Saturday, 31 December 2016

looking ahead

As my thoughts drifted ahead to 2017, and by way of amusing myself because it was too cold and damp to think about going outside (or rather I was still too busy getting over the flu for the degree of cold and damp that there was), I spent the afternoon thinking about where we might go on next year's holiday.  Now choosing a place is a difficult matter, it isn't just one of your holiday games. Going anywhere is a major undertaking, with the cats to be fed, the hens to be shut in and let out, the thousand and one things in pots to be watered, and the bees poised to swarm between April and August.  And since packing in the City careers early, a week in Dorset is a more realistic prospect than three weeks in Latin America.  In fact, a week somewhere in the UK each year is as much as we run to nowadays.

So choosing where and when to spend the week is a big decision, and doing the research is part of the fun.  We want somewhere with enough gardens, industrial museums, ruins, art galleries, steam engines and architecture to keep us busy for a week without too much driving about.  And a holiday let sleeping two with dedicated parking.  And preferably some scenery.  That leaves most of the UK as a potential destination, since our island is positively bulging with heritage and scenery, though as we discovered last year holiday lets can be thin on the ground in parts of southern England where house prices have gone particularly bonkers.

My method, honed by years of practice, is to pick on an area where I feel there should be plenty to do, and list everything I can find on a spreadsheet, grouped around a nominal centre.  It left me thoroughly confused the year we went to Dorset when I had categorised the attractions according to their location relative to Dorchester and we didn't stay in Dorchester but outside Blandford Forum, so all my carefully noted approximate distances and directions were wrong.  Only when I am sure I have found enough gardens and museums and notable views to provide at least a week's worth of entertainment do I pitch the idea to the Systems Administrator, so that the SA cannot declare that there would not be enough to do and take against the area.  It took me a couple of years to reintroduce the concept of Dorset, after mentioning it without sufficient preparation causing the Systems Administrator to recoil from the prospect of driving for hours at a stretch  along tiny roads as we progressed from one distant garden to the next.

Once we have an agreement in principle then if we manage to find a cottage (which we never did in Sussex) I refine the spreadsheet, adding details of which days of the week things are open and their opening times, and then it becomes a juggling act to visit all the nearby attractions on the same day and in the right order so that you don't pitch up first at the one that doesn't open until eleven.  We have got pretty good at it.

At this stage I'm still working from the road atlas, the 2016 National Trust guide, the 2017 Art Fund Guide, and Google.  Google Maps are good for finding where places are when you absolutely can't spot Little Sniddly but useless for journey planning because the main roads are too indistinct by the time you've zoomed any distance out.  Understanding main roads is imperative, since a separation of thirty miles can be a quick half hour along a dual carriageway, or a grinding hour and a quarter down a minor A road studded with villages all campaigning unsuccessfully for a bypass.

Our road atlas is quite old, which doesn't matter greatly from the point of view of where places are, given the modest pace of road building in Britain, but does bring home the pace of change when it comes to tourist attractions.  I don't know what a hopeful sounding railway was doing to get itself a symbol on the 2004 Great Britain A to Z road atlas, but it certainly isn't open to the public now.  Actually, I hadn't realised the atlas was quite that old.  Maybe I should get a new one.

I'm not impressed by the number of tourist websites which tell so little about the place they are supposed to represent that it is easier and quicker to look on Wikipedia.  The National Trust, I'm afraid, is a repeat offender.  The pages for each individual property manage to include remarkably little information, and for hard facts about when it was built, in what style, if it is still there or burned down some time in the 1920s, whether there is a park and so on you get loads more on Wikipedia.  I don't count the Trust's exhortations to visit the Courtyard Cafe or ideas for activities to amuse the kids.  One thing the English countryside is not short of nowadays is cafes, and we aren't proposing to take any kids on holiday.  The visitBath website is unhelpful along the same lines.  Top ten Must Dos (ranging from visit the Roman baths to eat in an independent restaurant), top ten Must Sees (including visiting Stonehenge).  Bath is a UNESCO world heritage site (though its future is under review following some block-headed redevelopment) and a straightforward list of the main buildings, streets and museums would be a good starting point.

Little preserved railway websites that tell you all about the Santa Special but don't seem to include a map anywhere so that you can see how much actual track there is are another thing.  Generally the answer is that the track is rather short, otherwise they would make more of a feature of it, but there's also an element of enthusiasts so bound up in their interest that they haven't managed to take a step back and think what they need to tell other people about it, who currently know absolutely nothing.  Fortunately for an overview there's Wikipedia again.

Friday, 30 December 2016


I am beginning to feel the first twinges of boredom.  I'm sure that has to be a good sign.  Boredom, or the inchoate desire to be doing something different to what you are doing, is supposed to be a stimulus to creativity in children.  More to the point, it implies desire.  One of the signs of being properly poorly is having no desire to do anything, or nothing beyond lying down in a dark quiet room, or staring out of the window.

There wasn't much to stare at today, because the fog never lifted.  I could see as far as the irregular outlines of the trees at the bottom of the garden, which looked quite atmospheric and mysterious in an Atkinson Grimshaw sort of way, but that was it.  I certainly couldn't see as far as the wind turbine, not that I especially wanted to see it.  The effect of Gothic suspense was slightly undermined by the fact that noise carries very well in damp air and so the sounds of the farm and whichever main road happened to be downwind of us today were clearly audible, but the Systems Administrator reported after going out to collect some firewood that the mist was swirling through the trees in the wood in a very atmospheric fashion.

The poor old postman called mid morning, and I sympathised about the fog, and he said that it was getting worse and scrunched off into the murk.  It was getting worse, definitely a day to spend convalescing with some Christmas books.  I have now very diligently read about the gardens of London, and the history of the park, and using self seeding plants, and they were all very good, but I can't keep up the pace all weekend.

Our Ginger was not going out, not in this weather, and spent the morning lying in the kitchen wearing his bitchy resting face.  Mr Fidget insisted on walking out to the middle of the frozen pond after breakfast, until I smashed the ice, which was a rerun of what he insisted on doing yesterday. I'd like to think that he had an instinctive understanding about the dangers of thin ice, but I have my doubts.  Mr Fluffy spent most of the day sleeping in a box, while Mr Cool sat on the bird table for the second day running.  He waited very patiently for a long time, but no birds came, and he had to eat some of the bird food as a consolation prize.

The Systems Administrator watched the first hour of the two hour DVD on modern freight trains that I gave him for Christmas.  Various of my friends had asked me what I was getting the SA for Christmas, and most seemed unconvinced by the merits of Big Freight, but just because their husbands wouldn't want it doesn't mean the SA didn't.  The SA said it was very good, only two solid hours of freight would be a bit much in one sitting.  The trouble with having bought it is that I am now on Videoscene's mailing list, and set to be hearing about the latest thing in rail DVDs weekly for the rest of the year.

Thursday, 29 December 2016


I switched on Radio 4 when I woke up, and discovered that Debbie Reynolds had died.  Or at least, people were saying nice things about her in the past tense, which came to the same thing.  That was very poignant.  At least she was old enough to have qualified for her pension and her free bus pass for some time, if she had been one of us and not Hollywood royalty, but it was still sad.  And I really liked Singin' in the Rain.

It was another beautiful day, with bright wintry sunshine, though the frost never quite burned off the grass.  Yesterday was lovely too, once the fog lifted which took some time, while on Christmas Day it was so warm in the sunshine that the bees were out in force foraging on the mahonia by the oil tank.  I decided that it was sunny and still enough and I was strong enough to risk walking to the post box.  That was the first time I'd ventured off the premises since Tuesday of last week.  I told the Systems Administrator where I was going, asking the SA to come and look for me if I hadn't returned inside half an hour, in case my legs had given up and I was sitting on the verge crying. Just to be on the safe side I wore my walking coat that I actually could have sat on a verge in without spoiling it, but my legs held up quite nicely, and I felt an almost smug glow that a tiny bit of fresh air and exercise might have done me good.

As we sat in the study before lunch, the SA with a headache and me feeling that that was enough exercise for one day, we heard a dim barking sound.  Muntjac?  It was an odd sort of time for them to be making a noise and the SA suggested that perhaps it was a dog.  I looked out into the front garden, to see both of the neighbours' Airedales pushing up against the chicken run, and the anxious faces of the chickens in the window of the hen house as they attempted to take shelter.  Feeling deeply exasperated, because it was not the first time the dogs had been into the garden annoying our animals, I advanced on them, telling them in the brightest and most encouraging voice I could manage to come on doggies, we were going home now.  I don't like the Airedales, but yelling at them wasn't going to do any good.

I took what seemed to be the ringleader's collar and we set off down the lane, the other Airedale following along behind us.  They seemed quite friendly, and I kept up the affable good-doggies patter while thinking that I did not feel especially comfortable with my exposed wrist on the collar of a large dog I barely knew and whose owners were nowhere in sight.  I love the company of my friends' dogs, but I only meet those dogs when they are under the supervision of people I trust.  I don't at all like having to try and control large dogs who are roaming about the countryside at random.

Two thirds of the way down the lane my captive slipped his collar, which was a stupid elasticated one, presumably in case he should wander off and strangle himself.  Fortunately both dogs followed me to the neighbour's house.  I rapped on their door.  Nobody appeared, but the ringleader of the Airedales began to bark.  Great, now he was going to think I was trying to break into his house.  I knocked again, but there was no reply.  I hung the useless collar on the door knob and set off home, both dogs happily coming with me.  I hoped the SA would have had the wit to get Our Ginger safely into the house before  we all arrived.

Then I saw the neighbours walking across their field, one holding a lead.  Wretched people not to know where their dogs were.  I veered across the field to meet them, and told them that I had just found both Airedales poking around my hen run and taken them home, but that one had slipped its collar and they would find the collar by their front door.  The male neighbour said he was sorry.  It was not the first time, I said.  While we were on holiday one of the dogs had come into our house, according to the people looking after the house who had been watching television and looked round to find a big brown dog looking at them.  The male neighbour said again that he was sorry and that they did try to control the dogs.  And they knew the dogs had chased our kittens and the old cat in our garden, I continued, because they had heard me screaming.  Our ginger cat was twelve and too old to be mobbed by dogs on his own doorstep.  If you had a dog you were supposed to be in control of it when it was outside, not let it roam around the neighbouring gardens.

The female neighbour tried to object, saying that I knew how long I had lived next door to their dog.  That made me really cross, probably crosser than the circumstances warranted, but I was not in the mood to cope with Airedales, and besides, when you are in the wrong (as they were about their roaming dogs) the graceful thing to do is apologise, not start trying to justify it.  It is true that in my time I have unleashed the odd swarm of bees on the neighbourhood, and let he or she who is without sin cast the first stone, but I was feeling tired, ill and incredibly pissed off. Announcing that I had had flu, had had no Christmas at all, and that I really could not cope with Airedales and would they please keep them away from us, I stomped off.

It is a pity.  It is better to get on with your neighbours than not, and especially in the countryside when you don't have many.  But I fairly loathe those Airedales, and it isn't as though the neighbours popped round after the time they heard me screaming at their dog to check that no damage had been done.  The Systems Administrator had just refilled the chickens' water when I got back, which they had kicked over in the panic, so if we had been out all day and the dogs had been left by their clueless owners to go on scaring the hens until they got bored and went home of their own accord, then the hens would have been left without anything to drink until we got home.  The Airedales are lucky they don't live in sheep country, or somebody would have shot them by now.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

the reluctant invalid

The Systems Administrator had rallied enough by the middle of yesterday to go and buy fresh supplies of milk, firelighters, biscuits and cat food.  I sat in front of the wood burning stove, and saw in the Guardian that Carrie Fisher had died.  I have tried to remain positive towards 2016 in the face of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the general death-of-the-stars tide of doom that has been dragging down the prevailing mood, or at least the mood among my friends who on the whole do not seem in favour of Brexit or Trump or the sad early demise of Alan Rickman and David Bowie and Victoria Wood.  But it is beginning to feel like hard work.

Fortunately I do not have anything in my diary until 17 January, and that's an AGM which while I ought to attend it if I can, I am not on the committee and it won't cost me anything if I can't. Otherwise, no concert tickets, no exhibition slots booked, no arrangements to meet anybody.  This is partly by design because as I was feeling under the weather in December I held off making any more arrangements on the basis that when you're in a hole, stop digging.  It is also down to sheer good luck that the things we wanted to see at the Mercury theatre and the Arts Centre weren't on until February.

I had hoped to get to Dulwich before the current exhibition of a Dutch Golden Age landscape painter ends on 15 January, but once I didn't manage to go before Christmas I had a dark suspicion I might not make it at all.  At least I don't have to decide whether come next week I am fit to drag myself into the Plant Centre.  Or the City.  It could be much worse.  As it is all I have to do is sit in front of the stove and try not to think about the garden.  I haven't done any work in the garden since 7 December.

The NHS website is infuriatingly vague about the recovery time for flu, saying that most people feel much better within a week but full recovery can take significantly longer.  Well, I do feel much better than I did in the middle of last week, I don't have a temperature and a screaming headache, but how long is significantly long?  A week?  Two weeks?  Longer than until 15 January, which in practice means 13 January because we have no trains at weekends?

The SA always tells me that he can tell I am starting to get better when I begin to grumble.  It is when I am really meek and quiet that he worries.  On that basis I am starting to get better.  But ye gods, this is such a waste of time.  Look at Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood.  Who can say how much of that we all have left?

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

on the feast of Stephen

It took me decades to discover that St Stephen's Day and Boxing Day were the same day.  The Feast of Stephen had to be some time in winter, because the snow lay deep and crisp and even when good King Wenceslas looked out, and it was presumably sometime around late December as his story had got appended to the mass of English carols, but it was only when we got a copy of Thea Gilmore's Strange Communion, a Christmas album like no other, that I learned the two days were the same and one, from the track The St Stephen's Day Murders, a rousing ditty about turning on your appalling relatives and slaughtering them all, and featuring a vocal contribution by Mark Ratcliffe sounding as though he had been gargling with gravel.

I switched on Radio 4 when I woke up and it was playing pop music.  That's always a bad sign, but since I didn't recognise the song I had to wait until it finished to find out who was dead.  Poor George Michael.  I was not a Wham! fan, but he was good at what he did.  And he was younger than me.  The Systems Administrator was surprised as the day went on that his death got quite so much coverage, having not thought that George Michael was that big, but he was.  It was just that our tastes ran more to rock and indie.  If you were to play me Wham!'s greatest hits I'm sure they would make me quite nostalgic for the pubs and parties of yesteryear, while I still wouldn't have been able to name a single song or tell you it was by Wham!.  They were part of the background noise of my youth.

In the middle of the morning we rallied ourselves, and the Systems Administrator cut some more logs while I cooked the chicken with just plain mashed potato and carrots and sprouts.  There were no trimmings, partly because I couldn't be bothered and wasn't that hungry, and partly to make it clear that it was not pretend delayed Christmas lunch.  I thought some hot food and plain digestible proten might be good for us.

By late afternoon we were fading badly, and I distracted myself by looking through Presto Classical's top 100 albums of 2016, imagining which of them I might buy while they had thirty per cent off.  2016 appears to have been a good year for Brahms recordings, which is fine.  I like Brahms.  Occasionally I looked things up on Google.  Sonata form denotes a piece of music in three sections, exposition, development, and recapitulation, in which two themes or subjects are explored according to set key relationships.  Rubato is the temporary disregard of tempo to allow for expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace.  That will be what Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill do playing Irish reels, and why it is so annoying when people try to clap along with them.  Rutabaga is the American name for a Swede.  I had to get to that answer backwards, since Wikipedia told me that rutabaga was the Engish swede or turnip, and since turnips or swedes are two different vegetables that didn't help, so I Googled swede and confirmed that Americans call it rutabaga.

By eight we we both exhausted and went to our separate rooms, where I slept badly and had to get up at half past four to let Our Ginger in because he was howling outside the door.  He was not a cooperative visitor and spent quite a long time clawing at my scalp and trying to lie on my head or work his way under the duvet.  When I woke properly it was ten past eight.  I switched on Radio 4 and it was a discussion about dementia.  Good old BBC, there to cheer you up when you need them. I thought I had better get up to feed the cats and let the hens out of their house, and then realised I could not see Our Ginger.  I looked under the bedclothes and under the bed, and began to wonder if I had imagined letting a large ginger cat into the room in the small hours, and then the SA stuck his head round the door, looking like Death would look if he were wearing navy blue trousers and a pullover from Marks and Spencer, and said he had done the chickens and the cats and broken the ice on the pond and might go back to bed now, and it was he who had let Our Ginger out, when he looked in twenty minutes earlier and I was asleep.

Monday, 26 December 2016

on Christmas Day

We shared a tin of tomato soup for Christmas lunch., with a slice of toast made from white sliced bread (medium thickness) and followed by one little orange each.  It was a good impulse of the Systems Administrator's to grab the white sliced loaf in the trolley dash around Waitrose on Friday. Then the SA went back to bed, leaving me to listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols which I missed on Christmas Eve.  It did not sound as good on my gardening radio as it would have through the big stereo speakers in the sitting room, but we hadn't heated the sitting room up and I couldn't face working out how to get Radio 3 on the telly.

By late afternoon I'd made it through the day's Difficult Sudoku in average time, which was an improvement on my efforts first thing when it took me four attempts to get to the end of the Mild one without making a mistake.  The SA reappeared saying that his headache was a lot quieter after another couple of hours' sleep, and we rallied enough to eat some more of the emergency shortbread and open our presents.  Then we ate what had originally meant to be Friday night's pizza and watched Hail Caesar, and at nine the SA went back to bed.

I loved Hail Caesar, and am puzzled by the mixed reviews and even more puzzled by the slightly ho-hum response of the wider public.  It is a Coen brothers skit on the tail end of the Hollywood studio system during the 1950s, a films within a film comedy caper about a day in the life of a Hollywood fixer based on a real person.  And yes, it sanitises the studio system and the behaviour of the real person.  I know that in real life the studios would use tactics ranging from the coercive to the downright criminal to control the public image of their stars, but we all know that in real life Hitler wasn't very nice.  That doesn't mean Mel Brookes was wrong to make The Producers.  Hail Caesar is a satire, not a biopic.

In the film part of it George Clooney plays an amiable, slightly aging star whose private life doesn't exactly match up to the studio image.  He is starring in an incredibly clunky picture about the life of Christ, and remains dressed throughout in a monumentally unflattering Roman centurion's costume complete with sword which he has no idea how to wear without crashing into things.  I adore George Clooney when he is doing comedy with the Coens.  He is kidnapped from the set, and much of the rest of the film part of the film deals with the fixer's attempts to get him back.

Every one of the films within a film is a gem.  Besides the Roman epic there is a synchronised swimming film (the snag being that the star has just announced that she is pregnant. She is twice divorced, not currently married, and this is 1950s Hollywood), tap dancing sailors, and a screen adaptation of a Broadway drawing room piece with an English director and a freshly cast male lead whose reputation to date has been built on cowboy films (the studio is changing his image).  We see a scene from every one being shot, and they are all quite wickedly funny and packed with so much detail it would probably be worth watching several times (if only one had the time).  Look out for one of the synchronised swimmers quickly flipping over because she is showing the red side of her costume when everybody else is yellow (or vice versa.  I loved Screen Test when I was a child, but I was very bad at it).  The vague sense that there is a gay subtext to the singing and tap dancing sailors becomes a honking certainty as the routine goes on, while reminding me how much I adored Gene Kelly.  The most trailed vignette of the entire film must be the English director's attempts to coach the cowboy actor in the lines 'Would that it were so simple', but the scene of that film within a film's director viewing the first cut outdoes it for comedic brilliance.

Back in the film, communists appear.  I suppose it would be a plot spoiler to say who they are, though once you have heard their rationale you realise you should have worked that out.  And there is an acting dog.  Called Engels, which is a clue.

I absolutely loved it.  Not just for the satire, or the brilliant cast (which sadly is no guarantee of greatness, as the painful disappointment of the Dads' Army film demonstrated), but because it is such a good natured film.  Some reviewers have referred to the character of the cowboy actor as stupid, but as the film progresses he actually comes out as quite smart, honest, unpretentious and brave.  His acting in a drawing room drama is clunky (to brilliant comedic effect) because he has never done it before in his life before being thrust on to the set (the reveal of how the director gets round 'Would that it were so simple' is brilliant).

I loved it so much, I might even buy it, then I can watch it on my laptop if I need cheering up.  Last night the Systems Administrator had downloaded it, but I don't think that lasts forever.  It is full of film references, so if you were more of a film buff than I am you would get even more out of it, but like all good parodies it works even if you don't know the original.

The SA professed to be delighted by his Christmas copy of Battleship Potemkin, but we are saving that until we feel a trifle stronger.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

the lost days of Christmas

So here I am, back in the land of the living, as in showered, fully dressed including earrings, and having eaten food that looked like normal breakfast at breakfast time.  It is 10.22 am on Christmas Day.  The Systems Administrator is still in bed with a temperature.

On Tuesday when I last posted I did not feel awfully well, hot and cold and shivery and snuffly, and as I went to bed that night I felt the beginnings of a headache.  By Wednesday morning the headache was firmly in place, maybe a 3 or 4 on a scale of one to ten (though I have never felt very accurate about putting pain on scales.  Is it a logarithmic scale or a linear one?  Somebody should write a short description of symptoms for each grade of headache, like the Beaufort scale.) I had promised to drive the Systems Administrator to the railway station for the first of two back-to-back reunion lunches, and so I did.  Then I wrapped up the SA's presents with the SA safely off the premises, and fiddled around in the kitchen for a bit, but gave up.  We had beans on toast for supper since the SA was full of reunion lunch and I wasn't terribly hungry.

In the night I felt hot and ill, and announced when morning came that I had a temperature and was staying in bed.  The Systems Administrator peered at me with furrowed brow and asked if I was fit to be left, and I grumpily testified that I was.  Well, it's important to go to these sorts of things when you can, or you slip out of touch with people, and whatever bug I had was developing with such a slow onset that I didn't feel I was about to lapse into delirium in the next few hours.  I did not have the energy to root around in the bathroom cupboards looking for the thermometer, but working on the basis that there are four levels of human temperature which are normal, hot, scarily hot, and no longer making sense, I was only in the hot zone.  I mean, I could get myself to the bathroom to use the loo or get a glass of water without my legs feeling weak.  I felt very tired, though, and the headache was screaming up into the eight territory.  In a situation like that there is little somebody else can do.  I didn't want anything to eat.  I didn't want to chat, and I certainly didn't want anybody dabbing at me with a wet flannel.  I didn't even want anybody coming into the room to ask if I wanted anything when I had just managed to go to sleep.

The SA went off the the jolly, having done something to the central heating controls so that the room would stay warm, and I lay in bed with the electric blanket on.  Sometimes I slept, and the rest of the time I shuffled about.  The radio was no use because it made a noise, and I couldn't read.  Through the floor I could hear the phone ring, and then ring again, so eventually I crept downstairs to see if had been two people or the same person ringing twice in which case it might be urgent, and check my emails.  I saw from the phone handset that the callers had been two different numbers, one of them my mother's, who had also emailed asking if I was All Right.  The answerphone was bleeping loudly to alert me to the fact that one of the callers had left a message, but when I pressed Play it just kept on beeping.  I emailed back to say that I was All Right but had the flu and please not to keep ringing because of the noise, then I unplugged the phone at the wall to stop the beeping and tottered back to bed.

I had to get up at noon to feed the cats, and again at teatime to give them their tea, and then at dusk to shut the hens, when I noticed with some irritation that their water had run out.  And I did not know whether the SA had a front door key, since the door had been unlocked when I came down to check the phone, so I sat grimly at the kitchen table until the SA returned, and unlocked the door with shaky fingers while the SA stood on the other side of the glass feeling around all his pockets for a key.  The SA asked how I was, and I said that I was Very Ill and was now going back to bed, and that the hens' water had run out.  The SA followed on to check quite how ill that might be, and we established that I was not sick and did not have a rash or chest pains, just a temperature and a screaming headache.  The SA had suddenly grown rather nervous about such things since that day's reunion lunch had mainly brought news of major health scares and cancer diagnoses for the spouses of practically everybody else at it.  The SA decamped to the spare room for the night to give us both some breathing space, leaving me with the better of the bargain since I got to keep the electric blanket, and I settled to a night of strange dreams and muffled Radio 3.

On Friday morning I stayed in bed, but remembered about the hens' water, while the Systems Administrator made an emergency dash to Waitrose to do the shopping I would have done if I hadn't been ill.  I rather doubted that we were going to need it, but I wasn't going to argue.  Apparently the SA was there at the head of the queue as the doors opened, and being swept into the store by the tidal wave of trolleys was like riding at the head of the peloton.  The SA did a swift, efficient grab of the basic elements of a Christmas lunch, plus the traditional Christmas Eve steaks and some already reduced Christmas shortbread because I'd warned I didn't think I'd be making any mince pies or stollen on Christmas Eve.  By the time the SA left the car park was full and the queue was stretching all the way down the inner bypass to the roundabout, and by the time the SA got home he was beginning to look a bit grey and fluey himself.  I never got up all day, though by late afternoon I felt well enough to eat one slice of bread and butter which the SA kindly brought up for me, looking fairly ill.  It's bad luck being ill when your other half is iller.  You get lumbered with the fetching and carrying when you'd rather sit down yourself.  The SA says he gave up and went to bed at eight on Friday night.

Saturday was Christmas Eve.  I should have been making stollen and the Systems Administrator would traditionally have been bringing in ivy to decorate the mantelpiece, which he does beautifully, except that by then the SA was in bed as well.  I tottered out to open the hen house, refilled their water which had run out again, and fed the cats, and went back to bed.  The headache was down to only a five or so,  I fed the cats at noon, and at two I tottered downstairs to give them their tea under the impression that it was four o'clock.  As soon as I got down to the kitchen I realised I'd misread the alarm clock in the darkness of the bedroom and without my spectacles, since although the evenings have started getting lighter they certainly hadn't got that much lighter, but then I thought that now I was up I might have something to eat, and made a slice of toast which went down so well that I had a second one, and a fruit flavoured yogurt and a small orange.  The headache had dropped to a three.

At teatime the SA appeared, feeling slightly less grim, and we opened the box of Waitrose Christmas shortbread and lit a fire, and discussed what to do with all the food, since we clearly weren't going to be up to cooking a full roast chicken with all the trimmings, or eating it, let alone coping with the tide of leftovers.  Some of them like the ham and bacon were so long dated they could be absorbed into normal supplies, and even the chicken was good until the 27th, so we agreed the best thing was to keep an eye on them and freeze anything that was about to date expire if we didn't want to cook it that day.  By evening my headache had gone, except that my head felt very fragile the way heads do when you have had a continuous headache for the best part of 72 hours. The SA's head was still pounding and he went to bed early.  I went to bed a bit later and lay there trying to work out if I could in any way identify with the five year old me who used to be so excited on Christmas Eve waiting to open my stocking, but I couldn't.

This morning the headache was creeping back, but I put that down to having subsisted on three slices of white bread, two glasses of milk, two glasses of apple and elderflower, two small bits of shortbread and a handful of peanuts over three days.  I found that I could contemplate the idea of putting water on my head and had a shower, which improved things greatly, and went downstairs and fed the cats and opened the hen house door.  There was no sign of movement from the spare bedroom.  At half past nine I looked in just to check that the SA was still alive and no more than hot on the human temperature scale.  The SA was alive but claimed to feel terrible, so I came back downstairs and listened to Harry Christopher and the Sixteen's Early English Christmas, and started this blog post.  A while later the SA appeared, dressed and not feeling quite so terrible after some more sleep.  The SA ate two shortbread biscuits and went for a shower.

And that has been our Christmas so far.  It isn't what I'd planned.  After all the effort, the finding the potted tree and researching presents on the internet, the making of lists and sending cards and planning how to cat-proof the decorations, it would have been nice to bring the tree into the house instead of it still being tucked away in the greenhouse.  And nice to hang up the fairy lights and my new die cut string of reproduction Victorian Christmas cats in the study, and listen to the Watersons on Christmas Eve in front of the fire like we do every year, and make stollen, and be looking forward to an enormous lunch of roast chicken with all the trimmings and traditional pudding made in the Lake District by barn owls.  And it would have been nice not to be ill.  Mainly it would have been nice not to be ill.  Up to last weekend I was reading Thomas Mann's fantastical novel about a Swiss sanatorium, and the young hero is taken to task when he sympathises too much with the feelings of the more seriously ill inmates.  It is an error, his interlocutor tells him, to imagine that they feel about their situation as you would feel now when you are not that ill.  And Thomas Mann was dead right.  While lying in bed feeling really, grottily ill you don't wish you were downstairs hanging coloured decorations on a small potted Nordmann fir.  You are much more bothered about your headache than the fact that you are missing Christmas.

Of course most of it will not be wasted, strictly speaking.  Most of the food will be eaten, though if the SA remembered to get any mushrooms to go with what should have been last night's steak they may be past it before either of us feel like mushrooms.  We will still have the presents people have bought for us, and in three months time we will like them exactly as much as we would have if we'd opened them by eleven this morning so that the SA could go and start cooking the lunch.  I sent our cards with our genuine goodwill, and those we received were read and appreciated and in some cases brought welcome news.  It will be a horticultural challenge to try and bring the potted tree through to Christmas 2017 in good shape and preferably larger, and I'd have done that anyway. It is just the occasion that's gone for this year, the ritual.  We agreed yesterday afternoon that the one thing we would definitely not be doing would be cooking the chicken and ham and all the trimmings two or three days after the event, and pretending that we were having Christmas late. No kidding.  We missed it and that's that.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

still got a cold

Men curse germs, but a germ thinks of a man only as a swamp in which he has to live.  Thank you, Don Marquis.  I am that swamp.

Monday, 19 December 2016

time for a rest

My cold is still hanging about.  In fact, it has started to relapse.  But at least I can now stop.  In the past week I have spent the morning at the hospital with my parents, met one friend for coffee, another for lunch in London, gone over to Cambridge with a third, been out to what might almost have been a dinner party in that there were three courses or four counting the cheese and we didn't know the other guests awfully well, except that it was billed as supper and was not stuffy enough to count as a dinner party, and had my parents to lunch.  That is a lot more than I would normally aim to do in a week, but that's just how the dates worked out.  The timing of hospital appointments you can't do anything about, and there's nothing like Christmas for making friends who have been too busy working or coping with their own parent's hospital appointments to see you decide they would like to squeeze the time to catch up into their diaries.  Which is sort of bonkers in that they are also frantically trying to fit in their Christmas shopping, but that's the way it goes.

Now there is nothing in my diary until some time in about the third week of January.  Literally nothing.  Zip.  Zilch.  The Systems Administrator is due to catch up with one lot of old work friends on Wednesday and a second on Thursday, but my life is a total blank.  That's mainly down to how the dates worked out given how my friends were placed, and my would-be work reunion ended up getting pushed back to January because somebody was away for most of December.  It is also by now deliberate, in that once I realised the cold was settling in I tried not to commit to any more plans.  So I can have a rest.  I am due to do the shop for our very low key Christmas lunch on Thursday, so that we don't have to go anywhere near a supermarket on Friday, and beyond that I am free to sit in front of the fire reading easy books and drinking a great deal of tea until I start feeling better.  It's a shame about the garden, but there you go.  The last compost bin will remain unpainted and the tulip bulbs in the garage unplanted until I don't have a sore throat.  The SA will cook the festive chicken with all the trimmings.  Beyond hanging some unbreakable decorations on this year's small potted tree I don't have to do anything.

It is such a relief.  I have addressed full boards of pension fund trustees feeling worse than this in the old days, and dragged myself out to do woodland charity talks, but I am so glad I don't have to. I feel for my lunch companion whose elderly parents live in Germany and who has got to get herself there for Christmas amid the threat of strikes and fog.  But I don't.  I need to post some things and I might buy some throat sweets while I'm out, but I don't have to go anywhere (except Waitrose), do anything, dress up, be amusing or impressive or anything.  Like Claudius, a bump on a log.  Bliss.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

house work, house plants and a propagation update

It is another foggy day.  I am going to go to Waitrose, and then cook tomorrow's lunch and tonight's supper and finish cleaning all the things I didn't get round to cleaning yesterday, or at least that subset of things that I'm going to clean at all.  I'm not sure it's worth washing the glass partition in the hall at this time of year.  You can only really see the difference when the sun shines through it. Anyway, by the time I've done all that I'll probably fancy a nice sit down with a Sudoku, and Waitrose doesn't open until half past ten.

The trouble with cleaning is not just the cleaning, it's the tidying up first.  Things would be different if we were tidy people, but neither of us are.  Tidying the kitchen took ages, what with clearing up the pile of old newspapers, catalogues, gallery guides from art exhibitions I'm not going to revisit, bank statements, charity appeals, my calculator, a plastic ruler, several pencils, various magazines, and assorted till receipts.  They all have to be sorted out carefully otherwise your credit card statement ends up in the paper recycling.  Then there was the wildlife camera next to the toaster (which I put on my desk where it doesn't count as mess because I haven't tidied my desk yet).  Even now there is a multipack of tins of cat food next to the kettle, which I can't put in the cupboard where the cat food is supposed to live because that is taken up by boxes of cat biscuits, which have to be kept in a cupboard because otherwise Mr Fluffy will chew through the box.  The kittens have not yet worked out how to open tins, but they did bite holes in a bag of no-mess bird food which is now in a tupperware container meaning it won't fit in the crock in the hall where it supposed to live, so has ended up on the kitchen worktop next to the ice cream machine.

As part of the great kitchen tidy I took stock of the experimental cuttings on the window sill.  One took and one didn't.  Impatiens auricoma x bicaudata rooted with ease.  This is the orange flowered impatiens that will grow a yard tall and across once it gets going, and was happy in semi shade at the back of the conservatory until vine weevils ate the roots.  The piece I experimentally stuck in compost was from fairly near the base of the plant and had two branches about as fat as my little finger, so broader than a pencil, and about eight inches long, plus a third, short, fatter stem.  It always used to drop its leaves for winter in the conservatory and had done so this year before the final collapse from vine weevil.  I used normal multi-purpose compost because that was what I had, and didn't put the cutting in a plastic bag because I was afraid the fleshy stems would rot and anyway it didn't have any leaves to lose moisture.

I thought it was beginning to root fairly early on, as I could see one wavering white thread through a drainage hole, and when I very carefully upended it over the sink (while the Systems Administrator was out) there were roots, just the two.  It is better really not to disturb your cuttings until they have had more of a chance to establish, but it was an experiment and I was curious.  New leaves began to grow at the same time, the kitchen of course being much warmer than the conservatory in winter.  The short third stem began to wither early on, and I wonder if it was supplying moisture to the rest of the plant.  Now I can see more roots through the holes in the bottom of the pot, and it has begun to throw out some rather weedy side shoots, so I think we can say it has taken.  The only potential problem is black dieback in the stem ends at the top, and I have just cut half an inch off one of them, sacrificing a shoot, to take it back to clean and undamaged tissue.  I haven't checked how the two smaller cuttings I left in the greenhouse are getting on, but the principle is established.  If you have an Impatiens auricoma x bicaudata you can propagate it from cutting without any fuss.  I am curious now to try my luck with another exotic balsam.  I think Dibley list one with pink flowers.

Against that, Fuchsia boliviana resolutely refused to root.  First one and then the other cutting died, leaves dropping one by one until the tip drooped and told me it was game over.  Upon exhumation neither had the least suspicion of roots.  Alas.  Perhaps Other Fellow Fuchsias will have more in the spring, and if I can track one down I will know to keep it almost pot bound to make over watering more difficult.

Looking on the bright side, my orchid is throwing up a new flowering spike and sending out two side shoots off the remains of the old one.  But the older leaves on the Mandevilla hybrid in the hall are yellowing and dropping.  The nursery woman I bought it from told me to keep it on the dry side over winter and not to move it into a larger pot until spring.  Perhaps the air in the hall is too dry for it.  The striped green, peppermint and bronze Tradescantia is very happy, sending out long new arms that are feeling their way hopefully up the bread crock with bird food in it and through the Mandevilla.  I am keeping that very dry indeed, after the losses of previous years.  It was rooted from a piece that I accidentally broke off the plant in the conservatory and took very easily.  It makes a good companion for the Mandevilla in that the leaves are a similar size and shape and the green centre of the Tradescantia leaf picks out the solid green of its neighbour.  Aphid has been a problem on everything except the orchid.  Yesterday I sprayed the Impatiens and stood it out in the porch to dry, luckily remembering to bring it in again in the evening, and now I see I need to do the same for the Tradescantia.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

a domestic day

The fog never lifted all day, and I was reminded why every year I think it would be lovely to go to the carol service in Long Melford's splendid wool church, and then don't buy tickets.  Really my friend and I were very lucky over our trip to Cambridge.  We certainly wouldn't have wanted to drive to Cambridge today.

Fortunately today neither of us had to go anywhere, and the fog didn't make any difference to my plans since the day was already earmarked for housework.  Things had got rather grubby and dishevelled while we both had colds, but I was not starting from a zero base of grubbiness because the Systems Administrator made a start on Wednesday while I was out.  I never gave public credit where credit was due at the time because I was so taken up with my outing, but I got home to find that the SA had vacuumed the house, including the bedroom where for days I'd been carefully walking around the little pile of earth that fell out of my gardening trousers so as not to tread it into the carpet.  I hate vacuuming.  And the SA had put out the paper for recycling and the rubbish, including the plastic off the cat food multipacks and magazine wrappers from the waste paper basket in the study and not just the kitchen bin.  And worked out correctly that it was best to empty the vegetable peelings bin into the plastic sack of old poultry litter waiting to be mixed into the next compost bin as I filled it, and not just sprinkled on top of any of the full bins.  I was so happy when I stepped through the front door and saw that the detritus of gravel and dust off our shoes and the cats had gone and that the cats' food dishes were resting on clean newspaper.

The kittens have done their best to undermine the good work since then by shredding a toilet roll on the landing, and some leaves and Strulch have come in stuck to Mr Fluffy,  But the house is still a lot cleaner than it was before the SA's efforts.  I wiped the kitchen units and the Aga, and shook the accumulated crumbs out of the toaster.  It has a removable floor for cleaning so you don't actually have to upend it over the sink, I have discovered.  Who knew?  We have had the toaster for about a decade.  It belonged to the Systems Administrator's late mother.

As a break from cleaning the kitchen I caught up with the ironing, and felt a glow of accomplishment as I cleared the last rumpled garment off the spare bed.  The secret with ironing is not to let the pile grow so huge it becomes terrifying.  One of the listeners' one sentence weeks on Radio 4's iPM programme this evening was from somebody who had got to the bottom of their ironing basket for the first time in seven years.  Our spare bed has been more manageable since the SA finally admitted that post City there was really no need to keep the SA's entire stock of about two dozen Thomas Pink white double cuffed office shirts on the bed pending ironing, and consigned most of them to the textile recycling skip.

Friday, 16 December 2016

the postman rings

Since I am fast enough to grumble when the postman makes a mistake I feel praise should be given where it is due.  This morning as we were sitting in the study drinking coffee the doorbell rang with multiple peals (this doorbell is a recent acquisition, to save delivery drivers having to open the back door (which is at the front) and shout Hello while trying not to look like a burglar.  I don't know what it is about doorbells that they always break down, but we currently have one.  I fancied a huge and thunderous brass door knocker, but the doorbell was easier and cheaper.  I expect the Systems Administrator got it on Amazon).

It was the postman, who had noticed that the names and addresses on some of the mail looked anomalous, and instead of stuffing it at random through somebody's door had taken the time to ask. First up was an envelope with the name of our neighbour on it, who sold us this house in 1993 and now lives in the original family farmhouse down the lane.  We have received spasmodic mail for him ever since, and at Christmas I take it round unless it is addressed to his dead wife as well, in which case I feel he doesn't need to have it.  I stopped the year she died since friends and relatives who were in touch must have known of her death, and I was afraid that cards addressed to them both would simply upset him, while anyone who didn't know after nearly twenty years that he had moved house couldn't be a close friend.  As that was about five years ago perhaps I should start again, in case it is a long lost friend trying to get back in touch.  I thought it was very sensible of the postman to try and clear this one up, since he must know from all our other mail that our neighbour lives down the road and we live here.  And he can take the responsibility for the deceased wife's mail in future.

Second up was a fat, disintegrating envelope addressed in writing I recognised as my father's cousin's.  To clinch matters it had a little sticker with his name and address on the back.  The reason why the postman was confused was that the names on the envelope were not ostensibly anything to do with us.  In fact they were my brother and his wife, but as I was traditionalist enough to adopt my husband's name on marriage there was no obvious way for the postman to guess.  The Systems Administrator explained about that as well and we promised to give the envelope to my brother the next time we saw him.  I am afraid that my father's cousin has got his address book muddled up.  I really ought to go and visit him next year, though the thought of getting myself to Lytham St Annes fills me with despondency, and if we both go then we have to find somebody to look after the zoo and it becomes a major expedition.

Meanwhile I finished my Christmas shopping, and after lunch I delivered the Christmas cards to our neighbours and put the last tricky one in the post.  We are not trying to do anything very elaborate for Christmas, lunch for my parents next week and a roast chicken with all the trimmings for us on Christmas Day.  It might even be all under control.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

RI and RA

I went this afternoon to the Royal Academy to see the Ensor exhibition.  I wouldn't necessarily have gone so hot on the heels of the Cambridge visit, especially when it is on until the end of January, but I was seeing an old university friend for lunch first and that's the way the dates ended up working for everybody.

I was pleased to see my friend, since we hadn't managed to catch up with each other since May. She runs a one woman consultancy advising small and techie companies on fund raising, EU grant applications and investor relations, as far as I can follow, having started off as a stockbrokers analyst covering the automotive sector.  This year has been busy, which pays the bills, besides which she likes industry.  She finds my ability to amuse myself for hours fiddling around with mud faintly baffling, but we are fond of each other and have known each other for a very long time.

We had lunch at what seems to be one of the most useful and best kept secrets in the West End, the cafe of the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street.  I have been to a couple of lectures there, but the last time we tried to meet at the cafe it was shut that day due to a private function.  We ended up in Fenwick instead and I made a mental note to avoid arranging to meet anybody at the RI cafe in future, since somewhere that can't be relied upon to be open is no use at all.  But my friend seemed to think it would be OK, and I thought that since Fenwick was still round the corner we'd be fine one way or another.

The food at the RI cafe is not very exciting though perfectly edible and the decor is utterly unremarkable.  BUT the tables are generously spaced apart, and only about three of them were occupied apart from ours, with the result that the room was astonishingly quiet.  My friend is fairly deaf and I am naturally soft spoken unless in performance mode for a lecture, so to go somewhere that we didn't have to repeat ourselves endlessly or sit smiling and nodding when we'd given up trying to work out what the other one was actually saying was a huge plus.  The till was broken so that they could not print itemised bills, but if there is anywhere else within a stone's throw of Piccadilly where you can get a pulled pork brioche bun with chips, a perfectly adequate chocolate brownie and three goes of tea and occupy a table in a quiet and practically empty room for an hour and a half for fifteen quid I'd like to know where it is.

Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans was not as empty as the RI cafe but was not heaving.  I have been aware of Ensor for about twenty years since calling at Ostend on a sailing holiday and finding every lamp post on the sea front had a banner for an Ensor exhibition fluttering from it in the stiff breeze there always seems to be at Ostend.  Ensor was a native of the city, indeed he rarely left. We did not go to the exhibition, and I was curious two decades on to find out what we'd missed, and add to my collection of Famous Belgians (Tintin does not count.  He was a fictional character, but you may have Georges Simenon who was not French despite Maigret being a commissaire of the Paris Brigade Criminelle).

Ensor was of his time, Impressionistic interiors painted in thick oils, Surrealistic masks and skulls, a fascination with death and grotesquerie.  He had his own voice and did not paint exactly like anybody else that I can think of.  The exhibition has quite a lot of drawings and lithographs as well as paintings and I must admit I glossed over some of the smaller and darker ones because after the illuminated manuscripts yesterday I was tired of trying to look at small, dark things that I could barely see.  One of the larger drawings, a tongue in cheek scene of a beach and sea crowded with bathers did remind me of print of holiday makers on a busy pier Anthony Gross made for the Lyons Corner Houses a generation later (which I coveted unutterably when we saw it at Eastbourne during another sailing holiday) and looking up Gross's biography just now on Wikipedia I see that there was a Continental influence in that he studied in Paris and worked with Jean Cocteau.  Ensor's self portrait in a ladies' hat complete with dangling feather has to be a tongue in cheek homage to Rembrandt and the Dutch school.  On the whole I rather liked Ensor.  If you lived with his stuff it would grow on you, I think.  If you want to see for yourself it is on until 29 January.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

city of perspiring dreams*

I went to Cambridge today to visit the Fitzwilliam Museum.  It is a wonderful museum (and free) and I would go there oftener if it were not such a pig to get to from Colchester.  I had thought that maybe we could get the train, but it turns out you have to change at Ipswich and then it is a further hour and twenty minutes with only one train per hour, and then Cambridge railway station is on the outskirts of town.  As it is my friend offered to drive, and it took her an hour an a half from my door to the Newmarket Road park and ride, which was very nice for me and harder work for her.

We just missed a bus at the park and ride, but they go every ten minutes and it took us a good part of that time to operate the ticket machine.  The woman ahead of us in the queue was being talked through it by a helpful man in a fluorescent jacket but he disappeared before we could ask him what the form was.  The instructions on the machine include some of the most delphic use of language since my godmother's husband set an exam question for philosophy in which a pair of socks was taken to denote any two socks.  So 'pay £4 for parking plus one passenger' means one person has paid to ride on the bus.  If your car had one passenger in it you need to pay for parking plus two passengers.  By the time we'd worked that one out and bought an extra bus ticket the queue behind us was quite lengthy.  You can tell that Cambridge is a university town.

We'd gone to Cambridge this week because the Fitzwilliam has an exhibition of early illustrated manuscripts on until early in the New Year.  I was reconciled to having missed it, but once my friend suggested we go somewhere for the day we thought that place might as well be Cambridge. The manuscripts are beautiful and interesting and very romantic to view in the flesh, though if you wanted a really thorough look it would be worth buying the book because the light level in the exhibition has to be kept so low.  We made our way to the rooms housing the temporary exhibition through rooms and rooms of the permanent collection, and so kept getting waylayed by twentieth century British art, Impressionists, Gainsboroughs and ebony inlayed cabinets.  There would have been much more to see, but there is only so much art anybody can absorb in one session.  As I said, if it were easier to get to I'd go there more often.

After lunch we did a little shopping, and I amazed myself by buying a scarf, hand woven blue herringbone that could have been designed to go with my coat, in the sort of ethnic shop that smells strongly of incense and sells Tibetan singing bowls and cheap Afghan rugs.  I am partial to both, but since I don't actually meditate and didn't have the budget for even a cheap rug I limited myself to the scarf.  We peered into the windows of some more upmarket clothes shops, but window shopping was as far as it went.

Kings College was looking very beautiful in the weak autumn sun, and the streets were full of people riding sit up and beg bicycles with an absent air.  The shops appeared rather empty on the whole, when you think it is less than two weeks to Christmas.

*Frederick Raphael

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

from the gaga clinic to the magical land

I took my parents this morning to what my father caustically refers to as the Gaga Clinic, or Colchester General Hospital's Geriatric Medicine department.  Since the hospital extended the car park you can actually park there, which helps, though there isn't anywhere obvious to drop off elderly patients outside the geriatric unit without feeling as though you might be in the way of an ambulance. The scans they took several weeks ago didn't show anything, which was rather what we expected since if they had revealed anything definite he would probably have been called in to discuss them sooner instead of leaving it until his next routine appointment.  From what I gathered the doctors had decided in the absence of any more definite information about why he felt so grotty to alter two or possibly three of his medications.  As my mother (who is a retired statistician) observed it was not a well designed experiment to change so many variables at once. The hospital pharmacy was busy and we had to wait an hour for the prescription to be dispensed, though we did have a lively conversation about cats with a retired district nurse while we waited for our pink ticket to come up and she waited for the bus to take her back to Harwich.  I got to pat an amiable and amazingly silky dog who was just being taken home after a morning shift spent cheering patients up.  My father refrained.  He does not like dogs.

In the afternoon I met a friend for a snatched coffee in between her many hospital visits with her father, who is rather more urgently ill and had immunotherapy a couple of weeks ago with a colonoscopy to look forward to in the break between Christmas and the New Year, while life just to show that it retains a sense of humour has given him cataracts as well as cancer.  We met at Acorn Village so that we could visit this year's Magical Land in their creative craft centre, since we enjoyed last year's Enchanted Forest so much.  The theme this year is Peter Pan, and the residents have made the children's bedroom at one end of the room, complete with papier mache Nana, and Neverland at the other, with pirate ship, Captain Hook and a very sparkly Tinkerbell.  Arctic elements had crept into Neverland, with a polar bear and some penguins which I'm sure don't feature in the book, but never mind.

The whole thing is really well done.  Whoever makes the papier mache figures has got genuine talent, the Newfoundland dog bulk of Nana looking really doggy and the penguins poking their necks and heads forward in absolute essence of penguin.  And the whole installation works visually under subdued lighting, when it must have been painted in something akin to more normal studio conditions since I don't suppose they lit their creative craft centre by fairy lights for six months while keeping the blinds down.  Apparently it takes the residents that long to make everything.  I think it is what would in artspeak be termed Outsider Art, art made by people who are not artists, and you can tell that it is a real labour of love.  It has a very tender and warm atmosphere.  Next year they should invite Grayson Perry to open it, as he is an Essex man and practically local.  He would enjoy it to judge from what I've seen of him on the telly, the residents could meet a bona fide Turner Prize winning artist, and they could get a puff for their creation in the news.

Monday, 12 December 2016

season's greetings

My almost a cold still seemed to be in retreat this morning, so perhaps I am going to escape this time.  It felt like a close call.  The Systems Administrator's cold keeps rattling around, and has settled on the SA's chest.  I'm afraid that standing in somebody's garage for a couple of hours yesterday morning making candles may not have helped, but I know from last winter and the one before that once a cold sets in like that it gets difficult to manage, since you don't want to shun all your friends and live like a hermit for four or six months because you have a cold.  It was foggy when I wound up the bathroom blind, and the air when I went to let the hens into their run was downright dank.  A wonderful word, dank, with resonances of lank, dark, and damp, very evocative.

I spent the morning at the kitchen table in front of the Aga writing Christmas cards.  Our Ginger lay on the floor in front of the Aga with the air of a cat that wasn't going anywhere until it was lunchtime, but Mr Fidget and Mr Fluffy came galloping in from the garden with muddy feet, wanted to walk over the cards, and Mr Fidget tried to dig himself a nest in the box of blank ones.  If you got the card with a choir of angels on the front and a paw print on the back I'm sorry about that.

Writing the cards is always a mixed experience.  There in one small address book is your social life. People you know and like, have seen this year and hope and expect to see in 2017.  People you haven't seen for ages and are not terribly likely to meet up with in the near future, but remain fond of.  Records of downsizing, upsizing and separation in the rubbed out and crossed out addresses. Names of people who have sadly died, and old friendships that have withered even if the person is so far as you know alive and well.  The sheer social anxiety of trying to keep track of the names of everybody's children, and wondering at what point you stop including them in cards addressed to their parents.  Nowadays when adult children seem to stay on in the parental home until they are about thirty-five that isn't as obvious as it might have been in the old days when you finished at university, rented a grotty flat and were gone, fully fledged.

Cards have started arriving and in a moment of inspiration I put them on the hall dresser, which has been bare except for muddle since the kittens arrived and my collection of pottery and bird nests went into safe storage in the spare bedroom until they had stopped climbing up everything and casting whatever they found there to the ground.  Somebody has to go first, and it is probably nicer not to wait until the last posting date so that people who hadn't sent you a card are caught out and can't send one back.  And it was useful to find out that someone who has been widowed since I've known her, and who started seeing a chap a couple of years ago although they haven't moved in together, this year signed her card 'and David', in time for me to address mine to both of them.

I could feel relieved about a couple of former colleagues who I did not see this year, but was trying to organise a reunion lunch.  It fell through for December because one of them was going away for a fortnight and there simply wasn't any date when everybody concerned was able to make it, but at least I could write in their cards that I'd be in touch in the New Year about the lunch with a clear conscience, rather than just putting vague hopes of seeing them next year.  It's the people that you know have got some kind of trouble or illness in their lives that are the hardest, if they haven't been keeping you posted on how it's going.

The pat answer is of course to pick up the phone and ask them.  That's what the advice columns in the papers would say.  But in real life it is very difficult to ring up and ask point blank how bad it is, and the SA and I are both terrible at chatting on the phone.  But sending a card that just says Happy Christmas isn't right either.  A couple of years ago a friend whose husband had advancing Altzheimers signed her card with her own name instead of from both of them, and I really couldn't ring up and ask her if he was dead.  I did manage to find out from somebody else that he wasn't, so I think that she dropped his name off the card because as he didn't know who she or anybody else was she felt there wasn't any point in putting it on.  Obviously you ought to know whether your friends' husbands are dead or not, but when it's somebody you see every few months for a coffee how would you know, unless they told you?

Fortunately most of the cards don't throw up such knotty problems, and now they are sitting in three neat piles on the hall dresser, the ones to go in the post, with Christmas stamps for once and not just boring ordinary second class, the ones to be given to people I'm hoping to see over the next few days, and the ones for the neighbours, which I will take round some time when it's not drizzling.  Meanwhile the one for my Japanese pen friend has been sent on its way Par Avion.  I've never really got to grips with how long letters take to get to Japan, but I think it will be fine by airmail.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

candle making

My beginnings of a cold still had not developed into anything, and so we went candle making.  Pure beeswax candles are lovely to burn, giving off a delicious smell and (as fans of Wolf Hall will know) a soft light.  They are fun to make, too, only I am never going to invest in all the equipment to do it, so it's as well that a friend runs candle making days every now and then.  There is quite a lot of equipment, by the time you have melted the blocks of wax, and filtered the liquid wax to remove any fragments of hive debris, and kept the wax liquid in a heated bath that is deep enough to be able to make dipped candles more than three inches long.  A couple of old saucepans don't really do it.  And if you are making moulded candles the moulds are expensive.  And wick is sold by the fifty metre roll (although its diameter is still specified on the roll in inches) which is a bind if you only want to use a metre or two at a time.

I made four dipped candles and one tiny moulded Christmas tree.  The Systems Administrator made two dipped candles, which were finished much faster than my first pair.  I don't know how the SA does it or what I am doing wrong, but the SA seems to have the knack of candle dipping.  The Systems Administrator also made a chunky moulded cylindrical candle to use over Christmas, short and fat enough that the cats shouldn't be able to knock it over too easily, although the SA was a little greedy about trying to take it out of its silicon mould too early before it had cooled enough, and some of the bee details on the sides got squashed.  Also the wick fell out, but the SA has a plan to poke or pull it back through with wire.  I suppose that's what happens if you mess about with moulded candles when the centre is still soft and liquid, but it was taking for ever to cool down in the silicon mould and I think the SA's feet were getting cold standing about waiting for it.

Mr Cool was a little fey and wary of us when we got home, as if he had just come in from the garden, when in fact we had found him on the sitting room window sill.  Then he mellowed over the next half hour, just like when he comes in after being outside.  We have wondered in the past to what extent cats have the same concept of inside versus outside as we do, or whether to them it is all their territory and they don't see being outside as being that big a deal.  Perhaps when Mr Cool comes through the cat flap in the evening and takes a while to settle down to being a pet it is not so much that he has been outside as that he has not been with humans, and when we both go out it has the same effect.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

a damp day

It was a damp day, too damp to work outside and anyway I am nursing my potential cold while it decides whether it is turning into a proper thing or not.  I feel rather clammy, and definitely not like contending with damp.  Instead I spent the day going through the piles of magazines, catalogues, leaflets and other accumulated paper on my desk, reading some, rereading others, and binning quite a few.  I don't know why Peruvian Connection have sent me quite so many catalogues given how infrequently I buy anything from them nowadays, though somewhere in the secondary pile of paper on the kitchen table I know there is their most recent mailing, which is exactly the same as the previous one but has a code to get free delivery until Christmas.  Their t shirts are initially expensive but eventually cheap on a cost per wear basis because they last so long without coming apart or morphing into a shape bearing no resemblance to mine.  I am still wearing some I bought from Peruvian Connection before we bought this house, which dates them to some time before August 1993.

One of the magazines was the annual report of The Barn Owl Trust.  Alas, 2016 has not been a good year for barn owl breeding.  The Trust blames the cool, damp spring which meant that nesting started late.  Life has not been good for barn owls generally in recent years, with loss of habitat and food, too many barn conversions and loss of nesting sites, and road traffic accidents.  A terrifying proportion of young barn owls are killed on roads before ever managing to breed themselves.  I always feel very warm towards The Barn Owl Trust and would volunteer for them if they weren't based in Ashburton, Devon.  As it is I pay my subscription and each year I buy our Christmas pudding from them.  They are excellent puddings, made by a small firm in the Lake District whose marketing strategy is to distribute their puddings through charities.  I ignore the annual articles in the press giving ideas for a change from Christmas pudding.  Why would I want a change?  I like Christmas pudding and we only have it once a year.

An article in one of the beekeeping magazines reminded me that having left most of my bees with a super of their own honey to feed them over the winter instead of taking all the honey and giving them sugar syrup, I ought to have removed the queen excluder that prevents the queen from going up into the super so that she can't lay there.  Otherwise, if the entire cluster of bees moves up to use the stores in the super the queen will be left behind and will die of cold.  So far it hasn't been that cold and anyway they should still have plenty of stores down in the brood box so no harm has been done yet.  I am left wondering what I then do in the spring if the queen has taken up residence in the super and started laying eggs there.

An advertisement in the RSPB magazine for plain wool cardigans looked quite hopeful.  Good quality, pure wool cardigans in a single block colour, no stripes or patterns or extraneous buttons or sparkly bits that are supposed to make them fun but are just annoying, are surprisingly difficult to find.  I like merino, which is soft but wonderfully hard wearing and tends not to bobble.  Cashmere may carry its aura of luxury but it has a price tag to match and is not hard wearing at all.  I had a look at the advertiser's website, mentally dismissed the cardigans with brass buttons (such a waste), and bookmarked the site for later, since when it has been stalking me across various news websites.

Tomorrow is supposed to be dry and sunny and we are supposed to be going candle making.  Fingers crossed.

Friday, 9 December 2016

fair warning

Sometimes you discover something new, and have the oddest feeling that it is very familiar.  Not a false memory, exactly, because you know that it is new to you.  It's just that you feel as though you must have known it for a very long time already.

So it is with my new musical enthusiasm, The Rails, which seems a strange and not particularly catchy name for a very catchy duo.  Presumably it has some significance to them, though I find myself mentally prefacing it with the word Off.  They are Kami Thompson and her husband James Walbourne, and she is the daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson.  I must have heard a track by them on the Radio 2 folk show at some point and liked it enough to add the album to my Amazon wishlist, where it sat for months until a cheap used copy of it popped up on offer from a third party vendor and I bought it.

And they sound uncannily like Richard and Linda Thompson used to back in the 1970s.  Really, really uncannily like.  Kami Thompson has a glorious voice and it is the dead spit of her mum's, a lucky inheritance for her since while Richard Thompson was one of the superlative songwriters and guitar players of the late twentieth century he wouldn't claim that his singing voice had ever been his principal claim to fame.  And James Walbourne is a fabulous guitarist who has been in all sorts of bands, including the Pretenders.  Only on this album he sounds so much like Richard Thompson that if I didn't know it was a 2014 release by somebody else I'd think the album must be some rediscovered Richard Thompson tracks.  The chord progressions, the riffs, it's pure Richard Thompson.

And between them they write very good songs.  Maybe not quite up to the standard of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning but good songs, songs that tell stories, songs in which the characters have narrative arcs or things gradually develop in a direction you don't expect, clever songs with a pungent and poetic use of language.  And thanks to Kami Thompson being a fine singer you can hear all the words so you get the full benefit (which is just as well because the paper insert in the CD box has several moody photos but no lyrics).

The album is called Fair Warning.  As well as Kami Thompson and James Walbourne it features Eliza Carthy on fiddle on quite a few tracks, and maintains a good, tight folk-rock sound throughout.  I have been playing it on repeat when it has been my turn to cook, and I am absolutely delighted with it.  But also disoriented, because it sounds so much like revisiting a part of my past that never actually happened.  Should I think less of it because it is not an original sound?  And does it make a difference if a family dynasty is carrying on an artistic tradition rather than a complete stranger coming along and ripping it off?  I don't know, but I don't honestly care.  I'm just terribly pleased with the album.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

decorative and fine arts

I went this morning to a lecture about the Byzantine origins of Santa Claus, which was the seasonal offering of the Colchester branch of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies. When I first became involved with the music society I was puzzled that so many members appeared to be involved in flower arranging, until discovering that what they were talking about was not NAFAS but NADFAS, which I'd never heard of.  After a while they said that I ought to join.  I demurred, thinking that I already had enough things to be getting on with, though I did go along to one lecture on the history of Russian Art, signed in by a friend, and enjoyed it.

At the start of this year they told me I really ought to put my name down because the waiting list was getting longer, so I forked out a fiver (deductible from the first year's subscription) to go on the list, thinking that if I made my way to the top in two or three years that would be fine.  This morning I discovered that I was up to number six so who knows, maybe next year I might be in without resorting to Kind Hearts and Coronets tactics.

Santa, like most myths, seems to have some basis in ancient reality.  There was an early bishop of Myra in modern day Turkey, Saint Nicholas, whose story became conflated with another slightly later bishop of somewhere else also called Nicholas.  Throughout the middle ages they, by now he, amassed various acts of charity and rescue to their credit, gradually shifting their or his emphasis from distressed sailors to needy children, and the red bishop's cloak and mitre began to morph into the modern day Santa outfit.  Indeed, one could make a case (entirely spurious but amusing) for Batman's origins dating back to the Renaissance paintings of Saint Nicholas appearing in dreams, flying.  The lecturer didn't, though she did highlight the probability that Sweeney Todd owed something to the later, gruesome stories of three young men being murdered by an innkeeper (later butcher) and sold as meat before being restored to life by Saint Nicholas.

The reindeer apparently pop up out of nowhere in the mid nineteenth century, while Rudolph is a twentieth century addition.  I don't remember ever actually believing in Father Christmas even as a small child, having been highly sceptical from a tender age.  We got stockings but I don't think my parents tried very hard to convince us that they were brought by a strange fat man who came down the chimney and had reindeer parked on the roof.  Perhaps half a century before the current academic theory they had already concluded that it was not a good idea to lie about these things to their small children.  Even now I couldn't name Vixen, Blixen and co without looking them up on Wikipedia, while I always thought Rudolph frankly naff.  But the stained glass of Chartres and Bourges cathedrals depicting the deeds of Saint Nicholas was beautiful, the expressions of the participants amazingly vivid.

The society was dishing out next year's programme at the meeting, and the list of lectures looked rather good.  I'm beginning to hope I do get in next year.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

leaf collecting

It is preposterously warm for the time of year.  The Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun' was thick with foraging bees today, and as I drove down the lane early this evening to go to my music society committee meeting a bat fluttered overhead.

I have been gathering leaves, now that I have two empty and weed free leaf bins to put them in. Weed free apart from the seeds, that is.  I fear that the next batch of leaf mould, and probably the one after that, is going to be infested with a cargo of goose grass and possibly nettles.  One year's seeding, seven years' weeding, is how the saying goes, but it can't be helped.

The Systems Administrator dug the leaf vacuum cleaner out of the garage and showed me how it worked.  I thought it could blow the leaves into big piles which I could then scoop up, but instead it sucks.  And chops the leaves up, the Systems Administrator informed me proudly.  Blowing would have been good, because then I could have picked up the leaves without raking up lots of grass and weeds in the process, but I was willing to give vacuuming a go.

I didn't take to it.  I don't like vacuuming the house, and vacuuming up leaves felt too much like outdoor housework.  It was noisy, and I kept getting the electrical cable wrapped round things. The leaves, the grass, the weeds and everything else was wet with dew, causing the leaves to stick to the ground so I never got a clean sweep of an area.  It was a fiddle emptying the collected leaves out of the machine's zip-up bag, and of course between trips to the leaf bin I had to lug the collected leaves about with me and by the time the bag was full it was quite heavy.  It made my forearm ache trying to hold the nozzle of the machine at the right angle to the ground, and every so often I'd collect a stick across the mouth of the vacuum cleaner which stopped the leaves going in, and I'd have to switch off and wait a moment for the whole lot to fall away from the nozzle.

All this was ungrateful of me, when the SA had troubled to get the machine out for me, but I'm glad I was able to try it and even gladder not to have bought one before discovering that I didn't like it. After I'd sucked up some chestnut leaves from the meadow and worked out that at that rate of progress it was going to take me all day, and vacuumed the fallen leaves off the steps to the conservatory which was worth doing because they were getting slippery, and tried to vacuum up the birch leaves that were resting on the prostrate juniper but without much success, and had a go at the wild cherry leaves on the top lawn, I gave up with the machine.  I was pretty sure that I could rake leaves off the lawn by hand faster than I was getting them by suction.

I switched to hand raking, but not for too long because it was starting to get dark and I had to go to the committee meeting.  The art of hand raking is not to do it for too long at a stretch, so that you don't sprain anything, then it is good exercise and will give the muscles of your arms and trunk a healthy work-out.  And meanwhile you can listen to the birds and distant traffic and think about life.  Raking monastery gravel is after all a form of meditation, but you couldn't make that claim for using a leaf vacuum machine.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

a question of priorities

I went on weeding around the compost bins today.  I'm not sure it was the most urgent task to do in the garden, but then I'm not sure what the most urgent thing is.  Probably to plant the tulip bulbs salvaged from last year's pots and still sitting in a box in the garage.  They are suppose to be going into the square, box edged bed that originally held the Systems Administrator's hybrid tea roses, but is gradually being given over to other kinds of shrub as I remove the roses that have not done well. The shell pink 'Sight Saver' has made a valiant effort given its rather meagre and sandy quarters, and bronze pink 'Belle Epoque' battles on, but neither of the two red varieties did at all well.  'Remembrance' never made anything except miserable little bushes despite my attempts to cosset them.  I even replaced one failed specimen, but they were all evicted a couple of years ago and I gave the space to Buddleja fallowiana var. alba, which finds the sand more to its liking than the roses ever did.  'Ingrid Bergman' is slated for the same fate this winter.  I am still debating what to do with the gap, but an Indigofera could be in the frame.  Or Daphne 'Eternal Fragrance'.  Or there might be room for both.  The standard 'Iceberg' in the centre of the bed was a miserable failure and gave way to a wisteria on a scaffolding pole at the same time as 'Remembrance' went.
So the tulips are meant to be going into the gap around the edge between the box hedge and the shrubs.  I have trimmed quite a lot of the box, which was done in the summer but got whiskery again, but then I diverted into tidying the compost area.  It was partly because as the Systems Administrator has been very obliging about mending the compost bins I thought I'd better show some interest in that part of the garden, but largely because I needed access to the leaf bins, since the other urgent task is to rake up leaves.  In fact, perhaps that is more urgent than planting the tulips.

There are two reasons to rake leaves.  One is if they will cause damage left where they are.  They do, if they are lying on the lawn or on the crowns of herbaceous plants that carry next year's growth buds at soil level where they can rot if left under heaps of wet leaves for too long, rather than safely underground.  The other reason to rake up leaves is if you want them to make leaf mould.  In our garden the second reason is almost more compelling than the first, since the first good gale of wind after leaf fall carries them off into the wood and they trouble the lawn and the crowns of the asters no more.  The ditch bed, on the other hand, will take all the leaf mould I can throw at it as I try to convert its formless mixture of sand and silt into the sort of humus rich soil that woodland flowers would be truly happy in.

I have raked three or four big bags' worth of leaves up so far from the little oak tree by the daffodil lawn.  It is being very coy about dropping them, so that while they started falling a good couple of weeks ago and by now a lot have come off, there are still plenty remaining on the tree.  That's rather dull, as it means I'll end up raking the same area of the lawn again.  I have my eye on the supply of chestnut leaves in the meadow, if I can collect them without raking up too much grass in the process.  The Systems Administrator does have a leaf blower, bought in a moment of enthusiasm a few years ago, so maybe I should get that out.  I suggested that if the Systems Administrator fancied a spot of leaf collecting I'd be very happy to see the bins filled, but the SA just looked at me.  It may be that with the bramble bashing and the compost bins I've had my lot.

Monday, 5 December 2016

lost and found

There was a frost again this morning, not deep but enough for a treacherous layer of ice to have formed on the pond.  I pressed experimentally against it, and after a moment's resistance a triangular section broke away under my fingers.  Mr Fidget came bustling over to investigate, and we hurriedly smashed the ice before he could try walking on it, the Systems Administrator's preferred method being to hit it with a tree stake while I went for lifting the edge up with a garden fork until it snapped.   I don't trust cats to understand ice.  The grey tabby used to take great pleasure in walking out to the middle of the frozen pond where she would sit, looking superior and ferocious, and if there is an accident waiting to happen I don't trust it not to happen to Mr Fidget. He came in from the garden yesterday evening after dark with a lump scratched out of his nose.

The frost meant another truncated gardening day.  I was just getting ready by mid morning to make a start on the next stage of the compost project when one of our neighbours appeared on his bicycle, carrying a small parcel.  It was from Amazon, addressed to the SA, and our neighbour had found it in his house.  It was jolly good of him to bring it round.  I do wish people whose job it is to deliver things wouldn't do that.  The SA got sufficiently nervous about the Amazon delivery service a month or two back to experiment with having things delivered to the post office instead, but became discouraged after getting stuck in a lengthy queue a couple of times.

I busied myself while the garden thawed out sorting out more of the mess on my desk, and am becoming increasingly suspicious that the December issue of one of the garden magazines I subscribe to is not anywhere in the muddle, raising the dark possibility that it got shoved through somebody else's letter box.  This has happened in the past.  Mind you, I was convinced that one of my RHS magazines was missing and then found that with super efficiency I'd already filed it in the box with the others.

I did not find any rats in the final compost bin.  There was evidence of past digging and tunnelling, as I suspected from the fact that some compost had been dug out of the bin, but the rats themselves were long gone.  No nest, no obvious droppings.  I have been lining the bottoms of the bins with chicken wire as I've gone along, so that they won't be able to dig in from underneath, and I might buy another roll with a fairly fine grade mesh and staple it to the outside of the bins so that rats can't chew their way in through the sides.  The problem is that the lowest planks tend to rot, and once there is the beginning of a way in rats will enlarge it.  Fortunately Mr Cool and Mr Fidget are both now patrolling the compost area, Mr Cool passing today and inspecting me with a calm and level glance before continuing on his way.

I did find seven bags' worth of usable compost in the bottom of the final bin, fully rotted, dark and crumbly.  Mindful of the fact that it has had rats in it I will not be handling it with bare fingers, but I don't do that anyway.  Once it is spread on the borders I daresay exposure to the frost, rain and sun will kill any germs fairly quickly, and I won't put it anywhere near anything we are proposing to eat.  Once again the romantic view of home made compost as exemplified by the two hundred and fifty pound bin doesn't match up to the grubby reality.  What are you supposed to do with your compost if you think rats have been in it?

I also found a cyclamen corm buried deep in the bin, plump and alive with a tuft of roots on one face and two small and optimistic shoots on the other.  It must have been one of the slightly tender potted ones from a previous year, that I must have thrown out because it looked dead after its summer rest.  I potted it up in the greenhouse and will wait to see what it does next.  It's not the first thing I've found nursed back to life by the moist, dark warmth of the compost heap.  Some old sections of ginger lily root I discarded when I was repotting the original plants, because they didn't have any visible buds and I had plenty of other sections of root to choose from, emerged from their slumbers and sent out new shoots once consigned to the bin.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

a musical tea party

Part of the music society's charitable mandate is to encourage young musicians.  I don't normally have much to do with young musicians, since one of the advantages of not having children is that you don't have to listen to school orchestras or feign the slightest interest in the soundtrack of Frozen or the music of Justin Bieber.  I have not heard a school orchestra since the last time I attended a prize giving as a teenager at my own school, and in general I'd be quite happy if musicians could spring forth fully formed from the Royal College of Music like Athena from the head of Zeus.

But it is good to encourage young people, and after all various people were encouraging to me when I was young and trying out singing and acting.  And if you belong to a club it's generally better to join in wholeheartedly and sign up for everything rather than trying to cherry pick the parts you think you'll like.  You may sit through a few talks or concerts you didn't greatly fancy, but you'll get to know your fellow club members far better than if you just drop in or out as the mood takes you.  So when the music society decided to stage a short afternoon concert for school age performers followed by tea I said I'd go.

In fact the young performers were all very sweet, and one girl in particular had a lovely voice that she hadn't quite learned how to use yet but had the potential to do all sorts things, choral singing, folk or jazz.  She was not doing A level music or planning on it as a career, but music is a great hobby.  They were all girls.  Is it that not as many boys study classical music, or that they won't turn out to a tea party?

The Chairman had made cheese scones for the tea afterwards, and I had my first mince pie of the season.  My contribution was a honey cake, which this time I did not leave unattended for any time at all so Mr Fidget could not get at it.  There was Earl Grey tea as well as builders, and little sandwiches, and some kind of gluten free tart, and another cake which was pronounced afterwards to have been delicious.  Sadly, I missed that one but I had a jolly good go at the scones.  They won't keep, you know.  Everybody seemed to enjoy themselves, and by the end of it I'd picked up an invitation to a lecture on Thursday about the origins of Santa Claus.

When I got home the house smelled delightfully of bolognese sauce and the Systems Administrator had mended the back of the next compost bin where the planks had sprung.  All in all it has been a productive Sunday.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

emergency laundry

I woke up this morning, and tried to decide how my potential cold was doing, and whether the fact that my feet were cold was an ominous symptom or just down to the fact that they were poking out of the end of the duvet.  There are some nasty things about.  A friend I was hoping to see at yesterday's carol concert never made it because she spent the day in bed feeling extremely cold and rather dizzy.  The Systems Administrator let Our Ginger into the bedroom, as he was howling in the corridor, and then went off for a shower leaving me with Our Ginger lying on my chest and roaring.  Then I spoilt it for everybody by letting in Mr Fidget, who was squeaking very loudly outside the door, followed by Mr Fluffy.  They ran about the room and then bounced on the bed, while Our Ginger sulked at having his special private time interrupted, refused to sit on my chest any more and stopped purring.

I became suspicious when the Systems Administrator went downstairs and Mr Fidget did not follow for his breakfast but remained sitting on the sheepskin rug by my side of the bed.  Normally Mr Fidget is off like a rocket at the prospect of food, and he was not so much sitting as crouching. With deep foreboding I shifted Mr Fidget aside to discover a copious pool of pee in the middle of the rug.

I can't really blame him for not understanding that he was not supposed to pee on the rug.  When he used to live in the study he was supposed to pee in a large seed tray of vermiculite.  He has only been allowed in the bedroom a handful of times, and the difference between two inch pile wool and vermiculite is not so very great.  They are both white and absorbent and able to hide what you've done, the rug and the litter tray about the same size, both towards the corner of the room concealed by furniture.  Only I wish Mr Fidget would not be so feral.  Mr Cool doesn't seem to have any difficulties working these things out.

It was no good lying in bed considering my cold next to a pool of cat pee while it worked its way through to the carpet.  Fortunately the skin side of the rug is fairly waterproof and I was able to bundle up the rug and tip its contents down the sink without it dripping everywhere.  Probably the loo would have been better but I didn't have that long to think about it, and anyway the rug needed rinsing pronto and I left it soaking while I had breakfast, after which I had the unenviable task of washing it.  I'd been thinking about doing that for a bit, since it was getting grubby from my filthy gardeners' feet walking over it each night, but in an ideal world I'd have brushed it first, and it would not have been impregnated with cat pee.

My advice would be not to end up in a situation where you have to hand launder a sheepskin.  It takes ages, and the wool curls once wet and traps any solid lumps of dirt that might have been in there before you started.  Obviously people with perfectly clean and tidy houses and no pets, who do not come in from the garden with bits of the garden sticking to them or if they do have a shower before going to bed, will not have bits of twig, leaf, Strulch, grass seeds and compost fragments in their bedside rug.  Gardeners, people with workshops, hewers of wood and drawers of water, will know that in our grubby and hobby based worlds of earth stuff does get trodden in, and some of it makes it beyond the turtle mats in the hall.

Now the sheepskin is drying in the laundry.  It smells fine, no trace of cat pee and not especially of wet sheep, but the wool has stuck together in punk tufts.  Whether I can restore the fluffiness of yore remains to be seen.

Once I'd finished laundering the sheepskin I decided my cold wasn't too bad, and went and turned the contents of the next compost bin.  I did not find any rats.