31 December 2011

Happy New Year

New Year's Greetings to everyone - may your 2012 be healthy, happy and prosperous - a fab year altogether, in fact.

We will be seeing in the New Year in the comfort of home, as is our custom: I shall toast it in Bacardi and coke, while Keith prefers gin and tonic. Earlier on we had a luscious lamb curry of his concocting, which should perhaps become another New Year's Eve custom, and I finally remembered to put out the hansel money (a custom inherited from my mother). This consists of putting outside the door before midnight on New Year's Eve a coin for every member of the family/ household, and fetching the money in after midnight: this is supposed to make sure that they have enough money for the year. Very much to the point in these times, I'd say!

Festive lights at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington

10 December 2011

The Stone Menagerie no 2

Two of my favourite creatures in all the vast collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum are these medieval lions, from Southern Italy (their museum numbers are 324-1889 and 324A-1889).

The lions currently reside in the recentishly opened Medieval and Renaissance Galleries (which being a V&A person, I still think of by the working title of Med and Ren), but when I started work they were in the sculpture galleries, and I walked past them most nights on my way out of the building. As the label comments, they are column bearing and likely to have been for an external window or door. While, yes, this no doubt accounts for some of the worn appearance, the fact that most of it is around their heads suggests to me that I am not the first person, nor the last, in the 900 years of their existence who has found them very tactile and wished to run a hand over the luxuriantly carved manes. And as with the dog in Chipping Norton church, ribs and claws are still visible, though in this instance unlikely to have been based on real life - these are more your heraldic or at least symbolic lions, with tails as long as their bodies.

04 December 2011

Re-reading: Georgette Heyer x 2

These days, where fiction's concerned, I do more re-reading of what's already on my shelves than anything newly acquired.

While that's very unadventurous of me, I'm not really being drawn to any of the new stuff - and I do still look, especially when I'm in South Kensington or Harrow. On the plus side, it's a significant economy of shelf space - I still have books stacked on the stairs for lack of anywhere else (despite having taken at least six boxes' worth to charity shops recently), and I'm still buying non-fiction.

So, what's been re-read recently? A couple of Georgette Heyer's 'Georgians' for a change: The Talisman Ring and Devil's Cub. And (always a test of re-reading) did I still enjoy them? Yes I did, despite having a preference for her 'Regency' titles on the whole. In fact I was surprised at just how much I did enjoy The Talisman Ring: it's a very adroit mixture of a lot of Georgette Heyer's interests , writing genres and favourite character types and situations, many of which she went on developing. The book was published by Heinemann in 1936 (to my further surprise, my copy is not only a hardback but a first edition), and somehow I can just see it sitting in a late 1930s sitting room, even if only as a library copy.

Anyway, to the book itself - a historical detective story, with strong elements of romantic and social comedy. The book opens with the last days of Sylvester, Lord Lavenham, who has been a most outrageous rake in his younger days and is now a most outrageous old man bravely giving death a hard time. In fact he steals the show, for my money, and I much regretted the necessity of his, er, departure so that the plot could proceed.

Sylvester's dying wish is that two of his young relatives, his great nephew Tristram and grand-daughter Eustacie, should marry each other, which looks unlikely to be successful if only because the characters have no real respect for each other. Tristram is one of Heyer's Corinthian heroes, dark, taciturn, intelligent, judicial and more than a bit handy with his fists and firearms - now that's a proper hero, as I and I don't doubt many other female readers have murmured while turning the pages. Eustacie is flighty, emotional, wilful and irritating, rather like her cousin Ludovic (see below) - Tristram would be wasted on her, so it's fortunate that he encounters Miss Sarah Thane, who is tall, venturesome, resourceful, and actually punches an assailant in the face at one point .

Most of the difficulties, however, arise from another grandson, Ludovic, tenth Baron Lavenham on Sylvester's death, whom I have to say I found rather a rather tiresome young person too. Ludovic is on the run from the law, accused of a murder two years previously and needing to prove his innocence and find his missing talisman ring which was the cause of the situation. As if this wasn't enough he is also a smuggler and has been injured in an encounter with the local excisemen. Naturally everything is sorted out in time for a happy ending, largely down to Tristram and Sarah's efforts, but also aided by Sarah's brother Sir Hugh (a marvellous comic character who is clearly related to Lord Rupert Alastair in Devil's Cub) and a supporting cast of The Lower Orders, notably the wonderfully lugubrious Mr Bundy.

Devil's Cub, sequel to These Old Shades, was written four years earlier than The Talisman Ring, and I think it shows. It's still a good enjoyable read, with an attractive heroine in Mary Challoner (set off to great advantage by her avaricious mother, frankly idiotic sister Sophia and spoilt friend Juliana Marling), but I feel it's a little less polished than The Talisman Ring; the 18th centuryisms, carefully researched though they are, I found a little intrusive in this book. The heroine spends most of the second half of the book repeatedly running away from the hero, which I got a little bored with in the end, and a certain amount of skipping set in. Once again the older generation are the scene stealers, especially His Saturnine Grace the Duke of Avon (dressed to kill, in silver lace over black cloth, oh my!), his lovely and volatile wife Leonie and his brother Rupert (whose enthusiasm for alcohol masks a dry wit).

At one point I had most of Georgette Heyer's historical novels, but there are some I found I didn't want to read any more, such as Bath Tangle, which seems to be written between exclamation marks. Those two titles are certainly for the keeping, though.

02 December 2011

The Garden Shed - Excavations

(A view of garden sheds in the area - ours is barely visible on the right, after years of growing things up it!)

OK, so Mrs Beeton's suggestion for the domestic work on a Wednesday was cleaning the best bedrooms and the windows, but this week we did something a little different. With help from our friend Tom, we emptied the garden shed: very exciting, not, surely? Well, no, but we were not without some trepidation about what we might find in the way of inhabitants...many rodents in this area, and quite a few foxes, for starters.

What's more, we knew there was a hole in the back wall of this historic edifice (complete with asbestos roof, natch) and over the last year the shed has filled up with some four or five inches of soil/compost, as though something were nesting within. Hmmmm. And as is the traditional way with garden sheds, it wasn't exactly clutter-free. We took out two bicycles (Keith's with a chunk out of one wheel!), two bookcases, tins and tins of old paint/ wood sealer/ paint stripper/ barbecue fuel, three thousand (well, that's what it felt like) flowerpots, an oil lamp, assorted bits of watering equipment, six (or was it seven?) defunct pond pumps, a pond hoover (yes, there really are such things), hanging baskets, a quantity (as the auction houses say) of hosepipe, an assortment of garden tools (including a probably 1930s rake we inherited with the house), wooden shelving, and a seemingly infinite supply of deteriorating bags of sand, gravel, grit, cement, cat litter etc.

But in fact all we found by way of creature was one dead rat - and quite enough too, I hear you say. Could have been much worse, of course - but the real acid test will be when we take the edifice down and find anything that may be nestling underneath (see rodents, foxes etc above). Tom's comment was "That was a good job we did there. Of course there's just one trouble with having started it - we have to finish it!".

24 September 2011

The Stone Menagerie no 1

Well, alabaster, to be absolutely accurate, rather than stone - but I really couldn't resist taking a shot of this carved dog on the Rickardes tomb in Chipping Norton church. The detail is amazing, and it was surely carved from life - you can even see the claws, and I can just imagine the collar with what were probably a gilt brass buckle and matching quatrefoil decorations on the leather. Some sort of bull terrier, I would think - I saw one very similar hanging its head out of a car window only a few days later, looking for things to chase, as it were. Pity this one looks so melancholy (and I wished I could un-muzzle him!), but I suppose he's partly intended as a mourner...

15 September 2011

The Ancestors Say Hello

Yesterday we had a day in Chipping Norton in search of my Meades ancestors. The weather was bright and breezy and the town looked at its best with all that pale gold stonework reflecting the September sunshine. We made a beeline for the church - often a good place to start anyway, but in this case there was an extra that put a smile on my face straightaway. One of the first things I saw was this inscription:

for all the world like a welcome.

We also found Mowbray Meades on the war memorial plaque, and a group of at least three gravestones to members of the family just outside the door. And Richard Meades who was my great great great great grandfather was the mason who led the rebuilding of the church tower early in the 19th century. Salute!

14 September 2011

Electric Flowers?

A slightly bizarre image taken at the end of a coach tour during the recent biennial conference of the Anthony Powell Society in London. Not actually electric flowers, despite appearances! (Best effect achieved by clicking on the image to enlarge it).

31 August 2011

Woodman, spare that tree!

The view from the back of our house in the leafy suburbs - looks quite normal, even fairly civilised, if unexciting. But it isn't as good as it was, alas. The other morning we heard the sound of a chain saw, and realised that the people who live about three houses along, in the road backing on to ours, were cutting down the conifer at the foot of their garden. Oh well, probably Leylandii, so perhaps one can't blame them - though a pity, as the birds seem to like perching in it, even those that are a bit large for it, like the crows! Oh, and they took down the rest, while they were at it, which is why we are now forced to look at the backs of the houses on the other side of these now deceased trees.

OK, so it's delusional to pretend that we're not surrounded by buildings - we live on an estate in a built-up area, for goodness sake. And our neighbours are entitled to do what they like on their own property. But I do regret those trees, as they were part of a screen - in summer you could hardly see any of the nearby houses at all. Now we have an uninterrupted view of the backs of the houses at that edge instead, and the photo really doesn't show how bare it looks. One neighbour recently asked why we have so many trees ourselves - and we could only say that apart from the important benefits to the local wildlife, we've never understood the fascination of gazing upon fences, drainpipes, satellite dishes and washing lines!

09 August 2011

Feed Me! Feed Me! (Part 2)

This morning I happened to get quite a good portrait of Pussy-next-door, whom I am feeding while my neighbours are away:

Though it has to be said that this is the even more familiar view!

07 August 2011

Feed me! Feed me!

(Finally managing to break out of the post-employment blogging silence) There are a-many things for me to do in my retirement, but at the moment I seem to spend half my life ministering to critters. This morning I got up and fed the pond fish, the birds in the garden, and four cats (of which more anon) and the long-haired one had to be brushed and have her eyes bathed and her soil tray topped up too. I have just dealt out the second (or is it third?) round of cat treats for three.

When I finish writing this, I shall go next door to feed the long-haired one again and probably change her soil tray, then come back, feed the pond fish, refill seed hoppers for the birds if it will stay dry enough, and feed the three cats again. The increase in cat numbers has come about in two ways - one neighbour came to us a couple of weeks ago and asked if I could feed their cat while they were away. To be sure I had said I would if they could find no-one else, so that's my choice, but I had forgotten that the long coat would need regular grooming, and I had not bargained for the fact that his cat is almost certainly pregnant. I just hope she manages to hold onto the kittens until they come back! The other extra is a stray cat that would like to move in - but that has sto be taken slowly as our two resident pussers are not keen...

25 April 2011

So what's not to like, then?

OK, it's been less than a month since I retired, so early days, relatively speaking - but so far I really am highly delighted with it. I did think I would be, but some of my colleagues, bless them, seemed quite worried about me, and the professional advice beforehand all seemed to be very much of the 'it will take a long time and an awful lot of adjusting to' variety.

Not so. I am very much enjoying being on what feels like a holiday with pay, after the last thirty-six years of mostly interesting but demanding work. To be sure, there were some brilliant, satisfying and very enjoyable things in there, but precisely because of that, it's easier to let go. I had the great good luck to work with interesting people in a great job and did most of the things I'd wanted, plus a whole heap I'd never even thought of!

And no, I'm not being complacent - I'm only too well aware of my good fortune in having had the life I have had, at least so far. I'm also well aware of the contrast with some of my ancestors. What a difference a pension would have made to William the mason, for one - despite being a skilled craftsman from a successful family, he ended his days in the workhouse.

It has, of course, helped that that I had a great send off with lovely presents, that the weather has been so warm and sunny, and most of all that there's Keith to be with. At the moment we're tackling the mountain of clutter in the study (definitely not a job for the faint-hearted!) and coping with having the bathroom rebuilt, with much disruption. We reward ourselves in between with cooking good food - compliments to the chef for his chicken sag Madras tonight!

01 April 2011

Today Is the First Day of the Rest of My Life...

...and I feel exhausted! I officially retired from work yesterday, but will have to go in until Tuesday to stand even half a chance of finishing off everything that needs doing, particularly the clearing of my office. Towards this last, tonight I brought home fifteen bags of my own books and files, and it really doesn't seem to have made that much difference.

Amazing what you can accumulate in the course of thirty-two years: knitting needles, sticking plasters, spare shoes and gloves, mugs, forks...erm, and a balloon pump, some fishing line, a bag of 1950s halfpennies...

05 March 2011

Eudoria's Broomstick

'They had twenty-two pints of beer each and promptly fell asleep', copyright Victor Knowland, and reproduced by kind permission of the author-and-artist's family. (Please do not copy).

Just over two years ago I blogged here about my favourite children's books, including Eudoria's Broomstick by Victor Knowland, and I also mentioned the book as a favourite when I was interviewed by The Guardian last summer. So far so normal.

Then a couple of weeks ago a most delightful and unexpected thing happened - I had a lovely e-mail from Victor Knowland's daughter Adrienne, telling me something of the book's continued use in the family, and the fact that their father had originally read it aloud to her and her siblings at bedtime, which meant that they couldn't wait to get to bed! She also very kindly gave me permission to put up one of the illustrations here - thank you, Adrienne!

Above, therefore, as a tribute to Victor Knowland, is his splendid image, originally done in scraperboard, of the Bus Conductor and the Driver (in the distance) sleeping off their lunch. At this point John, the hero of the book, his ever-hungry duck, Puff, and their companion Legs, a beetle, are travelling in search of Eudoria's lost broomstick, and their bus fares must be paid in food. The Conductor and Driver stop early to consume what they've collected in this way: hors d'oeuvre, turtle soup, fish and chips, roast duck, peas and new potatoes, trifle and cream, steam pudding, jelly and custard, pineapple slices, ice cream, coffee and milk chocolate. A splendid scoff at any time, and particularly considering that the book was published in 1950, when there was still some food rationing in place!

11 February 2011

I've got a little list

(View from the eastbound platform at Greenford station)

As I expected, things to get done at work before the end of March are stacking up at a rate of knots. In between trying to do six assorted things at once and muttering a fair bit, I'm making a list of the work-connected things I don't think I'll miss:

Going out in pouring rain

Coming home in the dark in winter

Parting with the best part of £150 a month in fares (It's really good value, but...)

Having to grab lunch in a hurry, and eating uninspiring food much of the time

Deadlines, especially for work I didn't want to do in the first place

Meetings, especially those that are shoehorned in between others, take place over lunchtime but don't include refreshments, go on for more than an hour, or take place in spaces that are too hot/ cold/ noisy/ small

Projects I didn't want to be involved in last time, either

Political correctness

Increasingly not having time to do the parts of my job that I love best, and am best at

I may be wrong, of course - perhaps I'll miss them greatly, but I doubt it.

What I probably will miss, against all the odds, is the bit that most people shudder at - an hour on the tube each way every day. Keith went into work with me recently and said he didn't know how I did it at all, leave alone there and back day after day, but of course I started young and have got used to it, and I do it in a state of removed consciousness, so to speak. I get on at Greenford (in the open air) most mornings and sink myself in my paper or book to the extent that I never see the transition to underground tunnel at White City a handful of stops later. And yes, I normally come back to full consciousness at Bank or Liverpool Street so that I don't miss my stop. Believe it or not there are people who are on the tube when I get on and still on when I get off, so there are some who are even madder than I am...

30 January 2011

The Road and the Miles to Retirement

Well, I suppose that some progress is being made towards my retirement, though probably not enough. My office, which has been described before now as an art installation or a pile of junk, depending on who you ask, still looks as cluttered as ever, despite my best efforts. Work keeps getting in the way, of course.

Going through old documents I would estimate that I must have recycled/ shredded several trees' worth of paper by now (and a comparable amount of space on the computer). I looked at some of this stuff in amazement and wonder why it was committed to paper at such length in the first place, and certainly why I ever kept it afterwards. Again, work gets in the way, I guess - quickest to just file it away.

Rather reprehensibly, I've taken the greatest pleasure of all in tearing up all the writing guidelines - thou shalt not assume that any reader has any knowledge, of any kind, about anything; thou shalt not use ye passive tense; or the word 'which' in clauses (must use 'that'); or any punctuation, apart from full stops or perhaps the odd dash or question mark. Thou shalt, on the other hand, produce labels, text, etc which is cogent, informative and interesting for everybody of any age in roughly a third of the space (and the time) needed for the task, and by the way, your vocabulary and construction are too difficult for ordinary people to understand. (I occasionally erupt over that last one - it's really only crept in in the last ten years, which I think may just say something about dumbing down in education). I prefer to write the piece interestingly first and tailor it afterwards, frankly.

My colleagues are carrying on a touch chronic about the loss of my expertise, which is in its way flattering, but that's how these things happen, much of the time. In fact, as my boss very sensibly remarked, somebody leaving is how other people learn - and I learnt it that way myself.