My husband has never been much interested in cooking.    Eating, yes…   though I don’t think he could be called a foodie.   Discussions  such as I enjoy having with my son and my brother as to whether the addition of a different herb or spice would add to the element of flavour – these refinements are not my husband’s forte.   But he enjoys his food and I like cooking, so we get along fine.   In fairness also, he never had much time to cook.   But now, in his retirement, I find him slowly and at his own pace taking up one or two specialities.

Two of his male friends are accomplished makers of marmalade.   My mother was a jam maker amd after I married she supplied my household as well as her own, so I never learned this art.   My father was a bee-keeper and provided  us with honey.   The most I ever did was occasionally make marmalade out of a tin.    So, a few years ago when John arrived home without any warning whatsoever with 2 kilos of Seville oranges, I was not at all pleased.   In fact, I felt like taking the oranges one by one and throwing them at him.   However, I decided this was his venture, so apart from helping him a little with the preparation, I refrained from worrying about the boil, the test for setting etc but cleared off and left him to it.   Much to my surprise, a batch of lovely, bitter marmalade, far better than anything I had ever made or could buy was the result.   He has made all our marmalade every year since.

Recently he decided to make bread by hand.   There followed a period of research;  reading and buying various cook books, researching and  buying tins etc.   (My tins, for some reason, were not deemed suitable.)   This process went on  for so long  that I despaired of any actual bread ever being produced.   But I held my tongue – John’s ways are mysterious.   One day I came upon him in occupation of my – I should now say ‘our’ – kitchen and realised that bread making was actually in progress.   Immediately I began to fret about temperature of liquids, amount of  salt, place of raising, and then I remembered – this is not your project – and again I took myself off and did something else and left him to it.

This morning I was served delicious wholemeal bread – the maestro thinks it could have risen a tad more but I have no complaints, topped with lovely home made marmalade.

Secrets of assisting husband to learn to cook?   Vacate kitchen.   Do not offer advice.   Enjoy results!




Watching a programme on Africa with many butterflies reminded me of a nightdress I had in my twenties.

I had one of those jobs I quite often had in those halcyon days where I had very little to do other than smooth some harassed, ambitious businessman’s life;  be a sympathetic companion;  look good;  deal with whatever presented itself and not alot else.    In fact I could spot trouble coming from afar off and could counsel when to act and when just to sit tight and although that doesn’t look energetic, it is quite a valuable skill.   I was really quite good at apparently not doing much with some style, and I could always exert myself when the need arose.   I’m not sure in today’s leaner times whether such jobs still exist.

But this particular job had even less to do than normal and I had hours on my hands.   So I embroidered.

It took 6 months of labour at about 3 – 4 hours per day to make a white cotton nightdress trimmed with lace and with mother of pearl buttons, entirely hand worked, French seams and all, and embroidered with a cascade of butterflies.   I used a book which belonged to my brother and had life size paintings of all the butterflies of the world and which I copied carefully and matched the thread colour  exactly so that the embroideries were accurate in size and detail.  (I have recognised in North Australia and South Africa butterflies which I had embroidered. )   I worked perhaps 30 butterflies overall, no one repeated, over the front, back and sleeves of the garment.   Those wings which have a diaphanous sheen, I partly embroidered to suggest that fleeting colour.

I knew this nightdress was impressive when I saw the care with which the chambermaid would drape it across the bed in hotels.   I was offered, and declined, £50 (in the early 1970s) for it by a wealthy and avaricious Edinburgh lady who had only heard of its beauty from a friend who had seen it.       I was offended with the friend for even discussing it;  and when the would be purchaser obtained my unlisted telephone number and rang me up and doubled her offer, not only did I decline once more, quite decidedly;  I wrote the former friend who had supplied my number off my list of acquaintances.

In those days when young mothers had babies, they were not cast out of the hospital at the earliest opportunity.   I wore that nightdress on some of the days spent in hospital with each of my three children and it attracted a great deal of attention.   No-one had anything like it;  nor even had seen anything like that before.

In the end of course, though it had laundered beautifully and given years and years of wear, the fabric became thin and could no longer be repaired.   But the embroideries themselves were good, and they were cut out and appliquéd to children’s garments, to tray cloths, and to a cushion that I made for my mother.

I enjoyed making it, and I enjoyed wearing it.   It did not occur to me at the time that it represented both my idle existence, and my industrious application.




Rory and Sarah come in with the grandson. He is asleep in his car seat but the minute Rory sets it on the floor, the boy opens his eyes and sees me. He looks briefly surprised and then this time he recognises both me and the house right away. He looks quickly round to see his parents are both there, and thus reassured, he smiles his welcome at me.
He is a child who loves to eat and is lusty for life. He knows – he has smelt, and he has seen his parents eat – that this is a place where food is to be got, and he looks at me and hopes that I will give him some. Not yet, I reply silently, not yet, but soon.

At this point in his life, before he has learned to conceal his thoughts, it is easy to follow his thinking. Mostly it has to be said it is along the lines of: – I’m hungry; I’m not comfortable; when are they going to feed me; where’s my mother; am I never going to be fed; why are they putting me to lie down when I’m not tired; can I eat it; this is a new thing; that smells good to eat; here’s my daddy come to play with me; I’m hungry again; here’s somebody I saw before; they’re putting me in my chair which hopefully means I’m going to be fed; I want my mother; FEED ME NOW!

His mother feeds him out of a bowl. His mouth comes out to meet the spoon like a baby bird’s beak out of the nest. We all assure him that broccoli and sweet potato mash is just as good as scones, warm from the oven, spread with yellow butter and dark blackcurrant jam but he does not believe us. (He is nobody’s fool, this young Armstrong.) But he is good-natured, and munches his way through the mixture methodically, only occasionally pulling a doubtful face.

Afterwards, we play. He can roll easily on both sides. He can lift his bottom and move his knees, and he can raise his whole upper torso on his arms from the waist up, but in spite of valiant efforts – going red in the face with trying – he cannot yet do both together.

When you hold out your fingers, he grasps them, and when you say, ‘Up’, he pulls with all his might. He is pleased to be ‘Up’ and when you say, ‘Down’ and lower him gently back to the floor, he is not pleased. He is a glorious, fleeting reminder of other men whom I have loved, and as handsome a fellow as each of them. He calls to mind for just a moment here and there his great grandfather, his grandfather, his father and his great uncle – and no doubt also men less well known to me in other reaches of his antecedents, so that watching him is like looking at a whole history of our lives and families.

Oh tender grandson, you boy of our blood, may your love of life and urgency of desire remain with you for all of your days. May your journey be long and safe at the last. Blessed be every breath you take, and good fortune shine upon you and on every person who ever renders you aid.

The citadel that is my heart, formerly so well defended, has been stormed again. I might as well fling its gates wide open.



The death of Margaret Thatcher is announced.

It is unseemly to speak ill of the dead. An old lady, in poor health for some years, has passed away. It would be courteous and customary to find something positive to say.

Margaret Thatcher had many praiseworthy attributes. She was undoubtedly hard working and I think it is true to say that she worked in the interests of her country (as defined by her.) No whiff of scandal or corruption, either sexual or financial, was ever associated with her. She was not lacking in personal courage, grit, endurance or determination. Apparently in private life she could be a kind, warm and generous spirited person. She was always very elegant and appropriately dressed. She is described as an able woman, with a mastery of detail, and with drive and conviction.

I have never been a friend or admirer of Margaret Thatcher. I am however prepared to admit that some of her least popular actions – such as the grasping of the nettle of the undemocratic stranglehold then exercised by the Unions, were desirable and necessary. But though I would not dance in the streets, or say – as I heard an old lady from a mining town say somewhat sadly this morning, ‘Thank goodness for that,’ I do not find it in my heart to sum her up with any positive endorsement.

I was asking myself why I was so ungenerous. And then, watching on TV the scenes from her years of government, I saw the answer. You view these really dreadful scenes of the confrontations between the police and the populace, with police horses charging the crowd and lone police officers picked off and brought down by picketers, and you think, Yes; this is the charge against her. It’s not about Europe, the poll tax, the Falklands war – though I disagreed with her policy on each of those issues.

The charge is that she was an instrument of division within our country. She too had watched those disgraceful, shameful scenes, and she did not step forward to heal the breach. These divisions are always present in our society and we, if we wish to live and prosper, have to reach across them, and treat one another with respect and kindness. She never said, let us be good to one another. The miners, the shipyard workers, the steel workers, – they may not have been correct in their positions at that time, but they were our own people, and on their sweat and labour much of our prosperity had been built. She referred to them as ‘the enemy within’ and set out to destroy them; and she did so with crusading zeal, without conscience or regret.

Margaret Thatcher…. Enemy of the people.



As a child, I hated being asked questions by grown ups. Often they asked questions about your family business that they would never have had the temerity to ask of one’s parents. My father in particular, though a courteous man, only appeared in public in full armour, bayonets fixed as it were, so nobody was going to ask him any questions; my mother could tactfully deflect queries. It used to annoy me intensely that as a little girl one was deemed a softer target. I would have had no difficulty in boldly repudiating any question, but for the dread imperative Not to be Rude. It took me some years to work out an unanswerable response. ‘I am afraid I don’t know; but I’ll tell my parents you’ve asked me and I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you.’ I only had to say this once and I got such a dirty look in response; and then, as is the way when you’ve found the answer to an awkward question, nobody ever asked me anything again.

I still don’t like to be asked questions. Any phone call or enquirer at the door is doomed if they start off with a query. In response to one salesman’s opening question, from some script no doubt, I said, quite politely, ‘I don’t wish to answer questions. Perhaps you’d like to state your business and I’ll see if I can help you.’ To which (I thought) perfectly reasonable statement he slammed shut his book, said, ‘I don’t have to put up with this,’ and huffily departed!

Some questions are not meant to be answered. How are you? It’s not to be taken literally. Fine, is the only acceptable answer followed by the reciprocal, how are you?

Some questions cannot be answered. John and I sat at a picnic table beside the beach at Hastings waiting for our friends Elizabeth and Jonathan to join us. A young Turkish man, here to learn English, approached us, and enquired, May I sit here? (There were other tables free.) We assented. It turned out he wanted to practice his English, and we had a long and interesting conversation about the language, manners and customs of our countries. (His mother, he told us, looking at me with slight disapproval, kept the house and cooked and cleaned, not like you… I considered arguing; I did all those things, what did he mean – but in fact I knew exactly what he meant.) Finally he thanked us for talking with him and departed. We never told him that in asking to sit at a picnic table already occupied by a family he broke every possible convention of the country and that his action had been utterly taboo.

Friends once asked me at what point I became irritable about questions, and when I said, I don’t like being asked my name, they laughed. It’s not that I mind telling it, I just don’t want it to be used. Why do they need to call me anything at all? Not that I indicate my discomfort. Some American woman on a plane once asked my name – no, of course I can’t remember hers – and then proceeded to bandy it about like a football in practice. There wasn’t a sentence that didn’t contain it. I felt like asking for another seat.

We dined with American colleagues (in England) who addressed the waitress by name. ‘You Brits should take the trouble to remember the server’s name,’ the man observed. ‘Why?’ John asked. ‘You get better service.’ John doubted that very much. Our guest did mention that they had been briefed before coming to the UK that we didn’t like people making free with our names, but he didn’t believe it, and we, being British, just smiled and said nothing. We didn’t tell him that our son, then a student and working for a large (American) catering company at one of the London airports, pursued a policy (unbeknown to his employers obviously) of active discrimination against anyone who summoned him by name. Forced to wear a name badge, and even though the name he gave, although one of his names was not the one used by his intimates, he found the employment of his name so irksome that he almost invariably wore the name badge of a colleague from another shift. There were plenty to choose from, but his special favourite was Walidh. Every British customer who bothered to look at his name badge understood right away the exact state of affairs, but then they had never been going to address him by name in the first place. Tired, jet-lagged American customers were liable to become confused. ‘Tell me, son,’ one red-necked male asked him one day. ‘Is your name really Walidh?’ Our hero merely nodded and pointed to his name badge. ‘You sure don’t look like a Walidh’. With true British evasiveness, at this point the ‘server’ asked, ‘Can I get you anything else, sir?’ (with the unspoken message that he, Walidh, was employed to serve food and drink, and not to answer questions about his nomenclature.)

Ah well. Customs of the country. It’s meant in friendship and should be accepted in the spirit in which it’s offered. But to friends who come from a culture where it is polite to use people’s names, don’t be offended when we don’t use yours. It’s not that we haven’t bothered to learn it. We’re respecting your privacy and not presuming on our acquaintance.

And as for not liking to be questioned, that depends on who you are. There’s all the difference in the world between the caring enquiries of a friend and the spurious and insincere curiosity of others. We’ve all complained to our intimate friend after a meeting with some mutual acquaintance: Of course she’s only interested in herself. Never any question about me…

One could always try the Scots all-purpose greeting, Hey Jimmy! But I hasten to add, lest I lead anyone into temptation, that it’s not exactly a friendly salutation. More of a challenge to combat, really. It doesn’t mean you think their name is James. And don’t, on any account, address a Scotsman as Jock. I won’t answer for the consequences. They won’t be good.

English as she is spoke. It’s harder than it looks.


We spent Easter weekend in a National Trust holiday cottage on the Cliveden Estate beside the River Thames in Buckinghamshire. It was lovely having the freedom of the estate and gardens to walk and explore – especially when the day trippers faded away – and the pleasure gardens of Cliveden, with their parterres and formal gardens were interesting. The house was warm, comfortable and attractively furnished and the company of Elisabeth and Robert was enjoyable. But the most delightful aspect of the whole weekend was our proximity to the river.
When I say we were beside the river, I mean we could have flung a stone from our bed through the window and into it. It flowed, swift, dark and deep, ranging in colour from dark green to black, right beside us. Ducks came knocking at our door each morning. Giant swans glided like white sailed boats along the blackness of the water, and if they slackened their pedalling at all, they were carried backwards on the current. We saw a pair of long tailed tits, all tail and diminutive. I saw a brief blue flash that I thought might be a kingfisher. There were a variety of ducks and geese, honking and squabbling. We saw a heron make a laconic elegant flight up river.

Every so often a motor boat would chug past. Rob, out for an early morning run, spotted three swimmers in wet suits. On the day of the Oxford/Cambridge boat race, a whole armada of rowers slipped down stream past us, singly or doubly rowed, in their ones, twos or threes at a time, for several hours.

Our pleasure in the great river reminded me of my enjoyment of another very different river of my childhood, the beautiful River Deveron in Banffshire in Scotland. The River Deveron (Black water in the gaelic) is a famous fishing river which runs through Banffshire for some 60 miles before emptying into the North Sea at the bay which shelters Banff and Macduff. It is fast flowing and unpredictable, and it made swimming in the bay hazardous because the swift strong current did not pursue the same path through the sea water. I used to love how, when I stepped out of our house on the shore, I never knew whether the beach would be smooth sand, or a mountain of rocks flung up over night. Quite near to the bay is the beautiful 18th century 7 spanned bridge, built by John Smeaton and linking Banff and Macduff. The river ran through the estate, now holding a lovely golf course, where Robert Adam had built an ill-fated but remarkable dwelling, Duff House which in our childhood was a ruin we could wander through. It caught my imagination but at that time of course I did not know that Adam was Scotland’s foremost architect of all time. One could walk by the river through a wild estate covered in snowdrops and spring flowers, to the single spanned Bridge of Alvah which hung high above the gorge, and where the black water formed a dark whirlpool and people would leap to their deaths. Further back yet it flowed more sedately through the fertile fields surrounding Turriff; a town as I recall it utterly devoid of charm. The Deveron bubbled past the small holding in the wilds of Banffshire where my parents later lived, and it also graced the dignified town of Huntly, where John played golf and I saw for the first time a brown dipper with his white bib dancing among the water cascading across the boulders.

I love rivers, and of course the mighty Thames is magnificent, and we have many rivers we can boast of and every one with its own especial charm. Elisabeth had read that China had ‘lost’ over a thousand rivers – swallowed up, disappeared by excessive consumption and industrialisation, and I thought of the proverb, A thousand years hence, the river will run as it did, and reflected that ‘losing’ rivers on this scale did not bode at all well for China.

We, however, in these islands are blessed with many rivers. But for me the dashing Deveron was a fascinating childhood companion and will always remain one of the loveliest rivers of the British Isles.