HO-HO-HO-ING

I’m not a person who does Christmas very well.     I’d cheerfully vote it off the calendar, robins, turkeys, lords-a-leaping and all, and instead stand with my tribe, our breath smoking in the winter air, to give thanks for the rising of the sun.   However, it is nice to see family and friends, exchange greetings and feast together, so I try to ho-ho-ho it with good cheer.

Given a general reluctance on my part to start the whole proceedings, (not helped by shops playing It’s-looking-alot-like Christmas in September when it decidedly is NOT) I am generally late  with everything, icing my cake on Christmas eve, missing the deadlines for postage etc.   This year however, I resolved I would not miss the postage dates, and was pleased to find something to despatch to Sheena’s daughter in Canada.    Technically I do not know what relation I am to Claire.    Sheena is my cousin, but as I am the eldest of our generation and she is the youngest, her daughter is the same age as some of my own grand-daughters, so I view her as a honorary  one of them.     However I find something I think will suit, and which will post, and John wraps it up (I get tangled up in cellotape if I do it) and it sits on the kitchen table waiting for me to address it.

This morning Carolyn is coming for coffee,  after an exercise class -when one is generally hungry.    I decide to make scones for her.     When Princess Diana died, I saw her described in three words in some newspaper – Diana, princess, mother, icon.   I’m sure the late Diana was more than that, (beauty, surely?) and that my own list would be much more mundane, but in among the other nominations – I would think scone-maker would feature somewhere.   (Doubtless the lady Diana never indulged in so humble an activity.)    But I’m remembered for my scones.   I give master classes in scone making (all down to my mother’s excellent teaching and the fiery stove we cooked on.)   Because Anne, the other partner in our long-historied triumvirate is not coming,  I decide I will make fruit scones on this occasion, with cinnamon – Anne does not care for cinnamon.

Before I can get started on the scones however, John asks for the parcel as he’s going up town and will post it.   I get my address book and look for the parcel.   It is nowhere to be found.    John – who in fairness very rarely loses anything – begins to stomp around the house turning over objects and up-ending things with loud mutterings to which I don’t listen.    I send him out to look in the bin to see if it is there.  Since only he takes stuff out to the bin he protests loudly that it isn’t there because he hasn’t put it there, but I insist.    He starts asking me to reconsider what I did yesterday but apart from remembering it was at the table at lunch time, I have absolutely no recollection of doing anything further with it.

Meanwhile, time is marching on;  I haven’t set the table or begun on the scones and Carolyn will shortly be here.  I tell John I need time to think about the parcel and must start on the scones and he goes off, whirlwind style, around the house, moving stuff and muttering.   I pull myself together and begin the scones.

I decide to make half the usual quantity, so I start with 8 oz of wholemeal flour.   I add some butter, a spoonful of sugar, and then a teaspoon of cinnamon and a handful of sultanas.   I realise I haven’t put the oven on as usual to preheat so I do that.    With wholemeal scones, I often add a tablespoon of yoghourt, which softens the dough, so I do that, plus an egg and some milk.   It doesn’t seem enough milk.   I add more.   Still not enough.   What on earth is wrong with it?   I add a dollop more but too much – the mixture is a batter before I can stop it.   These will never shape into scones.   Then I look at the flour bag and see that instead of, as I thought, using self raising wholemeal flour (which I do have) I’m using very strong bread flour, so my mixture is both far too wet, and has no raising agent.   I get my baking powder, of which I have only a little left, and fling the lot in, plus more flour.   I now have hardly any milk left, but I manage to get the mixture to about the right consistency and I dollop it out on the table with a floured hand.   As I pat out the sticky dough, I look along the table and I see the parcel is standing end on behind the table, the same colour as the chair, and because it’s standing on its end,  we haven’t seen it when we look underneath.   I call John.

He then wants the parcel addressed because he’s about to go out, so he looks up Sheena in the address book.   She is a married lady, so I give him her name, and he can’t find her address, and then I remember I’ve probably left it under her maiden name.    More mutterings about the impossibility of following my filing methods.    She’s also moved, so I wonder if I’ve put in the new address, but fortunately I have.

Meanwhile, my dough is sitting on the table.    One of the requirements of scones is speed of operation.    At last the addressed parcel goes off with John, and I cobble together the scones and shove them in the oven.

I never give a set time for how long they take.  You just cook them until you smell they are ready (about 5 – 10 minutes.)    This lot seems to take forever.  I keep opening the oven door (you shouldn’t do that) and poking them and they’re not ready, and then I go off and see to something and when I next look at them, they’re burnt.

So now I’ve set the table, complete with a plate of what looks like doughy biscuits, slightly burnt and not at all appetising.    It’s half an hour past the time I was expecting Carolyn (who is normally to time.)     Have I got the time wrong?   Have I got the day wrong?      Have I got the week wrong?

One thing is certain, I’ve got the scones wrong.

Anne Armstrong, scone-maker (not today.)

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STUFFING THE SERVIETTES

When I was writing last week’s blog on my fantasy magazine, I remembered the incident of the Swiss serviettes.

In the house of Frau Beck, residing in Zurich but a German housekeeper par excellence – according to her own lights anyway– they had a kind of napkin envelope, embroidered with their initials, which had been created by the previous hapless au pair who rejoiced in the name of Umgraut.   I was given what was presumably Umgraut’s trial run, misshapen and poorly executed and with Umgraut’s own initial on it.   Mrs Beck instructed me to unpick Umgraut’s initital and replace it with my own (presumably in my own time in my basement dungeon, pressed against the barred windows and squinting for light.)     I felt angry that Mrs Beck had refused to provide sufficient of a scrap of material for Umgraut to make a respectable napkin holder for herself once her skills had developed.   Besides from the very outset when I first set eyes on Frau Beck at the airport I had no intention of remaining under her despotic rule for a whole year.   I should have turned on my heel there and then and returned home!   Anyway, the very idea that I would sit down and sew my initial into this miserable article was quite ridiculous.    So I just ignored it and never used it.

I took nothing to do with their napkin holders and when the boys would  leave their napkins lying around, I left them where they lay.   In my view, if  they wanted to use napkin holders, everyone should put  their own napkin away, as indeed the parents both did, dutiful and tidy citizens that they were.      It took Mrs Beck quite some time to realise that her hints and instructions did not necessarily result in the actions she desired, and she would get so frustrated about these ‘misunderstandings’ (I understood perfectly well)  that she  would eventually boil over with irritation and then take ill-advised action in her wrath.    I, then as now, was never particularly troubled by other people’s anger – (I had enough to do dealing with my own.)

So one day, stuffing the napkins into their holders with unnecessary violence herself, she queried the custom in Britain with the snide suggestion that the section of society I came from probably didn’t know what a serviette  was.   Oh, I said casually and somewhat misleadingly, when you’re finished with the napkin you just scrumple it up and put it down on the table.     Then I picked up the sorry specimen of napkin holder allocated to me and examined it.      But this home-made thing is quite charming, is it not?  I asked her.   In a homespun farmyard sort of way?   If you’re having to make one napkin last a whole week?

Thereafter, Mrs Beck produced inoffensive bone napkin rings and I don’t know what happened to poor Umgraut’s handiwork, which was perfectly fine of course and quite charming for family use if you like that sort of thing and if  Mrs Beck hadn’t been such a terrible snob.  She had to buy a set of napkins of different coloured trims since she could no longer identify whose was whose by the napkin holder.  I noticed however than when we had visitors she no longer produced the days old napkins, but provided fresh for everyone as though that were their ordinary custom.    (I was tempted to produce Umgraut’s envelopes, but didn’t know where they were.)    Her poor husband remarked in mild surprise at the new coloured napkins and was taken aback and mystified when his wife shouted at him.   (I think she said that he had never taken an interest in the articles before and he shouldn’t do so now.)     He looked at me thoughtfully, but I endeavoured to keep my face blank.

I never made any further comment on napkins, napkin rings or table manners.

I still find it very difficult to understand why Mrs Beck didn’t like me…

THE END OF THE AFFAIR

I woke with a fright just before dawn.   There was a scream in my ears and the sound of something falling.   I thought it sounded like a chair hitting the floor.   There was no further sound.   John was not disturbed.   In the morning he went downstairs and came back, reporting no overturned chairs or other explanation.

At 9 am I heard the dreaded sound of the chain saw, but carried on with what I was  doing in the front of  the house, and I have just come down to my desk at the back of the house and find to my absolute  despair and horror that the two remaining Scots pines  that I feel have guarded our rear for t he past 24 years are being chopped down.

The trees are in our neighbour’s garden.   Originally there were 7 of them, and they have been whittled away over the years.    The first time this happened, I wrote in my diary that I hoped  the man who gave  the order to destroy those trees died at a  crossroads with a stake through his heart.   (No worse curse can be wished upon you by a Celt.)     But now I am older  and wiser, and I know that the mouth that curses shall want bread, and who knows for what reason the order may have been given, and another man’s fate and destiny is no business of mine.    Doom comes upon us all soon enough;  we do not have to hasten it even upon our enemies;  all we have to do is wait.   Better we should use our energy to bless our friends.   So whatever benighted goblin gave this order has nothing to fear from me.

I would estimate from their size that those trees have stood for over a hundred years.   They were here when this was farmland with no houses.    They have survived Hitler’s bombing.     I have often blessed the memory of he who planted them.    They are vanished now.   In a single morning they have been obliterated.

When we came here and I was homesick for the North, their familiarity comforted me.    Their red bark shone in the evening sunlight.   Squirrels played in their branches and crows and magpies and pigeons   rested in them and pursued their tender courtships.   The light played on their beauty all day.   They were ever a delight.

I feel like packing up my household goods, right now, today, and setting my wagons in motion with the great cry of North!     I feel like the South has cast me out.      Perhaps I should return to wherever  I came from.

The great song of our blood was always  North!   But I have not heard it for a long time, or perhaps I have simply not been listening.    But I see it still runs, it still plays, it still lilts; it grows stronger.      I want to live where the Scots pine can still flourish.    I feel like I have had a long love affair with England, and in a single hour, it has come to an end.

PS    I wrote that yesterday.   One lonseome pine still stands.     Perhaps I will not order the horses just yet.     But the dogs are still milling about in the yard, sniffing the air for a change in the wind.

Every time I look into that empty space, there is an ache in my heart.      That goblin …   how can he sleep at night?     The tree that screamed may haunt his dreams.

FANTASY MAGAZINE

FANTASY MAGAZINE

For the past year I’ve subscribed to Sew magazine, but I won’t be renewing my subscription.

The cover of the latest edition features a girl in an unflattering dress with a shrug jacket of the kind that you know will neither be comfortable nor stay in place, and a child in an unattractive dress and cape.   It also has pictures of a reversible tea cosy;  a hand embroidered cake ribbon, and 25 Christmas articles.   Ugh.   I wouldn’t give any of those things house room, let alone waste time making them.

You can bet your computerised sewing machine that if a dress looks ill-fitting and badly cut on the model it’s going to look a complete mess on you.   What on earth would you want with a reversible tea cosy?   Or indeed a teacosy at all?   I hate old, stewed, tepid tea.   If you don’t drink it while it’s still hot enough, throw it out and make fresh.    Similarly with embroidered cake ribbon.     Are you going to use the same one year after year?   And 25 Christmas articles?  As if we didn’t have enough already.

But the final insulting straw  is a closing page article, part of a series by Anthea Turner, badly written and boringly executed.    Does this magazine for a moment suppose that its readership is going to accept Ms Turner as an example of good taste, good behaviour, intelligence, a model of a successful home-maker?   If so, it’s sadly mistaken in this (about to be ex) reader.    I wouldn’t dream of wasting any time whatsoever on anything even associated with Ms Turner.

It’s easy to criticise, but what would I like to see in the magazine?

I think I’d like it to concentrate on sewing for wardrobe.   I’d like for example a series of articles, with well fitting pattern, on dresses, from winter woollens this month, party dress next month, wedding guest outfit in June ,summer dress in August.     I’d like it to do a series on lingerie  and night attire, as the catalogues call the category, – pretty, lacy camisoles and slips in silk, mohair dressing-gowns for winter, men’s easy to make pyjamas.   I’d like it to offer say 12 patterns from the commercial books per month, with discount.    I’d like it to have an item for sale every month at a good price, perhaps a scissors set, a book, a dummy…   I’d like it to take one fabric per month (offered at discount)  and show 6 different looks from it – say, for example a white spotted voile.   You could have a full skirted sleeveless dress;  a dressing-gown and pyjamas;  a child’s dress mixed with lawn;  a ladies blouse;  a cotton dress with sleeves and yoke of the lawn.   Or say an ocelot faux fur fabric would lend itself to a child’s coat; a hat and scarf;  little girl’s coat with collar and muff;  a woman’s gilet;  a woman’s velvet serape lined with the ocelot plus hat; a cushion.

You could do a series of technical instruction: how to fit a zip;  do a buttonhole, and then garments that featured that work.

You could ask readers to send in photographs of their work and there could be a prize awarded for the best each month.

Although it would be a sewing magazine, you could have one easy article per month on knitting or crochet – so, a baby’s layette;  a mohair shrug for a woman;  a crocheted fine wool baby’s shawl, a pet’s crochet blanket.  You would always try to offer the materials and pattern.

You could do a monthly quilting picture – let’s say of a seasonal flower, which could be assembled into a large quilt or used individually.   Similarly you could do one a month embroidery project – flowers in a square perhaps;  initials;  the leaf of a tree, so people had the option of doing a one off, or of collecting them into quilt, wall hanging or bedspread.    Ideally these motifs would also be usable in clothing patterns, say the flower element on a quilted waistcoat.

In these times of recession, you could show how to make some hit of the moment fashion item much more economically;  and you could  show how to remodel a second hand or older garment into something new.

Someone could review a different sewing machine each month, sewing the same things – a sample with buttonhole;  a piece of machine embroidery;  a cuff decorated with automatic stitches;  a piece of quilting, so over the months you could see the comparisons.

But nothing ‘twee’.   No crinoline ladies.   No handkerchiefs embroidered with Mother.   No napkin rings with people’s initials.     No tea cosies, egg cosies (? You just eat the egg), no mysterious things divided into fiddly sections for putting bread into, no toilet rolls covers in the shape of a lady,  no sausage dogs, no bell pulls, no cushions with witty messages.     We wouldn’t ask Anthea Turner for any contributions.

I’d buy it.

(If any gentle readers care for any of the above articles I’ve disparaged, then you should just dismiss this blog as a rant of personal prejudice.    Having good taste (and who’s to say what is and what is not; it’s all personal preference) – having good taste doesn’t matter.    Having good character does.)

GOODWILL MISSION

 

I chanced across some programme the other day while I was dressing and the bedroom TV was switched on.   I wasn’t watching it and I never found out what the programme actually was.   In it, in the brief section I saw, some personable soldier, an officer probably, was escorting a journalist on a good will mission to a market of a village in Afghanistan.   The gist of it appeared to be that things were getting better in Afghanistan and now they were able to go out and promote peace and good fellowship to local citizens.

I’m not  saying it’s not a worthy objective.   Better by far you should enter a village for the purpose of good will and not for warfare.   I have every sympathy for our armed forces, and confidence in their good conduct in by far the majority of incidents.

The soldier, as I said, was personable and agreeable.   He walked through the market place, shaking hands with men and patting children on the head.   He was received with grave caution, but without opposition and politely.

But I thought of two occasions when I’ve come across armed forces personally, and I wonder?

Once we were in France, in some Channel port, Calais I think, in a cafe.   Some police came in for a refreshment.   I am not familiar with the various grades of forces in France and their uniforms,  but it was obvious from their fitness and  alertness that these were crack forces, probably military police.   I watched to see if they drank alcohol.   They did not.   We were about to leave and I wanted to go to the loo.   There was no way of accessing it unless one of them moved.   They were deep in conversation and did not hear me when I addressed them.   I tapped the man nearest me – very lightly – on the arm.   They both turned very swiftly.   The man whose arm I had tapped did not look at me in any w ay that I expected.   He assessed me carefully in a manner I was unfamiliar with, while his partner scanned the room.   I realised their first reaction was that I was a distraction, sent to take up their attention while some action happened elsewhere.   It took them only  a few seconds to establish in their own minds that I was simply what I appeared to be – a woman who wanted to go to the loo – and then they were all gallic charm – ‘Je vous en prie, Madame,’ etc.    I could not forget  their instinctive reaction however – they expected to fight wherever they went and would not be distracted by fair face or gentle manners.

Another day I was with Joanna and Alexandra in her push chair and we were passing the Crown Court in Lewis, outside which armed officers were stationed.   We were somewhat shocked to see armed men on our streets, but were picking our way past, when one of the officers, his machine gun in his hand, looked at us.   I don’t mean his eye passed over us.   He looked at us with calculation.   Then I remembered that a notorious paedophile murder case was being tried that week in Lewis and understood that he had seen us – mother and child and grandmother, and wondered if we had come to protest.   I hurried Joanna on, and when he saw us pass on down the street, he withdrew his interest.

In France, my reaction had been of surprise and curiosity.   There, proof of identity can be demanded of you at any time, so France is a country of peculiar custom anyway.   Besides, it is not ours.

But in England m reaction was of outrage.  I thought, how dare you even look at us, with a gun in your hands?    My reaction was of course unreasonable.   The officer was there to protect the court and merely carrying out his duty.   He did not address us, detain us or harass us in any way.   But that was my reaction to one of our own forces.

So, if I were in Afghanistan, and I found a man, a foreigner, who could not speak our language, walking the streets of my village and patting my children on the head with one hand, while in the other he held a machine gun,  what would be my reaction?   Outrage.   Of course I would say nothing – he has the weapon after all.   But I would look at him and think, Go home.   Whatever you do is going to be wrong because you have no business here in the first place.

I do not think it is possible to carry out a good will mission on the one hand, while cradling a gun in the other.

SKYFALL

John and I went to see the new Bond film in Brighton last weekend.

I’m still thinking about it, which shows what an untypical Bond film it was;  and I’m not sure what to conclude.

Firstly, it was enjoyable;  I recommend it.   As John said, it was a proper film, stand alone, with a story and a hinterland;  it wasn’t just the latest in the Bond franchise.   Herein may lie the difficulty, for if you go wanting glorious technology, violent but amusing; Bond girls glamorous but demanding in the 21st century mode; our hero looking dishy and always emerging on top;  Britannia rules the waves with an American happy ending slant  – this isn’t it.

It did have pretty girls, car and bike chases, fights, a casino scene, good photography, great acting – just not, perhaps, all in the right order (if you’re looking for ‘classic’ Bond.)

I’ve heard it described as ‘nostalgic’ and it is true that the car in the final denouement was classic (ie old) and the lethal weapon was primitive.    But although nostalgia literally means ‘extreme homesickness’, the word I believe these days has a lighter weight and is generally associated with a hankering back to the ‘style’ of former days, as in vintage clothing, retro styles of interior design and classic cars.

The message of this film appeared to me to be:    We stand in mortal danger from an unrecognisable enemy concealed within us.   Technology will not help us.    Our only chance of survival is to hold fast to the values that we still hope reside within ourselves, and not to yield to baser motives.

This is an ambiguous message (if correct) and not at all easy to interpret.

Daniel Craig plays Bond in the Avenging Angel mode.   He’s no pretty boy in a well tailored suit.    This is neither romantic fiction or light entertainment.

Skyfall is a dark film, full of foreboding and menace, and though it points the way to survival you get no sense of confidence that it has or will be achieved.   Bond survives (just) to fight another day.

We have been warned.