Thursday, 31 October 2013

Happy Halloween

This photo is from 1990, the year my Mom died. My first Halloween without her to help with costumes. Lucky for me, my Aunt Rita was also a great sewist and she loved kids, particularly adorable 4-year-old ones. 

He doesn't have a pumpkin on his head - it's on the fish tank behind him...

She and her husband, Jack, had attended a Halloween costume party the year before, dressed as leopards. I have to smile at what sort of 'discussion' it must have took to get Jack to do that. He never really had a chance, though, Rita just didn't do 'no'. She loaned us those costumes and let me tell  you I looked great with a black nose and whiskers (and piles of eye make-up). I know I have photos somewhere, but they were pre-digital and while I may have scanned them, I haven't got all my photos scanned / organised. I'm getting there.

Rita pointed out that baby leopards have different spot patterns than their adult parents, so it didn't matter that she couldn't match the big costumes exactly. I don't know if that is true about leopards, but it sounded good to me. This was the last year I attended a Halloween party as part of a trio. Thereafter, costumes were just for the kid.  

Wearing 'onesies' is somehow popular here in Britain amongst the 20-somethings at university. I've not worked out what that's about, but I can tell you they are very comfy, at least from what I recall...

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Nella Last's War

Nella Last'sWar:  The Second World War Diaries of 'Housewife, 49'.  The Trustees of the Mass Observation Project.

Just the title and the authorship need explanation I think!  To start with, Britain undertook to do some social research beginning in 1937.  The organisation was, and I guess is, called Mass Observation.  It stopped sometime in the 1950s but picked up again in the 1980s.

One of the initial projects involved asking about 500 volunteers to keep diaries and to submit them to the organisation periodically.  In addition to diaries there were specific questionnaires sent out and all sorts.  The variety of topics they asked people about is hilarious.

Anyhow, Nella Last was one of the volunteers and when she sent in her diary pages she identified herself by her age and occupation: 'Housewife, 49'.  This identifier was later used by actress, writer, etc., Victoria Wood, in a 2007 television drama based on Nella's diaries.  Which gives you a hint of how interesting they are. [If you've not run into Victoria Wood, you missed out.  She's a national treasure.]

I loved this book for many reasons:

  • It is a first hand account of a civilian's experience of WWII, including being bombed and living in shelters, rationing, etc.
  • Born in 1889, she would have been about my Grandma's age, but she was far more exuberant and determined than Grandma ever was - she reminded me quite a lot of my Mom.  
  • Hearing all the things she did (cook, clean, run a charity shop, run a canteen, organise a wartime sewing circle) between the ages of 49 and 56 reminds me how lazy I am.
  • She - even more than most women of her day apparently - was really good at being frugal.  She had a limited housekeeping allowance that remained the same all through the war.  
  • Through the diary, you see her attitude change and her confidence grow.  She stops being a doormat for her husband (who sounds a bit of a lump) and begins to appreciate her own worth. 
  • She was clever and creative and she made important contributions to her community just by doing what she loved to do:  cooking, crafting, recycling - and being very organised.
  • She talks about anything and everything in a down to earth way. Her husband worked for in a family owned business and they ran a car, which makes them fairly prosperous. People above her on the social ladder clearly turned to her competent and practical ways for aid just as much as those below.
  • She always served her husband a hot lunch, which he came home for.
  • She felt the most thrifty means to feed her family was to do what they called 'hotel meals', consisting of 'a soup, a savoury dish and a sweet'.  Of course soup can be made from yesterday's left overs; her savoury dishes tended to be casseroles made up of small bits she gathered.  The sweet was often something make shift involving gelatin, tinned fruit, evaporated milk or cream, if she didn't have the means to bake an actual cake.
  • She always hid her 'economies' until the war forced everyone to be more careful; then she discovered her frugal skills were much envied and her advice sought.
  • She clearly adored her two grown sons, but she wanted them both to live full and fulfilling lives, even if it meant they might not always be safe or near to her.
  • In short, she had stacks of character.

If any of these ideas interest you, can I suggest you put your hands on this book?  It isn't indexed as I'd like it to have been, but I found a link that includes some of my favourite quotes.  It doesn't include any of her funny recipes, but you'll get a flavour of the kind of person she was.

Family, friends, woman's role

In these extracts, Nella writes of moments in her family life during the war. She reveals her feelings towards her husband, her sons, her past life and her anger at the limitations that society imposed on women at this time.

Monday 25 September 1939: I've got a lot to be thankful for. Even the fact - which often used to stifle me - that my husband never went anywhere alone or let me go anywhere without him, has settled into a feeling of content.

Sunday 8 October 1939Next to being a mother, I'd have loved to write books - that is if I had the brains and the time. I love to 'create' but turned to my home and cooking and find a lot of pleasure in making cakes etc. He [her son Cliff] seems to have got the idea that I'll go into pants! Funny how my menfolk hate women in pants. I do myself, but if necessary for work, would wear them.
Wednesday 15 January 1941I gave Cliff a very big helping as he had to catch the train back [to his base] after lunch. He said 'If you ever have to work for a living, Mom, come and cook for the Army'. I said 'What do you mean - work for my living. I guess a married woman who brings up a family and makes a home, is working jolly hard for her living. And don't you ever forget it. And don't get the lordly male attitude that thinking wives are pets - and kept pets at that.'

Saturday 24 January 1942
: Nella had a huge row with her husband, over whether their son Cliff should volunteer for overseas service. Her husband wants him to remain at home in a 'safe' job, whilst Nella wants him to fulfil himself. Her anger seems to be related to her exasperation at her husband's lack of imagination and resistance to new ideas.
In the early years of their marriage, times were hard and her husband's family was of little help. Nella was still angry at their patronising and arrogant behaviour towards her in those times.
He went on and on about Cliff being a fool and if he had remained a PT instructor, he might never have had to go. Nella replied Would you cling so tightly to Cliff that you would kill all that was fine in him as long as he stayed in England. What about honour and duty. He said 'You always did talk daft, I want my boy to be safe'.
Nella replied angrily
I thanked God I was a fool... and had tried to teach my lads to be fools and if he had been a bit more of a fool, he would have been more of a man. His boy, indeed. He has never taught, cared for, tried to understand either of them - or ever thinks of writing to them - and is not always interested enough in their letters to listen if I read them. Cliff must live, and not shun Life and always be afraid of things and ideas.
Cliff told his parents that he had let it be known that he was willing to go abroad. He was taken aback by his father's face with tear-filled eyes, crying 'I want you to be safe'.
Nella said
Safe for what? Till his soul dies in his body... and bitter inward thoughts turn his blood sour and torment him.

Death, freedom and marriage
Wednesday 21 March 1942: Cliff's best friend, George, was killed. On Cliff's return home, Nella Last quotes his words.
'I never knew death before, that dreadful nevermore feeling. So much has gone. I cannot linger around a bookshop. I never cared for anyone as much as George. We belonged. Our friendship was one of mutual likes and dislikes.'
Nella Last writes:
So dreadful to see distress one cannot do anything to help or comfort. Words are hollow and brittle things. I could only hold him [Cliff] closely. So much passing that was beautiful and good
Sunday 12 April 1942When I was a girl, it was considered very odd not to be married at 21 or 22, and my mother said 17 or 18 was the age most girls thought of marriage when she was young. Looking round friends and acquaintance's boys and girls, sons of 25 to 30 with no thought of marriage and girls who are going off to the Services and saying 'Oh we will wait till after the War to get married'.
I feel this conscription of women will be a backward step, for it is taking the best, most formative years from a girl's life and giving her a taste of freedom that many crave for. Will they settle later to homes and children?
Sunday 17 May 1942My wedding anniversary - 31 years ago. I was married in blue but as no make-up was worn then by a respectable girl, it robbed me of what colour I had. I can remember my huge dark eyes, blazing in my poor white face and my attempts to rub and pinch a bit of colour into my cheeks. My mother thought I was lovely, my husband thought I looked white and afraid.
Thursday 10 May 1945I love my home dearly but as a home rather than a house. The latter can make a prison and a penance if a woman makes too much of a fetish of cleaning. But I will not go back to the narrowness of my husband's 'I don't want anyone else's company but yours'.
I looked at his placid blank face and marvelled at the way he had managed so to dominate me for all our married life, at how, to avoid hurting him, I had tried to keep him in a good mood.
I know that I'm not the sweet woman I used to be but rather a frayed battered thing, with nerves kept in control by effort that at times became too much and nervous breakdowns were the result. No one would ever give me one again, no one.
Monday 18 June 1945I can never go back to that harem existence that my husband thinks so desirable.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Queen Katherine

Queen Katherine by Linda Porter.  This is about Katherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII. The one who lived.  This book banishes some of the commonly held beliefs, for example that she was a dowdy old thing that nursed Henry in his old age. She was anything but, in fact she was being courted by the best catch of her day, Thomas Seymour, when Henry stepped in.  She married Seymour in secret soon after Henry died. 

I was astonished to learn that she had been married and widowed twice before she married the King.  Particularly as she never had any children by her first two husbands in spite of being married something like a total of 14 years. Her second husband got dragged into something called the Pilgrimage of Grace, a popular uprising protesting the dissolution of the monasteries.  I'd never heard of this uprising either.  She had no children other than a daughter by Seymour; Katherine died within a week of giving birth.  She only outlived Henry by just over a year. Her fourth husband was beheaded six months later for treason.  I found myself counting on my fingers a lot while reading this book: people died quite young back then, for all sorts of natural and political reasons. 

There was one part that made me laugh and I re-checked the book so that I could share it with you.  It was the marriage vows of Henry VIII and Katherine:

Henry:  I, Henry, take thee Katherine, to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part, and thereto I plight thee my troth. 

Katherine:  I, Katherine, take thee Henry to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to be bonaire and buxom in bed and at board, till death us do part, and thereto I plight unto thee my troth.

And some of us women worry about having to promise to 'obey'!

As usual, I'm fascinated by strange words and had to look some of these up:

plight:  pledge or promise

troth: fidelity, allegiance (variant of truth)

bonaire: cheerful and pleasant

buxom:  obedient, lively, yielding 

board:  dinner table

See other Tudor terms at:  

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Books I Took to the Loire Valley

Here are the eight books I took in the motor home segment of our French summer, in order of preference, least to most preferred.

Knits to Give by Debbie Bliss -  Useless. I don't know why I bothered, as I'm never willing to go out and buy the recommended yarn and I can only follow the simplest of patterns. Fortunately, Vivien's husband gave her an excellent book and she shared a simple pattern for a baby's cardigan, one even I can knit.

Someone Like You by Roald Dahl - Has everyone but me heard of Roald Dahl?  I only learned his name when Bill mentioned he was the very successful author of children's books. It came up when his daughter (Sophie) was posing nude on enormous billboards advertising Opium perfume. This is collection of short stories he wrote for adults. I read a few and then left it alone. They were creepy stories with gruesome plots and twisted endings. They seemed very much of my parents' time when everything seemed a bit hardboiled. Can't say I cared for it.  At all.

Alexander McQueen, Genius of a Generation by Kristin Knox - This was a so-so book, a bit of light reading with loads of pretty pictures. I didn't expect it to be anything else. I didn't know that McQueen had been a tailor on Saville Row before breaking into women's fashion, but there you go. His suicide - like many others - is such a terrible waste. Seems ironic to me that as fascinated as people are about fashion, fame and wealth, his death demonstrates that even being at the height of a glamorous career doesn't always make a person happy.

My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., by Coretta Scott King. I generally avoid autobiographies but I was intrigued to read what his wife had to say about him. This was another part of my catching up on the history during my lifetime. I'd not ever appreciated some of the things he accomplished, the beauty of his writing or his ideas. I was amused to read that he encouraged Coretta to wear make up and to dress nicer than she would have otherwise done. It also occurred to me that it was a tad selfish to have four children when one led the dangerous sort of life he did. It was fascinating to read about MLK Jr's and Coretta's family backgrounds. This is no doubt a biased account of his life - how could it not be - but I definitely felt it was worth reading.

Photo by Cecil Beaton. Why does she look annoyed?
He made her stand in the loo for this picture,
because the light was best there.

Princess Margaret:  a Life Unravelled  byTim Heald. Of course this is about the Queen's sister. She's another of those people I've always heard about, but didn't know much beyond the catty rumours. It must be difficult to be the second born when being first gets the Grand Prize. Being royal back in the 50s and 60s had quite a bit against it as well as things going for it; for one, you have to marry appropriately. Then there are royal duties, exciting things like visiting paper manufacturers and opening old folks' homes. Everyone is thrilled to meet you and to tell you what they do {yawn}. Then when the heir to the throne starts having children you get pushed further away down the line of inheritance and, in that distinctly British way of assigning people to their place, ones importance diminishes measurably. Mind, don't cry too hard, she lived a marvellous life in beautiful places, she made the best of the choices allowed her and those broadened over time. In some ways I found the book more interesting because of the other people it mentioned, including Deborah, Jessica and Nancy Mitford. In all I think the book concluded that members of the royal family who are not the sovereign tend to lead trivial lives, which is pretty sad. That said, her son David Linley (David Armstrong-Jones, Viscount Linley) seems to do well for himself:  he manufactures luxurious furniture (I gather his father tinkered around with furniture in the basement) and earlier this year became Chairman of Christies. Not sad at all.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. Do you remember hearing about how Harry Potter - I mean Daniel Radcliffe - got a part in the play Equus?  It was mainly notable because he had to get naked, and naked he got. It always struck me that it was almost a ritual washing after so much clean living on screen; like he had to prove he could get down and dirty, though if I recall his character was a victim rather than a villian. Well, this book struck me as being Rowling's ritual roll in the mud. It's a good book, don't get me wrong. Interesting plot, believable characters, etc., but gritty and sordid.

I've saved my two favourite books for another post two posts.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Reading Ben's Books

So, visiting the Villa on Cap Ferrat was how we spent out last day in Nice.  The next day we said good bye to the kitty cats and Ben kindly drove us to the airport.  We landed in Newcastle, grabbed the car and headed home to do laundry. The next day we spent four hours loading up the motor home and headed down to Calais.  Before we left town, though, Bill had a couple other errands to run and I took the opportunity to go to the library.

Hotels along the Promenade des Anglais.

We love art nouveau and art deco!
Looked for and found Hotel Negresco, as my
friend Shiela recommended; sadly, a sign
said we couldn't enter unless we were guests...

While I was at Ben's flat on my own, I watched some videos (the first time I've seen Pirates of the Caribbean...I'm always late to the party...).  I also read two of the books written by Barack Obama. I enjoyed both a great deal. 

Whether or not you agree with his politics, I would recommend these books. I think he write in both a very logical way but he also expresses a lot of emotion.  I came away understanding a little better how challenging it must be to be of mixed race and yet I think this experience must be one of Obama's personal strengths.  I also appreciated how he seemed to be able to appreciate the character, the skills or the outlook of people who have taken the opposite side of the political table from him.  The cynic in me suggests this could be a good 'tactic' but it read as pretty genuine to me.

In reading Dreams from My Father I got a lot of my own questions answered, about his family background and life experience.  I've always been a bit vague about Hawaii, Kenya and Kansas and now I know to add Indonesia to that mix.  I loved reading about the strong women in his family.  I think I'm having an interesting life, but of course his and his mother's lives go far beyond mine.

I actually read Audacity of Hope first, which is a bit backward of me since it was written second; I just happened upon it first and was hooked from the very beginning.  I remember the first time I saw paper dolls, my childhood toys, in a museum as historical items.  I was pretty irate about it and not a little concerned.  I must have got past this kind of thinking because I felt this book told the history of American politics during my lifetime.  I was fascinated to have things explained to me, things I remember vaguely when they happened, but I wasn't particularly interested.  I felt a bit uneasy at times, but didn't feel it had much to do with me. But of course what went before explains a lot about how things are today.  Just after I finished the book I felt as though I'd found the CliffNotes I was supposed to have studied all those years.  Of course, I've already forgotten a lot of it, but still, it was brilliant.

I recently told someone I didn't get interested in politics until about the last decade, but actually I think this is wrong.  I'm still not particularly interested in current events, only in how things work out.  I expect that's odd of me, but there it is.

Before I continue with the rest of our adventures in France, I thought I'd take a break so you don't OD - like I almost did.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Bea's Gardens

Yes, there is an 's' on that word, gardens.  I came away from the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild thinking there were seven gardens, but I can't name them all.  The website seems to list far more than seven, so perhaps it took seven years to landscape the place.  It wouldn't be hard to believe.

I do remember that there was a Rose Garden, mostly with pink roses.  I can tell you that there was an exquisite smelling rose called Rosa Fragonard, Hybride de thé Delbard.  I'm not alone in thinking it was heaven.  According to the World Rose Society, this rose was voted by the public as the most fragrant.  As Heather recently said...The Things You Learn Here...

There was also a Japanese Garden, with lines traced in the pebbles surround the rocks and a veritable forest of bamboo.

One of my favourites was the Stone Garden.  I seem to remember a bit of wrought iron there, too.  Just as the furniture inside the villa was all seemingly of historic significance, I'm sure that the stone monuments were hijacked from various priories or cathedrals.  

My hat is off to the garden landscapers, though.  Excepting the Cactus Garden, it was all completely delightful; neither of us is keen on plants that stab and rarely flower.  The layout was very much like walking from room to room, with no boring bits in between.  There were no angles that weren't camera-worthy.  It was actually a garden that lived up to the house.

The best bit was at the end, though, when we came back towards the villa to find the fountains were tied in with a selection of classical music.  It was all very restful and a much needed rest, too, after all that walking around.

That screen-like structure originally had glass panels to shield
the garden from the winds. The glass had to come out as too many birds were being
killed, flying into the wall they couldn't see.
When the symphony finished I sat looking around, thinking how lucky we were to have seen this wonderful place.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Bea's House - Part II

Sorry, yes, this is more of that extravagant woman's house.  I don't know that we saw all of the upstairs and I believe there are other areas of the villa still being worked on.  

One of the most memorable things about this place is that the architecture of the house seemed really simple.  It looked like just a big central square with rooms off the sides and a staircase stuck off of one corner.  Upstairs looked liked just a gallery around the top with rooms off of it.  It's not quite that straight forward, but compared with many stately homes and castles it is beautifully uncomplicated.

At the back you step out onto a loggia - a balcony with columns - overlooking the gardens and the sea. It is simply stunning.

There were beautiful things in each room, as well as the building itself and the views outside.  No doubt all priceless. She had a thing for monkeys and there was a room full of them pictured with silks on the walls.  She liked the work of artist Fragonard, but collected his sketches more than his paintings.  

It dawned on me that such a pink house wasn't overwhelming because there was so much blue and green outside.  Somehow it all balanced out.

Bill and i are both a bit mental about stairwells.

No idea who these two delightfully colourful ladies are, but Bill snapped their photo.