Wearing your true colours.

I’ve been sewing.   Many (indeed most) of my clothes need taking in and since I’m at the machine anyway I’m taking the opportunity to change things that while not quite right for me were not perhaps worth altering on their own.   I find there is an optimum length for a skirt for me;  a blouse or jacket too short or too long doesn’t flatter, and sleeves are best an exact length.   So I’ve been chopping  and fixing and so far I’m pleased with the results.

I dislike waste so I also enjoy melding two garments together – making a plain black dress for example into one with lace yoke and sleeves from a blouse of which I’m tired.   Although on the other hand, I do not readily give up garments and I still wear coats for example that may have been bought about twenty years ago.

I go on and off colours too.   Some colours – peaches, orange, yellow, camel, mustard, most greens – I never wear – they make me look sickly.   But even among the colours that do suit me, I go on and off them over the years.

Black is my all time favourite.   It’s dramatic;  it highlights the face, and it suits me.   I look good at funerals, although I accept this isn’t the purpose in going.   I also suit white and combinations of black and white.   (Cruella de Vil’s wardrobe would do me very nicely.)   Beige, really stone, is another great basic for me, and these three colours mixed with some grey and red could provide a whole wardrobe and I would never get bored.

But other colours in my repertoire come in and out of favour.   Brown does suit me but I don’t often fancy it.   Navy blue is also a colour I can wear, and I notice it creeping back in after years in the wilderness.    Then the accent colours – pinks, purples, pale blues, some greens – I do wear these but I tire of them quickly.   And I’m always hunting for particular colours slightly ahead of their being fashionable.    You can be sure if I’m scouring the high street for purple, (unsuccessfully), by the next season every shop will be awash with it.

Then there’s the colours and styles you occasionally fancy, but which are like an unsuitable lover – they’re great in the imagination, but the reality is not good for you.   I love those subtle grey greens, and soft mid blues but they just make me look washed out.   Prints, however pretty, I find rarely flattering.   I’m for bold blocks, take it or leave it colours, not compromising mixes.

I can admire very pretty dresses, with frills and ruffles and ribbons and lace.   I can really quite covet them.   But when I try them on I just look ridiculous, like an eagle masquerading as a parrot.   I guess I’m not a pretty, gentle, dainty lady and there’s no use pretending!

Black velvet cape, ermine trimmed, hood drawn up, battle dress and sword concealed underneath, anyone?   I’m sure it would look just fine on the catwalk, and you could have a snorting war horse just for the drama of it close behind.



I have to confess to a total prejudice against the teaching of cookery / domestic science / food technology (call it what you will) in schools.   I have never really examined my reasons for this.   Several of my friends, charming ladies in every way, are or have been teachers of this subject and the sorry tales they sometimes tell of the lack of even basic knowledge of nutrition in their charges would certainly argue in favour of some  education being valuable.

I was recalling the grudge I have held for almost 50 years against the unfortunate woman who found me in her class for this subject, and realising that though she was prejudiced, intolerant and unjust, looked at from her point of view I was perhaps not what she expected.

I won’t recount the difficulties that I faced in getting to school and in studying but I had been to many schools and had learnt to walk alone, outface the bully in the first encounter, and to trust nobody.    My approach was guarded and sceptical.   Some teachers were able to see beyond that and I remember them with gratitude:  she, the cook, was not one of them.   The school was in a working-class area of central Scotland, but it was not especially poor, but I suppose (I never thought of these things at the time) I had not presented in my clothes etc as being a particularly affluent child.

In those days in Scottish schools there was an examination in every subject at the end of each term.    These marks were aggregated and pupils were ranked accordingly.   It was a streamed school, classes A to H.   I had already had to argue to be put into an A stream (but that’s another story.)   I had also arrived in the area not long before going on to this High School so nothing was known about me.   I suppose it was a matter of some surprise that I emerged during the time that I was there as either the first or second pupil of the year (my competitor was a boy: I got on with him fairly well.)

You can see how I resented doing cookery at all, and how handicapping it could be to have such a subjectively marked subject.   (My competitor, being male,  naturally did not have to take this subject.)

So you can imagine the class gathered round The Cook on the first day;  her bright and chatty narrative, her preoccupation with clean white aprons, hand washing, cleaning the oven, remembering your materials etc.   I’m standing there with my arms folded in silent but no doubt completely obvious disapproval.   I thought those things were so simple why were we wasting all this time talking about them.   Besides, I did not want to be there at all.

It wasn’t that I was uninterested in  the domestic arts.   In my mother, I had a teacher at home who had been to Dough School (the Glasgow College of Domestic Science), and I was the kind of person who if interested in acquiring a skill pursued it until I had reached what I regarded as a satisfactory standard.   So in dress-making, on which at 13 I had already embarked, I practised making garments with increasing degrees of difficulty until I had eventually made a  tailored suit, with hand sewn interfacing, collar, bound buttonholes, lined with silk and with a blouse to match, to a fiendishly difficult but superbly fitting pattern by Molyneux which I wore for years and years – and at that point I regarded my education as having reached the standard that I wanted, and so did not choose projects for their difficulty any further.   I had no interest in obtaining qualifications in these areas.

If I was not interested in something, I couldn’t see the point in wasting time on it.

Anyway, The Cook asks brightly what cooking the girls have done, and they all pipe up that they’ve made fairy cakes or biscuits or what have you.   I say nothing – I’m having no truck with her attempts at fraternisation.  So she turns to me at last, and says, (after all I haven’t volunteered anything), ‘I suppose you haven’t done any cooking, dear?’     I fully recognise this as the patronising remark it is with all the assumptions behind it (I am only 13, my unkindness must be forgiven) so I look at her, and I say, ‘I can cook.’   This isn’t the answer she expects and she doesn’t, as she should have done, pass smoothly on to continue emphasising important matters like the exact length the ties of your apron are permitted to be and how big a pocket is allowed.

I’ve outlined my self education (with supervision from my mother) in sewing above, but of course at that point I was only starting out on that journey, but I was already quite skilled in cooking, especially baking.   We were baking in an oven attached to a fire, so there was also great skill required in banking the fire, guessing the oven temperature, maintaining the heat and so on.   (It was extremely difficult, but if you got it right, the results were second to none.)   Having mastered the basics, I was working my way through a cookery book my mother owned, edited by Robert Carrier, a rather plump American cook, called Great Dishes of the World, and generally lamenting the difficulty in getting exotic ingredients from shops in the local town (who considered themselves daring and sophisticated if they stocked mushrooms and peppers.)   It so happened that I had reached Hungary.   I had chosen two recipes from the selection, Goulash, and the cake Dobosch Gateau.     I had made the goulash first (my father’s verdict: It’s OK, but it would be better with potatoes and carrots instead of all those peppers and spices), and that particular week I had made the gateau.    It was a very complicated cake to make and not only had my mother assisted me at points, she had put up with the enormous mess made in her kitchen and how long the whole proceeding took.

So the cook, already irritated with me, unwisely says, “I see.”     She looks at me with some dislike.      “And what did you cook this week, dear?’

‘I made Dobosch gateau.’

This was the absolute truth, and I had not volunteered the information, but each time she had the opportunity to let the subject sail past, she didn’t take it.   Perhaps she thought I was making it up – I will concede that I didn’t in the least look like a child who could pronounce gateau let alone make one.

‘Oh, a gateau, fancy that.’    There were some titters among the girls.   ‘Do tell us all how you make a gateau.   We’d like to know, wouldn’t we, girls?’

By this time I was becoming annoyed, so looking her steadily in the eye, I briskly explained that it was a Hungarian cake invented by the chef Josef Dobos partly for the purpose of making a luxurious cake that kept well.  It consisted of seven layers of sponge sandwiched together with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel.   The layers of sponge were so thin that you had to cook them on the upside down base of your cake tin.   Once these layers were assembled you sealed the cake in with the caramel and you had to work quickly to mark the pieces of cake to be cut before the caramel set hard.

When I finished, there was silence.   I had looked steadily at her throughout.   Her face became rather red.     After a moment, she returned to the subject of aprons.

I hated her class and no doubt she equally detested me.   I quite often forgot the materials, and although I always had an apron it was never of the style or colour she wanted, (I wasn’t going to spend money I didn’t have on such a useless object, and what was this obsession with the design of the apron anyway, it was just there to keep your clothes clean), I was often late, I would sigh when she said what we were making – it was all incredibly dull things – pizza with a scone base; fruit salad.    We made scones once and mine were ace – there’s an art to scones, and I paid no attention to her strictures but just got on and made them.  I can see that I must have been a complete pain to her.     But I did attend the class, I wasn’t rude to her, I didn’t incite others to rebellion.    Then came the exam.    We were to make Apple Dumplings.   I’ve despised the wretched things ever since.   I made the Apple Dumplings.   They were fine; stood up, were cooked, if you like such a horrible stodgy pudding, they were what you’d like.

I knew when I saw her face as she bore down to mark mine that she was going to have her revenge.   She marked me something like 21 out of 40, where I might have expected to get – well, 35 – 40, but certainly over 30.     Even to get 30 was a handicap in the overall marking system, because in an academic subject I was most unlikely to lose 10 marks.   She gave me one of the lowest marks she handed out, so that girls who had been unable to shape their pastry round the apple, or whose dumpling had completely collapsed into a shapeless heap got higher marks than me.    Presumably she didn’t dare to actually fail me.   Then she looked at me.    I think (she was a fool after all) she expected me to protest, or cry or something.     I looked straight back at her and ‘thought’, you are a cheat and a liar and unfit for your position, but I said nothing at all, not to her or to anyone else.   I swept the apple dumplings into the bin and I’ve never eaten them since.

I was lucky that year.   Andrew, my colleague and competitor, translated a whole passage of Latin in which he got the key word and the principal subject matter completely wrong, and I scraped past him into the Prima Donna slot.    (He no doubt reversed this the following exam.)

I was no longer obliged to take Domestic Science.   I went back to that section of the school, into which I knew I would never venture again, at a time when I would get The Cook on her own.    She looked very surprised to see me.

I said to her, pleasantly enough, ‘I thought you would be pleased to know that my marks make me top of the year, in spite of the unjust mark you gave me for the cookery exam.’   Having said my piece, I then departed swiftly.

What is the moral of the story?   I should not extend my resentment of this poor specimen of a teacher and tarnish other ladies of unblemished reputation with her deficiencies.    Clearly some people do benefit from instruction on domestic matters though I still tend to the view that this should be a subject of choice and not compulsory.    Would I behave any differently now?      I don’t think so.    She asked the questions and I answered them truthfully.   Her assumptions, that I was a poor, under-privileged, ignorant child who lacked the confidence to speak, were completely wrong, and she couldn’t alter her position when she discovered her mistake.   Certainly I was poor in material things, but I was rich and powerful in other ways.   I hadn’t boasted about my skills;  she had asked the questions and I had given truthful answers.

When I sat down to write this piece, I was going to write from the calm banks of my maturity, but to my surprise I find that angry child roused itself and came forward, elbowing me out of the way.    In some ways, I was as unkind as she was.    She actually was a stupid woman.   I had status as the top achieving child at that time, and I was a firm favourite with many teachers (who probably secretly shared my improper and disparaging views on domestic science as an academic subject.)    I calculated that she would not be able to formulate a swift enough response.   I made sure there were no witnesses.    I knew that the school would not uphold an outright challenge to the integrity of a teacher, and besides, I wasn’t willing to give the matter that much importance.    But I wanted the satisfaction of delivering a judgement on her , all the more insulting because I was a pupil and she a teacher.    I knew that once I left her, she would find it very difficult to seek redress, because she would not know what I would say, and besides she would have to expose her undoubtedly unjust marking to the examination of others.    These calculations were all correct and I had no further dealings with her.   As usual, I cannot remember her name.

So, in my maturity, I can see I should have passed graciously on and said nothing.   But my opinion is that  as a teacher she was unprofessional, and as an examiner, she was unfit.    And if I were there now, knowing all I know, would I still seek her out and deliver my blow?   You bet I would.

And so that is why Apple Dumplings are Crap.


I waken to glorious sun.   This year there were weeks – months it felt like – when he never deigned to put in an appearance at all;  and after a long period of leaden grey skies and daily bursts of rain, the sun is welcomed with wonder as the life giving source it is.   I lie in bed and watch him rise behind the trees and consider I could be a sun worshipper as pagan peoples were.

When we were last in London with Elisabeth, I realised what an absolute failure I had been in educating my children in the skills of identification of trees.   My father made an excellent job of teaching us this, but clearly I have been completely useless.

Standing at the window of Elisabeth and Rob’s apartment in the middle of London, we could see lime trees with their delicate heart shaped leaves and their double drum sticks.   Elisabeth looked puzzled – she clearly only associated ‘lime tree’ with the citrus variety.    I enthused about the lime (or linden) – it produces the finest honey, thick, greenish and tasting faintly of peppermint, but as it flowers early in the year and since honey is best created in warm, moist conditions, it is not always that the weather, the strength of the hive, and the flowering of the tree coincide.   Lime tree honey was prized above all else in our house – my father was a beekeeper – even over the delicious heather honey.

Across the road was a horse chestnut, a large and handsome tree, laden already with small round conkers.   This made us recall one of the legends of their own childhood, when there would be conker ‘competitions’, where you mounted your best conker on a string and struck your opponent’s conker, hoping to smash it and win the game.   John at that time travelled weekly to Geneva, so he was able to bring back conkers which were three times the size of the native varieties but otherwise indistinguishable.   Victory was assured.   (There were dark murmurings about the origin of the winning conkers, but who could prove anything?   You didn’t (at that time anyway!) require a certificate of authentication.)

Also on the street were the ubiquitous London planes, common enough because able to resist the pollution of the city, but still a fine tree, and further along we could see a graceful birch with its elegant silver bark, its delicate outline and  dainty little leaves.

In the large, private and communal garden to the rear which has been cultivated for over 150 years exotics grow in the micro-climate that is created there, and we spotted a banana with its giant leaves flourishing against a sunny wall.

I thought of the pleasure Elisabeth and Robert can have watching the seasons change through the altering colours and growth and decay of the leaves, and what a wonderfully restorative and life giving thing a tree is.

Like the sun.

I think I’ll buy Elisabeth a book of trees.


One of the pleasures I did not anticipate when having children was the enjoyment one would eventually have in the development of their family homes.   All three of our children now being married and with their own establishments, visiting them, being their guest and receiving their hospitality, is an unexpected pleasure.

Our children – naturally! – have good taste and it is lovely to see them express that, mingled with that of their spouse.

Joanna has lived in several classic Glasgow tenements – solid homes of good proportion.   Joanna’s taste is slightly funkier, more  eclectic, than mine, and her houses are decorated with objects that reflect her interest in classical mythology, and articles of Scottish interest.   Now of course her house is filled with that most delightful of decorative objects – little girls.

Elisabeth’s home is orderly, elegant and understated, and it contains references to two countries beloved by me – New Zealand, and Japan.   I am writing this while in solitary occupation of her  apartment on a lovely sunny evening.  We are on a level with the tops of trees.   Their bedroom, which they have kindly lent us, looks out on and they have access to a large and private communal garden in the heart of London.   She and her husband and father have gone out to a concert in Hyde Park and I am happy here in this pleasant tranquil space.

Rory has  almost  always lived, even in his earliest days, in houses that were architecturally attractive, and now in his married life, he and Sarah have a beautiful Edwardian house on  a wide and cheerful street, with a sunny and private garden.   His taste is cool and modern, but his wife adds a romantic, European influence to their home which is charming.

Another pleasurable aspect is one’s surprised recollection of articles which either were once one’s own but have been gifted so long ago to one’s child that one has all but  forgotten them, or gifts you have acquired specifically for them while on your travels.   Here they all are – the Japanese objects;  the painting of a  Glasgow tenement;  wooden boxes;  a barometer which I bought in Alford, originally as a gift for my father;  often ceramics acquired by me somewhere in the Orient over the years and now having a new lease of life displayed in someone else’s lovely home, waving cheerfully as it were to one from their shelf.

The skill of the children and their spouses – their taste,  how they can put things together,  how they can decorate, fix electrical matters, install computers, find lovely objects within their means, their eye for colour, their practicality and artistic sense, are things about them of which their father and I are very proud.

They must have learnt something from their lives with us, and with the other parents of the extended family!