Author Archives: Z

Timber……..

I emailed Tom the tree surgeon at the weekend. If you’ve been here, you’ll have noticed how, over the years, the pittosporum between the lawn and the drive has grown. It was a shrub, the sort of size you’d expect it to be, for years until we removed a huge old laurel hedge – certainly one of our better moves, it was such a nuisance – and, without its competition, it’s grown massively and must be 20 feet tall at least. On the other side of the drive and a few yards away, there’s a yew, nearly as tall and fairly straggly. I wanted to know the best thing to do with them both and I had half a mind to get rid of the pittosporum. Russell and I considered doing so when we had the drive made wider, but gave it a reprieve because we don’t really like removing healthy plants. Still, it’s in the wrong place and it’s far too big.

Tom and I discussed options and he’s going to remove the bottom growth from the yew and neaten the top, and make it a nicely shaped tree. The pittosporum will be cut hard back and it’ll either agree to be a shrub again or Tom will come back, remove it and grind out the stump. In the meantime, I’ll take cuttings because I’m sentimental. I also asked his advice about another tree – I can’t remember what it is – that’s growing over the beck. The root is one side but it slants heavily to the other before growing up tall. It’s elderly and covered in ivy, apart from the very top. Again, we discussed options. Best for the tree, probably, would be to cut through the ivy at the base. But I thought about it and I don’t want to. That’s a lot of food and shelter for birds and insects that would be destroyed and it seems such a shame. Tom was pretty relaxed about that, he’s very keen on wild habitats too and said we could leave it. Worst that would happen would be that it falls over and it won’t do much harm if it does. But in fact, we’ve decided to take off a couple of horizontal branches at the end, leaving the two main uprights and all the ivy. That’ll take some weight off, do no damage and look better.

I really like Tom and it’s always a pleasure to see him, but all the more nowadays, so starved am I for outside contact. Brief chats with a couple of shopkeepers, while being aware of a queue outside, so we keep on the subject of what I’m buying, isn’t much substitute for a social life. Still, it’s all we’ll get for a while. I don’t tend to phone people much. What is there to say?

Mystery Mary

For the last few months, there has been a requirement to keep poultry indoors because of the annual risk of avian flu. There were a couple of outbreaks some twenty miles away and I haven’t heard of anything nearer but, of course, I wouldn’t want my chickens to be at risk in any case. So I stopped letting them out in the mornings and gave them lots of greens to eat and they got used to it, apart from one young hen called Mary. She’s quite distinctive because, though buff-coloured overall, she has a black and white feather on each wing that shows as a bar. She’s also a bit bigger than the rest. She was an only chick and her mother lavished attention on her.

Mary got out every day. I never found out how. One other managed it too, in fact, but I’m sorry to say that she vanished. I suspect she was washed away in the floods just before Christmas, but I let Mary in every evening and this one was too wary. In the cold weather, Mary stayed indoors but, yesterday, I found her wandering outside again. She was happy to come in but I still had no idea how she got out. This morning, while feeding the cats, I heard some crooning coming from the big coop in the Dutch barn. Sure enough, Mary was busy laying an egg in the bedroom compartment. I fetched food and water and shut the door, to her protestations a few minutes later. She’s very unhappy about it.

Tim and I have searched the chickens’ greenhouse yet again. It’s a big 40 feet by 14 feet greenhouse, some of the glass has been replaced by netting or wire. There are a few gaps high up where panes have slipped, but nothing big enough for her to squeeze through, even if she could get there. It’s a complete mystery. While clearing out the hen house (a shed inside the greenhouse), I found three eggs hidden behind a box. They probably haven’t been there very long but, all the same, I’ve given them to Mary in exchange for her two fresh eggs, to keep her happy.

I don’t know what to do. The greenhouse is no thing of beauty, it must be said, but it’s pretty sturdy overall. I can’t keep them in there all summer, though, they so love to be out of doors. But they will keep laying away and I’ll have loads more chicks and hardly any eggs. I just don’t know how others manage with their free-range chickens, though I realise these ones are particularly maternal by nature. Anyway, I suspect Mary will be given away, as soon as lockdown is over and I can arrange it. I just wish I could find out how she’s doing her Houdini act first.

Having given the matter some thought, however, I think that Mary herself will have to show us. If any of you can think of a way for me to mark the outside of the greenhouse so that I’ll see a trail where she gets out – this could be a heavy dusting of flour or something like that – then that might solve the problem. On three sides there is a path, on the fourth there is rough grass. I’d have to put it down in the evening, when I know she’s indoors, and leave it overnight, so it would be no good if it were to blow away. Overnight rain doesn’t seem to be expected next week. Of course, other birds would walk in it, seems to me that it has to be dusted all around the sloping sides of the greenhouse. Any suggestions, please?

Z enthuses about food. Again.

My arm is sore today, but it still work, as we say in Norfolk. I had more post, too, including an invitation to go online to book a vaccination appointment. But I can pass that by.

Wink asked us in for dinner yesterday and I remembered, during the meal, that I’d got stock cooking gently in the bottom oven. “Remind me,” I said, adding that I didn’t really expect to put the responsibility onto someone else; I was really meaning, remind myself. We forgot, of course. I took it out this morning. The good thing about the Aga is that nothing in the bottom oven ever boils dry. The stock is rich and lovely. We think we might have to make onion soup because that is a celebration of good stock. When I went to the greengrocer the other day, however, I forgot to buy onions. I still have a few left, but if I don’t have at least a kilo of onions in hand, I think I have no onions.

I have become extravagant in terms of food during this lockdown. I have nothing else to do with money. I don’t need anything extra, though I do send the family some treats sometimes. But food is another matter. I fill my basket at the greengrocer and put it on the counter and, while that’s being rung up, I fill another basket. Although it did include a leg of lamb for £20 on Friday (hogget, to be accurate, though i’m not sure when it changes from lamb to hogget), my bill was over £50 and I was happy to stagger back to the car with heavy bags. Some forced Yorkshire rhubarb, lots of lovely local root vegetables and greens, a cauliflower that managed to survive the frost. It was probably, the cauliflower, way more expensive than last week because half the crop was destroyed by frost. It doesn’t matter.

Likewise, I’ve upped my game with condiments, to put the subject broadly. Tracklements are better than Colmans, sad to say. Stokes mayonnaise and ketchup are better than Hellmans and Heinz. I can’t remember the make of crisps, but they’re better than Walkers. Also more expensive and I don’t care. It all adds up to £1 a week extra, if you think about it and it supports a local shop and small businesses. I also bought some passion fruit jam online, which arrived conveniently in time for Pancake Day. With an extra squirt of lemon juice, because I’ve lost my sweet tooth almost entirely, it was fabulous. Singlevariety.co.uk, if you’re interested. They’ve run out of some of their varieties, but I’ll be in there next year.

Z books a date

Oh dear lord. Mac has a new update called … wait for it … Big Sur. Whoever thought that was a good name needs a long bath and another good think. But whatever. The good thing about Apple is that all system upgrades are seamless. You don’t suddenly have a whole new setup to get used to. But this one wasn’t effortless because it didn’t just get on with it.

Last night, it told me that there was an upgrade. Okay, fine, download it. I went away. Later, I wanted to use the computer but the download had to be installed. I’ve had that nonsense before, so I did what I wanted before installing it. This morning, I had to reinsert my password to actually install the upgrade that, surely, they could have asked me to authorise before I even downloaded it. Fine. FINE.

Went back later. Oh, can’t do it because something needs to quit first. Why not before I started? Carry on. Quit it.

It did this three more times. I have never had such a silly malarkey before in the thirty years I’ve had Macs. Next time, I must remember to quit everything before even starting, but even so, how silly. I wonder if there’s a feedback form?

Anyway, darlings, nothing will dent my happy mood. We have had no post for over a week. I think that most of the posties have had to take time off because someone tested positive and the rest of them who’ve had contact are obliged to isolate. Add that to road blockages at the start of last week because of the snow and there’s a massive backlog. This would not have been permitted legally before privatisation but rules have changed – laws have changed – to allow later deliveries and non-deliveries. Never mind. Though Valentine cards have not been delivered, so I’m sure emotional meltdowns have happened. Not to me, however. Anyway, I did hope for post this morning, because I was quite sure I would receive an invitation to book a Covid vaccination. I didn’t get a letter but I did get a text and I was offered 5pm tomorrow or any time the next day. I’ve booked tomorrow. Tim’s first vaccination was three weeks ago, so whatever immunity it gives has officially kicked in, not that it makes any difference to our lifestyle. All the same, it feels better.

Z’s sourdough

The breadmaking went really well. Knowing that sourdough can be tricky, I limited my expectations. But when I took it out of the bowl this morning to knock back, it felt right, springy and just the right degree of resistance, so my hopes were raised. I lined two small bowls with floured tea towels as instructed, left it a few more hours and put a pan of water in the oven to create steam as the loaves cooked. A small faux pas when I carefully turned them onto a baking sheet, slid them in the Aga and immediately realised I’d forgotten to slash the tops, so I whipped them straight out and did it. Not enough, it would have been better with a slightly deeper cut or two. But never mind. The taste is wonderful.

Lies, damn lies and cooking times

Many people were ambitious during the first lockdown. I don’t think I was, I found it very hard to get anything done. I had to make to-do lists and push myself to do jobs to tick off. Sheer boredom is driving me now, I suppose. And so, I’ve started my first ever sourdough loaf, this evening. It’ll prove overnight and I think getting it ready to bake will take most of tomorrow. Not that it’s time spent actually doing anything. In that respect, it takes no longer than any loaf of bread. It’ll be interesting, anyway. And if it isn’t great first time, there will be room for improvement and, even at my advanced age, that is always a good thing.

Some people think that self-criticism (or, as I prefer to say, self-evaluation) is being negative. I don’t think it is at all, as long as it’s genuine. That is, give credit where it’s due, don’t beat yourself up where it isn’t needed and don’t talk yourself down in the hope of receiving praise. Most of us have done (or not done) those things, of course we have. But thank you, AQ and BW, for your kind and helpful remarks on yesterday’s post. You do get it, that I am looking for constructive criticism and trying to evaluate what I could do better as well. I didn’t do any drawing today and didn’t, in truth, get a lot done, but we had a pretty good day, even if we can’t point to much that we actually achieved. I made a very nice salad, with avocado, watercress and smoked salmon mousse, for lunch and Tim cooked some fabulous calamari for dinner. Last night’s whole baked turbot was also delicious, though Jane Grigson’s assertion that it will cook in 15 minutes is way out of line. Nearly treble that time. Why do people do that?

The biggest lie is onions. Cooking onions for French onion soup takes at least an hour. It cannot be done in less than that and any recipe that claims 15-30 minutes is wrong and the writer knows it. Sure, you might be able to fry onions briefly, but caramelising them properly, either for soup or for an accompaniment to burgers (or whatevs) has to be done slowly and thoroughly. Likewise, casseroling tough meat. Oxtail takes three hours or more. Two is a lie. The meat will be brown all through, yes, but you won’t get a knife through it. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, all these cookbook pictures of a roast chicken with the legs still trussed. That is totally a recipe for raw thighs. Just cut that string. Sure, it looks pretty but that’s not the point.

I may have gone off on a tangent there. Turbot, yes. Tim has a splendid tale about a time when he and his late wife barbecued a whole turbot. He fashioned a cradle from chicken wire, they invited their best friends to share it and lunch ended at around 6.30 that evening. Not because the fish took hours to cook, but because it was such a lovely day and they were all happy. Good times are always worth talking about.

Z fails to draw part 15.

Well, here we are again. Different chair, same place but I removed some of the clutter. It’s gone rather better this time. The first drawing, it took me ages to get the right arm – as you look at it, that is – because it’s so foreshortened that it looks wrong if you draw it as it is. But then Tim pointed out that it wasn’t that arm that was wrong but the other one. It curved down and it shouldn’t. I corrected that and it somehow made the other side look better, although I hadn’t touched it – it’s still not quite right, it goes up too much at the end, but the thing that one arm pointed up and the other down has gone, pretty well.

There’s still a lot that’s wrong. The seat, the angles of the spindles at the back, the left front leg is the wrong angle and so on. But it looks more like a chair than yesterday’s attempt and it even looks quite a bit like the chair I was drawing.

What wasn’t especially successful was the negative space thing. I was supposed only to draw them and then the actual chair would appear in the gaps. But I could only do that when I had a tricky bit. The gap between the front and back leg, for instance. I drew the shape then. But the seat is a whole great bit lump of positive space, I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t there. Also, I needed to line up the spindles, the upper ones with the lower ones and I had to draw them.

I’m going to try the next thing without toning the paper. It’s a nuisance. Every time I rub out a line, I have to rub a tissue over the paper to remove the white mark and the pencil tends to fade into the graphite-toned paper after a while and I have to draw over the lines. I do see the point of it, it can be effective, but a photo certainly doesn’t show up well.

I might, if I can be bothered, do a bit more work on this chair. I could even try drawing it again, but it took ages and I haven’t got much confidence that the next time would be better. I’ll see how I feel tomorrow.

Z fails to draw part 14 part 2

Yes, well, you could see I was in a temper when I did the first drawing yesterday. I couldn’t leave the chair without having another go or I’d never have gone back to it. I wasn’t trying and the angle of the chair seat, in particular, was ludicrously wrong. It still wasn’t right next time – and AQ’s suggestion of tracing the outline of the chair and comparing it is a sensible one. It’s not cheating if it is a learning aid and it wouldn’t matter if it were.

I’ll look for something positive, all the same. The front left leg, the top part, is pretty good. It tails off at the foot, but there. And the right back leg has a confident sweep, though it’s wrong both at top and bottom. The fancy bit in the middle of the back would have a C for effort. Overall, dreadful though.

The second drawing shows some attempt at thought. I looked at the radiator, which was a horizontal line, and realised how little from the horizontal was the chair seat. I’d assumed a greater angle to give the idea of perspective and I hadn’t really looked, first time round. I did note that the curved line of the left back of the chair carried straight down to the front right leg. I found the relative lengths of the legs very difficult though. I also made the top of the chair too tall and the legs too short, though the top left curve of the chair back, if not entirely accurate, pleases me somewhat and I managed a bit of highlighting. Yes, there is too much clutter behind, which (because of the red wastepaper basket) made the detail in the centre of the back difficult to see, but I was sitting where I was comfortable and relaxed, which I wasn’t when, as suggested, I put the chair against a blank wall. I could tune out the rest of the background and didn’t find it a problem. As Scarlet says, the resizing and initial drawing on glass was really unhelpful. It was only suggested for one negative shape and I was absolutely unable to hold the glass still and draw accurately. I have no idea how to transfer a drawing when I’m only allowed a single crosshair, in any case. I’ve nothing to go by. I’ve read the chapter several times and it hasn’t helped at all. What was helpful was being told to look at the negative space and see it ‘pop’ into view. It does. I could feel my focus change.

I’ll try a different chair and give it another go. Then I’ll move swiftly on before I bore myself right out of my pants.

Z fails to draw part 14. Z loses her temper and blames Betty

I came to the negative space drawing of a chair again. If I’m to follow the book, I have to follow the whole book, even if I don’t like some of the exercises, I decided. But a book that says it’s taking you through a whole process has to play fair and Betty is not playing fair.

So, you put your chair 6-8 feet away and hold up your viewfinder and move it around to find an aspect you like. Right. Now, you focus on a blank space between the various parts of a chair and wait until it pops into focus and becomes what you’re looking at. Right. Now you draw that shape on your viewfinder. Wrong. You are holding up a sheet of perspex or glass and trying to hold it steady with one hand while you’re drawing it with the other. That isn’t on. It moves. I managed to balance it on my crossed-leg knee, held up awkwardly, and get something that wasn’t accurate but wasn’t wildly out. So rightish.

Next, you are supposed to draw that in proportion but scaled up on your paper, using the crosshairs for reference. So it’s a wobbly shape drawn freehand on the paper and you’re not even doing it the same size because, for a reason she doesn’t explain, she wants a bigger picture than the one you’re using on the viewfinder. And the crosshairs are useless because there’s only one cross and it’s probably nowhere near the shape you’ve drawn and only a bit of the upright line is.

I have no idea how to achieve the starting point of this, let alone how to carry on. The rest of the drawing is supposed to be done freehand, this starting shape magically giving the structure to the whole thing. No it doesn’t. I can’t work out how to draw it scaled up, nor even the same size. I don’t know where to put it. I added a few more marks to the viewfinder to try to give me a clue where other parts are, proportionately, but it’s too difficult. I still can’t draw and that’s the point. If I could draw, this might not be impossible but I really can’t. It’s like me giving my clarinet to Tim, singing him a tune and asking him to play it. It would be hard enough for me, if he sang the tune for me as I can’t play the clarinet by ear, but at least I know how to play each note. He doesn’t, so he has no starting point. I don’t here. This is a specific exercise, there isn’t an easy way in to give me the idea. So (the next chapter being on perspective and vanishing points which I understand but find a massive turnoff), I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to make any more progress at all.

My friend Adèle dropped off the sourdough starter and I’ve fed it, ready to give it a go in a few days. I’ve dealt with all the food in the fridge, by freezing, cooking or eating it. Positives, darlings. To try to put myself into a better mood.

Still grumpy, I had another go. I abandoned the viewfinder/picture plane bit because it was impossible to hold steady and draw accurately, just going straight to drawing on paper. I put the chair in front of me rather than against the wall because I needed to sit comfortably rather than perch awkwardly on a chair in the wrong place. I used the vertical and horizontal edges of the radiator to give myself something to judge by.

It’s only too easy to see everything that’s wrong with both attempts. From the angle of the seat in the first one to the shortness of the legs in the second, and everything in between. Although you could see that I was trying quite hard with the second picture and, if I hadn’t run out of paper and got very bored, so couldn’t face trying again with the legs, it might have had potential to be slightly more accurate. I was able to concentrate but not to ignore that I hated the whole process. And I should have picked up that pile of papers, innit.

When will we share…?

Not only am I pretending to draw and pretending to crochet, I’m learning to play bridge too. Turns out that Tim knows. I had no idea about the bidding. This two no trumps malarkey, I didn’t know that it starts above six and it actually means at least 8 tricks and there is no trump suit. I assumed you had to win two that weren’t trumps. Anyway. I also didn’t know that there’s always a dummy. Insert shrug emoji. Which I don’t know how to do.

The other thing that’s going to happen is that a friend will drop off some sourdough starter, obviously with all of us hiding indoors so there’s no accusation of mingling. Though I think we could go for a walk, just the two of us. Anyway, she’s given me some tips and I’ll have a go. I am desperate for entertainment, darlings. Not that Tim isn’t endless fun, but it’s hard to be on stage all the time and I sympathise with him.

January lasted at least three months, but it’s nearly halfway through February already. What’s that about? I know Feb is a short month, but even so, it’s peculiar. Chinese new year coming up. I’m sure we can invent something for dinner with a five spice theme.

Still, all is well at the Zedery. The chickens are reliably providing three eggs a day, which keeps us going nicely. We had soufflé for dinner tonight, which used two days worth.

Over dinner, we reminisced about New Years parties. I’m not at all sure that was wise. I miss people.