Tuesday, 31 March 2009

A blog of beautiful things

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so they say, and what can be more beautiful than the site of spring flowers in the garden? This pot of miniature Iris never fails to delight me, and the sight of the first, and at the moment, only periwinkle flower, hiding its light under a bush almost, was something else to give me pleasure. The garden is full of narcissi, and the late, tall snowdrops are out under the laburnum, along with little blue anemones, wild violets, blue muscari and the path alongside is full of flowering wallflowers, and on a day like today, clear blue skies and warm sunshine, the smell is almost heady. However, I noticed on a walk round there this morning, that there is a cluster of smallish white feathers on the ground... is this the result of natural moulting I wonder, or the new cat on the block, a delightfully pretty, pure white young cat, not well looked after in my opinion since it has no collar. It has taken to coming in the garden, hiding amongst the daffs and wallflowers, underneath the birdfeeder... I am not amused, having no Rosie to shout at for tormenting the birds, I don't intend an interloper like this young madam to start causing mayhem. That part of the garden is due to be changed anyway soon, the bulbs lifted, medium shrubs removed, so she won't have anywhere to hide. Will she be brazen enough to just sit in the open? Time will tell.

Words are another thing of beauty. Some can be harsh and wounding (as in an argument), can cut to the quick, make a lasting impression. Others can soothe and heal, can bring a tear to the eye, a quickening to the heartbeat (as in a love letter perhaps). Some can instruct and broaden your horizons, whilst others can jar.. like LOL which I absolutely hate! We have a beautiful language, why not use it properly? I have a journal of collected thoughts, dreams, poems, some by me, others kind words sent from friends, some written by strangers but which touched me. The following was sent to me by a friend in New Zealand and comes from a book of marriage sayings.. I think it is just lovely. It's called THE ONE.

'When the one whose hand you're holding is the one who holds your heart;
When the one whose eyes you gaze into gives your hopes and dreams their start;
When the one you think of first and last is the one who holds you tight, and the things you plan together make the whole world seem just right;
When the one whom you believe in puts their faith and trust in you, you've found the one and only love you'll share your whole life through.'

Isn't that beautiful? I have been so lucky to have two husbands to whom this could be ascribed. Sadly the first wasn't with me more than a few years, but still holds a special place in my heart, thirty five years on since he died. And the second also holds a special place.. I didn't think I would find someone to love ever again all those years ago, but I did, and we have been together over thirty years now.

So many beautiful poems... 'Love's Philosophy' by Shelley is a favourite, 'I carry your heart' by ee cummings another.

A short extract of just a few words from Peter Pan, caught my attention and I used it as the verse inside the welcoming card for our granddaughter, Summer. 'When the first baby laughed for the first time, it's laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they went skipping about and that was the beginning of fairies'. Whether you believe in fairies or not, it's a lovely thought.

This to me, is another thing of beauty. So beautiful and moving did I find this to be, that I have a framed photo of it near my desk. She fills me with sadness, touches me, and when I actually saw it, I just wanted to touch it, and sit beside it. It is the Victorian tomb of ELIZABETH DACRE HOWARD who was born in 1883, and as you can see, died as an infant not long after. It can be found in LANERCOST PRIORY near Brampton in Cumbria, and is one of my favourite ruins, with some gorgeous stonework and a wonderful stained glass window designed by Burne-Jones.
Many people are touched by this photo, there is one very similar on Flickr or whatever it's called, and some fabulous views of the Priory itself on its website. Well worth a visit if ruins are your thing and you are in that area.

And my two favourite books this month have been 'KNIT TWO' by Kate Jacobs, the follow up to her best seller THE FRIDAY NIGHT KNITTING CLUB. This follows the group, along with new members, following the death of the founder, the gauntlet and the shop, Walker and Daughter, now being taken up, reluctantly it seems, by the daughter, Dakota. I loved the FNKC, and can't wait for the DVD of the movie, starring Julia Roberts, one of my all-time favourite actresses. The other book is THE HOUSEHOLD GUIDE TO DYING by Debra Adelaide. You could be mistaken for thinking this would be a really miserable, unhappy book. But far from it... it's all about Delia Bennet, an American writer famous for her HOUSEHOLD GUIDE TO... series of books. When she is diagnosed with terminal cancer, she decides to write this one last guide, to prepare her family for the inevitable as much as anything else. It brings out some ghosts from the past which she has to deal with first, before she can deal with everything else. A brilliant read, though I think the graphic detail of an autopsy could have been skipped!

We all have some beauty in our lives, maybe in amongst those SIMPLE PLEASURES I've written about, maybe something completely different. For me, other things of beauty include my husband's smile... the sight of four goldfinches feeding on the nigella seed feeder... my yarn stash... piles of fabrics waiting to be turned into whatever the fancy takes me to make... a pile of new books waiting to be read... pretty vintage china... pressed glass dishes in pink and green and blue, all lined up on a shelf... the last photo ever taken of my mother not long before she died in 1975... a piece of music, Barber's Adagio and the Pearl Fisher's Duet amongst my favourites... so much to admire and enjoy and be thankful for.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

A weekend of cutting it, making it, doing it. And books of course!

As I am allergic to the smell of paint - that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it! - whilst Himself was repainting our bedroom I got crafty. The bedroom, just in case you're interested, was previously a pale green, lovely and calming, up to the picture rail, then a creamy colour above. However, of late I have begun to feel it a bit cold looking, not a snuggly down under the eiderdown sort of colour, so the hunt was on for a new one. Well, the walls became a patchwork of matchpots as I went from yellow, which I thought I wanted but realised it would be like sleeping in a bowl of custard, to a pinky shade which I thought too girly for a shared room, with a variety of other colours thrown in. Maybe that's what I should have done, got all the matchpots, added them to a basic magnolia and used the results? No, you're right, perhaps not. In the end, we settled on Farrow and Ball's SMOKED TROUT, which sounds a bit uninspiring but in the end turned out like the lovely chocolate and hazelnut mousse from Oenken. The result is that the room is warmer, cosier, the contrast between walls and dark furniture more marked and therefore more pleasing to my eye, and since the colour has been extended above the picture rail, the room looks taller. I joined in for the best bit, the finishing touches, choosing pictures, stitched ones, photographs and watercolours, all in dark brown frames. Husband sighs with relief at another decorating job completed to Madam's satisfaction!! And he needn't hold his breath waiting for the next 'brilliant idea' as I am happy with all the rooms now. Or should that be 'for now'???

Back to my weekend. As you can see, I have been cutting hexagons for a flower patchwork quilt, in primary colours, these red and green fabrics being the first ones I am using. I thought I would also include a mini version... now I should tell you that each of the little flowers on the mini quilt, and it is quilted as well, is made up of seven individual hexagons, each the size of a tiny little finger nail. My hexagons are about an inch and a half in diameter, so you can see how tiny the others are, and it's a one in twelve scale quilt. A dear, dear friend made two for me.. this one is in the male-inhabited dolls house, I am yet to find a feminine dolls house that really appeals to me, but when I do, I have a quilt for the lady inhabitant's bed all ready.
The friend was a lady called Pat, who was married to a Polish woodcarver and they lived in a wonderfully typical Norfolk cottage of brick and flint, next door to me, when I first came to live in Norfolk back in the early Eighties. He made the most wonderful carvings and was responsible for many of the beautiful village signs this county has in abundance, and she made fabulous tapestries, patchwork quilts (full size) and crocheted lacy bedspreads. Then she got into miniatures, and crocheted bedspreads in sewing cotton with the finest hook available. She made tiny pictures, carpets and quilts. She taught me how to do needlepoint, to design my own. She taught me new crafts and revived my interest in others, and was known affectionately in our family as 'the mad woman with a stick'.. she walked her two dogs every day, needing a stick to help her most of the time. Sadly she died some years ago, and I miss her encouragement and telling me that of course I could do it, but if I didn't try..... her legacy to me was the two quilts.

Another creative job this weekend was to finish off this little one-twelfth scale carpet. I made it years ago, but never got around to backing it. There is another one still to go, but by the time I had sewn in threads and so on, I had had enough of the miniature world. This is in reds, greens and creams, done in one ply knitting wool, on canvas which has twenty four threads to the inch. It measures six inches square.

I also made some bunting for the front of the summerhouse, out of bits of the patchwork fabric. It's not exactly the colours I wanted, but I wanted to use this as a trial run for the 'real thing'. I was quite pleased with it, and as you can see, we had a gloriously sunny weekend, with beautiful blue skies and lots of sunshine.

And of course a weekend without books wouldn't be quite right, so here are a couple of new craft books I bought, having been enthused by a certain Pipany and her beautiful workwomanship with embroidery. It is many years since I did any, in fact I don't think I have done any for about twenty years, the last time was when I was on dialysis in the mid-80s, when I had no energy sometimes and spent a lot of my time sitting around. I had a whole load of craft items on the go, I get bored easily you see, and an embroidered picture of a dog and kitten, worked in long stitch, was my first attempt at embroidery since school days and the obligatory pot holder or cross stitched hem on a pinafore. It turned out really well, but since then I have only done cross stitch, never gone back to lazy daisies and chains and stem stitches. I have a boxfull of skeins, beautiful strong and vibrant primary shades, soft and delicate pastels.. now all I need is the right fabric. But these two books are full of helpful hints, and an outright beginner will find them invaluable, and the transfers are gorgeous. None of your ladies in crinolines, which I was a bit disappointed about to be honest as I rather like them, but some beauties all waiting to be stitched all the same.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

It's the little things in life that please.

I'm feeling a bit out of sorts today, having one of those days where one wrong word (in my perception, though it may be a perfectly reasonable word to the person uttering it!) and I am likely to go off like a rocket, with more fireworks than the Fourth of July, Bonfire Night and New Year's Eve all rolled into one! I used to have these moods regularly, about once a month perhaps, but all that stopped a decade ago, so I don't know what brought this on. And it's not helped by having one of my bad head days. No, that's not a misnomer for a bad hair day, nor does it mean I have a headache, but refers to when my head is feeling 'swimmy', a problem which is medically attributed to trapped nerves in the vertebrae at the top of my spine. (These shifted a bit some time ago due to bone problems, and then seemed to resettle and I have been told there may be a trapped nerve in there causing this light-headedness, problems with balance etc.) Anyway, whatever is causing it is a darned nuisance and has altered my life quite a lot.

But, I am not here to moan, though that was one of the reasons behind having somewhere to rant and rave and ramble, but I did think it would be good to remind myself of some of the pleasures in my life (and you know who you are!) plus some others, little things that give me pleasure, simple pleasures in fact.

The garden is obviously one, even though I can only potter in it these days, it is such a lovely thing to look at, to sit in the conservatory on a day like today, with the sun making the water in the fountain sparkly as it splish-splashes into the pond where the fish like to dart about, trying to catch a splash as it lands (I wonder do they make a competition out of it?). To watch a family of four long-tailed tits chase each other down from the very top of the large silver birch, right down to the lower branches, flitting from one to the other, hanging upside down for a moment, then taking off. To see the goldfinches at the thistle seed feeder, we have four of these delightfully pretty little birds as well. The bluetits on the peanuts, the starlings on the fat balls, the two jackdaws occasionally swooping down whilst being watched by the pair of ring collar doves, who like to sit in the lower branches of one of the holly trees, out of sight almost, watching what's going on. The crocuses in the lawn at the bottom of the garden are almost over, lying on their side as if the effort of being in flower, battling against heavy winds and rain have finally defeated them and they need to rest. But, there are lots of daffodils, of all sizes and varieties, beginning to brighten up the garden, from the bog standard Wordsworth-type of bright yellow to the tiny mini ones. All seem to have a lovely scent, which is accentuated when I bring a few indoors and leave them in the warm conservatory. (I have a special spot where ordinary daffs grow, but which can't be seen from the house, and these are the ones I pick). The fancy tulips are coming out... I love the stripey leaves of this dwarf variety, but the colour of the flowers, a vivid orangey-red is a bit too strident for me. However, they certainly brighten up what would otherwise be a rather dull spot. The bluebells are in leaf, the snowdrops over, a carpet of tiny deep purple violets covers the ground under the laburnum, and the outdoor hyacinth will appear soon. There is the smell of wallflowers as you walk down the path to the bottom of the garden, and the sight of frogspawn in the pond. So easy to pretend that Spring really is here, but no counting of chickens, for it has snowed at Easter a couple of times since we came here twenty years ago almost.

Crafts are another of my life's pleasures and at the moment I seem to have lots of different things on the go. There is a tapestry cushion on a frame, a designer needlepoint I found on the internet, and which is full of rich browns, pinks, red, some jade green and rusty shades too. I find working with a frame easier, used to use a floor-standing frame but since we changed the furniture, I can't sit comfortably to use it, so now use a hand held frame, balanced on a cushion in front of me. I always have lots of knitting on the go, sometimes crochet too, and right now I have a silky blue shawl being crocheted for a friend, and I'm also knitting a tweedy brown cushion cover for another friend, and am about to start on a small knitted and lined bag, complete with knitted corsage, for myself. I found a website a couple of weeks ago that sells really fancy wools at a fraction of the price, like a fifth! I like to have the odd ball of fancy wool, it can add interest to a bag, a hat, a cushion cover, or be used with other wools, plain and fancy in a throw or cushion, but usually these wools cost about £2.50 a ball, so are a treaty sort of buy. However, having found them for 59p I was in heaven, and bought five different ones, an eyelash wool, a couple of nubbly wools, a ribbony type wool, in rich plummy shades, deep pinks and reds, purples and blues, and lemony. I also have plans to do a patchwork quilt, one of flower shapes, with hexagonal patches, in bright primary colours, reds, greens and white mainly, stripes, spots, plains and small flowers possibly. And somewhere along the line I will make a larger one of small squares, though will do this on the machine, and in older, floral fabrics.

And it goes without saying I include books as one of life's pleasures. The swimmy head caused me not to take a very steady photo of the book pile, apologies for the blurry photo, but you'll be pleased to know it's not your eyesight at fault. These are some of the books have read recently.... the latest offerings by PRUE LEITH, ERICA JAMES, and ELIZABETH NOBLE.

Prue's book is CHORAL SOCIETY, about three women in their fifties who become friends through a shared love of singing. Three very different women, but all strong characters, all memorable for one reason or another... one is a widow of one year, another is a highly successful businesswoman, and the third a food critic.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS is the latest offering by Erica James, another of my favourite writers who never fails to please. This is about a group of friends who survived the Boxing Day tsunami, and how it affected their lives, their outlook on life, how their lives were changed.

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is by Elizabeth Noble who wrote, amongst other titles, the wonderful, THINGS I WANT MY DAUGHTER TO KNOW. This latest is set in an apartment building in New York and tells of the lives of several of the inhabitants, from Eve and her husband who move there from England with his job, to Violet an elderly English lady, and includes the Kramers and the Schulmans, the latter seeming to have everything the former wants. A tale of love, unrequited and unbidden as well as real, lasting, true love between a man and a wife.

Also read Joan Bakewell's autobiography, PREP by Curtis Sittenfeld who wrote AMERICAN WIFE, mentioned in a previous blog (this book is one of her earlier novels and set in an American college, a tale of growing up), and A BOOK ADDICTS TREASURY, full of quotes about books and reading.

I was going to take a photograph of a Cadbury's mini roll, another of life's little pleasures for me... but I ate it!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Food for thoughts

As some of you will already know, I had been going through photos the other week, and came across many which brought back smelly memories, many of them connected with food. I'd been discussing this with a couple of friends, and they suggested I write my next posting on here about this very subject, food memories from childhood. I wasn't too sure about it, but having enjoyed reading my friends' memories, and knowing how much pleasure they'd got from reliving their past this way, I thought it would be interesting to read about other people and their food memories from childhood and teenage years possibly.

I don't have many memories connected with food much before the age of ten or so, the main one is of being five or six years old, going into Hull with my Welsh Nanna, and to a shop called JACKSONS, where they sold the most marvellous blackcurrant slices.. a slice of rich shortcrust topped with blackcurrant jam and then fartyhishal cream as I used to call it, embarrasingly for those around me at the time!

But I then jump to ten or eleven, and you find me across the Pennines and living in a small fishing town on the Lancashire coast. Every Saturday Mum and I used to walk into town, to go to the library, do some shopping, and we always had lunch in THE MOROCCAN, a cafe near the Pharos Lighthouse. I vaguely remember murals of palm trees, and that's about it, other than the beans and chips, or the Kunzle Cakes they served, with glass cups of tea or coffee.

When I was 13, my mother returned to work and I was left on my own during the long school holidays, but I had lots of friends I used to spend my time with, though even then, preferred my own company as a rule. One, Stephen, lived next door and his mother used to make us bowls of Heinz Oxtail soup for lunch... with chips in! Sounds awful, wasn't something I had ever had before, but I loved it. As I did the real 'scouse', made by another friend, a lady who was about ten years older than me, with a husband away with the fishing fleet a lot of the time. I remember her beehive hairdo, her strong accent, her passion for PJ Proby.. and please, don't tell me I am the only one who remembers him and his trouser-splitting antics!

At 15 I went to work in a carpet showroom, one of a national chain of such shops, as a clerk.. though I ended up doing lots of other things and very little clerking. One of my first jobs of the day, before walking my boss's dog Nelson, was to go round the corner to the bakers and collect two freshly baked, still warm, almond slices, while said boss made coffee. Again in glass cups, this must have been the 'in thing' to drink tea and coffee out of in those days, though we didn't have them at home, where best china was considered the only suitable container for hot beverages!

By the time I was 17 I had left this job, and one other, and was working in Blackpool, for a firm of stockbrokers. Before meeting my first real, serious, love of my life at the time, boyfriend, one of the other junior secretaries and I used to go to the local bakers, PRICE'S, where they did cream of asparagus soup in styrofoam containers, gorgeous meat and potato pies, lovely salmon sandwiches, and a little tart which consisted of a pastry case, filled with apple puree, topped with hard icing. You had to walk past the McFisheries to get there, and the smell of smoked haddock always reminds me of this shop. And it was on one such day we bumped, literally, into DON PARTRIDGE, who I think had one hit only, called ROSIE. (Anyone remember him, a bit Donovan-esque in looks). Then I met HIM, and our lunchtimes were shared as a rule... we sometimes frequented an American-style coffee bar, long counters with stools either side and a space in the middle for the waitress to come and take your order. (HE will be raising his eyebrows at the ability to remember this no doubt!) This was the first time I had ever heard of toasted sandwiches, and whenever I make one for my lunch, I am momentarily taken back to this place, and remember it most often as it was on windy and wet days, with few visitors braving the promenade outside, the windows steaming up from hot drinks and wet coats, the North Pier looking enticing all lit up on a grey day.

A couple of years later, working as a PA in a fabulous job (until it all went horribly wrong for everyone concerned), and the only downside was that my office window overlooked the building next door, where they used to start roasting chickens at some ridiculous hour of the morning.. or so it seemed to me. I would walk past and the smell wouldn't be too bad, but open the office window and in it would come, and now with these rotisserie ovens in most of the large supermarkets, spit-roasting chickens, it brings back memories of those days.

Chips and curry sauce.. now there's a delicacy for you, fine dining at it's best!! This was the treat my girlfriend and I used to have after a night out at our local.. no wonder we were on our own!!! Crisp packets with proper little twists of blue paper containing salt, not a small packet like nowadays. Parched Peas.. now is this a Lancashire delicacy I wonder, because nobody I know has ever heard of them. They were some sort of dried pea, soaked overnight and then cooked, a darkish brown colour skin, slightly lighter colour inside, and they were made by an old lady where I lived in my early teens, and every Sunday morning she cooked up a batch, and sold them hot, salted, in small paper cones. They were delicious, and try as I might, I have never been able to replicate them.

School dinners.. well, you can't have memories of food without mentioning them can you, but unlike most people I know, my memories are all good. I went to a small private school, and the food was made in the convent kitchen since there were only about fifteen or twenty of us who stayed for dinner. Mondays was always leftovers from the Sunday roast the nuns had shared, and we had it with mashed potatoes, salad, and salad cream. It was always fish and chips on Friday, meatballs featured sometime during the week as well, and puddings like jam sponge with coconut on the top and real custard. I didn't much care for tapioca, but just about everything else went down a treat!