Sunday, 28 November 2010

Best in Clothes

Every year we have the Academy Awards presentations on TV and all around that time the media is flooded with clips from the nominated films followed by what was worn to the ceremony.  I like looking at pretty pictures, but those clothes have nothing to do with me or my lifestyle.

Never mind the clothes, I haven't even been to a movie theatre since 2002 when Bill's sister, Jane, and I went to see Chicago.  Bill's taste in movies is pretty narrow and I don't think the price of the tickets and refreshments is anywhere near justifiable, particularly since with a bit of patience I can rent (or even buy) the movie for a few quid and make popcorn at home.  If there were 'dollar' movies (or the equivalent here), I would considering going, but there aren't.  I suspect there is no such thing as 'dollar' or even 'two dollar' movies anymore, but never mind.

I was thinking that the Oscar presentations started in the 1920-30s and that I could see all the lovely fashions from that era, but it doesn't turn out to be that straightforward.  The first Oscars were in 1929, but they didn't do awards for best costume design until 1948 <darn>.  
So, we'll have to dig a little harder, but first, put this date in your diary for 2011:  27 February.  That's when the Oscars will be on TV, in the US anyhow.  I don't actually know what they do over here in England; I've never bothered much with it.  Perhaps I'll think to look for it in the TV listings to see if it shows here at all or whether they just do clips about the winners and show the movie stars on the red carpet, etc.  To be honest, I'm only mildly interested in the present day movies and awards.
The first Academy Awards presentation was in 1929.  The Best Picture award went to a movie called Wings, made in 1927 (things must have moved slower back then) and starring Clara Bow and Charles "Buddy" Rogers (her, I've heard of).  It was a silent movie, the only one to win an Academy Award.  The costume designers are listed as Travis Banton and Edith Head (her, I've heard of).

Apparently, Banton was Edith Head's mentor.  Her career seems to have taken off about the time his faltered, but I'm not as enthusiastic about styles in the 1950s, me.

Just to prove that I'm not alone in being interested in stuff like this, not to mention showing you some of Banton's clothes, I give you Silver Screen Modiste, Movie Diva and, just for fun, PaperDollywood.  I expect I'll be coming back to visit these sites!

Funny enough, though the film was supposed to be set during World War I, the clothing and hairstyles in it are the bobbed hair and freer clothing of the 1920's when the film was made.  Oops. 

Saturday, 27 November 2010

A Saint, Three Queens and an Author - Part III

An author, the author in this case, is Mary Wollstonecraft (ranked well near the top at number 6).  I was thinking in the back of my mind that this was Mary Shelley (wife of my namesake, Percy Bysshe), but no, this is Mary Shelley's mother.  

1.  Mary Wollstonecraft lived from 1759 to 1797, a short but unconventional life as a writer, philosopher and a proponent of women's rights.  

2.  Wollstonecraft was one of six children born to a 'genteel' family headed by a violent, drunk father whose profligacy led them into financial difficulties.  At 19 she left home and took a position as a lady's companion, but didn't get on with her employer.  She was later a governess in another household which didn't suit her either, though the children she instructed thought she was inspiring. 

3.  She was unconventional in having had two love affairs before marriage to William Godwin (Mary's father).  The first was with a married man, the second with an American, Gilbert Imlay, whom she followed to France during wartime.  She had an illegitimate daughter with him and though he registered her as Mrs. Imlay after Britain declared war with France to give her some protection, he eventually abandoned her and the baby in the midst of the French revolution.  Amazingly, she attempted suicide twice over this Imlay character.  She continued to call herself Mrs. Imlay after returning to Britain.   She later married William Godwin after finding herself pregnant by him.  They then set up households in two adjoining houses so they could still each enjoy their independence.  She died within a couple of weeks of giving birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley) from septicaemia, at the age of 38. 

3.  Her writing spanned several genre:  

Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: with Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life (1787)  was a 'conduct' book; an early version of today's self-help book.  She argued that women only appeared silly because they had not had the benefit of an education.

Original Stories from Real Life (1788) was a children's book, teaching moral ideas such as honesty and frugality.  This book used some of her experiences as a governess.

A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) was a political argument in response to Edmund Burke's defence of the aristocracy following the French Revolution.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) was a feminist argument in favour of educating women according to their position in society, pointing out the value to society that women could add as educators of children and companions to their husbands.

Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796) was a travel narrative, commenting on the social and philosophical ideas of those countries.  Wollstonecraft went to Scandinavia on the behalf of Gilbert Imlay.  He didn't apparently appreciate her efforts as it did nothing to rescue the relationship.

Wrongs of Women, or Maria (1787), was an unfinished novel, published after her death.

4.  Following her death, William Godwin published a book about her life, revealing her illegitimate child, her affairs, her suicide attempts.  People were shocked.  Wollstonecraft was remembered more for Godwin's Memoir than for her own writing.

5.  Some 50-60 years later, Quaker abolitionist and feminist, Lucretia Mott, began  quoting from Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women.  Since that time other well known feminists such as George Eliot and Virginia Woolf picked up Wollstonecraft's ideas and embraced her life as an 'experiment in living'.  Wollstonecraft is credited as being the first feminist writer.

6.  Just as with European history, what I've learned about Mary Wollstonecraft has given me another puzzle piece.  Her daughter, Mary Shelley, became an accomplished writer herself and you will all recognize her most famous work.  When she was only 19, Mary Shelley's book was published:  Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).  She also lived a very unconventional life...but that would be another post.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Alternate Email

Do yourself a favour:  get a second email address and use it for all those registrations you have to do to get where you want on the internet.  Don't give your real email address - the one you use everyday with friends and family - to anyone you don't love to hear from. 

I had a friend ring up the other day about her Thanksgiving invitation.  I'd given a 'deadline' to reply (people here struggle with the concept of RSVP for some reason and I can't plan without a general number to start with).  She'd wanted to reply but couldn't find my email amongst the 300 or so 'junk' emails that she'd signed up to receive.  I suggested she get an alternate email address and to give the new one to her family and friends (don't forget me!); she could eventually abandon the old one to the adverts.

Do yourself another favour:  use a normal, grown-up email address.  Quirky names that might be fun on the dating sites at 18 or 19 may hook the entirely wrong sort of fish if you are 50.  Also, weird / cute / rude email addresses don't always go down well at the office.  Just a suggestion...

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Living abroad in a place where there is no Thanksgiving celebration, we do a bit of Holiday Time-Shifting and have our Thanksgiving on Saturday night.  This year we are hosting between 26-28 (commitment is tougher for some than others) and for the first time have invited the neighbours over.

Last weekend we got the spare dishes and glasses out of the loft, unburied the extra kettle and fired up the spare fridge in the garage.  Monday, I made the cornbread and fried 14 cups of chopped onions & celery.  Tuesday I cooked the first turkey and put together the stuffing.  Wednesday I stripped the first turkey and cooked the second.  The list continues (with a break for bookbinding) with making desserts and shopping for the fruit and vegetable salads made the very last.  I took note of the huge amount of food we had left over last year and have reduced my quantities accordingly.  Fingers crossed, there will still be plenty. 

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Eight Outfits

I followed with interest the recent efforts of several bloggers (Duchesse, Deja Pseu, FrugalScholar), to limit themselves to a select number (6-12) of clothing pieces to dress themselves for a month.  Clothes for special activities (sleep, exercise) weren't included in the count, those could be extra.  It seemed to me to be an exercise in how to do more with less, but also addressed the need for discipline one craves when possessing too much.  (I'm holding my hand up).  I thought about joining the game, but couldn't decide which part of my life was the 'special' or 'extra' part:  the part where I stay home and no one but Bill sees me or the part where I go out and about.  So I have taken a different approach to making life simpler in this Mad Season of Thanksgiving week through New Years Day.

I mainly stay at home on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  I'm home most all day on Monday and Wednesday.  (Please note that I consider staying at home one of the ultimate luxuries of being retired.  I am not lonesome and I'm not bored; I love it.)  We go to the running club on Monday and might go to the pub after the run, but usually just come home.  I go to the sewing group on Tuesday mornings and generally do errands in the afternoon.  Wednesday is the same as Monday, but we normally meet friends at the pub.  Thursday afternoon is my bookbinding class and any errands I have in town are done on this day.

The main thing I want from the clothes I wear at home is for them to be comfortable, warm, colour coordinated and suitable for wearing to the grocery store if needed.  I'm prepared to wear heels to the pub as we take the car (being designated driver, I drink fruit juice or tea); this is when I wear my 'smart' clothes.  Smart clothes are preferred for sewing and bookbinding (with an apron for wiping gluey fingers), but I walk a lot on those days and heels are useless.

Given this information (and using my chosen colour of the month), I put together four outfits to wear at home (1-4), four outfits to wear to the pub (A-D) and four to wear with flat shoes (a-d).  "a" is the same as "A" only with different slacks/skirt/shoes.

The schedule looks like:

2 - A
3 - B b 4 1
2 3 - B b 4 - A a 1 2
4 - C
1 - D d 2 3
1 - D
2 - C

This is similar to the system I used to plan clothes when I pack for a vacation, only the numbers are tops, the small letters are bottoms and the capital letters are 'covers' (jackets/cardigans).  I try each combination of the selected items to make sure they all work together.

When I was working, I planned the week's clothes on a Sunday afternoon, remembering to wear my 'confidence' clothes for scary meetings, practical shoes for travel days and slightly more Bohemian outfits when working at the university.  I put all the accessories in a plastic bag on the hanger and one part of morning stress was erased.

Do you plan what to wear or do you just grab the first thing in the closet?

Monday, 22 November 2010

A Saint, Three Queens and an Author - Part II

The next influential women in chronological order happen to all be queens:  Isabella of Spain, Elizabeth I of England and Catherine the Great, of Russia.  I don't know how you feel about these posts, but I'm feeding my own curiosity, reading things I probably wouldn't unless I set myself the task of telling you about these women.  It will also tell me what biographies I might want to track down at some point.  I love putting the jigsaw of European history together with the different sources I encounter over time.

Queen Isabella (ranked 21 of 100).
1.  She lived from 1451 to 1504.  

2.  Her much older half-brother kept changing his mind about whom she should marry.  She finally took the reins in her own hands and eloped with Ferdinand, the man her mother had originally given her hand.  They had to get Papal concession because their grandfathers were brothers, but that eventually was granted so the half-brother didn't manage to get the marriage annulled.

3.  With the union of Isabella (of Castile and Leon) and Ferdinand (of Aragon) came the unification of Spain (such as it is).  Unfortunately, in their desire to make Spain a single country with a single religion, Ferdinand was convinced to initiate the Spanish Inquisition (yeah, that one) to help rid the country of Jews and Muslims.

4.  I only ever equated the name Isabella with Christopher Columbus, and it is likely this is how she was most influential (in a positive way).  It was her willingness to sponsor exploration of the world along with the country's unification that allowed Spain to build an empire.

5.  Interestingly, Portugal wasn't happy with the claims Spain made in South America, claiming that territory for itself.  So, the two countries sat down and divided the world between them with the Treaty of Tordesillas.  This rang a bell with me, as it is a salient point in the plot of James Clavell's excellent novel, Shogun.

6. I was fascinated to learn that Isabella's youngest daughter was none other than Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry the VIII, the Queen he had to start a new church to divorce.  That's what I mean about puzzle pieces.

Our next Queen I know well:  Elizabeth I, ranked 16th.  She's one of my favourite historical figures and I'll read a book or watch a movie about her any day.  In fact, she's probably to blame for my coming to England.  I watched Young Bess at the impressionable age of 13.

1.  The second daughter of Henry VIII, she lived from 1533 to 1603.  

2. Her father had moved heaven and earth to rid himself of his first wife (see above) in order to marry Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's mother.  If ever a girl child needed to be a boy, Elizabeth did.  When she was 2 and a half, her mother was beheaded.  This was supposedly for adultery, incest and treason, but really because she didn't produce a male heir.  (The irony of it all, now that we know a child's gender is determined by the father).  With a half-sister, half-brother and a cousin inserted into the succession ahead of her, that Elizabeth lived to claim the throne is part miracle and part wily caution on her part.

3.  Elizabeth was the best educated young woman of her time.  She ruled with more moderate policies than her siblings or father.  

4.  She never married, perhaps because she feared losing power as reigning queen, possibly because she loved an unsuitable man, Robert Dudley, or maybe because it was a convenient political carrot for the first part of her reign.  Over time, part of her fame was for being a Virgin Queen.

5.  As head of England's Protestant Church, Elizabeth feared the Catholic interests of France and Mary Queen of Scots, her cousin.  She eventually imprisoned Mary and had her beheaded as a means of protecting her own throne.  In spite of this, and perhaps because Mary's son, James VI of Scotland, was raised a Protestant, she made him her heir; he was then also James I of England.

6.  Though cautious in foreign affairs and never a patron of the arts, the longevity of her reign after the numerous successions alternating between Catholic and Protestant rulers provided a peace that the English appreciated.  The Elizabethan era is remembered for the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the adventures of Francis Drake, and the writings of Shakespeare and Marlowe.  She is also, unfortunately to blame for the plantations of Protestants in Ireland, the beginnings of the massive problems there.

Finally, we come to Catherine the Great, ranked 46th.  My Mom always expressed admiration for this woman, and I've never known much about her before.  After writing this piece, I wonder what mushy movie my Mom watched.  Catherine sounds pretty scary to me!  Maybe it was that toughness that Mom admired?  

1.  She was actually of German and Danish descent, born in Prussia, originally named Sophie, and lived between 1729 and 1796.  She married the heir to the Russian throne, Peter the III (whereupon her name changed to Catherine).

2.  It's all rather complicated, but apparently her husband wasn't that keen on being Tsar of Russia; he was fascinated by Frederick II of Prussia and his soldiers were rather insulted by this, particularly as they had been at war with Prussia for the seven years prior to Peter III's rein.  Catherine, on the other hand, did everything she could to be more Russian including changing from the German Lutheran religion to become Eastern Orthodox, learning the language and keeping up with current affairs, which of course made her more popular. 

3.  Only six months into his rein, Peter was lolling around in Oranienbaum (now on my list to see in St Petersburg!) with his mistress and his Prussian buddies, leaving Catherine in St Petersburg (she apparently had a few lovers of her own, mind).  The military unit assigned as his personal guards revolted in a 'bloodless coup'; bloodless until 3 days later when one of the soldiers killed him.  There is no evidence that Catherine was involved in his murder; there were others who would have benefitted from his death.

4.  So, though not descended from any previous Russian emporer, she boldly stepped in and became Empress.   Why she is called 'Great', well, for one, she had the longest reign of all the Emporers of Russia since Peter the Great (Tsar from 1682 to 1725), lasting 34 years.

5.  During her reign she added about 200,000 square miles to Russia's map, mainly from the Turks (Ottoman Empire) and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (who knew there was such a thing?).  She won territory that gave access to the Black Sea, a project only begun by Peter the Great, and made her country the dominant force in Southeastern Europe.  At same time as taking on the Ottoman Empire, Russia successfully defended herself against a take-over bid by Sweden, who assumed she'd be distracted by the Turks.  Catherine made Poland a vassal state, set up trade with Japan and gave Russia the role of mediator between other states potentially headed for war.  She was a patron of the arts, improved Russia's adminstration, worked to modernize her along Western European lines and became a recognized power in Europe.
6.  It has to be said, however, that whilst she may have been Great for Russia, she wasn't so hot for the majority of Russians, ie the peasants.  Though she wanted to be known as an 'enlightened sovereign', serfs suffered under Catherine, not least because they were conscripted to fight her wars.  In spite of her friendship with French philosphers such as Diderot and Voltaire, it was the Russian nobility who most benefitted whilst she was Emporess.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

The Viceroy's Daughters

This is one of the books on my list for inter-war reading.  The subtitle is 'The Lives of the Curzon Sisters'; I think it should be 'How to be Miserable and/or Spectacularly Stupid'.

 For example:

-Have towering ambition
-Be a complete control freak
-Be so arrogant and controlling that no one can stand you
-Make people dislike you so much they make a point of halting your advancement
-Marry for money, discover it's been left elsewhere and you're dependent after all
-Live far beyond your personal means
-Reject your children once you can no longer control them or their money
-Use lawyers to fight with your children about their money
-Love and marry someone who is serially unfaithful as a chosen way of life
-Be rich and beautiful, marry someone poor, then get bored with them
-Be rich and beautiful, marry someone lacking intellect or wit, then get bored with them
-Party continuously, getting lewder, drunker and more ridiculous so as not to be bored
-Be a woman with a 'strong personality' in an era when men only want women who defer
-Marry a woman with money so she can be at once bossy, possessive and dismissive
-Have all the money one could possibly want and spend it foolishly and with abandon
-Make your hobby the expensive refurbishment of large historical estates which you only rent and don't even own
-Hang out with the Prince of Wales, notorious for unexpectedly dropping his closest friends
-Be hopefully dependent on notoriously fickle friends
-Hang out with rich people who have never worked and only know how to party
-Be fabulously wealthy and still manage to blow it all and end of broke and in debt
-Make a married man with no intention of divorce your heart's only desire
-Let your married man keep you on a string so he can reel you back when he wishes
-Refuse all likely husbands, pining for your married man
-Regret the lack of husband and children ever after
-Become a politician in troubled times
-Become a politician and switch sides - twice
-Have an unquenchable desire for personal power

All that, and I'm only half way through!  It's a great book for encouraging frugality and a simple life, let me tell you!  Though it's all fascinating stuff, there's not a person I've read about so far with whom I'd trade places.

Turns out the Curzon women are linked to the Mitford women (also on that reading list) via Oswald "Tom" Mosley (wife one Cynthia Curzon; wife two Diana Mitford Guinness).  This is not a man I would wish to have within 100 miles of me; he was once voted by BBC History Magazine as the 20th century's worst Briton. The astonishing thing is that this is not a novel or a soap opera, but a biographical work with credible sources, mainly the diary of Irene, the eldest daughter who appears on the cover.  The most admirable characters, so far, all die pretty young.

However, much as I hate soaps, the houses, the clothes and the history in this book are fabulous!

Friday, 19 November 2010

Stocking Up

In preparation for Thanksgiving, we went across town to Brighton Grove, an Asian shop in the west end of Newcastle, to buy cornmeal (polenta).  It's also the place where I stock up on beans, lentils, couscous, herbs, spices and soya flour.  It's the only place I've found cornmeal, soya flour and, for a long time, popcorn.  You find it in health food stores nowadays, but not always at great prices.

We bought so much we couldn't possibly carry any more:
5 kg cornmeal (medium polenta)
9 kg dried beans (haricot, broad, butter, kidney, chickpeas - AKA garbanzo - and cow peas - AKA black eyed peas)
2 kg soya flour  
1 kg couscous
50 g whole cloves (I'm going to try them in the pepper mill) 
large packets of ground nutmeg and cayenne pepper

It all came to a grand total of £33.06, less than the £40 I'd budgeted.

It's a funny, crowded shop with foreign writing on everything and some packages covered with dust from long storage.  There is a rough system of organisation, but looking up high one can see where extra stock as been stashed any old place.  We stood in a queue to pay for about 20 minutes, pushing our full baskets on the floor rather than break our backs carrying them.  I only saw one other white person in the shop, just as she was gathering her bags to leave.  I would love to have taken a survey to find out every one's nationalities.

The black lady in front of us only had a small bag of gram flour and she picked up a couple of bags of frozen okra as she passed that section.  She smiled at our baskets full of beans.  The shop owner is an elderly bearded man who wears a colorful woven taqiyah.  He and his son worked non-stop, picking up items, punching in numbers and making change.  You could practically see the money flowing through the place.  

Theirs is only one of several similar shops, probably the best known, that serve not only the Asian community in the west end, but the multi-national student and hospital employee populations.  I discovered Brighton Grove early on, when I lived across from the hospital for my first 10 months here in Britain.  One thing it took me a while to learn was not to go on a Friday after work; they aren't open.  After about the 3rd time, I finally remember.

As we left, Bill commented that we hadn't even gone near the first aisle, where the produce and the refrigerated foods are found.  I told him I didn't know what half the vegetables were or how to cook them, but I'm thinking we should go back sometime and explore, just for fun.

My price book needs updating, and in any case I haven't bought these items since last year, so my prices would be outdated.  I took it on faith - and I'm pretty sure it was safe - that the Asian shop could easily beat my local supermarket.    Just for fun - yes, I'm easily entertained - I'm going to start checking the prices, when I can find the same items.  

Are there specialist shops that you visit occasionally to find different foods and/or better prices?

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Great Outdoors

Other Simple Pleasures, ones that can be enjoyed out of doors might include these, listed by the authors in this chapter.  I've grouped them:

We currently do
Running in the rain
Appreciating architecture (remember to look up!)
Foraging for mushrooms blackberries (I'm so glad Google added that strike over button)
Horticulture (food)
Gardening (flowers)

I would consider:

I've nothing against these in principle, but am unlikely to take up:
Playing tennis
Painting the landscape
Wood working

Let me say first of all that "The Great Outdoors" is only great if you are dressed properly.  I understand that the Scots have a saying that there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.  My running experience suggests they are correct, up to the point of ice (I'm not planning to take up cross country skiing, but I suppose it could be done) and natural disasters.  

Secondly, though I quite enjoy a stroll around the pretty area in which we live and I do get cabin-fever if I don't go out of doors for a couple of days, I'm much more of a homebody than an outdoors person.  I think I would do more outside if we lived in a nicer climate, in fact when we are away we enjoy eating outdoors at every opportunity, so I would add that to my list of simple pleasures.

Bill is more of a 'walker' than I, using the British definition of the term.  In American, 'walking' would probably be more 'hiking'.  One of Bill's plans for retirement is definitely to get back to the Ramblers

You'll notice I crossed out mushrooms; in no way would I attempt this!  Blackberry picking is much safer and an excellent way to appreciate the outdoors.  It is absorbing and captures one completely in the present, looking out for good berries.  It's also good exercise, climbing and stretching, not to mention one gets to take home free food.

Running along the riverside either in Newcastle or at the coast, one always finds fishermen (men and boys).  I stopped and asked one once if he ever caught anything, given it was near my house.  He said loads of stuff, and apparently that close to the sea, you don't need a license, only for further inland.  Then he proceeded to name a bunch of sea creatures I'd never recognise.  I wonder if I would ever have the nerve to pull something so foreign out of the water and touch it; only one way to find out, I guess.  I'll let you know if I ever have that experience, believe me!

I have done litter-picking in the past, but not here in Britain.  Litter is a real problem, and it is all too common to see people toss their empty cigarette or crisp package, their bus ticket, grocery receipt; let's not even mention cigarette butts.  From what I've observed, I'd say it's more often a rebellious than careless act and not limited by age group.  Some people will tell you they litter deliberately so that the council has to employ street cleaners (I think that's a hand signal to Margaret Thatcher, that).  

There are various groups like 'Friends of the Park' who schedule litter-picking events and the Clean Tyne Project gathers people for Riverbank Raids, which I'm told are good fun.  The author of this piece just started this as her own defiant hobby and her son started giving her litter-picking up devices for Christmas.  Britain does love its eccentrics, you know, but hey, I say 'well done' to her.  I completely understand why this would be quite a satisfying way to spend an hour or two.

I wish I could say I was an avid gardener; I absolutely have to make myself do anything in that direction.  I started to say I never regret it when I do get out there, but that is only partly true;  I do sometimes rue the sore muscles, ones I obviously only ever use when gardening.  Much as I love seeing flowers and having food to pick, gardening is just not my nature.  Perhaps I need to work on my clothing.  Or do more yoga.

What simple pleasures do you find in the Great Outdoors?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Saint, Three Queens and an Author - Part I

I revisited my list of Influential Women the other day, when considering what books I might hunt at the library.  I already had a list of inter-war reading to pursue and I wouldn't necessary want to read a whole book about each and every woman, though I may do for some.  

Joan of Arc was ranked number 55.  She lived from 1412 to 1431 -- such a short life!  Everyone knows she was a peasant girl who claimed to have visions from God telling her to fight for France and she was apparently a good soldier.  That's about all I knew, other than she was burned at the stake as a witch but later canonised.  

At that time the King of France was Charles VI - AKA Charles the Beloved and the Mad.  Apparently he was schizophrenic and at times unable to rule.  Interesting how they decided he was mad, but she was a witch...pays to be rich and titled, huh?  Anyhow, two of his family members, a cousin and brother - and their respective followers -  fought over who would be regent and guardian of the king's children.  This was also in the time of the 100 Years War with England, about the English claim to the throne of France,  which included loads of burning and pillaging.  We can't forget the death and destruction of the Plague which had been around lately as well.  She definitely lived in interesting times.

Henry V of England took advantage of all this squabbling and grabbed a large chunk of northern France, including Paris, at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.  Five years later, the Queen of France signed a treaty that gave her daughter in marriage to Henry and agreed that his heirs, not those of Charles the Mad would rule France.   As it happened, Henry V and Charles VI both died within a couple of months of one another in 1422, leaving an infant son/grandson, Henry VI to claim the throne, but he didn't get crowned in time.

Charles VII, the son who lost out when his mother did the deal with Henry V, sent Joan of Arc to war and she did pretty well.  At that time important parts of France were held by the English, and not just Paris; the city of Reims, the traditional place for the coronation of kings, was under control of the Burgundians (the cousin's gang), in alliance with the English.  

Joan was sent to the Siege of Orleans, where morale was at an all time low and all the rational (conservative) military efforts had thus far failed.  Though the military leaders did their best to ignore her, she inserted herself into the battle and either by raising morale or advising clever tactics, certainly bolder strategy than had gone before, she turned the tide and rescued Orleans.

She was then sent along to take back Reims from the Burgundians.  This was a daunting task as it was far away and deep in enemy territory.  Military leaders were more agreeable to taking her advice by now, and the short story is that within weeks Reims was freed and Charles VII was crowned King of France in 1429.   

She continued to fight for France.  Though he was grateful enough to grant Joan noble status following victory at  yet another siege, when she was captured in battle only seven months later, in May 1430, he did not help her.  It was customary for noble prisoners to be ransomed by their family, but hers was a peasant family with no money.  The English bought her from the Burgundians and sent her to trial for heresy, a political revenge for enabling the crown of France to be taken from the English.

Her imprisonment and trial broke both secular and ecclesiastical rules, but her appeals were denied.  As best as I can tell, her execution was on the grounds of wearing male clothing, part of what she had foresworn as part of her abjuration, signed under threat of immediate death.  Heresy was only a capital crime for a repeat offense.  When, after being molested "by a Great English Lord who entered her prison" she resumed male attire, this was apparently the grounds for being burned at the stake, because of Biblical clothing law.  (We have come a long way, baby.)

In 1452, the church held a 'nullification trial' in which the leading church authority at the time,  the man who had denied her appeals, (now dead) was implicated with heresy for executing an innocent girl in pursue of a secular vendetta (but of course he couldn't be punished then, could he?)  The church declared her innocent in 1459, hence her status as a martyr.

Whether she was mad or given divine inspiration has long been debated.  History recognizes that she was very intelligent, full of courage and that she altered the course of history. Not a bad record for a teenager.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Hearth and Home

The next chapter in Simple Pleasures talks about the pleasures of one's home.  The writers listed:

a nice hot bath
music (both listening and playing)
a good log fire

This is my list:

First, about hearths:  old houses have mantelpieces and fireplaces.  Grandma and Grandpa's house had a gas fire in the living room (and a floor furnace).  I never saw Grandmother's heaters on, but the mantel still served as a wonderful focal point for the room.  I might have settled for just that (and anyone can make one of those), but I'm rather spoilt now.  This house has fireplaces in the living and dining rooms and in the two larger bedrooms upstairs, though only those downstairs have gas fires.  I would sorely miss the fire now.  Of course log fires are even better, but we live in an area with air quality standards which require smokeless fuel, as is the case with all but the very rural areas of Britain.  My point?  There is enormous pleasure to be had in closing the curtains against the dark and sitting in a room cozy from the fire.

Showers are my first choice but a hot bath is good if one has just finished a long run in winter.

Hot drinks, usually coffee but tea is far cheaper; I keep meaning to switch, but suspect I'd have to give up caffeine altogether first.  I have done that for Lent before...maybe that's an idea for next year.

Reading.  Since learning to read I cannot ever remember a time when I didn't have a book on my nightstand.  I know I'm getting older because I view Kindle with suspicion and hold that a world without libraries would be the end of civilisation.

That said, computing (writing, researching and just goofing about) is one of my chief pleasures.  I could imagine life without TV given a few more tweeks to our computers (and that would mean the end of the TV License fee - yea!!!).

Jigsaw puzzles for January nights.

We sometimes sit and listen to classical music, ie Dvořák or Tchaikovsky (had to go look those up!), or something more modern music like Nickelback or Bonnie Raitt.  Bill loves Celtic folk music, sort of Irish blue grass.  I love quiet the most.

Coffee in bed, reading in bed, computing in bed.  What can I say?  It's warm, and I'm a lazy creature.

Cleaning?  You must be kidding.  The only part of it I agreed with is that ironing is quite satisfying:  you get impressive results and stay warm whilst producing it.  I prefer to do 'Nesting':  creating order out of chaos (my natural state), changing things around for a little excitement or to meet a particular need, making things prettier, puttering around with and enjoying my things.  When I don't enjoy them anymore, it's time for them to go.)

Sleep.  Is there anything better than a good night's sleep?

Solitude.  I'm an only child and I need a certain amount of solitude as much as I need sleep or food.

I agree that knitting is a pleasure, also other crafts and sewing.  Mainly I like hand work as I don't always trust the machine to do what I want.  Far too much space in this house is occupied by tools, projects, materials, supplies, etc.  I can't think of a statement of intent that I'm confident of fulfilling here, so I'll say nought.

Entertaining.  Cooking and company, sometimes an excuse to dress up.  It's not as simple as it ought to be, but only because I choose to make it complicated, I'm sure.

Food...but that's a separate chapter.

What are the simple pleasures you enjoy in or about your own home?

Friday, 12 November 2010

Cheap Holidays

I've had it on my list for ages to write about frugality and travel.  My main challenge is that I can't ignore the fact that any travel that is just for fun is a form of conspicuous consumption and a luxury about which millions of people might only dream.  Also, I'm no expert on the subject, just a wannabe still hoping to learn.  OK, so now I've got that off my chest, what next?

"Cheap Holidays" is probably not the same as "Frugal Travel".  The Brits like to say 'A change is as good as a rest.'  So, taking a different job for your two weeks vacation might be just as good as jetting off somewhere...OK, maybe not. 

If I really wanted a frugal holiday, I'd make a list of all the touristy things in my own area, prioritise by cost (free being at the top of the list) and work my way through them, taking a picnic lunch along with me.  I'd include a few things things I'm not normally interested in and go have a taster anyhow.  To make it a real a change, I'd make a list of new recipes I've been meaning to try, and schedule those each night of the week.  Having a blog to feed, I would also take copious photos (as with any other tourist destination) and write about each thing I saw.  [Yeah, OK, I keep meaning to do this...].

I suppose the next most inexpensive vacation would be to go camping (if you already had or could borrow the gear) or stay at a friend's house, some reasonable distance away by car or public transport.  I hear about house swapping, but I'm leery; also house sitting which might work out better.

If you want more than just a change of scenery, say, a different culture altogether, the next question I would ask is what you want to do:  see one place or tour?  Is it scenic countryside or exciting cities you want?  A couple of years ago I pulled a list of countries in the world off the internet.  Bill and I sat down and assigned A, B, C (or nada) priority to each country.  I pooled the list and we're working our way gradually through it, interspersed with trips to see family in the US and Australia.  

After selecting a destination (country or city), some research is needed:  How will you get there?  Where will you stay?  How will you get around in the location?  How will you eat?  What is there to see or do; which of these opportunities will you pursue? After that, what sort of luggage will you take and what will go in it?  Remember Rick Steves' saying:  You cannot travel heavy, happy and cheap:  chose two.

Bill and I don't have the same ideas about travel and I must admit to giving in to his preferences most of the time.  I would still consider trying youth hostels (you don't have to be young anymore).  I gather it is possible to get family rooms to yourselves and not sleep in a bunk room.  I like the idea of travelling with friends and sharing the costs.  On the other hand, I would only travel on that cheap edge in a Western culture; step out of that and I want a tour guide, at least for the first trip!

After Bill retires at the end of this year, I suspect we will look at travel differently. Time constraints will be gone, but cost will be a greater consideration.  It will be interesting to see how we travel differently: longer, further, less frequently, 'lower to the ground' (as I put travelling less like a tourist).

I have two resources to recommend one old, one new to me.  If your destination is Europe, Rick Steves is your man.  I've just stumbled onto this blog, The Professional Hobo.  It looks to be packed with tips and other links worth investigating. 

One of the places I really would like to see - well, two - are Moscow and St. Petersburg.  I remember the first 'Communist' I ever met, Rasti, a young medical student from Slovakia.  He's no more Communist than I am, but his father was and his first home and language was Russian.  He also spoke Czech, excellent English (learned by watching movies), some German and last I heard was working on Spanish.  We both really enjoyed talking together, each being a new experience for the other.  I remember having the sense of exploring what was previously 'forbidden', having insight into what I grew up with as 'other' and 'locked away'.  I'm sure this is what fascinates me about the idea of Moscow.  St. Petersburg is something different, more romantic.   I expect Moscow will be ominous and forbidding; St Petersburg will be grand and beautiful.  I hope one day to get to test these theories, but Russia is an expensive place to travel.

Looking at the $3,000+ tour that Rick Steves offers (I recommend his books for frugality, not his tours!), I see that he will take folks from Tallinn, in Estonia, on a ferry over to Helsinki and then on a train to St Petersburg.  He had me from ..."see Art Nouveau streets...".

We can take EasyJet to quite a few cities in Europe (or go to Liverpool and fly direct), then catch a train to Tallinn.  So far as my research goes, transport costs from Newcastle to St Petersburg might be as low as £369, plus travel VISAs, hotels and food.  I've no idea how realistic this is, particularly as the fares listed are only for the next 12 weeks or so, not in summer when we'd likely go.  Also, could we bumble around on our own safely or would we need a tour guide?

It just so happens that I used to work with a lady, Svetlana, who lives not far from us.  She and husband Alexei are unable to join us for Thanksgiving, but have responded with an invitation to come to theirs for dinner, which I'm really looking forward to.  We might have one or two things to talk about, given they come from Moscow.  My experience suggests the food will also be outstanding; Bill's been salivating for nearly a week now.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Remembrance Day

My fascination with the Inter-War years is probably influenced by the fact that this was my Grandparents' heyday, also the time when my parents were born.  In thinking about my maternal Grandmother in particular I always wondered what were the events that shaped her outlook, made her the 'wild one' amongst her siblings and a scary, if loving, mother and grandmother.

I've decided to blame World War I, rightly or wrongly, for the rebelliousness of the 1920s.  I'm sure my Grandmother 'flapped' as best she could for a person from Booneville, Arkansas, finding herself with two young children in Lehigh, Oklahoma.  Well, WWI, the Spanish Influenza and the untimely deaths of several of her siblings.  Surely in some of that is an explanation for why she was so ornery, but enough about her.

Reading about Vera Brittain, about repression of war memories and the like, one can't help but get a feel for how shocking that whole experience will have been for the British people.  Death tolls were even higher amongst the French, the Russians and the Germans.  Not all casualties were soldiers; many civilians died from famine.  

Having briefly scanned the articles on this website about the First World War, I came away with the sense that it began not really with the assassination of an Austrian Archduke, though that was the starting gun so to speak, but rather with the machinations of the German Chancellor, Bismarck, to consolidate his power over the newly unified Germany, under the Kaiser Wilhelm.  Glancing through his Wikipedia entry, I noticed 'anti-democratic', 'anti-Catholic legislation' and may have discovered why my father's ancestors immigrated to the US around 1880.  I shall enjoy going back to read more about Bismarck.  Anyhow, it was all like a bunch of dominoes because of the treaties between European countries and their colonies.  It was almost like street gangs:  pick on one member and you get the whole gang in retaliation...even if it's supposed to be a minor fight and it's nothing to do with everyone else.  I always wondered what sort of beef could be so big as to make it a 'World' war.  Now I (sort of) know. 

I just read in the freebie paper the other day that the last widow drawing a war pension from some war or other had died.  Of course we've tossed the paper and I can't seem to find it on the Internet (specific point often seem to elude my researching skills).  I was thinking it was a woman who had married young to an elderly WWI vet, but I'm not at all certain, given that several WWI vets
are still alive. Perhaps it was a war even more previous.

Speaking of living World War I vets, as of yesterday, Frank Buckles (US), Claude Choules (AU), both 109 years old, are still kicking. The last French veteran of WWI, Lazare Ponticelli, died in 2008, aged 110.  Jack Babcock, Canada's last WWI Veteran, died in February of this year, also aged 109.  Babcock said he never did consider himself a veteran because he never got to see fighting.  Germany's last living WWI Vet is believed to have been Erich Kastner (or Kaestner); according to the BBC this was difficult to verify as Germany doesn't keep records of its war veterans, which could be for a number of reasons.  Kastner was honoured by the German government as being their second oldest man, for his work in the field of law and for being married 75 years.  He was the first of this group to die, at age 107 in 2008.

Choules, the only career military man of the bunch, interestingly doesn't celebrate Remembrance Day as he doesn't believe in glorifying war.  If anyone is entitled to that opinion, I'd say he was.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Simple Pleasures

I walked to the library yesterday and found two of the Inter-War books I wanted.  Most are not available, but a few more are at other libraries in this area, so I have much to look forward to.

Another book I picked up was a small one titled Simple Pleasures - Little Things that Make Life Worth Living.  Anything that Makes Live Worth Living is worthy of consideration, surely.  I thought I'd find out what the National Trust's take on this might be.

The first chapter is "A Sense of Place".  In it are essays about 

a walking path along the coast of Wales
Seaton Delaval Hall (near us)
Deep sea diving
a copse near Bath
Ramsgate Sands
British Rail

I was going to link you to all sorts from this list, but if you're curious you'll find out I'm sure.  From my brief perusal last night, the ideas around a 'sense of place' have to do with nature and solitude, a feeling of ownership or identification, a new and transforming experience, a sense of history or patriotic pride, a feeling of gratitude at being able to visit, inhabit or experience a place, a unique opportunity for observing - either nature or other people.  

I was thinking about when in my life I've enjoyed this 'sense of place'.  What came to my mind was
  • The large stone path on the West side of the house where I grew up in the Village, where I served mud pies and hose water to my best friend, Mary Lou, on my dainty china tea set.
  • My Grandmother's house on NW 31st Street in Oklahoma City, virtually every wonderful room in it, but particularly the front hall closet with the glass door.  It was my secret hiding place.
  • Her house on 7th and Shartel in the same city, perhaps mostly for her large kitchen and for the large mantled fireplace with glass fronted bookshelves on either side.  I wanted to own something that grand; I still do.
  • The first house I owned on 9th Street.  I loved it for its potential, which proves I am an accomplished fantasist.  I loved the 10 foot ceilings, the French doors between the living and dining rooms and the large front porch.
  • My Grandma & Grandpa's 1940's house in Oklahoma City, especially the closets with sliding doors and built in cupboards; also the storage space where Grandpa kept his tools, under the dining room window seat; also the kitchen with the pantry cupboard, the large drawers, the cutting board that pulled out from under the counter and the French windows that opened into the large screened in back porch with the ceiling fan from the old Huckins Hotel and Grandpa's faded green wooden rocking chair with the wide arms.  A developer tore the house down a few years ago.  I visit the house often in my sleep.
  • Driving at the coast on my way home and enjoying the sea views along the Promenade.
  • The house where we now live.  I get a warm feeling when approaching from the North, seeing the long wall, the glassed in porch and the bay windows.  The front garden looks much more elegant with the new brickwork. My favourite places in this house are the front porch and the living and dining rooms where Grandmother's furniture has finally found a suitable home.
  • When I lived in Salt Lake City, the first traffic lights of my daily commute faced East to the Wasatch Mountain front, sometimes snow covered, others snow topped, forest green or ablaze with autumn, the horizon unbroken by anything but treeline.  If I was lucky enough to hit a red light, that seemed to set me on a better path for the rest of the day.  (Sadly, some b@$+@£d playing King of the Mountain has stuck a large, ugly house above the tree line and I never want to look up there again.)
  • The first time I saw the Gulf of Mexico I sat for hours in the surf at Galveston, enthralled by the grey-green colour of the water and the lacy white waves.  I wanted to take bolts of it home and make myself an entire wardrobe.
  • I feel just the same when I ride on a train or on the London Underground as the gentleman who described his pleasure in watching other people and inventing stories about them.   Travel by train and ferry is just the best.
  • The first time I stood on Westminster Bridge overlooking the Thames River, I thought of the many novels I'd read in the first 39 years of my life that were set in London, never dreaming I'd actually see the place.  I cried.  I've visited London's tourist area sufficiently often over the years that it is feels familiar enough for me to claim it as mine, particularly the Tower and the very spot where Anne Boleyn and Jane Grey lost their heads.
 Where are the places you've experienced that live on inside and bring you pleasure?