Saturday, May 21, 2016

Gallic Tendency

Today

Last night I made a ratatouille for the meal I prepared for wine circle. I make these often and one of the secrets is plenty of garlic. Carmen was eating my ratatouille from the age of 7 months and loves it.

Garlic is now a staple of English larders and restaurants; garlic bread and garlic mushrooms are served in the most unimaginative of pubs. You can buy it in any supermarket fresh, in jars, "lazy" garlic already shredded, roasted and smoked.

In My Day

I don't remember having garlic at 4BH at all. Paul's mother used to talk about garlic as though it was at best a nasty culinary necessity, at worst too disgusting for words. She used to tell of the dashingly handsome "Monsieur" who taught them French at school. She talked swooningly about everything except his garlicky breath which made her swoon in a different way. (She never explained how close she had to get to be aware of this!)

In a way, it was a sort of xenophobia relating to France, as only the Gallic people ate garlic (apparently) and it just wasn't British to do this, like eating snails and frogs' legs.

One of Paul's Dad's culinary tricks was to rub the inside of a wooden salad bowl with garlic, before discarding the offending vegetable.

Daring people used to extol the virtues of garlic salt sprinkled onto Scotch eggs. This condiment, it seemed to me, managed to make your breath very garlicky, without actually tasting of garlic itself.

Garlic was also seen as a kind of medicine by the fruitloopery brigade: you rubbed it in your hair to make it grow, on your pillow to stop hayfever, ate garlic pills to prevent heart disease. All this meant that you went around stinking without ever having tasted the delicious bulb.

And, finally, a few strings of it will keep off the vampires. There's a town in America where garlic is planted at every road entering it to ensure the safety of the citizens.

So when did things change? The cuisine in England has been becoming more and more cosmopolitan during the past forty years and I think that we now have a wonderful range of meals from all over the world to enjoy. Garlic came along for the ride.


I enjoy it cooked in stews, risottos and Indian food, on its own, baked, whizzed with butter to make garlic bread. There is also black garlic with has been slowly oven dried until it;s sticky and caramelly and great with cheese. I sometimes pick garlic leaves in the Spring for a lovely addition to a salad.

There is a garlic farm on the Isle of Wight. There you can buy garlic beer and chocolate and I bought the largest garlic bulb I'd ever seen, which roasted a treat.

All I can say is, if the fruitloopers are right, I'm protected against just about everything, including vampires.




Sunday, May 08, 2016

Legless

Today

One of the smaller pleasures that Paul and I enjoy as the weather warms up is to share a bottle of cider with our lunch.

Yesterday, as we we sat out in the late morning sunshine, Paul announced that he was thirsty and would like us to share our cider before lunch. I agreed and soon we were sipping some very nice Henry Westons Vintage Cider. It was pleasantly light and dry, and slipped down easily. Paul suggested another one. It was only then that I noticed the 8%vol label. Despite knowing that downing 500ml of 8% cider at lunchtime would have only one result I went ahead. The idea of making lunch was abandoned and we staggered upstairs for a very nice 2-hour sleep.

In My Day

We live in the land of cider, with a cider factory just down the road in Shepton Mallet. I became aware of the treacherous nature of this drink before we moved here by virtue of my brother David introducing us to the joys of scrumpy as made by Roger Wilkins at Land's End Farm at Mudgeley. 

Even the village name had an appealingly fuddled sound to it and Roger's farm was perched on a last outcropping of the Mendips, overlooking the levels towards the Poldens and King's Sedgemoor. Land's End indeed. This visit was the first of many.

There was a farmhouse and a large barn. Inside the barn were barrels of cider, At the end, through a little doorway with a handpainted sign "lounge bar, members only" and down a couple of steps, was a smaller area. There you could sit on rickety stools or upended barrels. "Whas'll 'ave"? Roger would enquire "sweet, dry or medium?" He then took a glass of dubious cleanliness from a tray, rinsed it under a cold tap and held in under the relevant barrel. Medium simply meant that he filled half at a dry barrel and half at a sweet.

The cider was a pale greenish-brown, thick as soap suds and not at all fizzy. It tasted like a compressed apple harvest (which is what it was, I suppose), light and appley. There seemed no limit to the number of times this was refilled at no cost, and whyever not? It wasn't very strong, was it, just apple juice really. Eventually you attempted to get up. This was much harder than it seemed. "I'll have a gallon of dry and one of sweet, Roger", one of us would slur "oh, some home-made pickle and strong cheddar."


Roger did once demonstrate to us how the cider was made - apples went up a great hopper into a funnel where they were crushed and slid down into sacking-lined wooden crates. these were stacked and pressed and the juice dripped into a bath underneath the floorboards. Fermenting was an entirely natural process, using the yeasts in the fruit. this picture shows the juice oozing out through the sacking.

The designated driver then had to carry home the load of snoring passengers. The cider, in plastic jars, was still fermenting and, if you didn't drink it up fairly quickly, tended to make the sides of the jar swell alarmingly and little white blobs of naturally occurring yeasts float about. Best drink it soon, then.

Someone once said to me that wine goes to your head, but cider goes to your feet, which is a nice summing up. I think.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Spam

Today

There are often postings on Facebook showing pictures of objects or activities designed to generate collective nostalgic "aahs" from readers of a certain age. 

Today the object pictured was slices of Spam being fried in a pan. "Fried Spam, yay or nay?" was the comment.

In My Day

As a child we ate "luncheon meat", or that was how my mother described it, although it was probably Shoulder Pork and hAM. It was a homogeneous  cuboid lump that was sold in tins that had to be opened with a key. The keys often broke, leaving you trying to fork this lump onto the plate, at grave danger to your fingers on the jagged edges. One on the plate, this lump was sliced evenly and served with lettuce, cucumber and salad cream.

Shortly after I met Paul he went to the Police Training College at Sandgate. He bemoaned the fact that he was putting on weight and partly blamed the spam fritters which featured regularly (I don't suppose that the many pints of beer consumed had much to do with it). I had never heard of this culinary horror, but then noticed it on the menu at my college and tried some. Eeew! was it possible to have a greasier meal?

I later experimented with frying slices of Spam and found that it was one of those items which contained so much fat that you didn't need to put any in the pan; it just oozed its own fat. But dint of much sizzling over a high heat it was possible to get a little crispiness to the edges. Once you'd discarded the excess fat, it arguably tasted  better than straight from the tin. Coating it in batter and then deep frying would have sealed in all that lovely piggy grease as well as adding the layer from the deep-frying. Yummy.

So my answer is "nay" and gives me another reason for being glad I'm a vegetarian.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Straying From the Path

Today

Our new family member, Amoss, has settled in well. After our dear little Abby died we were hesitant as to whether we wanted to embark on another spell of cat-ownership. But Amoss was in need of a good home. Lizzie and Wesz had taken him in as a stray and had brought him into good health and condition, but he couldn't settle with their other cats and it was becoming very stressful for all.

So he came to us and was so immediately at home that it seemed that we were offering him the place he'd been waiting for. Lizzie and Wesz can still visit and he's always very pleased to see them.

In My Day

People talk glibly about cats being "strays" when they're not homeless or abandoned; they've just wandered a bit off-piste or are in the habit of visiting several houses.

Abby was of this type. She regularly visited a little girl who lived three doors up in Mead Close. I think this was partly because she was allowed on the child's bed. The little girl called her "Jessie" after Postman Pat's cat and I couldn't persuade the parents not to feed her. But they never for one second thought she was a stray.

When we acquired Albinoni and Agnes in 2008, Abby was very affronted and decided to leave home (see blog 9 Nov 2009) she stopped turning up for meals or her daily cuddle. We asked around the Close but found nothing. Then, one day, after about four weeks absence, she turned up with a bulging fat belly. Clearly someone was giving her food - way too much. We grabbed her and didn't let her out until we'd bought a collar with identifying tag.

Shortly after this she disappeared again. But the collar was effective; a few days later we received a call from someone, clearly local, who said she was at his house. He sounded very mysterious, as though he didn't want to let us know where he lived. However, last number redial has its uses and I later called and spoke to his partner Ali, whom I knew pretty well from the village. 

Apparently, Abby had been going through their catflap, intimidating and eating the food of their cat. Because of her appetite and readiness for a cuddle, they hadn't discouraged her. "I thought she was a stray," said Ali by way of extenuation. I thought better of asking her why she imagined that a well-fed, glossy, flea-free cat could possibly be a stray and we came to a deal whereby she would stop feeding Abby and chuck her out in our direction at mealtimes. In this way, Abby came back into our lives and we found new homes for the Kitties with Lizzie and Wesz (quid pro quo, really).

I've seen pictures of Amoss when he first came to Lizzie's and he was a mess; clearly no-one had looked after him for a long time, so the description "stray" seemed the right one, and nobody has yet turned up to claim him. He was lucky to have arrived at a place where good care was taken of him, so that today he's the beautiful creature he was meant to be.

What I also find touching is that his need for human company is so strong that he doesn't have any nervousness and anxious behaviour at all. Welcome to the Barrett Family, Amoss.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Feet of Cley

Today

Recently I've broken my habit of catching the coach to London and have been driving instead. The drive takes me past Cley Hill near Longleat. This hill has been much reshaped by Iron Age farming and its steep and stepped sides dominate the driver's view for a long distance.

In My Day

Back in about 1991 or so Beatrice often used to drive down from Sussex to see us. Jacob was about ten and he became fascinated with Cley Hill; maybe by its shape and also by the fact that its appearance signalled that he was nearing the end of  a long and tedious journey. 

One time Beatrice said when she arrived, "I've promised Jacob that we'll climb Cley Hill this year." All right, whatever you want, Beatrice. So, on the day in question, we packed sandwiches, put on our walking shoes and set off. Cley Hill is owned by the national Trust, but it's hardly a tourist spot. We wedged the car in beside the stile that bore the fingerpost to the hill and set off.

Some things are just better observed from a distance. First there was a dullish walk along a flat footpath that led to the hill that took much longer than we expected. The hill seemed to be receding. Eventually we started the ascent. This was steep and hard going. The hill was grazed by very large cattle and there were cowpats to avoid wherever you tried to put your feet. This didn't impress anyone, least of all Jacob who protested loudly. "Now we're here, we going to the top", Beatrice said firmly, marching forward. 

You never really can predict what the weather's going to do in the West Country. As we toiled upwards the sky came downwards. Now we were avoiding cows and their leavings in a nasty mizzley mist. Plus Jacob was hungry and hell hath no fury like a hungry pre-teen boy. We couldn't find anywhere to sit that wasn't wetter than ourselves and I can't now remember what my carefully prepared sandwiches tasted like. We might have been better off with Kendal Mint Cake. The view from the top now didn't exist at all and it wasn't only Jacob who was complaining. We slithered our way downwards, back to the car and gratefully home for hot tea.

They say that Cley Hill was created when the Devil, carrying some soil to dump on Devizes, dropped it, appalled by how long it would take him to get there. I don't know about that, but it was a Devil of a day.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Cooking with Baby

Today

Today, my Honduran cousin posted a picture of the cooker she used when she was first married. Pretty basic, as you can see,

In My Day

Many, if not most, of us started out our adults lives with a selection of hand-me downs and second hand purchases.

When we were married in 1971 and moved into our first flat at Belmont in Brighton I used a cooker with the deceptively cute title of a "Wee Baby Belling".

Cute it was not. It was a tiny electric stove, probably designed for bedsits (come to think of it, I had a version of one of these in my Bedsit in Christchurch Road in Worthing, on which I used to make onion omelettes and just about nothing else).The one I owned was certainly second-hand and actually boasted two hotplates and a little grill and tiny oven. 

It sat in our tiny kitchen and I used it daily. The hotplates took about ten minutes to get lukewarm and the grill was so slow you could take a bath while making toast.

I got used to it, as you do, and I certainly cooked our first Christmas dinner on it  - turkey, sprouts, roasties, red cabbage et al. I don't know how I managed to keep things hot while something else cooked and there was a fair bit of pan-sharing. But I did it and everything was done to a turn. I baked Lizzie's first birthday cake in the toy-sized oven and generally managed to provide culinary miracles with it.

I used it until our neighbour, Leslie Clay, became homeless and moved in with us together with her gas cooker, which was certainly larger than the Belling, if as ancient and clapped-out.

How uncomplaining we used to be about having to cope in this way; I think it may be because we were young and confident that life could only get better. Which it did.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

Bedizened and Bedecked

Today

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

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

In my day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Push Button

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 01, 2016

Grammar Geek

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Soup Kitchen

Today

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

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

In My Day

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

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

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

Monday, January 25, 2016

Ring Cycle

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Shears

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Waste not, Want not

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Humbug

Today

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

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Proper Person

Today

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

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

In My Day

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

Here are few little memories: 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Stage-Struck

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Vault

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Dippy

Today

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

In My Day


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Against the Wall

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Giddyup

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Old Chestnut

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 07, 2015

You Know You want To

Today

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

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 02, 2015

Puke

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 30, 2015

Bloody Cheek

Today

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

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

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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