Tuesday, 12 February 2013

driven indoors

The time is just before five in the afternoon.  We've had the stove in the study lit since mid morning, and the temperature is up to twenty degrees Celsius.  In the sitting room it is twelve and a half degrees, and outside it is 1.2 C.

I told myself this morning that although it was not very inviting outside, still it was not actually raining, freezing or blowing a gale, and that I should get on with the gardening.  I went to the local garden centre and bought six bags of bag-your-own mushroom compost.  They'd recently had a fresh load delivered, and when I asked in the shop which pile of soil improver was the mushroom compost they laughed and said Follow your nose.  It was wetter than the last batch I bought from them, and reluctant to shake down through the bottomless 30L pot you are supposed to use as a measure down into my brought-my-own bags.

Then I found a spot in the back garden to plant out a potted camellia that keeps blowing over in its pot, and never looks so healthy as the ones growing in the ground.  I've been dithering over where to put it, and am not entirely sure that my decision made today in the teeth of the icy blast was the best one, but the job of planting it out before it died had risen to the top of my list of things to do.  Thinking about how you could prune something even as you plant it isn't the most encouraging sign that you are doing the right thing, but at least I made a decision.

Then I gave up.  It was simply too cold.  I felt chilled all over, and each time my breath blew up over my glasses they fogged up and blinded me.  As the Systems Administrator said, it is February and I have to accept that there are times in the winter when I simply can't garden.  The SA is reluctant to go outside more than necessary following the final spell of dental work, which still hurts in cold air from where the needles went in.

We had pancakes for lunch, since it is pancake day, the newspaper websites have all been full of articles about how to cook them, we both like them, and we have the equivalent of about a year's supply of WWII egg rations in the fridge.  The ladies started laying again almost as soon as it went past the longest night, and after a temporary blip are laying again.  I found six eggs in the nest box this morning.  The Telegraph told us that it was Shrove Tuesday, but not to panic, which betrayed a rather low opinion of its readers' culinary abilities or nerves.  Anyone who panics at the prospect of making some pancakes needs to get out more, or perhaps seek professional help for their anxiety disorder.  The SA's standard batter is from my vintage 1970s edition of the Good Housekeepers cookery book, and is the same one as used for Yorkshire puddings.  We take it in turns to cook our own pancakes, and eat them with lemon and sugar.  I like the sound of Nigel Slater's caramelised onion and cheese (without the spinach) but nothing beats lemon and sugar.

I am now halfway through Jerry Brotton's book on maps, A history of the world in twelve maps.  I like maps best when they tell you something about the world view and politics of the time, like the Spanish and Portuguese in the sixteenth century each clinging to their own, equally inaccurate, versions of where the Cape Verde islands were, after they'd signed a treaty that defined their overseas territories with reference to the islands.  I know that I ought to be interested in the mathematics of Mercator's projection, but can feel my mind wriggling in its chair like a bored child as I try to tell it about spiral loxodromes.  It is a good book, though, and mercifully free of that extrapolating the universe from a fairy bun tendency that you sometimes find with those Histories of X in Y books.

Before the maps, and after the history of Prussia, I romped my way through Jane Ridley's Bertie: a life of Edward VII in the course of a few evenings.  That is not to decry her biography of the last monarch to give his name to an era ('the new Elizabethans' never really caught on).  She is a professional historian, and her account of Edward the Caresser is based on solid research, while being thoroughly readable (not always the case).  Victoria and Albert come across as an appalling couple, not a bit like Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend in The Young Victoria, and Daisy Brooke was not so sweet as the publicity for the gardens at her old home Easton Lodge would suggest.  I was gripped throughout.  As well as the soap opera personalities and affairs you do get a thorough account of the changing nature of the relationship between politicians and the monarchy, the unfolding events in Europe leading up to the Great War, and other solid educational topics.

History is of course much easier to read when you are already familiar with the broad shape of the period or events being discussed.  That's probably one reason why twentieth century history is more popular than Medieval, and UK history more than European, let alone further flung places than Europe.  Battling your way through a history of Prussia when you don't know what the Holy Roman Emperor is, where he came from, or quite what Electors are, how the Holy Roman Empire relates to the individual German states or where the Habsburgs fit in, what Lutheranism entails and why people felt so strongly about it, and so on and so on, is quite hard, compared to Victorian and Edwardian England where the state boundaries and institutions are already broadly the same as they are today.  It is tempting to conclude, as the writers of school history syllabuses apparently have, that twentieth century UK history is therefore more relevant to UK children than other sorts, Medieval, say, or European, or Middle Eastern, or Indian.  Tempting, but misleading.

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