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

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas decorations remembered

Watching "Wartime Farm: Christmas" and seeing Ruth Goodman making paper lanterns, I was catapaulted back into Geasons Primary School and our messy endeavours to make decorations every Christmas.  One teacher had us painting tree branches white, and hanging baubles from them. Another had us making paper chains. Everyone had them - strips of coloured card that formed a circle.

When I was a child, we hung paper streamers across the ceiling and bunches of balloons in the corners. The decorations looked like these (right) - they were made by a company called Harlequin and were intricately cut and bright colours. These gave way to similar "drop downs" where several metres of coloured foil cut out decorations were concertina'd between two end plates.

Our first artificial Christmas tree arrived around 1969, courtesy of Freeman's catalogue. It was very tall, right up to the ceiling, and turquoise with silvery bits.

We had a faithful old collection of baubles that came out year after year, and long plumes of tinsel and strands of lametta. Mum liked to hang lametta from the chains across the ceiling, which used to constantly drop down and drive my dad mad.

Some of the baubles were those delightful old-fashioned ones with the side cut out. I've seen similar ones on eBay. We had a couple of glass birds. I loved them and was thrilled to find a very similar one at one of the Christmas shops in Oberammergau.

The fairy lights were big and chunky, some of them with a sugary texture. When one bulb failed, the whole lot stopped working.  They looked similar to those on the right.

And at the top of the tree was a shabby fairy who resembled a ballet dancer. Her white crepe paper dress became a dirty yellow over the years.

One thing I've found is that there isn't much on the Internet about Christmas decorating traditions. I'll come back tomorrow with an update.


Sunday, December 09, 2012

A Tudor Christmas

Last year I wrote about the Christmas traditions of other countries. This year I thought I would step back in time to look at the Tudor Christmas.

I'm fascinated by the Tudor period, and knowing how devout they were, I imagined their Christmas would revolve around church with the rich enjoying a "bird within a bird within a bird" roast.

There would be no Christmas trees - this didn't start until Prince Albert popularised them in Victorian times - or "Father Christmas," who came along courtesy of the Coca Cola company.

The Tudors' Christmas festival lasted from December 25 to January 6. Some fasting was required as preparation, so on Christmas Eve they didn't eat meat, cheese or eggs. As a bonus, they didn't work during this period except for those who had to look after animals. Flowers were wrapped around spinning wheels to stop women from working.

Christmas Day was a busy time for Henry VIII. He had to go to Mass three times and was expected to wear new clothes. He banned any sports taking place on Christmas Day except for jousting and archery.


During the 12 Days of Christmas people visited friends and relatives and shared "mince pyes,"identical to the mince pies we enjoy today. They had 13 ingredients representing Christ and the apostles.

Tudor Pie
They did indeed enjoy a bird within a bird ---- in the form of a Tudor pie. This was traditionally a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon. It was made into a pie. Turkey was made popular by Henry VIII who was one of the first Britons to eat one at Christmas.

Feasts were accompanied by the "wassail bowl" of punch. A piece of bread was soaked at the bottom and always given to the most important person in the room, becoming the tradition of toasting.

The Tudors also had a Christmas pudding, but it was shaped like a sausage and contained meat and spices.

Presents and carols

Gifts were not exchanged until New Year's Day. Carols were popular in Tudor times as a way of spreading the story of the Nativity. Celebrations came to an abrupt end in the 17th century when the Puritans banned Christmas. Carols became extinct until Victorian times.

Other traditions

The kiss under the mistletoe harks back to the Tudor period. In the 15th century it became customary to create a "kissing bough" made of a bendy wood. An effigy of Christ was placed inside and the bough was hung in the house where the local priest would bless it. Anyone visiting the house would embrace under the bough to show they brought goodwill.

Further Reading
The Tudors Wiki
Historic UK
Local Histories


Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The silly world of Claridge's

A programme on BBC Two took us into the hallowed portals of posh London hotel Claridge's last night, "for the first time ever!"

In this old-fashioned, fusty looking place rooms cost around six thousand pounds a night.

The guests are the uber rich:  Arab royalty, little known US designers and popstars  ("Mr The Edge" has lost any edge now we know this is where he holes up).

No guest's request is ever refused. It's as if the abundance of money has rendered common sense and good manners redundant.

Some of these rich guests demand for their room, nay suite, to be redecorated! At their own expense, of course. It reverts back to beige blandness afterwards  (the uber rich are not very tasteful - look at the Trumps, the Ecclestones). One imagines an Arab princess stamping her foot like Veruccae Salt and demanding a new carpet for her stay.

Talking of Arab princesses, Claridges' staff were hard at work transforming a whole floor into an Arabian palace. They weren't sure when the retinue was arriving: the guests were too busy flitting around on planes and no-one had the decency to lock down on an actul date  (how suburban!). In fact it was possible they could cancel. But in this fiercely competitive world, Claridge's just has to grin and bear it in case the spoilt family went somewhere else. So bedrooms were turned into banqueting halls and kitchens, and two rooms were set aside just for the shopping.

The rich guests sometimes stuff safes or carrier bags with wads of cash, we were breathlessly told. And leave it behind! Hmm, I would be a bit suspicious of that. The late Michael Jackson carried cash because he was in such debt that anything paid into his bank account would have gone straight to creditors.

Does all this money buy you happiness? Well, no-one does much work, it would seem, and they spend their time flitting from one gilded cage to another. Paris today, London tomorrow. The only one who seemed content was Sammy the dog, whose Botox'd owner told us that he liked coming to Claridge's where he has his own bowl and basket. The concierge was probably less happy when she gave him what looked like a coin for the privilege of walking Sammy.

This hushed and hallowed world seemed very vacuous and silly. These people can teach us nothing about humility and good manners. They should take a leaf out of the book of Bill and Melinda Gates, who have dedicated their lives post-Microsoft to spending their fortune on good causes. They travel a lot too but it's not to race tracks or fashion shows. They travel to places where women are forced to give birth to children one after the other because their corrupt governments don't spend on women's health or contraception.

I suspect we would not find Mr and Mrs Gates arguing about their carpet being the wrong colour or needing a room set aside for atrocities purchased in the Egyptian room of Harrod's.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Art for Art's Sake

Good art, like good newspaper columnists, should divide opinion.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and it would be a sad world that didn't encourage diversity, variety and controversy.

So I was amused when the Daily Mail in its usual heavy-handed, "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" style launched a broadside against Damien Hirst this week. The writer told us gleefully that Hirst's works are falling in price, and that the adulation around him was Emperor's New Clothes, because he can't paint or draw and has dozens of minions who churn out his works.

Tracey Emin wasn't free from the broadside either, as the writer poured venom onto her "dirty bed."

No, real artists are the likes of JMW Turner, said the writer.

Hmmm. I admire the works of JMW Turner but I'm afraid their...well, sludginess, and high percentage of ship content, does not induce any sort of emotional response in me. Nor does the work of Damien Hirst, but I wouldn't be so naive as to criticise one artist over another. Indeed, the Bishop of Chichester has defended Hirst this week, saying he is an agent of Jesus Christ, a man of substance whose "exquisite" work draws us to a contemplation of Heaven.

And that is as it should be. Everyone perceives art in a different way and has a different reaction to it.

A few years ago, I had an encounter with the three Rothkos in Tate St Ives. I was completely floored; sat transfixed, feeling myself consumed within those boundless colours.

I'm sure that Daily Mail writer would sneer at the work of Mark Rothko. He would probably say a child of six could do something similar.

This writer even sneered at the wonderful "A Bigger Picture" David Hockney exhibition a few months ago. I had a less emotional response but nonetheless I was breathless and awe struck at the energy and passion that resonated through the galleries. This was not the work of an elderly man, and in this lies the beauty of art. Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon were still painting just before they died, and their work had lost none of his power or vigour.

Art makes you immortal.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The garden in November

This has been the first year that our garden truly became "mine." We had a lot of work done and I planted from scratch. I have loved keeping the garden tidy and buying new plants and spring bulbs, but it's come at the expense of my crafting hobby. I'm not sure everyone appreciated the hand-made cards anyway!

I have been keen to put the garden to bed ----- pruning the perennials and putting down manure to improve the soil composition (very claggy clay) ---- but the garden has other ideas! The phlox, hostas and ferns are the only things showing signs of going dormant. The dianthus, nemesia, salvias and fuchsias are still going for it, as shown by the photos taken on Sunday.

Looking forward to next year now when the snowdrops that I planted in-the-green will be the first to emerge, along with the hellebores and then all the crocus, hyacinths, daffodils and tulips. Happy times!


Monday, October 15, 2012

Strictly: the story so far

After two shows in the new season, everyone has danced and we've had the usual handful of strategic injuries  (eg Denise Van Outen with "whiplash" yet still managing cart wheels and a stunning jive); a new judge with an irritating habit, and Tess wearing dresses that lead everyone to ask if she is pregnant.

Yes, Strictly Come Dancing is back and the formula is the same:  someone from a boy band, someone from a girl band, someone from EastEnders, someone from ITV, a  low league filmstar, etc.

Gratifyingly it is beating X Factor by around a million viewers. I'm surprised people still watch X Factor, given that it's such a cynical exercise in making money. The phone lines open before anyone has even performed, and the judges are told who to put through.

Anyway. Aside from that. My views on #SCD and in particular:

1) The return of the dance-off
Bad news! It means that judges can cling on to their favourites when quite rightly the public have decided they should go.  I'm thinking that this time it might mean that Denise Van Outen gets a ticket for the final when most of us are incensed that she's in the show in the first place. As her jive showed, she's virtually at professional standard.  She can argue all she likes that she hasn't had Latin and ballroom experience, but when you're a natural dancer, and you've danced in two musicals, it's irrelevant.She will pick up new steps much faster than someone like Victoria Pendleton or the ousted Johnny Ball who haven't had stage school training or West End stage experience.

2) Darcey Bussell
The new judge brings some more technical expertise to the panel, even though it seems to be limited to contestants' arm placement and finger finishing. But she has a really irritating habit of saying "yah?" at the end of the most sentences. She reduced this in the latest show, but there was some yah leakage.

3) Judges with favourites
It's very obvious this time who's a favourite with the judges. They were very harsh on Colin Salmon, Kimberley Walsh and the bloke from Westlife.  But they're disproportionately kind and effusive with Van Outen, Dani Harmer, Victoria Pendleton and Fern Britton. Victoria deserves some support: she's never danced before and she doesn't have much confidence. But judges need to remember the word BALANCE.
Tess in one of last year's dresses

4) Tess's dresses
Last year Tess wore a succession of dresses with one shoulder and a side split. This year she is sporting tight satin numbers. Last week's white dress was cheap looking; this week my mum was asking if Tess was pregnant, so uncompromising is the tightness of the satin. We need to notice the Tess and not the dresss. At the moment it's the other way round. On the subject of Tess, the animosity between her and Sir Bruce is all too apparent. I think Tess is fed up with being his Anthea Redfern foil. She's totally different when presenting with Claudia. Bruce has upped his game this time. I've sniggered at a couple of his terrible jokes, and I laughed when he rushed over to kiss Craig after James and Van Outen.

5) My favourites
Colin Salmon
Like Brucie, I have my favourites. Colin Salmon is gorgeous, smooth, silky voiced. Sid from EastEnders is much better than anyone expected and fun. Lisa Riley is lovely and I'm so glad she made a stand about not wanting to be the comedy turn because she's a larger lady. My fear is that as we get near to the final, if she's in dance off with Van Outen, the judges will probably put Van Outen through, even though the public will vote in droves for Lisa.

I'm taken by the cricketer too, Michael Vaughan. He comes across very well. Kimberley Walsh looks beautiful and not irritating, unlike some of her other Girls Aloud colleagues  (Sarah Harding, Cheryl "Chav" Cole).

6) Get Them Out
The one dancer I hope to see the back of quite quickly is Fern Britton, for reasons you can read here.
I wasn't surprised to read in a gossip rag that she's unpopular with the other contestants because of her bitchy remarks.

I'm not very keen on Louis Smith either. There's a bit of petulance there, don't you think?

And I'm thinking that Anton du Buerk is well past his sell-by date.  His celebrities do badly because his choreography is terrible. Plus he doesn't boss them around enough. Jerry Hall is more than capable of dancing properly, from what we've seen, but she's lazy and Anton has given in to her. Let's have some new British dance talent next year.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tea leaves and sore knees: life Below Stairs for my Grandma

Taken from the Memoirs of my Grandmother, Kathleen Lovis, 1906-1991

    When the spring came my sisters would find jobs in hotels. My sister Win was going to a hotel in Newquay, Cornwall. It was called "The Headland" and was on a cliff overlooking the sea. There was a beach just below. Win had worked at Newquay the previous year in a smaller hotel called "The Beachcroft." She was going to the Headland as a parlour maid. This meant she had to wait on the servants, maids and valets of the rich guests.
      Mother and Win must have talked it over between them and it was decided that it would be a good opportunity for me to work there too. The only problem was that I had to be 16 years of age. But being 14 at the time didn't stop them from getting a job for me, and I duly became 16 overnight.

   I became a corridor maid. I had no say in it: I was told I was going to work in a hotel with Win and that was that. It was a really hard life for a girl of 14. I shared an attic with two or three others, all older than me. I was the youngest there. We were woken up at 6am and had to be washed, dressed, hair up in a bun and with our equipment ready by 6.30. 
   I had a small cupboard where my polish, dusters and, most important, my Eubank carpet sweeper, were kept. I had no mop when I first started and of course no electric cleaner. There was a sheet of paper on the wall telling me the different jobs I had to do every day. The first week I worked with another girl who "showed me the ropes" as they say. After that I was on my own. I didn't even have a cup of tea to start the day with. Win did. In her job, which I think wasn't as manual as mine, she was able to make herself tea. 
    Before breakfast I had a lot to get through. I started downstairs. First I'd clean the two drawing rooms, or lounges as I suppose they'd be called now. Then I had the billiard room to do. This was a large one and had two huge billiard tables in it. After this I had a smallish corridor to do in which there were some long umbrella stands. Most of this was carpeted with a nice red carpet with a brown lino surround. I had to go all round the carpet with the sweeper, then get on my knees and rub up the lino. This had to be polished twice a week. I had to make sure there were no cigarette ends in the grate. I forgot to remove them once and the assistant housekeeper fetched me from my breakfast to do it. 
   We had half an hour for breakfast and after that my real work began on the second floor. The first floor was the best one, most elaborate, and kept for the richest guests. The second floor had ornate ceiling carvings and was definitely better than the third floor. 
    The stairs was one of my afternoon jobs along with polishing all the brass door handles. I had to thoroughly clean all the bathrooms and toilets every day. On Friday mornings I had to go to the kitchen and collect used tea leaves, which I had to scatter all over the carpet. This was supposed to trap the dust and keep the carpet cleaner. 
    We had dinner at midday for half an hour. I finished around 4pm and had a couple of hours off. My idea of relaxing to buy a few mints and lie on my bed eating them and perhaps reading. We'd have an evening meal about 6.30pm and then I had to start again. This time I'd have to go all round the bedrooms with a chamber maid. We would tidy up and sometimes beds had to be remade. I was also given the unpleasant task of taking mystery bundles downstairs to the boiler room where they were burnt. 
    After a few weeks my knees began to get very sore. I must have mentioned this to my sister and she wrote to our mother how bad they were. She told Win to give in my notice, which she did. It was a surprise to me. The funny thing was, the week I was serving out my notice was the first week we were given cedar mops to use. This meant we'd only have to kneel when  we had to polish the floors. 



Monday, October 08, 2012

We go to Edinburgh

It was a bit of a bus man's holiday for J but for his birthday we spent a few days in Edinburgh.

We were blessed with mostly sunshine, although it was a few degrees colder.

From our hotel roof garden we could see some interesting buildings - I thought they were follies - not too far away, so we scrambled up to Calton Hill and took some pictures.

Next we ventured across the Forth Bridge  (no painters in evidence) and across beautiful countryside to go to Crieff, and the Caithness paperweight centre attraction.

I have been collecting paperweights for quite a few years so this was a Big Occasion for me.

Sadly it was a little disappointing. I watched two glass blowers but it felt a bit embarrassing  (I was the only one) and I'd been hoping for a tour.

On the way back to Edinburgh, we stopped at Drummond Castle to look at the gardens. This was an unexpected highlight. We were practically the only ones there, and the formal gardens were stunning! Peacocks wandered, including into the vegetable patch where I think they were not allowed.

Drummond Castle gardens

For dinner J took us to a place he's been to before, a former banking hall called The Dome. I chose haggis, wrapped in filo pastry. I have never had it before but it was absolutely delicious.
The Dome's ceiling

Haggis - yum!
Rather too much wine was consumed (we peaked too soon) and so the next day we were a little bleary eyed for our 10am appointment with The Pandas.

Yes, another highlight: the two pandas on loan to Edinburgh Zoo, Tian Tian (Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunlight).

The panda viewings are executed with military precision by the cheerful helpers.

Sweetie was fast asleep.

Sunlight gave us quite a performance, first chewing on the old bamboo and then, when we moved to look at his outside enclosure, coming out to pace around for us.  The helper was quite surprised at his activity saying he normally goes to sleep after eating.

The rest of the zoo was a little sad. Clearly the pandas are the big draw. We didn't see the lion or tiger and the penguins have been temporarily rehoused.

We spent the afternoon climbing what Foursquare described as "my first mountain," the group of hills in Holyrood Park. We didn't get as high as Arthur's Seat because, true to form, I only had impractical shoes. But it was high enough for me.

Another big highlight that evening, a visit to The Kitchin. I've always been impressed by Tom Kitchin when I've seen him on cookery programmes. He's the kind, curly haired one on the Masterchef chef's table. They had remembered it was J's birthday  (I mentioned it when booking, months ago) and there was a signed card on the table.
The amazing pork and langoustine

We went for the surprise tasting menu (as opposed to the game tasting menu) which included lobster and partridge. The stand-out dish was the boned and rolled pig’s head, served with roasted tail of langoustine from Tobermory and a crispy ear salad. Historic, as Michael Winner would say. A fabulous experience.

I left with a copy of Tom's new book, specially signed for me. He was there and we saw him a couple of times briefly, but sadly didn't get an introduction.

So that was it, a very memorable couple of days in Scotland's capital. A very handsome city.


Monday, September 17, 2012

The Beatles: So Over?

I was listening to a radio programme about Dame Vivienne Westwood recently (left) in which she disclosed that Malcolm Mclaren had dared her to set fire to the waxworks of The Beatles in Madame Tussaud's.

"I thought it was a good idea," she said. "I mean, they were rubbish. But I was afraid people might get hurt."

Then, a few days later, my mum, a well respected authority on popular music, said she had never liked the Beatles. I would like to say she was more of a Rolling Stones' fan but the truth was she liked the Ray Conniff Singers and Andy Williams.

The Beatles were slightly before my time, but my brother, who's six years older, bequeathed me all his albums.They were played hundreds of times on "Sid," the Alba record player.

I always listened to side 2 of A Hard Day's Night when I was getting ready to go out, age 15. At that time I had perfected the half gold, half green eye lid.

But recently, a lot of Beatles songs make me want to gurn. I can't stand Hey Jude, All You Need is Love, Back in the USSR, Strawberry Fields, Twist and Shout and Lady Madonna. Some of them sound very dated, a sort of cloying sentimentality.

It's not helped by Paul McCartney croaking out Hey Jude at large public gatherings. Really, he should take a lesson from David Bowie who retired in 2003 and has stuck to it (even though I would dearly love to see another album from him).

But The Beatles still have the power to take your breath away. I never liked "A Day in the Life" but when it was played on the radio recently, I was transfixed. It sounded so contemporary. And I still love Eleanor Rigby - that most evocative of songs; Something;. I Feel Fine; Fool on the Hill.

Where are you with the Beatles? Love or loathe?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

We Venture Across the Border

I spent the last few days in Devon with my mum, who was 80 this year but still very spry with all her marbles.

I didn't take J. My view is, if a husband's natural habitat is not a garden centre or tearoom, it will only cause misery to inflict it on them. Plus I would hate to be in one of those joined-at-the-hip couples. As would J. 

When I'm staying with Mum, or Giz, there's a certain ritual to our day trips. We like tradition and continuity. The most popular are:
1) Otter Nurseries for plant buying and lunch followed by either Endsleigh garden centre  (to find  something Otter didn't have) or Buckfast Abbey, where you can get a very fine treacle pudding;
2) Exmouth and Sidmouth and maybe Budleigh Salterton. I lived near the seafront in Exmouth for a short time and love the unspoilt splendour of the beach and the ramshackle nature of the town;
3) Roadford Lake, on the Devon/Cornwall border, preceded by a visit to the Devon Paperweight Centre at the superbly named Leg O'Mutton Corner, Yelverton;
4) Goodrington, Paignton, where we spent many summer days on the red sands, watching the steam train go by (the driver was straight out of Central Casting with a flowing red beard and cheery wave);
5) Totnes for a mooch around gentrified shops selling organic this and that, and strange shops full of arty tourist tat/tut.

But this year, reader, we threw something different into the mix. A coach trip! Now Giz does these quite often. She has a social life that would put Prince Andrew to shame.When I was a teenager we often did coach trips because it was impossible to get Stamps to take us anywhere. There were two memorable trips to Newquay where we didn't even get out of the car because he couldn't find anywhere to park. He refused to pay to go in a car park so unless we could find street parking.

The coach trip was to Boscastle, Tintagel and Padstow.My first time at all three!

It took about an hour to do all the pick ups around Plymouth. Interminable, thanks to roadworks at Laira. Giz and I were the first to board. By the time we got to Boscastle, ostensibly for coffee, the fellow travellers were straining for pasties and many were indulging before we had chance to get our bearings.
Giz feeling the nip

It was very cold. Very very cold. A few people had been caught out and were wearing only short sleeves.

Boscastle was fairly brief. Just fifteen minutes later we were in Tintagel, for an hour and half. We had a below average, "give the emmets any old rubbish, they won't come back" type of lunch in a shabby restaurant and then wandered round trying to find a sheltered spot. Giz inevitably got talking to some of the people on the coach, including a bloke on his own - we named him "Pasty Pete," with a huge stomach and a short sleeved top. He'd been on 12 coach trips last year, he told us, and Badger's Holt for Christmas lunch can't be beaten.

Everyone was back on board with minutes to spare; a reflection on the charms of Tintagel. I've never seen a castle so bashful or so many shops full of useless "tut:" piskeys, fairies, things connected with King Arthur, etc.

Thence to Padstow, or as it is now known, Padstein. The influence of the TV chef hangs heavy. As you arrive, sweeping into an unprepossessing car park with views of diggers and trucks, you walk past three buildings forming part of the Rick Stein empire: a wet fish shop, fish and chip shop and deli. The unsuspecting emmet is lured into buying unnecessary jars of chutney, cookery books and things labelled with the name Chalkie, the chef's late dog.

Padstow itself is a harbour with a cluster of shops, mostly selling pasties, fish and chips and tut. On a sunny day it would be glorious to sit and watch boats and people. On a cold, windy day, with two and a half hours to spare, it was teeth clenchingly awful.

Pasty Pete had his third pasty of the day. I had my first  (had to be done). We both had a pleasingly large bakewell tart in a cafe which failed the old fat test.

Back on the coach and Pasty Pete's luck had changed by the time we reached Plymstock. He had struck up conversation with a woman at the back. Regaling her with his 12 coach trips last year and the splendours of Badger's Holt, she remarked that they ought to go on trips together. "Oh yes, I am single," he declared, before adding suspiciously, "But aren't you married?"  "Yes but we don't get on," she said dismissively, before sweeping off the coach with her entourage and leaving us all dangling as to the outcome. Will there be tinsel and turkey for the two of them? A pasty a deux at Mevagissey? I don't think we'll ever know, because Giz has decided her coach trip days are behind her.


Sunday, September 09, 2012

A summer to remember

All the superlatives have been said. The clockwork precision of the organisation; the warmth and optimism of the crowds; even the weather was praised.

This summmer, 2012, will never be forgotten.

The Paralympics winds to a close tonight and we will then be utterly bereft.

Today was the Paralympics Marathon, and I had a great vantage point at Cornhill watching a) the competitors and b) husband J performning in his last duties as a volunteer.

John and friend

Our first glimpse of the male wheelchair racers: David Weir is fourth

John rids the streets of London of competitors' drinks bottles and random balloons

We finally got inside the hallowed Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony of the Paralympics. The weather had taken a turn for the worst that day, and it was blustery and cold. But later at the park, the sun broke through.

I wish every person in the land had had the chance to experience the Olympic Stadium. It was the most amazing experience. It was like sitting with 60,000 friends. Everyone was speaking to each other and volunteering to take photos.  And when the Paralympics GB team was announced, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. We stood and cheered and clapped as the cavallcade slowly wound its way past.

When we left, the cheery volunteers shouted "goodbye" and "see you tomorrow" as we sped through the underground system in an ultra efficient and fast way. We were home within 30 minutes.

The wild flower meadow was amazing - as was the Orbit

We found Mandeville - he wasn't very cuddly
The royal barge was there too

In the Olympic Stadium

Our Greatest Team, left in white, make their entrance


Friday, August 24, 2012

John's Olympic Volunteer Memories

John and his running club, the Orion Harriers, were among the 70,000 "Gamesmakers" who helped to make the Olympics such a success.

John didn't get inside the Olympic Stadium: his duties were in central London at the men's and women's marathon, the race walk and the road cycling.

He took his duties to the public very seriously, "working the crowd" at every opportunity and taking photos of people.

Here are a few of his pictures:

Here's where it all started, a rainy morning a few weeks before the Olympics. The Orions have been issued with their uniforms. John's in the back row, in the middle, with a cap on. Photo taken by me!

Doing the "Mobot"
A well earned drink
Getting their hands on some souvenirs

Friday, August 17, 2012

Garden Hits and Misses

This summer we've had a new garden to enjoy. Last year Leylandii trees were disposed of, a new fence put up and the shed remodelled. This year we created a new border with railway sleepers and put down an artificial lawn.
Early spring: the base for the artificial lawn

I set about planting, concentrating mostly on perennials with a few annuals to fill gaps and a couple of ferns and hostas to create additional texture and interest.

Quite a few learnings!
Large border, late July

The weather was of course challenging. Very wet with no prolonged sunshine until late July. When it is dry, our soil quickly gets like the prairie.

My first learning was that I didn't quite get the balance of height and depth right in the big border. Some of the plants just didn't live up to their predicted heights.

The other learning was colour. I had painstakingly designed the big border to be mostly pink with a little mauve and white. Then in spring, nasturtiums from last year re-seeded themselves in the smaller border and suddenly there was a mass interruption of orange and yellow. Undaunted, I allowed that border to be a crazy "jewel garden," and surprisingly, it works. Unlike the main border, which has too much pink . Nicotiana which was billed as lime green, which I thought would be a perfect foil for fuchsias and magenta cosmos, turned out to be a "dwarf" variety, and while growing in profusion, it is more yellow than lime green.
The "jewel border"

I grew cosmos from seeds my mum gave me, and the cosmos was disappointing. I have hoth huge leafy bushes of it and stunted little plants.

Several dianthus plants are starting to flower and smell divine, but they were such tiny plants when they arrived they're only just getting established.

Three lupins were attacked by something which I managed to eradicate. Three penstemons had a brief, lacklustre performance. The much vaunted foxglove, award winner Illumination has been a solid performer but I found the peachy colour a bit disappointing.

Finally it was year two for my blackcurrants and I achieved oh, 10 berries!

Nemesia Raspberry
Hardy fuchsia "Display"

Unknown salvia
The successes were: the nasturtiums, which are winding themselves round the hedge; nemesia, which I bought as an extra was gorgeous and I'll be getting more of them next year; the artificial lawn, which always looks great, and a salvia which I planted in the border after it faithfully grew back in a pot two years running. Two fuchsias were outstandingly profuse. Earlier in the year, clematis Dr Ruppel was fabulous and I have added another clematis, the mile-a-minute Montana Rubens, to sprawl over the fence. I also had a fabulous hellebore Niger  (Christmas Rose) and will get more of those.

Honeysuckle Serotina

Echinacea Vintage Wine
Next year I will re-site some of the plants; have more height and  depth by adding hollyhocks and delphiniums, and grow more of the successful plants: nemesia, fuchsias, echinacea  (I only had three this year as an experiment). For spring, I have just ordered my bulbs and will have a fantastic display in containers, concentrating on mostly purple and mauve tulips and daffodils and narcissi.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Kaleidoscope of Colour ends London's wonderful Olympics

Eric Idle brings the roof down
The day after the end of the Olympics. BBC Breakfast is still coming from the Olympic Park but there's no-one there and the sun has gone. "Why are you crying?" demands J, as a solitary tear creeps down my cheek.

I, like many others today I suspect, am pining for the colour, warmth and exuberance of the most amazing two weeks we have ever known. An intoxicating cocktail where Londoners lost their stiff upper lip, everything ran to time and the recession was forgotten. Even the weather came good, after months of relentless rain.

Even on Twitter, the cynicism had disappeared for a fortnight, but during the early part of the closing ceremony it was back with a vengeance, people moaning and whining. Fortunately the show morphed into something so eccentric and over-the-top that it won everyone round and the tweets became funny and catty, like the Twitter we know and love.

So what of the closing ceremony? Looking back, it was like something that started gently and gracefully and then speeded up in a blur of flashing colours. No doubt this was intentional, but the start was a little too restrained. After a stunning backdrop of London's cars and lorries speeding past landmarks in a papier mache world (yesterday's news?), the first few acts including Madness and the Pet Shop Boys didn't seem to be hitting the right notes.

Ray Davies, 68, looked slightly overwhelemed as he was deposited by a London cab to sing his wonderful "Waterloo Sunset."  He may have a limp from when he was mugged in New Orleans a few years ago but he showed he still had his voice, unlike Paul McCartney and Elton John when they performed at the Jubilee concert.

The arrival of the athletes seemed a welcome distraction on Twitter, where people were scathing and restless, but it took too long to assemble them and form them into the Union flag. I was yearning for Usain Bolt to move everyone along. Meanwhile the four songs that we had heard so far seemed to be endlessly reprised. "I love Britain and I love our four songs," said someone on Twitter.

Eventually the athletes were all successfully kettled, and then the party really started. Whoever was staging the show was now determined to turn it into a raucous celebration of British eccentricity and diversity. This is what we're really good at.

Two deceased artists, John Lennon and Freddie Mercury, appeared on video screens. When pictures of David Bowie appeared, the whole of Twitter went mad - "is it him? We need him!" and it would have been the most fantastic, best kept secret had David Bowie appeared. He didn't though: we had a few super models standing around while Fashion played.

I would have done without George Michael, who had the audacity to sing a new song, and "Pink Floyd." Elbow and Muse both seemed to lack a bit of welly in the vast stadium. Annie Lennox was also surplus to requirements, although the pirate ship was a nice prop.

I was getting concerned that none of the kettled athletes would have even heard of any of the acts as we were fielding quite a lot of mature talent. Fortunately some younger acts appeared including Jessie J and Tine Tempeh, with someone's dad (Fatboy Slim) coming down from the pub to spin a few records.

Russell Brand was a cross between the child catcher and Willy Wonka as he demonstrated that he can't sing but has enough charisma to compensate, trundling along in a Magical Mystery Tour style camper van.

The Spice Girls looked and sounded great, although Victoria Beckham had a slightly pained "I didn't really want to be here, I have a career you know" expression. The highlight of their short set was Boris and Cameron dancing and being captured on Youtube.

For me the show was undoubtedly stolen by Eric Idle and "Always look on the bright side of life."  Shot from a cannon (I was hoping Boris would have been the cannon fodder), this was totally surreal. Eric was surrounded by Bollywood dancers and hoardes of nuns. Suddenly everyone on Twitter was saying it was so over-the-top it was wonderful.

After the speeches from Lord Coe and Jacques Rogge  (does he ever smile?) and the formalities of the handover of the 31st Olympiad to Rio, it was left to Take That and Darcey Bussell to extinguish the cauldron, a poignant and moving moment. Then the party revived with The Who proving "their generation" still has a lot more to offer than zimmer frames and hip replacements. And thank goodness we didn't have to endure Paul McCartney, Elton John and Cliff Richard this time!

Fantastic night to round off the most aamazing two weeks. I have been privileged to be part of it. Tickets for the Paralympics opening ceremony have now been secured as I was determined that this time we will get into the park.

Friday, August 10, 2012

England's footballers need to step up to the plate

We're nearing the end of the Olympics and what a phenomenal achievement it has been for Team GB all round!

Yes, fully deserving of an exclamation mark, even though I normally steer away from them. 

Before it all began I was telling everyone it would be wonderful: there was nothing to worry about. The problems with security and trucculent transport workers faded away, and instead the UK basked in the glow of largely excellent weather, superb organisation and praise by IOC chief Jacques Rogge for being on a par with Lillehammer, noted for the friendliest games ever.

As for the performance of Team GB, where do we start? After the years of hurt we have had with the UK's mediocre football teams, we were stunned into disbelief as athletes rose to the challenge and gave the finest performance of their career to clinch a record tally of gold medals. Yes, even Andy Murray!

It's an amazing achievement for a country of our size to finish third in the medals table. There is a degree of satisfaction in particular in trouncing Germany and France. Germany's Der Spiegel published a very sour article ahead of the Olympics saying that London 2012 would be dogged by chaotic organisation and bad weather. Meanwhile France have been poor losers, accusing "les rosbifs" of cheating simply because we're now so dominant in cycling.

One thing the Olympics has taught us is that we are still "Great" Britain. We don't have to settle for mediocrity. We are fearless competitors.

The spotlight has occasionally fallen on football during the Olympics and the contrast between our fine Olympians and that pathetic bunch of overpaid prima donnas, the footballers.

Forget Team GB, the excuse for a team put together for the Olympics. For reasons known only to themselves, and no doubt to do with not wanting to lose their jobs if a united UK team was found to be better than separate country teams, Scotland and Northern Ireland declined to take part.

The team ended up by repeating the England team's uselessness at taking penalties.

We're less willing now to put up with the lacklustre performances of England, the excuses, the mediocrity. Like our Olympic athletes, our cricketers and our rugby players, football needs to step up to the plate. Put up or shut up. "The beautiful game" is now officially on two yellow cards.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Marks and Spencer: please read

Poor old Marks and Spencer have had some stick this week. Shareholders got very ratty at their AGM. The problem is, most of Marks' customers are aged 45 and over, but most of their clothes are aimed at the yoof generation, who wouldn't be seen dead in there. Same issue at the BBC, where they're all too happy to kill Gardeners' World for a month because of sport, but wouldn't dream of axing any of the dross on BBC3 aimed at teens.

Liz Jones, unusually for once, offered some good advice to M and S in the Mail. They need to go upmarket. Yes yes yes! We support their Plan A, and having clothes made ethically, but they really need to charge more because the quality has become terrible. Cheap clothes that fall apart are literally ten a penny in places like Primark, Tesco and Sainsbury's.

Before my holiday I tried to buy a simple pair of white shorts and white three-quarter length trousers. Simples, as the mir cats would say. But no -- M and S only had really bad quality versions that were clingy and unflattering.Or linen, which no-one in their right mind buys. I couldn't believe it. I already have some white knee-length cotton shorts, purchased from Marks and Spencer four years ago, that I still wear. They still look immaculate.

As Liz said, we want more cashmere, and more scoop neck jumpers please; and fewer lairy colours. Cashmere jumpers in navy, black, cream, red, camel work so well for work. Dresses with sleeves, yes please - and dresses that try to give us a waist, rather than the shapeless sacks M and S favour for workwear. Things that are a bit more edgy, but less embellished. More variety in the cut and shape of jackets: not so many boxy or straight jackets.

Please get rid of Per Una altogether. I can't understand who would wear those ghastly voluminous crinkly skirts and flouncy tops. Everything is far too overdone with sequins, lace, buttons. Some simple maritime themed basics would be great: it is impossible to find a good quality scoop neck with short or three-quarter length sleeves t-shirt in M and S.

My mum is 80, and she and her friends are shopaholics. They're forever buying clothes! But even she thinks the Classic Collection is too old fashioned. She wants bright colours, but things like the 2-piece camisole sets that M and S used to sell - flattering for older ladies - and more of the Manifesto trousers that manage to be stylish while having an elasicated waist.

Some good news: I read that M&S are trialling a high-end cosmetic zone. Great idea! Apparently it will sell cult brands, the sort you can get in Space NK.I love the stuff sold in Space NK, but sometimes when I look into a store, it's empty and that puts me off because I'm afraid of being sold to. I like the way you can browse high end cosmetics in Boots without being hassled, but they don't sell very many trendy brands, so M&S could be onto a winner.

M and S, please let the teens shop in Topshop, Primark, etc. Concentrate on the older demographic, but think more elegance; more flattering and better quality. And improve the store layout and the changing rooms (that horrific lighting!). You can get rid of most of the famous models in your ads (but bring back Dervla in the food ads). And things will improve. Simples!


Sunday, July 01, 2012

Beckham's out - the right choice

Big old hoo-ha about David Beckham not being picked for the England Olympic soccer team. Last week The Times had an editorial about it, calling for one of the other players to surrender his place to allow Beckham to play. Today India Knight in the Sunday Times weighed in, saying he should be playing.

I don't normally agree with the Daily Mail but I'm with their sports writer who said it was the right decision. The Olympics is about the best in sporting performance and achievement. Beckham is 37 and over the hill. He chose to go to what's effectively a division 3 team, LA Galaxy, to make money. Olympic team manager Stuart Pearce went to the US twice to watch him and clearly wasn't impressed.

It doesn't matter that Beckham has been a tireless ambassador for the Olympics and the London bid. There are other rewards more suitable. He might be the one lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony. He will probably be knighted at some point. But to say he should be playing, in the twilight of his career, is as ludicrous as suggesting Lord Coe should represent us in the 1500 metres again. Being a celebrity isn't sufficient, nor is choosing someone purely to sell surplus tickets. Stuart Pearce should be applauded for taking his role seriously and choosing what he thinks is the best squad for the job, given that he can't use players who were in Euro 2012 and the Scots declined to take part in Team GB. It will be a good opportunity for us to glimpse the talent of tomorrow, the under 23s who could maybe spring a surprise.

Friday, June 01, 2012

My star turn at the Silver Jubilee

I remember the Silver Jubilee very well. It was 1977: the Sex Pistols were in the news, my mum was busily baking "Jubilee buns"  (fairy cakes with red, white and blue icing), and I was planning my assault on the title of Colebrook Carnival Queen.

It was a big year for the village community association which was fund raising for a community centre. My dad was vice-chairman. The fund raisers included an ambitious Jubilee parade of floats which would make its way to Peacock Meadow where there would be stalls, candy floss and old-fashioned entertainment.

The first ever carnival queen was to be chosen at a disco evening at Harewood House, an event in itself. I had a strategy for success. I knew I wasn't the prettiest girl - that was either Hazel Roles or my best friend Sally - but I figured that I might win if a) I had superb posture and walked tall, and b) had a stand out outfit.

My stand out outfit was a two piece "safari suit" in khaki green, worn with cream wedge espadrilles.

The day before the disco, I went to the funfair and unfortunately knocked my face against the dodgem pole, but resolved I would cover up the mark with Hide The Blemish. My other preparations included a face pack - either Anne French Glow 5 or Christy, a Harmony or Toners hair rinse, and a DIY manicure.

About 25 girls entered the carnival queen competition. We had to walk round the room in a large circle. Most of the girls were giggling and gesticulating at friends but I remembered my posture rule and held my head high to try to look confident.

I got through to the next round which embarrassingly involved being interviewed....by my dad. Wags in the crowd were shouting out my answers and adding "Dad."

The final six were announced and I was in it, along with Sally and another girl from school, Gina, whose parents ran the fish and chip shop.

My dad stood down and we were "interviewed" again by John McGowan, the vice chairman.

The judges conferred and the results were announced in traditional reverse order. Gina came third, Sally (Sally!) came second....and I was first. I was Dead Chuffed, although the congratulations and applause were a bit muted because everyone thought it was a fix. In fact someone told the local paper, the Herald, and there was a story about it.

I was given a bouquet and a record voucher, which I used to buy David Bowie's Low. My dad took a picture of me at home with my bouquet. My mum took the shine off my victory somewhat by looking puzzled when we said I'd won and saying "You won? You beat Hazel Roles?"

Jubilee Day dawned. It had been decreed that the queen and her attendants would wear white, red and blue. We scoured the small ads in the Herald and sourced a former wedding dresss for a tenner.  It was not in the least flattering. Sally's mum was handy with a needle and she had a beautiful red dress with a little cape. My sash had plastic letters which all fell off during the big day, one by one.
Cheer up girls!

We were seated on a decorated ECC China Clays lorry. The procession was the highlight of the day. I have dozens of photos that my mum took as the parade passed our house, but  only one of me. I blame the Kodak Instamatic.

Having arrived at Peacock Meadow, we partook of the Jubilee Tea, which included the lurid buns. We gave out Jubilee mugs and crowns (coins) to the children, and handed out the prizes at the tug o'war. I remember a big roar going up for Sally when she kissed all the participants. No cheer for me. People were still smarting about "the fix."

So that was my Silver Jubilee. How about yours?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Garden Progress

The garden is making good progress. The borders have now been planted. The extra light bestowed by removing Leylandii trees has given a new lease of life to the hawthorn and clematis Montana Rubens, which were both magnificent a couple of weeks ago.  My blackcurrants are thriving so I am hopeful for berries this year.

I've chosen mostly perennials and shrubs for the main border, adding some different textures with hosta white feather and a couple of ferns. I'll fill in the gaps with cosmos  (being grown from my Mum's seeds), nicotiana nd penstemons. I went in search of penstemons and salvia hot lips at the weekend but could only find one penstemon. Hot Lips arrives later in June I was told.

Clematis Dr Ruppel

The smaller border

L to R: part of the large border: lupin, honeysuckle Serotina, fuchsia, viburnum, hosta White Feather

The cherry tree (needs re-siting in the autumn, too close to the wall)

In the smaller border last year's nasturtiums have re-seeded themselves, which ruined my colour scheme somewhat (it was going to be restful white, pink and purple) but I've now turned that border into a "jewel garden". There are dahlias, which are still not showing yet; lavender, John's favourite; lime green nicotiana and a red penstemon.
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