite! By the time she was three months she'd down a full twelve floz of milk and reach out for more. When I told the midwife how much milk she was taking she was horrified. "You can't give her more than twelve oz at a feed," she insisted. "But Becky's hungry; should I put her on solids?" I asked. That, it appeared, was an even worse crime against my baby's health and medical orthodoxy. It seemed that I was damned either way.

I took stock. Becky was hungry and needed more nourishment than SMA could give her. So I took the matter into my own hands and started preparing puréed carrots, parsnips, swede and fruit. She gobbled up just about all I could give her (except banana which she was unable to swallow and which she dislikes to this day). I filled ice-cube trays with the purée and froze them, fishing out the appropriate number daily.

Despite all the dire warnings, Becky thrived on this diet, moved quite effortlessly to more adult food as she grew older and learnt to feed herself without the need for protective clothing other than a bib.

There is a lot more science behind the advice that we are given today, but we mustn't forget that our children are differing individuals and that for millions of years babies have been successfully weaned in a variety of ways and at a  variety of times.

What is new is the much larger range of foods in the shops that can be offered to Carmen which makes it very exciting.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sleepy Head

Today

Carmen is six months old and her parents are finding it hard to persuade her to settle into good night-time habits. It's all very exhausting and having her in their bed is not the easy solution it might once have seemed.

But it's very difficult to make wise decisions when all you can really think about is getting enough sleep.

In My Day

Lizzie was an all-night sleeper from early on, but with Becky it was a different story. She was not a well baby and suffered from frequent respiratory infections which kept her awake at night. We moved her bed into the adjacent room because her snuffling prevented me from sleeping at all, but the walls of the house were thin and I would awake at her first cry.

Infection followed infection; by the age of nine months she had whooping cough (she was never well enough to tolerate her vaccinations) and chicken pox and German measles added to the trials of the "hundred-day cough". I would be up time and time again, clearing her little lungs of sticky phlegm, settling her down again. Paul was ever ready to take his share, but there hardly seemed any point in waking him up as I was already awake.

By the time Becky was two, night-time waking was a matter of habit. When Mark, Beatrice and Nick were living with us, the girls moved into our room, top-and-tailed into a zed-bed. Sometimes Becky would start crying in her sleep and it became apparent that she was suffering from night terrors. This time it wasn't enough just to soothe her; I had to wake her up fully, after which she would be quite calm and go back to sleep.

I'll never understand why no-one else in our tiny house ever heard these episodes. I'd sit, first on the bed, and then on the landing, trying to persuade Becky to stop crying. On really desperate occasions I would be practically crying myself: "Oh Becky, please stop crying", I'd plead. Which was very helpful. And through all of this I was doing a full-time job.

By the time she was four Becky grew out of it, becoming a rather deep sleeper who was hard to awake. Here is a picture of her, aged about one; I think you can see how tired she is.

We are constantly told that we need seven to eight hours' sleep to function properly. While I'm sure that would be very nice, I think it simply can't be true when I think of the number of new parents who hold down jobs, care for their children and conduct social lives all on about three hours' broken sleep.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Holocaust

Today

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. As the decades go by this becomes more and more important  as fewer and fewer people are alive to remember it directly, and there are those who say that it never happened.

In My Day

I don't suppose that when my Grandfather Paul Bondy married Eva Freitag in the early part of the 20th century, they had any idea of the shape of their future. I guess there might have been a few family questions asked about his Jewishness and her Christian faith, but I assume they just built the difference into their life. They were both Germans, weren't they?

My Grandfather was a reasonably well-off man - a corn broker, my mother used to tell me. Well-off enough to bring up four children in a handsome house not far from Hamburg.

The children were brought up as Lutherans and celebrated all the traditional Christian Festivals. I think that Paul Bondy absented himself on these occasions and I also think that there was an estrangement which meant that in later years he didn't live with the family.

I don't know what he must have thought when Hitler came to power; certainly Mamma was well aware of the implications, insisting on her right to a private ballot. And she immediately, as a half-Jew, lost her right to a formal education or well-paid jobs.

What I have seen is the paperwork that assigned Paul Bondy to Auschwitz. How he responded to the summons I don't know, but history tells us that most Jews were pretty obedient, not realising or fooling themselves about the implications.  Family opinion is divided about whether he went to the gas chambers or was shot or died on the journey there. I do know that he died as part of the "Final Solution" and that this had a lifelong effect on his family.

I don't think  genocide is a thing of the past; it is going on somewhere in the world as I write. But, remembering our own recent history may help us to be generous to peoples of differing faiths or outlooks on life and to understand that tolerating intolerance debases us all.

We must never forget our common humanity.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Flaming

Today

This morning my great niece, having gone out on a girlie night for the first time since her baby was was born, complained about her hangover. She blamed the Sambucas, as well she might.

In My Day

Not so long ago this one, but relevant. It was Becky's 30th birthday and we decided to hold a party in Brighton. We started the evening with champagne in the Kemptown Enclosures, then went up to the Kemptown Brasserie which provided a marvellous buffet and a band to dance to. Various relations and friends of Becky's appeared and the wine flowed freely.

The more sober members of the family peeled off at various times, leaving the hardcore party-lovers still dancing and drinking.

I'm not sure now what prompted Nick, the owner, to offer Lizzie a flaming Sambuca. Maybe he thought she wasn't drinking hard enough and he wanted to see her dance. Anyway, one Sambuca led to more and soon others were clamouring for them. This even included Paul who hates Aniseed drinks in any form.  

I didn't join in, preferring to stick to Prosecco. This is just as well, otherwise we might never have been able to find our way home. Becky had rashly offered sofa space to cousin George and her university friend, Andrew.

Arms linked, we gaily set off back to the flat. We needed to link arms to stay upright. As Andrew told me repeatedly and tearfully how much he loved me, no, really, really loved me, I reminded him of the art of walking: "First the right foot; no forward, then the left......." and steered him up the steps into the flat where he collapsed onto the breakfast room sofa. George collapsed somewhere else and was that the night that Becky sprained her ankle getting down the three steps into the breakfast room and nobody heard her shouting?

They were a sorry bunch the next day, especially Paul who, as well as having the usual symptoms, was puzzling as to why he'd drunk the Sambucas at all, given his dislike of aniseed.

Ah well, plus ca change, and all that. There's nothing like a baby needing her morning bottle to help you get over a hangover.....

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pregnant Pause

Today

During my singing weekend at Halsway, we sang a few sections of Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame which made me very happy.

For many this was dipping a toe into the uncharted waters of the 14th century but I was greeting an old friend.

In My Day

I was interested in early music from my teens and, probably bought my first recording of the Machaut about forty-five years ago. 


However I didn't sing it until Cantilena performed it in December 1994. Tony, our music director, had coupled it with Palestrina's Missa Papa Marcelli, making this a most challenging concert for choir and audience alike.

During the term we learnt how to sustain a single vowel sound through several pages; we learnt how to hocket; passing the melody from one line to another. 

While we were struggling with this, Tony's wife, Alice, struggled with what was, I think. her fourth or fifth pregnancy. She gamely turned up each week to rehearsals.The baby was due in late December and we all watched anxiously as Alice's girth grew.

On the night of the concert we were all well into some wonderful hocketting when Alice simply turned and walked out into the vestry. Tony continued to wave his baton about but completely lost eye contact with the choir, looking uncertainly after Alice. Was she having the baby all alone in the vestry? Should he simply stop the concert and go after her? Or should the show go on, regardless? While Tony vacillated and we gamely sang on, another soprano followed Alice, and he relaxed and we finished the concert.

In fact, it was simply a case of too much standing and David wasn't born until Christmas Eve. But listening to the Music inevitably conjures up that uncertain, tense moment.

I wouldn't mind a proper chance to sing it again, preferably without a pregnant dramatic interlude.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Drone

Today

Anxious about whether my throat  would be equal to the demands of the weekend at Halsway, I tried a few notes out this morning in bed. "You've made me lose my place!" complained Paul. "What?" I demanded "You were only saying "doo-be-doo"." "I was singing Saint-Seans Symphony number 3", he replied with dignity "didn't you recognise it?"

"Well, I know that we can all expect there to be similarities between our husband and our father," I said "but a tendency to drone classical symphonies tunelessly wasn't wasn't on the list."

In My Day

Given Daddy's rocky start in life, it's amazing that he had such developed tastes in classical music. He always said that he learnt about music in the evening classes given by the Society of Friends which is where he spent his evenings during his late teens.

But a general liking for popular classics is one thing and not uncommon, but Daddy knew enough to start up and run the Henry Wood Gramophone Circle, preparing, with Mamma's help, challenging and interesting programmes. He loved opera and we had many opportunities to see them.

His love for music ran very deep and I think that he always went about with a tune in his head. Sometimes he just had to share. "This has been in my head all morning!" he's say, excitedly "Guess what it is?" He would launch into a tuneless mixture of las, doo-be-doos and other noises. "Hmm," we'd say, trying to take him seriously "a bit more? Nope! We give up!" "It's the Beethoven 6th, second movement," he'd cry triumphantly, as though he'd caught us out in a gross piece of musical ignorance. I'm not sure if any of us had the courage to tell him how different the tune in his head was from the tune on his lips.

Sometimes he loved the music so much that his droning was accompanied with a gush of tears, which didn't help us to recognise Scheherazade....

When he sang music hall songs to us, the tunes were much more recognisable, maybe because they were simpler.

On reflection, I think it's better to go about with a beautiful tune in your head and heart, even if you can't sing, than to have no music in your spirit. I just wish the Society of Friends had taught him to sing!




Saturday, January 04, 2014

Duffle

Today

In time-honoured fashion we hailed the new year by walking up the lane in hazy sunshine. I felt very warm in my duffle coat. I bought this one at Quill's in Glengarriff and it's made of Donegal tweed.

In My Day

I was never a fan of school uniforms and hated my c-cup bosoms being stuffed into a shapeless gymslip when I was thirteen and having to wear a crazy velour or straw hat. Pile on top of the gymslip a cardigan and gaberdine raincoat and you have a walking fashion disaster. 

I managed to damage my gymslip sufficiently while in a chemistry class to gain permission to go straight to the (slightly) more acceptable middle and senior school blouse and skirt option.

By the time I was in the lower sixth I wished to align myself with artists everywhere. And that meant wearing a duffle coat, as all the Beatniks did (or so I imagined). It was hard enough persuading Daddy to spend money on clothes at all without expecting him to fork out on what must have seemed to him a frivolous fashion item. However, Mamma worked her magic and we sallied out to buy me this essential garment. 

I was so pleased to have it; now I would be really hip when cruising around Upper Norwood and Croydon. What I had failed to mention to Mamma that there was an outright ban on wearing these items with ones school uniform. There was no way Mamma and Daddy could afford two coats. In the end I confessed and Mamma wrote a crawling (and lying) letter to the Headmistress Miss Harley-Mason, saying that she had bought the coat before the ban.

Miss H-M grumpily agreed; she already thought that I was a lost cause, destined for arty rebellion and this was just one more manifestation. I was jubilant and, I must say, wore the garment to death.

While I really like my duffle coat because of its warmth and nice snuggly hood, I wouldn't say today that it's stylish at any level!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Surprisingly Secret

Today

As the family grows larger, it becomes more challenging to keep up with the demands of Christmas present giving. For some it's an expensive as well as time-consuming challenge. So nieces Helena and Ruth came up with the idea of a "Secret Santa" for this year where names were randomly allocated across the extended family. Paul and I received tickets to the theatre from James and Helena which is very exciting.

The event was deemed a success, worthy of a repeat, although we may change its name to "Surprise Santa" as secrecy didn't at any time seem to be the issue here.

In My Day

I first encountered the "Secret Santa" idea at Flare. A price limit (to begin with £5.00) was set and names were literally picked out of a hat. 

I have a feeling that one of the points of the event was to mildly tease the recipient, making sure that their well-known personal foibles were reflected in the gift. I drew the name of very quiet member of my team who loved her herbal teas, I didn't just buy her teabags; I made an enormous teabag and filled it with a selection. Of course, you can't legislate for lack of judgement, sense of humour or imagination and I have received the full range in my time, from rude knickers (don't people just love it when the boss opens something like this in public!) to dull soap. And people vary very much in their ability to take being teased. There was a lot of guessing as to the identity of givers with some people  obviously longing to tell while others kept tightly buttoned.

We did start circulating a list on which people described their own foibles which was illuminating, although staff always knew they couldn't go wrong if they gave me wine. Eventually these events died out because they became so unwieldy and because of their high embarrassment potential or were limited to teams within the company. 

Do you know, I just Googled "Secret Santa and found that you can download a secret Santa generator!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Dollie

Today

While  browsing round the local toy shop, wondering if I needed to buy any more activities for the visiting children at yesterday's party, I noticed some "Knitting Dolly" kits hanging up.

That was what we used to call French Knitting.

In My Day

To start French knitting you first needed a large used cotton reel. Cotton reels were made of wood, not plastic as they are today.


You then drove four strong nails into the top. evenly spaced around the hole in the reel. About one and a half inches remained exposed.

Next you needed some wool and something like a crochet hook or knitting needle. You tied the wool in loops to each nail and then, using the crochet hook, you hooked one loop over another. Gradually. a long tubular snake of knitted wool emerged from the underside of the cotton reel. You could add other colours by simply knotting it to the leading end of wool. There were dramatic moments when you accidentally pulled a loop entirely off the reel and frantically tried to re-hook it without the whole construction becoming unravelled. 

Eventually you ran out of wool or out of interest and unhooked each loop, carefully tying it all off.

Then there arose the question of what to do with the snake. Children's magazines were full of suggestions; there most common being that you coiled up the snake and stitched it across to make a placemat or coaster. Because of the snake's tendency to be a bit lumpy and one's own equally lumpy stitching techniques, these coasters tended to upset any cups that were placed upon them. 

Actually, it looks quite like fun; maybe I'll teach Carmen how to do it in a few years' time. I don't know where I'll find wooden cotton reels, tho'.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Hang up your Stocking

Today

Christmas is almost here again and I'm looking forward to seeing my niece from Stowmarket who is joining us for the celebrations.

It's lovely to feel that I have the space to welcome her and I wonder whether she remembers early Christmases spent with us.

In My Day

When we lived at Rowan Avenue, back in 1975, we didn't care so much about having space. For several years we shared Christmas with my brother Keir and his family of four children without even a blush for the lack of room. The children were "top and tailed" in the bunk beds and Lizzie had the tiny room. Keir and Jenny slept in the sitting room on a double airbed  which had to be heaved upstairs each morning so that we could use the dining table.

On Christmas Eve the children would hang stockings on the banisters (there being not even a pretence of a chimney at Rowan Avenue) and we'd tuck them in bed. They'd settle down pretty quickly and Jenny and I would check food preparations, touch up the tree and dance to Christmas music while the men would put the world to rights over a few pints.

Actually, not all the children settled. Little Chris, at that time aged about five, would come out of his room again and again. "Can I have a glass of water, Auntie Julia?" "My tummy hurts, Auntie Julia" "When's Father Christmas coming, Auntie Julie?" - "Not until after you're asleep!!" I fervently hoped that would occur sometime before four a.m. as I struggled to keep awake until each child was properly asleep before I did stocking duty.

I vividly remember the first time they came. Lizzie was three and had never had a stocking before and was very excited. In the morning I groaned into wakefulness to hear all the children chattering and laughing together. I went onto the landing. There were all the stockings, untouched. "Happy Christmas, darlings!" I said brightly going into their room. "Merry Christmas, Auntie Julia!" they replied "May we open our stocking now, please?" "Of course you may!" I was touched by their patience, manners and discipline and ever since we have waited until we can all open our stockings together.

We had huge fun; everything was appreciated, despite our having no money and being crammed into the house, sardine-style.

While I don't think that this Christmas will be a replica of 1975, I hope that we will all share the same fun, laughter and feeling of privilege that we are able to celebrate together. Merry Christmas, Claire!