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Sunday, 27 July 2014
Many of the events of history are nearer than we think. Take the first World War, it has always been in the background of my life – stories of relatives who survived and those who didn’t. I’d read the poems and wept over them and Goodbye to All That – by Roert Graves, a great book.
I toured the cemeteries of France, my fascination with the history made more real. July 1st, 1972 we found ourselves, by accident, having a picnic on the front line of the Somme offensive but also on the very anniversary of its start. We all shivered as history clustered around us – the dawn start, by nightfall 20,000 of our soldiers dead. ‘That’s only 56 years ago.” My eldest son had worked out.
“And Ma, only 21 years before you were born” I told him no to be ridiculous, he wasn’t it was true. History is old, history is ages away, but you know, it’s not!
Between the wars, in 1922 my father, got talking to an old man outside a pub in Bourton on the Water. Asked what he did, he replied he was in the navy. “Then this will interest you. You see, my father fought at the Battle of Trafalgar.”
At first my father was cynical but then working out the dates it became clear that it could be true. Dad was born in 1900 so 95 years separated him from the battle. The old man was, it transpired, in his mid-nineties. He would have been born in approx. 1827 so his tale was likely to be true. So I knew a man, who met a man, who was sired by a veteran of Trafalgar.
Now for the story of the ring. In the late 50s I admired a ring worn by my husband’s grandmother who was a very imperious woman. The ring was made of two large pearls, one pink and one black. “Would you like to try it on?” Would I? “It was Marie Antoinette’s.” she announced as if possessing such an object was routine. I too was cynical.
“How do you know it was?” In retrospect this was rather rude of me.
“Because when I was a very young gal, I knew a very old woman whose mother had been lady in waiting to the Queen – it was a present from her.” This was accompanied by a withering look of such ferocity that I vowed never to question anything she said, ever!
I should have asked for her name but even without I think it is true.
Phyll Burgh was born in 1877 so she was separated from the Queen’s death by 84 years. She said she was very young and the gift was from a very old lady -why didn’t I ask how old they both had been? If the Queen’s attendant was young did she marry and become a mother after the execution of Marie Antionette? If so, it is feasible.
And the ring? Was I left it? Sadly no. As she grew older she became very vague and no one knows what happened to it. I just hope that whoever has it knows its story.
If any of you have had these brushes with history, please tell us.
Monday, 5 May 2014
It’s hard to admit but the inevitable has happened and I have to acknowledge my age is catching up with me – as yet I refuse to say it has totally caught up!
What happened to change my attitude. We moved house. They say that the stress of moving is second to divorce or death of a loved one. I had always laughed at this concept, what softies people are was my conclusion. House moving for me was a regular occurrence – this was my 30th to date – I always approached it with optimism and excitement. A new house, a new beginning, new friends and a chance to get rid of things and to finally sort out the drawers, which, I promised myself every New Year I would keep tidy and which every year were neglected and so full one had difficulty shutting them – until a moving date was arranged.
Were we making the right choice never entered my mind – mansion, new build or cottage the anticipation was great and was, I thought, similar to the first day back at school or starting to write a new novel.
This time the muddle we created doesn’t get any better after three weeks of taking possession the removal boxes await my attention, loads of them. My theory is that at night they have orgies and create more boxes to empty.
It’s not as if we are dumbing down, no way, this house is larger than move number 29 was, so sorting should be easier. Wrong! This house is cluttered to the roof top with my things.
‘ You own too much, you’ve got to get rid of some stuff . . .’ This is the opinion of my long suffering daughter who is already custodian to loads of books, coffee tables, curtains and linen. It’s easy to say but hard to do. How can I possibly choose when most of my stuff – how I hate that word - for what is stuff to some is treasure to me.
For example, I have some hideous ornaments of dogs – presents from my children when young, how can I throw them away? I have virtually every birthday, valentine and Christmas card sent me. I have hats I never wear but remind me of the day I wore them and the happiness I encountered. I do sometimes throw things out – witness the scores of champagne bottles I once jettisoned, it was hard for on each one I had written what we had been celebrating when we had drunk it.
Then there are the paintings. I love them all, the walls of my homes are normally crowded with them, each one tells me where it wants to go – I used to hang them myself, now the arthritis in my elbows won’t let me so they stand forlorn waiting to put up. Old age is not for wimps my friend Felicity told me.
I’d best not start on the clothes. Suffice to say the optimist I am always hopes I will one day get in those that are too small for me, and the logical me says best to keep everything that is too big incase I get larger. To compound the problem I’ve bought some new – mainly to cheer me up.
I am tired of the struggle. Fed up with doing too much. Fearful of the knowledge that I can no longer do what I used to do. Am I old? Too old for this moving lark.
Depression loomed large until a friend’s mother said it was time I acknowledged I was old. Unwittingly she is my savior. Old? Me? B******* say I as I open yet another box
Sunday, 9 February 2014
The Silly Things We Say
"It’s a small world we live in," I said the other day to my friend Andrew.
"What a cliché. Can't you think of something more original to say than that?” he growled. Poor soul, I begin to feel sorry for him for he's reached the age when he’s beginning to show definite signs of turning into a grumpy old man.
‘The problem is they are clichés because they say what is true and so are often repeated.” I responded, feeling quite grumpy myself as my position as a writer appeared to be under attack and, in my opinion, wrongly for this really was a case in point - I’d just discovered that a friend’s great-grandfather had had an affair with another friend’s great-grandmother and my mother-in-law knew them both - now is that strange or is that strange?
Mind you, these were exceptional circumstances when only a cliché would do. However it got me thinking about sayings in general. And we really do use some odd ones.
Lets imagine a middle aged woman who has just discovered that her husband has run off with his secretary who is a good two decades younger than her, far prettier and also fun. A splendid rant at the unfairness of it all is called for which makes her feel a lot better until a friend pipes up with -
“At least you can take comfort that there’s always someone worse off than you!” She then proceeds to illustrate this by telling her, invariably, of a person who has just been diagnosed with some awful disease.
“I’m sorry for your friend, but I don’t care. It’s my husband who has done a bunk,” our middle-aged woman snaps, and rightly so. “You’ll be telling me next that her cat is pregnant.”
“How did you know?“
It is at this point that you wouldn’t be surprised nor would you criticise the spurned wife if she chose to clock them over the head with a flat iron.
Here’s another. What about a girl or boy, it doesn’t matter which, who is certain they have met the love of their lives; they are wallowing in the bliss of pure love and passion - and then they get unceremoniously ditched.
“Never mind there are plenty more fish in the sea.” Some prat consoles them. So what on earth is the point of that? This poor soul isn’t interested in fish. It’s the love of their lives they want and yearn for. I suppose if you were a manic fisherman it might be of interest but who wants to kiss a guppy when it’s their prince they long for?
One that can cover numerous eventualities, from death to losing your wallet, from getting the sack to finding your favourite dish in the restaurant is “Off” from going bankrupt to getting a spot before a big dance: It was meant to be . . .something better will turn up. Oh, yes? Who says?
I will confess to often using that particular cliché when the purchase of a house you’ve set your heart on falls through. And in that case, I’ve discovered, it’s often true. I’ve lost count, in my peripatetic live, of the number of times a sale has collapsed and we’ve ended up with a far nicer home.
A leopard never changes his spots. How daft is that. Just think about it for a minute, why on earth would a leopard want to change his spots? I’m sure they are perfectly happy the way they are. And who knows, if they did change their spots maybe their mums wouldn’t recognise them. And in any case, how would they go about it? In the jungle or wherever leopards live.
And why is it just leopards? What’s so special about them? What about Zebras changing their stripes, or ladybirds, and how about Gloucester Old Spot? Why persecute the leopards?
A stitch in time saves nine. Who counted? That’s plain silly, it could be more but then on the other hand it might be less.
It never rains but it pours. Oh no it doesn’t. What’s a shower? Hardly a downpour is it? Perhaps you could say that in all honesty in the tropics but not here.
Every cloud has a silver lining. No it doesn’t. We’ve all seen clouds there ain’t no silver there.
Life is what you make it. No it isn’t. Life happens - if you could control it then we’d all be whatever we wanted. Personally I would be a brunette, beautiful slim, rich and with a seductive low laugh, not the snort I ended up with.
The grass is always greener. That is just not true. I can look out of my window and prove to you that is a lie.
There are a couple of new ones I’ve noticed. What goes around comes around. Now what exactly does that mean? If some kind soul would explain it to me. And the other is I’ll give it 110% don’t trust whoever promises you that, don’t you know it doesn’t exist!
This article first appeared in the CGA magazine.
Sunday, 12 January 2014
This essay was written when we lived in France and first appeared in the CGA magazine.
The English Dinner Party.
Since the French are passionately knowledgeable about food, a foreigner shopping in France should not be surprised when she is almost overwhelmed by the conflicting advice given her. One person firmly recommends the butcher by the railway station, another assures you he is only sound on pork, far better to patronise the one by the church for beef. Get your vegetables at one stall and someone will tell you they are full of slugs and pesticides. And as to cheese - best not to get involved, it could turn nasty.
The French, as we know, and with reason, regard other nations’ food as a poor substitute for their own. But they reserve their greatest opprobrium for English food. Those English who live in France ( I say English advisedly since the Scots can do no wrong in French eyes, especially since that wretched film ‘Braveheart’) have to become immune to the taunts they receive if they are to survive.
Imagine the stress then of inviting them to dine. Whether to serve English or French must be decided, the balance ensured, the right wines selected. We did serve an Indian curry once but I’d rather draw a veil over that incident. Perhaps one should stick to what one knows we decide and, hopefully disprove their preconceived ideas of English food.
So it was, that the momentous decision to serve steak and kidney pie was made.
‘We should check that they like kidneys,’ I advised.
‘Don’t be silly. It’s well known that the French adore offal!’ Billy airily dismissed my concerns.
We were safe with smoked salmon, not only is it universally admired but of course it would be Scottish. We would have roast potatoes - sound ground there, I’ve yet to see a French tattie so cooked; dauphinois, boiled, chipped, sautéed but never roasted. We had some wonderful Hungarian peaches bottled in liqueur. We’d serve that, and pretend they were English, and we’d have the cheese at the end of the meal - English style, not French. Marvelous.
I admit I was nervous as Antionette arrived, her gorgeous, animated, face hidden behind a huge potted plant. Her husband followed carrying wine. I read in a book that it was considered rude to take wine when dining out in France. However, happily, we have noticed our guests always do; maybe they are afraid we don’t understand wine, that we are all football ‘ooligans and drink only to get drunk. That’s a laugh in this house where Billy has made a religion out of wine, the cellar is his own personal chapel where he sits in deep contemplation counting his bottles - mind you he’s not averse to getting drunk either.
In the half-hour I’d allotted for drinks and general chat all was going well. I popped the pie in the oven, five minutes to the off I put on the vegetables. About eight o’clock I noticed our new Cairn puppy was missing - the gate had been left open.
‘The baby has got out!’ I wailed - I’d forgotten the word for puppy.
Everyone rushed into the garden. (I remembered to turn off one oven and the veg.) Not a sign of her. Billy took off in the car, daughter’s boyfriend armed with a torch began the steep climb up the hill. Antionette was suggesting we call the police. I know the French like dogs but that seemed a bit extreme until we realised she thought my three year old grandchild had gone missing.
‘No, it’s the dog. Anita wouldn’t be nearly so hysterical if it were the child,’ my ex-husband, Peter advised. I gave him a daggers look.
Everyone settled back when the call came the puppy had been sighted at the bottom of the village. I put the pie and veg back on. No one appeared. I turned them off. I turned them on, then off, as I flapped back and forth. Billy and Patrick appeared triumphantly with the dog, hot and exhausted, three quarters of an hour later.
‘Dinner’s ready!” I called just as the cat jumped up and began to consume a plate of smoked salmon. ‘Don’t worry, it’s Peter’s,’ I gaily told them, quickly reseating everyone but getting my own back for the remark about my grandchild.
Time to serve the pie. Poor pie. It had been in and out of the oven so many times that it was not sure where it was - I could see exactly where. It was burnt round the edges and collapsed in the middle. The vegetables by now were reminiscent of the way my mother used to serve them - pale and soggy. With all the turning on and off I had forgotten the oven with the potatoes which emerged like lumps of charcoal.
‘How delicious it all looks,’ declared dear Antionette. ‘What is it?’
‘An English speciality, `The steak and kidney pie.’
She didn’t need to say anything, her expressive face did the talking for her. ‘I am desolated but the kidneys - I can never eat,’ she said with a Gallic wave of the hands.
‘So, Mr Expert, the French eat everything do they?’ I whispered through clenched teeth to Billy.
‘Not my fault. They usually do. How was I to know we’d have the only French woman . . .!’ He was speaking in a sort of nonchalant, Tiggerish, sort of way. ‘She can always pick them out.’
‘Really, it’s no problem . . .’ Antionette called out as she slid the contents of her plate onto that of her husband like a greasy spoon waitress - and I’d used the Wedgwood too.
My jaws ached from smiling and snarling at the same time, have you ever tried it? Billy escaped a further ear wigging as Antionette, game to the end, speared a roast potato which, solid as it was. shot through the air and knocked a burning candle flying - it could have been worse, only two napkins went up in flames.
I finally began to eat, and found the pie was tepid. Could anything worse happen? Of course it could. I looked across at my dear ex-husband and realised he was verging on the paralytic. He had evidently taken the opportunity, during the great puppy hunt, of helping himself to a couple more gins and, looking at the state of him, rather large ones they must have been too. He is a linguist, he speaks fourteen languages, he has a degree in French and is fluent - but not this night, oh dear me no! He couldn’t string two words together. Whereupon, Antionette, thinking he understood nothing, began to speak to him in Franglais which only confused him further. Fortunately or not, it depends how you look at it, at this point he went to sleep. Antionette thought it was adorable, “The English Milord's are so eccentric,” she assured me. I love that woman.
The pudding arrived. It wasn’t my fault this time. We decided it was a little bland and needed some Kirsch. It was Antionette who tipped most of the bottle in them making them inedible.
The cheese, French, was an enormous success!
It was only as they left - very early, they had to go to Marseilles the next day with an early start - I tend to believe them - I realised I had completely forgotten to offer them coffee.
By now I was exhausted. Both husbands and the puppy were asleep as I sat depressed at what a failure I had been in my attempts to promote the food of my native country.
I pottered about, tidying up, turning off the lights, and then, barefooted stepped into one of the puppy’s accidental turds! Given the evening it was, of course, the perfect end.