31 Dec 2012

Frost Hollows

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Neck well swathed in scarf,
hands plunged in pockets?
Collar pulled high,
hat tugged low?
Off you go, then, down the long slope
to where the pale winter sun never penetrates.
The frozen grass, glittering with reflected light,
crunches under your boots.
Run a hand along the fence to see a battalion of frost soldiers crumple.
Lick the cold particles from your fingers,
and take a long sniff of the freezing air,
pungent with bare earth and stone,
as dry and prickly as a holly leaf - the smell of winter,
down in the frost hollow.

Christoper Somerville

Here's to 2013

Out with the old
In with the new

Wishing everyone 
Happy New Year


21 Dec 2012

Christmas Greetings

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year

15 Dec 2012

Here We Come A-Wassailing ...

Every year at about this time, a group of villagers get together to sing carols around the village - with voices combining to carry through the chilly winter air, the itinerant choir processes along the lanes, stopping outside houses, shuffling sheet music as they switch from one tune to the next.  Finally they stop to soothe their song-sore throats at their last port of call:  the local pub.

Origins of wassailing/Yulesinging

Some scholars prefer a pre-Christian explanation of the old traditional ceremony of wassailing. How far the tradition dates back is unknown but it has undeniable connections with Anglo-Saxon pagan ritual. Of recent times the word Wassail (from the Anglo-Saxon toast Wæs þu hæl, "be thou hale" — i.e., "be in good health") has come to be synonymous with Christmas. The word wassail is old English  and so may predate the Norman conquest in 1066. The correct response to the toast is Drinc hæl.


 There are three forms of Christmas/New Year celebration involving wassail, a beverage originally made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, nuts, eggs and spices. In modern times the concoction has been replaced by eggnog or spiced cider, but the legend of its inception goes right back to Saxon times and is spelt out in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and involves Rowena, daughter of Hengist, a Saxon mercenary, who presents the future King Vortigern with a bowl of mulled wine. Vortigern, of course, falls in love with the beautiful Saxon maiden and marries her. Traditionally this drink and its more modern variant, Lamb's Wool, is served on New Year's Eve and Twelfth Night. Lambs Wool is heated cider spiced with sugar, nutmeg and ginger. Roast apples float on the surface and when the soft apple pulp bursts into the vat, it gives the drink a frothy or woolly look. Lisa Agnew - Time Travel Britain

Christmas was not celebrated anywhere before the third century, and only gradually moved northwards through Europe. It was probably the Normans who brought the celebration to England. Traditionally, the wassail is celebrated on Twelfth Night (mostly regarded as January 6, but more properly the evening of January 5). However most people insist on wassailing on 'Old Twelvey Night' (January 17) as that would have been the correct date before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.
The practice has its roots in the middle ages as a reciprocal exchange between the feudal lords and their peasants as a form of recipient initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from begging. This point is made in the song "Here We Come A-Wassailing", when the wassailers inform the lord of the house that
"we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door but we are friendly neighbours whom you have seen before."
The lord of the manor would give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill, i.e...
"Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a Happy New Year"

... which would be given in the form of the song being sung. Wassailing is the background practice against which an English carol such as "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" dating back to sixteenth century England, can be made sense of. The carol lies in the English tradition where wealthy people of the community gave Christmas treats to the carolers on Christmas Eve such as 'figgy puddings'.
Although wassailing is often described in innocuous and sometimes nostalgic terms, the practice in England has not always been considered so innocent. Wassailing was associated with rowdy bands of young men who would enter the homes of wealthy neighbours and demand free food and drink in a trick-or-treat fashion. If the householder refused, he was usually cursed, and occasionally his house was vandalized. The example of the exchange is seen in their demand for "figgy pudding" and "good cheer", i.e., the wassail beverage, without which the wassailers in the song will not leave; "We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here."

 Figgy pudding is a pudding resembling something like a white Christmas pudding containing figs. The pudding may be baked, steamed in the oven, boiled or fried. The history of figgy pudding dates back to 16th century England. Its possible ancestors include savory puddings such as crustades, fygeye or figge (a potage of mashed figs thickened with bread), creme boiled (a kind of stirred custard), and sippets. In any case, its methods and ingredients appear in diverse older recipes.

Extract from The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill - Winter

Christmas Eve comes.  This year it came cold; frost lay hard as iron, the gutters and taps hung
with icicles like sugar sticks and all the rooftops and stone walls, the garden fences and the gravestones, gleamed phosphorescent, like silver snails' trails, where it had rained a little
that morning and then suddenly frozen.  Our breaths plumed out on the air, out footsteps rang, the stars prickled.  There was that curious crackling feel to the atmosphere as it touches face and fingers.  Barley lay, empty and beautiful under the frost-rimmed moon.  Behind closed doors and curtained windows, in firelight and lamplight, people waited.
Our fingers were stiff with cold and our voices raw as cheese-graters.  The church clock struck ten.  Some of the children were taken home.  It was colder still, too cold for snow.  We were glad to get to the Manor House again, and pile into the hall in the old way, for mince-pies and sausage rolls and punch and the blaze of the fire on our frozen faces.  The lights went out, except for those of the tree.  Silent Night, which brings tears to the eyes.  A second or two of absolute silence, before the bursting of a log up like a firework and down again in a great golden shower of sparks.  Laughter and lights again and a Happy Christmas floating faint on the freezing air down all the lanes and home.

28 Nov 2012

The Language of Flowers

 I have just finished a novel that had me totally enthralled.  The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.  The synopsis says:-

The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions:  honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion and red roses for love.  But for Victoria Jones it has been more useful in communicating feelings like grief, mistrust and solitude.  After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

Now eighteen, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own.  When her talent is spotted by a local florist, she discovers her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them.  But it takes meeting a mysterious vendor at the flower market for her to realise what's been missing in her own life and, as she starts to fall for him, she's forced to confront a painful secret from her past and decide whether it's worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

acacia - secret love
The Language of Flowers is a heartbreaking and redemptive novel about the meaning of flowers, the meaning of family and the meaning of love.

white clover - think of me
"I exhaled, momentarily relieved.  Dropping my eyes to the table, I noticed a small bouquet of white flowers.  It was tied with a lavender ribbon and placed on top of my bowl of pasta.  I studied the delicate petals before flicking it off my food.  My mind filled with stories I'd heard from other children, tales of poisoning and hospitalizations.  I glanced around the room to see if the windows were open, in case I needed to run.  There was only one window in the room of white wood cabinets and antique appliances: a small square above the kitchen sink, with miniature blue glass bottles lining the windowsill.  It was shut tight.

I pointed to the flowers. " You can't poison me, or give me medicine I don't want, or hit me - even if I deserve it.  Those are the rules."  I glared across the table when I said it and hoped she felt my threat.  I had reported more than one person for spanking.

"If I were trying to poison you, I would give you foxglove or hydrangea, maybe anemone, depending on how much pain I wanted you to feel, and what message I was trying to communicate."

Curiosity overcame my dislike of conversation.  "What're you talking about?"

"These flowers are starwort," she said.  "Starwort means welcome.  By giving you a bouquet of starwort, I'm welcoming you to my home, to my life."  She twirled buttery pasta on her fork and looked into my eyes without a glimmer of humour."

forsythia - anticipation
At the back of the book is a whole dictionary of what flowers mean - the lost art of the language of flowers.
jonquil - desire
An intriguing novel that had me on the edge of my seat a few times.  Heart-wrenching and sad and totally captivating.  Well worth a read.

24 Nov 2012

My Other Life as an Artist

Once upon a time - in another life - I used to be a watercolour painter.  My speciality was animals. 

I loved painting dogs and cats, some sold, a lot didn't. 

I had a few commissions - peoples' pets.

I liked to try and capture the essence of the animal

Cats eyes were always a favourite to paint

But sometimes I painted people too

This one won me a prize in an exhibition

This one gained me entry into an art club

The farmyard attracted me

hens and ducks

and cockerels

Sometimes quick sketches of street scenes

sometimes gardens

But that was a decade ago.  I gave up painting, I lost interest, and never re-gained it. 

12 Nov 2012

Reading and Writing are not the same thing

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I grew up in a bookless household, I never saw anyone reading, I was never read bedtime stories, and the only books we possessed were mine, given as birthday and Christmas presents.

So how come I grew up loving books and reading.  Devouring words, living the lives of the people between the pages.  What makes a particular book so memorable that I keep it on a shelf waiting to be re-read again and again.

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Last month I signed up for the National Novel Writing Month, known affectionately as NaNoWriMo.  It was brought to my attention by Flighty over at his blog Sofa Flying, before reading his post I had no idea that it existed.    The concept is simple you simply have to write a rough draft of a book during the month of November, of no less than 50,000 words, submit it for a word count on or before midnight 30th November. There are no prizes - it is simply to push you into writing.

So I took on this challenge, not realising just how hard it was going to be.  There is a world of difference between reading a book and writing a book.  I got to thinking about what makes a good book in my opinion.  What was special about the books I had kept to make me want to re-read them.

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Then I came across this passage from the writer George R.R. Martin,

'For me the journey is what matters, not how quickly one can get to the final destination.  When I read, as when I travel, I want to see the sights, smell the flowers, and, yes, taste the food.  When a reader puts down one of my novels I want him to remember the events of the book as if he had lived them.  And the way to do that is with sensory detail.'

Suddenly it all made sense, the writers of my favourite books had me involved in the journey from beginning to end.

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So, how has this affected the writing of my own novel.  It has affected me quite considerably - I would like to rip up everything I have written and start again - but I can't, the time constraints won't let me.  But when the month is over, I will begin again, keeping the bare bones of the story the same but trying to bring it alive for the reader.

Quite a challenge; now when I read I look at the structure, how the author leads from one thing to another, how they have lead me into their world.  Reading will never be the same again.  Nor will writing, come to that.

7 Nov 2012

Life is Sweets

Did anyone watch the wonderful programme on BBC4 about what sweets defined your childhood.  I must say it brought back many memories for me, of sweets I had forgotten and sweets that I associated with certain people and places.

My first recollection of eating sweets was pink sugar mice with the little piece of string for a tail.  I lived right in the middle of Sheffield when I was a kid and every year there was 'Rag Day' and a parade of lorries and carts with students all dressed up making a right old racket.  It used to scare the pants off me, I can still remember the sweet shop where I would be bought sugar mice for me to suck and pink and white coconut flakes.  There was also coconut ice

These were so sweet you could almost feel your teeth rotting.

My dad was a sucker for Thornton's toffee, and as Nigel Slater remembered it came in a foil tin with a little hammer for you to crack it in to lumps, but my Mum's favourite was Fry's Turkish Delight.

When we used to go to my fraternal Grandma's she would have a stock of Fry's Five Boys Chocolate or Fry's Peppermint Cream, I could just about tolerate the dark chocolate surrounding the peppermint cream, but mostly I would laboriously pick it all off.

But when I began to have pocket money I could choose for myself always 2oz in weight, you were rich if you could afford a quarter , licquorice string, sweet cigarettes, sweet coconut tobacco, aniseed balls and gobstoppers, rhubarb and custard , pear drops and of course sherbert dabs, sherbert lemons and sherbert fountains.  Do you remember those lollipops that you couldn't bite through, what were they called?  Sherbet lollies I think,  you just about broke your teeth on those.

My Dad's sister used to work at Bassett's sweet factory so there were always Licquorice Allsorts knocking about the place.   But the sweets I hated most were Pontefract Cakes and dark chocolate - I just never acquired a taste for either. 

My Mum's Dad used to love Nuttall's Mintoes which were given a special jar of their own on the bureau.
But my favourite chocolate was a Walnut Whip which my Dad used to bring home for a special treat and we used to sit and bite the walnut off the top then dip our tongues down the centre of the whip for all that gooey marshmallowy stuff in the middle.

Of course, Christmas always included Sugar Almonds and Butter Brazils, chocolate dragees and the ubiquitous chocolate liqueurs (which I hated, dark chocolate you see).

Ah those were the days, a childhood measured out in sweets and visits to the dentist.

4 Nov 2012

Remember Remember the 5th November

Remember, rememeber
the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why
gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

I  remember as a child watching my Dad out in the pouring rain trying to get fireworks to light, make catherine wheels spin and rockets take off.  Standing in the warm living room, sparkler in hand, I took it for granted that that is what Dad;s are supposed to do.  The little box of Lion  fireworks didn't last long, but were always looked forward to.
Even as an adult with no children of my own I have always enjoyed celebrating  Bonfire Night, Firework Night, Guy Fawkes Night - call it what you will.

We have held some memorable firework parties in our time, the fireworks becoming more sophisticated and very expensive. 

A couple of years ago we invited some friends round for a firework supper which consisted of
Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup
Fiery Hot Banger Cassoulet
followed by
Toffee Apple Crumble.
but I can still appreciate the simplicity of a baked potato wrapped in foil and put into the bonfire, a hot dog with fried onions or a mug of hot soup standing round the fire - my front burning hot and my back icey cold.
It nearly always rains on bonfire night - it is a tradition.
I feel sad when I see the 'GUY' go up in smoke after all the hard work that has been put into it.

Also as a child taking my 'GUY' door to door and being given pennies - do children still do that any more - not round here they don't.

This year we are going to the village Bonfire Party where we will meet up with friends and their children - their faces glowing with excitement in the firelight.
Loud bangs, the whooshing of rockets and my favourite - sparklers - I have never grown out of my love of sparklers, trying to get them alight, and writing my name as they crackle and fizz.
And jumping jacks - do I remember jumping jacks - we used to have an outside toilet when I was little, and I can remember vividly being scared to death  and screaming like a banshee when a jumping jack came in under the door. 

Hey ho!  Just a few of the joys of the 5th November.

28 Oct 2012

Living History

This morning we paid a visit to a Living History Fair at the Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground here
 which is a ten minute drive away from where we live.  It is mainly for 're-enactors' to get their equipment for when they are staging battles etc.  But you know what, the stallholders really know their stuff.  Everything they sell is really authentic and it was like walking back through the pages of history.

We got involved in several long discussions with different people.  The armour maker, for instance.
All the armour on show was made to fit him, he made this fantastic glove with gold articulation, no one else would be able to wear it.  Depending on what period you were aiming for it could cost you up to £5,000 for a full set of armour.  Apparently only nobleman would be able to afford to wear the suede tin-plated armour shown in the background.  The chain mail was fantastic and would take a week just to make one square foot, and only then if you knew what you were doing.

The whole hall smelled of wood, from the crossbows, bows and arrows and staffs, and particulary the leather goods. 
These shoes reminded me of the type that Blackadder wore in the first series.

I had a long chat with this lady who was weaving braid for a fellow stallholder to hold his stockings in place.  I mentioned that I was making a needlepoint cushion and told her how hard I found it.  She said that if you looked behind some of the old tapestries they are very messy so I was in good company.  In Tudor times they had weaving halls and because of the need for the tapestries not to get damp they were warm places to work and the money was good.

Each and every stallholder was dressed in their period of choice, it really was like stepping back in time. 

This lady was selling brews and ales

There was authentic food honey cakes and pastries.

Pottery, Roman glass reproductions, and Celtic jewellery.  These re-enactors really go to a lot of trouble to get every detail right. 
Right down to leather laces, toggles and wools for weaving.

Before we left I had a good chat to a lady who made handmade leather books  she also made authentic ales and showed me her handwritten recipe book.  Apparently in York they found a diary  full of a bakers recipes, which she had replicated, using her own hand-made ink. 

They really do go to a lot of trouble, it must be so time-consuming - a man who had a stall selling medieval washing items was very informative.  He was wearing handmade leather shoes with ties, which would have been his only pair as an adult, he had made some wooden pattens to wear in wet or muddy conditions  which were hinged where the toe joints went.  The shoes would have been too expensive for most people, in modern money they cost him £25 a few years ago.  I saw shoes and boots on sale from £150 upwards.

I thoroughly enjoyed our visit, we felt a little under-dressed as even the visitors were wearing costumes, we passed Hussars and someone who looked like he had just come in from Rourkes Drift.  There were monks selling mead and scribes.  If ever one of these Fairs comes to somewhere near you and you love history - it will be well worth having a look.

24 Oct 2012

Tiny Houses

A couple of weeks ago we went to a wedding in Surrey, we had booked into a beautiful manor house hotel for two nights, the rooms were lovely.  I got to thinking wouldn't it be great to live in just one room with everything on hand that you could possibly need.  A bed, two easy chairs, a desk to write at with a chair, bathroom, refridgerator, kettle and wardrobe.  What more could you need?

Of course you would have to get rid of most of your possessions, down to the bare minimum - for the minimalists out there it would be ideal,  but for the collectors and hoarders amongst us it would pose a problem.

Accomodation in Camberley

I remember seeing some footage of a movement that seems to be taking over in little pockets world wide - that of Tiny Houses.  In cities where space is as a premium, living in small spaces has become 'the thing'.

Definitely not enough room to swing a cat, and lots of practicalities to sort out - a bit like living in a small caravan.  If I chose to live this way, the hardest decision would be what to get rid of.  Where would I put all my books for instance?  Would there be enough wardrobe space for all my clothes?  Everything would have to be pared down to an absolute minimum.

Will's Teepee
Imagine the feeling of freedom, cutting everything back down to basics - getting rid of all the accumulated junk that we all have lying around.  Being able to pick up sticks with everything you own in a couple of large boxes.

Shortage of land, the population explosion and expensive mortgages - these must all be factors in choosing to live this way.

Here is what Jay Shafer has to say:-
 since 1997 I have been living in a house smaller than some people's closets. I call the first of my little hand built houses Tumbleweed. My decision to inhabit just 89 square feet arose from some concerns I had about the impact a larger house would have on the environment, and because I do not want to maintain a lot of unused or unusable space. My houses have met all of my domestic needs without demanding much in return. The simple, slower lifestyle my homes have afforded is a luxury for which I am continually grateful.

I'm not sure I could do it, or bear to get rid of a lot of my favourite possessions, I am sure I would get claustrophobia sleeping in a tiny roof space - but it seems to be becoming more popular, especially in America,  and it would certainly be a perfect answer for young people who aren't able to save the huge deposit for a mortgage or paying extortionate rent for something they will never own.
Well - what do you think - could you do it?