Sunday, 27 December 2015

Surviving Christmas - the figures.

These are the rules I established for my own survival four years ago, (see post below in Dec 2011).

1. Cut everything you eat by 50%
2. Cut everything you say by 50%
3. Remember that everything can be mended. (But this was subject to doubt).

A new rule has emerged over the last year:


I have found that even a few sips of champagne loosen my tongue to such an extent that I become the party bore (and that's if I avoid indiscreet remarks).

A couple of weeks before Christmas, we opened a bottle of cheap fizz, and two hours later I was attacking my husband over an argument about coats hanging up in the hall.  I tried to hit him, but fortunately we both burst out laughing and got over it.

Yesterday I studiously kept off the wine at lunch, and was amused to see that even hub's sister, (never known her to lose her patience while on our premises, in over thirty years) was a trifle testy with hub during the following exchange:

General conflab:  "You can't serve pannacotta to vegetarians because of the gelatine".
Hub:                      "But there is such a thing as vegetarian gelatine."
Hub's sister:           "What's that?"
Hub:                       "Vegetarian gelatine".
Sister:    testily       "I KNOW.  But what IS it?"

A bit later on, the same wine provoked my mother-in-law, who usually knows better than to offer advice on how we should run our home, to declare that we should put some pictures up in the  dining room.

Me (to hub):          "Can we discuss this at another time, please."
                               (Code for, this is going to be a big one, as you well know.)

Hub:                      Rolls eyes and sighs, acknowledging the above code.

Mother-in-law:      (Speaking of her best friend, who's 95) - "Well, Barbara's second husband wouldn't have pictures and as soon as he died, Barbara put up pictures."

Me:                         (heroically biting back words to the effect that if waiting for me to die is too long, I'm quite happy to get divorced and we can have pictures or no pictures in our individual houses).   Managing to say nothing. "Mmmmm".

Mother-in-law:      (casting eyes to the ceiling as if to say, - what my son has had to put up with all these years!)   "Well no pictures is no good.  It looks like you've just moved in."

Me:                        (Still silent, thinking, thank god I didn't have any alcohol,)  "Mmmmm."

Today I had to go and hide in a locked bathroom for several minutes to calm down after I was overruled by my husband, who had that manic glint in his eye which appears after a beer followed by champagne.  He insisted on opening a second bottle of the fizz, and downed both his own glasses, plus my mother-in-law's, while pouring a third for my daughter's partner who would be driving 125 miles later in the afternoon (and had also had a beer).  I had to take deep breaths and put my head between my knees, and keep telling myself, "It's not about you" until I was sufficiently calm to go and hide in the kitchen while doing the washing up.

Second rule is also subject to revision.   It is now "Cut everything you say by 80%.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Black Mail

Blackness encroaches

Windows 10.

Every link I've tried to post (even to commercial journalism reviews) has been refused.  I find this sinister.

My first inkling of Windows 10 was a nasty, sinister little black box which kept popping up on my laptop and blocking my access to various things until I bowed to pressure and clicked on it.  Then it started downloading Windows 10.  I realised I could stop it by clicking the red "X" so kept doing this.

A further sinister development was literally Black Mail.  Unable to get its way with me by bullying  little black boxes the next step was big black boxes -  the whole screen going black when I opened my email screen.  It was (and is) very annoying.

After discussing with personnel at John Lewis, (supplier of my laptop) I decided to download Windows 10. It was horrible.  First it took hours.  Second it removed permanently some security devices built into the laptop (after asking permission, which of course one gives to continue with the process).

Third, it completely changed the look of my email, and the way it signs off (taking its own decisions without consulting me).

Fourth all my favourites disappeared. After discussing with helpful John Lewis, I found out that I could download each one individually (it would take days) or I could upload as an extra the Microsoft Explorer browser, which will then show one's favourites bar as before.   I tried this and it worked, but seemed to negate the whole purpose of upgrading to the new MS "Edge" browser.

Fifth, it placed very heavy emphasis on apps, games, videos and music,  None of which do I use on my laptop, and I mean none.  I am not a teenager.  I am old, and I like being old.  I don't want apps, games, videos or music.  And how does anyone ever get any work done with all this stuff popping up unasked all the time?

Sixth, and worst of all, the new "Edge" browser is not compatible with Norton, which I have paid good money for, and which I trust.  Surprising myself, I worked out how to revert to Explorer as the default browser, (not as an optional tab as per paragraph five above).  This definitely negated the purpose of upgrading, and resulted in a very poor, jumpy, wobbly screen presence. 

Finally, I called dear John Lewis yet again (they should be running the NHS, they are so responsive and helpful!).  They talked me through the process of uninstalling Windows 10 and reverting to Windows 7.1.  Things are not as good as they were before (I think Windows is upset, and taking it out on me).  My laptop runs more slowly, and the black screen still appears on my mail account, but generally I am where I was before and much happier.

I think if this sort of thing goes on, I might transfer my custom to Apple.  Or my Kindle, which I am told works on "Android", not Windows.  I hate the way Windows, by exerting relentless pressure,  tries to take over my life, my choices, and my data. 

Saturday, 12 December 2015

No time like the present

Is this the naffest gift ever?

Why is it that unasked for gifts, from people who are not one's friends, are so awful?
Because they are bought without thought, from an online menu, ready wrapped, with a pre-printed unsigned tag.  This one came from a commercial organisation, and ticks all those boxes.

What are the gifts that mean most?  A carefully selected book, even if it is from a charity shop.  A hand-made item of any sort, even if it is from a charity shop.  A candle, some hand-cream. 

What would I like most for a gift?  Peace, charity, goodwill, friends, and the gift of keeping my mouth shut more of the time.

What are the other gifts I should be glad of possessing? 

As I steam into my sixties, I am uncomfortably aware that life is not going to go on for ever.

So the wonderful quote on the exterior wall of the British Library, as you approach from St Pancras Station, is apt:

"Today is a Gift, That's Why They Call it the Present".

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Unintended Consequences

German Stamps from The Period of Hyper Inflation during the 1920's 


It cost 60,000 Marks to send a letter from Hamburg to Bradford

Turning out cupboards and drawers as part of a house-cleaning exercise, I found my late father-in-law's stamp albums.  "Grandpa", as he is still affectionately known in this house, was a classic, if geeky, little boy.  He loved steam engines, stamp collections and chess, passions which have descended to later generations, hence the presence in our house of these memorabilia.

The memories of school history lessons came into my mind.  This was like holding history in my hands, dangerous, frightening history.

This period of hyper-inflation, following on the devastation of the First World War, undermined the stability of German society.  People could not afford to buy food.  Middle-class families saw their entire savings wiped out.

It was into the vacuum of confidence and security thus created, that Hitler stepped.  He found an "enemy" to blame. The Jews.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Chucking Out Books

It hurts to chuck out books.  I've got to do it, though.  Horrified to discover that some of the pile above have not been opened for over 30 years, since we moved to this house in fact.
I put them into piles -
1. dustbin  - Items so out of date that not even a charity shop would want them - old guide-books and maps - the type of thing which you would now use the internet to research.  But not proper books.
2. charity shop which has gift-aid card - the better quality hardbacks which it might be worth the time and trouble of recovering gift-aid.
3. charity shop which virtually gives books away (no sorting - 49 pence universal pricing and on top of that two for the price of one) - poor quality paper-backs not worth spending time over.
4. charity shop which sorts books and has sections for classics and antiquarian -  penguin classics, those silver-grey spines dating from the 1970's, once much-loved, but not read since, well, the 1970's.
5. fellow book-lover.  I gave him 3 classic, little-known works, of dry irony.  Caveat - "do throw them away if you don't want them!"  Fellow book-lover physically shuddered, throwing up his hands in protest at the very idea.  He is ten years younger than me, and has not yet reached the stage of having to get rid of his books.
6. garage pending pile.  Pending what?  - Pending probable abandonment by taking trip to charity shop not listed above. My friend, who helped there, said that this shop regularly sends van-loads of books to be pulped.  It cannot be me that takes the decision to throw them out.  If that is the fate that awaits.  This pile includes those orange Penguins, which are three novels by DH Lawrence. I could never read them again.  Horrible, sexist, over-emotional stuff.  They are real books, though.  It's like taking a dog to the vet for the last time.  Dogs know. Do books know?

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Sleep Instructions

Many of my friends have problems sleeping.  One, who lives alone,  listens to the radio in the middle of the night, to drown out creaks and knocks in her home which frighten her.  Another suffers from restless legs and has to get up in the middle of the night to walk round the bedroom.  (Her husband is undisturbed!)

My own husband has maintained a sleep problem as long as I have known him.  Shortly after we met, he had to take some professional exams, and appalling insomnia plagued him throughout.  A few years later, when we were living in a small flat, he was asked to be best man for a close friend.  The stress of being in the limelight, and having to write and deliver a speech, caused him enormous discomfort.  He had to move into the sitting room and sleep on the floor for a week, in order to deal with his insomnia alone.

Insomnia is defined, for me, as that awful feeling that you have "been awake for hours" and will never sleep again, plus the plaguing worries that swoop in to the undefended mind in the small hours.

Recently, on a visit to a National Trust property, I realised for the first time that it may be entirely normal to be awake for a couple of hours in the middle of the night.

Here's the thing.

And going to bed early (I am mocked for retiring at 9.30pm), and "night time affrightments" are also entirely normal.

These are instructions to the lady of the manor's servant, but they could equally well be "note to self" in the twenty-first century!

Friday, 16 October 2015

Charles Morgan and his contemporaries

After discovering an interesting link to the period of the mid-1920's, a literary epoch which has long fascinated me, I post the following.


The Fountain, by Charles Morgan

This is a really peculiar book. It won the Hawthornden Prize in 1932.

Charles Morgan was more famous during his lifetime than after his demise. You can find a very brief biography on Wikipedia.

You may well ask, why did you read this book?

The connection derives from my interest in Vera Brittain. Charles Morgan was born in January 1894, a bare month after Vera, and is of the same generation in more ways than by mere accident of birthdate. Like Vera, he was a survivor of the First World War, and like Vera, permanently marked thereby.

Perhaps, like Vera, he would have forever remained a nonentity had it not been for the experiences of the First World War. And that Vera would have, is recorded in her own words, in a letter to her dear friend, Winifred Holtby, in which she decided that, her previous attempts at gaining recognition as a writer having failed, she would give her draft of "Testament of Youth" everything she had. If this failed, she recorded resignedly, "I shall remain silent." Fortunately, the book became an international best-seller, re-read and re-published regularly to this day.

Morgan's book "The Fountain", is not his first novel, but the first to gain important recognition. It draws heavily on his experience of being interned in Holland after capture in the early part of the War. Holland was neutral, and was not invaded, unlike the situation in which it found itself during WWII.

The Fountain does not appear in the book. Perhaps it is an allusion to sex. The book describes a rather spiritual love-affair, but the love-affair is absolutely not the heart of the book. The heart of the book is found in the search of the hero, Lewis Alison, for spiritual fulfilment.

It is impossible to imagine a book even finding a publisher, today, when the opening chapters are replete with such statements as:

"The struggle for some kind of stillness within oneself seems to run right through history........What I want is stillness of spirit....."

The common soldiery, to whom these statements are addressed, would, in today's parlance, be likely to utter imprecations such as "FFS!" if such words were to fall upon their ears.

Whilst shut up in the fortress in which he has been interned, Lewis welcomes the distance from his old life, (running a publishing business forced upon him by the early death of his father, the only means of support of his mother and sister). He looks upon the internment as a holiday, a time of complete peace and freedom from responsibilities, where he can write his book, which is to be "A history of the contemplative life."

After a time, the inmates of the fort are dispersed, and Lewis is placed in a castle, home of a Dutch aristocrat, which happens to be furnished with a magnificant library. The library is a place of seductive power, as well as great beauty, and much of the development of the love affair takes place in this setting.

The love affair itself, is completely incredible. There is no convincing description of how a person who would like most of all to become stiller and stiller until he enters a sort of hypnotic trance of introspection, embarks on a passionate affair. Indeed, as the affair approaches its physical consummation, the lover writes to his beloved a complicated analysis of love which he describes as "hypostasis" and their potential relationship as "a perdurable essence".

The library has a secret stairway to a tower, in which the "princess" sleeps, a tower to which the lover has secret access at night from the library. After a year or so of these nocturnal visitations, the girl's husband, a badly wounded German aristocrat, returns to the castle to convalesce. The affair is suspended, the war ends, the German husband finds out about the affair and dies, Alison is sent away by the girl's mother, to preserve the family honour. The ugly stepsister (who always knew, but found it impossible hitherto to tell about the affair) now finds it possible to tell all, so the girl runs away with a few jewels and a passport to join her lover and the book ends contemplating their embarkation on middle-class married life.

What did the contemporary literay scene find so enthralling, I wonder?

The beautiful girl, who is only 20, married far too young by her mother for social standing and to preserve a way of life, has no voice of her own. She is portrayed through the prism of men who find her beautiful: her stepfather, the Dutch baron, (who buys her jewels as a way of expressing affection) her lover's two interned friends, (who would do anything for her, so besotted are they by her beauty), her dying husband, (a very sympathetically drawn picture of a remnant of a now extinct German social class), who loves her and realizes that his love is not returned. What she saw in Alison is apparently his noble mind, and there is, conveniently, no accidental pregnancy to worry about. None of this is realistic to a full-blooded married woman of the late twentieth century and the new millenium.

I can only conclude that the book is the expression of a dying class system and that the people who read at all in the early thirties, who would have been the remnants of the dying upper middle class before it faced the final onslought of WWII, recognized themselves. And of course, that did not include women, who still had little or no voice in public life at the time. Vera Brittain's book was published the following year, 1933.


Other writers who were active during this time and all knew each other and referred to each other in their letters and autobiographies include:

Winifred Holtby
Storm Jameson
Phyllis Bentley
May Sinclair
Rose Macaulay

I have books by all these ladies on my shelves.  All were born within the same ten years (1888 to 1898).  All were indelibly marked by the First World War.  Three  of them saw active service in that war (although poor May Sinclair was shipped home from Belgium almost immediately as being completely unsuitable, even as an ambulance driver).

All the five listed above remained single, although Rose Macaulay had in interesting 25-year affair with an unfrocked, married Catholic priest.  All their lives were fascinating.

I will post more in due course.


Sunday, 11 October 2015

A Great Love

Here's what wrung my heart, and nearly brought me to my knees:

My Bookcase

Now no longer mine.  I remember the day we first brought it home  - like bringing home a new baby. It was for my personal use.  This was thirty five years ago.  We had just bought an old stone house in a deeply unfashionable suburb of Leeds, and wanted some antique furniture to put in it.

We then moved to a brand-new house, and although the bookcase did not fit the period, we kept it, as most of our furniture consisted of ancient hand-me-downs anyway.  Over the next thirty years, the hand-me-downs went, one by one, and finally, the house now being decorated and furnished in contemporary styles,  my husband got rid of the bookcase.

He sent it to be stripped, according to the advice given by a Laura Ashley design consultant who visited the house, and it never came back inside.  This would have required it being reassembled, which I waited patiently for him to do, eventually realising that he had no intention of so doing.

It languished in the garage for five years, miraculously avoiding ruination by damp (my husband is not totally heartless - he carefully wrapped all the dismantled parts up in bubble-wrap). 

Then our younger daughter acquired, within the space of a year, a serious boyfriend and a Victorian house.  The boyfriend is full of energy and totally practical - he owns a sanding machine, and can fix shelves.  I ventured to suggest, cautiously, emphasising that there was no obligation, that they might like the bookcase as it would fit their d├ęcor and period home rather well.

They agreed!  The boyfriend's extensive contacts book included a removal man who would take the dismantled parts, (free), from the East Midlands to the Sussex coast, in an empty van intended for the return journey.

The boyfriend put it all together again, bought some new dowelling to put the internal shelves back up, and sanded the whole thing smooth.  The stripping process had left it a bit raw.

When we visited in September , and I saw my bookcase standing proudly in their sitting room, full of their books, I nearly cried.  It was a moment of strong emotion.  I wanted it back, of course.  And looking at it there brought back so many memories, of the various stages it had gone through in our lives.  A repository for professional study materials, a children's toy cupboard, a place for storing sewing materials.  As well as a bookcase of course.

I was so pleased it had found a loving home, a place where it is appreciated and cared for.  Secretly I hope that a new generation will use it as a toy cupboard again.  I haven't uttered a word, of course.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Society of Antiquaries, London

King Edward IV and King Richard III Matching "Arch" Portraits

Here's where I went today, to attend a free public lecture by John Ashdown Hill.  What an immense privilege.

I already have two of his books on my Kindle.

 Eleanor the Secret Queen,


The Last Days of Richard lll and the fate of his DNA.

This lecture gave the kernel of his new work, "The Dublin King" and was a fascinating and concise indication of all the relevant points about who the "Dublin King" really was.  Very persuasive.

I don't know how the man's able to sleep at night, with all that research and delving into hitherto undisturbed archives, swimming about in his head.  He is already at work on two further books, one for next year called "The Wars of the Roses" and one for the year after, about Edward IV.

Curiously, he doesn't seem interested in Perkin Warbeck.

Still, it was a great British day out.  Free education, history, the conservation of the past.  All wonderful.

And the two pictures above were hanging on the wall right above my head.  You can see all the Society's picture collection online, but nothing beats the real thing.

Thursday, 10 September 2015


This year, my first full year in retirement, I have decided to do some things differently.  I posted yesterday about pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone regarding sleep.

I felt that I should move out of my comfort zone in other respects.  My normal spheres of activity consist of sitting, preferably at a desk, and using my brain.

I love sitting.  Yesterday I even sat to do some deadheading, carting a kitchen stool around the garden with me.

I've never been a great one for using my hands, athough I have the greatest respect for people who do.  And I've certainly had plenty of chances to see them in action recently.  We've had a constant stream of
workmen processing through the house for the last three months.  Builders, fitters, electricians, floor-layers, plasterers. They have taken out walls, doors, floors and ceilings.  Then re-bricking, re-plastering, and breaking things inadvertently, thus causing more workmen to come. I admire their energy and zeal for getting their hands dirty and lifting heavy weights, but could never, even in my younger days, have hoped to do any such thing.

In my career, I sat at a desk and pondered over intellectual problems.  I was required to read a lot (albeit company law and tax regulations, largely), and write reports, memos and minutes.

I have also been doing a lot of reading since retirement, so when thinking about the U3A, I felt the need to join a different group.  Steer clear of my comfort zones, which are sitting, reading and writing.  Such opportunities exist, in that there are several reading groups and four creative writing groups in my locality.

In the interests of pushing myself and striking a balance, I decided on Yoga.

Thirty-five years ago, I joined a yoga evening class, and all I can remember of it is that I couldn't do any of the poses.  I also remember being so relaxed in the lying on the floor part that I fell asleep.

I explained to the leader of the U3A Yoga class, when discussing my proposed visit for a trial session, that I had been spectacularly useless at my previous attempt.  "I just lay on the floor doing the breathing," I said. I didn't mention the falling asleep.

She was completely non-judgemental, and yesterday I went along for the first session of the new term.

We spent nearly the whole session just lying on the floor doing the breathing (great! I can do that!) And I didn't fall asleep!  Maybe that was because it was morning, not eight-o'clock at night after a full day's work.  We then moved on to The Warrior Pose.

It looks simple, but try it.   I wobbled, and thought I would fall over, despite having both feet on the ground.  "Good," I thought.  If I think I'm going to fall over, this means I need to do this, and I need to improve.  So, good for pushing boundaries, and good for balance, all round.

I didn't ache this morning, or feel stiff.  I recognized two people I knew slightly at the class, so had  a nice chat.  Sociable, then, as well as stretching. 

Hope I can keep it up!

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Royal Shakespeare Company, Cycle of 4 Kings

Gulp!  I have just booked the RSC Cycle of Kings for January 2016. 

This is way out of my comfort zone.  I need to go to bed at 9.30 every night just to function normally.  I haven't been out at night for years, and I even missed seeing the RSC's "Bring Up the Bodies" as an adjunct to "Wolf Hall" because I resisted booking an evening performance.

Two evening performances one after the other, with a matinee in between, is really going to challenge me.

I must challenge myself, however.  And since I am now retired, I needn't worry about falling asleep at my desk the following week.  (Which used to happen, even when I hadn't been to the theatre the night before).

I could not resist the idea of seeing, in the correct historical order,

Richard II
Henry IV Part One
Henry IV Part Two
Henry V.

David Tennant will be playing Richard II.  Alex Hassell, whom I saw as Biff in "Death of a Salesman" at Stratford earlier this year, will be Henry V.  And Antony Sher, who played the title role, Willy Loman, in "Death of a Salesman", will be Falstaff.  If I can keep awake, it will be awesome.

Antony Sher has even written a book about playing Falstaff.

I'm excited!

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Old English Wisdom

The North Elmham Rood Screen - a man riding a pig. The carving dates from, it is thought, the fifteenth century, but the sentiment is Anglo-Saxon, according to "A Clerk Of Oxford" who writes about Old English sayings here.  (It's number ten on the list).

"It’s up to the pig now, said the man sat on the boar’s back".

It's interesting to think of this pre-conquest salty wisdom, being passed down in a remote, extremely rural setting, via generations of country-folk. The carving has survived all that has been thrown at it, and we can see it today much as it was when first set up. 

Those short, pithy utterances have a deep earthy humour to them, which tickles me. 

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

First-World Problems

Ref my moaning about the kitchen - I know, I know, it's such a first-world problem. Thus it was described by my daughter's boyfriend in a scathing put-down some months ago.  But that doesn't mean it is not a problem.  I still feel stress and aching joints and muscles. 

Anyway, moving back to the main point of this blog, namely books.  I have just read a couple of chapters of my current reading - the first time I have sat down to do so since last Friday.  So I am feeling better. 

I must add that I have actually chucked out some books.  Contrary to my usual practice, which is to replace any book I have chucked out (possibly in a fit of misguided tidying). 

The books I have discarded are old cookery books which I have not used for more than 20 years, and will never use again.  I tried to get my husband to chuck out some cookery books which I have NEVER used and know that I never will, but, to my great surprise, he insisted on keeping most of them.  He is not usually a book fan at all.

I also chucked out two files of paper cuttings from magazines and newspapers of recipes which, at the time, sounded awesome - eg "the ultimate chocolate cake" .  Most of them I have never used.  I don't miss them.

In one of these A4 ring-binders, I found two pieces of handwriting by my daughters, when they were very small.  One of the pieces was a painstakingly copied recipe for their favourite cake of all time, (no longer, and forgotten).  The other was a little note wishing me good luck in an amateur dramatics production, and assuring me that I would not forget my lines!  These have been filed away in a different place, to keep for a bit longer.

The other thing that turned up in the A4 ring-binder was strange.  Two tiny scraps of paper.  The smaller is a photocopy of "The Pity of Love", by WB Yeats.  The larger has two poems, "The Sorrow of Love" and "When You Are Old", both by the same.

How apt they seem, how extraordinary that they should fall out of a recipe file 30 years after they were placed there!

When You Are Old

By William Butler Yeats 1865–1939       

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Yes, I remember a friend, not a boyfriend but a sort of special companion, quoting this to me, forty years ago.  He particularly mentioned the moments of glad grace.  And now, I am indeed old, and feel tired a lot, and would be grey if I didn't have a good hairdresser.  That friend is a distant memory, but my husband is still here, and I hope that Love has not fled.  We have weathered many a storm together.
The Sorrow of Love - no, I won't go there.  But "The Pity of Love", yes, this is so true.
A Pity beyond all telling
Is hid in the heart of love:
The folk who are buying and selling,
The clouds on their journey above,
The cold wet winds ever blowing,
And the shadowy hazel grove
Where mouse-grey waters are flowing,
Threaten the head that I love.
How apt, how true, how un-analysable. 


Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Kitchen, Rant.

It looks so simple, doesn't it.

Just some new worktops, new sink and taps, new cupboards.  But oh, it hides a multitude of painful days, painful months. 

It took me a month to clear out, and pack elsewhere in the house, 24 years worth of clutter from the old kitchen and utility, together amounting to by far the largest space in the house.  Then commenced two months of work, starting on the 25th June and still not quite finished.

The arguments began a year ago.  I didn't want a new kitchen at all.  The old one was clean, well-designed, and perfectly functional.  Why throw out - literally - a £600 dishwasher to replace it with an inferior model, (of which more later) simply for the sake of appearances? Why throw out solid, well-made and spotlessly clean cupboards, just for the sake of appearances?

Husband, a structural engineer, is obsessed with cracks, and wanted builders to knock out all the plaster where we had an extension 24 years ago, to sort out, in the building's underlying structure, the permanent visual problem of cracks.  They are not a safety or structural problem.  Everyone we spoke to without exception said "Just paper over the cracks and in the time the possible purchasers have bought and settled in, they won't notice them".  But no, husband had to have perfection so that "if we pop our clogs the kids, (28 and 30 and both homeowners) will find it easier to sell the house and make more money on it". So, he reasoned, if this disruptive building work has to take place, why not have a stylish new kitchen at the same time?

Personally, I think I have done enough for our offspring, and would like a peaceful and calm retirement.  Not massive hassle going on for months. The kids could easily sort out the work (if they thought it important which I am sure they don't) when the house was empty, assuming we had both "popped our clogs" and they had to clear the whole house. 

I lost the "no new kitchen at all" argument, but bargained for a new door in the back wall which would lead straight out into the garden.  This I have achieved, see above on the right, and it is a great improvement.  You feel less trapped in a kitchen where you can get out into the garden.  And it lets so much more light in.

I lost the argument over the dishwasher, and the new one, which is inferior, doesn't actually work properly, so an engineer will be coming out on Monday.

The argument over the steam oven fizzled out after husband asked his secretary, whose daughter is a professional chef, whether professional chefs use steam ovens.  They don't.

The argument over which cupboard fronts to choose - well I never stood a chance - husband was determined from the outset to have his own way, and there was no discussion. It doesn't bother me that much, although I feel we have chosen the wrong colour work-top.

But we still have (against my advice) three ovens, because as well as the new built-in oven and built-in combination microwave, we have to have the old oven fitted under the work-top so that once a year at Christmas, all the dishes and plates can be warmed without sacrificing cooking space.  So a full cupboard under the worktop sacrificed for one day a year.  Which, surely in the not-to-distant future, will not be necessary - surely one of our two daughters will take over Christmas, at least once?  After 26 years, when will we stop hosting?

I lost the argument over an induction hob because apparently everyone has induction hobs nowadays and soon no other kind will be available to buy.

So what did I gain, other than a new back door into the garden?  We agreed on the new flooring, Karndean wood-effect.  We agreed on the colour of the paint.  We needed a new ceiling (because of the cracks), and new ceiling lights. 

Before the workmen started, nothing was broken, everything worked.  They damaged the burglar alarm, which would cost more than it is worth to repair.  After plumbing and electrical changes, they have left the boiler in a state where it is now on all the time, despite everything being switched to "off" positions. In a heatwave.

They keep on defecating in our toilet, which is a problem because the downstairs toilet has collapsed under the strain and been removed entirely, so now they have to tramp through the house and go upstairs. Which should be private as far as I am concerned. Yesterday they left actual .... well, I won't go on.

Last night we had our first proper cooked meal in our own home since 12th June.  Food does soothe, and my nerves, which were on edge for eight weeks, have calmed a little.  That was before I found out that the dishwasher is not working properly.  And that the new flooring for the downstairs toilet can't be done until September, so we will be without this facility for another month, as the flooring has to be done before the plumbing.

Next, husband wants to go through the same crack-repair scenario in the room next door, which was also extended at the same time, and has the same "problem" (which, in this room, is invisible to the naked eye).

And he wants to start in two weeks time. 

Tuesday, 28 July 2015


Part of the ruins of the refectory wall, Walsingham Abbey, Norfolk

Shakespeare  as ever so succinct, so evocative, captured  scenes like this when he wrote of the:

"Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang"  (Sonnet 73).

It is a striking thought that Shakespeare, whose parents had lived through the Reformation,   was already seeing ruins, only one generation from the dissolution of the monasteries.  Time did not dissolve these walls, they were deliberately hacked down and the roofs torn off to hasten internal decay.

Another poem, again from the sixteenth century, is attributed to Philip, Earl of Arundel (1557 - 1595). 

"Bitter, bitter oh to behould
     The grasse to growe
Where the walls of Walsingham
     So stately did shewe.

Such were the works of Walsingham
     Where she did stand
Such are the wrackes as noe do shewe
     Of that holy land.

Levell levell with the ground
     The towres doe lye
Which with their golden, glittering tops
     Pearsed once to the sky."

Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel was the son, grandson and great-grandson of men attainted for treason.  His great-grandfather, the third Duke of Norfolk, escaped death, (the fate of the other two) only because Henry VIII died in the night as the Duke was awaiting execution the next morning. The latter then spent the whole of the reign of King Edward VI imprisoned in the Tower of London, to be released on the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary.

Philip, a Catholic martyr, was also attainted for treason, and spent six years in the Tower awaiting execution, primarily for his Catholic faith.  He died of either malnutrition, dysentery or poisoning, (reports vary) in 1595 and was canonised by Pope Paul VI on 25th October 1970.

Walsingham had for centuries been a major centre for pilgrimage in England.  Every medieval king is said to have visited. 

Henry VIII walked barefoot from the slipper chapel and offered a necklace of great value immediately after the birth of his first son, Prince Henry, on New Year's Day, 1511, and made two payments in the same year to the royal glazier for work in the Lady Chapel.  Tragically, the baby died soon after, on 22nd February at barely seven weeks old.

Katherine of Aragon, his first Queen, wrote to Henry on 16th September 1513, after victory over the Scots at the Battle of Flodden, that she would now go on pilgrimage to Walsingham, and was recorded as being present there on 23rd September. 

The Abbey at Walsingham was destroyed by Henry VIII along with every other great religious house in England during the late 1530's, by which time much water had passed under the bridges of Henry's youthful idealism.

Walsingham has revived in the last hundred years as a place of pilgrimage.  There is both an Anglican and a Catholic shrine. 

When I visited on 7th July, the Union of Catholic Mothers was on pilgrimage at Walsingham. I was impressed.  These ladies, many of them advanced in years, processed from the Slipper Chapel
to enter through the great monastery gate and hear a mass under the former eastern window, the last remaining stones of the former abbey church.
As a mere tourist I was humbled by their dedication, and wondered whether I should consider becoming a Catholic myself.  Then I remembered that my mother (who died in 1987, and is a very distant figure to me now) had been brought up as a Catholic, although she never spoke about it to me.  My brother, who undertook extensive research in family history, unearthed the details. 
Perhaps it is not only the shape of a nose or the colour of hair which runs in families. 

Friday, 17 July 2015

Holiday Reading


Here is a book I picked up at a Sue Ryder shop.  It was outside in a box marked "two for £1". So old and rundown that it did not merit a place on the bookshelves inside. 
(The other one I bought for the £1 was a slim paperback of Shakespeare's sonnets, a substantial section of which is printed upside down.  Odd).
The book does not have a date inside it, either in the opening print credits or in the editor's introduction, so I did not know from which decade it hailed.  I guessed the 1930's.  It does smell. This reminds me of my friend, who won't buy a second-hand book on principle because they don't feel nice, and they smell.  I will admit it doesn't feel nice. 
I've since looked it up on Amazon and my guess was apparently correct, mid-1930's. 
I bought it because I had a great friend many years ago who enthused about Bentley's book "Trent's Last Case", much praised as a classic detective story. 
Further, I do love an old hardback, especially one from the 1930's.  And I do love a "dip-in and dip-out" type of book, which seems like ideal holiday reading.
The treasures within exceeded even my expectations.  There was a story by Ronald Knox, the uncle of Penelope Fitzgerald.  Penelope Fitzgerald made her name with a biography of all her uncles.  It is called "The Knox Brothers" and I bought it (of course) after reading the excellent biography of Penelope by Hermione Lee.  It's in a pile to come to later, in the winter I think.
I admit the detective story by Ronald Knox was not very good, but it is indicative of the snobbery and elitism of the 1930's, that if you were from the upper middle class, with an Oxbridge education, and preferably a man as well, you could get mediocre work published. 
Another story is by GDH and Margaret Cole, a husband and wife team of elite 1920's academics, who are more usually noted for their socialist economic theories.  I had no idea that they also wrote detective stories.  Again, it is not particularly brilliant, but sheds an interesting light on their otherwise austere public image.
The best story I have read so far in this collection is by Dorothy L Sayers, still a classic author in print and still being adapted for TV and other media after all these years. 
It is the only story which has so far made me want to read more by this author.  Oh, and one other thing, of course, is that Dorothy L Sayers was a contemporary of my great heroine, Vera Brittain.  They were students together at Oxford.
The common feature of the other selections I have read is that they are ALL set in one of three locations.  Either in an Oxford College or a gentleman's club or in the home of an eccentric old upper-middle-class gentleman.  This old gentleman invariably has a housekeeper or butler, lives alone and has been found dead, usually by the housekeeper/butler, who is immediately cast as a suspect.  Really it is a little bit tedious, and I stopped after reading four of these.  Another feature of the less well-written stories is that they make heavy weather of laying out the clues and the hindrances to discovery of the eventual murderer. 
It's interesting to note this as a stage in literary development, though, a curiosity, and a little light entertainment from time to time. 
The book is definitely holiday reading only, and I have put it aside for the time being. 

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Birthday Reflections

So I am now 62.  It is hard to believe this.  I am still active, love to walk and enjoy the outdoors, and love to read although I now rely on a battery of glasses.  I have my TV watching glasses, my normal everyday vari-focals,  my reading glasses for all reading (including computer use) and my special reading glasses, for very close work, eg sewing or looking at small maps.  That's four pairs.  I have also got a magnifying glass for looking at maps, and two pairs of sunglasses in different prescriptions.  One for driving and one for reading.  That's six pairs of glasses in all.

On a recent trip to a National Trust property, a display asked what is the thing you most value, your treasure.  Several people put "my husband" and kids put their tablet or I-pad.  I reflected, and realised that it is my reading glasses.

Last week, we entertained my 90 year-old mother-in-law.  She expressed an interest in going to the sea-side, so after my husband drove 120 miles to fetch her from her home, we then drove a further 70 and stayed in a caravan on the North Norfolk coast.  She absolutely loved it.  It's so inspiring, that she still has such zest for life.  We hired a wheel-chair in case we needed it, but in fact we went everywhere in the car (including the ten-minute walk from the caravan to the actual sea-beach).  We sat in chairs with our coats on, looking at the waves, and we visited a real-ale shop.  She still has a great appetite, and fully appreciated the food we bought from local shops, which my husband cooked. 

Looking back to when she was my age, she seemed very old to me, then.  By the time she was my age, 62, she already had a gorgeous little grand-daughter, (our elder child) and another one expected.   We are not so fortunate, but at least both our girls at last have steady partners, with whom they live.  It may be another couple of years or more, by which time I will be in my mid-sixties, but we may yet have grandchildren.

Looking at the other families in the street (we have lived here thirty-one years), none of the children who were babies or toddlers when we moved in have had a child.  Two are married, a third is status unknown, but no grandchildren.  The eldest is now 35.  This is the way people do things now.

Thirties - double income, no kids yet - DINKY.

Sixties -  no grandchildren yet - NOGY

Nineties - Survived a World-War, Incredibly Tough, And Loving Life - SAW IT ALL.

I am happy.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Altars, Duffy, Finished at Last

Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York

I won't refer in my heading to the full book title, "The Stripping of the Altars", because I don't want to attract people looking for references to seedy clubs.

The final page (593) has been turned.  I have spent a long time reading this book, and have to record my grateful thanks to the Lincolnshire Library Service, which allowed me to borrow from its reserve stocks, even though I do not live in Lincolnshire nor pay Council Tax there.  Lincolnshire is an enlightened county as far as libraries are concerned.

I have read about the ancient Medieval church rituals, which were abolished over the period from the 1530's to the 1580's.  The abolition starts with the so-called "Reformation" initiated by Henry VIII, mainly as a means of getting his own way. (Religiously, he retreated somewhat in his last years , but not in terms of despoiling and seizing church goods).  The reign of his son, Edward VI, took things much further, and abolished the Chantries,  (Chantries were chapels set up and equipped, with lay priests funded by parishioners' wills, to pray for the souls of those who left money, and their families).  The Chantries' goods and lands were also seized by the Crown.  New prayer books were published which went further than ever before in removing references to traditional services.

Mary's reign attempted, with considerable success, to reinstate traditional religious practices. A good part of the success must be attributed to underlying loyalty among parishioners, their fondness for the old ways, and the fact that they had hidden, or otherwise preserved, the images, vestments and books on which the old religion depended for its physical forms. Many parishes re-adopted them with enthusiasm.  Mary's reign did not last long enough for the reinstatement of traditional religion to become embedded.

Elizabeth, despite her vow not to "look into men's souls" went the whole hog in removing and searching out images - this involved breaking stained glass, and burning, chopping up or profaning the objects, statues and goods which Catholic services used.  This process was still going on in the 1560's and 1570's.

A new generation grew up which had known nothing else, and so the Protestant Reformation became embedded. 

A sad by-product of the process was the abolition of the Medieval Mystery Plays, which were too closely related to the Catholic religion, and hence had to be first censored and cut about, and finally abolished altogether.  Thus a central part of English town life, the civic pre-occupation with the cycle of plays and their associated processions, was also lost.

I have bought a ticket for the Everyman NT Live production, and have bought a copy of the text (in an Oxfam shop, naturally) to read beforehand.  Looking forward to that.

What surprises me most, after reading about all this iconoclasm, is that anything was left at all for us to gawp at, (mostly in tourist mode).  There are stained glasses, restored of course, as is the one at the top of this post.  There are painted carvings, as shown in my post below.  There are some wonderful illuminated manuscripts in the British Library and a few other collections.  Most treasures were stripped and swept away.

As a result of reading this book, I have now got some new objectives - apart from having a look at Mystery Plays.  Firstly, a long list of Norfolk churches, referred to in Duffy, to visit over time.  A thought about how the huge expansion of Elizabethan drama, most popularly seen in Shakespeare, must have been in part a response to the vacuum left by the destruction of the images of the church and the religious plays. A development of this thought is a plan to read more about the death of Marlowe, who is thought by some to have been assassinated because of his atheism, rather than merely being the victim of a tavern brawl. 

It's all so exciting.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Poem Wot I Wrote


Song of Evening


Colours fade

Pushing time

Beyond the line

Stars appear

In hemisphere


Night is never pitch dark.

Who said it was?

Who mired their soul in pitch?

It’s not so bad.


Moon hands back the sun’s gift,

Currency exchange

Gold for silver

Is that too little?


Don’t forget the million stars

The world will turn.

Hope return.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Medieval Journeys

Morris Dancers

Here's a picture from my medieval journey last weekend.  I've been reading a book called "The Stripping of the Altars" by Eamon Duffy. 

Eamon Duffy was interviewed recently on TV.  He took part in a debate about "Wolf Hall".   This book, as I wrote in my last post, includes depictions of Thomas More, (and Catholics) as bad, bad people.  Eamon Duffy is a Catholic, and a Cambridge Don.  His book is scholarly (by which I mean very detailed, and not an easy read).

Professor Duffy also contributed two letters to the debate in "The Times" (I refer in my post below). Perhaps needless to say, he defended the reputation of Thomas More. 

In the book are some black and white photographs portraying aspects of medieval pre-reformation worship.  Of course, it was not called Catholicism then.  It was just national worship.

I noticed that a lot of the photographs were from churches in Norfolk, which is a county reasonably accessible for me.  Last weekend, on a return trip from Wells-next-the Sea, I made a detour to find the parish church in North Elmham.  The picture in "Altars" shows part of a wooden screen, called a "Rood Screen".

I was stunned by the colours, having only seen the rather faded black and white picture in the book.  Above is just a very tiny part of the screen, some decoration filled into spaces in the carving above portraits of the saints which make up most of the screen.  Isn't it glorious?  And this is after more than 500 years, and at least three sets of iconoclasmic attacks -

(1)  the "Reformation" - Henry VIII's personally motivated attack on traditional church worship.
(2) Elizabethan reversal of her elder sister Mary's restoration of the traditional church.
(3) The "Puritans" who "won" the Civil War and fiercely opposed decoration and pictures in churches.

The screens apparently survived by being turned upside down and used as floorboards, where the pictures stayed safe until the nineteenth century, when some antiquarians dug them up. 

What I also like, is that the pictures are not restricted to religious themes.  The Morris Dancers, while not pagan, are a fun thing.  People enjoyed them.  Of course, the Puritans repressed them, but Charles II restored the tradition.

English history is so endlessly fascinating.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Wolf Hall (2)

There is an interesting continuing debate in the letters pages of "The Times" concerning the re-branding by Hilary Mantel of two icons of the Tudor period.  She casts Thomas More as a heretic-hunter who killed and tortured (admittedly only a very few) Lutheran heretics.  She shows Thomas Cromwell (factually responsible for the torturing and killing of far more) as rather an interesting person, who had various good qualities, and is shown in the TV series as "cuddling kittens".  The latter image sparked a debate among present-day bishops about the relative merits of the two Thomas's.  This debate was reported in "The Times" and provoked the comment below.
'The historical records of who burnt whom during the Tudor reigns are worth revisiting.  In our country (England), in 1538, a heretic named John Lambert, after being pronounced guilty by Thomas Cromwell, suffered as follows:
"When Lambert's thighs and legs had been burnt off to stumps, the fire sank lower and two officers lifted up his still-living body on the points of their halberds and let it fall back into the flames.  As death finally came to kindly end his sufferings, he cried out: 'None but Christ, none but Christ!' (sources Gilbert Burnet ed 1841, John Foxe, Book of Martyrs, ed 1837-41).
Cranmer, who was Cromwell's friend and ally, suffered his own final fate in 1556, being chained to a stake and burned alive on the orders of the Catholic Queen Mary. (Foxe, Book of Martyrs).
Whatever spin Ms Mantel puts on it, believers of all faiths were burnt for heresy if the people currently in power opposed their beliefs."

What we should be taking from this is a lesson on how tyrants, their power-hungry lieutenants, their numerous followers comprising fearful sheep, foolish sycophants, and others merely wishing to preserve their own families, combine to wield a disgusting and sickening power which includes barbaric forms of execution.  Reports in the last few weeks show that the syndrome is alive and well in the world today."

Friday, 23 January 2015


Here are some words I came across in my Poem for the Day yesterday. I actually read four, all by George Mackay Brown, a poet born in Orkney in 1921.  The poems are all infused with images of the sea and sea-life.

I had to look all the following up in a dictionary:

Ichor -  Blood (Greek)
Skerry - A reef or rocky island covered by the sea  (Old Norse)
Smirr - Fine rain, drizzle  (Scandinavian)
Haar  - A wet mist or fog (Old Norse)
Selkie  -A seal, or an imaginary sea creature which resembles a seal in the water but able to assume human form on land.

I've always loved the power of a dictionary, and held faith in the goodness of learning to triumph over the evil of narrow-mindedness and sectarianism.

In the light of events in the last three weeks, I've had to re-examine these ideas at length.

In The Guardian this week, writer Neil Gaiman and illustrator Chris Riddell put down their thoughts on the subject. 

"I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will eventually win, because the ideas are invisible and they linger, and sometimes they are even true  ....."

In these uncertain times, I do hope that they are both right.  I would not presume to have a more definitive answer myself.

Friday, 16 January 2015

A Poem A Day Keeps the Cobwebs Away

I actually made my new year's resolutions on Monday 12th January, because that was the day that I finally made it out of the post-Christmas morass of cleaning, washing, ironing, using up left-overs, and arguing with hubby about what happened on New Year's Eve (oh, the poison of alcohol! how it loosens tongues and brings out a person's weakest points!)

So first resolution (as mentioned in the post below but one) is to write something every day. I've also set myself various reading goals, which include to read a classic short story every day (I'm currently working through Katherine Mansfield starting at the end of her output, and working backwards), a modern short story every day (John Cheever but working forwards) and to read a poem every day. 

Reading a poem every day is the shortest work in time span, but by far the most interesting.  I haven't actually read any poetry seriously since I was at university, 40 years ago, and had shied away from it, wondering where it would fit in my life.  When you look at the idea as a personal goal, instead of entertainment (which it really is not) or an academically imposed task (which kills it stone dead), the project is extremely liberating.  I open a book of poems at random.  The one I'm using is "The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse, 1945 -1980", which I've had since 1992, as inscribed on the flyleaf.  I don't recall that I have ever read any of them.  I then pick one off the page to read, and give it a bit of thought. Then I might go back to it later in the day, and often another aspect reveals itself.  I'm just loving it.

And then I spotted Hilary Mantel's tip, item 3 in the list below, so I feel even better about it! 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Ten Writing Tips From Hilary Mantel

Acknowledgements to Hilary and to : Bridget Whelan

Ten things I’ve learned….since I started writing my first novel, in 1974 (which feels like yesterday). Ten things to think about, or ten rules I try to keep: I won’t call them advice, as I’d hardly presume to give it.

  1. If you see a problem in your narrative, go there fast. Head for the point of danger. It’s where the energy is.

    2. Free up your creativity: Liberate it from your expectations and experience. When you have an idea, don’t assume it’s a novel or story, just because that’s your usual medium. It might be a play, poem, song, or movie. Who knows, it might be best expressed as garden design. Or maybe you should knit it?

    3.  If the rhythm of your prose is broken, read poetry.

    4.  Cut every page of dialogue by one-third.

    5.  If a phrase troubles you, strike it out, and if there seems no alternative, try simple omission. If you are dubious about it in your manuscript, you’ll shrink from it in the printed book.

    6.  If you don’t know how your story ends, don’t worry. Press on, in faith and hope.

    7.  If you see a habit forming, break it.

    8.  Control where the story starts. In a novel, don’t put anything important—like a clue—before “Chapter One.” Prefaces, epigraphs: 90% of readers ignore them.

    9.  When you break through, not everyone close to you will enjoy your success. Accept this.

    10.  Writing for the theatre is the most fun.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

New Year Resolutions

I haven't made a new year resolution since, oh, at least my thirties.  It seemed, as my elder daughter said, that if you wanted to do something you would be doing it anyway.

However she then revealed that she has made a resolution this year.  It is to cook something new every time she cooks.  Not once a week, mark you, but every time!  Although, as she doesn't cook every day, it is not as tiring as it sounds. Last week she told me she had stuck to it so far.  I was impressed.

So today, disappointed by the lack of anything to show for my full retirement last year, I have resolved to write something every day.  Either a post here, or a letter, or something for my weekly class.

Here's my first piece, and it reflects the jaded post-Christmas tensions in a household.

"Marriage is a scaffolding sustained by a complex web of mutual misunderstandings.  If you press too hard, you risk pushing your foot through the gossamer floor."