Monthly Archives: May 2013

Horribly clever

Living in the twilight world of freelance and voluntary work, where the days of the week often blur together, Bank Holidays generally take me by surprise. Likewise school half-terms, now that the children are beyond the education system and the grandchildren still too young for it. So, suddenly I find that this week there’s a more relaxed air about the place and – bliss – almost no traffic on my morning run.

And furthermore a special highlight of the May half-term holiday is a new series, aired daily, of Horrible Histories. This time I don’t even have the excuse of our History undergrad daughter being home to watch it with me. I brazenly just sit down with a cup of tea and a flapjack at 4:30pm and enjoy it.

The sketches actually make me laugh out loud, and the songs are wonderful parodies – yesterday’s being of Simon and Garfunkel – with lyrics that teach stuff about the Vikings or the American Civil Rights movement. In a previous series they foreshadowed last year’s discovery and rehabilitation of Richard III with a song which included the immortal line ‘Can you imagine it – I’m the last Plantagenet?’. The topics jump from era to era and entwine in a completely surreal way today’s popular culture with genuine and interesting details about the Reformation or Spartan marriage ceremonies.

In a darkened room somewhere there are tortured minds (including Dave Cohen whom I think I knew a little at Bristol University in yet another by-gone age) thinking this stuff up, and it’s brilliant, funny, clever and subtle. It knocks spots off so many of the tired/predictable/crude/simplistic sit-coms that are written for adults and which don’t need to be mentioned here.

The only issue now is coming to terms with the fact that in the current series the 1960s have qualified for inclusion.

Somerset meets North Africa and they get married

Sweet memories from the Mediterranean

Sweet memories from the Mediterrranean

We’ve been in Freshford near Bath to a wedding which belied the notion that all such celebrations are rather the same. The bride was Algerian, and a long-time friend of our Moroccan daughter-in-law. The groom comes from a large family – at least two generations of five siblings – based in Bath.

The official legal bit was dispensed with at the Guildhall in Bath and then the party de-camped to the Freshford Memorial Hall for the real celebration. In the late afternoon sun there were drinks and hors d’oeuvres before we went outdoors to witness the couple’s handfasting ceremony – a touching pre-medieval marriage process in which the bride and groom’s hands are briefly bound together as a symbol of their lifelong connection and mutual support.

The bride’s mother told me how Algerian weddings last for a week and that for at least a couple of those days are attended by two or three hundred guests. We were constrained to just a few hours, but there were echoes of a larger party as the bride appeared in three beautiful costumes, changing from her sparkling fitted ivory wedding gown and train into lush embroidered silky flowing dresses in shimmering green and orange – traditional colours for weddings at home.

The wedding feast was cous cous with vegetable tagine, and accompaniments of flatbreads and cheese-filled filo rolls, a red pepper dipping sauce and fierce harissa paste that won’t be quickly forgotten by those who were brave enough to try it.

For a few minutes later on, the DJ and his music were paused and replaced by north African rhythms, the gorgeous olive-skinned women ululating as they processed in with their friend and sister, and melting henna was pressed on to the bride’s palms by her mother and mother-in-law. For a moment we were transported away to another time and place.

Three Cypriot sisters, once the bride’s student flatmates, now wives and mothers themselves came with their families and added the flavour of a different corner of the Mediterranean. So the meal was completed by exquisite pastries from Algeria and Cyprus and sweet peppermint tea.

As darkness fell we gathered up the sleeping grand-baby and the three year old now wide-eyed with excitement and exhaustion and made our way slowly back up the hill to our rented cottage. The air was heavy with the scent of wild garlic, its starry white flowers glowing in the light of the nearly full moon.

How to be relocated without really trying

IMG_1891We live on the outskirts of a market town. Once upon a time there would have been separate villages clustered around the main centre of activity with its castle, market and malt houses. But over the years the gaps between the villages have just about filled up, so it is indeed hard to know where one begins and another ends. Still, the inhabitants understand which community they live in and feel connected to.

The village we’ve been in for over 20 years has always seemed to me to be down-to-earth, unpretentious, caring, rooted, reasonably friendly without gushing, made up of a range of social types and classes. The neighbouring community up the road to our west struck me as clique-y and feeling itself to be distinctly a cut above. Although the primary school scored highly in official ratings, I was put off by the head teacher who bombarded me with jargon when I was looking for our daughter’s first school. The village has an annual ‘fayre’, and it made a big deal about the Diamond Jubilee with an all-day extravaganza. We on the other hand, had a jolly 1950s style street party in the village hall and were home again in time to watch the Jubilee pageant on TV.

To the east, the village on the other side of us boasts (as often as possible) one of the top state primary schools in the country. Of course it’s not selective, but somehow it’s only the high achievers who get a place at it. I didn’t send our daughter there either, being dismayed at the open day by the terror in the eyes of other parents when they thought that their kids might not get in. The houses in the vicinity are grand, and if not grand, over-priced because they’re potentially in the top-state-school catchment area.

So, here we sit, in the middle and happy. Then this year village-to-the-west could bear it no longer and has determined to declare itself independent of the town council. At last it won’t have to contribute to the ‘in bloom’ competition, or the arrangements for the carnival, or the Christmas lights. The residents will be able to raise and keep their own funds and spend them any way they please to make their village even more special. We may need a passport to be allowed in.

Whatever, I thought to myself, it seems a logical end to the culture of the place to try to put some distance between themselves and the hoi polloi. But then, with the annual council tax bill, a bombshell. The village is also applying to change the parish boundary to include us, and indeed a whole chunk (to use a technical term) of our village. The only argument put forward is that it’s a more ‘logical’ boundary as it goes along the main road into our village from market town (huh?). A handy map was appended, which for some reason didn’t show how all the small parishes fit together like a jigsaw, with hardly a straight, logical, line among them.

Not surprisingly the whole idea has been dreamed up by a clique among cliques within village-to-the-west, and is being spear-headed by an architect who fancies himself as the new big cheese. Yet there are so many reasons why we don’t need another tier of petty, nimby-ish micro-government around here. According to the commentary that came with the consultation questionnaire we feel more affinity with village-to-the-west. Says who? They certainly didn’t ask me. The reality is that they must need our money to make their grandiose plans viable. It’s a ridiculous and overblown idea, and I for one am ready to man the barricades.

A recent past that’s fading away

Rogation Sunday in early May is traditionally the date when parishioners walk the village boundaries. At one time this was presumably to establish where the boundaries were for the avoidance of doubt among neighbours before the fields were planted and harvested. These days (although our parish boundary is the subject of debate just now – but that’s a post for another day), the Rogation Sunday walk is just a good excuse for a sociable stroll around the locality after the 10 o’clock service.

Apparently one is supposed to fast before the walk, but I was relieved to find that it was Mrs C’s birthday this week and she had brought cake to the post-service refreshments. Just what we needed.

Our walk was led by Mr P, born in the village in 1934. We discovered footpaths I didn’t know existed and cottages tucked away by the water meadows. Over a couple of hours a different world was conjured up around us: the grocer’s, the coal merchant, the Post Office (which even I can remember), the bike shop, the bake house, the forge, the car body works, the sandpit, the cement works where Mr P made door lintels with fondant concrete – ready to use in two days, the grand former vicarage with its tunnel to the tradesmen’s entrance which even as a boy Mr P had to crouch through to deliver the daily bread. The grocer’s where his mother would send him to fill up the vinegar bottle while she prepared the family meal – for him, his four sisters and the two evacuees. There lived Mr Wilkinson who ran the bike repair shop, there Mr Boxall the coal man. There’s the cottage Mr P was born in, over the road the one his sister lived in with her husband.

Across the water meadows the boys would meander to the tea rooms for a bar of chocolate – just one bar between you, mind, to share. Maybe you could slip a bit into your pocket to have when you got home. The other boys went round the village with sticks, but Mr P had a real sword he’d found in the second-hand shop next door to his house.  Birds-nesting was their regular entertainment. That’s where the boy from Chestnut Avenue drowned in the brook – it’s deeper and the current’s swifter as it narrows to go under the bridge.  He had gumboots on you see, and they filled with water, nothing we could do to stop him being washed away.

We saw a past where people lived and worked in the same place and knew everyone and the village was pretty much self-sufficient. Before the main road brought the thunderous traffic which made it hard to catch everything Mr P said, before the town’s duel-carriageway by-pass cut the parish in two. A by-gone age, that’s gone in one man’s lifetime. We asked Mr P if he’d let someone record his memories, but he declined. As he fades, so will they, and village life will be bland and shallow without them.

Falling in love again


Aquilegia -self seeded and ready to go

Aquilegia -self seeded and ready to go

Well perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration.  It’s more like ‘achieving a sense of satisfaction with a job well done’.

I have rediscovered my enthusiasm for gardening, and not just because the weather has finally improved.  Taking my own advice, I have just been getting out there to do a task or two and then stopping without worrying about all the other jobs which didn’t get done.  And lo! – the whole plot, apart from the ‘wilderness bit’ at the far end, is now tidied, weeded and mulched and looking in good shape for the summer to come.

Having had some professional help to dig out and dispose of a big ceanothus

Ceanothus ‘Cascade’ (Photo from RHS)

and two vast hebes

Hebe Rakaiensis (Photo from RHS)

which had thoroughly outgrown their allotted space – a job that was so beyond my capabilities that it was stopping me from doing anything else – I felt more empowered to get on with what I could manage, and even to tackle moving a large rosa glauca

Rosa Glauca (Photo from RHS)

which was in the wrong place. That whole area is now opened up and probably in the mood for some new additions.  I got rid of two old brachyglottis too,

Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ (Photo from RHS)

which were tired and boring to behold, again leaving at least one opportunity for something new.

It’s been invigorating to get outside, and good to feel some pride of ownership.  Actually I enjoy weeding, because the endless rain has made it easy to pull the invaders up by the roots. It’s absorbing to be down on your hands and knees and close to the soil and it really is satisfying to step back and see you’ve made a difference. I follow the wise advice of Monty Don, the thinking woman’s gardener, who said it’s better to weed two metres properly and then stop and come back to it another day, than be over-ambitious, try to do ten metres, and end up doing it badly.

I like putting the organic mulch down like a blanket, it makes the borders look cared for and it covers a multitude of sins, at least for a while.

The tulips are out and eventually even the daffodils hung on long enough through the grey cold to come into flower in April. So now I feel a visit to the garden centre coming on, and I’m sure there are some garden vouchers lurking in the desk somewhere….