Thursday, 23 August 2007

Women's work

Have you heard of the mass observation project? At the end of the Second World War and for some years after thousands of ordinary people throughout Britain kept diaries about their daily lives. While we were in Newfoundland I read a book called Our Hidden Lives in which five of the diary keepers' stories were told. It sounds as though it might be dull but it was oddly compelling and you became fond of them all as you followed them through rationing and failing to win prizes in the allotment competition and buying new hats and riding London buses.

The most vivid and most shocking thing in reading the book was the sense of how little they had and how careful and constrained their lives were: an amount of butter to last a week no more than I put on two slices of toast in the morning; recipes without eggs, without butter, without sugar; terrible food of the sort which sent Elizabeth David stomping off fuming to France and the Mediterranean; no waste, no packaging, no consumerism. And yet they are so close to us still, their vanished world still clearly England.

Reading it reminded me of my grandmother who died a few years ago at ninety. She had been a young mother and wife in the war years and the even more austere years straight after, married to a hardworking man who earned very little, working as a cleaner at her local chapel and taking in mending and sewing at which she was astonishing good. She saved and reused everything (even the apocryphal "Pieces of string too short to be of use") and nothing ever went to waste. She made peg bags and aprons as presents out of dresses which were outgrown and had been passed down so many times they were thin and soft with washing: pretty prints which would have inspired Cath Kidston. She turned collars on shirts and turned sheets, moving the sides to the middle so that they wouldn't wear out where you slept. She made stews which cooked for hours and transformed meat with names like scrag end and neck of lamb into the kind of meal where you need a piece of bread to wipe every last trace from the plate.

For the last ten years of her life she lived with my parents and, my father's mother, drove my own mother near to tears of frustration by her refusal to spend any money at all on herself. Her winter coat had been lined and relined four or five times back in the days when she could see well enough to do it and now it was tatty and no one in the family had the skill or the interest to replace the lining for her, which would have been her ideal solution.

"She can afford a new coat. Far better for her to be warm and smart than to have money sitting in her National Savings account for nothing," my mother would say.

Sometimes Grandma would be dragged into town to look at coats but she couldn't bring herself to part with her money. "This will see me out" became a family joke and yet now I see it with more sympathy and understanding than I ever did when she was alive. She had been poor, the hardworking respectable poor with the shining front step cleaned with a donkey stone, but she had counted pennies into jars and clothed her family immaculately with clothes from the minister's wife, cut down and resewn into children's clothes on her treadle sewing machine. She never lost the sense that waste and spending were sinful and dangerous.

It got me to thinking about how different our lives are now: women out to work and two incomes and the fierce pressure to spend and spend on consumer goods. I shop therefore I am. Is it good that women have colonised the workplace and are no longer dependent on their husbands for money, making their mark, making sense of their lives by other means than motherhood and being a wife? I was a seventies' feminist and I fought for that and have lived my life to that creed, aspiring to freedom and equality, frantically balancing children and career, knowing that much of what I am really good at needs a wider stage than home. I would have been an impossible 50s housewife and mother. I love my freedom and my heart lifts when I get in a car and drive away by myself, when I made a decision that is mine to make because I have the financial freedom which drives so many other freedoms.

And yet what has happened to the skills of my grandmother's generation? Oddly, perhaps, in view of all the career stuff, I have them although I am not the Olympic champion my grandmother was. But I love to cook and sew and garden. When I talk to my daughters, though, I find that many of their friends can't cook, don't care, don't sew or knit or homemake in any way. Their mothers were too busy working to teach them and they live happily on takeaways and readymeals. They think my girls with their competence not simply at cooking but at baking and pastry and biscuits are quite extraordinary (in a good way) but (in their hearts) a little odd.

They were the fabric of life, those womanly skills, driven perhaps by necessity but producing homes which ran smoothly and smelt of baking and held darned socks, homemade curtains, soup bubbling when you came in from school. I don't want to live in a world of fast food and ready meals where housework is something to fall out about or to subcontract to a cleaner you work to pay for and are uncomfortable talking to, yet I also don't want to live in a world where my intelligent and talented daughters can't have the satisfaction that comes from a working life that suits them and uses all they have to offer.

It is all too difficult and I am too confused to make sense but tonight, sitting here at a computer she would hate, most of all I don't want my grandmother's skills to die.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

The garden in August

In August the garden slows down and settles down. The mad scramble to sow and to plant things out which rushed me panting through May and June, no day long enough, is gone. Grass still grows but no longer in front of your eyes. Beans and peas are established and romp away, safe by virtue of their height from the ravages of slugs and snails which wiped out smaller plants only weeks ago. Crops are beginning to be ready. The strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries are over and the apples not yet ripe, but the vegetable garden is producing daily for the kitchen.

Vegetable gardening is a great use of August. For flowers I am a spring and early summer gardener. From the first snowdrop and winter aconite through cyclamen, hellebores, daffodils, primroses, tulips, white foxgloves, irises, paeonies, poppies and roses, I am entranced from February to June. But year after year the battered school exercise books which are the closest I get to garden diaries show the entries after July becoming sparse and scrappy: “Dahlias eaten; garden dull; lilies good – plant more”. I think it is in part a legacy from when the children were younger and school holidays, going to stay with parents in Devon in August and later going camping in Cornwall and France. There was no point in planting for August because I was never there and back from holiday the focus was on getting back to school and work in September, no time for gardening other than planting yet more bulbs for another glorious spring.

But the kitchen garden really starts to deliver for you in August. The sugar snap peas and the French beans keep on and on cropping as fast as you can pick. (Note to self: French beans were not dwarf and so the supports are too short. Great variety, grow again next year but needs proper wigwams.) The courgettes are producing far too much as usual, a race to get them off the plant before they morph from green delight into monster marrows. There are red onions swelling and beetroot ready in the ground and the tomatoes in the greenhouse (far too many again, there will be days of chutney making in a few weeks) are beginning to blush faintly red. The globe artichokes I am growing from seed are planted out in a permanent bed, not quite big enough yet to be out of snail danger entirely so needing watching, but the silver serrated leaves lovely in themselves.

There is still weeding to be done, particularly the evil bindweed which longs to take back this garden to the wild and twines and strangles in every bed when you turn your back and the brambles which grow through fruit bushes and grab the unwary as they pass or pick.
It is time to sow more rocket and radishes and more lettuce; to sow rainbow chard as much for the beauty of its coloured stems which will stand through the winter as for the taste which palls for us after the first few weeks of inventive cooking. It is so easy to forget this succession sowing and the mark of a good gardener, which I am not yet but still wish to be, to get it right.

All the new herbs have taken. The lovage is settling in, planning for its gradual expansion from tiny plant to towering beauty. The pineapple sage, ludicrously sweet smelling when the leaves are rubbed between the fingers, is doing well. The fennel is not so sure, it feathery foliage drooping slightly, but it often takes things a while to decide whether they can cope with our stony soil and I think it will be ok. The tarragon is fine and the non-culinary plants which I have grown from seed, Bergamot and Echinacea, are surviving in their pots, despite many snail inroads. Time to plant them out and let them take their chance.

Despite what I have said, there are some real stars still in the flower garden, particularly a Crocosmia Lucifer which carries its sprays of brilliant red like a huge Versailles fountain, and the sweetpeas, planted in hope after reading something Milla wrote and nourished with bags of well rotted horse manure from my friend who raised my chickens. I thought they would never make it in the early weeks when they sulked and sat dully, refusing to grow, and then one day they were off and now they are higher than the raspberry supports and flowering so that the house has jugs of sweetpeas in every room, their faint fragrance catching you unawares as you pass through, like a movement out of the corner of your eye. They are to be enjoyed now for they will soon be gone but by then apples will be ripe and the tomatoes will have taken over the world and the butternut squash will sitting on the kitchen windowsill. It will be chutney time and the house will be full of the smell of vinegar and brown sugar. I would hate to live in a climate without seasons.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Mood lifters

Here are my mood lifters as promised to Cait:

  1. An hour in the garden, not working too hard but poddling:deadheading roses, watering my lavender cuttings, picking some sweetpeas; inspecting the kitchen garden, looking for snails and throwing them over the hedge into the field next door (hope you don't mind Peter) and looking at crops, deciding what to eat tonight, just gentle pottering.
  2. Half an hour watching the bantams clucking and busy in the hen run, their contented little noises seem to soothe any angst and I bet if anyone measured the effect of watching chickens would be to lower the blood pressure.
  3. Taking a cup of tea outside onto the bench in the sun and watching the view and the birds coming and going (I feel I am getting a theme going here, hadn't realised how many of my mood busters were connected to being outside).
  4. Sorting and putting away laundry. There is something about matching socks and making piles of clean, sweet smelling towels that is soothing and satisfying. Of course this one doesn't work when you end up with piles of unmatched socks, final proof of utter inadequacy as a housewife, so can backfire if you have been having a bad sock week.
  5. Lighting the woodburner and sitting down with a fabulously beautiful magazine (The English Garden is good) and a glass of wine.

Reading back through these they all have an element of taking some time to yourself and slowing down, connecting with your life and your place, being in the moment, being kind to yourself.

Sunday, 5 August 2007


I've always wanted to go to Newfoundland, probably influenced by "The Shipping News" and the sense of a place on the edge. Our older son is married to a girl who comes from there so this year we set off for a visit to her family: me, Ian, son, daughter in law, grandson aged one and a half and younger daughter. Younger son was supposed to be coming too but was laid low by glandular fever and had to stay behind.

We drove down to Heathrow through torrential rain, hearing on the radio of motorways blocked and people stranded. Miraculously our drive was ok but our flight was postponed to the following morning and H and C, flying down from Manchester to shorten the journey for the baby, had to go back home and try again the next day. But eventually we were coming off the aircraft at St John's airport (small, shining clean and oh so civilised after Heathrow) and being met by C's parents. H, C and baby were still to come so we did feel rather like the support band when everyone is really keyed up for the main event but the welcome was warm and friendly. Newfies are a friendly and hospitable people wherever we went.

So tired and travel stained we were taken out to the Shack which was to be our holiday home.
The shack is what we used to call a batch when I lived in New Zealand, built as a holiday cottage and furnished with all the stuff from home that is on its last legs, more than a tent but still with an outdoorsy, camping, holiday feel. I love them and this one was a corker, right on the edge of a lake with a big sitting room with a log fire and a deck out the back overlooking a lake.

They left us to settle in. We wandered about, exclaimed, chose rooms and unpacked and went out to the supermarket to stock up. Installed and sorted we just needed the stragglers (or the main event as you chose) and we were off.

Newfoundland is huge, we barely scratched the surface. The towns and settlements cling to the coast, inland is thick conifer woods, beautiful but strangely hostile. For centuries the place has been about the sea - cod and trade. Now the fishing stocks are depleted and huge numbers of young Newfoundlanders leave to find work in Alberta. Both C's brothers live in Calgary and work on the oil rigs many miles to the north but Newfies are powerfully attached to their homeland. It reminds me of Wales where we live, of parts of Scotland, of Orkney, the economy struggling to remake itself as tourism, the old way of life peeling and fading like the abandoned weather board houses. But the coast is beautiful and the wildlife stunning.

Impressions: unseasonal heat, 29 or degrees. Newfies as obsessed with the weather as the Brits.

A boat trip to see puffins and whales. Puffins in their thousands in their burrows on the grassy hillsides above the cliffs. They are smaller than I had imagined and rubbish flyers. They launch themselves from the clifftops ok but setting off from the sea requires minutes of frantic scuttling on the top of the waves, wings threshing madly for take off before they subside back into the water to raise the energy for another attempt.

Whales, so close to the boat you could see the barnacles on their backs, spouting with a huge sigh, the babies leaping from the water in a great arc, monumental but so swift Ian struggling to get photographs. The water blue as blue and the wind warm, the blown spray hardly salty on my arm. A Newfoundland dog by the quay, huge and black, its coat as soft as feathers under my hand.

St Johns a colourful tumble of houses down to the harbour. Lots of men with tattoos and earrings - a history of seafaring maybe? A fabulous museum called The Rooms full of the sense of how hard life must have been here on the rock in the cold and fog. A man building a boat in the old way, beautiful and skilled beyond belief.
Moose sausages on the barbecue brought for a family gathering in response to M's particular request, tasty and good, like beef.

Everwhere everyone friendly and happy to see you.

A stunning downpour, the hills running with water, the sides of roads washed away and The St John's Regatta postponed. The Regatta the next day on Quidi Vidi lake, rowing races being fiercely fought out on the water while families wandered fairground stalls and bouncy castles.
And home again to the soft fields of the English countryside and the hills rising up into Wales and our house tucked into the side of the valley, my parents waiting with the beds changed and the fridge full and the chicken house cleaned. The garden overflowing with jobs to do. Younger son powerfully glad to see us.
It's good to go away (and go and see for Newfoundland needs and deserves its tourism) but it's also good to come home.