THE HOUSES OF OUR FRIENDS

THE HOUSES OF FRIENDS

We visited six houses on our recent tour. Three of them were those of relatives – our daughter, Joanna, my brother Eugene, and John’s sister, Helen (plus their spouses of course.) All our relatives have lovely houses which are warm and welcoming, but it is the houses of friends that I am thinking of today.

We visited one house on the banks of the Forth River. It has such wonderful views that I have often reflected that if I lived there I would do no work at all but just sit and watch the river traffic and the wildlife slip by as the tides came in and out. It is a very stylish and elegant house. Our hosts are highly skilled at building, soft furnishings etc and I am always interested to see what they have been working on since we last visited. Seeing them is the most important thing of course but there are certain possessions of theirs that I look out for. There is a covetable collection of small wooden boxes; an embroidery worked by the lady of the house of a section from the Bayeux tapestry and a glass ornament pale turquoise in colour but illuminated with a splash of orange that they were given for their golden wedding anniversary. I relax when I see that these things are still present.

Another house whose hospitality we enjoyed is not far from the previous one and it is interesting in how it reflects the work of the occupants. The man of the house is a distinguished architectural historian and I love to see his work room, full from floor to the ceiling with books, and the papers that he is working on laid out in orderly piles. There is scarcely an historic building in the whole of Scotland that he cannot instantly recall and they have visited almost every island and glen. Paintings of these wild and lovely places adorn their walls. The lady of the house is a musician and no ordinary one either, for she has an organ installed in her living room. In how many houses can you sit back and relax, enjoying the paintings on the wall while your hostess treats you to her own playing of a Bach Toccata?

Finally we visited the fourth house of friends of ours in Oxford, which we were seeing for the first time. They are also both very skilled in interior design. The lady comes from a famous family of architects and she has inherited some large and imposing pieces of antique furniture, which they skilfully combine with some very modern pieces. It is interesting when you do see a succession of people’s houses how no matter how different the basic house is, nor whether they buy new soft furnishings or carpets, the eventual ambience is always the same. In this house I look out for a wooden goose that hangs from the ceiling and can slowly flap its wings (from America I think); two wonderful pots from some Oriental country with lids with lion handles, and a beautiful architectural drawing of the Natural History museum.

It is a great privilege to be admitted as a guest to the private living spaces of one’s friends and to see them again, to recognise that, even though we are all growing older, they are still true to their essential selves. Their harmonious and beautiful homes are a reflection of them, and we have loved them and their lovely houses for a long, long time.

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PUSSY LUCY

Recently, sleepless in the dead of night, gasping for air in the heat like a beached whale, I found that the cats of my life had emerged from their resting places where they sleep in my memory and were quietly observing me from various vantage points.

In every case, the cat had arrived in our lives either of its own volition, or not actively sought by us. My mother liked cats and we had one or two over my childhood. The one I am going to write about was a small and dainty tortoise-shell, not at all friendly with strangers, and I think called Lucy (hence Pussy Lucy.) She was there as a young cat when I was still living at home, but working.

I arrived home one day to find the cat lying on her blanket, very unwell with the dreaded cat flu. My mother was not very good with illness – she tended to the view that if the sufferer cared more abut her – my mother, they would get better to ease her suffering. She gave all physical care diligently enough, – she was by no means neglectful, but she could not encourage, soothe or uplift. All you felt was her anxiety, so her presence in your sickroom just made you feel worse.. She was very distressed about the cat and resigned to losing her.

I looked at the cat – a young and beautiful animal, and thought that we shouldn’t abandon her prematurely. So I said to her, You hang on in there, and we’ll see what we can do. I found a pipette with a rubber teat, and I filled it with a mixture of beaten egg, warm milk, a little butter and honey. The cat did not actively suck but she did not resist me either; so I just poured it as down her throat, stroking under her chin to ensue she swallowed. I held her over a litter tray but did not detect much activity. I would tell her pussy cat stories of how she would recover and that she would hunt for mouse and bird; of the kittens she would have. Then (I had donated an old mohair cardigan of mine) I would wrap her up gently. I did this every 4 hours, getting up in the night.

The days passed and the cat did not die. She looked terrible, skin and bone and with her fur a matted mess where the drink had stuck to her. By this time I was very tired, and I began to wonder if there was any point in continuing if she was not going to recover. One day, seated beside her waiting for the drink to cool, I became distracted by the book I was reading, when I heard a tiny ‘rrnnt’ noise from the cat, and when I looked at her I realised she was staring steadily at me. She was waiting to be fed.

When my mother realised that the cat might live, she began to share the feeding with me. She cut off the matted fur and gently wiped the cat with a warm, damp cloth. It was a great day for us when she licked her filthy fur once or twice. My mother would feed the cat tiny bits of things she liked, with her fingers and the cat lying on her lap; A little prawn; some smoked salmon, a piece of raw haddock, some raw chicken. (This cat retained unusual tastes. She liked a scone straight from the oven, and my mother would spread it with butter for her.) Eventually she was able to stagger to the outside litter ray but we had to go too to catch her if she fell over and at first she was so exhausted from the effort of getting there that we had to carry her back t o her bed.

But very gradually she recovered. She lived for over ten more years, and she had the dreamed of kittens. Even though she remained my mother’s cat, unfriendly to visitors, she always had a kind word for me, even when I would turn up like a bad penny after a long absence.

WHATEVER THE WEATHER

 

We British, foreigners observe, are ‘obsessed’ with the weather. I don’t think that this is actually true. We are surrounded by weather, as we are by water, and we certainly talk about it a lot, but I think we choose to do that. I don’t think we’re obsessed by it. Our weather is so diverse and varied (yet generally it remains within mild and tolerable boundaries) that it impacts very strongly on our life and culture.

In the anonymous short poem that runs:

Western wind,

when wilt thou blow?

The small rain down can rain.

Christ, if my love were in my arms,

And I in my bed again…

you can feel the writer (whom I like to imagine was a Roman soldier used to the warm Roman climate) despairing over a prolonged cold, wet period. We know exactly how he felt.

But I think the reputation of our country for it’s great beauty is in no small measure due to the weather. This is not only because its dampness (perhaps I should be honest and say wetness) contributes to our ‘green and pleasant land’ but because we view it through the infinite variety of our climate conditions. We see it on clear days ruffled by the breeze; we see it still and mysterious in mist.

In Britain you never know what weather the day will bring. While this means that its cooperation cannot be depended upon for a wedding, a queen’s jubilee, or even just a picnic, it gives us our capacity to deal with whatever turns up; our resilience; our endurance; what makes us British

I’ve been in countries where the weather is the same for long periods. I’ve been several times to Singapore and no matter when the time of year, the weather was exactly the same: grey, overcast sky, extremely warm and humid, so that stepping onto the street was like walking through wet sheets and even just sitting doing nothing was quite exhausting. Plus in its perpetual sameness it grew boring.

I think we are genuinely interested in our weather, but it is also a very convenient neutral topic of conversation. It is very hard to see how anyone could be offended by a few comments on the weather. So, with someone you’ve just met, or don’t know very well, it’s a useful filler: you make a few mild remarks about the weather but meanwhile you’re giving yourself time to observe them and

decide how you’re going to proceed. Talk of the weather is not personal and it is not political. As the rhyme tells us, it rains the same upon the just as on the unjust fellow (except that the just gets wetter because the unjust stole the just’s umbrella.)

In England, we’ve have unusually enjoyed a prolonged period of hot, dry weather. Although it was pleasant enough to begin with, I’ve had enough of it. I long for rain – for the coolness, for the grey skies, for the wonderful smell of dust that the rain will release, and for how next morning everything will look brand new and washed clean.

Well, no doubt it will come soon enough and then we can complain about how awful it is and long for sunshine!

THE SWALLOWS RETURN

Yesterday I saw a swallow (technically a swift.) It was solitary and high in the sky, but I was very relieved to see it. I think this is very late and I was beginning to fear that they would not come at all. One swallow does not make a summer as the old adage reminds us but a complete absence of swallows would make for a disaster.

Today however at Wakehurst I saw a dozen or so, and was reassured.

On our abortive trip to France, we spent three days on a site on a curve of the Seine River as it meanders through the Seine Maritime. There were small ferries that puttered back and forth from South Bank to North and back again. They took traffic across on a first come, first served basis, without charge through the river’s repeated meanderings. I found the terrain completely confusing and never had any idea of which side of the river we were on, much to John’s irritation. There was often a morning mist and swallows would hurtle out of the pale banks of pearly clouds at breakneck speed, skimming the surface of the water. They were the real thing too, with crimson throats and iridescent dark blue forked tails.

Even earlier this year I had observed swallows in the garden of our house in Portugal, where they were as speedy and dextrous as Renaldo – but then Portugal is barely a stone’s throw from Africa, so that hardly counted..

DRIVING IN WINTERt

We’ve had here in the UK the worst week of weather in what has been a very mild winter. In the previous five years we have scarcely had a day with ice on the roads. The Northern parts of the UK had some snow but our news is very Southern dominated.

So this week we have had people who spent 13 – 20 hours stuck on blocked roads. Hundreds of schools have been closed. People have been advised not to present at hospital. Hundreds of buses have been cancelled. Most trains have not run. Thousands of planes have been grounded. Food is running out in supermarkets.

The general call has been, Stay at Home, Do Not Go To Work. If You Set Out In This, You Risk Death. It is no wonder the public becomes alarmed and stays at home. Weather forecasts are frightening in the extreme.

Yet what has actually happened is that we had some nights (here in the South) the temperature fell to about -2 or 3 degrees; there was a cold wind, for about 2 hours it snowed and left about 1 – 2” of snow, a few roads were blocked by drivers who got stuck on hills and other drivers couldn’t pass them. This is hardly the worst winter since records began. (Conditions have been much worse in other parts of the country.)

We need to treat winter with respect. We should carry a snow shovel, a blanket, some food and drink, and a mat to go under our wheels all the time. It’s not going to take up that much room.

Perhaps people should have to do some winter driving on the equivalent of a dry ski slope in order to pass their test.

We should not go into Panic mode whenever we notice a snowflake!

SEWING APRONS

SEWING APRONS

 

I was fiddling about with some blue gingham material, cotton, attempting to make an apron for William, my grandson. The joins where the halter and waist ties join the body of the garment were messy and I couldn’t seem to resolve this. Also I had appliqued a W in red and this had not worked well. Then I had a bright idea. I would make it double and reversible.

I ditched the blue gingham and chose a plain black cotton and a grey cotton with sailing boats on it in black and gold.

I measured the width of the body of the apron at the top of it, the waist and the hem. I drew on a piece of paper half of the apron, drawing a curbed line from the waist to the top. I had folded the material so I placed this half pattern on the fold and cut it out. Then I cut 3 pieces 4” wide and about 15” long. I cut the black out first; then I cut the other body out of the printed boat material. I did not need to cut out the ties and neck piece in this material, but I cut out a pocket with a boat on it to go on the black apron. I also cut the black side 2” longer than the printed so that there was a black border on the hem of the grey material. It didn’t take a lot of material. I reckon half a yard of each would probably have been sufficient but it depends on the size of the wearer.

Then I sewed down the side of the tie pieces, and sewed one edge; the neck piece could have both ends left unsewn. I sewed a hem on the top edge of the pocket and ironed down the edges. Then pinned it carefully in position and sewed it down. I then placed the two apron sides, right sides together, and put the unfinished edges of the ties  between the sides of the apron and pinned them in place. I then sewed right around the entire body of the apron, leaving a space on one side of about 3 “ through which one can pull the apron and ties so that it is the correct way round. You then sew up that small section by hand.

This makes an attractive apron, thicker than normal to withstand spillages etc.

There should be some link in colour, pattern etc between the two fabrics. It was fun to do.

John SINGER SARGENT

Some years ago I went to an exhibition of water colour sketches painted on his travels by (in my opinion) the greatest ever artist produced by these islands – J M W Turner. Although they were just quick impressions produced for the artist’s own pleasure, they captured the essence of each place, and I was interested to note that where I had also visited the location, although over a century had passed, my impression of it was much the same as Turner’s.

Last week I went with my daughter Elisabeth, and John and our grandson William, to an exhibition of watercolours by the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent, at the Dulwich picture gallery.

These were largely small landscapes (sketches) executed by Sargent at the end of his career when he had had enough of the demands made by sitters wanting their portraits painted, and took himself off, switched to watercolours and did landscapes.

I am a big fan of John Singer Sargent. In any exhibition of portraits, his will stand out in their excellence. He seems to have the knack of creaing a portrait that is a beautiful object in its own right; a reliable likeness of the subject; presumably a reasonably flattering portrayal because the clients liked them; BUT we the wider audience can see that, for example,  despite the youthful prettiness of the sitter, she is a shallow young woman thinking largely of how to satisfy her desire for clothes, jewels, social prominence etc.

The exhibition paintings are not what I expected. They do not have that deceptively fragile appearance of some watercolours which are misty and almost translucent. These are far brighter and deeper in colour than I had imagined. Some of them are unconventional in their presentation, looking at the subject from below or cutting it off where you don’t expect it. The written commentary in the art gallery suggested that the artist was forcing us to look at things differently. However I don’t believe that he was thinking about future audiences at all. I think he was acting entirely to please himself and what attracted him to these particular subjects was their degree of technical difficulty. He, of course, entirely overcame that.

I came across a sketch from his travels, of somewhere in Scotland. The British countryside is so diverse that if you have travelled through the UK extensively you know whether a picture is of Scotland, Yorkshire or Dorset, even if they are all apparently of the same tree. Sargent’s picture of Scotland lacks authenticity. It does not feel of heather and gorse and Atlantic wind. It is just a tree.

I have often wondered if a portrait painter makes a judgement of his sitter or if he just paints what he sees. John got a chalk drawing done of me once in Waverley Market in Edinburgh. I thought I would give the man doing the work the benefit of my wit and charm so having ascertained that if I held my position, conversation would not put him off, I set out to entertain him. I was however considerably taken aback when I asked him what he found most difficult about doing a portrait of someone and he replied: ‘Sometimes it is difficult to avoid being beguiled by the sitter.’ (We were pleased with the result, which is as grave and reflective a representation as I most truly am; but most friends have regarded it as not flattering.)

So, returning to Sargent, I came to the conclusion that his was a technical excellence; he was supremely good at putting paint to canvas in the image of what lay before him. So, in my opinion, John Singer Sargent is still very, very good.

Just not as good as Turner.

PS William is not (yet anyway) an admirer of John Singer Sargent. As soon as we entered the exhibition rooms he began to shout, Bye bye (which is his way of indicating that an interview is at an end,) and his melancholy and irritated cry punctuated our entire visit. Somehow I doubt if he would have been any more impressed by Turner!