22 November 2009

Strange Dreams

No idea why, but there seems to be a deal of strange dreaming going on here at the moment. My waking dream this morning, for example, involved a team-building exercise for work – not the stuff of strange dreams? You don’t know our training section, but anyway…this one looked like a something out of Hieronymus Bosch crossed with Breughel. A lot of brightly coloured figures were being active in a large grassy landscape – over in the distance, for example, I could see a team of people, including a retired colleague, moving a telegraph pole about while blindfolded by hoods over their heads. “Oh dear” I thought “Halina wanted a peaceful retirement”.

There was a giant flower, a dianthus, I think, which was a meeting point, and I went over there to meet the rest of my team (I think I ended up in the wrong one, but that’s dreams for you). We were given some lines out of context from essays which had been submitted previously and had to do something with them.
Examples included “…1135 was bigger than the previous one…” and (my favourite)
“That way it’s easier for the mice to meet the chickens – and vice versa”. I think I’d better remember that one – it’s slightly zen and the sort of strange thing that occasionally comes in useful.

09 August 2009

Family History – the Oxfordshire Connection

I have to admit to very much enjoying the Oxfordshire section of my family, about whom I knew very little until recently. Not to take away anything from the long-loved Suffolk and Scottish folk, but it’s nice to have a bit of variety, after all, and this lot certainly provide it.

I’m particularly diverted by my great great great grandmother Elizabeth (née Burman) and her second husband. She was born in 1802, married William Meades and had four children, and was widowed in her early thirties. She then married John Harwood, a stone mason from Charlbury thirteen years her junior, so only about ten years older than her eldest son (William the mason, as I always think of him). She then had three more sons: George who was also a mason; Henry, who was a photographer; and Alfred, who among other things ran an eating house in Shoreditch.

John Harwood may even have been a Freemason as well as a mason, which would have helped, but he does seem to have had the three things I always feel you need to get on in life: ability, persistence and luck. He kept a shop in Chipping Norton as well, and the family, including his younger step-daughter Sarah, evidently helped to run it. It was probably something fairly general to begin with, but by 1871 it was a toy shop (!) and he then went into dealing in furniture. That business lasted for some years, and was evidently so profitable that he and Elizabeth eventually retired to Worcester and lived on their own income. She died there at 89, and at some point he moved back to Chipping Norton, married a sprightly young thing in her late sixties called Hannah, and died aged 81 in 1903.

Obviously the paper records aren’t going to tell you what the man was really like, or how happy he and Elizabeth were. It wasn’t all roses, as their youngest son and some of their grandchildren predeceased them, for example, but some of the later Meades family history is really rather grim, and it makes a pleasant change to read about two people who were apparently prosperous and healthy, and lived to a ripe old age.

31 July 2009

Family History and the Census

When I’m beavering away at reading Census returns as part of my researches into family history, I often find myself wondering about the event as it actually happened, as well as occasionally puzzling over what was recorded. Were my relatives co-operative or (as I suspect in at least some cases) a bit bolshie about officialdom poking its nose in?

It can’t always have been easy for the enumerators or the enumerated. There were surely many conversations conducted through closed doors, or on the doorstep in inhospitable weather, and/ or with rising irritation on both sides. Even something as simple as having a head cold, or having some teeth missing may have had a bearing on what was heard and recorded. Either or both parties may have been tired, hard of hearing, had an accent the other found difficult to understand, or simply misunderstood the question asked or the answer given. William Meades the stone mason always gives his place of birth as Oxford/ City of Oxford until 1901 when it suddenly becomes Chipping Norton (which is probably correct). Admittedly not that far away, but a sufficiently different response to be surprising. I’m sure that sometimes the question about birthplace was asked or understood to be not ‘where were you born?’ but ‘where are you from?’ – potentially rather different, especially if you’d moved area.

If you add to the complications the larger households ( often including step relatives, in-laws, extended family, and lodgers/ visitors) and the fact that the 19th century respondents were not at all accustomed, as we are, to having to give name, place and date of birth on a regular basis, then it’s no wonder that mistakes were made. William Meades had at least twelve children by two wives (the first of whom died at 32) and lived in at least three places, Oxford, West Ham and Lowestoft, so I’m not entirely surprised that the odd inconsistency creeps in. In an age when personal possession of certificates was unusual you would also be dependent on other people to tell you your correct birth information – and if one or both parents were dead, that simply might not be possible. As I doubt many people bothered to keep a record of things like children’s date and place of birth (or even full names), that’s even more room for variation. I don’t, incidentally, agree that most ordinary people were absolutely illiterate before about 1870, as is often confidently stated. Signing a mark rather than a name when a birth, marriage or death is registered is sometimes cited, but all this demonstrates is that the vicars and registrars at least sometimes made a tactful assumption – and you probably wouldn’t question their authority. Many people knew enough to write their names and read a newspaper, at least, though obviously the standard varied enormously.

All this is without the later mistakes made in transcription, of course – understandable in some cases, though not all. Even if you write Jemima Dunnett as something that looks like ‘Gerunia’ (and it does), it’s never going to be likely that her daughter will be called Manuel (Hannah, actually). But some of it is uncommonly hard to decipher: I always remember an editor’s comment, admittedly about earlier church registers reprinted by the Harleian Society: “the chirography and orthography at this period are both infamous” and feel it’s sometimes equally applicable!

26 July 2009

A Rosario by any other name…

…though as it happens there isn’t one among my colleagues - but we do run to a good many of the more unusual names. OK, you’d expect that in an internationally known institution, especially as one section has a deliberate policy of taking interns from other countries, but even when you take out people like Rocio (Spanish), Reino (Dutch), Piera (Italian), Cesar (Peruvian) and Metaxia (Greek); and Ananda, Santina and Shalom have left, you’ve still got a good few. While most of them are just not very often met with (Albertina, Boris, Dominica, Ghislaine, Morna, Rhian, Sorrel) there are some I’ve never come across as first names before (Glenna, Gordana, Jevon, Sonnet).

And in an age which appears to prize such things, I think a few must have been made up: Tawn, for example, although we don’t really have anything to beat some I’ve come across doing family record searches (Candelena, Carkus, Catcheta, Zebulon…). I think first prize for unusualness goes to Gates, though, especially as this is as a female name.

Talking of family history, some unusual forenames from the Lowestoft, sorry, Waveney Cemetery database…

Female: Redalpra, Othelia, Keterah, Aholibamah, Scyllia, Okilinia, Claratina, Happy, Malguala, Bondella, Aloysia Jeanette, Germaine, Azalia, Redelpha

Male: Maldwyn, Admiral, Pompa, Alderman, Raisin Punt, Beziah, Julino, Auger, Rebel, Paris

Some of these are just the result of reading the more obscure bits of the Bible, of course: I have a few on my own family tree, including one Jedidah Chamberlain (born about 1726). She fortunately didn’t appear to have any male relatives called Jedediah – now that would have been confusing. And Pompa is most probably Pompey said with a good Suffolk accent!

I particularly enjoyed (and no, not in a sneery way) Narcissi Lenor (Harvey), Wonderful Smith (who was an RNVR Chief Yeoman of Signals) and Edward Christmas White.

10 July 2009

Dressed up and dressed down

Having cast doubt in an earlier posting on the current British ability to do formal wear really well these days, I’m very cheered by much of the informal clothing I’m seeing around in London this summer. Good colour combinations, comfortably cut (but not scruffy) garments, some imaginative mixes, above all, people actually looking as if they’re enjoying what they’re wearing. I think we’re getting better at this sort of clothing instead, perhaps – and in future commentators will say things like “Oh, yes, that sort of badly put together casual look is typical of 1995–2005, before people learnt to be happier about what they wore”.

Maybe it’s partly because although there are fashionable elements, there isn’t really one distinctively fashionable look any more – you know, more people may actually be wearing what they prefer and what suits them – we can hope so, anyway. Yes, of course there are always some fashion disasters to be seen, but they can be amusing, apart from the fact that if you really want to wear bright orange tights, or your clothes (apparently) inside out, or stick wooden wedges in your shoes (all of which I’ve seen recently) it is your right to do so.

And of course, some fine weather helps, although everybody still seemed to be putting a good face on it on Tuesday, when the heavens opened and all those summery clothes got soaked. I should have known better than to comment to my colleagues as we left work that evening “Oh look, it’s more or less stopped raining…”

01 July 2009

Food and Cookery Notes:

Some favourite foods: avocado, chocolate, potato, chicken – OK, shades of Nigel Slater, but wotthehell, archie, wotthehell…

Hass avocado for choice – the ones with the knobbly dark skins. Richer flavour and texture, easier to peel, not so difficult to ripen, tending to have smaller stones in relation to the amount of fruit. None of the fancy stuff, thanks (if life’s too short to stuff a mushroom, then it’s definitely too short to torture an avocado). Spooned out with mayonnaise for preference, though very good in salads and sandwiches, of course. Mmmmmm…

Dark chocolate rather than milk or white, although I do love frozen Cadbury’s Caramel* bars and my newsagent keeps a consignment of them in the freezer for me! I’m enough of a chocoholic that I’m not that keen on things made with chocolate, either – there is no substitute for eating the real thing, though I have been known to eat chocolate sandwiches. Sachertorte, brownies, or a rich chocolate mousse are about the best of the exceptions; I don’t like chocolate ice-cream, and think chocolate yoghourt is an abomination!
*Caramel is another favourite, come to think of it

The potato is a wondrous thing, God wot. Chips, jacket potatoes, crisps, mashed, roast, steamed…though I do think getting the right variety for the purpose is important.
Marshall’s potato prejudices: floury potatoes for mashed and jacket (though Cyprus new are OK for jacket). I still buy King Edwards for choice, since if they’re sliced thin, cooked and drained, a lazy cook like me can add a bit of butter and milk and just turn a fork round the pan a few times to get mash, and none of all this cafuffle with ricers, mashers, processors etc. Waxy potatoes (Charlotte, Nicola, Carlingford) for everything else.
Potatoes to avoid, in my not-so-humble opinion: Arran Pilot, Nadine, Estima – all totally tasteless, and Estima seem to take forever to cook, too

I prefer chips to french fries (and definitely don’t count the reconstituted ones you get in burger establishments). I don’t eat crisps very often, but it’s usually salt and vinegar when I do – and no, not balsamic vinegar, for heaven’s sake, nor have I ever got my teeth round all this ‘smoked chicken tikka barbecue cocktail flavour’ rubbish. Mashed potatoes are wonderful provided they’re made with the right kind of potatoes and aren’t processed to death, and can always be added to with garlic, cheese etc. Roast potatoes aren’t actually my favourite form, as they are with so many people – I’d always rather eat baked garlic potatoes or even steamed spuds with mint and butter if we’re talking accompaniments to a joint of meat. Oh, and I always prefer to put some potato in a curry, since apart from liking the taste, it means I can use the water from cooking them in making the curry – nice glossy finish.

Chicken – as long as it’s been allowed to lead a normal life, that is, so it has some flavour and texture, as well as sitting rather better with my conscience. As a child I usually requested a birthday meal of cold chicken, with strawberries for ‘afters’, and I still marginally prefer cold chicken to hot. A good chicken curry with lots of turmeric takes a lot of resisting, though, as does chicken cooked in just about any white wine/ mushroom/ butter sauce.

This drool-fest has probably been brought on by a lunch consisting of convenient but not good quality food – some rather uninspired sandwiches bought in a hurry after a meeting that took up most of the middle of the day.

21 June 2009

If you want an excuse…

"These underwritten be the perilous days, for to take any sickness in, or be hurt in, or to be wedded on, or to take any journey upon, or to begin any work on, that he would well speed. The number of these days be in the year 32; they be these:
In January be seven: 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 10, 15
In February be three: 6, 7, 18
In March be three: 1, 6, 8
In April be two: 6, 11
In May be three: 5, 6, 7
In June be two: 7, 15
In July be two: 5, 19
In August be two: 15, 19
In September be two: 6, 7
In October be one: 6
In November be two: 15, 16
In December be three: 15, 16, 17"

This is from my commonplace book, and no source is recorded. As I started writing in it in April 1974, and my reading at that point was still pretty eclectic, heaven knows where I found it, and I certainly can’t remember. It sounds like Thomas Tusser, but I suspect it’s actually that prolific author A Non.

I have to say that I've never paid it the slightest attention, beyond being pleased my birthday isn't included!

16 June 2009

Costume Curator’s Holiday

I couldn’t better Keith’s description of yesterday afternoon’s Garter Service at Windsor Castle (at Zen Mischief), but have to say that I did have a wonderful time pursuing my lifelong habit of looking at what people are wearing.

Fashion commentators tend to agree that the British do formal wear better than casual. Maybe. There were certainly some nice effects, and they weren’t all on the young and slender, either. On the whole I thought the simpler female outfits and hats were the better, like the plain pink linen suit and matching hat on a woman about my age four or five seats to my right. Men had the choice of morning dress or lounge suit – there were some top hats, but not many.

As to the fashion victims, there were some exceedingly irritating pieces of ditsy headgear – I don’t think they merit the word ‘hat’, although one older woman was wearing a frothy confection which looked like vintage 20s or 30s court dress to me, the kind worn with a long dress in the daytime – and it really suited her. There was one hat which had coy veiling effects but did nothing at all to conceal the constant smirk on its wearer’s face, and one which had all the appearance of being decorated with a dead Yorkshire terrier! Frills and feathered hair slides do better on the under-thirties and best of all on the under fifteens, I feel. I’m old-fashioned enough not to like bare arms in a formal religious setting, especially when the dress looks like underwear, like the example in front of me. And one female across the aisle seemed to be having a size competition between her hat, her bosom and her knees!

The official stuff was the most eye-catching, of course. There’s no competing with the likes of Garter robes, Heralds’ tabards, Yeoman Warders' ruffs (glory be, they still prop them up at the back with a piccadill, of which no genuine 16th or 17th century examples survive!), and the like. I look at the band of the Household Cavalry and marvel at the sheer amount of gold braid and wire worked on their outfits – apparently a skill which is now in very short supply.

Apparently the tradition of an annual Garter procession and service only dates back just over 60 years. You’d never think it, is all I can say!

14 June 2009

Clothes shopping

I decided to devote some energy to clothes shopping yesterday afternoon. While I did actually spend some money – which is far from always the case – I have seldom seen such an acreage of things I would never want to wear.

Apart from a lot of horrible synthetic fabrics and unflattering colours (orange, mustard, chartreuse) a number of my pet hates were visible – frilled T-shirts, tops ornamented with beads and paste ‘gems’, cropped trousers, jackets with ‘skirt’ cuffs. And I especially dislike holding a garment up to the light and being able to see through it (and we’re talking T-shirts and cardigans here, not nighties). Yes, I look better in substantial stuff anyway, but to me flimsy equals bad value. Some of these things are going to look wrecked by the time they’ve been worn twice, and even worse if they’re washed.

K and I are going to a formal occasion (ladies are requested to wear hats!) tomorrow, and I think the newest thing I shall be wearing are my sandals, bought last year. If I could wear shoes at the moment then it would be courts, and the newest thing would probably be my evening jacket, which is about four years old. My dress is circa 1989 Laura Ashley, and I haven’t yet seen another one I like as well – but then contrary to what all the marketing types in the fashion industry would insist, I like my clothes so much (when I do buy them) that I want them to last for ever.

03 June 2009

Quite a week…

Monday was my last day of the time I’d negotiated working at home, so I took the cats to the vet for their anti-flea shots before starting on the day's tasks. Poor Sal, disturbed from her bed, arrived with a soiled cat box, as so often.

On Tuesday I saw the podiatrist, who seems quite pleased with the foot, then on to the GP’s for the practice nurse to remove a tick that had attached itself to my scalp the day before (presumably in our lovely hairy garden). Ouch. Then on to the main museum for Opinions afternoon.

And today I was back in the office for the first time in a fortnight, apart from one day last week, tackling the Backlog, along with a fairly hefting meeting that had been brought forward by four hours. What a good job I enjoy my work – didn’t it feel odd to be back, though, and it’s only Wednesday…feels more like Friday and three-quarters.

27 May 2009

A Minor Procedure

Last Tuesday morning it was off to the Clementine Churchill Hospital just up the road for (quote) a minor procedure - the permanent removal, sorry, ablation, of the nail on my right big toe. ‘The Clem’ (as the cab drivers tend to call it) looks exactly like a conference centre, both within and without, all pastel walls and art overkill, with strategically placed plants, but it is both clean and pleasant, with very friendly staff, and I know my way round, give or take a rebuilt bit or two.

Because the procedure only needed a local anaesthetic, it was a live broadcast, as it were: the podiatrist is a cheerful type and chatted away to all of us between bits, including a horror he’d heard recently about an anaesthetised patient coming to in the middle of a foot op and doing a runner! As he said, how do you proceed? You’ve lost the sterile environment, so you can’t just carry on with the op, but because it involved bone breaking, you can’t leave it either. Maybe they should fit operating tables with safety belts…very pre-Victorian!

Anyway, the offending nail (which had regrown from the last time in rather saurian form, as below) went into the bin with a satisfactory clang, and phenol was applied to dissolve the root. Off to Recovery, with coffee and bourbon biscuits, and home again by half past ten. I had to go to a hospital at Bushey to see the podiatrist at his clinic there for a follow-up next morning, and he was almost unbelievably bright and cheerful for eight thirty in the morning – but at least that’s better than the medics who look as though they’re about to take coffin measurements! And the hospital, though equally modern, isn’t as well laid out or as welcoming as ‘the Clem’ – can’t even provide you with old magazines to read while you wait! – so he did redress the balance a bit.

The whole business now is to keep it from getting infected, since it’s an open wound, and bleeds fairly readily – although that is probably not a bad thing at this stage, if rather annoying. I’m working at home at the moment, and am certainly not looking forward to taking it on the tube. I have always so much work to do actually at work, that I shall have to make the attempt tomorrow, but Mr Les is taking me there by car (sadly no longer the Merc, but no matter).

Meanwhile, it is not painful, much to my surprise, especially after the previous experience some years ago – but then that was a purely surgical procedure and the area was probably infected despite a prepatory course of antibiotics. I suspect I shall get heartily bored with wearing sandals over the next six weeks, but at least it’s summer, and it will be brilliant if the treatment works.

25 May 2009

The Cat Sat on the Rat (Warning, this is revolting)

…But not hard enough – yes, Harry brought us in another live young rat some days ago and laid it down. Although injured, after a moment or two it declined to remain recumbent, and ran for cover in the front room, yelling defiance. Harry found this quite upsetting.

I wasn’t mad keen, either. And I don’t suppose the rat was very happy, come to that, but it did have its revenge later. We both tried to catch it, and in the end I moved quite a bit of stuff around, in an effort to stop it doing something unhandy like getting behind the fish tank, or the books. No luck, anyway, so we both gave up in the end. Harry subsequently brought me a dead rat – his intentions are good, but We Have Been Here Before. “I don’t think that’s the same one, is it, Harry?” “Well. It’s as good as, anyway.” Hmmm.

Sure enough, after a while, I noticed that I was seeing more flies about than I would normally expect. Uh-oh…and then we smelt a (dead) rat, quite literally, so one of the Bank Holiday afternoon’s tasks was to locate it and deal with it. And where had it died? Why, in the middle of the stuff I had piled up on the sofa, of course. Most fortunately, we have a large cotton ‘throw’ over the sofa, which contained most of the (ahem) fall-out. Unfortunately, it’s cream-coloured, but thank heaven for washing machines and modern detergents.

Ewwww, gross!

19 May 2009

The Forelog (as opposed to The Prologue)

The backlog is what you come back to when you’ve been away, the forelog is what you have to work through before you go (a useful phrase gathered from someone from the publishing trade that we once met on holiday – thank you, Elizabeth). As I’m working at home for a few days consequent upon having a ‘minor procedure’ on my right foot (permanent removal of nail on big toe) (for the second time), I did have a forelog this week.

A large chunk of it consisted of preparatory work for the annual mini audit of the collections: basically, on a notified day, Records Section pick fifty objects at close of play and then come to us next day to see whether those objects (a) are where the record says they are (b) carry a museum number and (c) have a full record. Hours of fun for all concerned…well, it is of course a very important thing to do, and at least we no longer have to do the whole collection every five years. It’s at times like this that the quality (or otherwise) of the computerised record really shows up, though - when you have literally dozens of examples of something on a shelf, ‘Doll, German, 19th century’ isn’t a lot of use, although there are often fuller records in the old registers. Probably the least helpful one we’ve come across so far consisted of the single word ‘Christmas’…

I also had the usual routine things like e-mails and phone calls to respond to, and finished off the day with an interesting challenge, which fell to me to answer as the longest-serving member of staff. Our shop manageress came to find me as she had a customer who had last come to London as a child about twenty five years ago and remembered her grandfather taking her to see a doll exhibition in a museum. But was it our museum she had visited? After a quick look in the exhibitions files (we had two doll exhibitions in the 1980s, apart from the fact that many people can’t differentiate between temporary exhibitions and permanent displays) I went up to see the visitor. It turned out that the museum she had visited had had a carousel in the grounds – not ours, then. I suggested that it was most likely that she had visited the London Toy and Model Museum. “A very tall narrow house full of toys and dolls, near Paddington Station – it had lots of stairs, and you would have had to climb up and down between four floors, from recollection”. “Yes, it was a house – and just as you describe – I’d forgotten the stairs”. That’s the difference between our ages on visiting – her ten year old legs barely noticed, my thirtyish ones were already complaining. Sadly, I couldn’t send her off for a re-visit, as it no longer exists: an independent museum, its owners eventually sold it, and the collections went to Japan, while the house is probably worth six fortunes on the property market even now. But at least these days it’s quite likely that somewhere on the Web she’ll find some references, or other people who remember the place.

18 May 2009

A life outside the news

It puzzles me sometimes. I watch the news on television, and I often struggle to relate it to real life, at least as lived in our house.

Millions raised for this or that disaster: not from us (we continue to support the charities we normally do – they need to be kept going too).

People are confused – sorry, Confused. It doesn’t matter what it’s about, either. Heaven help us, people are even confused about the effects of alcohol, I don’t know how, considering that never a week goes by without someone, usually several someones, bobbing up to tell us about the awful effects of drinking. It’s even bad for you if you don’t do it, which must be some kind of record. We continue to have a bottle of wine between us a few times a week with food, as we always have.

Everybody is in trouble with debt. Happily, not here, or at least not yet. And not if we can help it.. But then we didn’t even like having a mortgage (which is only organised debt, after all) and paid it off as soon as we could. Cautious Baskets R Us.

Everybody wants a second home, or a property abroad, or property to rent. Really? One house is quite enough to look after, thank you, even before these Credit Crunched times. And you can only live in one at a time, anyway.

Shoppers are having a spending spree on the high street. Or not. Meanwhile, we continue as normal. I still spend money on books and food, and now and again buy a few new clothes or some piece of domestic equipment. But I really prefer to buy things that will last – I ‘ve never been able to understand shopaholicism, except as a mental disorder, and I certainly don’t understand the craze for having everything new all the time.

I don’t think this is just us, either. I guess I first really noticed this phenomenon in a major way in connection with Princess Diana’s death. The country was prostrate with grief, we were told – life had virtually come to a standstill, with memorial tributes and people sobbing into their hankies wherever you went. Well, no, actually: OK, maybe this will be more visible when I get to work. The citizens of Bethnal Green are perhaps more inclined to wear their hearts on their sleeves than many. Nope, not a thing. And this is the area that was brought to a standstill for the Kray brothers’ funerals, too. I gather that when Diana died it was fairly awful for the staff at Kensington Palace, who had to spend hours mopping up tearful visitors, but that was where she lived, after all.

The media do a superb job of making things up out of whole cloth, sometimes.

06 May 2009


Lyme Regis harbour at sunset

Notre Dame de Paris

Mallow on the banks of the Tweed

Rubbish on the towpath, Greenford

Photographic magic circles - some more possible paperweights, just as Jilly commented at jillysheep

03 May 2009

Newcastle and Berwick

What on earth...?

Which is what I found myself wondering when I came across this just now among my photographs from a trip to Newcastle and Berwick a few years ago...Oh yes, now I remember, a sideways view, through a rain-spattered bus window, of the letters STO from the road markings for a Bus Stop!

On the day I went to Berwick (birthplace of my great Grandmother Ann Wood Outlaw - now there's a great surname if you come from the borders!) I was taken by the colourful display of luggage on this stall in the street market, and subsequently made it into a circle using some of the options on PaintShop...

25 April 2009

With the Beatles

...was the only way I could answer the questions in the Meme KCM tagged me with at Zen Mischief

1. Are you a male or female: Girl
2. Describe yourself: I Am the Walrus
3. How do you feel about yourself: I Feel Fine
4. Describe your parents: That Means a Lot
5. Describe your ex boyfriend/ girlfriends: I Should Have Known Better
6. Describe your current boy/ girl situation: All My Loving
7.Describe your current location: Octopus’s Garden
8.Describe where you want to be: Norwegian Wood
9. Your best friend(s) is/ are: In My Life
10. Your favourite colour is: Yellow Submarine
11.You know that: Tomorrow Never Knows
12. If your life was a television show what would it be called: Eight Days a Week
13. What is Life to You: Magical Mystery Tour
14. What is the best advice you have to give: Let It Be

13 April 2009

Reading Up an Appetite

Still with Mrs Beeton, the editor of a recent edition of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Nicola Humble, commented

"Household Management must rank as one of the great unread classics. Everyone has heard of it, a number of people own a copy (often an early twentieth-century edition, much expanded and bearing little relationship to Beeton’s original text), but it is rarely considered as anything other than a culinary curiosity."
(Oxford World’s Classics, 2000)

While I think I’ve never made anything from a Beeton recipe, I’ve certainly enjoyed reading the book many times over the years (and yes, it is an Edwardian version, with colour plates of some incredibly fancy food). But then I shared with my mother the habit of reading cookery books for pleasure rather than use, and still have her reading collection (she didn’t have a using one, while I haven’t quite got to that point). It includes the aforementioned Mrs Beeton, ‘Tante Marie’s French Kitchen’ (even if I never get round to making Gateau St Honoré for my birthday, I’ve imagined it), ‘Continental Cookery for the English Table’ by Edith Siepen (1915) ‘Selfridge’s New Model Cookery’ of 1929 (bring on the Mint Juleps) and the delightfully titled ‘Emelie Waller’s Cookery and Kitchen Book for Slender Purses’ (1935).

Books about food (as opposed to actual cookery books) seem to be rather more usual than they were in my childhood. One recent example I have is Nigel Slater’s ‘Eating for England’ (2007), in which one of the more telling things is his pair of stereotypical lists of British picnic food, then and now: ‘then’ is boiled ham; tongue; salad cream and iceberg lettuce; cress, beetroot, cucumber; bread and butter; lemon barley water, Vimto, Mateus rosé; strawberries and cream; Neapolitan ice-cream. ‘Now’ sounds almost ridiculously decadent, with its chargrilled squid, fresh chillies, rocket; buffalo mozzarella, basil, tomatoes; grilled chicken, olives, lemon, rosemary; focaccia, thin-crust pizza; goats’ cheeses; pannacotta; peaches, melon, raspberries; Prosecco, Pinot Grigio. A bit exaggerated? Sure. But there’s a lot of truth in it, if only that we’re rather used to having all this variety, often at relatively low cost, at any time of the year.

Some of the older examples of books about food strike me as even more remarkable reading, and two by novelists come to mind: Stephen Lister’s ‘Fit for a Bishop: or How to Keep a Fat Priest in Prime Condition’ and Nicolas Freeling’s ‘Kitchen Book’. Lister was bravely writing in the late 1950s, about Mediterranean food, for a UK audience who could buy olive oil only in tiny bottles at the chemist’s, profoundly mistrusted the mere mention of garlic, and had probably never heard of half the foods he mentions – quiche lorraine, anyone? People must have bought it, though, if only as a curiosity, or thinking it was another of his ‘St Monique’ books, as there was a sequel ‘More Fit for a Bishop: How to Maintain Champagne Tastes on a Beer Income’.

While saying that it is not a cookery book, he does include recipes, including an extraordinary-sounding one for a pudding which he tentatively calls Angel’s Whispers and describes as being “coils rather like bedsprings but with a quite different flavour” – basically a batter of egg yolks, evaporated milk and flour, injected in dollops into a pan of smoking hot oil from a syringe, and deep-fried. Edible chemistry, that one, clearly.

Freeling published ‘Kitchen Book’ about twelve years later, when we’d moved on a bit gastronomically, though the British weakness for gimmicky dishes like Chicken Maryland still gave him plenty of scope for satirical comment - and to think we still had the pleasures of baked bean pizza to come...

As usual when reading about the chef’s working life, I really wonder how anybody can stand it at all (Bill Buford’s ‘Heat’, published in 2006, is particularly masochistic in detailing the burns, the cuts, the impossible hours, the abusive bosses). But Freeling’s time in the kitchens of French hotels reads so vividly: the larger than life characters (staff and guests alike), the ingenious way dishes can be constructed from almost nothing (‘rien se perd’), the kitchens and the grandiose buildings, the way the cooks all spoke the kitchen lingua franca called sabir. My favourite chapter describes how in a freak instance they ran out of curry one lunchtime: he asks the Chef Monsieur Bonvalet (sarcastically nicknamed ‘Dad’) if he will declare it unavailable:
“No no – make more – I help”
Might have known – the roast lamb could always be sold again, but when would come another day so golden for making a profit on scraps? Bonepickings were scoured from every corner of the larder, cooks crowded round to Dad’s howls, and the soup-cook’s reserves were raided.
“But I got no more onions”
“Give more colly, va.” He was quartering potatoes with of all things a long ham knife.
“I got no more potatoes”
“Give them rice” screamed Dad. Two boys were sent staggering to the sink with a big pot.
“Come lazy ones, fainéants, fesses d’huitres, no wash off, no put kalt wasser, égouttez, drain and servir like so.”
Curry was served on flat dishes, in soup bowls, in cloche covers; it was war, it was splendid. At three in the afternoon there was rice all over the floor.
“We sell good” said Dad, satisfied for once to his very depths, and bought us all a beer.

Fortunately, during the writing of this blog I have been sustained by lunch of home baked bread and ham, and fourses of coffee and Fudge’s succulent Belgian chocolate florentines…

05 April 2009

The trivial round, the common task...

In a break in the hen stuff (i e domestic tasks), I wondered what Mrs Beeton recommended for the day…

Monday – The home washing
Tuesday – Sweeping and cleaning of servants’ bedrooms or one or two other rooms, and stairs cleaned down to lower floor
Wednesday – The sweeping and cleaning of best bedrooms, and windows
Thursday – Cleaning and turning out of cupboards, and cleaning of passages and remaining stairs
Friday - Sweeping and cleaning of drawing room, and cleaning of silver
Saturday – Sweeping and cleaning of dining room and kitchen, tins, coppers, &c.
Besides these daily tasks mentioned, must be reckoned the bed-making, the dusting, the cooking and washing-up, and all the hundred and one things that have to be accomplished in the smallest of households…

I like that last comment – it has a slightly exasperated tone about it, and I'm sure young Isabella would rather have been playing the piano. If I have difficulty getting to sleep, I count the number of these sort of things I’ve had to do for the day!

02 April 2009

Oh Ingerlund, Are Wunderful, OhIngerlundAreWunderful…

Well, OK, maybe it wasn’t a very good idea to go home on the Metropolitan Line last night, as the train passes through Wembley Park tube station, and England were playing the Ukraine at Wembley stadium. Nor was it a good idea to be carrying a large string bag of food, including fruit. But it was interesting. Sort of.

It all began quite quietly, too. A few fans got on at Liverpool Street, normally dressed, but talking a bit louder than usual. I gave them a wide berth, and went to stand by the door. By the time we left King’s Cross we’d been joined by the cabaret , who were wearing white plastic hats with the St George’s cross on them, and jumping up and down and singing at full throttle (with actions). At this point I more or less gave up on The Times crossword and involuntarily went into folklore mode. I was amused to hear that they only reliably knew four tunes:
The J P Sousa march Stars and Stripes Forever
When the Saints Go Marching In
She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes
The National Anthem.

Many of the chants can be adapted to fit any of the first three, and they apparently sang whichever one took the fancy. Unsurprisingly the lyrics aren’t exactly taxing, either: even the infamous ‘Vindaloo’ song, which after all doesn’t consist of very much more, was reduced to the phrases ‘nah nah nah’ and ‘Vindaloo’, sung to Tune 1 (or was it Tune 2? – hard to tell by that stage).
Last night’s favourite (Tune 3, of course) was
There were ten German bombers in the air/ There were ten German bombers in the air
There were ten German Bombers, ten German Bombers, ten German Bombers in the air
And the RAF from England shot them down/ And the RAF from England shot them down/ And the RAF from England, RAF from England, RAF from England shot them down
(definitely ear worm territory, unfortunately).

At Finchley Road, on surged vast numbers of the Desperate (and muscular): We Must Get On This Train, And What’s More We’re Going To. I’m quite strong, and not small, and even I was rolled round and jammed against the partition so that I couldn’t move: how long can you hang on to the shopping but keep the extremities from going numb? Though at least nobody’s hands ended up where they shouldn’t, and it meant that we were no longer being bounced up and down by the singers, since they couldn’t move either. Then the train stopped at Wembley Park, thousands of people got out of my compartment (that’s certainly what it felt like), and the three of us who were left relaxed and sat down…

28 March 2009

The elusive grandfather

Got him! I finally found the date of death of my paternal grandfather, William George Oldman: registered in Lothingland in the 3rd quarter of 1936. I was beginning to think that he was either immortal, or had spontaneously combusted! Nobody seemed to know exactly when it was that he died, and I’ve more or less run out of relatives to ask.

The death date isn’t that important in the general scheme of things, but it was exasperating (not to mention untidy) for one thing, and for another led me to wonder all sorts of things – had he died outside England, perhaps (since I knew that he used to go as far as Lerwick in the course of his work for a company that supplied coal to the fishing industry), or had he even absconded? If so I would have expected my father to have used it in trying to help heal a rift on the other side of the family.

Heaven knows why the date was so difficult to find: just about every genealogical database I looked in drew a blank, even over a range of years, and I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t find any record of his death. It didn’t help that I had been told that it was about 1932-33, or that William and George were such popular names; even Oldman isn’t that unusual a surname if you come from Norfolk or Suffolk. I’ll probably send off for the death certificate, even though probable cause of death isn’t hard to guess, given his size, evident love of cigarettes, and the fact that heart problems run in the family.

Ah well, now for the other great family mystery – did my grandmother Ayers have any more children after she left my grandfather?

23 March 2009

Origami for cats

What's a pusser to do when the weather's bad? Sally's predecessor, Pickle, had basketwork as a hobby - undoing it, that is. Sal prefers something a bit less energetic, like rearranging the mats in the bathroom...

12 March 2009

Spend money to help the economy? Well, OK, but on what?

There’s a nice long list of things I won’t be blowing it on, that’s for sure:

Having my nails wrapped (I don’t even like long nails, really, leave alone having something stuck under them to make me look like some kind of calcium freak)

Having my eyebrows threaded (what???)

Buying a designer handbag (It costs how much? C’mon, it’s a bag, for heaven’s sake. I put bus tickets and sandwich wrappers in it)

Sessions on a sun bed (even leaving out the skin cancer risk) (I am pale and proud of it)

Taking out a gym subscription (I. DO. NOT. DO. EXERCISE) (if you work in a museum, that’s enough to be going on with, frankly)

Taking out a subscription to WeightWatchers (OR DIETS)

Detoxing (an even more stupendous con than designer bags)

Taking up golf (if sailing is standing under a shower tearing up banknotes, I hate to think what golf is)

Vertiginous heels a la Victoria Beckham (as illustrated on Zen Mischief recently – nuf said)

Anything described as (quote) Must Have

I’m sure there are others, too, lots of ‘em. Maybe the peeps at the auction I went to in January had the right idea – though I do begrudge the buyer’s premium and VAT – at least those are things you can take pleasure in owning, and can sell again if you change your mind.

28 February 2009

A bit of an enigma

Some time ago I happened upon these two pairs of shoes left on the pavement - not outside the mosque, but outside the back gate of the museum. I have no idea why they were left there - I suppose one pair could have been abandoned as uncomfortable, but two? They were gone by the next day...

27 February 2009

Fiction: twenty five favourites

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813)
Collected Ghost Stories, M R James (1931)
Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons (1932)
The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L Sayers (1934)
The Laird and the Lady, Joan Grant (1949)
The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey (1951)
The Tiger in the Smoke, Margery Allingham (1952)
Cotillion, Georgette Heyer (1953)
The Once and Future King, T H White (1958)
Love on a Branch Line, John Hadleigh (1959)
Too Many Ghosts, Paul Gallico (1961)
Tree and Leaf, J R R Tolkien (1964)
The House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier (1969)
The Ringed Castle, Dorothy Dunnett (1971)
Thomas the Fish, Diana Morgan (1976)
Glimpses of the Moon, Edmund Crispin (1977)
The Roses of Picardie, Simon Raven (1979)
Flying to Nowhere, John Fuller (1983)
Noah’s Ark, Barbara Trapido (1984)
One Thing Leading to Another, Sylvia Townsend Warner (1984)
Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd (1985)
Knots & Crosses, Ian Rankin (1987)
Unaccustomed Spirits, Elizabeth Pewsey (1997)
Unicorn’s Blood, Patricia Finney (1998)
The Book of Dave, Will Self (2006)

That was hard!

Quite a lot of it at one extreme or the other, it appears: happy and joyful (or at least humorous) or distinctly Gothic. It leaves out an awful lot of favourites, like Elizabeth Goudge’s Towers in the Mist, and like Jilly in her jillysheep blog, I often found it difficult to choose among a series or an author’s work, like which of Dorothy Dunnett’s ‘Lymond’ books to go for. And the M R James and the Sylvia Townsend Warner are short stories rather than novels, of course.

Apart from the Will Self, what about the last ten years’ worth, you may ask? That was when I finally tipped over into reading more non-fiction – cue yet another list, perhaps.

24 February 2009

Children's Books

I'm not absolutely sure, and I've put them in date order because order of preference is too hard, but I think these might be the ones I'd keep from my collection of nigh on two thousand, if I could have only twenty five. It would be a devilish hard choice, mind!

Alice Through the Looking Glass Lewis Carroll (1864)
(or Thogh the Looking Glass, as I was convinced it was called on first reading, aged seven)

Eight Cousins (or possibly An Old-Fashioned Girl) Louisa M Alcott (1875)
(Both much nicer than Little Women, in my not so humble opinion)

Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard Eleanor Farjeon (1921)

Bunkle Butts In M Pardoe (1943)

The Little White Horse Elizabeth Goudge (1946)
(still the favourite!)

The Lost Staircase Elinor M Brent-Dyer (1946)
(Brent-Dyer in a more romantic/ historic mood)

Eudoria’s Broomstick Victor Knowland (1950)

(totally obscure fantasy adventure, but with typically postwar emphasis on food - especially steamed puddings, for some reason)

A Swarm in May William Mayne (1955)

The Warden’s Niece Gillian Avery (1963)
(I had the opportunity of telling the author how much I loved it and she was disappointed because it was one she'd written so long ago!)

Nurse Matilda Christianna Brand (1964)
(always makes me think of my hordes of cousins, knowing the author was similarly placed)

Bottersnikes and Gumbles A S Wakefield (1967)
(more fantasy - the cranky snikes versus the jolly gumbles in the Australian Bush)

The Owl Service Alan Garner (1967)
(still one of the most haunting things I've ever read)

A Wizard of Earthsea Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

Creed Country Jenny Overton (1969)
(family dynamics and historical research, so two favourite themes combined)

Septimus and the Danedyke Mystery Stephen Chance (1971)
(about as much a children's book as Garner's are...)

The Cuckoo Tree Joan Aiken (1971)

The Cricket Term Antonia Forest (1974)

Robinsheugh Eileen Dunlop (1975)
(more time travel, this time in Scotland)

The Bassumtyte Treasure Jane Curry (1978)
(the one I always read when I'm ill, for some reason: it always takes me out of myself, perhaps because of the time travel/ reincarnation element)

A Midsummer Night’s Death K M Peyton (1978)

Fire and Hemlock Diana Wynne Jones (1984)
(technically by far the best of her books - this one's literature, to my mind)

The Hounds of the Morrigan Pat O’Shea (1985)

They Do Things Differently There Jan Mark (1994)
(completely surreal!)

Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code Eoin Colfer (2003)

The New Policeman Kate Thompson (2007)
Celtic fantasy with lots of Irish traditional tunes woven in

What I noticed when I first attempted this exercise was the preponderance of 1960s and 70s titles - so books I'd encountered in my teens and twenties rather than my childhood. Sadly, I notice that I’ve virtually given up on contemporary children’s books, apart from those by authors whose work I already know (always happy to read Diana Wynne Jones, Eoin Colfer, Kate Thompson), which is a great shame. But too many of the current crop are all alike to me – too often I find that fifteen or twenty pages in I’m struggling to remember the characters’ names – and can’t feel very bothered about them anyway. That's a fairly unfortunate observation when you consider that one of my favourite genres is fantasy, which should be memorable if nothing else.

Publishers are far too obviously desperate to find the next J K Rowling. There actually may not be one, guys, or at least not for a bit. I’d say the previous comparable equivalent was Enid Blyton, and she published her last full length work in 1965!

15 February 2009

Idiolect – It’s the way I speak, innit?

I’ve long been aware of idiolect, or personal vocabulary, and fascinated by it. Not so much words or phrases which are unique to somebody – they’d obviously be part of it, but are only a tiny percentage – but what makes your vocabulary yours. Constructions, choice of words, aberrations, idioms. Shibboleths come into it, too, obviously: many English-speaking Canadians pronounce the word ‘about’ as ‘aboat’ for example, to the extent that if I do hear it I find I’m usually listening to a Canadian, or at least a person who has lived in Canada or spent a lot of time with Canadians. Speaking of which, a former colleague of Keith’s, who was a translator and linguistics expert, once said to me that he would always have known that I was East Anglian. Well, OK, I though, but you have been told, and you’re East Anglian yourself, so that’s hardly surprising. Then he went on to ask – at which point I nearly yelled with surprise, since he had no way of knowing that – “How come you’ve spent so much time with Irish people?”

I do draw the line at pulling out a notebook and writing down what people are saying to me, as was the practice of a German room-mate I once had. Still, that was a question of trying to improve her vocabulary in a foreign language, which is perhaps a bit more understandable (I wonder if she still remembers an expression our Welsh room-mate used of the doctor’s receptionist “Oh she’s a real nasty old piece of knitting”?). That Civil Service hostel I inhabited in my middle twenties certainly had a varied and changing population, and my idiolect still carries some of the souvenirs, such as the useful verb ‘to broddle’ (to dig/ poke about in order to find something), as contributed by my Yorkshire-born friend Sheila Mary.

I’m not sure that that one hasn’t passed into the ecolect (what the household speaks), actually. In almost thirty years it’s inevitable that Keith and I have caught usages such as ‘a driddle’, ‘never ask’, ‘meesen’ (mice), ‘chop chop’ and ‘no-brainer; from each other, and coined a few between us. “What is Termite soup?” asked our friend Victor, looking bemusedly at the joint shopping list. But then Victor himself was one of those astonishing people who not only speak several languages, and manage to keep them separate, but can just switch in and out of them. My spoken idiolect has too much mixing of languages in it, and definitely too many bastardisations (even if they are deliberate). Trouble is, these things can be surprisingly memorable. Typos from letters of enquiry, for example, such as musume, everlope and samp. And then there are the ones which start as mis-read words and then stick – that’s a category all on its own, though I know I’m not alone there. Yesterday a friend mis-read ‘Pie of the Day’ as ‘Pig of the Day’ on a menu, for example, and we all agreed that his version sounded much better…

25 January 2009

A little light shopping

It was off to Christie’s at South Kensington for a bit last week (viewing on Monday and bidding on Tuesday and Wednesday). I’ve been bidding at sales for about thirty years, but this was a bit out of the ordinary, especially for one person’s collection: there was an overwhelming amount of stuff there, with everything from a stately Elizabethan court portrait, seventeenth century beds and medieval stained glass panels to pincushions, irons and kitchen ladles. Roger Warner (1913-2008) was a well-known and highly respected antiques dealer, this was all from his house in Oxfordshire, and my first reaction was “Was there anything (in the fine and decorative arts) that this man didn’t collect?” Not really…fortunately my colleagues and I had combed through the lusciously illustrated catalogue well in advance, and honed it down to just four lots out of six hundred and odd. Yes, that’s hard – but having limited (and public) money to spend concentrates the mind wonderfully…

Come Tuesday morning and I decided to be there early as usual for the 10.30 start: even after all these years, bidding on behalf of the museum is still a bit nerve-wracking (will I miss the right thing, bid for the wrong thing, overbid, or even just fail?) and I don’t need any extra pressure from being late. And that was just as well – these days prior registration is compulsory, and as I was bidding on behalf of a third party there were extra arrangements to put in place. By 10.30 the queue at the registration desk was still so long as to need a delay in the start of the sale so that everybody could be dealt with. I was also glad that I’d asked about the lunch break beforehand, as I was warned that there probably wouldn’t be one. Cue extra supplies, and gratefulness that there are loos on the premises!

We got the flavour of the day right at the start when Lot 1, an oak chest of ca 1540, went for a hammer price of the top of its estimate (£6000). I usually feel a bit sorry for the vendors of the first few lots, as bidding often takes a while to get going, but not on this occasion. It got absolutely lunatic in places – as the day progressed, things routinely went for double (and in some cases ten times) the top of their estimates. Naturally, all this extra interest slowed things up a bit, especially with telephone and online bidding included. Online bidding has speeded up considerably since it was introduced, but two telephone bidders against each other is the pits – so painfully slow and long drawn-out that I’ve known the auctioneer to recommend “Talk among yourselves” to those present. Telephone bidders always seem to have bottomless pockets, too, and I’m sure some of it is not so much “I really want that” as “I really don’t want X to have it”. I left at about five o’clock and they were still hard at it (I had visions of it going on all evening, which it may well have done).

I’d achieved the first of our items, a deportment board, fairly early on, and for just over half of what we’d allowed – oh good. I’d missed acquiring the second (a Victorian painting of a girl with a doll) by a country mile, as it went for three times its upper estimate – oh bad. Never mind, I consoled myself, it would have needed some conservation, and the money will give me a bit more leeway (with my boss’s agreement) for the following day's bids of 18th century layette pincushions (above) and a lavishly equipped 19th century educational specimen box – and although things had calmed down considerably by then, and I was successful with both bids, I needed it. I mean, I know early 18th century furniture is much rarer than most people realise, but I still have no idea why somebody paid £3000 (nearly £4000 when you add the buyer’s premium and VAT) for a single 1720 chair, and I was not alone in this. The bidding on the first day apparently amounted to £1.6 million pounds, and I really don’t want to hear the words ‘credit crunch’ again any time soon…

11 January 2009

Short memories?

It isn't just that so many people are carrying on something chronic about the cold weather - look, it's winter, OK? I am beginning to think that ninety-five percent of the populace has no long-term memory left, or at least nothing that will take them back beyond, say, two years without some form of assistance. Even the elder brethren can't seem to remember that we had snow in South-east England only a few years ago (here's Sally investigating in the garden in 2004) , leave alone anything further back, like the hard winter of 1962-63, or as Simon Barnes pointed out the other day in the Times, 1947.

But it's not just the weather. All sorts of things have dropped outside the radar, from mortgages not being easy to get (even from your own bank or building society) to the idea that a long-established business might fail or that all foods are not always available all the year round at a price to suit every customer's budget. The media have always been keen to talk about "Thatcher's children" - I wonder has the time come to talk of "Blair's children" - those who instinctively dislike the past and its lessons, and think only of tomorrow and the new credit card?

05 January 2009

Autumn Colour II

...and one of the most colourful of the acers. This one was an end of season bargain which we thought might not even survive when we unwrapped it!

04 January 2009

Autumn Colour

For a bit of winter cheer - the crab apple in the garden during autumn.