Thursday, 24 December 2009

Hoping for fair fancies

Events have, as they say, overtaken me over the last week or so, but I am sure that is a state which I share with very many, and be sure that I have been with you in heart if not in virtual reality.

So my last Pause in Advent for Floss has become a pause on the threshold of Christmas. But I have been reading Unplug the Christmas Machine (worth getting for next year if at this point you feel that you are in need of a helping hand and a shoulder to cry on), and thus I am actually feeling quite relaxed about presents unwrapped and shelves undusted.

Anyway it seems to have become one of our family traditions to wrap presents at the last minute on Christmas Eve - somehow it adds to the excitement, and it is the closest I will get to living on the edge.

The Head Chef and Princess Bunchy have taken over the kitchen and I am only required to admire and congratulate - I had hoped to bake some buns, but I know my place, and am happy to bow to greater skill.

So all that remains is for me to wish you all a very merry Christmas and leave you with one of my favourite Christmas poems. Dear old Thomas Hardy - a bit of an Eeyore, perhaps, but his way with words is wonderful, and his vision, though pained, is never less than percipient.

And with that I thank you all for your good counsel over the past months, and for your kind greetings, and in return wish you what you wish for yourselves.

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
'Now they are all on their knees,'
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
'Come; see the oxen kneel

'In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,'
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.


Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Monday, 14 December 2009

Present joy

This Sunday was Floss's third Pause in Advent, and I am now taking a pause from my partying to address the issue.

No, there wasn't a party in the polytunnel, unfortunately, but yes, the party frock and the two-dollar earrings had an outing, Pomona's cottage is looking quite festive, and has been the scene of festivities, too. It might have been grey outside, but inside was a warm glow of bonhomie and candlelight and firelight in spite of winds blowing ENE.

The first Christmas lunch of the season has been cooked, and the Head Chef and I were the proud producers of it all. I am sorry that I only took a picture of the parsnips, but the carrots, cabbage, garlic, onions, squash and potatoes were all homegrown and delicious. And the pork, of course, but I would rather not dwell on that. My dearest Head Chef excelled himself on the culinary front, and we realized that it is a big mistake to send two teenage boys out shopping for supplies unaccompanied by a ten-year-old who understands the  gravity of domestic issues in a supervisory role.

We haven't decked the hall with boughs of holly quite yet, because the holly is still drying out next to the Aga, having been soaked and battered by torrential rain and hail today (hence the welly chic), but presents have been wrapped and decorations arrayed about the house.

And I have been thinking further along the line of presents, under the influence of the eminent Professor Waldfogel, and before I present you with a little Advent reading upon which you may meditate at your leisure, I will also present you with a little Scroogenomic disquisition.

The Professor's little book, as befits one by an economist, goes into great detail regarding his research as to the actual value of presents to the receiver, as opposed to the price paid by the giver. According to him, although a present given by someone close to you is likely to hold 90% or so of the monetary value, there is generally some loss in value.

So I thought about all the presents I had received over the years, which merge together in a stream of forgetfulness, and one or two stand out particularly, presents which I still have, presents which hold a value surpassing all things monetary, and where I to this day remember the occasion when I was given them.


 And for those of you anxiously searching for the perfect present, I must tell you that neither was bought particularly for me, the giver gave something of herself as she passed these artefacts on to me, and one of them was handmade, and quite imperfectly so.

One of these most special presents is my grandmother's cotton reel holder: at our last Christmas together, when she knew that she was gravely ill, my official present was my Cath Kidston workbox, which I had chosen for myself. Then, almost as an afterthought, she sent me upstairs to a distant and dusty cupboard, a repository for a miscellany of disused objects, to find the cotton reel carousel, saying that I might as well have it, for I would be sure to make use of it. So its value resides in the poignancy of the memories associated with it, and my relationship with the giver, and this simple object symbolizes both what came before and what followed the giving of this gift.

I had always been fascinated by these denizens of old ladies' windowsills from my childhood, and had always wished for one, but had never ever seen one in a shop. So it was also a gift that money could not buy; it remains one of my most precious possessions, and I am always using it. For the economists amongst you, the value created by this present is way beyond any possible purchase price, and so the world is a better place for that gift. My only wish that modern cotton reels would fit on those brass spool holders - will I one day use up all those cottons, and such a useful object become merely ornamental?

I will save the sight of my other special presents for another day, and give you, dear readers, a special present of your own in this little collection of words, words which have been special to me since I was nine years old, and won the Library Prize at school. Some things never change: this was for the person who had borrowed the most books from the library, and I think I am still in the running for the Library Prize.

My prize was a book called Take Joy by Tasha Tudor, a beautifully illustrated collection of Christmas stories and poems and carols, which also described the impossibly idyllic Christmas celebrations of her family in rural America, all unimaginably talented and creative, and I dreamed of being an inmate of that roseate and glowing domestic circle. It is a book now out of print and long-gone from bookshelves, but remains in my memory in a nostalgic glow of Christmas past.

Somehow Christmas in England in the 1970s could never quite live up to that snow-filled, hearth-glowing, candlelit dream of a celebration, but the words which gave the title to the book are a piece of wisdom that I have remembered and rewritten over the years, and a lesson for all of us yearning for perfection and dreaming of somewhere over the rainbow.

Princess Bunchy and I have been discussing the meaning of these words for us but following Floss's example this weekend, I will merely present you with the words as they stand, and leave you to look into your own heart and find your own meaning. And perhaps they may make your own shadows flee away - I hope so.

I salute you!

There is nothing that I can give you which you have not;
but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us,
unless our hearts find rest in it today.
Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future,
which is not hidden in this present instant.
Take Peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow;
behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.
Take Joy.

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you,
with the prayer that for you, now and forever,
the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

Fra Giovanni (1513)

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Bringing you flowers

I would like to start by saying how exceedingly grateful I am to all those terribly kind people who endowed me with the virtue of wisdom in their comments on my last post. I know I am rapidly getting older, and I am sure that old and wise is infinitely preferable to old and foolish, but it is a state into which I had never imagined myself. I never sought to be a Sibyl, but the whole concept of being oracular is rather attractive.

But enough of wisdom for today - I felt that we had had enough of that, and a little frivolity was in order, considering the festivity of the season.

I have started reading a fascinating little book called Scroogenomics by Joel Waldfogel, subtitled 'Why you shouldn't buy presents for the holidays' (he actually means Christmas, rather than going to Barbados, but I think that is one of the linguistic divides across the Atlantic).

And I am afraid, dear readers, I have fallen ... this was bought new from Amazon, but in my defence, it wasn't available in the library, and it was cheaper to buy new. (But I might well pass it on to some poor defenceless soul as a present, so in that case it wouldn't really count, would it?)

I am only on chapter five, but Professor Waldfogel has already persuaded me that I will get far better value for my hard-earned spendidos if I buy presents for myself rather than for other people.  And he quotes all sorts of figures to prove what I have always suspected, that a very large proportion of presents miss the mark by a wide margin.

You only have to look in a few charity shops to discover this (I call it empirical research): their shelves are populated by countless boxed gift sets of bubble bath and other scented accoutrements, myriad novelty alarm clocks with integral bottle opener, and other barrel-scraping 'novelty gifts', which I imagine as travelling on a endless circuit between desperate givers and hapless receivers until the sticky tape becomes too yellow and brittle to fool anyone.

So having justified myself there, I can proudly present a couple of recent acquisitions that are 100% efficient from an economist's point of view, because they are Christmas self-presents with which I am most delighted. The two-dollar earrings (handmade by Silja in Estonia) coordinate beautifully with my new party dress, although unfortunately I lost one of them in the process of shopping for the said party dress, which is why I have decided that two-dollar earrings are the way to go for me, because I lose earrings at a horrifying rate, to the point that I have lots of singles, and not many pairs. I will have to affect odd earrings as a sibylline style statement from now on, I think.

As for the party dress, my sister suggested that such an item was a superfluity in my wardrobe, as I never find myself at a party. Well, I can always live in hope on that front, but the appellation 'party' was not a statement of intent, or even wistfulness, on my part: the dress was hanging plaintively on a rather undistinguished rail in a local charity shop, and on the price label, someone had written 'PARTY' in bold capitals next to the price.

And who am I to argue? If the dress wants to call itself a party dress, I am happy to go along with it - it will give me a party feeling wearing it; just like that bubble bath, things might happen if I array myself in its silken folds (or maybe not, maybe I'll just pretend).

And just because it likes to call itself a party dress, that will not prevent me from wearing it with jeans and wellies, as I told my dear mamma who was with me at the time, when she, also, indicated that a party dress was not warranted for people with a limited social life and an eccentric tendency to underdress, anyway. Her response was that it would not surprise her at all if I did wear a party dress in that way, as it was the 'sort of thing I would do'. (In case you were in any doubt, we do have a very doting relationship based on an affectionate and amused incomprehension of each other's endearing little foibles.)

I am not sure how I have ended up interrogating the role of the party dress in the wardrobe of a country bumpkin, when I meant to extol the virtues of my pesky squirrel from Dottie Angel, which honestly makes me smile when I wake every morning. The squirrel is the first thing I see as I open my eyes when the Head Chef brings me my morning cup of tea in bed, without which beverage I find it physically impossible to rise from my couch.

Tif's parcel was wrapped so beautifully, and so much after my own heart, in sheets of paper which began life as the pages of glossy magazines, and tied with yarn of such a blue that it was totally consonant with my current obsession with shades of teal, duck egg and petrol blue (unfortunate name for an ecowarrior, that, I will have to think of another when it comes to describing yarn and cardigans and party dresses). And there were also buttons - I actually had to sit down for a bit while unwrapping such a heavenly parcel, it was just all too much for me, hence the drunken slant of the photo below.

And Anthropologie catalogues: unfortunately I think the likelihood of finding such anthropological and sartorial beauty in the charity shops of East Kent is infinitesimally small, but one can always dream and travel hopefully.

And a beautiful Japanese magazine called Come Home, which actually moved the General to come down from his celestial plane of teenage superiority and infinite wisdom to comment on the graphic design, which apparently has far more white space than is thought of in his universe.

I have always read magazines from back to front, so that part was quite easy, and I was fascinated by the way that the domestic objets were lined up in a grid formation on the surfaces, whereas being of the Country Living school of decoration I have always favoured artful angles and a certain amount of dichotomous asymmetry.

Now I did want to tell you a tale of a Princess and a pesky squirrel, which is what impelled my purchase from Tif's shop, and ask you the question, 'Is it unkind of a mother to hang by the maternal pillow a picture of an animal with which a child has a vexed relationship, or does it count as graded exposure, and thus a form of behavioural therapy?' but sadly and unfortunately, I feel the sands of time and the stream of words slipping away.

I do, however, feel that a headline which says 'You don't bring me flowers' (and which I have, alas, unintentionally lost, along with numberless earrings), is one of the utmost profundity, and one upon which I propose to meditate for some time.

It might seem to contain a most ineffable sadness, but I hope I have persuaded you of the solution to such disappointment: just buy yourself a charmingly frivolous present, for I am sure that nobody else will.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Going placidly

It is already the second Sunday in Advent, Sarah's little Christmas tree is counting down relentlessly, and everywhere I see and hear the sights and sounds of mounting panic in the face of Christmas almost present.

But dearest Tif has sent me this embroidered traycloth to fortify me in my resolve, and I have taken her advice to heart - I am going to remain calm, and carry on calmly towards the holidays, looking forward to some holiday, some celebrating, some good food ... but I am determined to avoid excess, especially on the shopping and the anxiety front.

And Floss has been encouraging us all to Pause in Advent, with which I heartily agree, especially if that pause involves a little quiet time on the sofa.

And then I thought of the words of Max Ehrmann's 'Desiderata', found on a million posters in the 1970s, but still valid and relevant and full of wisdom.

It begins with the words: 'Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.' So perhaps you may find time to take your own little pause and indulge yourself in a little silence, so that you may continue your journey towards the festivities quite placidly.

I think that it is important to remember that it is only one day amongst many, and sometimes we aim for too much in the way of perfection. And ask yourself, too, what you are really worrying about - and if your worries came to pass, would it really be so very bad?

If you are on good terms with your guests (and I do believe that it is a useful principle in life to determine on being on the most amiable terms with all guests, bearing in mind that, by definition, the presence of a guest is always temporary), then look upon it as a chance to get together and have a nice chat. And if you tell yourself it is not a banquet nor a competition, but merely a glorified Sunday lunch, then the prospect of cooking doesn't seem nearly so daunting. And if the numbers are more than you feel you can manage, ask them to help by bringing a pudding or their pinny. I also make it a point of principle not to cook (or, rather, not to instruct the Head Chef to cook) anything that will not be eaten or is disliked by the majority, regardless of invented tradition.

If the recipients don't like their presents, I hope they are polite enough not to show it, and if they do, well they can always give them to someone else who will appreciate them more, I won't mind at all. As I discussed here, I think the important thing is to give out blessings without thought of return, and that way you won't be disappointed in what you might receive. Unwanted presents can always be given to a charity shop, and that way they can do some good in the world.

And if the guests are apt to be disagreeable, why, just smile at them and make empathetic noises, and feel sorry for them in their self-induced unhappiness with life; after all, we are all the architects of our own misery or joy, and I know that my own wish in life is to spread joy, not sadness or anger.

And I am sure that the way that you can make your children happy is to be happy yourself, and teach them that satisfaction does not come from desiring what you do not have, but from contentment with what you already possess. That is the most valuable gift you can give them.

As Ehrmann writes, 'With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.'

So there ends my little homily, I hope I don't sound too hectoring: I am not really telling you how to live your life, but telling myself - I find that the more I repeat these things (yes, I do sit in a corner muttering to myself rather a lot), the more that they come true. And, yes, Pollyanna is still my heroine, as I mentioned here. And I am getting so old and wise that I feel impelled to share my philosophies (although perhaps not quite as old as Alice, for my children don't yet prepare food for me, but she gives me hope that such an occasion is imminent.)

And tomorrow or the next day I will be back to tell you about pesky squirrels, the most wonderful two dollar earrings, and the joy of buying yourself a present. I know I have mentioned this before, but it can't be recommended too much as an antidote to the stress of buying presents for other people - remember I gave you some handy shopping advice here, so you don't even have to move from your chair to do it!

Friday, 4 December 2009

Winter gardening

You may well think that I am slightly unhinged to venture upon this topic (and you may well be right) in a week of iron-grey skies and rain lashing the roof-tops ... but the sun is smiling weakly upon my little plot this morning, and I think there is room for a small amount of seasonal optimism, in my case facilitated by a bloggy friend.

Not that I am requiring you to go outside to do your winter gardening - I would be the first to admit that I am a fair-weather gardener, and have usually retreated indoors before the end of October, only to emerge, blinking, into the first sunlight of early spring. My blood runs low and sluggish with the waning light, by December I have an overwhelming urge to hibernate, and I quail at the thought of January and February.

No, my favourite form of winter gardening is done indoors. On a dark and stormy night, I suggest that you curl up on a sofa with Monty Don (The Complete Gardener is my favourite), a cosy crochet granny blanket, and some seed catalogues - and then just dream of abundance to come.

The good thing about gardening is that there is always next year - never mind last year's failures, next year will be different. The soil will be different, the sun and rain will be different, the green fuse will ignite in a different way.

So sit and look at those vivid and winter-piercing pictures of good green things to come and think about what you would like to eat next summer. You can see from the pictures that I have plenty to look forward to already, thanks to the lovely Michela at Little Secrets From My Garden. I received the most wonderfully cheering parcel from her this week, full of the most exciting Italian seed packets, all wrapped in festive red tissue, and tied with gold.

And no, I didn't wait for Christmas to open it - I looked upon it as an Advent present instead, and wasted no time before investigating its contents. And I am afraid that I also wasted no time in consuming the immediately edible portion which was not vegetable in nature, but medicinally chocolatey.

So my winter dreams are now of sitting on my holiday sofa next summer, partaking of a fresh and flavoursome Mediterranean salad, and consuming quantities of elderflower champagne. I feel warmer and cheerier already, and thank you, Michela, for your kindness and generosity which has brought a little spring into my step, deep in the midst of winter.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Look deep into the flame

Floss at Troc Broc and Recup' has organized A Pause in Advent, which is an initiative where bloggers can publish posts offering their thoughts related to Advent, the pre-Christmas season. Floss has written a piece illustrating the pre-eminence of love and family, reminding us not to forget what is most important about celebrating together, and over on her blog is a list of all the participants, and links to their blogs.

So I thought I would join in and share with you a poem by Charles Causley, which prompts us to think about what and why people are celebrating, and to look through and beyond the tinsel and glitter and presents. I think this poem has a relevance, whatever your spirituality, and whether you celebrate Christmas as a Christian, or as part of the turning of the year, or as a chance to get together with family and friends and celebrate.

Innocent's Song*

Who's that knocking on the window,
Who's that standing at the door,
What are all those presents
Lying on the kitchen floor?

Who is the smiling stranger
With hair as white as gin,
What is he doing with the children?
And who could have let him in?

Why has he rubies on his fingers,
A cold, cold crown on his head,
Why, when he caws his carol,
Does the salty snow run red?

Why does he ferry my fireside
As a spider on a thread,
His fingers made of fuses
And his tongue of gingerbread?

Why does the world before him
Melt in a million suns,
Why do his yellow, yearning eyes
Burn like saffron buns?

Watch where he comes walking
Out of the Christmas flame,
Dancing, double-talking:

Herod is his name.

According to Nicholas Albery in Poem for the Day, Causley said of this poem that he wrote it 'at the time of the Cold War when such phrases as "the peaceful use of atomic energy" rang particularly thin.'

And the poem still resonates today with its unsettling images not only reminding us of the ubiquity of war, and the fragility of peace, but I also think it has something to say about the way that the spirituality of a religious festival can be lost amongst the tawdry consumerism that seems to characterize so much of our Yuletide celebration nowadays.

The light in the dark: is it the returning sun, a spiritual hope, or a million dazzling Christmas lights, consuming electricity as we consume the earth?

As the comedian used to say (and I can't remember which one), may your own particular god go with you, and if Causley is a little too unsettling for such a festive time of year, then read my post below, all about red, the colour of Christmas!

*[Copyright note: I have not been able to find out anything about the copyright of this poem, so I am not sure of the situation regarding this point - I am happy to acknowledge any copyright holders if they would like to make themselves known.]

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Seeing red

No, I am not angry at all - and it seems such a sad state of affairs when seeing red is being angry, when to me red is the colour of warmth and happiness. Red is one of my favourite colours for all sorts of reasons: it is so bright and cheery - and who could fail to smile at the thought of red polka dots or red gingham?

The different colours of red have such evocative names as well: vermilion, crimson, scarlet, carmine (OK, I know that involves cruelty to insects, but I don't buy coloured food or unethical cosmetics, so I am just enjoying carmine metaphorically). Flame red and auburn - and someone called Scarlett O'Hara just has to be exciting to read about.

Red is the colour of roses, and poppies, and glowing coal fires; of cherries, and strawberries, and apples; it is the colour of Christmas and rosettes saying 'First Prize'. I have never won a first prize rosette, but I had my thesis bound in scarlet leather: I am debating whether to make it a red gingham slipcover. And in my teens I just adored the Scarlet Pimpernel, although I fear if I revisited Sir Percy Blakeney I might find him disappointing, so I keep him as a figure of my dreams.

So perhaps I am a bit of a scarlet woman, but not metaphorically, of course, surrounded as I am by children, dogs and mud, all of which limit all sorts of possibilities. And why should I array myself in purple and scarlet when I have the most adorable Head Chef held captive in my ivory tower?

No, on the sartorial front, teal blue wellingtons seems to be the way to go at the moment, rather than a Venetian red toque, which surely says something very significant. Something to do with ducks, perhaps?

And it seems quite sad that women of questionable morals are painted scarlet - perhaps if they were crimson roses with a touch of pale blue, then the Cath Kidston effect would wrap their unsettling behaviour in a granny blanket of comforting morality. In her novel Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell tried to paint her fallen woman of a heroine white not scarlet: Ruth even wears modest and snowy attire during her brief week of sin, which she then rips up and stitches into baby clothes for her illegitimate child. But in spite of leading a saintly life of selflessness  and becoming quite the angel, all the whiteness in the world cannot atone for her scarlet behaviour, and she must eventually pay for her sins (I won't spoil a good book for you, by telling you any more about what happens).

And the scheming Mademoiselle Reuter in Charlotte Bronte's The Professor is a woman quite vermilion: she nets a green silk purse as she sits in a purple merino gown with a garnet on her finger and tosses her curls, the colours seem livid in their vividness, and she a siren singing an ensnaring song. Heroines such as the eponymous Jane Eyre, or Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch are distinguished by the plainness of their dress: not crimson silk for them but serious colours like grey or black, nun-like habits not beribboned gowns. How sad for me, and for them.

So, such does my mind run along lines of scarlet and rose, you can imagine my joy when the postman (he has a red van, I am sure that is deeply relevant) delivered my Lululiz Rainbow Swap parcel from Bekimarie. I, unsurprisingly, had chosen red, and Beki sent me such a box of delights that I spent the rest of the day in crimson dreams.


Beki, appropriately enough, wrapped all my goodies in purple tissue: in times past, imperial purple was more red than we would imagine, as the dye was produced from Tyrian molluscs, giving the Tyrian purple or red dye produced more of a crimson colour. And in the middle ages the word purple was used to describe varying shades of red. I think really bright purple was not possible until the invention of aniline dyes in the nineteenth century.

You can see from the pictures what a wonderful collection of redness I received from Beki: tea towels, a beautiful Greengate tin, a polka dot make up bag, red earrings, a lovely little poppy to stitch, a red gingham raggy heart to hang up in my kitchen, a red tin heart just right to hang on the Christmas tree, or festive twig, more like, and ribbons galore to play with.

Alice at The Sight of Morning has been writing about her Obsessive Bench Disorder: I think I have Compulsive Haberdashery Obsession, and am drawn to buttons and bows in a strange and subconscious way. Much as Dorothea was one of my early heroines, the allure of Rosamund's rustling silks and ribbons still entices me, and as a child I yearned for ringlets and plaits with bows.

And not only did Beki send a parcel of rubescent joy for me, she also sent a little one for Princess Bunchy, too. The Princess favours blue, and Beki sent one of her lovely bookmarks, available to you, too, via Beki's blogshop.

She also sent some chocolates, all wrapped in blue and white foil, but, alas, they are no more: the little Princess gobbled them up in indecent haste before I could allocate them more abstemiously amongst the pockets of the advent calendar (which I have just completed, just in the nick of time). And the lovely, fluffy blue socks with little polar bears on the sides have been worn non-stop, in bed and out, since the parcel was opened, and are now evidence of the grubby state of my floors. So I couldn't possibly photograph them, but had to consign them to the wash. I promise you they are very cosy, and just the thing to make a princess squeal with joy.

So thank you, Beki, so much for your generosity and inspiration in giving me my fix of rosiness: I am now going away to play with my ribbons.


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