Friday, December 31, 2010

Festive This-n-That

For those of you interested in our musical Christmas crackers, here they are.  Along with the obligatory paper hat, joke and prize there is a horn with a number on its base.  Two pages of song sheets with a sequence of numbers will allow you and eleven of your friends to form your own musical group.  Or perhaps decrypt Enigma code.  Since six of the crackers are still intact we either have to pop the rest or wait until next year.  The Heiress has her eye on the heart-shaped pocket mirror as yet undiscovered so something tells me that tonight there will be some tooting going to speak.

R was quite excited to find a copy of Blitz Spirit compiled by Jacqueline Mitchell for me.  Love the cover art but am wondering about Winston's 'whiskers'.  The Heiress gave me a copy of Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor which I am in the process of devouring.  A gift to myself, The Queen's Doll's House by Lucinda Lambton arrived in our mailbox today, I can't wait to sit down with a cup of tea and pour over every little thing...literally!  The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph were also courtesy of R, although he wrote on the gift tag that they were from Norris from The Kabin on Coronation Street.  It's a funny game we like to play at Christmas, tying in our gifts to characters from just about everything.  Too bad I couldn't jet over to England to collect my free Waitrose luxury biscuits though!

And this massive bowl of trifle is what R and I got up to this afternoon.  Making it, not eating it!  Quite ridiculous for the three of us, we may have to recruit friends to share it with.  We laughed after realizing that R had been feeding some of the leftover cake to Deacon that had been drizzled with sherry.  Not to worry, no harm done.  And really, a sleepy Border Collie wouldn't be all bad.

R and I have also had the pleasure of taking in two movies over the past few days.  The King's Speech was absolutely charming, the ultimate cosy film.  Colin Firth, Helena Bonham-Carter and Geoffrey Rush were a delightful acting trinity.  The Black Swan was both unsettling and outstanding.  You either sink back in fear or edge forward with anticipation during this one.  An Oscar nod will undoubtedly go to Portman, she was stunning.

In the last few hours of 2010, have a wonderful time celebrating in your favourite way.  We're going to indulge in a few thousand more calories before coming to our senses tomorrow.  Aren't the holidays fun!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson

April 1941

Thursday, 17th - Well, last night was a fiendish raid, and no mistake.  All night long they thrummed over our heads and what we heard coming down is more than can be put into words.  It was like one of the worst nights of last Autumn, and even then I don't remember hearing the sky so full, incessantly, hour after hour, of bombers zooming overhead.

Many of the images we see of the Blitz are in black and white.  Reading Vere's account of daily life as the bombs fell transformed those images into vivid colour for me.

Imagine the sounds of gunfire and fighter planes roaring overhead almost nightly as you fell into bed in a state of exhaustion.  The task of keeping your ear to the ground for word of a shipment of precious fruit and vegetables day after day was a necessity.  The quest for reasonably priced linens to replace threadbare sheets was more often than not a fruitless one.  The communal cat wasn't spared and had his meagre milk ration watered down when supplies were scarce.  He didn't seem to go too hungry though as Vere gave him a talking to about the number of mice spotted scurrying about the place.

Vere's numerous acts of kindness humbled me again and again when several times she was presented with an extra ration of cheese or meat and immediately shared with friends.  During many air raids, there were elderly women to drag under desks or make quick cups of tea for.  A stirrup-pump was always close at hand for putting out incendiary fires and on one occasion, a chimney fire that had nothing to do with the war.  Pulling on a pair of wellies and pitching in wherever help was needed empowered Vere.

During the month of April 1940, there was a bus strike and I laughed at the description of soldiers replacing the drivers.  Passengers were directing them through the streets of London as best they could but occasionally wrong turns were made and they would end up lost.  With bricks and debris lying in piles everywhere it must have taken ages to get anywhere.

Not only does this fascinating diary offer a glimpse of the home front, it offers a lesson in the politics of the day in a very readable manner.  Vere was an ardent fan of Churchill, had harsh words for Hitler and Mussolini and was heartbroken by news of lost fleets during action.  Her reports of invasion, treatment of POW's in Japanese war camps and the horror of the holocaust as they were reported in the papers are riveting.

Reaching the end of the war and the diary, I couldn't help feeling emotional as the black-outs were ripped from their place over windows and doors.  Vere felt it was too good to be true and there was a slight nervousness to embrace a sunlit room.  When victory is announced crowds stream toward Trafalgar Square, Downing Street and Whitehall. 

'Precisely at 3 pm Big Ben's chimes told us the moment was about to begin.  All traffic stopped.  The mounted policeman wiped the sweat from his brow.  All was still.  How wonderful to be standing in Whitehall, in the shadow of the House of Commons, listening to That Voice which had steered us from our darkest hours to the daylight of deliverance.' 

Out came the steamed puddings saved for such a day and cups of whatever people wanted.  And with any luck the eggs and oranges weren't far behind.

(photo credit - John Hinde)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

An Anniversary Tea

Monday was our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.  Back then our Friday evening nuptials in a candlelit chapel was a modest event with the radiators pinging away during the service as they warmed up.  But as we left the church, the bells began to ring and a gentle snowfall brightened up the dark sky.

Celebrating your anniversary during the festive season does present some problems.  The thought of a lovely dinner at a restaurant can lose some of its appeal when you are already one Quality Street chocolate away from your stretchy pants.  A Nutcracker Tea at The King Edward Hotel in Toronto proved to be the perfect solution.

The tearoom was lovely with its high ceilings and decorative plaster and I could easily pretend that we were thousands of miles away in London (sorry, I can't help it).  Two bubbly glasses of champagne promptly arrived courtesy of the hotel.  R was being a good sport about the whole tea event, much preferring a pint or cup of coffee.  He opted for The Ploughman's Tea with its more substantial offerings and raved about the tourtiere and Scotch egg.  My three-tiers of finger sandwiches and pastries were absolutely delicious...and surprisingly filling!  This could well become a tradition.

On the drive home I asked him 'if you could do it all over again...' meaning our marriage, not the tea.  We had a good laugh and thought that we would.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Paper Garden and Molly Peacock

The Burlington Public Library had the most entertaining author visit last night.  Molly Peacock came in from Toronto and as I cupped my cold hands around my hot paper cup of tea, I revelled in her storytelling.
Mary Delany (1700-1788), was married at seventeen to a rather disgusting slob of a man who was many years her senior.  He had money and Mary was given in marriage by her family as was often the practice.  Thankfully, she was a widow by the age of twenty-five.  Her next marriage was a love match and lasted many years but she outlived Dr Delany and grieved him deeply.  But eventually, at the age of 72 she began to create masterpieces.

Sprinkled throughout are fantastic stories of friendships with Handel, Jonathon Swift and even Hogarth who taught her a few things about painting.  Delicious tidbits such as the purchase of a hat for 50 pounds when she had only 300 a year show a certain joie de vivre.  Mary had a keen eye for detail and was not one to sit around.  One day she spied some paper that was the exact shade of pink as a nearby flower petal and clutching a pair of scissors she cut out a matching petal...and then another....and then another.  The image above is not a painting but many, many strips of paper carefully glued to a background with flour and water.

The results are breathtaking and Mary was prolific.  She had a goal of creating 1000 paper flower collages but failing eyesight meant she completed a total of 985.  Carefully stored away between sheets of paper, these works of art retained their vibrant colours and can be seen at The British Museum.  A visit most definitely being added to the itinerary of my next trip across the pond!

After the talk, Molly, was returning to Toronto by train.  Most likely anonymous to any of the other passengers but oh, what a treat to anyone who should happen to strike up a conversation with her.

My very good friend and colleague, Roberta, spied the author visit in our library's events guide and thought it sounded like something I would like.  She was so right.  Settling in for the holidays with the most beautiful book I've seen in a long time (signed by the author!) will be sheer bliss.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Wait for Me! by Deborah Devonshire

'Blank.  There is no entry in my mother's engagement book for 31 March 1920, the day I was born.  The next few days are also blank.  The first entry in April, in large letters, is 'KITCHEN CHIMNEY SWEPT'.

The opening lines of Deborah Devonshire's enchanting memoir had me sinking deeper into the sofa, cup of tea in hand, with a smile curling on my face. 

A more perfect blend of childhood antics, aristocratic couplings, door-slamming rants, tragedy, hilarity and celebrity name dropping would be hard to find.  The writing flows from one event to the next as seamlessly as a conversation with a favourite Aunt or Grandmother over tea and cake.  And just enough juicy bits to be revealing without being salacious.

Of a particular governess...'Miss Dell, encouraged us in the difficult art of shoplifting - stealing really.  My mother found out (the shopkeepers did not, thank goodness) and Miss Dell disappeared.'  And when the Dowager Duchess wrote about the wonder of the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher's hair...'What made her visit unforgettable was the Force 9 gale that was blowing.  I soon looked like the Wild Woman of the West, hair all over the place, as did the other women in the party.  But not a hair on the PM's head moved.  I was so interested in this phenomenon I could not pay attention to anything else.'  You can just picture the look on her face and the image had me in stitches.

I was fascinated by the way this family of six girls and one boy wove their relationships together through youth, marriages, divorce, political affiliations, successes and loss.  It seems to me that despite very strong words of caution or other protestations, this was a family whose members followed their hearts from quite a young age.  Unity's idolizing of Hitler, Diana's divorce from Bryan Guinness to take up with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, would have provided many a heated discussion.  At nineteen, Jessica put her family through despair with her disappearance leading to an elopement with Esmond Romilly, both were adherents of Communism.  Her brother, Tom, a fascist, refused to fight against Germany but volunteered to fight Imperial Japan and was killed in Burma.

The chapter on childbirth and deaths is incredibly moving.  There are three healthy children but in between was a miscarriage and the deaths of three babies shortly after birth which must have caused immense heartbreak.  Despite her grief Deborah unselfishly writes that her loss was nothing in comparison to the sufferings caused by the war and daily deaths of young servicemen.

Hilarity rises yet again when Debo visits Lady Bird Johnson in Texas and is excited by an invitation to join cowboys on a cattle round-up.  Thrilled to see men dressed just like in the Westerns on film with their leather chaps, Stetson hats and cowboy boots she is ready for adventure.  To her amazement these cowboys escort her out to a waiting helicopter.  Such is modern farming...'I enjoyed this new experience, but wondered why the cowboy pilot had bothered to put on his spurs.'

Elegant banquets, Chatsworth, her love of animals and the countryside provide wonderful stories full of breathtaking images.  A snippet or two about her rambunctious Border Collie simply named, Collie, had me laughing in acknowledgement as I too own one.  Despite loving this breed, Deborah admits it simply wouldn't do to have dogs nipping at the heels of paying customers strolling the grounds of their ancestral home.  Indeed.

Nearing the end of the book and knowing that the Duke's death was imminent, tears were sliding down my cheeks.  Again with unselfishness the Dowager Duchess writes...'Seeing him so deeply depressed and unhappy about the various indignities of his physical condition, no one could have wished him to go on living.'  He died on May 3, 2004.

Moving into the Old Vicarage in Edensor where she had lived with Andrew sixty years earlier, this remarkable woman continues to lead a productive life at the age of ninety.  And long may she do so.  On my last trip to London in May 2009, I missed Deborah Devonshire at Hatchard's on Piccadilly by one hour.  The young sales girl there said to try again on my next trip as she pops in several times a year.  The thrill would be all mine and a dream I hold on to.

Wait for Me! is both a touching memoir and a riveting page-turner if you enjoy glimpses into English aristocracy or social history.  Don't hesitate to add it to your Christmas wish list!