Thursday, 24 July 2014

Let There Be Light!

We've been having some construction work done around here: a very small extension that will give us a downstairs loo and a cloaks closet. It's not finished yet. However, with having workman around anyhow I had the idea for putting a glass door between our kitchen and the enclosed back porch to take advantage of the one south facing window in our house (besides the one in the garage).  It means we'll need to tidy and paint that back porch now but that's no bad thing. And the extra light it lets it makes a world of difference!

This motivated Bill to finally take a box of electronic stuff to the tip for recycling and me to replace the ugly plants that have been relegated to this formerly unseen place with a selection of herbs. So far we have oregano, mint and basil and I'm finding it great fun to snip and add these to the meals I cook. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

Past Imperfect

I just finished a Julian Fellowes' novel (see the title of this post). I've passed it up time and again in charity shops as I wasn't that thrilled by his novel Snobs.  I'm a simpleton in my story preferences: I want the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose. Fellowes is far more complicated than that. Long ago I worked out that American-style thinking takes the practical A to B route. Things don't work that way in Britain or in Europe as a whole. I get the feeling they don't trust simplicity here.  In spite of having the end of this book reflecting complex social consequences that avoid white and black hats, I have to say I think this is perhaps my favourite of his works, including my beloved Gosford Park (he wrote the screenplay) and even Downton Abbey.

I'm thinking that Past Imperfect is a book to read at any time in your adult life, but perhaps best appreciated after the age of 50. I say this in part because as part of a prologue about the story behind this book, the author says

...each of us - those of us who live into our fifties anyhow - must negotiate our way through three, or even four completely distinct historical periods before we are allowed to rest. Periods with different philosophies, different truths, different social mores, different clothes.

Of course the underlying theme of most of Julian Fellowes' work is about the changing / unchanging fate of the upper classes in Britain. Other than living where I do and touring grand houses, my life has zero to do with Britain's upper classes, but it instantly hit me that I have actually experienced - negotiated - several historical periods. It's an odd realisation.

Growing up in suburban Oklahoma we were behind the times by about 10 years. I remember the stringent social rules of the 1950s/early 1960s, when ladies wore headscarves and my school clothes were shift dresses Mom made from my aunts' discarded circle skirts.  Children were seen and not heard, respectability was everything and most mothers were at home.

Then there were the late '60s and the 1970s. Fellowes remarks in his book that most of what is attributed to the sixties actually happened in the 1970s. I was so pleased to read that, as this is how I remember it.  As my year at high school edged towards draft age during the Vietnam war, we all seemed to split into groups with labels: hippies, bookworms (the pre-nerd word) jocks, cheerleaders, rednecks, soc's. The rich kids only came to my school in the summer to make up classes they'd failed at their private schools. I took up with a few of them as I worked towards early graduation. Funnily they seemed to find comfort in my mother's company. I was undecided where I fit with these labels and changed my clothes like costumes, drifting briefly everywhere except among the athletes; who knew I would one day run marathons? After high school I favoured ragged bell bottoms, peasant blouses and long hair, but had ambitions to attend college, not 'drop out'. I rebelled against the prim and proper rules, against having authority lean on me, but not against learning or earning.

Desk at Dyrham Park

Then the eighties, nineties and naughties all seemed roughly the same to me: my corporate life in suits and bobbed hair.  I loved my work and put most of my energy into it. Making poor choices of spouses meant work life  was usually more pleasant than home, at least until Bill.  It seemed to me that when I came to Britain in 1995 they were just really getting into the swing of 'work hard, play hard, spend it all' when I had settled more into the frugal lifestyle which didn't pick up here again until the Great Recession. There were apparently other recessions but they were under my radar. I was busy at work during the day, busy at night school evenings and weekends. Busy working to improve my future, to keep my brain engaged on something other than my home life. Most people I knew worked long and hard at whatever they did, trying to get ahead. Those with families struggled to balance work and family commitments. Eventually I realised that work and home had finally reversed for me: work was a nightmare, sucking my time and energy for its own purposes. I finally preferred to be at home.

I retired in 2007. I don't dress up much these days. I don't allow others to use me to to their own ends. As soon as I have that creepy feeling of being dragged against my will, I leave. Frugality is fashionable again, at least it is in my crowd.  I get the feeling that labels are 'important' again: politics are polarized, you either have or you have not. I don't see this as positive at all.  Here in Britain religion seems more about enjoying community than about exercising power, but I can't say I'm well informed. I feel wealthy not to have to work any more but I live carefully, conscious of my erratic income. My perception of society today is from the vantage of retirement and this has to be a skewed point of view. I'm not sure what are the social mores, the truths of today except that people seem to worry more about their employment security. The social safety net that existed in Britain for the past half century is eroded. I'm grateful to be out of the rat race, but though I'm reasonably far from the financial edge, I feel these are precarious times.  I wonder if there will be another period of relative tranquility in my lifetime.

Do you ever have the sense that you have 'negotiated several distinct historical periods'?

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Of Gates and Garden Walls and Garden Rooms

I lost my place again, so where was I?  Oh yes, at the lovely Wallington Hall.

The woman who sits in the house and sees is a match for a stirring captain. Those still piercing eyes, as faithfully exercised on their talent, will keep her even with Alexander or Shakespeare...We are as much as we see.
H.D. Thoreau 

The look of things has great power over me.
Virginia Woolf 

The scarlet oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth.
H.D. Thoreau 

Everything has beauty but not everyone sees it.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Joanne's Pineapple (or Chocolate) Pie

Today my friend Joanne would have been 70. She passed away three years ago just after beginning treatment for breast cancer. Her mother had survived breast cancer and I think she expected she would, too.  Her sudden death was a surprise to us all. I still think of her often.

Flowers in a window. Dyrham Park, South Gloucestershire

Back in 2009 she sent me several pie recipes. I published her strawberry recipe last year. Here is her Pineapple Pie recipe.

Pineapple Pie

8 oz. cream cheese (room temperature)
8 oz. sour cream
1/3 c. sugar
1/2 t. vanilla
8 oz. crushed pineapple, drained
Reserve 1 tablespoon pineapple
1 small container of Cool Whip
Graham cracker crust pie shell

Mix all together. Place in pie shell. Refrigerate overnight. (Can freeze for use later).  Variations: Eliminate pineapple. Put mixture in chocolate crust. Add mini-chocolate chips and sprinkles.

I'm not sure what you are supposed to do with the tablespoon of pineapple but I'd guess it was to garnish the top of the Cool Whip.  It might be good to give people a bit of a warning that they're about to taste pineapple!

Monday, 16 June 2014


Our last trip in the motor home was in late May. Bill wanted to marshal one of those crazy 100-mile walks that the Long Distance Walking Association does overnight. As we meandered our way back from South Wales we visited a few National Trust properties which I hope to tell you about soon. When planning the trip I asked if we could be back by the night of the 29th. The Linskill community centre was having its annual book sale on the 30th and 31st and we were going to be elsewhere on the 31st.  I love a huge sale where the books are 50p for paperback, £1 for hardback!

I spent a grand total of £10 and got the following:

Vanished Years, Rupert Everett
The blurb mentioned Evelyn Waugh & Ivor Novello, so I 'had' to buy it!

The Black Prince, Iris Murdoch
I've not seen the Judy Dench film yet, but thought I ought to read something Murdoch had written.

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
Frequent references to this book in other fictional books I've read made me curious about it.

Past Imperfect, Julian Fellowes
Sadly, his novels seem not to be set in the inter-war period like his screenwriting, but I liked Snobs well enough to pay 50p for another.

The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama
I read this at my cousin's flat in Nice and thought I might well read it again. Explains the history of politics in the US quite well.

Best of Betjamin, John Betjamin and John Guest
Bill's favourite poet, also an inter-war personality. I'm sure I'll be sharing a few of his scribbles - many very irreverent for a Poet Laureate! His first wife was a Cavendish, the family of the Dukes of Devonshire, owners of Chatsworth, one of the grand houses we saw. 

211 Things a Bright Girl Can Do, Bunty Cutler
The word 'bright' in the title made me think of the 1920s, though this is relatively modern. A few useful ideas, but more silly ones I think. Will report back perhaps.

Maigret Takes a Room, Georges Simenon
We love the Maigret series filmed with Michael Gambon (currently re-watching!). I read a biography of Georges Simenon, disgusting man, but I thought I'd try reading a Maigret mystery to see if they were as good as the series.

The Chase, Louisa May Alcott
Apparently this is one of the early works she wrote to earn money, not the sweet stuff of Little Women. I'm expecting it will be tedious but thought it worth a try; I've never seen this title before!

Bess of Hardwick - First Lady of Chatsworth, Mary S. Lovell
I'm certain I've read about Bess before, though I'd not remembered her connection to Chatsworth. Lovell writes a lot about the inter-war period and so her name drew me to buy it as well. Funny, we spotted this book (for a lot more than 50p) at the Chatsworth gift shop and was almost tempted. Instead, I took photos of the books I wanted, in order to look for them elsewhere. Major score!

The Last Great Edwardian Lady, Ingrid Seward

Bill pointed out this book to me. Turns out it's about the Queen Mother, Elizabeth. I have other books about her. I wouldn't say I was so much a royalist but I do think of her as an interwar personality.

Guinness Guide to 20th Century Fashion, David Bond
That Extra Half an Inch, Victoria Beckham
The World of Downton Abbey, Jessica Fellowes

All very silly books I'd never pay full price for. £1 each was about right...

Perfectly Fitted: Creating Personalized Patterns for a Limitless Wardrobe, Lynne Garner
I bought this at a National Trust gift shop for about a fiver. As soon as I opened it I regretted the purchase as it requires a 'fitting buddy' which I don't have. Unless I manage to train Bill...hmmm. Wish me luck on that!

The White Queen, Philippa Gregory
I must have been desperate for a book, having finished all I brought, as I paid full price for this (well, reduced a bit) at a grocery store. An excellent read, mind. May look around for the rest of the series, but only for 50p or less! She does a great job of telling stories from Britain's medieval period.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier
Bought this at a National Trust house, but in their used book room, not the gift shop. Increasingly a lot of places collect donations of used books for visitors to browse and buy, usually displayed in some funny little end room somewhere. I always take the time to look, as their prices are great (about like the community centre's) and you never know where you'll find a gem...or a pearl (sorry). I've recently worked out that if the book was good enough to be made into a film, it's probably a pretty decent read. Worked this time anyhow, great book!

Books I Took with Me:

Modesty Blaise, Peter O'Donnell
Described to me as a female James Bond, a mid-60s thing here in Britain. Also as 'popcorn'. I do love 'popcorn'! Looking forward to more of Modesty!

The Winter Garden Mystery, Carola Dunn 
I've read it before and it's OK, just not terribly gripping compared with other books. Bill has a lot of these and re-reads them often. I think he like 'popcorn' as well.

My Grandmothers and I, Diana Holman-Hunt
An autobiographical account of the extreme differences between her grandmothers, one the widow of William Holman-Hunt who was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a raffish set of scamps. Black humour colours a very sad upbringing.

All Will Yet Be Well: The Diary of Sarah Gillespie Huftalen, 1873-1952, Sarah Gillespie Huftalen and Suzanne L. Bunkers
A friend gave me this book saying he thought it interesting but it was hard work and he didn't think he was ever going to finish it. I agree with his assessment but finished it as a point of pride.  A bit tedious in places but boy did it ever bring home to me how soft we are these days! Her daily routine at 84 would kill a horse these days.

Saturday, 14 June 2014


Perched on the garden wall at Wallington House is this odd statue of Scaramouche.

I have to confess that the only association I had with the word had to do with the invitation to fandango in the Queen song, Bohemian Rhapsody.  Finding a statue with this name made me think there must be more to the story.

Turns out that Scaramouche is a character from the Italian theatre involving 'masked types' and dating back to the 1600s.  So I guess Freddie Mercury and co. were more cultured than I realised.