Monday, 28 December 2009

Honest Scrap

One of the most interesting gardening blogs I read is from James at Federal Twist.  He has tentatively tagged me for a meme called "Honest Scrap".  I seem to have been blogging for so long that I don't often do memes any more as I can't imagine there is anything much left to say about myself but I so like his blog and am so surprised and pleased that he thought of me that I will give it a go (except I may cheat and not pass it on.)

These are the rules. You have to first list 10 honest things about yourself (and make them interesting). Second, present the award to seven other bloggers.

  1. I have addresssed a conference of tax professionals at a hotel in Las Vegas followed by a four course dinner at a casino which looks like Paris in Springtime.
  2. I gave up ballet at the age of fourteen when it was clear I was never going to be good, however often I read Noel Streatfield's "Ballet Shoes".
  3. I can swim in a slow and stately fashion for miles (my father once said I looked like the QE2 and at stage I was only sixteen and quite slender) but I hate going under water. 
  4. I like cooking, jam and chutney making, weeding, growing things from seed, dreaming about my garden in the winter by the fireside.
  5. I hate shopping, hanging around in airports, celebrity magazines, plastic surgery, casual cruelty (or the personification of the last two combined in Anne Robinson - sorry, James, UK centric, not sure if you are familiar with her in the US, imagine snippy and domineering with scarily smooth face).
  6. I find politics fascinating but can't bear to listen to politicians being interviewed.  Sometimes while listening to the Today programme on the radio in the morning I will turn the radio off three or four times so as not to be infuriated by yet another politician failing to accept responsibility or to acknowledge that someone on the other side of the fence has actually said something sensible.
  7. I can't ski and can't ice skate and now accept that I am not going to spend the time learning to do something which would involve so much falling over.
  8. I have one foot bigger than the other (don't think there is any connection with 7 above).
  9. I have planted two mulberry trees, one white, one black, which I would like to see fruit.  They are two years old, they don't usually fruit before they are about fifteen.  I am fifty five. 
  10. I like Chablis, Riesling and sloe gin.  I am not fond of coca cola or malibu.
Now I am going to fail to pass this on unless anyone reading this feels like having a go.  Hope you will forgive me James - a halfway house response!

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Christmas - so how did it go?

Cake: The home made marzipan was delicious, just lemony and almondy enough to kill any oversweetness.  I had intended the icing to be the classic rough snow version.  Sadly it was just not thick enough and ran gently over the cake and settled into a mildly rumpled appearance like the creases on a baby's brow.  Fortunately we have a month old  baby right here so we can regard the cake as a tribute to Joseph.  Tastes good too (the cake, not the baby).

Pudding: it was yummy, served with a choice of white sauce, with extra sherry, for the traditionalists or cream for me.  A dark and rich chocolate log made by younger daughter was an alternative for those who don't like Christmas pudding, or an extra for the determined and enthusiastic eaters amongst us of whom there are plenty.

Turkey: I leave this one to older son who said "I think this must be the best Christmas dinner ever".  How can this be?  It is the same meal every year so should come out roughly the same, but he was right, it was a particularly good one.  The turkey was succulent and tasty and the roasties were crunchy outside and fluffy within.  I made a hames of the cranberry relish which was supposed to have a bit of chilli in it but ended up having a whole one.  However after large amounts of wine and sugar and poking and messing about and tasting, it ended up spicy but yummy if you like a bit of heat.  My favourite thing is a turkey and stuffing sandwich and I shall be having one just as soon as I finish this.

Other meals:   Other meals all went swimmingly with loads of assistance from younger son and daughter in law before they went away on Christmas Eve and more help from the assembled others on Christmas Day, apart from the new parents who are excused kitchen duty this year.  There has been debate of the "if you could only have one of the beef, the gammon or the turkey what would you choose?" variety.  I have enjoyed feeding the hordes but also worked quite hard so last night I announced that Elizabeth would not be cooking for forty eight hours.  The food preparation service will resume tomorrow.  All food today must be foraged from the fridge by he or she who is hungry and self assembled.

Cards: well you know how it is.  There are always the people you dithered about and didn't send to who get their card to you on Christmas Eve when there is no chance of you getting one to them.  Sorry, those who got missed.  Next year we will play the same trick on you.

Tree: We have had three sets of lights on the tree this year which has been a great attraction for the baby.  He is also fascinated by the pattern of the beams against the kitchen ceiling.

Decorating the house: Daughter in law surprised me by coming back from a shopping trip with some coloured felt and stuffing material and sitting on the floor by the fire making Christmas decorations which are now hanging from the hooks in the ceiling which used to hold hams.  They include a Christmas tree and a Santa Claus and the less well known Christmas Dog.

Presents: Everybody seemed very pleased with presents this year.  I have had a great year with a new camera, some books which I am saving until everyone has gone but which are already gently calling to me, pajamas and a pair of slippers which are so stunningly cosy I forgive them for being a clear indication of my granny status.  The baby had his first Christmas outfit, tiny little reindeer parading across his tiny little chest.

Wrapping: All the paper in the bin.  Even the messy looking parcels wrapped by me.  It all ends up the same place.  No wonder I fail to commit myself to getting better at it.

Candles and wine: somehow we still haven't lit the candles but wine has been drunk and chocolate has been eaten and logs burnt.

We have had a lovely Christmas.  I hope you have too.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Christmas - where are we up to?

Cake: made, fed lovingly with brandy every week, but not yet marzipaned or iced.  I used to think I hated marzipan until I discovered that what I didn't like was very sweet, shop bought marzipan.  I love home made marzipan with lemon juice and ground almonds so need to get on and make some.

Pudding: made, sitting in the pantry, wrapped in the muslin it steamed in.

Turkey: ordered from the butcher to be picked up along with the gammon and the sausagemeat on Wednesday morning.  I need to remember that giving myself half an hour to do this will not work.  There will be conversations going on the butcher which is also a post office and a deli which will mean the whole operation will need double that amount of time.

Other meals: planned, sort of.  I have a rough list of things to cook which is waiting the arrival of the first of the returning adult children.  Son and daughter in law have offered to cook a meal or two over the next few days so they may have a look at the ingredients in freezer and pantry and have ideas of their own.

Cards: some written, some done by Ian, we have now hit the stage where all the distant people are done and others may or may not happen, depending on what else is to do and what comes through the door.

Tree: delivered by a kind friend and outside, leaning against the never used front door of the farmhouse.  I am hoping Ian and son between them will install it inside and that we can decorate it tomorrow so that it will be hung with all our ancient and rather tatty ornaments when daughter, son in law and the baby arrive on Monday.  There was a year when they were all teenagers when I tried to have a more glamourous and minimalist tree.  I went out and bought some rather beautiful silver decorations and banned the tinsel.  It was a total waste of time.  There was outcry.  Each of them began smuggling something else on: the wonky robin, the drunken knitted snowman, the toilet roll cylinder covered in shiny paper made when one was about four.  I admitted defeat.  Sentiment and excess rule.

Decorating the house:  Let us see tomorrow what is growing out in the field.  I know that hellebore foetidus  is out in the garden and some viburnum bodnantense is beginning to come into flower, far too early.  They might make the centre of a table decoration for Christmas Day.  Otherwise there is holly in the hedges and ivy growing all over the bank behind the house so we will have that and nothing else in the house I think.  At least there is so much of it that if it begins to flag the twigs can light the fire and another armful can come inside.

Presents: all done.  Not too much although as my parents' and my sister's and my brother's presents come into the house things are beginning to pile up very satisfyingly.

Carols: sung, beautiful, no thanks to me at all, but beautiful.

Wrapping: hmm, we have done some (we as in Ian who can wrap so much better than I can.  Mine look as if I threw the paper on hopefully and then sellotaped until I ran out).  Sadly there are loads more to do and Ian has had an operation on his hand today.  Perhaps we shall just go for the dog chewed look.  It will go with the slightly tatty, homemade look of everything else!

Candles: there are loads,  a new haul from Morrisons.

Wine: by the caseload.

So there should be food, and wine and candles.  Candles hide a multitude of sins!

Thursday, 17 December 2009

New life and the year ends

A few days down with my daughter and son in law and the new baby.  Sometimes time folds in on itself.  It feels simultaneously a long time since I was in a house with a very new baby and no time at all since that baby was mine.  This must be why mothers and mothers in law are famed for interfering and telling new parents how to do it.  It feels so fresh and recent.  You pick the baby up and he settles into your shoulder just like his mother did but this time you feel calm and confident, not desperate and all at sea as I did the first time round.

But these new parents really don't need any telling what to do.  The house has become sleepy and milky and running to baby time, his feeds setting the pace and the shape of the day.  They look very at home shushing and settling him and changing his nappy, very unfazed when he is temporarily cranky, carefully noting down when he feeds and sleeps but in a matter of fact way, without panic or obsesssiveness.  It is wonderful to see them, already a little family, and I am struck most by the way in which they are truly sharing these early weeks, knowing how very lucky they are to be able to do that when so many fathers have to rush back to work and reengage with the working world through a sleep deprived fug.

I cooked and cleaned a little, watched the baby while my daughter slept, carrying him around his house, singing Welsh carols to him, and watched my daughter's face as she held and fed him, utterly besotted and in love. 

One day my parents drove up from Devon to deliver Christmas presents and meet their great grandchild.  My mother and I both had our children young, so my mother, sitting with her great grandchild on her knee, is only seventy six and looks younger.  I am suddenly aware of the spider's web of relationships in families.  She is watching the baby's face and I glance up and see that my father is watching not the baby but her, the look of deep affection on his face reminding me that our parents have their own emotional lives too. 

They go and the next day my younger daughter comes, bearing a sausage casserole and an apple cake.  She is my step daughter and they are step sisters, these two, although we have been a family so long the step part feels a bit redundant and  I don't think they use the term in talking about each other.  Again there is a strong sense of family as the baby sleeps in his aunt's arms and later as they all make each other fall about laughing in the kitchen over elder daughter's rendition of New York, New York to the unsurprised baby with his wide all seeing eyes.  I am very lucky.

And now home to engage with the reality of Christmas.  Son and daughter in law are coming for a few days beforehand as they will not be here on Christmas Day, and the rest of the family are convening over next week with the baby having his first introduction to Wales (there was much talk of "Wales clothes" when I was with them.  While the cottage where they will be staying is very cosy, the house works as houses used to do with cosy sitting rooms and cool bedrooms).  Older grandson has gone off with his mother to visit his other family across the Atlantic.  He is missed but it seems mean to mind too much when we have his company for so much of the year and his other family are longing to see him.  His father I hope will be here for Christmas, distracting himself with food and presents and company and looking forward to having him home again.

So I have lists to make and cards to send and presents to wrap.  I need to inspect the holly to see if we have much with berries and feed the Christmas cake again and muse about food.  It is good to be home again with Ian and to have a couple of evenings together before the hordes descend.  My mother used to say to me cheerfully when we all had our Christmas with them "I love it when you come and I love it again when you go".  I know exactly what she means.  My parents will be with my sister's family so I know they will have a good time.  And as for me, I am looking forward so much to everyone being here.  I too will love it when they come, and love it all over again when they go!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Christmas carols with the male voice choir

Tonight we sing at the service of nine lessons in our local church.  So it is tights under black trousers, thick socks, thermal vest under white shirt and a few deep breaths.

I am not sure I would ever have sung with a choir if we had not come to Wales.  I am not particularly musical and have a voice which only works at all if there are other people around who can hold the tune.   I sing soprano because I find it easier to keep to the familiar tune but the very high notes are really beyond me and from time to time I am just opening my mouth.  But I absolutely love it, surrounded by the music, riding a wave of sound.

The choir is a male voice choir, with rich bass voices that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.  Once a year for Christmas they invite the women from the village to join them for the Carol Service and I got swept along on the very Welsh assumption that every one can sing really, despite my protests.  For six weeks we have rehearsed on a Monday evening, the old favourites like The Holly and the Ivy and We Three Kings sounding fresh and true with the harmony of the different voices.  But my favourites are the carols in Welsh.  Who would have believed a few years ago that I could ever sing at all, never mind in Welsh, but I find that I can, with friends around and a following wind.

This is not our choir but I wanted to share the extraordinary beauty of the sound.    Just ordinary people, firemen, policemen, nurses, housewives, farmers and their wives, ordinary people making an extraordinary sound. Is it just me or does it make your nerves tingle too?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Christmas - let's just all calm down a bit.

Now I know this is my fault.  I don't have to read magazines and perhaps I shouldn't, especially not in the run up to Christmas.  I don't have to read weekend papers and watch television but, heck, I like all those things.  I am a real newspaper addict, love my particular magazines dearly (Country Living, Good Housekeeping, Woman and Home, Gardens Illustrated and The English Garden since you asked, with occasional diversions into Red) and while I don't watch a lot of television, what I do like are things that make me laugh like  "The Thick of It"  and cookery or gardening programmes, particularly ones like River Cottage which talk about growing and cooking the kind of food I like.

So I don't really want to turn into Mrs Grumpy and give up my usual pleasures during the run up to Christmas but I am plodding through my usual reading feeling that the country is running mad.  Do people really give each other £900 headsets from Swavorski or is it a joke?  Do they spend £68 on a child's watch?  I don't spend that much on my own watch and any of my children would have broken or lost it within a week until they were well into their teens.  Do people buy Prada velvet and crystal shoes for £505?  Does every child have a laptop and a mobile phone by the time they are eight?  I know there are some fabulous exceptions.  (Have a look at Who's the Mummy's fantastic toy guide for a reminder that there are lots of great things out there which don't break the bank.) But an hour or two with my favourite papers and magazines at the moment is making me feel quite queasy.

Similarly, do people really fret and angst about cooking the Christmas meal to the extent that magazines and television imply that they do?  Come on, it's only a roast dinner.  If you can roast a chicken you can roast a turkey and if the problem is not knowing what to do with a great big bird, ask yourself exactly why five of you need a 14lb turkey anyway.  Buy a 10lb one and you won't find it that different from cooking a chicken and you'll have plenty, unless you intend to feed twenty five which I suggest you don't do unless you like doing it.   Sorry, I can hear myself getting bossy here.

And all the endless exhortations to "get ahead"!  Yes, it is great to have some meals in the freezer if you have guests staying for days but how long are the shops going to be shut?  Less than forty eight hours?  You don't need to behave as if we are all going to be snowbound for a fortnight.

All that stuff about stress and how to cope with your awful relatives at Christmas too!  Do people really get so stressed by making a Christmas dinner and sharing it with their in laws?

It all makes me want to say:
Buy less.  We all have way too much stuff.  I know present giving feels like showing your loved ones how much you care and I am absolutely not immune from that sensation that somehow you haven't found the best and brightest and biggest present or from the desire to please and cherish.  But maybe we can please and cherish with time and care and something smaller or even home made.

Fret less.  Your house doesn't have to be perfect, neither do your children and neither do you.  Hang up the cards, bring a tree in (one you can put back outside if you can, but a fresh one which smells like a tree), light a few candles or a fire and it looks festive and Christmassy without spending a fortune on decorations from John Lewis or hours making home made gingerbread men, unless of course you like making home made gingerbread men.

And I suppose that the thing I feel like saying most of all, especially to women,  is to enjoy it, do what you like doing.  If you are newly weds and you really want to spend Christmas at home together, eating special food, going to bed for the afternoon, watching old movies, well do it.  Things will change and when you have a family the chance for a little loving selfishness won't happen for another twenty years.  You can go visiting parents before and after Christmas Day and shower them with some of your bright and shiny loving kindness.

If you are exhausted balancing work and home and the very last thing you feel like doing is cooking a Christmas meal and washing up afterwards, don't.  Go out to a hotel, go abroad, run away, drum up some assistance.  Work out what you need to do to have a nice time and, in so far as it is reasonable, do it.

And if some of your relatives are a bit trying either don't invite them at all, or, if that would create World War III, put up with it.  It is only a few hours of listening to the same old stories and swigging another glass of wine.  Surround yourself with the people you love and if you have to have the odd one who you wouldn't have through the door were it not for the sake of one you love dearly, well that's the deal in family life.  "Suck it up" as my son would say. 

If you are a religious person, Christmas will have a meaning for you that ought to make sense of the celebration, but if you are not it can still be a great time: a few days off work, the company of your nearest and dearest, nice food, the chance to sit by the fire or go for a walk, a pause in the rush of life while the year turns.  Turn your back on excess, whether it is excess consumption or excess fuss, and have a good time whether it is with those you love or on your own.  You know anyway that the best bit is always the cold turkey sandwich on Boxing Day.

I am way too messy to be a minimalist but this might be a time to borrow their slogan: less is more.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Moving out of the city

In November we hit four years of living here. I think we can now safely say that we are not going to get cold feet and run away back to street lights and cinemas and delis. I think we are going to stay put.

A friend asked me the other day what we felt about moving out of the city and whether we felt we had made the right move. I could tell she didn't quite get it. People come up here and some say "You are living my dream" while others are too polite to say so but go away clearly thinking we are nuts. I am in list making mode today having been making Christmas lists as an alternative to actually doing something so here are

Things I miss about the city:
  1. living round the corner from a really good delicatessen.
  2. the view from Waterloo Bridge.
  3. slipping out for a curry.
  4. that sense of being at the heart of things.

and some things I don't miss:

  1. dirt, rubbish blowing the streets.
  2. crowds, especially
  3. on rush hour tubes, where you end up crushed up against somebody's armpit.
  4. noise and rush and the casual rudeness of a place which is too full.

And the downsides of living in the country?

  1. Mud. In winter you can't go outside without walking socks and rigger boots and both boots and cars are mired in mud.
  2. Distance from everything. You need to be organised to live here when running out of butter can mean a forty minute round trip.
  3. Mud, did I say that?
  4. Dust and spiders if you mind either or both. They don't really bother me. They are perhaps a reflection of living in an old house rather than a rural one.
  5. Solitude could be a downside I suppose. There is quite a lot of time on your own but I don't mind that either as long as I have a blast of sociability every few days to stop me going peculiar.

And the upsides?

  1. Space, a couple of acres to grow things in and wander about in and to really breathe.
  2. Hens, scratching and clucking and running about and making me laugh and giving us the best eggs ever.
  3. Views, green and trees down to the bottom of the valley and up to the ridge and the hills green and purple against the sky.
  4. Silence, broken by the mewing of a soaring buzzard or the distant bleating of sheep.
  5. The friendliness of people in the village, stopping, chatting, everything happening at a gentle, pottering pace.
  6. Swallows in the summer and woodpeckers on the bird feeders in winter.
  7. Starlight and a clear cold moon on nights that are truly dark.

I wouldn't change it for the world.