Monthly Archives: July 2007

Z was embarrassed – but later won her case

We have a lecture every month and I have to give the vote of thanks at the end. This means that for the whole of the hour-long lecture, I’m busy committing to memory entertaining snippets, most of which I forget when I have to stand on the stage at the end. Before the lecture, I also have to give out notices and introduce the speaker, which is all right. On the way home from visits, I thank the person who organised it, and the coach driver (Keith is our usual driver and we like him very much).

I go for the informal approach. “You are so spontaneous!” people say – which is, of course, a kind way of saying ‘totally unprepared’. I take the view that people will forgive me if I’m fluffy, as long as they like me and I make them laugh. So that’s the angle I go for. It does not mean that I don’t mind when I am more than usually inept.

A few years ago, we had a splendid chap called J0hn B3njam1n coming to give us a lecture on jewellery (you may have seen him on Ant1ques R0adsh0w). Before he arrived, several people (who had not checked their programme) asked me who was lecturing. ” J0hn B3njam1n” I replied. Without exception, each of them said “Eh? J0hn Betjamen?” Was it any surprise, therefore, when I introduced the fellow, that I said it too?

Another time, we were approaching Norwich on the A11 after a visit to London. There are several roundabouts, and I was standing at the front of the coach with my back to the windscreen. Round the roundabout we went (for that’s what you do when you approach those useful traffic aids) and I fell straight down the steps towards the door. The driver (not Keith) might have warned me, but it was, admittedly, more fun that way. And indeed, all 49 people in the coach laughed at me.

The third time was when we had another well-known antiques expert, D@v1d B@tt1e, for a study day. Nothing too awful about the vote of thanks that time, except that the Sage was in the audience. He isn’t normally. I felt very self-conscious. I like to keep compartments in my life separate.

Though – and I’d forgotten about this until now when I wrote about it – the matter was raised in a disagreement a few weeks later. I suggested to the Sage that he often didn’t show much support for me and he had never even noticed it. It is not easy to win an argument with me, because I cite Evidence. I reminded him of the occasion and told him that, nervous as I’d been, he hadn’t said anything to encourage me beforehand, nor to reassure me afterwards. He was startled, because it genuinely hadn’t occurred to him (although I always go through the whole supportive thing every time he does an auction or gives a lecture, even though it’s been his job for decades) and said “But I didn’t say anything to discourage you!”

He kept digging. “I clapped!”

“Everyone bloody clapped. It would have been a bit pointed if you hadn’t. Anyway, they weren’t clapping me, they were clapping the speaker.”

Poor darling was quite contrite.

Z hates to disappoint people

A society* I belong to applied, a couple of years ago, for a visit to the Prince of Wales’ home – not the house itself, but a tour of the gardens. We’ve recently been offered a date in September. The letter arrived while the society takes its summer break, so some of the committee have had to get off their deckchairs** and do some extra work.

We have three or four visits every year, to exhibitions, interesting houses etc – this autumn, for example, we will go to the Terracotta Army exhibition at the British Museum and to the Mansion House – and there is one committee member whose responsibility is to make all the arrangements. However, for this particular trip, both people who have done this job have already visited H1ghgr0ve and so can’t go again, so I’ve got to deal with applications.

I discover that I am not temperamentally suited to dealing with an oversubscribed trip.

We decided, since people may be on holiday or the post may take longer in some places than others, to go for a ballot rather than first come, first served, and the date for this is Monday 13th. There are only 25 places available – since expenses are the same whether the coach is full or half-full and this is a long way and so needs two drivers, this makes it a relatively expensive excursion and it will be a long day into the bargain, as we are going to leave at 6.30 am and don’t expect to return until 9.30 pm – and I’d hoped (knowing I wasn’t being realistic) for 25 applicants.

In the first two days, I’ve had 32. That already means disappointing 7 people, and many of the applicants are friends which makes it even worse

I can’t sway the outcome as it wouldn’t be the Thing to Do***, and to make sure I’m not tempted, I’ve asked the Rector to do the draw with me – not just because she will be above suspicion, but also because she won’t know any of the people concerned so won’t mind.

There is just one upside. On the day, I’ll get to boss everyone about.

*There are over 300 different branches, which are run independently but all affiliated to the National Association.

**With thanks to Dandelion for the improvement.

***With an acknowledgment to Dave that, by claiming a place that could go to a more deserving person, I am a liar.

Unrealistic Expectations

I should remember that if an expected (though not overdue) business email has not arrived by 11.30 on Sunday night, it’s unlikely to be here at 7.30 on Monday morning.

Sad to say, the computer and the camera are not at present on speaking terms. I took the precaution of restarting the computer before plugging in the camera in the hope of preventing a problem and it was when I tried to look at the photos that the computer crashed, so I’ve lost my photos. At least I’d shown my daughter the film I”d taken at the station, when we suddenly found out that Pugsley could say her name.

When a baby starts using words, it isn’t always that obvious what they are – that is, whether it’s really words or just sounds. My daughter reminded me when Squiffany was a baby and they went out of the back door of a café and she looked at the grass and said “garden”. But she didn’t say the word again for months.

Dilly and the children drove me to the station and Dilly asked Squiffany if she knew where I was going – whom do they usually bring here? “El and Phil”, realised Squiffany. “Last syllable of El’s name” piped up Pugsley. Startled, we asked him to repeat it. He did, several times, until I got the camera out and then he needed some persuasion. But he did in the end.

I’m sorry, also, to have lost the picture of El and Phil stranded in the fountain – and the artistic one of the rainbow seen in the fountain. I rudely snapped (without his knowledge) a young man with the worst hairstyle I’ve ever seen. I was looking forward to showing you that. He had very red hair and he had decided to shave it off all around the sides and leave it sticking up like a bog brush on top. The contrast between pale bristly head and red topknot was ugly, not in an aggressive “you thinking of messing with me, mate?” way but a “yeah, I know it was a really dismal mistake but I really feel those summer evening draughts and I’m too cold to cut it all off” one.

We arrived at the restaurant at 6 o’clock, just as the market had finished for the day, so we watched all the barrowboys pack up. As they were stacking the boxes on top of the barrows, an elderly Indian lady in a sari, clutching a couple of shopping bags, came along, eyes darting. She put down her bags and dived towards a fallen onion. Then a slightly dented cabbage. There was a turnip, but she rejected the green pepper, which must have been too soft. I rather applauded her – I don’t like waste either, and she punctiliously waited until there was no question that the stallholder was going to pick them up himself.

A man came along, wearing a cheap suit and eating fish and chips. The bits of batter he didn’t want were chucked on the ground with the vegetable debris. “Nice,” said El. “I expect he feeds the rats in his own backyard, too.” Fortunately, there are always London pigeons on hand and they cleared most of it up before the council refuse collectors came along. We wondered if all the stallholders pay equal amounts for rubbish clearing – some of the stalls left little or no rubbish, whereas the greengrocers made a real mess.

We know a barrowboy in Portobello Road. He says that local people are too posh to do their greengrocery shopping with him any more – round there they all go to the supermarkets, or maybe they buy their organic vegetable boxes and have them driven in from the countryside. He sells fruit to people scurrying out at lunchtime, or simple veg and salads to those hurrying home at the end of the day who have run out of tomatoes or need a stick of celery. Chapel Market is still busy though. A tough life – only shut on Mondays, El tells me, but each other day they are there for long hours in all weathers.

:-D … well, it’s not hard, is it?

My sister, her young man and I are planning a visit to the Loire in October. He has been doing all the research, which I heartily approve of, because I have a short attention span – I usually don’t mind, and can’t be doing with more that a choice of three at best. I’m a nightmare in a travel agency and worse online because there is Too Much Choice.

Having, between us, agreed all the details (well, he suggested, I said yes), he emailed to say that the booking was confirmed. Yay!

I emailed back, cc-ing my sister


Z x

Now, doesn’t that say it all to you? I thought it did. But I had a phone call this evening from my sister, whom I shall call Wink.

Wink – Bod and I had a most peculiar email from you.

Z – What?

Wink – it was all signs and symbols and we didn’t understand it.

Z (who had forgotten all about the email, having received another one from Bod in the meantime) – oh my god, don’t say that I”ve been spammed and you are getting dodgy stuff in my name!

Wink – I don’t know – it didn’t send us anywhere, but it didn’t make sense.

Z (starting to have an inkling) – what was it?

Wink – well, there was a colon and then..

Interrupting Z – haven’t you come across emoticons?

Explanations ensued. I felt a little silly. I expect she felt sillier. I mean, really.


For dinner, on Friday night, we went to the Clerkenwell Dining Room. If you book via Top Table, you get a 50% reduction in the prices of the food at present, which makes it astonishingly reasonable for what we had, which was gorgeous food, charming staff and a good atmosphere.

We started with a freebie gazpacho. Oh, no, that came after the really good bread. Then El and I had tempura and Phil had pâté (there was some fois gras in there, but there was also chicken so his conscience was only moderately troubled). We all ate bits of each others’ plates throughout in a relaxed yet keen fashion. Afterwards, Phil and I both had smoked duck breast, which was served at exactly the right stage of rareness on Puy lentils with little shallots, small beetroots and pommes dauphinoise. El had slow-cooked belly of pork with scallops, served with tiny apple cubes, the pommes d. and I’m not sure what else. We shared the chocolate terrine with pistachio icecream served in a most fabulous little biscuit, sort of tuile-ish, but with a brandysnap lacyness and, praline-like, studded with chopped nuts. It was heavenly. Even though we didn’t have coffee, they brought sweets – nice little crisp sweet Melba toasty bits, tiny home-made marshmallows and rich little truffles. The bill would have been £115 including service, but the half-price offer brought it down to only £40 for all the food and £35 for the very nice bottle of wine, fizzy water and tip.

On Saturday night, we went to one of El and Phil’s current favourites and within a few minutes’ walk of their flat, in Islington’s Chapel Market. We were there early as I had a train to catch. We shared a couple of starters, had monkfish, lamb curry, Chicken Tikka, red vegetables, yellow rice, Tiger beer – really good, delicious fresh food. Again, nice staff. I’d happily go again. There was a special 60th Independence anniversary, but we weren’t quite up to all the food on it at that time of the evening. I don’t know the cost as my lovely children paid, but it was very good value, especially as, again, we’d booked with Top Table. The name, you are anxious to know, is Rooburoo.

The day was excellent. Starting with El and Phil’s splendid breakfast, which I did not help to cook as their kitchen fits two snugly. I had, however, contributed eggs. Just as we were leaving for the station, I went to fetch the half-dozen eggs that had been nestling in the kitchen — but two were missing! – Ro had had breakfast already! Nothing daunted, the Sage went and squeezed a couple of bantams and returned with two more eggs, still warm. Mm, nice.

I’m glad to say that I liked the Gormley exhibition just as much the second time round. Afterwards, I took El and Phil to see the fountain with sheets of water that trap giggling tourists. El said that I’d be a good guide, as I am so enthusiastic. Such keenness did I instil in her that she chirruped “shall we go in?” I, being a reticent type, was startled but, being a jolly type, was game. We became trapped in watery cubes and it was really quite a windy morning. I was all right, but their jeans rather soaked the water up, especially as I was let out several minutes before they were. I amused myself taking lots of photos.

Afterwards, we went to the Cartoon Museum*, which I mentioned the other day. It was fabulous, do go. It’s only been open for 18 months, doesn’t receive government funding and is a joy. I love cartoons, from Hogarth and Gilray to Searle, Addams, Scarfe, Calman, Heath Robinson, whose work is being commemorated in their current exhibition. Looking at them reminded me how the more sardonic cartoonists shaped my early life.

It seems to be largely run by volunteers, and the woman on duty was a friendly, welcoming enthusiast. The little gift shop was a joy, with lots of books of cartoons and about cartoonists, well-chosen gifts for children keen on drawing, and very amusing cards. I bought the book of the exhibition and El bought a highly amusing mug.

Afterwards, we spent a cheerful hour or so in the British Museum – the ‘or so’ part sitting people-watching: my word, there are some oddities about. Then we went back to the flat for a Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down (you do know this website, don’t you? I’m such a fan that I even bought the book last year. I read it in Venice) before venturing out for our Indian dinner. We hadn’t had lunch, as breakfast had lasted all day.

There were Scouts on the train from Chelmsford, which was a bit disconcerting if you didn’t know about the Jamboree. Which I didn’t. But they were cheerfully well-behaved, as you would expect of such future Establishment Pillars.

*admission is £4 for adults, not £3 as stated here. Still Value.


London was bright and delightful and we had a splendid day. I was very glad that I was getting off the train at Diss anyway, because the train terminated there and passengers were bused to Norwich. It was raining and it’s a much longer trip by road than by rail.

I hope you have all written lots of posts to entertain me, and I will read them all tomorrow. But now I’m going to bed.

London awaits the arrival of Z!!(!)

I’m off in a few minutes. Dilly is taking me to the station. I have packed exceedingly light, which always gives me a tiny frisson of pleasure, because my young brain was scarred by my mother taking everything on every occasion. For me, packing for all eventualities means an extra pair of knickers, just in case.

You will not miss me at all, darlings, however fond you are, for I shall be back tomorrow night.

Have a lovely weekend.

Food memories (vegetarians, please read no further)

When I was a child, my mother must have spent most of her days planning meals and cooking them. No quick bowl of muesli in the morning or lunchtime sandwiches. We had three square meals a day.

A proper breakfast, of course. We didn’t start the meal with cereal in our family. Straight into the bacon and eggs. Sometimes kedgeree or sausages. Grilled tomatoes and mushrooms. Or just eggs, poached, scrambled or boiled. A piece of toast perhaps, but my mother watched her figure and didn’t eat much bread. My father made fantastic marmalade, so he might have that on toast. At Christmas, we had a turkey and a whole ham, so breakfast for a week afterwards might be cold ham. Then there were kippers, of course, always served in pairs. Or bloaters, which she served whole (nowadays, I gut bloaters before cooking them).

That kept us going for the morning. My mother made coffee for herself, the gardener, the daily and anyone else around at 11 o’clock, but nothing to eat. I might have had a glass of milk – there was certainly milk at school, little bottles containing one third of a pint. No one liked it, as it wasn’t refrigerated during the morning and was slightly warm and, in the summer, borderline off, but we had to drink it.

School lunch was ghastly, on the whole. Stews were strangely gelatinous, gristly and had no vegetables in them at all. I was used to plenty of vegetables and longed for a bit of onion and carrot to give it some interest. The pies made with minced beef were all right – good pastry – but the scrambled eggs were horrible. They were served out of great stainless steel vats and the top half was dry and crumbly and the rest damp curds scooped out of water with a slotted spoon. We believed they were made from powdered egg and we may have been right. Sausages were mostly fat and gristle and the cheese and potato pie was disgusting. Lumpy mash with sour cheese mixed in and baked. On Friday, it being a Catholic school, we had fish. My mind has blanked a description of the pieces of fish we were served and we hoped for fish fingers instead, although one day a boarder told us that she had lifted the breadcrumbs off her fish finger and found mould underneath. Vegetables were overcooked, of course. There was always soup, though I never took it. It was made from a packet and I didn’t see much point in it.

At home, my mother might have made a shepherd’s pie with the leftovers from the Sunday roast. Or fishcakes, a casserole, an omelette, cold meat and salad with a baked potato, lamb chops – quite straightforward dishes, but always beautifully cooked and served with several (never overcooked) vegetables. We had more than our daily five fruit and veg in those days, there were always lots of home-grown vegetables on the table. She made wonderful vegetable soups with home-made stock.

Our main meal was normally in the evening, except on Sundays, when we had a traditional roast, usually beef. Sirloin, on the bone, with the undercut (fillet) left on. My mother made wonderful Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes. The beef was served rare. In the evening, we had it cold, as well as any other cold meat left from a previous day, with several different salads and pickles – she pickled red cabbage and walnuts and made chutney. We also had cheese – Cheddar, Stilton, Brie, Camembert, Edam – and biscuits. It was served on a trolley in the drawing room – all other meals were eaten in the dining room.

Dinner during the week was usually meaty. We had at least one other roast and often a chicken. We sometimes had a mixed grill – does anyone eat mixed grill now? So much food on the plate – a small piece of steak, a lamb chop, a sausage, some liver, a kidney, tomatoes, mushrooms, fried potatoes, sometimes an egg or a rasher of bacon too. We often ate fish – grilled usually, sole or turbot or trout – or baked cod with onion and tomato, or fish pie with mashed potato. Our next door neighbours owned a fishing fleet and almost lived on fish – my mother was a bit taken aback to find that they considered kippers suitable for an evening meal, when to her they were, however delicious, certainly a breakfast or lunch dish.

At the weekend, they often had dinner parties and went to a lot of trouble with the food. They were followers of Elizabeth David and made cassoulet, ratatouille, daubes and carbonades. My mother had no interest at all in sweet food and, apart from lemon syllabub (I use her recipe still, except that I have changed it*), puddings were simple in the extreme. For example, a bought coffee icecream, smothered in whipped cream and sprinkled with a crumbled Flake chocolate bar was, she considered, perfectly acceptable for a dinner party pudding. A starter might be oeuf en cocotte (cooked perfectly so that the white was set but the yolk runny) or home-made pâté. In the 60s, they were always the first with the new foods, which they had sent up from London if necessary – avocado, for example. They grew aubergines, okra, melons – we had eight greenhouses, two of them hothouses.

Once in a while, my father fried fish and chips. He started by filleting the fish, which would have been cod, plaice or haddock. Then he peeled the potatoes, sliced them, soaked them, dried them, fried them to cook through. He made the batter and battered the fish. Then he gave the chips their final fry and fried the fish. They were served with frozen peas and home-made tartare sauce and lemon. He used almost all the dishes and pans in the kitchen and my mother would spend the afternoon cleaning up. He was a marvellous cook, but each meal he prepared was an Event and he used every utensil he could find and never even thought about the clearing away.

At home, unless there were guests, we never had puddings. My mother didn’t encourage a sweet tooth, though she did not disapprove of ice cream. This was the only shining light of school meals. The school cooks made lovely puddings, jam or chocolate sponges, rice pudding served with a dob of dark brown sugar, apple pies. In the summer, sometimes, jelly and ice cream, which was all right but not as nice as the dairy ice cream my mother bought.

Wine was always on the table. Everyday wine was bought in half-gallons. I can’t remember at what age I was first allowed to drink it but after that I always could if I wished. I rarely did, maybe the occasional half-glass when I was in my teens. Because it was not forbidden or ‘special’, I didn’t think of drinking alcohol as something to aspire to or hide from my parents. Sometimes we went to Sunday pre-lunch drinks parties. From the age of about 14, I was given sherry and, looking back, I must have sometimes become pretty drunk. Sherry is a fairly heavy drink for a youngster and I was freely offered refills.

We didn’t eat between meals, although fruit was not counted as snacking and was always available in large quantities. My mother did not bake cakes or biscuits, though we might have a biscuit at (afternoon) tea time. Lunch was at 1 and dinner 7.30 – later at a party of course. From a fairly early age, we ate dinner with our parents rather than early high tea.

Remarkably enough, I was tiny. I had a very small appetite, although I was not fussy about food at all. My mother was sympathetic, as she knew I simply could not eat much. “Try to finish the meat,” she would say. “It’s expensive and it’s protein.” I would be asked what vegetables I wanted with my sliver of meat and small potato. “Five peas and half a sprout, please” I would say, and that’s what I’d be given. My parents understood how discouraging it was to be confronted with a plateful I couldn’t finish.

*Less sugar, more alcohol. She did the juice of a lemon and half the grated rind, 4 ounces of sugar, a glass of sherry and half a pint of cream. I use the juice and all the rind, 2 ounces of sugar (a little more if needed), a glass of sherry and a slug of brandy, to a half-pint of cream.

The appeal of the Full English…

I spoke, this morning, of all the (pretty light but culturally above reproach and thoroughly entertaining) delights planned for Saturday. What did most of you home in on?

The cooked breakfast.

You know, I’m old enough to have grown up with bacon and eggs for breakfast every day. I had no idea what a privilege it was.

Making plans

I mentioned that I’m having a day in London, with El and Phil. I’m taking the 4.17 train tomorrow afternoon, which will arrive about 6 and then we will meet for a drink before going out for dinner. On Saturday, we’re going to the Gormley exhibition – back there, in my case, but I really want to go again.

Until yesterday, we hadn’t planned the rest of the day, but I’d had my eye on the Heath Robinson exhibition here, for I have found his drawings most entertaining all my life. My father was a fan, so I grew up with them. I’m not sure if my daughter even knows this, but I arrived home last night to find an email from her suggesting the very same exhibition. Isn’t that splendid?

Then, we’ll toddle down to the British Museum and take a gander at this.

Later, we’ll have an early meal at an Indian restaurant they like which is not far from their flat, and I’ll take the 8.30 train home. I have nothing at all to do on Sunday, for once, but maybe Ro will let me play with him on his Wii…