Miscellany and detritus, from the writer of Is This Mutton?com

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Winter begone - the daffodils are here

Daffodils by Ted Hughes

The Tete-a-Tetes in my garden
Remember how we picked the daffodils?
Nobody else remembers, but I remember.
Your daughter came with her armfuls, eager and happy,
Helping the harvest. She has forgotten.
She cannot even remember you. And we sold them.
It sounds like sacrilege, but we sold them.
Were we so poor? Old Stoneman, the grocer,
Boss-eyed, his blood-pressure purpling to beetroot
(It was his last chance,
He would die in the same great freeze as you) ,
He persuaded us. Every Spring
He always bought them, sevenpence a dozen,
'A custom of the house'.

Besides, we still weren't sure we wanted to own
Anything. Mainly we were hungry
To convert everything to profit.
Still nomads-still strangers
To our whole possession. The daffodils
Were incidental gilding of the deeds,
Treasure trove. They simply came,
And they kept on coming.
As if not from the sod but falling from heaven.
Our lives were still a raid on our own good luck.
We knew we'd live forever. We had not learned
What a fleeting glance of the everlasting
Daffodils are. Never identified
The nuptial flight of the rarest epherma-
Our own days!
We thought they were a windfall.
Never guessed they were a last blessing.
So we sold them. We worked at selling them
As if employed on somebody else's
Flower-farm. You bent at it
In the rain of that April-your last April.
We bent there together, among the soft shrieks
Of their jostled stems, the wet shocks shaken
Of their girlish dance-frocks-
Fresh-opened dragonflies, wet and flimsy,
Opened too early.

We piled their frailty lights on a carpenter's bench,
Distributed leaves among the dozens-
Buckling blade-leaves, limber, groping for air, zinc-silvered-
Propped their raw butts in bucket water,
Their oval, meaty butts,
And sold them, sevenpence a bunch-

Wind-wounds, spasms from the dark earth,
With their odourless metals,
A flamy purification of the deep grave's stony cold
As if ice had a breath-

We sold them, to wither.
The crop thickened faster than we could thin it.
Finally, we were overwhelmed
And we lost our wedding-present scissors.

Every March since they have lifted again
Out of the same bulbs, the same
Baby-cries from the thaw,
Ballerinas too early for music, shiverers
In the draughty wings of the year.
On that same groundswell of memory, fluttering
They return to forget you stooping there
Behind the rainy curtains of a dark April,
Snipping their stems.

But somewhere your scissors remember. Wherever they are.
Here somewhere, blades wide open,
April by April
Sinking deeper
Through the sod-an anchor, a cross of rust.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

May The Best House Win

If you're looking for a TV show that will become BIG, then look no further than "May the Best House Win." Hidden in the afternoon TV schedule on ITV,  it's a reworking of the successful Come Dine With Me format.

Four strangers visit each other's homes and secretly score them, leaving comments for the owners. The winning house wins £1,000. I have taken to recording it (although it doesn't seem to be on this week).

What's fascinating about it is not just the glimpse of other people's homes, but the way the houses are scored.

You might think that the immaculate stylish homes decorated in the manner of magazines, with gleaming kitchens and minimalist design, would win every time. But quite often they are soundly beaten by lived-in houses that the contestants usually describe as "having more character."

To give you a couple of examples, a young eco warrior's barn house was the winning house. And I don't mean a barn conversion. He literally lived in a barn with no luxuries: just a bed, a composting toilet and a rudimentary kitchen. But he won because he was enjoying his home and living a carefree, truly green existence.

Then we saw a wonderful but terrifyingly weird fantasy home, the work of a Cornish artist. Called the Pink Chapple, it was a confection of pink themed around Alice in Wonderland;  immensely cluttered and like something out a fairy tale. But it scored highly because it reflected the owner's whimsical personality.

A home last week that must have cost millions, which was featured in Footballer's Wives and sported lots of marble, chandeliers and a swimming pool with fountains, was not deemed homely and didn't win.

Then there was the stunning, architect designed house in Cornwall with amazing sea views. It did come first, but joint first with a tiny terraced house filled with home-made cushions and pictures. 

This sort of programme gets you thinking about your own abode. We have been in our house for nearly six years and every year we tackle a big project. Unfortunately these have tended to be boring - eg painting the exterior; replacing the central heating; putting in a drive. This year is no exception: the project is replacing the 30 year old lean-to, which leaks like a sieve. But I am determined to make improvements to the dining room and living room, albeit on a shoestring budget.

It's quite tough to get J to buy into my choices, even though he has to admit that the pink and green bedroom worked very well. He is very conservative. He has already instructed "no more distressed furniture" but I was at great pains to persuade him that the proposed dining room table, while white in colour, has not been distressed in the least. I will struggle to get the multi coloured chandelier past him.

How do you approach decorating and what's your style?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A life spent dieting

It's sad but true. Looking at my online calorie counting guru, Nutracheck, and idly pinging up random data, I found that I first used the site in 2006. For the last five years, the depressing yoyo pattern presents itself: January: start diet to lose half a stone in time for June holiday. June: succeed (phew). September: weight going up. December: oh no....! And this year it was worse, a whole stone to lose, and currently slow progress, barely a pound a week, despite keeping rigidly to the calorie count, exercising and imbibing cidar vinegar in water.

Kim Cattrall recently said she is permanently on a diet, but at least with Kim you can see the visible results of that Herculean struggle. Like most women I am constantly trying to cast off a stone, or half a stone. I guess I'm lucky in that when I was young, children weren't under pressure to diet like they are today. I was a thin child but as a teenager I was a size 14  (US 10) and conscious that I couldn't wear certain clothes. It didn't cause me any angst until the night of the leaving school party, when a teacher and someone else made a reference to my weight, which caused me to storm off early and start my first diet.

I already knew all about dieting because my mother was always on one. In those days, diets were Limmits or Bisk meal replacement biscuits, that looked a bit like Chappie dog biscuits; PLJ, a very sharp lemon drink, and Ayds, squares of toffee that were supposed to have magical weight loss powers. She also bought Slimming Magazine which I would pore over, becoming very knowledgeable at a young age about calories, metabolism and the wisdom of Professor John Yudkin.

I remember that I ate a lot of sild on toast in that first diet, and that I very quickly lost half a stone. My friends came to meet me to go to Wood's (the nightclub de jour) and gasped when they saw my reveal. I suddenly had a waist, which I had proudly cinched in with a wide pink belt. 

Over the years I have tried many diets. The F Plan, with that sawdust-like "fibre filler", pease pudding and Granny Ann biscuits. Atkin's, which left me revolted after six weeks of meat, cream, sugar free jelly and no fruit and veg. South Beach. Perricone. More recently, Dukan, which is like Atkins but with a little fruit and veg, and the "Spent Diet," for the exhausted, which had such an overwhelming list of must buy's, none of it readily available, that a person would feel even more exhausted.

And of course, the only thing that works is eating less and exercising more, whether you do it with low carbs, high protein, low GI, Weightwatchers or calorie counting.

I finally cracked it in 2004 when I lost two and a half stone and got to a UK size 12  (US eight) which is where I am happiest. Since then, I have largely kept it off, but foolishly allowed a few too many pounds to creep up after the wedding last year, so now I am battling with a stone. Two pounds off this week, hurrah!

It's depressing how it has become our way of life. For me, I wake up happy when I am dieting. There's no guilt, unlike when I eat the "bad" things I love, like cheese, quiche, crisps or Scotch eggs. But I dread going into restaurants lest I am tempted, as the prospect of fish with vegetables is never very appealing. Today was a good day. A pub lunch, but my king prawn salad turned out to be a very low calorie option (no dressing) and so I had enough calories in the bank to savour some "real" food this evening. What are your dieting stories? Can anyone honestly say they have never dieted?

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A few basics of online marketing

I buy nearly everything on line. I hate going into shops. Holidays, clothes, flights, groceries, books, cosmetics, you name it. So I'm quite a savvy online shopper, and know what makes a good site. If a site is bad - slow, cumbersome and badly designed, or allowing you to order without having goods in stock - then I don't go back to it.

A couple of things really annoy me because they are so basic.

The first is that you're prompted to go to a website by a newsletter, flyer or magazine article. But then you can't find the items you're interested in: they're not in stock and there's no facility to ask to be notified when they're back in stock. A flyer for a company called AWear.com fell out of Grazia today. I liked the look of some of the new trends. You would think that seeing as Grazia comes out on Tuesdays, AWear would have been ready for some interest. I searched for two of the items. Neither came up. I discovered that the Harriet skirt, shown in camel in the flyer, was only available in navy or black. As for the pin tuck military shirt in sand, well, the search using its reference number delivered no results, and I couldn't see the shirt in the gallery.

Which makes me think AWear is guilty of the second thing I hate: failing to update their website at the same time as a promotional campaign goes live.

I had another example of this last week. I received a brochure in the post for Peony, whose silk flowers my mum likes. She adores bluebells, so when I saw their new spring collection featured bluebells, I went immediately to their website, only to find it still featured the winter range and bluebells there were none.

I emailed them and they replied that the website was being updated "as we speak." Perhaps I would like to ring through with my order instead?  No way Jose. I would never give my credit card details to a stranger. Believe it or not, computers are far safer if you keep them up-to-date with security and virus software, and don't fall for silly scams.

Now that we're all used to shopping online for everything,  we've come to expect the highest standards. Delivery on a nominated day is vital. Who can take time off work to sit in all day, on the off-chance? Here I must single out Laura Ashley. Not only do they give you a definite time slot, their delivery people ring you on the way to your house to let you know they'll be here in xx minutes. Then they unpack the item so that you can inspect it  (and return it there and then) and they don't inflict all the packaging on you. Now that's the sort of service all online retailers should aspire to.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

A few of my favourite things

1. Reading the bulb catalogue in winter
2. Decent cup of tea after a trip abroad.
3. Making a playlist.
4. My Radio 4 podcasts.
5. The anticipation around programmes like Strictly Come Dancing.
6. Getting dressed up on holiday.
7. Blue sky and sunshine on a cold winter's day.
8. Bluebell wood.
9. Looking at the menu in a restaurant.
10. The first stocks of summer.
11. The first morning in your holiday destination.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Tragedy of the Nijinskys

As the title of my blog would suggest, I am an inveterate collector of facts and curios. A few years ago I read a review of a new book about the legendary dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. Reader, I bought the book, and a great many others about him, and if I were ever to appear on Mastermind, this would be my specialist subject.

Another famous Nijinsky
I have just finished a biography by his daughter Tamara. If she is still alive, she is  91 years old. She barely knew her father. His brief brilliant career ended when he was in his 20s and went mad. For the rest of his life he lived in asylums.

Nijinsky's life was tragic, but reading Tamara's book, I was transfixed by the tragedy of the Nijinsky women. This would make a fascinating film in itself.

Polish born Nijinsky, variously described in books as shy and sullen, transformed himself when he applied his make-up and elaborate costumes and danced. Although no footage exists, he was capable of remarkable feats of dancing and could apparently hang in the air as he performed entre chats. He was also a skilled mime and actor.

His lover was the famous impresario Diaghilev, who made his charge world famous as they travelled the world with the Ballets Russe.

Diaghilev was terrified of water so he didn't join the company on a long cruise to South America. And that was where Romola de Pulzsky, an ambitious socialite, the daughter of a famous Hungarian actress, saw her opportunity.

She relentlessly pursued Nijinsky, and, although they didn't have a language in common, succeeded in marrying him before the end of the voyage.

Diaghilev was stunned (as was the world) and Nijinsky's career took a deep nose dive. The first of his two daughters was born, Kyra, and he and Romola were trapped in Hungary at the start of the First World War. He then lost his mind, writing his famous diary as he did so.

Romola never gave up on a cure for her husband, or on trying to keep the legend of Nijinsky alive. She tirelessly roamed the world, serving lawsuits and meeting impressarios, trying to get books and films produced.

The tomb in Montmartre
Nijinsky died in 1950 and was buried first in London and then later interred in Montmartre, Paris.

Romola continued to try to get her mother's villa back from the Hungarian government and to get Mikhail Baryshnikov cast in a film abnout Nijinsky. Meanwhile she was scarcely speaking to her mother or either of her daughters, now living in America, and they weren't speaking to each other. Tamara was estranged from her own daughter Kinga for years on end.

When Romola died, she was buried in a different country to her husband when she had desperately wanted to be buried with him. Tamara didn't go to her funeral.

Her dream of a film about Nijinsky was fulfilled in 1980, two years after her death, but it was horrendous and sank without trace. Baryshnikov was not in it.

She would have been happy to have been at London's V&A museum recently. An exhibition about the life and times of Diaghilev featured many original drawings and costumes of Nijinsky, and these drew the largest crowds. His legend still lives on.In April I will see his famous ballet, L'Apres Midi D'Un Faun for the fourth time in London in a Diaghilev Festival, plus the role he made synonymous, Le Spectre de la Rose (top).

Further reading
Nijinsky: Richard Buckle. The definitive biography.
The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky
Nijinsky, a Leap Into Madness: Peter Ostwald. A modern study of Nijinsky's madness and how it would be treated now.
Romola and Vaslav: Tamara Nijinsky
Early Memoirs: Bronislava Nijinska. His sister's autobiography which portrays a different Vaslav, mischievious and fun loving.

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