Monday, November 30, 2020

November Reading

As I wrote this, the rain is fairly throwing itself at the windows so I’ve made the most of it being a weekend by not getting up. Mabel is at the foot of the bed, ostensibly sleeping but really on the alert for a twitching toe under the duvet - up there as one of her top 10 favourite things to attack. 

I finished reading Pride and Prejudice last night and enjoyed it far more than I remember enjoying it last time I opened the pages. And even more than the last time, I can hear the actors from the rightly-lauded BBC version speaking the words, especially Benjamin Whitrow and Alison Steadman, who's Mrs Bennett shriek had not yet been wheeled out so often as to become tiresome. 

By the way, did anyone realise that Jennifer Ehle is American? I only found out a couple of weeks ago. Mind. Blown. 

My copy of P&P was the school copy of a former colleague of mine. Jude was one of those people whose intellect was so enormous, I thought the effort of finding words in her huge mind dictionary, that it showed her speech. If not in a hurry, it could be fascinating to watch her form long, erudite sentences. If you were in a hurry though...

Anyway, I was fond of her and we worked together for many year. Jude did only a few short months into her retirement, which is cruel of fate. I do think of her around this time of year, so it’s nice opening the pages and finding little notes in the margins. On one there is the word JAM in pencilled caps. I don’t know if it was a comment on the particularly complex sentence above, or if she had genuinely run out of jam, so wrote a quick reminder. 

Sandi Toksvig made me laugh out loud and was filled with a warmth that envelopes you as you read it. And some sharp thinking on society, intermingled with touching family reminiscences and cracking celebrity anecdotes. 

Ghostland is a satisfying canter through ghost stories and films. Pine was a proper gothic horror that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, which is what it should do. Loved the depiction of children on the brink of growing up and away from the places and people they love too. 

Poor George Eliot, forever doomed to be thought plain, if not outright ugly, to have been overshadowed by Dickens despite being more widely read, to have been, to have been so insecure in her lifetime. 

Negroland is worth all the superlatives laden upon it as Margot Jefferson detailed her childhood, the blurred boundaries faced by the prosperous Black community in Chicago. Going to a mainly white “good” school but facing minor aggressions, thoughtlessness and outright racism, she found herself trapped between 2 worlds. Her mother sounds wonderful - a fabulous character. Jefferson is particularly good on the strain faced by Black women who cannot, for an instant, admit to any weakness, who have to be strong, who have to carry on regardless of their own tiredness. 

"Civil rights. The New Left. Black Power. Feminism. Gay rights. To be remade so many times in one generation is surely a blessing. 
So I won't trap myself into quantifying which matters more, race, or gender, or class. Race, gender and class are basic elements of one's living. Basic as utensils and clothing, always in use; always needing repairs and updates. Basic as body and health, justice and reason, passion and emancipation. So the question isn't "what matter's most?," it's "How does each matter?" Gender, race, class; class, race, gender - your three in one and one in three."

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Taking a Stroll

I have to go in to the office yesterday, so decided to take a route that I haven't done in a long time. It adds another 20 minutes to my walk and when your feets are misbehaving, you don't walk longer than necessary. Certainly not on tarmacked pavements. 

But sod it. Life can’t always be about the shortest routes. So I diverted along the canal. 

The day started off quite sodden. Heavy rains on waking, drizzle on walking, sulky moody clouds throughout. I prefer a cold frosty day, or a misty one, but these are also good. They certainly mean I have the tow path to myself. The air smells of wet earth, mouldering leaves, the muddy water in the canal: its a smell I find quite appealing. 

A young girl kayaks past with an expression of fierce concentration. Or fierce loathing. It's hard to tell with teenagers. Her long hair is tied into a thick yellow plait that hangs from under her beanie and down one shoulder. 

So I walked on. Past the coolest urban fox in the city who was fully unimpressed by my sexy cagoule. Past the new graffiti that proclaimed “James, stop asking questions, we are too busy”. Which prompts the questions: who is James, who is busy, what are they busy doing? 

Poor James. Doomed to eternal ignorance for want of 5 minutes explanation. 

I go under a bridge, over a bridge, past the bus depot where the blue painted corrugated iron is decaying even further. It looks like the paint is desperately trying to escape the rust, and water is cascading down from a broken pipe. The ground underneath is saturated, excess water running off into the canal. Not even the coolest goth band would want to stand in front of it for their album cover shot now. 

Over another bridge and the aspect opens out to reveal the lock ahead of me. I find locks a little frightening. That tight narrow space, those dank and dripping walls, the threat of that weight of water just held back by the wooden gates that look none too sturdy. I’ve never actually been in one. If I ever get that canal boat I dream of, it’ll have to be a static one because I’m not dealing with locks. 

But I do love the former lock keepers cottages. They are tiny and wee and impossibly quaint. Lock keeping always seems like an idyllic lost occupation to me (despite the locks themselves): like spinning or treading  grapes. 

One of the cottages had this lovely  growing thing climbing over its wall. I don't know what it is, but I like how it looks against the bricks, the flowers reaching down as though to say hello

I walk down under yet another bridge, using the raised bricks in the path to stop me slipping down to an ungainly water stop. I’m guessing these were first set in to help barge horses up the slippery slope but that might just be my fancy. 

Round the corner and there’s my favourite willow tree in the city. During the spring, its branches develop a light green haze that grow into full blown tresses of the most sumptuous green. From a distance it looks like a shaggy emerald bear. 

On the right side of the canal is busy industry: small businesses revving up for their day under this half-hearted, half-assed lockdown. I can hear voices shouting, cars and vans moving about, doors slamming. I pay as much attention to the noise as the few straggly ducks floating listlessly about do. It's that side of the canal, so it's nothing to do with us. The wrong side of the water, so to speak. 

Instead I pass the willow, round the corner and encounter Theo, a Good Boy, by the museum (not my museum). Theo is 8 years old, and a hefty Good Boy, soggy from rolling on the wet park grass, and a lover of leaning. After 5 minutes of leaning against my legs while I chat to his owner who's bemoaning the cafe not being open, he moves away to check my legs are now thoroughly Theo'd. Deciding they're not, he shakes the last droplets over me and lets me move on. 

Just a few steps now, they take me round the side of the building, over the cobbles to the front and out. A man passes with 2 labradoodles, crazed out of their tiny minds with joy at being off the lead. They bound off down the tow path and I hear Theo barking them off his patch. 

And now, the rest of my way involves a 4 lane dual carriageway crossing and a stroll past the dark and gloomy Vue before I reach my place of work. If I were you, I'd keep going down the canal till it reaches the river. I used to go that way to meet N when we were dating. It's a nice route. Don't forget to stop at the barge cafe for a bacon sandwich. 

It's good to get outside. 


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

My Week in ... sights

I don't know about you, but I've been working with a lamp switched on all day today. Now I'm finally looking up from the screen, I can see that outside is as gloaming as outside, bar a pool of yellow light that makes the surrounding houseplants glow. 

And speaking of sights, here are 7 of mine that I'd like to acknowledge from the previous week. Well, no one wants to acknowledge the sight of their bin unless necessary, surely?

Little Mabel is now allowed outside: she's throwing herself around the garden, ears pricked and eyes wide with joy at every waving dandelion or bumbling midge. Although it's comical and delightful to see, I'm terrified she'll discover there is an Outside The Garden and will head over the fence to explore the wide world. 

My Dad, from a respectable distance, on his birthday. 71, although in my head, he's still 40. 

The skeleton of trees, no longer hiding their modesty with leaves, along the tow path. I like seeing bare branches of oaks and horse chestnuts reaching up into the sky, or the willow's just brushing the surface of the canal. 

Fairy lights going up in windows. Yes, it's still only November. Yes, we all need the cheer that fairy lights bring. I'm putting mine up at the weekend. 

Some truly awesome dark skies that made everything look as though it had been outlined in black ink and set against an almost purple backdrop. 

Anemones! Glorious purple brave flowers still unfurling their buds because it's unreasonably mild

A gorgeous icy foggy morning that airbrushed the houses and made Mabel sneeze when she sniffed the frozen grass. 

Scrolling through photos from the past, I can see that only a couple of years ago, Novembers were always frosty. Walking my dearly-departed hound in the early hours with only a hint of dawn on the horizon to light our way, we'd crunch over icy grass, watch our breath mist the air and marvel (well, I would, he was less bothered on account of being a dog) at the finely traced lines of frost on leaves. I miss him and I miss those mornings. But I do enjoy not being woken at 5am by an animal who has no concept of the clock changes.

Scene from a previous life. Oh give me a misty, frosty
morning over a humid summers one, any day. 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

My Week in ... Touch

 Has a week gone by already? Since starting the My Week in... series, I find that the 7 days absolutely fly by and, if I'm not careful (and I'm often not), a couple of weeks will have disappeared behind me and I haven't posted anything. 

And yes, I do wonder why I post anything on here at all. I'm a sporadic diary keeper and a life-long writer of nonsense that rarely sees the light of day. This way, I get to write and keep track of my life, focusing on the tiny pleasures that punctuate the days but can so often be overlooked by bigger, more complicated stuff. 

Speaking of tiny pleasures, here are the past 7 days through the medium of touch.

Thorns scratching as the brambles on the plot desperately resisted my attempts to hack them out, or at least back under control. I won.

Satisfyingly tactile, soft but substantial stripy socks keeping my feet warm in wellies. 

The gentle roughness of bark as I bring some logs home for another bug house. 

The cold of the keys to the museum in my hand as I go back in for the first time since Lockdown #2 to check on the building. 

Mabel's little head butting mine as she establishes her rightful place in my morning. 

The shivery furriness of a leaf from one of the houseplants, brought back to life after I realised it wasn't thriving where it was and moved it. 

Slippery, almost silky fabric of the new-old skirt I've been wearing this week. 

The weight and flow of the fountain pen used to write a letter to a friend. 

Mabel. Familiar, hot water bottle, tiny tyrant. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

October Reading

 As I’m writing this, the sun is just beginning to set, sending great fluffy streaks of orange and pink across the sky. I’ve lit some lamps, the heating is whirring away and the radio is chuntering in the background. I’m done with work for the week and am feeling rather relaxed. 

As it always does when I sit down for longer than 2 minutes, my mind turns to books: what I’ve read, what I’m going to read. 

October was a cracking reading month for me. I’m not entirely sure why, but I raced through a total of 12 books last month. It helps that at least 2 of them are so slender, it was like reading a short story (actually felt quite cheated by the Beard one and cannot remember a single relevant thing from it). 

Rosie felt oddly disjointed, Red Bones was okay, Mad Girl made me wince on more than one occasion and The Salt Path gave me hope. 

My favourites? Big Sky for being a typical Atkinson-Brodie book: so many threads and stories intertwining, weaving a complex tapestry that Atkinson handles like the genius she is. always in control, always satisfying. 

It Takes Blood and Guts by the Skunk Anansie singer, Skin was a riot. She pulled you up a chair in her favourite bar, got you a cocktail and let rip with her life story. Not the best written book but so compelling, a refreshing antidote to all the Britpop nostalgia nonsense that gets pedalled. 

And EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series. As you can see from the state of them, I’ve read them more than once, and again this year because I needed the escapism. Disclaimer: I grew up near the village Benson bases Riseholme on and he nails it. Skewers the ridiculous snobbery to perfection. These are comic masterpieces that I gobbled down and felt refreshed for it. 

On my bedside table now, I have Sandi Toksvig’s memoir, a perfect winter chiller in Pine and a biography of George Eliot. Plenty to be getting on with as my favourite task of buying books for other people begins. The seasonal round of family birthdays and Christmas usually sees me haunting the aisles of bookshops, towering piles of potential gifts (and a treat for me) next to me. This year I’m going to have to browse remotely, so I’m using, the online alternative to Am...n. 

Speaking of which, I have an affiliates page, which I'll keep adding to every time I finish a book I think is worth sharing. Feel free to browse, buy and generally cyber-potter to your hearts content. 

Enjoy November. Hope you all have something sufficiently autumnal to read. 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

October at the Allotment

To paraphrase Snoopy and his novel's opening line, it was a dark and stormy October. Well, not all of it was, but a great deal of it and conversations at home went something like this. 

"I'm off to the allotment."
"Really? I'm sure it's going to rain."
"Nah, my weather app says it's good. See you later."
30 minutes and heavens opening later
"You're back then. Enjoy the allotment?"
"Shut up." exit stage left, squelching, to change clothes. 

I did manage to harvest the 3 Kabocha squash that had survived (all my pretty little patty pans had rotted) and they are now safe in the utility room awaiting their fate as risotto, soup, cake, stew and fritters. They are a gloriously grumpy shade of green, the sort of green that's resentful of the other brighter greens around it, with bumpy tough skins. Inside, the flesh is a glorious orange, the middle chock full of seeds that I've carefully rinsed and saved. There's one roasting in the oven behind me right now, getting ready for a monster risotto-making session. 

Would you look at the size of this absolute unit?
Not the biggest squash I've seen but one I can at least eat, rather than turn into a small house. 

The brassica cage took a battering on more than one occasion. Each time I went up it needed the netting securing or the canes replacing/refirming. It is not, and the constructor of it (not me) acknowledges this, the best brassica cage in the world, far too flimsy and complicated, but it has done a fine job of keeping the butterflies off. There is at least one baby cabbage snug in it's nest of leaves. I have 12 more seedlings at home that are hardening off. As soon as a decent cage is constructed, they can go up. A bit late but may as well see what they can do. 

My folks came over and helped us with the fallen tree clearance. 2 of the 3 elders at the canal bank end of the plot had come down some time ago but the tree surgeon the council employ had proved to be mythical, so my Dad brought his chainsaw and we set to work, spurred on by the thought of the coffee and bacon sandwiches in the rucksacks. 

Inside the Kabocha. Would ya look at that orange!

The 3rd elder is still standing but minus all bar 2 of it's branches. Elder are a bit unstable frankly and as 2 had gone, I'd decided to rid myself of the 3rd while a man with the right bit of kit was there. Unfortunately the man without the right bit of kit kicked up an almighty fuss about the destruction of a "perfectly good tree" and a proper domestic ensued. Ended when I capped my argument with "mo' digging, mo' opinions". 

Essentially, do some more work up here and you get to dictate what happens. 

My folks, doing what they do best and have been doing for years. 
Quite took me back to my childhood. 

All that aside, there is now a large pile of elder logs forming an excellent habitat for bugs and hedgehogs over the winter. Bonfires are still banned on the plots, so it'll be staying there for quite a while. To be honest, there is so much bug life on the plot that it won't take long for the greater part of it to rot down, as I've seen with The Pile, made up from the barrow-fuls of grass and weeds that I'd put in a heap at the bottom. Once about 4 foot tall it has, within the space of a few months, settled down to just under half of the original size. 

This month I'll be putting up stage one of the fruit cage and planting in some rhubarb as well as the rest of the brassicas. 

I'm so grateful for this space, even in the dark days of late autumn. Just to have somewhere to sit and be is a huge benefit. And it has come back to me that planting is an act of hope. Every time you drop a seed or a plant into the ground, you're hoping that the conditions will be right, the world will not have ended and the seasonal cycle will once more bring you back round to pumpkin time. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

My Week in...Taste

Well, goodbye October and thank you for the extra full moon, the streets awash with the smell of pumpkin lattes, the subdued Halloween (not your fault) and the lovely crackle of leaves underfoot. However, I am less impressed with the sheer volume of rain you threw at us from the sky, so less of that next time, okay?

In fact, October was so weird this year, and so stressful, that I've decided to make November my favourite month for 2020 (usually it's my 6th favourite. Yes, I have an order of months). The new lockdown means increased working from home (hooray!) and subsequent lie-ins, whole weekends spent with N instead of partial ones (normally we only overlap on a Sunday), more allotment time, the chance to get the bike on the road and not worry about being hit by a time-crazed spatially-short-sighted driver, more time to cook stews and soups, more time to snuggle down and knit snoods, more TIME. 

But then I get to be so bloody Pollyanna about it because I have a very privileged life. A roof over my head that I don't live under in fear, a job I love and food in the cupboard. 

Ahh yes, food. 

Back to the matter in hand, my past 7 days in tastes...

1. Homemade and quickly cobbled together burgers as the Kid and his boyfriend surprised us by extending their "popping in" long enough to need feeding up. It was lovely and so good to spend time with them. 

2. The pastry on top of my Mum's meat and potato pie, served on Sunday after they came over to help at the allotment. Nothing like felling trees in the cold to build up an appetite. 

3. A lightly spiced fried egg on top of halloumi on top of gently wilted spinach on top of a sumac-flavoured flatbread. Lunch my boss treated me to. 

4. Chlorinated water at the swimming pool this morning as I forgot to keep my mouth shut as I went under the water. The most uncoordinated swimmer ever. 

5. An oats, brown sugar and butter (substitute) topping of a crumble. A sweetness that was cut through by the tart plums and apples underneath. 

6. Oozy jelly skull sweets purchased from Marks and Spencer on Halloween. 

7. A really good, robust but smooth, red wine that didn't stain my teeth, give me heartburn or a headache the next day. Drunk in the bath while reading Mapp and Lucia (more about them in another post). 

Oh look. It's Hayley Mills and the Mother in law from Bewitched. 
She was far more interesting than Samantha. 
And having just read about Agnes Moorehead, I have to conclude that the 
real woman is more interesting too.

Weather Advisory Service

On the way home from the train the other day, I took a shortcut through the dripping allotment grounds, the grass and earth squelching under...