Friday, February 24, 2012

Attractions and Distractions

Feast or famine, it's so often the way.  Most of the time I despair for something decent to watch on television.  Something which will broaden the mind, feature a corset or parasol or at the very least not be eight years behind the British viewer's experience (BBC Canada...are you listening?).

Apologies to David Starkey but my latest historian crush is Amanda Vickery.  Forget the "Ooh, can I have your autograph" sort of thing, I just think it would be fantastic to have a close friend who could chat about the price of breakfast cereal today as well as contraception from the Georgian era over a cup of tea.

Since At Home with the Georgians aired here a few weeks ago there is no moment too brief to re-watch a snippet of an episode.  I especially love that although the presentation may be of historical facts, the men and women are represented as the modern citizens they were of their day.  An attractive home, food on the table, decent values and security for the future are just a few basic wants which haven't changed throughout the years despite technology and shortened hemlines.  The way Professor Vickery caresses the pages of a diary reclaimed from the bowels of an archival storage facility displays an awe and respect for its writer that goes beyond academic research.  Clearly she is passionate about her work and the people she gleans facts from.  If you're her neighbour or friend...lucky! 

For an earthier approach to educating a viewing audience about life at home during the Edwardian era we are two episodes in to Edwardian Farm.  Ruth, Peter and Alex are back, living to period in a cottage in Devon, toiling away on the farm and in the kitchen.  You can practically smell the aroma of sweat coming from their tired bodies.  Most of the time I would be quite willing to pitch in alongside but when offal is on the menu I am more than happy to be watching from my sofa.  And each foray into these historical experiments leaves me with a yearning to try my hand at cheese making, what's that all about?

We're having our own domestic issue at the moment, a four year-old stove with its third major issue.  Don't think I haven't envied Ruth Goodman and her wood stove minus its electronic motherboard.  I've been eyeing up our fireplace and picturing how it would look with a spit and cauldron.  But what to do about baking cakes and cookies?  There has been more time spent visiting appliance stores, reading consumer reports and angry customer forums than my books for pleasure these days which does not make me a happy lady of the house.  I'm in the midst of my own Aga saga, so to there's an idea!  Don't I just wish.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Husband Returns, Part II

This has been a bit like my birthday and Christmas have all come at once, I was that incredibly spoiled when it came to my husband bringing a bit of London back home to me.  Okay, so I did jot down a few things for inspiration but he came up trumps.  This Women's War Replica Pack is chock full of cards, letters, documents and pamphlets from WWII.  All I need is a smart uniform and I'm reporting for duty!  Here is something to try from the recipe book...

  Chocolate Crisplets

Melt some chocolate spread (unrationed) in a saucepan: throw in enough cereal to make a stiff mixture.  Form into little cakes to cool and harden.

If anyone is interested in liver or bile problems just let me know, there are pills for that!

Some things for the kitchen, both useful and yummy.  I bought the whole nut chocolate bar from Waitrose last September and it was so delicious!  The next time we're off to the cinema for a show one of these bars is most definitely being tucked into my bag.  The funnel-shaped measuring cup is courtesy The Heiress, it's the handiest tool as it lists measurements for my English and North American recipes on the inside.  A fridge magnet, some blackcurrant jam and a Queen Elizabeth Jubilee mug (thanks for the post on yours, Simon!) lucky am I?

Playbills, newspapers, the latest Hatchards catalogue and three books will keep me in reading material for days and days.  I jotted down a few out-of-print titles by EM Delafield for any browsing that was done on Charing Cross Road but no joy there.  But I am so excited to read Call the Midwife and hope the series shows up on one of our television stations here soon!

And last but not least I am ready for Spring with these lovely fresh prints from Cath Kidston.  Oh the joy of emptying out an old wallet and sorting out a new one!  This mecca of vintage print hasn't reached Canada yet so it is a rare thing to spy these products over here and don't think I haven't felt the burn of a lady's glance every now and then.  There was one day when a woman in Stratford asked if she could have a closer look stroke my bag...of course I obliged.  A plain white blouse or a coordinating cardigan will make the perfect backdrop for my new accessories.  Look out ladies!

A Husband Returns, Part I

An overnight flight and a couple of train rides delivered R to a very warm reception in Canterbury.  A sweeping tour of the campus, introductions to friends, the passing around of gifts and a short nap later it was time for The Heiress to show off the highlights of town life.  Canterbury Cathedral is the jewel in the crown and where the graduation ceremony for the university students usually takes place.  If you are familiar with the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett in 1170, then you will know it took place at this cathedral and if not then click here for details.

R took scads of photos of the High Street and interesting architecture but this one really struck me.  You can just imagine that at any moment a carriage will roll by or a peasant woman carrying a bundle of firewood will peddle her wares.  The contrast between the working man and the wealth of the church, the functional against the splendid, this photo is so simple but displays so much and I adore images that whip you back in time.  I was also completely enthralled with a story R was told about villagers sketching the window detail from above the front door on a letter for the post before addresses were common as a way of identifying the proper location.  Fascinating stuff!

Hopping on a bus, The Heiress gave her Dad a tour of Whitstable.  It was a cool day but they thoroughly enjoyed a bracing walk along the shore.  Huge piles of oyster shells deposited outside the nearby pub was an indication of just how popular the local catch is.  Choosing the table next to a roaring fire meant it was R's job to tend it, so every now and then he had to pitch on a log or poke at the embers while a band playing music from the 40s entertained the customers.  As he was basking in the warmth and glow he had a fright when he realized he had placed a bag containing something like twenty bars of chocolate from Thornton's under the table.  Thankfully all was well...phew!  A foreign sight was four dogs residing under the drinks table of their owners, something you would never see here but I wish we did.

After a weekend of being shown around the village by a gaggle of young lady friends of The Heiress and playing Dorm Dad it was time to move on to London.  This is Hogarth's House into which a dash was made for postcards and a peek around at my request.  The initial attraction which brought my husband to this area was a tour of Fuller's Brewery but I've decided to spare you the pictures of conveyor belts carrying kegs, a maze of pipeline, massive vats and transport vehicles.

Winding their way through the surrounding neighbourhoods they laughed at how the unmistakable aroma of yeast filled the air as the Thames flowed nearby.  My heart skipped a beat when R pointed out this photograph taken from the sidewalk looking down a lane (This is the house I mentioned, Mary).  It was a private drive so they couldn't venture along it but what I wouldn't give to know a bit more about the history of that house and what lies around the corner.  It also beckons to that bit of 'downstairs girl' that exists inside me and makes me want to take up a feather duster or copper pot.  Moving right along...
With only four days in London every second counted.  Covering hundreds of miles of tube track and city streets whether on foot or by cab, my two kept at it until exhaustion left them barely able to flick off the lights at the end of the day.  The Heiress and R saw two plays, Hay Fever which they enjoyed and The Ladykillers which they loved.  Admiring the flash of a brightly coloured sock on many men, my man chose an array for himself much to my delight.  A London Walk of the hidden pubs of London took them through alleyways and over cobblestones into several historic establishments, one being the hundreds year-old Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.  The photo above shows the London Aquarium taken during a ride on the London Eye.  The view of the city stretching before them was absolutely stunning and R marvelled at just how many people he spied on the banks of the Thames digging for historic treasure and sea glass.  An afternoon was also spent admiring the collection at the V&A, with R prodding the holes in the wall near an entrance left by shrapnel during WWII.  During a quiet stroll through Hyde Park to get away from the hustle and noise, father and daughter wondered how anyone could sit on a beach and do nothing during a vacation when there are so many interesting things to discover in such a fascinating city.  To each his own.  But this was most definitely a trip the two of them will remember for a lifetime.

Stay tuned for Part II of 'A Husband Returns' for the aftermath of souvenir shopping for a wife left behind.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A London Eye Day

It's London Eye day for The Heiress and her Dad.  Isn't the view spectacular!?  In 2007, R and I climbed to the top of St Paul's Cathedral and emerged out onto a slim walkway which I swear slopped downwards.  My automatic reaction was to press my back against the wall and sidestep along the perimeter, pushed along by the crowd.  That wondrous view was slightly marred by the fact I was convinced that at any moment a gust of wind would take us all to our deaths.  Being inside an enclosed pod gels with my comfort zone a bit better and I so wish I were along for the ride.

This week has flown by for my dynamic duo, it has been a whirlwind of activity but their energy level is beginning to flag.  Our Skype visits at the beginning of the week were full of boisterous gestures and excited voices.  Last night, R struggled with the lid on a pot of yogurt as he tried to muster the energy to get on with their next journey to see The Ladykillers at the Gielgud Theatre.  The Heiress walked past the screen and waved 'hello' before flopping onto her bed.

My husband and I are two different sort of travellers.  My finely tuned itinerary would impress any world leader's personal assistant and there is no detail too small to jot down while on the fly.  R likes to roam and explore wherever the road takes him and as for taking notes...don't make me laugh.  But I do know that at some point today there will be two weary travellers soaring above the London landscape having the time of their lives.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

'"Why does Sophy tell untruths about her mother?"  Cassandra asked, with the sharp edge to her voice of sudden and undisciplined courage.
  "We all tell lies about her," he said calmly.'

Palladian is a bit of a compilation album if you will, with nods to several iconic novels.  Part of the enjoyment in reading this book is acknowledging the references and marvelling at how Taylor pulls them all together.  It's a bit like one of those games where you pick a vegetable, a movie, a colour and a country, plot them into an abstract sentence and you end up with a humourous tale.  Only Elizabeth Taylor does it much more artfully and there is nothing funny about this story.  In fact, it's rather dark.

Cassandra Dashwood, barely out of her teens, boards a train which will take her to the crumbling pile that is Cropthorne Manor.  A copy of The Woman in White is tucked into her bag.  She is to become a governess at a time when that term is rapidly sliding out of fashion but fits in rather nicely with the Jane Eyre-esque atmosphere.  Sitting across from her on the train is the deliciously named Mrs Veal, a publican's wife, who smoothes her gloves and pats her blue fox stole.  Both are bound for the same village.

"If you discover anything muttering in dark corners, it is Nanny and you must not mind her," said Margaret.

Nanny is a reincarnated Mrs Danvers, sharp-eyed and with enough seniority to comment on all she sees fit.  Her folk remedies sharply contrasting with Margaret's training as a doctor but lately Margaret is too busy occupying the kitchen's larder and hacking up freshly baked bread to practice medicine.  This raging appetite is driven by a never-ending pregnancy but one also has the impression that she is filling another void.

Marion is the lord of the manor and the embodiment of an effeminate.  Hardly a Mr Rochester but Cassandra is determined to fall in love with him.  Who could blame Marion for being suspicious of her affections when the other women around him, past and present, find it hard to resist his cousin, Tom.  This smoldering drunk who steals money, uses Mrs Veal (not that she minds), is work-shy and hangs around the village cemetery a la Heathcliff, is constantly enabled by those around him.  I didn't have any pity to spare for this fellow but his demons do weigh heavily.

The most tragic figure in this story is Cassandra's charge, Sophy.  Barely past their initial introduction, Cassandra discovers a Siamese cat in a basket on the window-seat.  It is near death and Sophy is desperate for the poor thing to survive, yet it seems as though there has not been anyone in the house she could go to for help before Cassandra's arrival.  She isn't worth the time of day to anyone.  She is as much a ghost in the house as her long-dead mother, all too aware of adult issues and problems without any of their concern for her needs.  No wonder she tells 'untruths'.

On the surface of this book I enjoyed a fascinating pastiche but once laid aside the aftertaste is somewhat disturbing.  The tragic life of a child and the Marion/Cassandra storyline with its slight pedophile tone was quite icky for lack of a better word.  While this wasn't my favourite Elizabeth Taylor novel so far, the skill of the author is definitely something to be admired and I will read it again one day, no doubt.

Special thanks to Book Snob for hosting this month's title in a celebration of Elizabeth Taylor's centenary!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine Wishes Across the Miles

I sent R across the miles with a notebook tucked in his luggage.  The message on the cover was perfect for a loved one so far from home on Valentine's Day.

Inside I copied out some recipes that will remind The Heiress of pancake breakfasts, snacks when she was little and afternoons spent baking while snowflakes filled the view from our kitchen windows.

Today will also be a day my husband will never forget, one he has anticipated for months.  It has nothing to do with flowers, sparkling wine or decadent chocolates, it's a tour of Fuller's Brewery, and he is beyond excited.  I couldn't be more pleased for him but it's his visit to this place just down the road that I'll be anxious to hear about.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Indulging in a Food Quote

 'The kitchen had its scrubbed, afternoon, waiting look.  On the rocking-chair lay Nanny's film paper.  Margaret took it to read while she stood in the larder eating.  On the stone slab was half a gooseberry pie, caved in, and a jam-tart covered with a trellis of pastry; but she had to eat secretly what would not be missed.    In the meat-safe was a slab of grey beef, overcooked, a knuckle of veal gleaming with bluish bones.  Sage swung from the ceiling, brushing against a net of onions with a lisping sound; there was a brown crock full of cream cheese.  She cut a thick slice of wholemeal bread, covered it with butter, then with the cheese, began to eat greedily, dealing craftily with the crumbs, turning the pages of the cinema paper.'

This morning I grabbed my copy of The Virago Book of Food from the bookcase and checked the index of authors for Elizabeth Taylor.  It just so happened that the excerpt on offer is from Palladian.  After a busy week at my house I am finally on the last few pages but I do remember the above-mentioned scene and feeling a bit stuffed just reading about all that food!  You really get a sense of someone just going for it.  Margaret's excuse is that she is pregnant and thinks about the next meal before the one in front of her is finished.  But who hasn't been so hungry that they stand in front of the pantry or in the larder having a good go at everything that looks delicious and tempting?  Standing in the pantry, bag of potato chips in hand, is my usual appetizer before most dinners.

Book Snob is hosting this month's title in a celebration of Elizabeth Taylor's centenary and I've just noticed she has a post up.  No doubt she will be informative and entertaining as always, click here if you're interested!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Souvenirs from Home

R and I can scarcely believe that almost five months have passed since The Heiress packed her bags and boarded a flight bound for Heathrow.  As the plane left the tarmac she said good-bye to the land of moose and the maple leaf for goodness knows how long.  Despite being a born and bred Canuck she was raised on everything from Jane Austen to Wallace and Gromit so assimilating into English culture was never going to present any major issues but still, it was a gutsy move.

The community in Canterbury has welcomed our daughter with open arms and warm hearts.  Three days after her arrival she opened her first English bank account.  The teller made her laugh when taking her details she said "You have such a lovely name, tell your Mum I said so".  An impromptu Thanksgiving dinner for 'The Canadian' less than a month after she had arrived brought tears to my eyes.  It was also the first time she tried parsnips.  When she was invited along to Bonfire Night with some of her new friends she was expecting something akin to a campfire.  "Mum!  The fire was the size of our house, you should have seen it!" she told us full of excitement the next day on Skype.  And Pimms has a new and very loyal customer in my daughter.  There are many days when she can't quite believe the number of shouts of "Hi" she gets from across the halls or grassy fields.  Not that she's the only Canadian walking around campus though.  A few weeks ago, whilst touching up her lippy in the ladies room, a voice minus the English accent was heard from behind.  Asking the young woman where she was from the reply came "Oh, just this little place in Ontario called Burlington".  The Heiress dropped her lippy into the sink and said "Me too!".  Much hugging, laughter and exchanging of email addresses took place and twenty minutes later they emerged from the ladies room.  A new friendship forged.

The Heiress couldn't be more pleased with her program and professors.  She laughed last weekend when as a student mentor she opened up her dorm room to prospective students for viewing.  Looking at her shelf of books on criminology and serial killers made one young man question whether or not they should be hanging around.  I have to admit to being somewhat entertained by watching my daughter's face light up at the mention of surveillance, incarceration and terrorism.  Disney's vault full of princesses have apparently left no mark.  Some of her professors are legends in their field which both fascinates and terrify all at the same time but even the scary ones can't resist a pint and a curry after a late lecture.  Who knows where it all may lead but one thing is for sure, she is very happy and more sure of herself than ever.

R will be heading to Canterbury shortly, it's his turn to see everything I did last September when I dropped her off, and he will be bearing gifts of Canadiana in appreciation  We've never decorated in Hudson Bay point stripes and we would have laughed at the idea of a cookie tin decorated with coureur des bois.  Well, Tim Horton's coffee is the lifeblood of just about everyone here despite what  the people at Starbucks may think.  And a bottle of maple syrup will christen the pancakes R is going to make for any dorm residents who make their way to the kitchen the morning after his arrival. 

We can't thank the lovely citizens of Canterbury enough for what they have given The Heiress.  Such a bounty of warmth and fascinating cultural landscape to explore as far as her bus pass will take her has probably cost us our daughter.  She is already hoping to find a job and a flat once her program is finished.  But R and I would rather have her far away and fulfilled than close to home and wanting.  Anything but that.

I'll be keeping the home fires burning and occupying Deacon while I count the days until my beloved's return.  His suitcase won't make it far into the hallway before I'll be rooting my way through it looking for jam from The Duchy of Cornwall...and books...and newspapers...and tea...and Cath Kidston.  Unfeminine behaviour I know, but true!

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Woman in Black...The Film

It has been ages since I've gone to the cinema in eager anticipation of being scared witless.  A noticeable difference, and an indication that I'm...maturing, shall we say, is that I was excited by a brilliant idea to toss a bran muffin into my bag to enjoy with the cup of tea I would buy at the concession stand.

We could have gone to the late show, driving past the wide expanse of desolate provincial park that blankets in mist each night.  But we went to the afternoon show instead, not because we were scared or anything.

The film veers from Susan Hill's book here and there but it wasn't horrible or distracting enough to put me off.  But one thing never changes whether it be written word, West End play or film...that ghostly spectre, the woman in black, is terrifying!  And last night, with its full moon, we slept with the blind in our room firmly pulled down so that she couldn't peer into our window.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

From the very first page of The House in Paris when Henrietta is collected from the train station by Miss Fisher, both wearing cerise cockades so as to recognize one another, I adored this book.  Elizabeth Bowen's genius as a writer is staggering and to anyone who doesn't agree or simply does not get on with her...I could weep for you.

Henrietta Mountjoy is meant to spend the day in Paris viewing attractions, her first choice being the Trocadero, as a break before reaching Mentone.  Arriving at Mme Fisher's house on a quiet side street she discovers that she is not the only child visiting that day but she is good-natured and understanding.  Leopold, with his skinny legs, is waiting to meet another woman, his birth mother.  While Miss Fisher is upstairs tending to her chronically ill mother who holds court in her bedroom, Leopold mischievously roots through her bag and discovers three envelopes.  One containing a letter from his adoptive parents, the second from Henrietta's grandmother and the third, postmarked from Berlin, is from his birth mother but is empty.  Of course Leopold reads the letters and has his eyes opened even wider to his situation.

In the middle section of the book, Bowen takes the reader back in time to when Karen Michaelis and Ray Forrestier are engaged, as is Naomi Fisher and Max Ebhart.  Barely out of school, the young ladies are aware that their destiny is to run a respectable house, to provide children and a layer of status for their future husbands.  But one of these two women seeks, if only briefly, to indulge not only her heart but her sexuality in a daring way prior to holy matrimony.  Considering this novel was published in 1935, it's quite an illicit storyline, but not to worry, there are enough glances and sniffs regarding class to keep the tone quite respectable.  Although, should you think this novel rips at the seams with buttons and bows, tea and cake, panelling and fripperies, think again!  There is a tragic twist that is quite brutal in the writing and was rather shocking as I didn't see it coming despite being riveted by every word.  I'll just mention that this is not a book to be plowed through, if you're looking for a quick read then grab something else.  My hope though is that you're intrigued enough to seek out this magnificently written story for yourself so I will leave the plot there.

The last section of the book brings the reader back to the present and the end of an emotion filled day.  For everyone involved their lives will never be the same.  But as the front door opens at the house in Paris and its occupants step outside, you feel yourself breathing in the cool night's air and the open space that is their future.  And once you've read the last page there is nothing to do but be in awe of Elizabeth Bowen and her masterful way with the written word.