Monthly Archives: July 2006

Waiting by the phone, until I gave up and did something better

I had occasion to ring a department at Islington Borough Council this morning (for those of you who do not know London personally, it is where Tony and the rest of the Blairs – except the youngest – lived before he became prime minister). I phoned at 9.30 and heard a recorded message, asking for my name and phone number – say name, key in number – and I would be phoned back.

Somehow, I imagined that I would be phoned back today. I waited until noon. Then I had to go out. The saintly Sage stayed until 2 pm. Then he wrote a letter to Islington Council and has sent it by recorded delivery, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope enclosed. Just to see if that works.

Anyway, I had to go to Norwich and, after I’d transacted necessary business, decided to stroll around for a bit and maybe investigate the tail end of the sales – as it has been far too hot to want to buy anything for weeks and so I have not done my necessary civic duty of maintaining the economic prosperity of Norfolk’s shops. I was successful for remarkably little money and came home feeling cheerful.

And not just because of my purchases. It was a pleasure to see everyone in the streets – i happened to meet several people I know but that, delightful as it was, is not what I mean. You know this obesity epidemic you read about all the time? Norfolk is several decades behind the times in many ways, and in this one too, or so it seemed. Streetfuls of slender people, both men and women attractively and flatteringly dressed, with flesh only discreetly bared if it enhanced a woman’s appearance and the few chubbier people were equally well clothed and attractive too. I was charmed. There were very few exceptions, stylewise and most of them were teenage lads, who were still of an age to dress to be scruffily unnoticeable (and, sentimental that I am, I find quite sweet). And everyone was smiling too.

I had to get some keys cut at the market. Norwich market has had a major refurbishment over the last couple of years and some shifting around of stalls resulted during that time as, while each section was being done, those stalls had to move into temporary ones. The key-cutting and shoe-mending stall had evidently not been there for a while and has just reopened. Several customers came and went while I was waiting for my keys and each had some friendly and welcoming words for the stallholders.

It was slightly less hot today and, although still sunny, a better day for getting things done. I still had an afternoon nap though after I arrived home. So now I must go and water the greenhouses. Bye!

I’ve got ten minutes to spare

You Are a Centaur

In general, you are a very cautious and reserved person.
However, you are also warm hearted, and you enjoy helping others in practical ways.
You are a great teacher, and you are really good at helping people get their lives in order.
You are very intuitive, and you go with your gut. You make good decisions easily.
Your Quirk Factor: 44%

You’re a pretty quirky person, but you’re just normal enough to hide it.
Congratulations – you’ve fooled other people into thinking you’re just like them!

Pfft, who knows – except me and I’m not saying. Thanks Geena for these, but I didn’t do the meme – too many answers were a boring “no” or a prim “I’m not telling – my family might read this blog.”


Another chapter in my saga. When I last wrote, my father-in-law (Pa) had recently died, my mother-in-law (Ma) had decided to move out of the family home where all their surviving children had been born, the Sage and I had agreed to move there and we were having a baby.

Ma started to look for a house. She didn’t want to move far and preferably, to stay in the village where she had lived for 55 years. But there were hardly any properties on the market and she could not find anything she liked at all. So she came back to us and asked if we would mind her building a house in the garden.
This was obviously a reasonable suggestion and I could hardly object. But I did have doubts. I had an affectionate relationship with Ma, but to live in ‘her’ house, with her next door might be difficult for both of us. And she was approaching 80 years old – very fit and active now, but when the time came for her to need more care, would that change our relationship for better or worse? However, I kept quiet about it. It was not long since her husband had died and I would not hurt her.

We made enquiries about planning. There is plenty of room here, but it is outside the area of the village where planning permission would readily be given. After considerable negotiation, we were given permission for an attached granny annex, with the proviso that only a close family member would be allowed to live there. And, in due course, the bungalow was built and Ma moved in there. Initially, she rather assumed that we would move in to the house straight away, but we had to explain that this was not possible – the roof tiles badly needed replacing and other work needed to be done (my priority was to get rid of the orange and stainless steel 60s fitted kitchen, though I didn’t say that!). She took the news good-naturedly and her old ‘retainer’, Hilda, who had gone there as a mother’s help when the Sage was a year old and stayed ever since, agreed to postpone her retirement until we had moved.

Ma entered into the spirit of the thing cheerfully. We have photos of her climbing a ladder and clambering onto the roof. When I expressed a hankering for an Aga, she said that it would be her welcoming present to me. I still was not entirely sure that the house would ever feel like my own home, but I could not feel anything but loved and welcomed.

And then one morning, Hilda took her in an early-morning pot of tea as usual and said ‘good morning’. An hour or so later, she was a little worried as Ma had not got up. She went to consult K who helped in the garden – maybe she was ill? K went and rattled dustbins loudly outside the window in case Ma was asleep: but eventually they realised there was no option but to go into the bedroom and poor Hilda ventured in, with K hovering outside in the hall.

Ma had poured her tea and put down the teapot, but then her heart had failed her and she had lain back and died in her bed. A good death, who would fear an end such as that? Her fourteen months of widowhood must have been hard for her, but she never complained and was brave and resolute. We were so sorry that the work had not been completed and that we didn’t move in while she was still alive, she had so looked forward to that, but there had been no inkling. We carried on with the work, but the urgency had been removed and so we didn’t move in for another nine months.

Vegging busily

What a tired z I am – soon to be a zzz I am sure. I went out this morning just before 8 to pick vegetables, took 15 minutes or so to encourage several chickens back into their run – they just climb over the wire, but they never climb back so I had to open the gate and then chivvy them towards it, only to find a few other inquisitive birds wandering out in their turn. Then I took an hour to pick 3 varieties of french bean, courgettes, spinach, swiss chard, 10 cucumbers and broad beans. As the broad beans are nearly finished, I cut off some plants to give to the cows, which are getting very bored with brown grass, Some of them are not fond of broad bean plants however, so I had to search the compost heap for cabbages and carrots from the shop for them.
When all was picked, I went back towards the house, stopping to let some more chickens in again. By that time, and it was only 9.30, it was hot and humid and so was I, so I showered and dressed again and was just going to slap in contact lenses and slap on slap when Squiffany arrived for a visit.
An hour later I finished making myself human for the day, nicely in time to spend 11 – 6 in the shop.

My daughter and son-in-law are up for the weekend, so they came to call at the shop during the afternoon. And the pub was mentioned. Now, can you imagine the temptation? 4.15 pm, nothing to drink all day but a mug of coffee at 10 o’clock, and the pub was mentioned.
By 4.30 I was happily quaffing a pint of the landlord’s best – still at work in the shop of course, and really impressing the male, at any rate, customers, who seemed not to be accustomed to the sight.

By the time we finally sat down to dinner, sometime after 8, I was really quite ready to take a break. And tomorrow I’ll try to write something interesting!

Have a good weekend

Just a few pictures to end the week. We acquired a few posh pedigree bantams last year and some of their chicks, whose father is a common or garden bantam, have comical topknots. Some are black and some are a rather lovely ginger. They are nice-natured, tame little birds; unlike the males which are true fighting cocks and which we didn’t keep.

Figs – should be a good crop this year, as long as I remember to pick them before the birds have a go.

And in close-up

Last year the datura had lots of sweet-scented flowers in August when I bought the plant (adding showy colour to tubs to put around the wedding marquee). These are this year’s first two. I had quite a job keeping it alive during the winter as the house was too dry – I don’t have a conservatory so it ended up in the porch where I kept forgetting to water it.

Funnily enough, end on, the flower looks like a giant petunia. But not in the flesh, as it were. That peachy tint, I think, is suntan as they were cream last year when the sun hardly shone.

At my village school governor leaving party, they gave me this rose bush. ‘Simply the best’ is the variety – aah, aren’t they sweet.

Another chapter in the Life of Z

So, the decision was made to move to the Sage’s family home. This would have been in the middle of September, 1983 – I know that we were on holiday over my birthday, as he bought me a gold necklace in Jersey (no VAT, good move). It could well have been 17th September when we had that momentous conversation over our sandwiches and glass of wine. A week later, we had another conversation, even more momentous and this one was initiated by my husband.

I should just set the scene a bit first. I was 19 when we married, 20 when our daughter was born and, two years almost to the day later, I had a baby son. And this was so wonderful, my children were so precious, that I wanted the experience again. When Al was about two years old, I said to the Sage that, if we were thinking about having a third, maybe this was about the right gap? He didn’t answer.
This sounds unfriendly but isn’t really. One just has to understand his way of thinking. He hates an argument and he can’t bear to say no to me. So he avoids a situation he doesn’t want to deal with. So I left him to think about it. And, in the intervening five years, I didn’t raise the subject again. It didn’t go away, for me, but I knew this had to be a whole-heartedly two-way decision and I wasn’t going to put him under pressure by telling him how strongly I felt.

Back to 24th September 1983. In bed. “Would you like?” asked the Sage, “to have another baby? New beginnings and all that?” No need to consider, important decisions are the easy ones to make. “Yes. However,” I added, “I don’t want another April baby. Another April birthday will be too expensive. And not around Christmas either. Um, July next year is the earliest we could manage it, let’s give it from now until February (which would make it early November) and if I’m not pregnant then, hold you hard* until August or so.”
I may not be organised, but I am efficient and practical.

Anyway, the next morning (excuse me, squeamish/male/celibate people) I didn’t take a pill. A week later, when if I was going to, I should, I asked if he was sure. He said he was, so we started to work quite hard on modelling the perfect baby. Needs quite a bit of practice, doesn’t it.
We didn’t take all that long however; I said I am efficient and so is he; and our third child was born on 24th July 1984.

*This is not some deviant form of birth control, just a bit of Norfolk-speak

Just pick up the phone

At some point I need to make an appointment to visit the doctor. No urgency, so easy to procrastinate. Part of my reluctance to ring up and just make that damn appointment is the system that has been in place for the last few years, that all appointments are for the same or the next day. So I can’t say, oh no hurry, if there’s a fairly unbusy time anywhen in the next fortnight that’ll be fine – I’m treated as someone who actually needs a ‘here and now’ appointment which makes me feel as if I’m making a fuss or, worse, as if I think I’m iller than I actually am (which I’m not, it’s just an appointment, really).

I was quite impressed when the system was brought in; guaranteed appointment within 48 hours, wow*. Until I actually wanted to make one for the next week and wasn’t allowed to. Especially if you are relying on a friend for a lift, this seems silly – I understand about artificial targets and all that, I’m not blaming them. And then, of course, if you ring and there are no next-day appointments left, apart from urgent cases, you are not allowed to book, and have to ring back the next day, constantly hitting redial at 8.30 in the morning when everyone else is doing the same thing.

So, I’ve put it off all week and I wouldn’t ring on Thursday anyway as Friday is always busy, and Monday mornings are busy too so I won’t ring then, and probably I’ll forget for the next few days and – well, you see what I mean.

I know the underlying reason for this reluctance of course. I ignore all letters suggesting I make an appointment for any sort of check-up. So I don’t want to just drop in, just in case he says ‘Ha! Got you here at last – let me check your blood pressure and cholesterol and do all the tests we do just in case.’ And I’d be too polite to say no. So I stay away.

You know why I’ve written this? So that now I have demonstrated, in print, that I am just being silly, I’ve no excuse any more.

*Geena is bemused, and well she might be.
The government is very keen on targets. It sets targets for everything, except of course for ministerial competence and rectitude. In schools, in the health service, in anything it can get its hands on. And these have to be measurable. It was decided – in some medical practices, correctly – that it took too long to obtain an appointment to see your doctor. Sometimes, if you admitted it was not an emergency, it could take a fortnight. So surgeries were given a 48-hour target for doctors’ appointments. So they shrugged their shoulders and gave the government what they wanted.

The obsession with target setting and league tables does nothing to raise standards in itself of course and it can mask real problems. And it’s made us all extremely cynical. But hey, *we* voted for them and so are reaping what we sowed.

Thinking, as usual, about food

The radio is on in the kitchen next door, and Anna Del Conte is on Woman’s Hour talking about her new cookery book. I only have one of her books, ‘Entertaining all’Italiana’ but it is a favourite. I doubt if I am unusual, in that I have lots of cookery books, most of which I use for browsing through and usually just use one or two recipes from each. Indeed, some books read really well, but somehow I just never cook from them.

Nigel Slater is one of those. He really makes food sound good, but his slathers of butter and cream just don’t accord with what most of us eat so I take his ideas and adapt. And I have two books by Annie Bell, which are lovely to read, her ‘A Feast of Flavours’ is one of the most appealing vegetarian books I have but, I don’t know why, I don’t use it much. The other book of hers, co-written, I own is ‘Living and Eating’ which is just so prescriptive. They tell you just what is ‘good taste’, to the extent that they choose your plates and cutlery, which is a bit off-putting.

I’ve had Josceline Dimbleby’s ‘Favourite Food’ for over 20 years – I bought it (reduced!) in hardback but, like many books of the 1980s it is falling apart because it was not bound properly but the spine was just stuck together. I used one of my favourite recipes from that book just the other night*, and it’s probably one of my most cooked-from books. However, although I have several other of her books I don’t often use them – sometimes, I suspect, a cookery writer starts to get a bit too anxious for new ideas to fill a book he or she is contracted to produce and aims for over-complicated recipes or a more outré combination of ingredients to fill the pages. This happened to Nigella Lawson; ‘How to Eat’ is not only a really useful and entertainly practical book to read but has excellent recipes too, but some of her later ‘TV personality’ books don’t have nearly as much to recommend them.

I borrowed the Australian restauranteur Bill Granger’s book ‘Bill’s open kitchen’ from the library and liked it enough to ask Ro for it for Christmas. Very simple, delicious recipes which encourage you to use your imagination.

Can’t miss out Delia. Is there anyone in this country who doesn’t have one of her books? I have several and they are so useful. I do know one person, actually, my friend Caroline Young. For decades, whenever she admitted to being a cookery writer, she was greeted by a brightening face “Ooh, do you know Delia?” and she developed a bit of a ‘thing’ about it (although not about the lady herself who is apparently charming). Caroline wrote some excellent books. One, written with Katie Stewart, ‘Simply Good Food’ has several quick standbys and many good things. One recipe, for chicken in a tomato, pesto and crème frâiche sauce (I’ve just given all the ingredients) is one of the most useful (ie quick and tastes as if it’s more trouble than it is) I’ve ever had, and her strawberry icecream takes 5 minutes to put together, 20 minutes to freeze, which means you have got home-made icecream ready for the table in the time it takes you to eat your first course.

I don’t think I should have started this – how can I leave out Elizabeth David (French Provincial Cooking is my favourite of hers), Jane Grigson and Sophie Grigson – I love Sophie Grigson’s puckish smile, dangly earrrings and sloping shoulders and the recipes are good too, and all the others whose books I appreciate, but I only sat down to write this on a brief whim and I think I’ve kept you long enough already.

*But this fabulous marinaded chicken is what we barbecued on Ro’s birthday this week.

1 small onion
Piece of fresh ginger, peeled
6-8 cloves of garlic
3 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoons ground cardamon
half teaspoon ground cloves
half teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon tomato purée
1 teaspoon salt.
Put the lot (chopped a bit if appropriate) in the food processor, whizz, coat chicken pieces with the aromatic mess, leave for several hours, grill or barbecue until blackening. Don’t fry, somehow the flavours vanish. It’s aromatic, not hot and the garlic doesn’t overwhelm as its pungency is balanced by the other flavours so that none stands out.

A suggestion and a decision

I first visited this house in 1970, but it was not until three years later that the son of the family and I became closer than simple friendship. After we married in May 1973, we visited his home regularly; we were both close to our families and lived half an hour’s drive away from here. Once we had children we fell into the habit of usually visiting my mother (and in due course my stepfather too) for Sunday lunch (unless they came to us) and the Sage’s parents for tea.

The house was warm and friendly and unpretentious, but it was very different to any other I knew. It was older, for a start, with large rooms made dark by windows enclosed by dark curtains with pelmets, and with low ceilings – the drawing room ceiling was particularly low, being only 6 foot 6 inches (2 metres) high with a beam across the middle that my husband and his father ducked under without noticing. The kitchen was a bit startling, all stainless steel and orange melamine – very 1960s, which didn’t seem to suit the house. I liked the house but could never imagine myself living here.

Years went by. The children visited frequently and loved spending weekends with Granny and Grandpa but in 1983, after a short illness, my father-in-law died. We had booked a family holiday in Jersey only a few weeks later and felt bad about leaving Ma, but she was insistent that we should go. On our return we visited her of course and a few days later my husband went over again for a long talk.

We were members (and still are) of the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk yacht Club in Lowestoft and used to meet a couple of times a week there for lunch. On this day, and I remember exactly where we were sitting and what we ate (we shared a round of cheese and a round of ham sandwiches and a salad), the Sage told me that his mother had decided that the house was too large and impractical for her to manage on her own and that she would sell it and move.

Several thoughts whipped through my mind. The Sage still had loads of stuff in the outbuildings, from his early engineering days. What on earth would we do with it? He loved the house and so did our children as, I realised, did I. He would hate to see it go. I opened my mouth to speak.

You know when you are as surprised with what you say as is the person you speak to?

“Would you like us to move there?

The Sage was astonished. He knew how much I loved our home. He was also thrilled and tried hard not to sound too keen, so we talked about the possibilities for a little while and we decided that it would be best for him to talk to Ma alone – she might not be keen on the idea and frankness would be easier just between mother and son.

In the event, she was thrilled too. She told me that she and Pa always wished that one of their three children would eventually come and take over the house, but never suggested it as they didn’t want to put anyone under undue pressure. She never, she said, thought that I would consider living there.

This story will come in several episodes – I feel it is something of an imposition on you, but you tell me that you enjoy my reminiscences, so you’re going to get ’em. It seems odd to consider writing some of it down, memories are so personal – but I’ll see how it goes.

All ironed out

No relaxing done this afternoon after all as I decided that catching up on some ironing was a higher priority than relaxing in the shade with a book. I am, of course, a fool, but at least, now, an uncreased one, I mentioned this intention in an email to a friend and he replied “Must-be-ironed items surely minimal these days.” I mused on these words as I carried 45 or so freshly ironed garments upstairs and consigned 4 ink-stained shirts to the rag-bag. And then counted the unironed items; 66 dinner napkins, a really awkward white shirt of mine and a woollen sweater of the Sage’s, all of which can wait. And decided that his idea of minimalism is not quite the same as mine.

A churchwardens’ meeting this evening. And I discovered that I was not the only one to be miffed by the Church system. Some major grumbles by people who had not got their ear to the ground as I had, so had been in the dark until the official announcement. But, such was their annoyance, that their complaints sounded as if they were directed at the interviewing panel which was not intended, but sounded a bit personal. So I chipped in and said measured things and added that complaints should be directed to the bishop, not to the panel who were acting under directions from him. Fortunately it all calmed down quite soon. Another interview is set up next month. Pfft, we’ll get a priest sooner or later and if the bishop wants us to lose interest he’s going the right way about it.