Category Archives: Life indoors

The Lent Garden – 24

14 Mar

Rather a dismal prospect today, getting stuck in to a big bed full of pernicious weeds, so the task does feel a bit more Lenten. But an hour’s work began to make an impact, at least on a couple of metres. By that time also the soil somewhat compacted, this not helped by the gardeners also walking over it during their work a couple of weeks ago. So the last job has to be reversing out of the bed, turning over the top few inches with the border fork.

So, another patch ready for mulch. Really the clay soil’s not too bad now, after 20-odd years of mulching! When we first lived here you could turn up big handfuls of solid yellow clay.

14 mar 2015 (3)

Against the garage wall is a Trachelospermum jasminoides, a scented climber which is undemanding, but which has been terribly infiltrated by a wild-ish Lonicera. Trying to separate them is like unravelling a tangled ball of wool, but I managed to pull out half a bagful of the honeysuckle which may set it back for a minute I guess.

14 mar 2015 (4)

Not for resale

A tissue, a tissue ...

A tissue, a tissue …

I gather it’s become the norm to sell your unwanted Christmas presents on eBay. Some things are listed on the day itself I expect. I find it an uncomfortable concept, but that’s the way of the world these days I guess.

But the unwanted present we’ve been grappling with this new year is a grim cold and cough virus. Not flu exactly but not far off, and left to us by departing offspring/grand offspring. After the long haul of Christmas I was looking forward to getting our normal life back, but we’ve been laid low and here it is nearly the middle of January already. Anyway we’ve done our best not to pass on the gift and to get over it by keeping ourselves to ourselves.

The oddest aspect for me has been to lose all sense of taste and smell. I’ve continued to cook every evening, grateful at first for the festive leftovers, and then moving on to freshly cooked delights (inspired for the most part by Nigel Slater’s lovely new book ‘eat’), But texture without taste? For all I know it’s been so over- or under-seasoned as to be all but inedible, although luckily Mr B has been similarly afflicted – or else too polite to say.

Anyway after days of streaming, coughing and general befuddlement I finally consulted my homeopath and to my joy found a bottle of the required remedy at the back of the drawer. One dose at midday and I began to believe that I wouldn’t be ill forever. Another bigger dose in the evening and by the following morning the symptoms had gone into reverse so that all that was left was a little catarrh; I’m waiting to get some elderberry syrup to chase that away.

My overall conclusions from this dreary start to 2014? Firstly, homeopathy works (but I knew that anyway) and secondly January should definitely be spent either in hibernation or else somewhere pleasantly warm and dry – conditions which are distinctly lacking in southern England at the time of writing.

Good things about autumn

WINKWORTH 3 2009 aYou have to swish through crisp dry leaves on the pavement, no matter how old you are.

Braised lamb shanks with a good red wine.  Apple and blackberry crumble.

Drawing the curtains at tea time and staying in.

Researching Christmas menus, and spending a few therapeutic days peeling, parboiling, baking, ‘getting ahead’, while thinking about good times to come with family and friends.

Tea thoughts from abroad

It must be 4 o'clock

It must be 4 o’clock

The French way of life, at least insofar as I have experienced it, has much to recommend it. I am a keen advocate of l’entente cordiale and will pop over there at the drop of any old chapeau. But there’s just one problem: it’s all but impossible to get a decent cup of tea once you cross the Channel.

Problem tea is not just a French conundrum of course. Almost any tea not made in one’s own kitchen just doesn’t taste right, which I assume is down to the familiarity of the local water at home and the patina built up on the inside of the domestic pot (tea made with a bag in a mug is bound to disappoint, being at once both too strong and too weak). But the issue seems peculiarly acute in France.

What, really, is so difficult? Use fresh water, boil it (yes that’s actually to boiling point, for example until the kettle switches itself off), then use it in the not too distant future, pouring the appropriate quantity over, say, Assam leaves or bags in a pot, allow it to brew for an absolute minimum of five minutes, ten to be on the safe side. Serve with milk, offering sugar as required. Personally I like the milk in first, but my sister is a post-lactarian and I can live with that.  But somehow much of this good practice escapes our French cousins. In a cafe or restaurant you are offered a yellow packet containing a Lipton Tea bag, no bad thing in itself, but generally it sits without conviction on the saucer which accompanies a cup of water apparently drawn from the hot tap, sometime earlier that day.

These days we order coffee.

But, all is not lost. Our French best friends have seen the light, and Madame can make a pot of tea worthy of a true anglophile. When we visited recently we instituted a tradition (for both of the weeks we were there) of meeting at their house for Friday afternoon tea, and what a pleasing experience it was.

Despite the unfamiliar kitchen in the gite we were renting and the perplexities of the French flour options in the supermarket, I managed to produce some scones one week and lemon shortbread the next. These were greeted with amazement and delight, not least by a teenage son returning hungry from school. But no, en fait ma chere, these are as rock cakes baked on a Stone Age fire compared to the exquisiteness of the tartelettes aux pommes, the mini operas, the eclairs and the macarons adorning the windows of the local patisseries. Perhaps a standard English brew doesn’t come easily, but there other compensations.

And finally …  a tea joke …

‘Why do Marxists always drink Earl Grey?’

‘Because proper tea is theft’.

Thank you and goodnight.

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.

World Book Day: more than just dressing up

A lovely Sunday afternoon tea with my sister and brother-in-law. They are erudite people, both steeped in medieval Italian history and the conversation turned to manuscripts and palaeography.

Pouring over photos of astonishingly beautiful illuminated manuscripts, I began to ponder the occasional marginalia and ‘glosses’ (translations or interpretations written over words or phrases). How could anyone ‘scribble’ in the margins of these amazing artefacts? By now the glosses themselves may be highly valued historical and/or contemporaneous insights, but when they were written, wasn’t it the equivalent of scrawling with a ballpoint pen in a hugely expensive coffee table tome, thereby spoiling it for others?

Apparently not. These days we can make use, as needed, of commentaries and translations galore on works of literary merit.  To put ourselves in the place of readers in the middle ages and the renaissance we have to imagine a completely different environment. Those who could read were in a minority, books were rare and precious objects. If you were lucky enough to own one, you would be studying the text unaccompanied and unsupported. Once you had worked out the meaning of a Latin passage, or had an insight about it, it was perfectly natural to record your thoughts right there in the margin for when you came back to that point the next time. This is what reading was – a privilege as well as a skill, a painstaking pursuit for those who had the time.

Now, we are bombarded on all sides by text via every conceivable channel and platform. There’s just too much information so we skim through it remembering very little, rushing on to the next email, document, blog, website, newspaper, book club novel, textbook, cook book, … on and on it goes. We’ve lost the ability, or inclination, to  ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’, and I’m not convinced the world’s a better place for it.

I remember how moved I was when I went into a bookshop with our daughter just after she had  begun to read, aged three-and-something. The thought of what was being unlocked for her stirred deep emotions, offered a momentary flash of insight of how precious and important and life-enhancing it is just to be able to recognise the written word and understand what it means.

quaeris quot mihi basiationes ....

quaeris quot mihi basiationes ….


numberless clockThe season of Lent generally seems a long haul, all the more so when Easter is early (31 March this year) and you have to turn your thoughts to self-denial and self-improvement in the middle of February. These days there seems to be an expectation that you should take on something new in Lent, rather than give up an indulgence, and indeed one feels there ought to be more to it than not eating chocolate for a few weeks.

So this year I have picked up Abiding by Ben Quash (Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London) the 2013 Lent book recommended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, with a foreward by his predecessor Rowan Williams. Of course I have only just begun it (the first chapter ‘Abiding in the Body’ looks at the implications of the Benedictine Rule of remaining in one community for life), but even the book’s title made me think of how diminished ‘staying power’ is these days – not least mine.

For one thing it’s obvious that technology is having an impact on our attention spans – although Nicholas Carr’s book on the subject The Shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains aroused some debate a couple of years ago.

I first noticed it in the younger generation – the tendency to have a dozen search engine tabs open, always to have music and Facebook on and to keep up a text conversation with several friends whist doing homework. But as I have caught up with the technological innovations I have to admit that I have become just as guilty of flitting from one thing to another. And no, it’s not multi-tasking, it’s a lack of concentrated effort and focus. It’s insidious, and quickly transfers to other activities: if I’m drawn to a  newspaper article by its headline, I’ll read the first couple of paragraphs and skip to the end to see what the conclusion is. If I then decide the middle is worth reading, I still jump around in it, so the ideas become a jumble and I have to start all over again.

The laptop, smartphone and tablet devices make it all too easy to feed an addiction to doing a lot of things at once and not really concentrating on any of them. You watch the news on TV while checking emails, social media and other news stories at the same time. When there’s a TV drama or big event going on, Twitter is there to let you find out what ‘everyone else’ is thinking about it – just search for ‘#bigevent’ and add your own twopence worth.

If you don’t do it, living with someone who does is highly aggravating, but once you start it just becomes second nature.

Therefore one thing I have given up for Lent is Twitter, initially because it’s a right old timewaster however much you kid yourself that it’s about keeping up with the news and opinion.  Subsequently I realised it’s just one aspect of Flitting Attention Syndrome, and this is only exacerbated by one’s general rush to get things done in the least time.

The Slow Food movement started in Northern Italy in the 1980s as a reaction to over-processed, over-transported junk food. It seems to me that Slow Food has a parallel in lectio divina – divine reading – another element of the Benedictine way of life.  It’s a process of reading and re-reading a short Bible passage so that you can fully appreciate the layers of meaning and take on board what it may be saying to you at that moment. A form of Slow Reading, as it were – easy enough to describe, much harder to do.

It occurs to me that it herein lies another Lenten discipline – to slow down and pay attention. If I pick up an article, to read it properly from start to finish. To focus on one thing at a time for as long as it takes to reach a conclusion or natural break-point. To resist the urge to flit to something else and the siren call of the alternatives offered by that handy attention-seeking computer device.

Reading matters

We seem to be having a George Orwell moment; he’s certainly all over BBC Radio 4. This encouraged me to turn to his observations on the written word. His essay ‘Politics and the English language could have been written this year, not in 1945, emphasising as it does the way sloppy language habits indicate equally fuzzy thinking. Presumably Orwell would have been utterly dumbfounded by the soundbite-driven vacuous comments today’s politicians indulge in.

The essay includes his six rules of good writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech you are used to seeing in writing.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I used to run business writing workshops, but it was an uphill struggle [hackneyed metaphor] to get people to address their ingrained writing habits or their bewilderment about grammar and syntax. I concluded that perhaps it’s just not possible to ‘teach’ a business writing style which results in documents (even emails!) which are appropriate to the situation and achieve the desired result. Once people are at work the training seems too much like school lessons and the minutiae [foreign phrase] of getting it right too much like something they ought to know already. [Some very long sentences there].

Yet the world needs good writing now more than ever, given we are tapping away at keyboards all day. When I started work, organisations were still blessed with secretaries who could transform their bosses’ half-baked dictation into a clear and informative document. These days you’re on your own [over-used phrase] and it shows.

A good way to improve your writing style is to read lots of well-written books, and that thought brings me to a slim paperback I was given for Christmas: Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. She describes how she spent a year not buying any new books but re-visiting those she already owned. It’s a lovely memoir of the places and people who come to mind as she wanders through her enviably large collection. There is every book you’ve ever heard of from Winnie the Pooh to War and Peace and back again, and many more you won’t know but which sound interesting. I’ve enjoyed it a lot – except for the fact that it’s a book! Susan Hill herself thoroughly dislikes electronic readers and a few years ago I would have agreed with her. But now I found the paperback uncomfortable to hold, awkward to read, and if it had been any more than 236 pages, too big to fit into my bag and lug around.

tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis as George Orwell almost certainly would not have said.

Reading matter

The stuff that cheers

So here we are, January already been and gone and 2013 is properly underway. There are other things which have made me happy in the last few days too.

For example, a show on BBC Radio 4 called Cabin Pressure, currently at 6:30pm on Wednesdays. It actually makes me laugh out loud, frequently, within one episode. This is a rarity in the Radio 4 ‘comedy slot’ at 6:30pm, but then humour is an entirely personal thing. I gather some people find ‘Count Arthur Strong’ funny, but it has me flying for the off switch at the very mention. I just don’t get it. Cabin Pressure, on the other hand, is subtly written by John Finnemore and performed with class and briskness by Stepahnie Cole, Roger Allam, Benedict Cumberbatch and John himself. It’s clever and witty and the characters are believable and consistent. Last week’s episode included a highly competitive wordplay game about sustaining everyday (and in-flight) conversation using words of only one syllable. As in: ‘Let me explain this to you in words of one syllable’. It’s not as easy as you might think. Prunella Scales made an appearance too, as a mum who is all the more aggravating by ‘not wanting to be any trouble’.

Second thing – I have just finished re-reading Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham. One of those books which I was really too young to appreciate when I first read it, maybe 30 years ago. I liked it the first time, or I wouldn’t have picked it up again, but now it was a thoroughly absorbing and joyous nightly interlude to share the life of Philip Carey from the point when he is orphaned at nine years old until he’s about thirty. There are people you’d recognise, there’s love and death, art and philosophy, London, Kent and Paris, and increasingly mature explorations of the meaning of life.

Third thing – the first bunch of daffodils of the year is resplendent on the kitchen windowsill.

And then also we went out to lunch, to The Duke of Cambridge in Tilford, and it was a real treat. I tackled an impressive board set out with dainty individual dishes of Thai tiger prawns, crab mayonnaise, smoked salmon pate, crispy baby squid, and marinated anchovies. These delicacies accompanied by olives and feta, cherry tomatoes in balsamic vinegar, a pile of mixed and well-dressed salad leaves, and plenty of bread. All fresh, delicious, and special. Just the sort of thing you hope you’ll get when you pop out mid-week to a country pub.

Reasons to be cheerful

Reasons to be cheerful