Monday, 31 December 2012

one year on and still blogging

In something under five hours it will be time to say goodbye to 2012, and hello to 2013.  I'm not sure we'll stay up that late, in which case I will see in the New Year by putting up the 2013 Den Phillips East Coast calendar in the hall, and putting my old 2012 diary away in a drawer of my desk.  That's another year of writing a daily blog entry, apart from the week I took off when we were on holiday.

Some entries have been lovingly crafted in reasonably competent prose.  They will be the ones I wrote on days when blogging wasn't squeezed in between several other things, or when something interesting happened to write about.  Some have been more slipshod affairs, with wandering tenses, and the same word cropping up five times in two paragraphs.  They were written in a rush, or on days when I was feeling ill or out of sorts.  I have kept almost entirely to my principle of never pressing the Publish button on a computer linked to the internet after consuming any alcohol.  Yesterday was an exception as I had a couple of beers over lunch before launching into my account of cooking Elizabeth David style  The fastest posts have been knocked out in under twenty minutes, and the slowest stretched to over an hour, on days when I was feeling pernickety or inspired , and didn't have anything else pressing to do.  I'll probably speed up if the weather improves so that I can get out into the garden more.

Cardunculus has not gone viral during 2012.  My mum reads it, and some friends, and a few random assorted people who fell into it by mistake.  The mother of a folk singer I said kind things about found out and liked the entry about her son, though I'm not sure she's been an avid follower since.  The Systems Administrator's brothers dip in from time to time, as a handy way of keeping tabs on the SA.  I had lunch early in the year with some former colleagues, and after listening politely to their tales of woe  about competition for school places, school fees, and exam grade trauma, I mentioned that since the start of 2011 I'd been writing a blog.  One replied Yes, but how many people read it? and the rest giggled nervously about what I was going to say about them on it.  None showed any desire to write down the address.

As a matter of policy I say very little about my friends.  Some professional journalists make their living, or at least part of a living, from using their families and friends as material for their columns.  I suppose their families are OK with that.  I guess that if you start dating a columnist you sign up to the idea that your private life will be amusingly recycled in the Lifestyle section of a national newspaper.  Since I am not a professional journalist and none of my friends or relations or my colleagues or employers agreed to star on screen, even in an obscure blog that's read by a few regular followers and a drunk bloke who clicked on the wrong link, they should be allowed their privacy.  The SA gets a starring role, but you will agree only as a heroic character portrayed in an almost entirely positive light.  Plus the SA is particularly well placed to exercise rights of veto and censorship.

So the blog is simultaneously true, and deeply misleading.  It is a true record of things that happened.  You could identify the lettuce farm, the ramshackle 1960s house, and garden on Google Earth.  You would find us pretty much as described, middle aged, used to work in the City, had enough, with our cats and chickens and bees.  The picture of the changing seasons, of days getting longer and shorter again, of sun, rain, snow, cold, and how that affects the way people spend their days in the countryside, even in twenty-first century south-east England, is pretty accurate.  You would not need Sherlock Holmes' extraordinary powers of detection to track down the plant centre, where you would find the boss, the owner, the manager, the dog.  If I say I went to London and saw such and such an exhibition then that's what I did.  When I tell you I have just noticed the first Iris unguicularis of the winter then I have.

The blog gives a misleading impression of my interior life because it skips over much of the personal.  If we see friends for a meal, for instance, that is probably the most significant event of the day.  Since I am not about to rehash private conversations in public, or write a restaurant review of their cooking, the friends may get a passing mention in one sentence, or no mention at all, while the day's blog entry is a riff on painting the hall, or a meditation on toads.  And I don't generally seem to talk about books very much, despite reading quite a lot.  I don't know why not, except that I never set out to post a series of book reviews.  Maybe that will change in 2013, and you can join me on my current baffling journey through the history of Prussia and my struggles to work out which King Frederick the author is talking about now.

I will keep going in the New Year, despite having still not gone viral.  Next year in Jerusalem.  Blogging is good fun and entirely free.  Blogspot let me have this platform for nothing.  I suppose they are hoping I will produce some advertising revenue eventually, or at least that enough others will, while the marginal cost of hosting me is zero.  Forcing myself to sit down and write something every day and submit it to the scrutiny of other people, albeit a handful, may not have made me a good writer yet but it has made me a better writer than I would be otherwise.  And it is handy for my mother and the SA's brothers to be able to keep track of what we're up to.  So Happy New Year, to those of you who know us, and to anyone who followed a stray link and doesn't, but has somehow made it this far anyway.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

a lunch party, with assistance from Elizabeth David

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a host who has invited people to lunch should not attempt to cook anything they haven't cooked before.  So in theory I should have tested Elizabeth David's Sussex stewed steak and raspberry shortbread on the Systems Administrator in advance, before trying them on friends, probably two or three times to be on the safe side.  I didn't, because they didn't look that monumentally different to other things I've managed to cook in the past, and if I have to practice each new recipe on the SA before risking it on anybody else, my repertoire is going to expand very slowly, given the infrequency with which I cook.

The Sussex stewed steak and the pudding are both included in At Elizabeth David's Table, a collection of 'Her very best everyday recipes' compiled by Jill Norman, complete with kind introductory words by contemporary foodie luminaries including Jamie Oliver and Simon Hopkinson and muted colour photographs, linked by extracts from the original books and some of Mrs David's articles for Vogue and The Spectator.  The Systems Administrator gave it to me a little while back, but this was the first time I'd actually cooked from it.  I must have leafed through it when I first received it.  I think I thought that the full page photographs of food, roosters and Italian scenery were dreamy, but that the opening pages seemed to include a lot of things that contained either fish or spinach.  I was probably biased by my inbuilt suspicion against books that are rehashes of existing material, put together by publishers determined to get some more financial mileage out of a dead writer.

That view turns out to be very unfair to At Elizabeth David's Table.  It helps that Jill Norman was Elizabeth David's editor, and knew her well.  She has chosen wisely.  Elizabeth David's books don't always feel terribly approachable, with her sharp advice about the precise quality of ingredients and instructions to buy cuts of meat that never appear on the supermarket shelves, not even in Waitrose.  Rereading the selected recipes, this time with a proper degree of attention, I realised that a high proportion of them sounded achievable, without demands for caul, pig's dripping, five pounds of sea salt, larding bacon, a boiling fowl, or mutton.

To be on the safe side I started on the Sussex steaks the day before we wanted to eat them.  The recipe required five or six tablespoons of port, as well as stout and mushroom ketchup, and the SA said that given we had several bottles of port we might as well open one, so I did.  This does leave me with the subsidiary question of how to use the rest of it.  The SA has volunteered to drink some, while admitting that port nowadays produces a cracking hangover.  It also appears that I could use it in a terrine, or oxtail soup, and the SA found a Nigella lamb recipe on the internet that sounded plausible.  Elizabeth David promised me that after three hours of slow cooking the toughest piece of meat would emerge beautifully tender, so four steaks described on the packet as Irish were dusted in flour, doused with five tablespoons each of port and stout and two of ketchup, sprinkled with three smallish chopped onions, and given half an hour in the bottom oven of the Aga to get them going, and three hours in the simmer oven.  The book said to include a double layer of greaseproof paper under the lid of the casserole, which I dutifully did. We have a wide shallow Le Creuset pan with a close fitting lid, and I wasn't sure the paper would really make any difference, but my rule of thumb is to follow the book as closely as I can the first time round, and then modify things the second time if it seems warranted.

After three hours in the simmer oven the steaks emerged with all the tender and melting qualities of shoe leather, swimming in red-brown liquid which had not reduced to a rich-looking and interesting gravy.  The SA said encouragingly that the steaks would probably relax overnight.  I thought I would probably not relax overnight, but that several more hours in the simmer oven was likely to improve things in the morning.  At least as a consolation I got to drink the left-over stout.

When I woke up this morning I remembered that I had to produce lunch by noon, the point at which our friends were due to turn up and everything was scheduled to be keeping warm so that I could socialise with our guests, and that so far all I had to show for my labours was a dish of shoe-leather and a saucepan of red cabbage.  Red cabbage is always worth cooking in advance, because it is one less thing to do on the day, and it improves with reheating.  Vitamins in this context are a bourgeois distraction.  I remembered to get the raspberries out of the freezer for the pudding, and peeled the potatoes for the mash, and the carrots and parsnips, bought in a fit of anxiety that there would not be enough vegetables for a Christmas-New Year festive lunch.  The shoe leather went back in the bottom oven on the hot side of the Aga for another hour, then back into the simmer.  The paper lid was starting to look a little the worse for wear, and fragments fell off each time I inspected the meat.

By eleven the Irish steak had finally, miraculously become beautifully tender, and by the time I came to dish it at one it was dropping to melting pieces from the spoon.  The gravy was indeed rich.  It's lucky we didn't leave serving lunch until half past, since the gravy had reduced about as far as you'd want it to, even with the greaseproof paper.  I can heartily recommend Elizabeth David's Sussex stewed steak, only I would not leave it until the last minute to prepare.  Give yourself an hour or three's leeway, just to be on the safe side.  I included the suggested garnish of fried mushrooms, which definitely add something.

Her Raspberry shortbread is a variant on fruit crumble.  The book says that it can be served hot or cold and is excellent.  We had ours at room temperature, to avoid the anxiety of trying to keep it hot.  That turned out to be a good call as the Aga was full of other things keeping warm.  I nearly smashed the dish of mushrooms which were sitting on top of the pan of mashed potato, grabbing the handle of the latter without seeing that the mushrooms were there.  The shortbread topping consists of butter rubbed into plain flour in the ratio three to one, with just over half of the weight of the flour in muscovado sugar, and some ginger and baking powder.  The resulting mixture forms dry, fine crumbs which you are instructed not to press down over the raspberries, and I'm not sure the baking powder can make much difference.  I would not have thought of combining ginger and raspberry, but a little touch of it, half a teaspoon in six ounces of flour, does very well.  Some of the flour mixture seems drop down into the juice as the raspberries cook and thickens it slightly, so that the raspberries sit in slightly cloudy, gingery liquid rather than plain juice.  Everybody had second helpings, except for the SA who is not crazy about puddings.

The big tabby and Our Ginger mild slight nuisances of themselves all the time we had guests.  We kept the cats out of the room while we ate, but the rest of the time they jumped on the dining table, held mock fights, clambered insistently into laps, and clamoured for food every time either of us went near the kitchen.  As soon as the visitors departed both cats completely lost interest in gaining our attention.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

adjust your settings

I braved Tesco this morning.  After the amount of food and drink I bought last week you would not think we could possibly have needed any more, but friends are coming to lunch tomorrow, and we were running out of cat food.  (To clarify that last statement, the cat food is for the cats.  The friends are getting Sussex steak and raspberry shortbread out of 'At Elizabeth David's Table').  It was the first time I'd started my car for a week, and damp still shone in patches on the floor mats from the last time I went out, so I was rather pleased that it did start, though the brakes had gone sticky and it took a positively boy-racerish quantity of revs to persuade the car to move off.  The traffic going up the final hill to Colchester was extremely light, and I wondered where everybody was, and why they were not all going to the sales.  Tesco promised to be a doddle.

It was not a doddle, but a thoroughly unpleasant experience.  I still haven't learnt where everything is in the new revamped store, which is my fault for not going there more often and paying attention.  However, the main problem today was not my tendency to circle the vegetable and dairy sections like an aircraft waiting for permission to land at Heathrow, searching in vain for where mushrooms and creme fraiche have got to.  No, it was the music that was playing throughout the store, a disjointed medley of top hits of the past decade.  I don't like quite a lot of what's been in the charts since about 1978.  I do like the Kaiser Chiefs, but I don't want to listen to them played tinnily over a sound system that was designed for calling all till qualified staff to the checkout or a cleaner to aisle 17, while I'm trying to work out which things on my list I still haven't got.  There were gaps between the songs, leading me to hope that the music might have stopped, and to suspect that it was being played on an ad hoc basis by someone who was a bit slow to start a new track when the previous one ended.  With any luck that means it was a Christmas season festive one-off, and that come next week it will cease.  If it is part of the new-look Tesco then I'm not shopping there any more.

As I made my escape I realised that I'd forgotten to pick up one of the five pound orchids I'd been eyeing up on the way in.  I was still so cross by the time I got home that I e-mailed customer services to let them know how much I'd disliked my trip to their store.  There was no category for complaints about horrible shopping experiences on the website in the Contact Us section, and I had to file my message under Other.  Initially my attempt to submit my comment was blocked because I hadn't included my mobile phone number.  That's not good.  Not everybody has a mobile phone, my father for instance.  Are they not supposed to contact Tesco?  I only give my number to personal friends and professional contacts, and had no desire to give it to Tesco customer services, who would then presumably start sending me texts on it, so I made one up.  The website wouldn't accept 0799 9999999 and I had to choose something that sounded more random.  If it happens to be a real number then the owner may receive a message from Tesco about why distorted broadcasts of I Predict A Riot are an appropriate accompaniment to post-Christmas grocery shopping, followed by unwanted marketing texts.

After lunch I cleaned the kitchen and the downstairs loo, fired up by my resolution to have a cleaner and tidier house.  I have been trying to follow the technique described by Guardian psychologist Oliver Burkeman as Adjusting My Defaults.  His article addresses the question of how to take more exercise, which is not particularly an issue when you have a large garden and only a part-time job in which you almost never get to sit down.  However, I thought I could adjust my defaults to be more tidy just as well as more active.  So after breakfast I am trying to remember to empty and rinse the teapot, instead of leaving it standing by the kettle until lunchtime or supper time or the next time I want a pot of tea, and when I see used mugs in the sitting room I am trying to fall into the habit of taking them to the kitchen and washing them, instead of leaving them to deal with later, or half dealing with them by taking them to the kitchen but not washing them, or hoping that the Systems Administrator will do it if they are the SA's mugs.  Unwanted sales leaflets from several mail order companies have gone straight into the paper recycling basket instead of spending several weeks piled on top of the ice cream maker.  That sort of thing.  It has worked up to a point, though by this morning I did have two gardening socks living on the telephone table, which I'd stuffed into my boots when we got in from our walk, and then taken out of the boots because I wanted to slip the boots on to do the chickens and couldn't be bothered with the socks, plus a packet of suet for the birds that wouldn't fit in the crock of bird food by the front door and that I hadn't bothered to take down to the garage.

Tidiness is all very well, but the kitchen and hall floors still needed washing, which is how I come to be stuck in the sitting room waiting for them to dry.  They probably have by now.  I'm not sure I'm going to manage to keep this up throughout 2013, but Oliver Burkeman assures me that it will start feeling automatic.

Friday, 28 December 2012

rain again

When I got up this morning the rain was gurgling loudly through the metal downpipe outside the bathroom window.  It was almost melodic, and would have been worth sampling, if you happened to be a producer of electronic music, but I'm not.  I went to let the chickens out into their run, and the ground in their enclosure has got much too muddy.  I wished the boss had come up to scratch with the small bales, instead of the owner just remembering at intervals that I'd asked if they had any spare, or that I'd seized the moment to make contact with the farmer friend of a friend who had some, instead of leaving it because the weather was so cold and the Systems Administrator had toothache.  As it is we do not have any straw, and we need some, urgently.  The SA says I should not contact the farmer this week, as he will be taking time off from the farm and be busy with his shoot, and will not want to think about work or straw bales until the New Year.  I can sympathise with that.

The whole world is wet.  The garden, the lawns and borders and shrubs and hedges, all disgustingly wet, waiting to dump a great load water on you if touched, or deform with hideous squelchings if walked upon.  The cats go into the garden to do their business, and come in again with wet feet and damp fur.  The damp is worming its way into my bones and lungs, reminding me that while the SA melts in warm weather, I am probably better suited to somewhere hot and dry, not on the cold, rain-sodden margins of northern Europe.  I can see why so many rich, keen Edwardian gardeners busied themselves in the winter months making a second garden in the south of France.  It must have been more rewarding than staring out at the soggy mess of their English one, and better for their rheumatism and bronchial health.

I went out to check the watering in the greenhouse and conservatory.  I hadn't checked them for days, and felt a guilty concern that I might have left it too long and that things might be getting dry.  Not a bit of it.  Overwintering plants use very little water at this time of year, when the sun is so weak and the days so short, and while a few evergreens in the brightest spots needed a drink, most pots were still wet enough.  I was pleased to see quite a few of the bulbs starting to come through, and relieved that after the opening skirmish with mice, most of them had escaped without being eaten.

I made a bad error when we had the greenhouse put up, one which no garden writer I've come across has owned up to in print, or warned against.  Take this therefore as a warning, in case you are thinking of buying a greenhouse.  When we moved into the property it had no greenhouse or sheds, or parking area other than the edge of the turning circle, and so we had an area of concrete put down to give us somewhere to park cars and boats, and put up outbuildings.  The process of getting the concrete laid is a story for another day, of which all that I will tell you now is that you should never leave a builder alone and unsupervised on your property with a mechanical digger.  The concrete itself was fine, and he managed to lay it with a slight slope so that all of it drains, and scored the surface so that it is non-slip.  The plan was that the greenhouse would stand in one corner of the concrete.

The greenhouse is made of wood, which is bolted down to purpose-made concrete footings like giant kerb stones, supplied by the same firm that sold me the greenhouse.  The man who put it up did a good job, and well into its second decade it has stood through many gales without shifting.  Not a single pane of glass has shattered in all that time.  However, the rain water that falls on the concrete, or runs on to it from the next door field, drains over the continuous concrete raft on which the greenhouse stands.  It does not stop when it gets to the greenhouse, but just carries on under the base slabs supporting the sides, and through the greenhouse.  This means that in weather like this, when you would like to keep the atmosphere inside dry and buoyant, to prevent fungal diseases attacking your plants, the inside of the greenhouse is as damp and dismal as a 1960s bus station.  The overwintering pelargoniums are suffering from mildew, and all is not as it should be.  The answer would have been to put the greenhouse on its own separate piece of concrete, with a drain around it, so that water could not run in, but I didn't think of that at the time, and nobody told me.

The Systems Administrator retrieved the weather data from the old laptop.  With a couple of days to go until the end of the year it looks as though we've had 820 millimetres of rain, which would be about sixty per cent more than normal.  The total is slightly suspect, since the weather station threw a wobbly in July and the SA had to borrow the total for that month from the Epping Weather Site.  The Clacton coastal strip is generally drier than Epping, so we should probably shave something off their July figure of 132 millimetres.  However, with four days of the year to go, Epping has already recorded 944.9 millimetres of rain for 2012, so our 820 millimetres doesn't sound too wildly implausible.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

a country walk

I woke rather late this morning, and realised I was missing the start of the Toast on-line sale.  In general I'm not a great fan of Sales.  I did have a look at the John Lewis offering, since the edges of my bath towel have frayed so badly that strands of fabric hang loose, and I thought I might be able to get a nice soft fluffy Egyptian cotton replacement.  When I investigated towels I discovered that most colours of Egyptian cotton were only available in face flannel size, and gave up in disgust.  Toast are very organised with their sale, and sent me a paper flyer before Christmas listing what would be included, so I already knew which two jackets I wanted to buy, if they were available in my size.  They are the same jackets I have been admiring since September while being too mean and too poor to pay full price for them.  Happily, when I got downstairs and logged on I discovered that the Sale did not start until 9.00 am, so I had only missed the first twenty-five minutes of it.  That seemed deeply civilised.  I heard on Radio 4 about all those people who had spent Christmas Day night camping out ready to storm the shops when the doors opened on Boxing Day morning, and I really couldn't see the attraction.  They had both jackets in my size, so waiting for the sale paid off this time.  They have upgraded their website since the early days.  I recall one infuriating sale when every page took minutes to load, and nothing I wanted was available in any size between 8 and 18.

It rained all morning.  Absolutely poured.  By lunchtime it had stopped, and become calm, the sort of slightly ominous calm you get when you are in the very centre of a low pressure weather system.  We finally went for our Christmas walk.  Setting out up the lane and then looping across the fields we felt the breeze on our right cheeks, telling us the wind had swung round to the north.  It was a cold wind that made my eyes water as I walked.

The route took us through one of the local ancient woods, in private ownership, but actively coppiced.  Fallen trunks of birch and sweet chestnut lay on a south-west, north-east axis, with strong vertical regrowth arising at intervals along their length.  From the direction in which they were thrown, and the size of the new growth, we guessed they were relicts of the 1987 storm.  Professional woodland managers I've met with the woodland charity now admit that they were far too quick to tidy up after the Great Storm.  It made everyone feel better at the time, to think that they were restoring and making good the damage wrought by the wind, but they underestimated the power of recovery of wind-thrown broadleaf trees.  The trunk topples, but half the root plate remains in contact with the soil, and in time the fallen bole will root where it touches.  A row of three or four birch grow up, where there was one before.  We saw the same thing happen with odd branches that had splayed out from the hazel coppice.

The brooks and field ditches were as full as the Systems Administrator had ever seen them, and it was strange walking through the north Essex countryside to the sound of babbling water, a noise I associate with Lake District walks in the Fells.  We passed the farm where often a little dog rushes out of the cat flap, woofs once enthusiastically at the SA, and then rushes in again, but today he didn't come out to greet us.  It began to rain, a solid drizzle that settled on my spectacles.  My nose began to run from the cold as well.

Crossing over the main road we picked up Cockaynes Lane, which runs down to Cockaynes Wood.  Oliver Rackham writes that if you reach a wood by going down Wood Lane, there is a high probability that there has been a wood there for a long time, and I think the same is true if the name of the wood is incorporated into the road name.  At any rate, Cockaynes is an Ancient Wood, with a fine display of bluebells in spring.  It is next to some large disused gravel workings, recently converted to a nature reserve, with the wood and gravel pits now held by a Trust, and managed with some input from the Essex Wildlife Trust.  A large bank that could be a mediaeval wood bank runs through Cockaynes, but overall the wood is not very large, and I wonder whether it was bigger, and mostly lost to quarrying.  We didn't see much bird life in the reserve, beyond a pair of swans and two moorhens, but I suppose the ecology will take time to build up.

The brook along the bottom of the wood was in spate, by Essex standards, though not covering the path, and I saw what I thought was opposite leaved golden saxifrage along the banks.  That's not very rare nationally, but rare enough in Essex to be interesting.  The Trust has been busy renewing the boardwalks through the wetter parts of the wood, using that reconstituted non-slip plastic imitation wood, which does look pretty convincing, and is presumably lower maintenance than timber.  I was puzzled by the black stones in the bottom of a tributary carving its way down the hillside towards the brook, since we have nothing like them in our own garden, and took one with me, intending to quiz those of my friends and relatives who know anything about geology as to what it was, and why it was abundant in Cockaynes and absent from my garden only a couple of miles away.

There was a BT van in Cockaynes Lane, engine idling.  The SA walked that way one time, and met a disconsolate BT engineer who had just realised that he'd left his bag with his mobile phone in it at the top of the extremely tall communications mast.  There was another BT van the far side of Cockaynes, when we got back to the main road, this time with three engineers wandering about and peering into the bushes as if they had lost something.  We began to suspect there must be a telephone fault in the area, and further on passed a third, and a fourth at the Alresford railway crossing, where we all waited for some time for two trains to pass.  The driver kept his engine idling throughout.  Alresford is faced with the expansion of the existing quarry, and there are posters protesting about the plans in quite a few windows.  The church, at some distance apart from the village, is a ruin since burning down in the 1970s.  A pity, since the nave was Norman.  The war memorial, a Celtic cross, is tidily kept, with wreaths of poppies still left from last Remembrance Day.  One of the surnames is the same name as the farm shop in the village, and I wondered whether it was the same family.

Passing from farm to farm, you get a picture of which farmers are signed up to countryside stewardship schemes and which aren't.  You walk for a time between generous field margins and headlands left to grow rough grass, then suddenly hit a change of regime, with the plough coming to within a metre of the hedge line, and every last little corner ploughed, no matter how small and how tight the turns for the machinery.

Crossing one of the final fields before reaching the network of footpaths on the farm where we live, the path took us across the centre of the field.  Notices at both entrances ask walkers to keep to the path, rather than use the margins, which are managed for wildlife.  The trodden track across the lower half of the field was clearly visible in the crop, but almost none of the winter wheat or whatever it was had germinated in the upper part of the field.  Water ran visibly over the surface of the soil, and had started to dig a small gully along the line of the path.  The Tenpenny Brook at the bottom had swelled beyond its banks, so that the alder trees along the southern shore stood marooned in the fast flowing stream.

The rain did stop, about half way round.  The loop is almost exactly six miles long, and I felt rather stiff by the end of it, a disturbing reminder that I am not so fit as I should be, after the idle days of rain and Christmas  festivities.  You can extend the walk by dropping right down to the banks of the Colne, which is pretty, but ambitious for an afternoon walk at this time of the year, when the days are so short, and we are full of sloth and turkey.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

returning to normality

So that's over for another year.  The presents wrapped and unwrapped, the gargantuan lunch cooked and eaten, the Boxing Day National Hunt races run.  It's not quite over, of course.  The tree, greenery and lights up the stairs are still up and looking bright and sparkly, and the candles are burning on the white and red cloths on the dining table and on the mantelpiece.  It will take several days to eat up all the leftovers, and most of the year to read all the books.  We had a nice Christmas.  I solved the dilemma of How Not to Ruin a Turkey by not having a turkey, and by letting somebody else do the cooking.  Contrary to newspaper reports of how the typical family Christmas Day goes, lunch was ready within ten minutes of when the Systems Administrator said it would be, and there were no arguments.  All the cats had Sheba for lunch, and the chickens had an extra handful of sultanas.

This morning I did some work in the garden.  As I went to fetch my tools from the garage I noticed the first few flowers out on the Iris unguicularis under the sitting room window.  The garden is very, very wet.  We had another twelve millimetres of rain in the space of two hours yesterday morning.  I spent my time trimming the ivy hedge around the long bed in the front garden, and cutting down herbaceous stems.  The sand in the front garden has its drawbacks, mainly its complete inability to retain moisture in dry periods and almost zero natural fertility, but you can walk on it with impunity an hour after the heaviest rain.  The forecast was for rain in the afternoon, and sure enough it is raining now.

The long bed is infested at its northerly end by some sort of grass with a running root.  It is not so rank as twitch, but impossible to weed every scrap out where it runs into the root zones of shrubs or the ivy hedge, or disappears deep beneath the ground like a crash-diving submarine.  I winkled out what I could, but will need to go around in the spring treating the new emerging leaves with glyphosate.  In a properly conducted garden I suppose that such things would never gain a foothold, but in the real imperfect world they do.  I don't see how you can ever keep the soil really clean of perennial weeds long term in a mixed border.

Snouts of bulb foliage are emerging all over the place.  There are tulips in the gravel and daffodils down by the bog bed.  The grape hyacinths try to come into leaf from autumn onwards, though I don't know why they bother, as something always eats the leaves.  If I were to go and poke through the leaf litter in the ditch bed I'm sure I'd find snowdrop leaves.  It makes weeding slightly more laborious, having to avoid slicing off the newly emerging tops of the bulbs, and the task of weeding seems all the more urgent, to be finished as soon as possible before plants make any more growth.

The pile of woody prunings up the bonfire site has grown vast, ominous and dripping.  It needs a dry day for the SA to go up and have a burn.  There are more prunings to come up from the back lawns, left over from my last gardening stint before rain and pre-Christmas housework took over.  The vine round the vegetable patch needs pruning as a matter of urgency, or the sap will have started to rise and it will bleed when cut.  Maybe next year I'll manage to grow vegetables.  I didn't even try this year, because there were so many other things to do.  Some people are surprised by the low priority I give to growing food, but you can buy perfectly acceptable vegetables in the shops, whereas you cannot buy an ornamental garden.  It's a pity that the forecast tomorrow is for more rain.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

merry Christmas one and all

I woke up this morning, and realised that it was Christmas Day.  I remember how exciting that felt as a child, knowing that the pillowcase at the end of the bed would be bulging with interesting packages.  I am not that excited nowadays, but it was a pleasant thought that it was Christmas.  It was warm in bed, and I lingered before I got up.  Newspaper websites have been stuffed full with articles about what to wear for Christmas day, and whether novelty jumpers can be worn ironically, or simply worn.  I detest novelty jumpers.  If you are spending Christmas at home where your pets will clamber on you, and planning to enter a kitchen at some point, then there is no point in wearing anything that will make you stressed about getting cat hair or cooking splashes on it.  I put on a pair of velvet trousers that started off several years ago as trousers to wear to other people's houses, and are now worn at home, but only when guests are present or for special occasions, and a newish t-shirt with a neck low enough that I can wear the necklace the Systems Administrator gave me for my birthday.  That's only possible at this time of the year because we have cranked the heating up for the holiday, otherwise the necklace would be buried under layers of sweaters.

The newspapers have also been full of articles by journalists saying that Christmas is really for children, as if people without them shouldn't give each other presents, or enjoy themselves.  Presumably these writers have children, and have fallen into the trap of believing that everyone else should be like them.  But our Christmas has evolved its own customs and traditions, which we follow and enjoy.  The fact that it isn't child centred doesn't create a void, it just makes it different.  After the SA had put up the greenery, I brought out the festive red tablecloth, which we always have on the table at Christmas, though after many years of use it is stained with drips of candle wax that don't come out in the wash.  On top of the red tablecloth goes the traditional white lace cloth.  Christmas cards that won't fit anywhere else, and those that have been evicted from the mantelpiece, go at the far end of the table, with the giant candle.  I discovered what was wrong with that, which was that a great wall of wax had built up round the outside as the centre burned down to the point where the flame began to run out of air, while the wick had fallen into the wet wax the last time it was used and entombed itself.  I trimmed the surplus edges, excavated the wick, and it will be fine.  I put fresh candles in the candelabra (it's pressed metal from Ikea, nothing grand) and rather wobbly hand-dipped by me beeswax candles in the iron candlesticks, ready for the next day.  It all looked very pretty.

Ten minutes later the big tabby knocked over the jug of alstroemerias, causing a flood that needed three towels to mop it up, and we had to eat our traditional Christmas Eve steak and chips off a damp tablecloth.  There was still a towel wedged underneath, so you had to be careful not to put your wineglass on the slope where it stopped.

Before supper we listened to a CD reissue of an album Frost and Fire by the Watersons.  It was first released in 1965, and my father had a copy on vinyl when I was growing up.  We listen to this every Christmas Eve without fail, though never during the rest of the year.  Other folk groups have attempted that kind of a capella harmony singing since the Watersons, and none have matched their wild brilliance.  Frost and Fire is an antidote to all the media wails about how Christianity has been squeezed out of the modern Christmas.  Sorry guys, but human beings have been celebrating the turning of the year during the depths of winter since long before Jesus of Nazareth came on the scene.  Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on Christmas.

After the Watersons we listened to Thea Gilmore's superb Strange Communion, which has become part of the Christmas tradition since I heard a song from it on the radio a few year's back and bought the album.  The lyrics of one track are a reading of an extract from Lous MacNeice's Autumn Journal, and by a strange coincidence in the same year that I bought the album I also suggested the book to my mother when she asked me what I'd like for Christmas, again on the back of hearing an extract from it on Radio 4.  Then I snuck in a highbrow Advent from Saint Paul's on the Hyperion label while the Systems Administrator was cooking the supper, and after supper the SA went completely off-message with the Second South Carolina String Band, which is not traditional.  The American Civil War doesn't have anything to do with Christmas, the SA just felt like listening to it.

The SA is now composing the timetable for cooking lunch.  We are having chicken, not turkey, since neither of us is especially keen on turkey, and a whole turkey is too large for two people even if they like turkey to start with.  The chicken is larger than the SA is used to cooking, and the SA has suspiciously checked the suggested cooking time on the packaging with the formula for chicken roasting times in the Aga book.  Part of the point of the timetable is so that the triumphant appearance of lunch is not spoiled by my demanding to know where the chestnut stuffing is, and the SA's shamed admission that it didn't get cooked.  I don't think this has actually happened, though there have been years when lunch has been delayed by the SA's horrified discovery of some key ingredient that didn't go in the oven when it should have.  There was a year when I bought red currant jelly by mistake, instead of cranberry, which upset me more than the SA, who can take cranberry sauce or leave it.  My contribution will be to peel the sprouts, which have made the spare room smell faintly of cabbage, and make the rum butter.  There was a year when I followed the book and added lemon juice and nutmeg, and it tasted disagreeably of lemons and nutmeg.  Nowadays I only use butter, sugar and rum.

Lunch will probably be on the late side, since the timetable always seems to slip, but that doesn't matter.  Afterwards we will not go for a walk.  My parents believed in a walk after lunch, and have tried dragging us out when staying here for Christmas.  Indeed I think I may have capitulated.  But really and truly, after a large and late lunch neither of us feels like walking, and the walks around the lettuce farm at this time of year consist of vistas of muddy fields.  If you walk far enough you can get to the local woods, and watch the leafless trees drip.  Better to sit in front of the fire.  We won't watch a film on Christmas Day, though we might tomorrow night with the traditional Boxing Day cheese fest, and we don't watch TV, so there will be no arguing over the remote control.  The SA will record Downton Abbey to watch tomorrow sans adverts, squeezed in among the Boxing Day racing coverage, though it is pretty tricky to avoid the plot giveaways in the Telegraph following each episode of Downton.  My money was on Matthew Crawley being killed in a Boxing Day shooting accident, if they have to write him out, but I am beginning to suspect that
Dan Stevens will do another series, and has just been spoofing his fans for the publicity, once the will-he won't-he with Lady Mary was sorted out.

The stollen was fine, by the way.  I have just eaten a piece for breakfast.  The dough didn't rise as much as my friend's bread dough, but I assume that was the effect of the butter and egg dragging it down.  It is very difficult to judge whether a stollen is cooked or not, when it is exuding melted marzipan from both ends, and it looked horribly unpromising when it came out of the oven, since the sultanas nearest the outside had broken free of the rather loose dough to stand proud like ticks on the cat, and then burned.  I picked them off, but couldn't dust the stollen with icing sugar because I discovered I didn't have any.  I used the last bit of it to shake on the bees, to encourage them to groom themselves and so remove varroa mites.

The Systems Administrator is now laying the fire in the sitting room, following which we will prep the vegetables.  Have a good Christmas yourself.

Monday, 24 December 2012

the day before Christmas

The Systems Administrator kicked off Christmas Eve by going to the dentist for a replacement temporary filling, since last week's filling proved so temporary that half of it disintegrated over the weekend.  The dentist said that the seal over the drilled out root was still intact, so the tooth shouldn't have got infected, but lunch will be delayed since the SA is not supposed to eat anything until at least two o'clock, to give whatever it is that they make temporary fillings out of time to set.  The SA's brother claims that their father once did an emergency repair on his own tooth with araldite.

I am attempting to bake a stollen, buoyed up by the experience of having made three successive batches of edible bread.  Stollen is a more elaborate affair, requiring a starter dough that ferments away for an hour before being added to the rest of the flour.  Once again in the absence of fresh yeast I had to guess how much dried yeast would do it, and have gone for half a teaspoon for the 160 grammes of flour in the recipe.  The initial ferment rose up, so I know the yeast is working.  Once the ferment is ready you add it to the rest of the ingredients, and knead for ten minutes, in the course of which you can feel the dough changing texture and become silkier under your hand.  The resulting dough is now sitting by the Aga and seems a bit slow to rise as much as I feel it should, but since I added the butter almost straight out of the fridge it probably started off cooler than it was meant to.  The book is alarmingly precise about all sorts of things, telling me that the milk in the ferment should be at 32 degrees, but I really can't cope with that.  Human beings have been making leavened bread for centuries without the aid of thermometers.  The milk came out of the fridge because that's where you keep milk.  The dough is by the Aga which is warm.  When it's ready, it's ready.  I did remember to put the fruit to soak in brandy yesterday.  One of the difficulties with making bread is all the things you discover you should have done hours ago.

The SA is waiting for the greenery to dry.  Every year the SA always decorates the mantelpiece with holly and ivy, and constructs a less traditional display of ivy and flashing white lights up the banisters.  This can only be done on Christmas Eve.  The SA's mother, who was from north Wales, firmly believed that it was bad luck to bring the greenery in any sooner (as it was bad luck to give a knife, which must always be paid for with a token penny), and the SA, an ultra-rationalist in most respects, equally insists that the mantelpiece must be done on Christmas Eve, no sooner.  The tree is exempt from this condition, it's just the stairs and the mantelpiece that have to wait.  It is going to be a rather green arrangement, since it was a terrible year for berries, and the birds have already eaten most of the few that there were.  The SA managed to find one spray of hips on a self-seeded climbing rose that lurks among the shrubby ivy at the edge of the wood, and some hips on the climbing rose 'Meg', though they are more brown than the usual pleasant coral pink.  We do have some pine cones saved from last year's tree, and raffia in three different colours, so I expect the SA will manage something.  We'll just have to tell ourselves that holly berries and rose hips are so 2011.

I need to investigate the giant glass candle holder and candle that were a wedding anniversary present a few years ago.  It lives in the spare bedroom, and only comes out at Christmas, since cats and glass objects don't make a good combination through the year.  Accidents don't happen that often, but every breakable bowl that I ever tried to keep on the dining table was eventually broken, even a wooden one.  I have a nasty feeling that the glass may be sooted up from last year, so I may end up scrubbing away at that while I listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which will keep me out from under the SA's feet while the SA decorates the mantelpiece.  The presents are still in the spare room for safe keeping, and won't go under the tree until Christmas morning, in case of cat-related disasters.  On the spare bed is a magnificently middle class arrangement of a cardboard box containing a sprout stalk from the farm shop, complete with leaves, a cut glass bowl full of oranges, put there because the fridge was full and the spare room is almost as cold as a fridge, and the December selection from Hotel Chocolat.

Back to the stollen now.  I'll let you know how I got on.  Have a nice Christmas

Sunday, 23 December 2012

preparations for a family lunch

It is not raining, and I could be outside.  The Systems Administrator is in the garden, finding out whether copious quantities of Easystart will persuade the lawn tractor to splutter into life, that has been parked on the top lawn with a trailer full of herbaceous prunings bound for the compost heap for rather too long, since the SA's tooth went into meltdown, and then it seemed as though the Mayans might have been right after all, only the end of the world was to come gradually by flooding rather than being instantaneous.

I am not in the garden, because my parents are coming to lunch, and there isn't time to do anything useful and get cleaned up again in the hour and twenty minutes before they arrive.  I don't mind that.  It's quite restful, once a year, to have an excuse not to charge about doing things all the time.

As they are my parents and I invited them, I volunteered to do the cooking.  Cooking for them and the Systems Administrator is not the easiest thing, since we all have our own personal preferences for things that we can't or won't eat.  The SA and I seem to find enough in common to enjoy a reasonably varied diet, and I eat quite a lot of the same food as my parents.  After all, they brought me up.  Put all four of us together and the central intersection in the Venn diagram of everybody's chosen foods is alarmingly small.

I often do chicken.  Chicken is safe and uncontentious and it goes with mushrooms and leeks and carrots and other vegetables that everybody likes.  It is also the only kind of meat I know how to roast.  The SA is normally in charge of roasts in our house, while I mainly do baking and boiled things.  But it is too close to Christmas to have chicken, since in two days time everybody will be having chicken again, or turkey.  So we can't have roast chicken, or my standby chicken stew with bacon and shallots vaguely based on a reading of the Penguin Cordon Bleu cookery book over three decades ago.

It's partly a clash over seasonings.  The SA and I both like garlic, curry spices and chilli, and eat accordingly, but my mother dislikes all of them.  My parents eat fish, including anchovies, which are a standard modern cookery book flavouring if you're not going down the garlic route, but the SA is allergic to fish.  I'd be quite happy to head towards Eastern Europe and cook with dried fruit, if I can't have garlic, but the SA isn't keen on fruit with meat, except for apple sauce with pork.  So many recipes in modern cookery books include spinach that you'd think the stuff was a food staple, but the SA is allergic to spinach, which rules out all sorts of Italian inspired feta parcels and suchlike.  The SA said helpfully that I could do my pork with the olives, but I'm afraid I did that last time.  Otherwise I seem to end up feeding them from a menu that rotates between seasoning with thyme, or a couple of sprigs of rosemary, or goulash.  Today is a rosemary and bay leaf day, a Diana Henry recipe for lamb which includes some chorizo and smoked paprika by way of a change.  In the book she includes garlic, but I had to leave that out.

Puddings are almost as tricky.  I don't want anything that needs last minute preparation, demanding to be eaten immediately, which means either something that can be cooked in advance and kept in the simmer oven without spoiling, or a cold pudding.  It's tempting just to go for fruit crumble, which has the great merit that it will sit happily keeping warm for a long time, and still be worth eating at the end of it.  I love home made fruit crumble, but I don't want to overdo it.  My mother loves chocolate but will eat fruit, my father loves fruit and is indifferent to chocolate, the SA is indifferent to pudding.  Modern trendy books, like Diana Henry's, seem to include an awful lot of puddings where the instruction is to Eat Immediately or Rest for ten minutes before serving.  Even if I could time cooking the pudding so precisely that I knew when it was going to be ready to Eat Immediately, I couldn't tell you how long my family are going to take to finish their main course and be ready for pudding.  My old fashioned and completely un-trendy copy of the Good Housekeepers Cookery Book has a section on Cold Puddings, which sounds unromantic but is very sensible of it.  Most of them are made with large amounts of cream, which my father is not supposed to eat because of his high cholesterol, or raw eggs.  Raw eggs are a no-no for anyone whose had cancer treatment, and probably not a brilliant idea for anyone in their seventies or eighties, given that age depresses the immune system even in people who are otherwise thoroughly healthy.

I settled for a choice between lemon syllabub (more or less pure cream, but hell, it's Christmas, and at least it contains some vitamin C), mince pies, and a bowl of tangerines and clementines as a healthy eating option, so sorry Mum, no chocolate.  I'm sure there'll be plenty of that to eat over Christmas anyway.  I haven't finished the syllabub yet, since when I read the recipe more carefully I was supposed to soak the grated peel in the lemon juice for two to three hours.  Two hours puts me on course for final assembly 11.30, which is tight, but do-able.  I have washed the Moroccan tea glasses in readiness.

The SA is doing the last minute vacuum.  We are going to have to fix the flap on the bottom of the dust box.  The central heating has been churning away since half past nine, the fire is burning, and three balls have descended in the Galilean thermometer.  My parents know to wear warm clothes, when they come to our house.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

the big shop

This morning's post produced another small flurry of Christmas cards.  I was pleased to find one from an old school friend with whom I have just, miraculously, stayed in touch for over thirty years while she clawed her way up to a partnership in a City law firm, and produced three children, the oldest now at university.  I don't know at what age City partners are expected to make way for the next up-and-coming generation of solicitors, but I reckon that if we can keep it up for another decade she'll be retired and with the children all launched into the world, and we might finally have time to go out to lunch or to some museums.  I fancy Carlyle's house.  Still haven't been there yet, so what's another ten years?

We also received the sort of utterly pointless card that gives the ritual sending of cards a bad name.  It was not strictly speaking for us, although the envelope had the name of our house on it and the postman put it through our letterbox, since it was addressed to the couple we bought the house from.  They moved out nineteen years ago, and she has been dead for two years.  For many years I used to take post round for them which arrived here, which they seemed to appreciate since as he pointed out, their friends were getting on and sometimes got a bit muddled.  After about a dozen years or so of redirecting mail I began to feel that anyone who still hadn't twigged that they'd moved couldn't be a very close friend.  But who on earth wants a card addressed to him and his dead wife at a house he left nearly two decades ago?

The Systems Administrator produced a little clutch of cards from a coat pocket, left there since the office reunion on Thursday night.  I exclaimed that Eileen had sent us a Christmas card, and we hadn't given her one, but the SA said matter of factly that Eileen always sent a card.  I have never, ever written a card for Eileen and George, and the SA never sends cards at all, so she must be resigned by now to the one-sided exchange to keep doing it.

I went to Waitrose to do the last stage of the Christmas shop.  Actually, I spent virtually the entire morning in Waitrose.  I began to work out that it was going to be busy when I had to hover in the car park just to get a space.  Fortunately because it was Waitrose all the other customers were very polite about holding back and letting whoever was waiting for the space have first dibs at it.  There were no trolleys by the store entrance and I had to go and retrieve one from the car park.

Waitrose was bedlam.  There were already queues stretching back literally half way up the aisles.  I only went in there for a gammon joint and some nuts, since their gammons and nibbles are better than Tesco, but once I'd looked at the size of the queue I decided I was buying everything on the list.  I certainly wasn't going to wait in that queue so that afterwards I could go and wait again in a Tesco queue.  Finding everything on the list took a long time, partly because I don't know where most things in Waitrose are, and partly because the aisles were blocked by the queues for the tills.

The basics were starting to run out.  Staff were replenishing shelves of brandy sauce and other festive fare as quickly as they could, but there was almost no tinned cat food left, and only one packet of firelighters.  They were the unwrapped sort that make your fingers smell when you lay the fire, and they were right at the back of a top shelf where I had to ask a member of staff to reach them for me, because I couldn't.  I waited until somebody tall came by, and he could only just touch them

I thought I was going to be defeated by the fresh orange juice, which I wanted to mix with cava on Christmas morning.  We always have orange juice and fizz then, while opening the presents.  The fruit juice section was close to the checkouts and jam-packed with queuing trolleys, and I had to ask the woman to move whose trolley was blocking the orange juice and who was too busy telling someone on her mobile phone how bad the queue was to think of getting out of the way, as I reached over her mountain of shopping trying to pick up bottles of OJ with my fingertips.  The bottles at the front of the shelf were all best before 23 December, and I cursed inwardly, thinking that I was not going through these queues again just to buy orange juice.  I searched the bottles at the back of the shelf, which Waitrose do not want me to do because they want to sell the shortest dated ones first, and managed to find two that were good until Christmas day.

The only example of bad behaviour was in the cheese section, where two small boys were playing with the packets of cheese on the bottom shelf as if they were toy bricks.  I stared at them in distaste and some disbelief, thinking that they couldn't be out by themselves at that age and that someone ought to be in charge of them.  A woman standing nearby didn't look as though they were anything to do with her.  I caught the eye of a man standing just down the aisle, my expression conveying my opinion that children were revolting, playing like that with food that other people were going to buy, and they turned out to be his.  Having previously watched unconcerned as his offspring trashed the cheese section he finally told them to move out of the way.  Sir, my taxes go towards paying child benefit and child tax credits and god knows what other entitlements towards the costs of raising the next generation.  The least you can do is keep them under control in public, particularly where food's involved.

I think we have enough.  Well, I'm sure that we have more than enough.  We have sufficient food to keep us going for a fortnight.  The question is more whether we have all the right food, or whether some vital part of the ritual meal will be found to be lacking at the eleventh hour.  I don't think it will be, but if it is we will jolly well have to improvise and start a new tradition, because I am not going back into a supermarket between now and December 27.

Friday, 21 December 2012

countdown to Christmas

It wasn't raining today, so I could theoretically have been out in the garden, but the ground would have been sodden, and I had cleaning to do.  I am rather dismayed at the way that the end of the house I started with is getting dirty again, even before I've got to the other end.  The cats have been treading bits of leaf on to my clean kitchen floor, and the Systems Administrator has left tea stains on to the worktop by the kettle, where I scrubbed the last lot off with bicarbonate of soda.  At the current rate of progress I can see the cleaning stretching into a third day, though the SA has promised to help with the vacuuming tomorrow.

Today the SA has escaped the domestic upheaval by going to London again for another lunch, this time the annual old lags' lunch.  It is an annual event.  I asked where they were meeting, as I drove the SA to the railway station, but that was a redundant question, because they are meeting in the George and Vulture.  They always meet in the George and Vulture.  Everybody at the lunch once worked with somebody else, and nobody worked with everybody.  Some of them are still working, which is partly why the lunch is traditionally held so close to Christmas, after the corporate entertainment season has finished.  The rest of the year they remain united by a shared love of cricket.

I took advantage of the SA's absence to wrap my Christmas presents on the kitchen table, instead of kneeling on the bedroom floor.  Carpets and sticky tape don't really go together.  We have a friend whose parcels are always marvels of precision, and I can never work out how she gets them so neat, with the same amount of paper folded over at each end, and no wrinkles in her cellotape.  Most of the things I have to wrap up are books, which ought to be straightforward, since they are both rectangular and solid, but mine tend to come out slightly wonky, even using the table.  The hopelessly lumpy and irregular presents are almost easier to wrap, since I just swathe them in gold tissue paper.

We are past the point of no return for Christmas cards, as the last posting date was yesterday, even first class.  I took the last minute decision to add a few names to our list, on the basis that if we've eaten a meal in their house in the past year we are probably now on Christmas card terms, and today's post brought a card from one of them to us.  Phew.  Got that one right.  I sent one last week to somebody I don't know terribly well, but who is waiting to go into hospital for surgery, offering help afterwards if needed.  Newspaper articles about offers of assistance to friends and acquaintances in a tight spot always say Be specific, don't just say to let you know if there's anything you can do, so I offered help with shopping or some home cooking.  It is hard to know what to say, since you don't want to be intrusive, but they rang this morning, sounding genuinely touched.  I was chatting about the usefulness versus wastefulness of Christmas cards with a colleague on Monday, and she was pleased to have received a card from someone she had lost touch with and not seen for years.  Even in the days of theoretical constant communication via Facebook, to have an annual ritual excuse to make contact with people can be useful.

I almost forgot that the world was due to end.  My theory about the Mayan calender is that they must have got to the bottom of the piece of stone it was written on and run out of space, like Thurber's famous dog with really short legs, that came out that way because it started off as a doodle on a notepad, and he got  to the bottom of the page without enough room for them.


Thursday, 20 December 2012

trying to be a domestic goddess

It poured with rain today, but that didn't matter in as far as my plan was to spend the day cleaning the house. I gave up with formal New Year's resolutions a long time ago, but I generally survey my life around this time of the year, and one of the conclusions I came to was that maybe it would be nice to live in a slightly cleaner and tidier house.  Not that I particularly like cleaning and tidying, but I like the results.  I also decided that it would be nice to have flowers more often, instead of just occasionally buying jugs, and bought a modest bunch of five alstroemeria stems while I was in Tesco on the first round of the Christmas shop.  The alstroemeria would look better with a few stems of greenery, but it was raining too much to go out and pick any.

Buying flowers was the simple bit.  Cleaning took rather longer.  In fact, hostilities will resume in the morning, since I'm only two thirds of the way round the kitchen and half way across the sitting room.  I have vacuumed unbelievable quantities of cat fur out of the rugs, off the walls, and from the gaps under the doors.  Vacuuming the pouffes I was reminded of the washer woman in Three Men and a Boat who said that she ought to have charged extra to wash their clothes, as they were so dirty it was not laundry, more in the nature of an excavation.  Every five minutes the red light showed on the vacuum cleaner, indicating that it was blocked up, and I had to remove the filter and pull out wads of fur.  The filter lives in a removable plastic box with a hinged bottom that opens, and as well as tipping fur out of the box you have to unscrew a cone shaped section and peel the fur off that.  Getting the whole thing back into the machine is made more difficult by the fact that the plastic hinge on the bottom has broken, so that the end drops off when you try to put the plastic box back in.

There is damp coming through the end wall of the downstairs sitting room.  The Systems Administrator has insisted for a long time that there is nowhere for damp to come in, which doesn't explain why in that case the plaster has bubbled up.  Now the plaster has lifted some more with all the rain, and feels damp when you touch it.  We definitely have a leak.  It doesn't normally show badly, because there is a chair in front of it, but I moved that to vacuum in the corner.

I have successfully defrosted the fridge, which meant I could remove the piece of a red string bag that oranges came in, that had frozen to the back of the fridge.  It seemed a good idea to do this before we filled it with Christmas food.

Meanwhile, the cats were so disturbed by all the cleaning, or the incessant rain, that one of them scent sprayed copiously over the curtain that hangs in front of the front door.  None of them have ever, ever done that before.  I don't know which it was, but suspect Our Ginger, since he was running about looking hyper at the time, whereas the others were lying down in postures suggesting they hadn't moved for a while.  I had to dunk the curtain in a bucket of soapy water to clean it, then more buckets to rinse it, and now it has a fan heater playing on it to dry it, otherwise it will stay wet for days, and probably go mouldy.  I fear the wretched thing may be shrinking.  Probably I was not supposed to wash it as it is made out of furnishing fabric, but it is a double door and the curtain is absolutely vast, and I was not going to set off with a gigantic cat pee stained curtain in search of a dry cleaner.  I don't think the chap in the Tesco branch of Timpson with whom I left a velvet scarf earlier today would be willing to accept it.

The Systems Administrator has escaped the cleaning blitz by going to London for the day to lunch with old workmates.  Prospective numbers were depleted at the last count by one case of Norovirus, one bad cold, and one wife with a badly cricked neck who needs looking after, but I expect they've had a nice time.

Of course, if the world ends tomorrow it will have been rather a waste to spend my last full day on earth cleaning.  Still, as Major Wimsey told his men, according to the Oxford porter who'd served under him, if you've got to meet your Maker, for gawd's sake do it with a clean chin.

Addendum  Flicking down the Daily Telegraph's homepage I was startled to see a photograph of a building I thought I recognised as my old convent school.  I left when I was ten, and don't recall ever going back since, and I couldn't have told you what it looked like, but as soon as I saw the picture of what was described as an unusual home for sale, I thought that it had to be Palace Gate in Exeter.  Sticking that into Google got me straight to the right page of Devon Life.  The chapel where I attended Catholic services, though baptised into the Church of England and rapidly lapsing into agnosticism at best, is now an extremely stylish sitting room.  I liked the convent school, and even went through a brief phase of piety.  We wore white cotton gloves in summer, had elocution lessons, and even now if I hear Where the Bee Sucks or Full Fathom Five, it takes me back to Sister Saint Patrick's class.  It turns out the school closed in 1996.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

four small exhibitions

Today, to celebrate the fact that I'm on holiday, I went up to London to catch some exhibitions.  Several things I've been meaning to see finish soon after Christmas, and I thought I might as well not leave it until the last minute, or the weather had turned snowy again.

First off was a small free display at Tate Britain, Family matters: the family in British art.  I read an enthusiastic review of this when it was showing in Norwich, and never got round to going to see it there, but gathered that it was due to move on to the Tate in winter of 2012-13.  It was not a large exhibition, just one room's worth, and if I had gone all the way to Norwich specially I might have felt rather short-changed, but it's worth catching as part of a day out if you are in the area.  Central London in this context is a likelier area for most of us to be in than Norwich.  It is on until 24 February, if you want to go and tut-tut at the profligacy of the Victorian Pulleyne family, forced out of their ancestral home by gambling debts, and the modern day parents and small children sitting eating chips on a bench next to an overflowing litter bin.

Tate Britain made a handy jumping off point for the Garden Museum, who are showing their nascent art collection in a show called Collecting cultures - from cabbages to kings.  This only runs until 6 January, and the entire museum shuts over Christmas until 8 January.  On this basis I'm not clear how the art exhibition can be said to run until 6 January.  I should say you had tomorrow and Friday to look at it.  Since 2008 the museum has been buying garden related paintings, drawings and etchings, and these are now on display, before reappearing in a planned new permanent gallery in four years' time.  I'm interested in garden art anyway, and the clincher was seeing that they'd laid their hands on an Anthony Gross etching of kite flying in Battersea Park.  I first encountered Gross in an exhibition in Eastbourne of original artworks commissioned by Lyons Corner House.  He had a lively, whimsical style, redolent of 1930s graphic art, and I was enchanted.  He is so much out of fashion that I have never managed to track down a book about him, though I suspect that even out of fashion his etchings would be outside my price bracket.

I love the garden museum, with its gently, slightly chaotic ambience and vagueness about dates.  When I looked up the finishing date of the art exhibition last week it wasn't even on their website at that point, and I had to e-mail them and ask them.  There were almost as many volunteers staffing the front desk as there were visitors looking at the pictures.  I had a very nice piece of chocolate and cherry cake for £2.50, infinitely nicer than the cake I had the last time I went to Fortnum and Mason's tea room, at approximately one third of the price.

From Lambeth Palace it's a short walk up Whitehall to the National Portrait Gallery, to learn about the oldest son of James I of England and VI of Scotland, who would have been king of England if he hadn't unfortunately died when he was eighteen, in The Lost Prince - the life and death of Henry Stuart.  The paintings in this span an interesting period, Tudor stiffness giving way to greater naturalism and animation in some of the later works.  Poor Henry was clever, handsome, cultivated, athletic, beloved, and being groomed as the perfect model of chivalrous kingship.  Instead we got his sickly younger brother, Charles I, whose performance as king can't have been improved by the fact that he was constantly compared to his elder brother by everybody, including himself.  If I'd planned things better I'd have stopped in Whitehall to visit Inigo Jones' Banqueting House, from whose central window Charles stepped out on to the scaffold in 1649.  Another time.  You've only got until 13 January to see The Lost Prince.

From the National Portrait Gallery is is only another short walk to Somerset House, where The Courtauld Gallery is showing Peter Lely - a lyrical vision, also until 13 January.  Lely's nymphs and musician frolic in delightful pastoral landscapes, showing a great deal of luscious flesh amidst implausible draperies.  When I was a teenager I fell for Lely's cavaliers and ladies, with their bright, knowing expressions, their lace and their amazing shiny satin, and now that I am middle aged I still have a soft spot for him.  This show is great fun, and afterwards I went and stared for a long time at my favourite Braque fauvist rendition of the waterside at Antwerp.  The Courtauld only has it on loan from a private collection, and I am afraid that one day I will go, and it will have gone.  Somerset House has created a temporary ice rink in the courtyard, as they do every year, and people were skating round in circles in the drizzle.  I think that sort of thing works better on the Continent, where it is reliably colder.  I avoid ice skating myself, since I shouldn't enjoy the skating bit, and breaking my wrists, arms or fingers would be a calamity.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012


I celebrated the fact that I'm on holiday with a trip to the dump, then for good measure cleaned the chickens' roosting board.  Trade at the dump was pretty quiet, and almost nobody there had brought garden refuse, confirming my suspicion that by the week before Christmas very few people are thinking about their gardens, let alone doing any gardening.

After lunch I did get out into the garden.  If I haven't mentioned the garden recently, it's because one way and another I haven't managed to get much gardening done.  Today the ground was wet, but I managed to work my way round the edges of the rose bank, pruning the roses and honeysuckle where they've grown out over the lawn, and cutting the grass where it had grown long and straggling up into the roses, sheltered by the thicket from the lawnmower.  Cutting the grass is a slow process, as I have to rake each section through with my hands in a virtual fingertip search, to make sure there are no toads hiding in there.  A robin watched me sharp eyed as I progressed, and the piles of snail's eggs I uncovered won't last long.

Meanwhile, the Systems Administrator went back to the dentist for the next stage of root canal treatment.  The good news is that the pain the SA experienced all last week is normal, not the signs of infection or anything untoward beyond the final screams of the nerve dying back.  That tooth is taking longer to die than a Puccini heroine.  The bad news is that after the dentist spent a final session drilling, the SA can expect another five days or so of pain, though he did say cheerfully that the SA should be fine to eat lunch by Christmas day.  After three quarters of an hour in the dentist's chair the SA said it felt like being punched in the face, and that's before the packing of novocaine wears off.  The final appointment for a permanent filling is booked for the second week in January, and in the meantime the SA has been told not to eat toffee, or anything sticky.  I think it is worth the unpleasantness, though, since with any luck the tooth will be good for another two or three decades after this.  I still have an incisor that died for no discernible reason back in the mid 1980s.  It went blue over time, and I eventually had it veneered for cosmetic reasons, but it is still firmly attached to my jaw.

Last night the SA's laptop came back from the menders.  It failed due to a problem with the motherboard, which the firm were able to fix, so the SA can retrieve the data from it.  It is amazing how much information one accumulates on a laptop nowadays.  Ours includes all the weather records since early 2011, the code number for the part to mend the kitchen tap which we got from the kitchen company the last time it went wrong but can't keep asking them, and the SA's tax records for the past umpteen years.  Vows have been taken about regular downloads to a back-up disc in future.  They haven't yet been followed through, so far as I know, but the toothache intervened.  The computer repair company said that they were very busy, with a lot of people getting their machines repaired at the moment.  I presume that's a combination of people trying to make them last longer in the recession, and people like us realising quite how much stuff they now have on their laptops.  Your machine is almost as finely and individually tuned to you as your gut bacteria, and if it goes down permanently before you've transferred to the new one you lose all your bookmarks, apart from anything else.

The SA has promised to mend the tap, as soon as the tooth has stopped screaming.  It is dripping at an interval of slightly less than once a second, and getting worse.  In the good old days you bought a washer, but with mixer taps you have a thing called a cartridge.  There are lots of different sorts, of course, so without the part number you're sunk.  In the meantime the drip is wasteful, but too regular to work as water torture.

Monday, 17 December 2012

don't shoot the messenger

The owner was not happy this morning.  She was not happy because she had discovered that a couple of potential customers had refused to buy a reconstituted stone bird bath yesterday, because it was chipped.  She was unhappy because we had missed out on a sale, and because an expensive stock item was damaged.  She made her unhappiness loudly and volubly clear.

Her principal unhappiness was directed at me.  I did not serve the couple yesterday.  I did not damage the bird bath.  I hadn't even touched it.  According to the label it weighs 36 kilogrammes.  I don't attempt to lift anything weighing 36 kilogrammes.  As far as I'm concerned, bird baths arrive from the manufacturer and stay exactly where my colleagues put them, until they are sold, when somebody else lifts them into a customer's car or our van.

However, I had unwisely entered the arena of the chipped bird bath, because I had added a supplementary memo to the rather Delphic note left by the member of staff who did serve the bird bath couple and who was not going to be at work today, explaining why it was that they would not buy the one on display and were asking instead whether we could get another in before Christmas, and what it would cost to have it delivered directly to their house.  The owner had written on my note in angry, spiky handwriting that the bird bath ought not to have been chipped, highlighted with pink highlighting pen for extra effect.  She demanded to know who had chipped the bird bath, scolded us about the evils of damaging the reconstituted stone ornaments, and lamented the narrowness of the margin she made selling them at the best of times.  Then she told me that she had to go out, that the stone company would ring me, and that I must ring the potential customer telling them delivery terms on a new bird bath, and offering a reduction on the one in stock.

We all went out to the plant centre and the manager disappeared, probably to have a nervous breakdown in the polytunnel on the other side of the car park.  I spent some time waiting for him to come and tell me what to do, before it dawned on me that he was not going to, so I went and picked up leaves and pruned off mouldy twigs in the heated tunnel.  The stone company rang pretty early, and I relayed the news to the customer, delivery to their house £60 including VAT, and they would have to place the order today to be sure of receiving it by Christmas.  The customer said she would need to make one phone call, presumably to her husband who was the one to spot the chip yesterday.  She didn't call back, so I guess they don't want the chipped bird bath, or to pay £60 to have an unchipped one delivered.

I contemplated leaving a note for the owner at the end of the day, explaining where we had got to with bird baths, and decided against it.  Trying to keep your employer informed only leads to trouble.

And now I don't have to think about it at all for three weeks, because I am on holiday.  The owner was looking for people to drop days over Christmas, to cut staff costs, and issued an ultimatum to the manager that she wanted a maximum of two, and preferably one person in each day over the Christmas period.  I really dislike working a full day in the plant centre on my own.  Even if there are only three customers, sod's law dictates they will all arrive at the same time and while the phone is ringing.  I could see that I was going to have to agree to lose at least some days, and decided that on that basis I'd rather have a proper break.  Accordingly I volunteered to take all four of my working days over Christmas and the New Year off, and watched as the manager crossed my name through on the rota.

That's three solid weeks with no chipped bird baths.  No customers who have driven from North Norfolk especially to collect a shrub which I can't find, and whose existence is not recorded anywhere on our system, but which the customer insists we rang to say was ready.  No aggressive pushy people demanding  I replace the tree which died because their gardener strimmed through the bark.  No power cuts so that the till and credit card machines stop working just as a customer with two hundred pounds worth of stuff in their trolley approaches.  No worrying about why the tunnel heater won't come on.  No till errors to account for.

It will feel like a holiday so long as I don't have to go in at all.  Even a single day at work would ruin the beautiful  off-duty feeling that for three weeks none of it was my problem.  I do feel sorry for my colleague who has been persuaded to work on New Year's Eve, by herself, after the manager booked it as holiday and the third person who would have been in then asked for the time off to go partying.  However, she should just have said she couldn't do it.  The owners could cover, or shut for an extra day.  Still, it's not my business, and not my problem.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

of birds, labels and beekeepers

The gamekeeper at work has suffered a sad loss.  He forgot to shut his chicken house last night, and the fox killed all but one of his hens.  It seems ironic that a gamekeeper, of all people, should lose his poultry in such a way, but it's easy enough to forget to close a pop hole, after a hard day at work.  Christmas and the New Year is a busy season for keepers.  They were shooting on the estate yesterday, and will be again next weekend, and on Boxing Day.  The gamekeeper spoke regretfully of his hens, and how they all had personalities, and would come up to the front door or hop into the back of his daughter's car when she left the tailgate open to load it.  Admittedly she didn't find this last habit entirely endearing, since she sells pies and cakes at farmers' markets, and didn't really want poultry walking about among her stock, but still, the gamekeeper liked his chickens.  Just because your day job involves raising pheasants and then organising for them to be shot doesn't mean that you can't get genuinely fond of birds, in another context.

Taking a trolley of clean and tidy pots of herbaceous plants over to spend the rest of the winter under cover in the polytunnel on The Other Side, I could see something fluttering on the ground in front of the tunnel door.  As I got closer I saw it was two robins, fighting intently and completely silently.  They rolled about in a feathery ball, not squawking or making any cry, pecking at each other's breasts.  From a human perspective the whole contest looked ineffectual and faintly ridiculous, like Rudyard Kipling's account of two butterflies arguing, but from the robins' point of view I suppose it was a deadly combat.  They are belligerent little birds, and it is odd of us to choose them as our favourites to adorn Christmas cards and ornaments.  When I got very close the pair stopped fighting, briefly, and flew half way along the front of the tunnel, then set to again.

The boss was around briefly, issuing indistinct instructions about the price of the elephant trays over a crackly radio link, so I seized the moment to remind him cheerfully that we still needed prices for a few of the Italian topiary plants that were sitting outside the back of the shop.  It turned out that he had just done the labels, which were hanging from the printer, and that the thing I described to him over the radio as a double pompom box thingummy was more properly called a two ball box upright.  At least with that one we were both talking about the same plant.  The Ilex crenata standards defeated me utterly, when I came to try and put labels on the unlabelled ones, and I ended up hiding them all out of sight for the manager to sort out tomorrow.  The new labels included four for I. crenata standards at ninety-something pounds each, and I only had three unlabelled plants, but I did also have two larger ones that were already labelled, but priced at fifty-something pounds, less than the small ones.  I couldn't just swap the labels round because then I'd only have two of the fifty-something pound labels for three plants, and I had six labels for five plants, while one small plant and two large ones appeared to be missing.

A couple bought a standard bay tree, and I warned them to protect the trunk if we got really cold weather, since that was the most vulnerable part of the plant.  For good measure I told them how they could use bay leaves to flavour egg custard, for a very old fashioned taste that went well with cooked fruit.

I came home via a beekeeping co-signatory's house, so that we could sign cheques.  Lots of cheques.  One for a whole year's worth of mailing out the monthly magazine to members.  The person who kindly does that doesn't put her bill in until the end of the year, looking on it as her holiday savings.  Given she would get nothing in the way of interest from her bank it's not a totally daft method of enforced regular saving, as long as she trusts the beekeepers not to go bust.  We owe someone else for candle moulds and sundry printing costs, and the rent on the room for our last meeting, which is payable in arrears, as well as deposits for the next three meetings, which will be held in our preferred hall now that the wretched Zumba class next door has ceased, at least for now.  The bookings forms for next year's meetings were sent out for January, February and April for some reason, with no March.  I would have thought we did want a meeting in March.

Chasing up various U3A group organisers who might be willing to publicise the music society's concerts will have to wait.  I can only cope with one club at a time, after a day at work.