Monday, 30 January 2023

Fundamental stuff

Last summer on a ragingly hot day I did that thing we probably all do, mention to whoever is with us - or to ourselves, (yes, I do this) how impossible it is to imagine a the same place during a spell of extreme cold. Mark had stared across the parched grass and nodded: "Yup. Fires, hot water bottles . . . wood cutting..." 

I'd gathered a clutch of dead silver birch branches and gone to look at the wood shed and its depleted stocks of dry kindling. Delving more into the images of soup, socks and breaking ice from the bird baths I'd done more gathering and duly stacked the waiting boxes. 

This January morning while sawing up logs for the smaller wood burner, I stopped and did the thought in reverse - watering relentlessly, getting in any nearby river to cool off, sleeping outside, and . . . gathering twigs in preparation for the cold; not high on the summer agenda but if relying on wood for heat, imperative. Nothing worse than fumbling about with a torch for a bit of damp kindling on a freezing morning.

When we found this house and its attached wood on a baking August day, the thought of fires and managing wood was a just a vague idea. I think Mark did say, do you think we can manage all this? I may have said, Yes, course we can, or probably . . . hopefully! Can't recall now, but as we'd already spend ten years or so in another house fuelled by wood it didn't seem impossible. We used to have deliveries of oak and chestnut as everyone did in that region. Here, it's our own ash trees, mixed with a bit of oak, silver birch or anything that's fallen over in the garden. Free fuel as long as we can cut and stock it. This year our helpful occasional gardener seems to have vanished; I'm on the trail of another, or possibly a handy workaway person to help. We just need to keep the system rolling - cut, stock to dry for a year and a half, burn, repeat. We have plenty for next year and some stocked for the year after, but the large branches that could theoretically fall across the train tracks need to be pollarded (étêtage in French), at the least.

Pollarding is so incredibly sensible, a practice started in the middle ages - a way of creating a sustainable firewood source, making shade, encouraging healthier tree growth, even cattle feed. Our ash trees were all pollarded about seven years ago and need doing again, but, of course its expensive so we are doing it bit by bit, and letting the wood do mostly its own thing - much appreciated by the woodpeckers and owls that inhabit the older trees.

This year, I've become a wood burner nerd - arranging wood in branch sizes in the barn, stocking kindling next to both fires so it drys completely, doing the fire cleaning first thing in the morning - ashes to the chicken sand pit (they like to bathe in it to discourage mites, etc), getting the days wood in, and so on. A minor recycling triumph was cutting the dead reeds from the reed bed and using them as first stage kindling - best ever!

It's all time consuming and dust producing and sometimes muscle aching, but somehow, as the post title suggests, fundamental, and oddly life-affirming in these times of more, faster, easier. Not exciting perhaps, but satisfying. On one of the coldest days recently when more dystopian thoughts ranged around my mind, I did a try out of what could be achieved on the bigger wood stove, the result: drying washing, stew cooked from scratch, dog food and chicken food cooked up, and a pan of water heated inside the stove for tea.

Wednesday, 11 January 2023

Tea time sessions present...

The Muddy Waters classic,  Got My Mojo Working, which in fact, was first recorded recorded by Ann Cole in 1956.

Monday, 9 January 2023

moments in time

Whilst trying to find a certain drawing a couple of days ago I happened upon one of those not-sure-what-to-do-with-all-this piles of stuff and found this photo which zipped me straight back to early childhood and the mad and friendly family Mum used to 'house' me with when she was trying to hold down a teaching job.

There are other photos but this one feels like the real me then and still now - rather chaotic hair, laughing, second hand clothing - I do recall that red coat - plaster adhered to somewhere on my person where I've done a bit too much of something in the garden.

I can't remember the name of my little friend; Sarah, possibly. I hope she may have a copy of the photo too  and sometimes reflect on those days in a north London garden with her playmate.

Monday, 26 December 2022

Christmas 2022

On the afternoon dog walk yesterday Ezra said, 'you always say that' as I noted that the festive day had been so far possibly the best ever. How nice to think that generally all of the Christmas days had been 'the best'. Scanning the years I can only actually think of one that had been truly awful - for me anyway - which mostly featured staring at the interior of a blue washing up bowl during a bout of food poisoning while everyone else ate, drank and made, I assume, merry downstairs. 

My childhood Christmas days sometimes took place at another family's house where Mum was being employed as a temporary housekeeper - slightly strange as we stayed in a distant upstairs part of whichever house it was while the family festivities carried on downstairs. I can recall sneaking downstairs and peering in at a huge Christmas tree rather like an impoverished Dickensian character. The more usual ones were spent with relatives in Dorset, wonderful days full of endless present giving in their cosy thatched cottage, walks in the countryside, terrible 70s TV . . . 

                                                                 Christmas day 2022

Yesterday was pretty much perfect as a small family Christmas day: usual routines to start with, nut roast, wood fires, dog walks, marvellous presents, Mark's Christmas cake, chats with lovely family and friends, board game and finally, the Christmas film go-to for us, black and white 40s, Champagne Charlie. (Tommy Trinder)

Ezra's present of hand made wooly wrist warmers featuring the very famous (it's a family thing...) words, 'Hi, I'm Barry Scott'.

For all those I know, love and appreciate, I hope you all had a most warm, memorable and happy day. We raise a glass of (the one intake-of-breath festive indulgence we purchased) a local, prized bio crémant - to you all.

Happy Christmas 2022. 

                     Mark's Christmas cake featuring my mother's Inuit seal soapstone sculpture 

Sunday, 18 December 2022

The strange empty space

  . . . when someone so pivotal in one's life departs for the next place.

Pen and ink drawing by Rosemary, mid fifties, Bloomsbury, London

I once asked my mother on a coastal walk what she thought might happen when she shuffled off. She had shrugged, turned from looking at the sea and said: 'well, nothing . . .. that's it, isn't it.' For someone so interested in everything I suppose I'd imagined something a little more mystery-embracing. Maybe she was right, but as a muser, gazer at stars, knower-that-we-know-very-little-about-everything, I prefer to leave it a little more open. 
My mother passed away more than two years ago. This post is about another equally pivotal person. Rosemary, my Godmother. 

I don't know if I ever did ask Rosemary the 'what do you think happens' question. Possibly. She might have said something along the lines of: 'I'd like to meet up with my cats again.' Or, perhaps she would have been more pragmatic, being a quaker, and someone wanting to leave her body to medical science. I wish I could remember. We had so many hundreds of fascinating conversations, largely over FaceTime in the last couple of years due to Covid, but before, at her kitchen table, in her sitting room, or during early morning tea when I would pull a chair up in her bedroom while she fussed over whichever cat had taken up residence on her bed and required a saucer of milk.

When I think of Rosemary a flurry of snapshots fill my mind: her various abodes - the flat a few doors away from ours when I was a child, her first bought flat above a shop in Pages Lane, a basement in Wandsworth; the 20s semi that I loved in Tooting Bec with its wood panelled back sitting room, and finally, 'Finches' in Selbourne, a pretty red brick house that she cleverly altered to make space for her proudest purchase, a grand piano. 

Other memories appear: her various treasured gardens, the Yorkshire hills we explored, the Tooting Bec local Indian restaurant, her at-home music events; toast and marmite when I often called at her flat after school; supper in the Montebello restaurant near the BBC; and of course, the procession of cats through her life starting with Polly, a sturdy black feline, and ending with Lupin, another, finer, smaller black cat. The others I recall: Heep, a ingratiating tabby, Brair, a sweet long-haired animal who filled her life before and during Covid, Timpsy, a bruiser of a Tom, Zorro, another black feline, Lucy, a earlier tiny tabby, and a blue Persian, Anthony, who appeared in a story, part of which I will include below. 

My mother was always there for me, but it was often Rosemary I would ring for advice or a questioning chat. I suppose she was my other parent, my useless father having deserted the mother ship, so to speak, when I was a couple of months old. Now, as I write this the full, huge strange place looms as I realise for sure that she really is no longer on this planet.

The picture above is a pen and ink drawing she made of a room she rented somewhere in Bloomsbury in the early fifties or so, and shows a considerable drawing talent that she explored a little over the years, but sadly not enough. I've always adored the picture being a Londoner and admirer of those long, elegant Georgian windows of central London. There it is, the ubiquitous piano with stack of music that she would have avidly practiced. A gardener rakes leaves forever in one of the Bloomsbury communal garden squares. I often gaze at the picture imagining her life as a social worker student long before she took up her main profession as a psychiatrist; London at that time; the concerts she and Mum would have enjoyed, money allowing. Their lives as young women.

That room I mentioned earlier - the lovely back room of the semi: arts and crafts fireplace, a collection of landscapes which meant much to her, the couch covered with an Indian throw, and a peaceful view of the garden she had tamed from a wilderness. Many people over many years came to discuss their lives with Rosemary in that room. The room has appeared in several of my stories, such was the strong effect it had one me. Below is part of a short story which was later developed into a novel called The Couch. I did send it to Rosemary to check over with her psychiatrist eye, and as the character was based loosely on herself. She enjoyed the story and approved of it after suggesting a few details that might be changed to do with the practice of being a psychiatrist. None of the characters did actually appear in her room, not to my knowledge anyway . . . 

I've listened to quite a few podcasts recently about time and space, the arguments by physicists as to whether time is a linear process or something more three dimensional, or more dimensional, that past and future are all still existing - the sort of  ideas that make me start questioning what is at the edge of space, and what does any of this life mean . . . I might have picked up the phone and had an interesting conversation with Rosemary . . .  The fact that Scientists and physicists do argue about such quandaries is somehow comforting. Perhaps she is sitting somewhere in her kitchen armchair talking to one of the cats and about to pick up the phone to call me.

Part of The Couch. A story written for Rosemary.

Tooting Bec, London 2006


I would like to stay here. I really would. 

Too many months of another upholstery shop; a dim place of sad wooden skeletons where I was ignored utterly until the old atelier owner retired and a young woman took over. She had scowled at the dusty leopard skin fabric and had delicately recoated me in a very smart ochre and burgundy stripe. She also stripped and French-polished my legs and frame: the closest I've come to experiencing sex and I've seen enough of the act!

This place is very different to all my previous homes. I now repose in a calm room with a view of a south London garden: nodding roses, sparrows hopping, a pear tree marking the passing seasons in blossom, leaves and fruit. 

People come here to tell Ms Russell their problems. I would certainly release all my fears and ghosts in this room of paintings, polished wood and books. 

She often reclines on my frame in the early evening, her calm voice reading (to me, I like to think) theories and practices of a certain Carl Jung as she sips a glass of white wine.

When there are no people, there are cats. They lacerate other furniture in the house; I hear the admonishments, but they seem to just sit calmly on me, for hours, stretching in the sun that blanches window pane shapes on my fabric.

Today is Monday. Ms Russell is drinking coffee while looking at her diary. The old clock above the mantel piece will soon chime, signalling the arrival of Mr Bartleby, flustered from the journey and bristling with tics. She puts away the diary and brushes the cats from me before laying out the Indian fabric throw. The doorbell sounds and she sighs slightly before leaving her sanctuary.

Mr Bartleby is solid and smells of anxiety. I never relish his hour of crushing me and twiddling my braid.

His analyst gestures a choice of a leather chair or me, and, as usual, he collapses thankfully onto my anticipatory self, writhing discreetly from time to time as he describes his week in minute and lengthy detail. 

She assists.

"Is there anything you feel you would like to tell me?

The writhing increases. "I had a very memorable dream on Wednesday night. I was standing looking into a tube tunnel, holding a large plank of wood."

"I see. Did anything else occur in the dream?"

"I moved towards the tunnel and tried to insert the plank into the darkness but it turned into a long strip of pizza dough."

Ms Russell is a Jungian psychoanalyst, not Freudian, but I can see her struggling with an alternative interpretation other than the obvious.

"How did you feel on waking?"

"Confused, depressed and inadequate . . . can we do the word association thing. I like that."

Her brow knits at the mention of this but she commences:

















That was an interesting choice. He leaps off me and runs around the room discarding clothing and bawling: "Beat me, wicked Jezebel."

Ms Russell closes her notebook, brushes back an escaped curl of auburn hair, and waits until he calms. He is panting a little, smiling now, his trousers around his ankles. The clock strikes eleven; the end of his session and the tics have subsided. He dresses. She shows him out, comes back in, pours a small measure of whisky into a glass, and sighs more heavily.

One of the cats, the ancient blue Persian, nudges the door open. She hears the creak and turns. 

"Antony, my dearest. Would you like some tuna? I think I need a sandwich . . . we can share." She tickles the fluffy old brute behind the ears, straightens a rug that has become dislodged during Mr Bartleby's exertions, and goes to make their lunch.

The afternoon progresses: four clients due. Ms Russell checks through her notes, sitting on me, Antony curled up next to her in prime position.

"So, two clients left today. The last one is new, and may be a challenge, Antony."


By half past four, I can see Ms Russell keening for the teapot. Her second to last client, Vladimir has broken down again and is weeping into a cat that has climbed onto his considerable lap. 

"Doctor . . . "

"Call me Ruth, Vladimir."

"Ruth . . . I love him. I should have told him . . . more eloquent. To come to him in night, in dressing gown was perhaps trick?"

My springs ache. Vlad has been coming here for weeks now, smelling of onion. After an obsession with a sous-chef in Croyden and a following breakdown, he landed an enviable position as head chef of a four-star restaurant somewhere in Pimlico, but he cannot shake off the past. 

He continues: "Jasper, it was his name — I told you, no?"

"Jasper, yes."

"I wanted fuck him."

"Yes, I understand that, but perhaps was there something else to make you feel so strongly for him?"

"He was good chef. We could have made great restaurant . . . all is lost."

"Would you like to tell me about your previous relationships?"


"Men, or women before Jasper?"

" . . . My father . . . he beat me with Russian sausage."

This is a breakthrough.

"What was the relationship like between your father and mother, Vladimir?"

I feel his body tense. He is going to divulge something never-before-uttered, except the doorbell rings and Ms Russell glances at the clock. It's the next client. She has to stop: usually so careful, but the sausage revelation moved time aside. She explains and Vladimir stands up reluctantly. 

“I can have same time next week?”

She smiles a yes and carefully shows Vladimir into another room – a sort of psychoanalytical air lock, while she lets the new client in. I hear a new voice, her gentle words. 

“Good afternoon. If you could just wait in the second room on the left there. Thank you.”


Wednesday, 14 December 2022

In praise of Vinted

And all other second hand online and actual shops.

I actually bought the pair of boots on the left NEW!  - not even in a sale - something almost unheard of in this household - and wore them literally to bits over the last five years or so. As they became unwearable other than to do plastering in I started a search for the same ones on Vinted (ace pre-loved clothing site, for anyone who hasn't discovered it). One pair arrived which were too small - odd as they were exactly the same make and size. I re-sold them, and did the occasional search for a different pair. And here they are, now slightly soiled from a few muddy dog walks, but perfect, waterproof, warm and a fraction of the retail price. 

Other recent super satisfactory purchases: slightly shrunk but perfect size for me, black cashmere jumper, just the right cord trousers, three pairs of hand knit new mittens and matching scarves for presents. The fact that any sales one makes can sit there as a wallet for the next purchases is great, the site is very easy and quick to use; less landfill, less fast fashion, bargains. Whoever created it, bravo.

Just checked it - two Lithuanians, Milda and Justas, started in 2008.