Wednesday, 30 November 2011

back to the knitting

Finally the last day of my November blog-a-day extravaganza has arrived and I’m very relieved! I have enjoyed the challenge and the responses, but it has been hard coming up with something every day. In fact I didn’t quite manage it. There was nothing on the first because I only found out about it at the end of that day, and I missed two other days because I was without inspiration or couldn’t make the words work.

The experience has increased my admiration for journalists who come up with a regular comment column. Frankly I just don’t have enough opinions to keep up at this rate for any longer.

I will carry on though, just not at the same frequency and I hope to get back to more of the knit, stitch and dye of my original intentions.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

time to be in earnest

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I am reading P D James’ memoir Time to be in Earnest: a Fragment of Autobiography. I’m still reading it, and enjoying it enormously. She has taken a refreshing approach, having resisted writing a full autobiography and using the discipline of a diary of one year from her 77th birthday in 1997 to her next birthday. The diary acts as a convenient hook for a discursive comment or memory. So, for example, she might write about sitting next to a Deputy Chief Constable at a literary dinner and move from discussion of police procedure, via her opinion of the death penalty, to her personal response as an eleven-year-old child to the news reports of the murder of a child.

Thus an autobiography of sorts emerges in an interesting non-linear way but she retains control of those elements she prefers not to write about or elaborate upon. In many ways this working method is similar to blogging (in the hands of a consummate writer).

I’ve enjoyed her detective fiction and knew something about her life before I started reading. I was aware, for example, of her difficult personal life after her doctor husband returned from the second world war so psychologically damaged that he spent the rest of his life in and out of hospital until his death at the age of 44. I knew that she took on the mantle of provider for the whole family and worked as a senior Civil Servant. What I did not realise was that, as most girls of her class and generation did, she left school at sixteen. So the enormous range of her intellect has been fed by her own experience of life and relentless reading, rather than by conventional education.

I am struck, as I read, by what a very active public life she was leading at the age of 77; a packed diary of book signings, publicity tours, talks, conferences and dinners as well as personal visits and social life. She has continued to write and publish in the years since this memoir and I am particularly looking forward to reading Death Comes to Pemberley where she bring detective fiction to Jane Austen’s world! Last year (at the age of 90) she was one of the guest editors on Radio 4’s Today programme. She interviewed the BBC Director-General Mark Thompson and gave him a rather hard time. Regular presenter Evan Davies is reported to have commented that she should be permanently presenting the programme.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

living the dream

We took a little trip down to Devon today to have breakfast with our friends Maggie and Jeremy and to visit their Open Studio event.

M+J are friends from our Oxfordshire days and they moved to Devon not long after we moved to Bristol. They were hoping for a gentler pace of life and to pursue their creative aspirations. I’m not sure that the pace of life is any less frenetic (in fact I know it isn’t), but they have certainly cracked on with the creative stuff. Since moving to their village home they have converted existing outbuildings to create an office and high-tech picture-framing workshop for Jeremy and a painting/printmaking studio for Maggie.

They have made loads of contacts in the Devon art world and Maggie collaborates regularly with other artists and shows her work several times a year at local galleries. At Christmas she opens her studio and fills it with her own work as well as lots of stuff from other artists and craftworkers.

We had a lovely time looking and buying. When we left the studio was full of eager customers looking for original Christmas presents.

We couldn’t visit South Devon without a trip to the coast, so we spent some time splashing along the seashore at Bantham.
It was the loveliest day for a trip. Although cold and windy the sun was strong and bright. The sea and the countryside sparkled and as we drove home along the M5 the light gave the late autumn trees an extraordinary delicate clarity.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

an outbreak of nostalgia: the good-old/bad-old days

Yesterday I met my sister in Birmingham for “Christmas Shopping”. Neither of us is particularly addicted to retail delights and very little actual purchasing took place, but we did spend the day nattering and eating lunch and drinking cups of tea. It was also the opportunity for a little nostalgia.

Back in the day when we were growing up in Lichfield, Birmingham was our closest big city for shopping and there were only two department stores, Lewis’s and Rackhams. Despite being only about 15 miles away we only visited Birmingham once or twice a year and one of those visits was the annual trip to visit Father Christmas and Mr Holly in the grotto at Lewis’s . We also remembered Rackhams, which was the posher store, having a particularly magical toy department, which would have a model railway with full landscape and running trains as a centre-piece and other mechanical toys performing their tricks. There were wonderful soft toys and walkie-talkie dolls and rank upon rank of matchbox cars and lifelike farm animals. I can report that House of Fraser, which has taken over Rackhams, no longer has a toy department of that calibre.

Obviously those childhood memories are overlaid by memories of visiting Birmingham as I got older. I was probably about fifteen before I was allowed to go on the train for a shopping trip with friends. Visits to the pantomime at “The Alex” and later other theatre at Birmingham Rep were highlights. I remember Spaghetti Junction being constructed to great media excitement. Like many major cities, the central shopping area of Birmingham has altered almost beyond recognition since those days and it got me thinking about the speed of change.

Coincidentally the book I started reading on the train yesterday is a memoir by P D James; Time to Be in Earnest. Writing in 1997 about her early life in the 1920s she remarks that “a Victorian child of the same class – the Pooters’ daughter perhaps - received into our family would have felt immediately at home; a modern child, transported to a house without electricity, central heating, television, telephone or the use of a car, would feel himself banished to a dark age.” In many ways I feel that my own childhood in the 1950s was still more similar to hers than to a childhood at the beginning of the 21st Century. Obviously we did have electricity in my first family home, but no central heating, telephone or car. It was still a world of coal fires, liberty bodices and chilblains. Change began to accelerate in the sixties and has continued to run faster and faster ever since.

I’m not quite sure what point I’m trying to make here apart from offering it as an observation. I’m certainly not decrying progress – after all how would I be communicating these thoughts on my fancy interwebular device if we were still living in the fifties?

Photo: Steve's and my teddies from the fifties. I don't think Antiques Roadshow would be interested.

Friday, 25 November 2011

I love local

I love living in this area. Thursday afternoons are veg box delivery day at the Southville Centre. Leigh Court Farm is just on the outskirts of Bristol. Minimal food miles for this lovely bag of vegetables. I’m afraid I’m such a neglectful blogger that I had already used leeks and potatoes before I remembered to take a photo.

In addition to the veg boxes, someone from Mark’s Bread always pedals up from North Street on the bread delivery tricyle on Thursday afternoon to sell lovely artisan bread.


Thursday, 24 November 2011

garden gloom

I have resisted writing this blog post for quite a long time because it is so negative. Back in April I blogged enthusiastically about the garden and everything I’d got set up to produce food this year. Sadly, as all real gardeners know, growing things doesn’t always turn out like you hope. This year was particularly disastrous.

The herb garden wasn’t too bad, though none of the stuff that I started from seed this year came to anything. We had a few micro salads from our wall-mounted gutters, but they got very badly slug and snail infested and were very difficult to keep going.

We tried potatoes in bags again and the yield was even less worth the effort than in previous years. In fact I had to empty two bags (eight potato plants) to get enough for one meal!

We had about ten beans in all from the dwarf bean plants (the pots were better than the ones in the ground) and none of the peas made it past germination. The broad beans were pretty, but not prolific.

Most of the tomato plants drowned when we had torrential rain just after I’d put them out. I was then given three plants and this is what they produced!

We knew that the fruit probably wouldn’t really get going this year, but all the putative apples dried out and dropped off at a pretty early stage, there wasn’t enough rhubarb to pick and neither did the gooseberry or blackcurrants produce fruit.

Really the only modest success was the garlic which kept us going for a week or two.

I’ve even managed to make a disaster of the wormery compost which was just vile and I’ve had to start again, but am not convinced that it’s working any better. I thought wormeries were supposed to be easy to run!

This year’s winners were the nasturtiums which self-seeded from last year and simply took over the whole darn lot. I kept yanking them out, but finally gave up when everything else failed and let them run riot.

Finally two weeks ago Steve declared war on them and pulled them all out. The garden now looks bleak and unattractive, but I need to start thinking about next year and what might actually work.
This is a bit of a misery memoir, but I have a little bit of distance now from the really deep disappointment of getting so little reward for the effort (and money) I put in. I’ve got a lot of hopes pinned on the fruit to get going next year and I think I might move some of the herbs into the raised bed. I definitely won’t be growing from seed next year – it’s too heart-breaking when it all goes wrong.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

getting my head straight

It’s been a getting my head straight day.

Went to the hairdressers this morning for a restyle (longish hair getting to be a messy nuisance when combined with winter coat collar) and was planning to have some coloured lowlights run through it. After we’d spent a while looking through colours and talking about what would work, the stylist finally turned to me and said: “actually I think you’d be mad to do it; your hair is a lovely colour and although it’s grey it’s actually got quite a few different shades streaked through it.” Wow, an honest opinion! I took her advice; sometimes that’s all it takes to make you see sense. (I did go ahead with the geometric bob, though)

Then this afternoon’s bit of head straightening was a hearing assessment. After going through all the usual questions (did you ever work in a very noisy enviroonment?) and sitting with headphones on listening to various frequencies and volumes of beep I was told that my hearing hadn’t really changed very much in the past two years. My hearing aids have been slightly re-programmed. It was all enough, though, for me to walk home in a bit of a daze with my ears ringing and somehow I can’t hear anything Steve says to me! I’m hoping that I’ll get used to it soon.

(The picture is from google images)

Monday, 21 November 2011

Of the Brilliant and the Dark

Steve and I went to hear some live performance yesterday afternoon. I had been given a flyer for “Of the Brilliant and the Dark” by musician Ellen Southern earlier in the year when I was doing a stint on the Malago WI Tea-stall at Best of Bedminster Show. She talked very compellingly about what she was doing and I resolved to make it a date. I love being able to support creativity.

Ellen’s work was a response to an invitation to remix the original 1969 score of “The Brilliant and the Dark”. The original piece was an opera commissioned by the WI and performed 42 years ago by 1000 volunteer female voices at the Royal Albert Hall. The score had been lying forgotten in the Women’s Library ever since.

We had no ideas what to expect. Yesterday’s performance was a one-off at the Cube Cinema in Bristol. It was our first visit to this venue in our eight years of living here. It’s a community cinema/performance venue and exhibits all the unkempt charm that implies. Steve was suffering from a sick headache and accompanied me somewhat on sufferance, which wasn’t helped by the fact that the performance was more than half an hour late starting and we all had to hang around waiting to get into the performance space.

Once underway, however, the performance took our breath away. I’m not an enormously musical person and my language for talking about music is very limited so I’m resorting here to the publicity material:

Enter a haunting world of atmospheric vocal harmonies in this début song-cycle by former Bristol based artist-turned-vocalist, Ellen Southern. Weaving together entrancing music and visuals, the piece transports the audience through a collective life-cycle ‘embroidered’ together though song, and encompassing wide musical influences from early polyphony to trip-hop. This highly original ensemble is made up of female vocalists, double bass, guitar, flute and percussion, which features a bellow-powered drone and pitched glasses.

We loved it. The mixture of female voices used not just in song, but making percussive sounds and whispers blended perfectly with the instruments to create an eerie, atmospheric soundscape that was completely captivating. Steve’s headache improved and he was completely reconciled to the effort of going out on a grey Sunday afternoon to listen to experimental music at an unpromising venue!

More information and soundclips are available on Ellen’s website. She is making her score available to other artists so that it can be developed further and maybe brought back together in a joint performance at some stage.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

budgie project

When I remarked the other day that our knit and natter group was not solely women I was referring specifically to Andrew, who learnt to crochet at one of Paper Village’s classes earlier in the year and launched straight into making a crochet budgie!

The first budgie was Bert, soon to be joined by Bessie and they have their very own Facebook page. This has now evolved into a full-scale project to create a flock of budgies which, it is hoped, will be installed in a local museum. The idea is to raise money for charity, but also to create a community of people working on a fun (some might say daft) project. Andrew has got all sorts of people working on it from the regular knit and natterers to older people in residential care.

Each maker is encouraged to name his/her budgie and photograph it. Most people also go on to create some sort of budgie persona. One or two of the budgies are very adventurous and have been hang-gliding or climbing Mont Blanc.

As my budgie took shape a very different character emerged, however. This is Peter. He works in a hair salon and he likes nothing better than watching The Great British Bake-Off.

(If you have a yen to make a crochet budgie for this project you can buy a kit costing £5 at Paper Village, which contains 2 balls of yarn; some odd bits of yarn to create eyes, beak etc;. a pattern and a label to attached to the finished bird that you return to the flock. There is plenty of yarn left over to carry on making your very own aviary)

Saturday, 19 November 2011

why are you doing it?

So, I’m just over half way through the November blog-a-day challenge and it’s proving quite difficult to think of something to post every day. It certainly changes the nature of the way I blog. I was talking to a friend about it yesterday and he asked why I had taken the challenge on. Good question!

I suppose, partly it’s the good old “because it’s there” motivation. I discovered that the challenge existed and decided to give it a go. It’s also because my blogging has always been pretty sporadic, but had recently almost dried up. It wasn’t quite a choice between abandoning it altogether or going for it 100%, but increasing my posting rate – even if slightly artificially – seemed a good thing to do.

Which of course raises the question, why blog in the first place? To quote my own words back in January 2008 when I started :

“ I don't think I'm a natural blogger. I have resisted this for a long time. Have kept diaries in the past and always been keenly depressed by re-reading them.However, I have recently been inspired by the vast numbers of creative blogs out there - notably knitting, but other things too and thought it might be a good way of reviewing my work and encouraging myself that I have actually done something.”

That’s pretty much how I still feel about it. If I were doing it just to be read by other people I think it would be quite a different blog, but the fact is that I am using a public medium, so there’s obviously some desire for it to be seen and read by other people. It also means making sure that I only publish things that I don’t mind anyone else seeing (and that I don’t infringe anyone else’s privacy).

Although my blog is still largely for my own benefit, as time goes on one becomes aware that blogging creates a community. Some of the blogs I visit on a regular basis have masses of comments and I gradually noticed names appearing in more than one place and a kind of blog-circle emerges. There’s a kind of reciprocal courtesy in the blogiverse that means that if someone comments on your blog, you visit theirs and make a comment and gradually relationships are formed. Up to now I’ve been quite a shy blogger; visiting blogs, reading them and slipping quietly away, with perhaps an occasional comment. Recently I’ve felt more inclined to take part and have a voice in the conversation.

Sharing the blog on Facebook also makes a difference to how it is seen and read. Facebook oddly feels more public than the more anonymous cyber village that is blogland. One is more conscious of the people one knows reading and forming opinions. These are the moments to be grateful that there is no “dislike” button! It has also lead to some welcome conversations in the real world with people who have read what I’m saying and said that they enjoy it. (Thank you).

Friday, 18 November 2011

printmaking adventures

This exciting piece of kit was delivered this week.
It's a relief printing press,

bought as an early Christmas present for Ruth

by her lovely husband, Stuart,

to help in the production

of her exciting new range of lino prints.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

knit and natter: a very good yarn

After a morning of technological meltdown yesterday trying to reinstall my wireless printer (unsuccessful so far), it was a relief to leave the house for the refuge of Wednesday afternoon’s Knit and Natter group.
We meet at Paper Village our local craft and yarn store, owned by the redoubtable Vicky - all round artist, crafter, trainer and social entrepreneur.

She welcomes a mixed group of knitters and crocheters every Wednesday afternoon just for the cost of a cup of tea. People come and go over the course of the afternoon and the range of projects is even wider than the range of people working on them (not exclusively women, by the way).

It’s hard to say what is so enjoyable and just plain right about sitting around yarning in the company of others, but it is – give it a try.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

ladies who mooch

I had a lovely day with my Daughter no. 2 yesterday.

Hannah had a hospital appointment in town early in the day and a work commitment in town mid afternoon and decided it wasn’t worth going back home to her computer in the interim, so we met up for a leisurely coffee in Park Street. We thought about going to see a film, but the only thing available at a convenient time was a horror movie, so we wandered in and out of shops looking at this and that, discussing Christmas present ideas for each other and rest of the family.

By the time we got to the Harbourside it was time for a leisurely lunch. Then we carried on our drift through town and shops until we arrived at the Drawn in Bristol pop up shop for Hannah to do her duty stint.

We talked and talked, very little was actually bought and it was lovely. Despite living in the same city and catching up with each other reasonably frequently an extended time like this is fairly rare. Anyone with three children knows how special it is to spend time with just one of them alone and this pleasure continues into adulthood.

With a baby due in six weeks it may be some time before we can have another day like this, so it was time to savour.

(Image: two of H's prints displayed on our kitchen wall)

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

singing their hearts out

I’m so enjoying the current series of The Choir. I had somehow only managed to catch an isolated episode or two of Gareth Malone’s previous efforts to bring the joy of singing to unlikely places.

On the face of it there’s nothing at all unlikely about a group of military wives forming a choir – it’s just that no-one’s thought of it before. Judging by the enthusiasm of the recruits he has signed up at Chivenor and in Plymouth it’s something they’ve been waiting for. Watching a programme about the military would not be on my regular wish-list, but whatever my views on Afghanistan or Iraq, there is no doubt that the women and their families left at home while their partners are deployed in dangerous places have a very difficult life indeed.

Gareth Malone is very talented at what he does. He creates enthusiasm, boosts flagging confidence, challenges people to do things they thought they couldn’t do. His choice of repertoire is very clever, starting with pop songs that people already know and gradually introducing more classical work so that the singers can experience a range of music and develop their musicality.

One or two of the women involved are veterans of the waiting game and are very strong characters who have learned how to live that kind of life and still be individuals in their own right. Others, one feels, are crushed by the sense of only existing as the satellite to someone else’s dangerous career. So it is inspiring to see these women coming together as encouragement for one another, overcoming nerves and natural anxiety about performance to (literally) find their own voice.

It’s cracking good television and my only gripe is that we don’t see quite enough of the rehearsals and the singing.

Monday, 14 November 2011

childcare and more domestic goddessry

Today was a childcare day and as Steve was playing golf with friends I was holding the fort alone!

This child is obsessed by scissors. Given the chance she will spend the entire day snipping little pieces of paper from bigger pieces of paper. She hasn't got a great deal of control yet (especially given that she consistently uses her left hand and the scissors are all right-handed), but making a series of diagonal cuts and then trimming them off seems to hit the spot at the moment. Papercut artwork is everywhere at the moment so perhaps she's picking up the cultural trend?

There's quite a lot of picking up to do afterwards.

Luckily for my sanity she still has a lovely long nap in the afternoon, so I busied myself making mincemeat. It's probably obvious that I love all the heavily-fruited, spicy mixtures that feature in so many of the traditional Christmas foods, but I haven't previously felt it was worth the effort to make mincemeat. This is a non-traditional recipe, however, with no suet and heavy on cranberries and apple as well as the vine fruits. Looking forward to some mince pies now!

Now we have that very rare thing, a good telly evening - University Challenge, Only Connect and The Choir - and probably a bit of knitting.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

enough is enough

Having been brought up to believe that you shouldn’t start a new project before you finish the previous one, it came as a bit of an epiphany for me about twenty years ago when someone giving a talk on creativity suggested that it was actually good to have more than one project on the go at the same time. Some people might suggest that I have taken this advice too literally and gone a bit far in the opposite direction.

On the whole my creative stash lives in my workroom in the basement, but knitting and crochet are sociable crafts that can be practised sitting on a comfortable chair while watching the telly. This has meant that my yarn craft project bags were beginning to silt up at one end of the sofa. It was getting difficult to find what I wanted and generally stressful. So a large part of today has been devoted to sorting out this horrible space.

In the process I discovered that my main current project was in a bag far too small for it, so extra balls of yarn were lolling around here there and everywhere. That has now been sorted into one large bag.

There's a large bag full of the knitted squares for blanket-making that I blogged about last week. These need to stay at hand or I will forget to do anything with them.
I also found at least three bags of random/leftover/spare yarn; a scarf project started and (probably) abandoned; and a bag with two colours of recycled sari yarn which I have yet to find the right project for.

Then there was the bag that holds my in-between-other-projects/use-up-leftovers project - a crochet sampler blanket that will eventually be sewn together in strips.

This is definitely not abandoned, but needs to be on the back burner at the moment because of other things on the go. That and the random bags have been relegated to the basement depths.

As has this little project bag with the yarn and pattern for Fugue tam and mittens by Kate Davies. I have actually knitted one of the mittens, but it came out too small so I need to start again. I can't risk relegating this one for too long or I will miss the hat and mittens season.

Also begging to be sorted was my needle bag and another tube of needles. When it's organised this bag is incredibly useful as it also contains a ring binder for patterns. While Steve was at the cinema this afternoon I sat on the floor with all the needles and a needle gauge sorting out pairs and batches of double-ended needles. All my printed-from-the-internet patterns are now in plastic sleeves in the ring binder.

Hiding under all sorts of other stuff was a jar of buttons that I didn't know was there and would definitely have been looking for sometime soon.

There were also two sewing projects that had come upstairs for one reason or another and now need to go back below stairs.

All has now been reorganised and restored. To the casual observer it probably doesn't look too different, as there are still two large project bags and a work basket in the corner, but I know what's there and I can lay my hands on it, so this post it brought to you with a smug sense of relief and I can spend the evening knitting!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

saturday art and craft

It was a beautiful morning as I drove home along the river at 8am. The sun was coming through quite brightly. It had rained in the night and the water vapour held in the air wasn’t quite a mist or even a haze, but created a shivering golden pink light.

It was a lovely compensation for being up and out so early to deliver Steve to his stall at the Bristol Harbourside Craft Market where he’s selling Ruth’s and Hannah’s and his own work.

Later I visited Hannah who was doing a stint at the Drawn in Bristol pop up shop.
(photo credit: made in bristol - taken at the launch party last night)

Meanwhile Ruth’s work is also to be found at the Rostra Gallery in Bath.

Friday, 11 November 2011

saved by monkey and robot

Well I really thought I wasn't going to have anything for the daily blog challenge today. Until I captured the moment when two little girls and their grandad

watched Susan Jameson
reading from Auntie Hannah and Uncle Felix's book "Monkey & Robot" for the CBeebies bedtime story.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

figgy pudding

For the first time ever my Christmas pudding actually has figs in it this year, so when the carol singers ask for some figgy pudding there actually is a slim chance of them having some!
As ever, I didn't have quite the right ingredients for the recipe (despite shopping specifically for several items yesterday). After yesterday's cake making extravaganza there weren't quite enough sultanas and I had completely failed to notice that the recipe specified dates as well as figs. I made up the difference with a few extra grams of the other fruits (figs, apricots and cranberries). We stirred and made wishes and now two small puddings are steaming away on the hob.

Rebecca at Poshyarns was talking yesterday about baking as meditation. She finds it calming. Much as I enjoy baking, I really can't say I find it soothing and the state of the kitchen afterwards is definitely not a joy. Just look at the state of that recipe page - it already looks like an heirloom recipe and I've only used it yesterday and today!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

christmas cake

I made a Christmas cake today. The house smells lovely.

I don’t have a special recipe that I use every year. I’m quite happy to try new ones from time to time. I also think that a bought cake is perfectly acceptable when life is busy.

For quite a few years I used a Delia Smith recipe, but always had to change the constitution of the dried fruit mixture. She specifies 450g currants, 175g sultanas and 175g raisins. Now I really like dried fruit, but currants always seem such unappealing, mean, pinched little things by comparison with juicy raisins and sultanas. I quite often go with a Good Housekeeping recipe. Needing to sell magazines, they generally have a slightly different recipe each year with names like “the ultimate Christmas cake”, or “our best ever Christmas cake”.

I’ve taken the GH route this year. This one is called their "easiest ever"! The fruit mixture includes prunes and stem ginger – no currants and no mixed peel!
Unusually the recipe involves boiling the fruit and melting the butter and sugar so that the mixture goes into the oven already warm and takes less cooking time.

I didn’t have any Amaretto liqueur, so used port and added half a teaspoon of almond extract when the mixture came off the heat.
It looks good so far!