Friday, July 15, 2016

Fell

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Seen and (not) Heard

Today

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

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Dancing Queen Take II

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

As they say on Strictly, Carmen, keep dancing!

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Underworld by Design

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Vibrato

Today

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

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They haven't asked me back since...

Monday, July 04, 2016

Mother

Today

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

"Not me", I said to Paul.

In My Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Cuddles

Today

I've just returned home from visiting Becky and family at their new home in Spain. We bought Carmen some toys for the garden and Paul bought her an enormous cuddly puppy, that's almost as big as she is. She loves it and drags it everywhere. She also has with her a newly purchased cuddly cat, a range of "unicats", a beloved monkey and a tiny white teddy. 

Carmen  loves her cuddly toys and allegiances change often. At Spencer House she has about eight cuddly toys and the rest of her collection is in store and totals probably about another twenty or more.

In My Day

As a child I had few toys. It was the '50's after all and money was generally tight. I remember a rag doll, named Judy, that spent a fair bit of her life on top of the (defunct) service lift shaft where Chris used to throw it and a walkie-talkie doll called Alice. I did rather love her and spent pocket money on dresses for her.

Cuddly she was not. I had no cuddly toys at all, not even a teddy bear; something that I secretly resented. There was Pooh Bear being read to us on practically a daily basis; what about me? I don't think I ever mentioned this to my parents; I was generally secretive and anyway might not have thought of it in those terms.

I met my nemesis at Christmas 1959. Beatrice was given a cuddly panda. I was so envious. How I wanted that panda! As I was nearly twelve, it was beneath my dignity actually to to express this need.

Instead I started a sneer campaign; telling Beatrice that having a cuddly toy was childish and calling her a baby and other rude epithets. I think I hoped that this would cause her to reject it so that I could mount a rescue mission and adopt it. No such luck. Beatrice loved her panda and very wisely ignored my nastiness. I believe she later gave it to one of her charges while she was training to be a nursery nurse.

Many years later I told Paul this story and about twenty years ago, he and Becky went out and found me the loveliest little teddy, just right to cuddle. I call it "Panda".

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.