Sunday, November 30, 2008

I'm not really blogging, but...

... I just took a teeny peek, or as we'd say in Scotland a wee keek, at Tanya's blog ( and couldn't resist entering her photo lookalike contest. These are fungi - not quite the same as hers but, you know - we're a long way apart. They're Scottish mushroomy things.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A walk in the sunshine

I don't have time to blog. But here are some pictures of the Botanic Gardens, one of our favourite places, where Daughter 2, Mr Life and I went for a walk two weeks ago.

We met a nice cat.

It's Saturday night, and I've just made two Christmas cakes, one for us and one for my mother. Now I must go and write notes for one of my classes on the book we've been reading, "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" by John Boyne. It's very simply written (good for this particular class) but also very relevant for yesterday, today and always. I want them to be able to remember it, partly for the exam in May but partly because it says such important things about prejudice and inhumanity.

I must also type up some other work stuff.

I would rather be walking in the sunshine with my lovely people.

But we can't always get what we want.
Do you know this rather amusing but sadly all-too-true poem - "Forgetfulness" by Billy Collins?
True of middle-aged people and also some of my classes, alas. (Where's that wicker basket when you need it?)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Apples of the mind

As well as teaching English language and literature as part of a general programme, we have to teach what’s known as Communication – practical reading, writing and presentation skills – to students who’re doing various vocational subjects. We’re supposed to give them tasks appropriate to their interests. For example, this year I have a class whose main subject is computing and I asked them to write an essay or report on the advantages and drawbacks of the internet.

Most of them wrote:

The internet was invented in…..

One advantage of the internet is…


However, it also has some drawbacks….

And so on.

But D. wrote:

Cyberspace is effectively infinite, never ending, forever growing and being filled. Being filled with what? Information, sweet juicy knowledge apples waiting to be picked from the tree of data, but like real apples and trees the best fruit is difficult to reach. The internet is the stepladder that allows us to collect the best apples, letting us catch them in the wicker baskets of our minds.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Millionaire's shortbread

This is my pale pink Christmas cactus.

This, on the other hand, is millionaire's shortbread.
I don't know how to count in cups or grammes, but this is the way I do it:
8 ounces plain flour (ie with no raising agent) - an ounce of flour is about a tablespoon
6 ounces butter - this is about three-quarters of a pack
2 ounces caster (ie quite finely ground) sugar - a bit less than 2 tablespoons, since sugar is heavier than flour
Put all in bowl together and rub in till it sticks together. Using a mixer is fine. Press into Swiss roll tin. Cook at about 170 C (medium heat) for about 25 minutes or till pale golden (see picture).
Middle bit
4 ounces butter or margerine
4 ounces sugar
a small tin of sweetened condensed milk , eg Nestle's. I don't have the tin any more but looking at a tin of beans in my cupboard, I'd say the tin might have been about 200 grammes. Yes, I know this is metric, but that's all I have to consult. I use the smallest tin you can get, unless I do a double quantity, in which case I use the bigger size.
Put all this in non-stick saucepan over lowish heat. Stir continuously for ten minutes or so. Stop when the toffee mixture is fairly solid, rather like a very thick sauce. Actually, very thick custard made with custard powder would be a better description, though useless for those who've never made this. The mixture should come away from the sides of the pan for a few seconds before collapsing back into goo. If you make it too thin, it'll flow out of the middle of the shortbread when you cut it. If you make it too thick, it'll cool to a rather dry consistency. Experience is the key. Sorry to be so helpful.
Pour on top of the shortbread. You don't have to leave this to cool first.
Top bit
Good quality melted chocolate - maybe 10 ounces (ie a good big slab). Pour this on top of the toffee.
This is possibly not a very healthy food item. Maybe you should just look at the picture.

Friday, November 21, 2008

My Friday

This morning

There’s been a funny flashing light in the car for a few weeks. I couldn’t quite make out what it was: it looked like a man holding a huge lollipop. Eventually I remembered to mention it to Mr Life. “Yes, I noticed that. It’s the airbag light,” he said.

“Does this mean the airbag might suddenly inflate?”

“Well, possibly.”

I decided to ask my colleagues in the motor vehicle department if I should do something about it, and if so, how urgently. “I’d get it checked out,” said John.

“Can I go on driving the car?”

“Well, put it this way,” he said. “If anything happens, you won’t have much time to think about it.”

This afternoon

I phoned the garage. As I did so, I wondered if they’d ask me any technical questions, as has happened on similar occasions - such as what was the engine capacity. This is not part of my general knowledge. The car’s black with four wheels; I think there’s an engine at the front and there’s definitely a space at the back for groceries.

“What’s the registration number?” enquired the chap.

I wasn’t expecting as difficult a question as that. I had to go out to the car park to have a look.

This evening

I went to the supermarket. I was served by a rather spotty youth with a strong Scottish accent. I felt a bit sorry for him. Clearly he was never going to amount to much.

A bar code was missing from my bag of apples. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I remember the number.”

“That’s impressive,” I said. “Have you worked here long?”

“A couple of months,” he said. “I came to Edinburgh to go to university.”

“What are you studying?” I asked, envisaging something not too academic.

“Astrophysics,” he said, and enlarged enthusiastically on the fascination of the subject for a while as he scanned my shopping. Then he added, “I’m doing History as an outside subject. I really enjoy that too. I did History as one of my Advanced Highers last year at school.”

Right. Good at artsy stuff too, then.


I made millionaire’s shortbread. More my intellectual level.

(Edited to add: I didn't mean that merely having a strong accent pointed to a life of underachievement. It was just that the combination of a job in Tesco, the misfortune of the copious spots plus the accent didn't seem the most astrophysicist-like combination. Or so I thought. In error, clearly.

I have a Scottish accent myself. (Hellooo, ev'rywunn.) How much have I amounted to, come to that?)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The secret of happiness

I read today that the writer Fay Weldon was asked what brought happiness and she said, “Someone to love, something to do.” I thought that this was original and pithy and just about true. Then I Googled it and found that a band called The Beautiful Few have an album called “Someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to”. (I’d never heard of them. I know very little about bands.)

On slight further investigation, I then found that this very idea is claimed to originate from “a Chinese proverb” or “a wise professor”. So maybe Fay Weldon was just quoting something that everyone (except me) has heard of before.

I still think it’s fairly accurate, though - as good as one can get in six words, or eleven if you include the looking forward (which is true too). I might extend it to fourteen: Someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to, something to sing.

And perhaps a cat. And a garden.

So that makes:

Someone to love, including a cat. Something to do, including gardening. Something to sing, but preferably not “MacArthur Park” or “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. Something to look forward to, possibly including grandchildren.

I don’t think I’m good at being succinct.

Edited to add: and of course something to read (I'm reading the letters between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh at the moment: excellent). And blogs.

Hmm, that makes it even longer. Even without mentioning chocolate.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The tray cloth

On Saturday it was my turn to host the book group. (Patrick Gale’s “Notes for an Exhibition” – I really liked it, though not everyone did.) The catlets helped set the table; this is expressly forbidden.

Making slightly more effort than usual, I put a tray cloth on the tray on which I set out the coffee cups, and was slightly taken aback when Daughter 2 pointed out that it was some time since I’d used such an item. “In fact,” she mused, “I don’t even think that I was aware of the term ‘tray cloth’.” She’s 27. I hung my head in shame.

How my standards have slipped. I suppose I usually use this patterned tray and just put the cups on it.
But back in the old days, when I used to have friends round for afternoon tea, we always used a nice embroidered tray cloth.
I don’t quilt (yet) or do anything much in the way of crafty stuff these days – apart from occasional curtain or cushion-making. I never seem to have any time apart from in the summer, when I garden. I always feel like an imposter when I read wonderful quilty/arty blogs with their impressive show-and-tells. So I thought I’d show you one of my two tray cloths. A poor thing, as my Grandpa used to say, but mine own.

Back in my leisured youth – I think it was when I was engaged and at teacher training college, before the worlds of work and children overwhelmed me with their demands – I embroidered a cloth to match my wedding china (another quaintly outdated concept) - not to a printed pattern; I just copied the china. I would have to say that no one ever noticed that the cloth matched the china, so it was a total waste of time. Until now.

When I present it to you. Ta-da!

Tennyson didn’t get many comments, but come on: let’s hear it for

- the tray cloth.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Tennyson and a two-year-old

Tennyson put it all rather better in In Memoriam A.H.H. -

I sometimes think it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel:
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I'll wrap me o'er,
Like coarsest clothes, against the cold;
But that large grief that these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

In other words, it's good to have a bit of a moan but it's better not to overdo it. (Tennyson had just lost Arthur Hallam, his best friend.) So I'll stop for now. Thank you for your finely judged sympathy - much better.

I'm sure I do it myself - try to put the bright side to people who - darn it - don't want the bright side right at that moment. They want a bit of a wallow. And possibly cake.

To deviate slightly - one of my evening class students was telling me about an occasion when she was trying to reason with her small daughter. SD listened for a while and then said gently, as if to someone of limited intelligence, "But Mummy, I'm only two!"

Thursday, November 13, 2008


We’re missing our boy, who was home for a week but has now gone back to his distant new home, leaving a boy-shaped hole in our house.

And we are as usual worried about one daughter’s long-distance relationship with a touring actor (we wish he’d just get an ordinary job like anyone else) and our other daughter, married to a nice chap who suffers from depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which combine to make his working days somewhat sporadic.

Of course, I shouldn’t moan to friends and colleagues about such things. But I sometimes do, and below are two things that people tend to say – with the best of intentions - and they’re not really helpful.

Scene 1

Me: Son has gone back to Dumfries and we really miss him.
Friend or colleague [brightly]: Well, it’s just natural, you know. It’s good for children to leave home.
Me [inwardly]: I know that! But I don’t have to like it!

Scene 2

Me: I wish Daughter 2 wasn’t going out with this actor chap.
Friend or colleague [sagely]: Well, you can’t do anything about it.
Me: [inwardly]: I know that! But that makes it worse, not better!


Still, to counteract my hmmm, I thought I should post some kitten pictures of the catlets.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

How Michael feels about sport

Write a reflective essay, I said to my class of not-very-academic 16-year-0lds, about something you're interested in. I want to feel your enthusiasm. Your personality should shine through. Try to make the reader see the fascination too. So if you're keen on sport, for instance..... [etc etc]

This is what I got.

How I feel about sport

When I was young, I loved playing football and watching it. My favourite football team was Manchester United. Whenever I watched them play I got really happy. I used to play football with my friends too. I wasn’t that good though.

I was a goalkeeper most times although I’ve been a defender, midfielder and striker. I was really rubbish as a midfielder. I let in goals when I was a goalkeeper. I really wanted to improve my goalkeeping because people got angry if I let a goal in. I did improve but I was still not good.

I hated midfielding because I didn’t have any skills and I wasn’t a fast runner. The ball always got taken off me. I wanted to improve my midfielding as well but couldn’t because I was just rubbish at it. I actually couldn’t stand being a midfielder.

Being a striker was a bit easier. I scored some goals. Defending was fine for me as well. I did really good defending. It was just that sometimes I didn’t do good defending if I had to play against really good footballers. I hated that but still tried and tried.

Whenever I got tired, I didn’t really make an effort, though. If I did, it wasn’t much of an effort. I would just stand back as a defender or a goalkeeper. I got really tired running. Sometimes I did work really hard to play good football but I was probably the worst in my team.

I’ve stopped playing because I can’t be bothered any more. I didn’t play for three months and then I played for a week and then that was it. I haven’t played since then. It’s now been nine months since I played. I don’t want to play it any more because I was simply rubbish and I can’t play football anyway. I hate it now. I just like watching it on tv but I don’t watch it that much now anyway because I get bored. Cricket is much better than football, watching it and playing it, because I’m better at it.

I hate playing tennis and volleyball because I’m rubbish at them. I quite like basketball. It’s an all right sport to play. I hated hockey really really much. I couldn’t play hockey at all. I was really bad at it. I only played hockey three times in my life. I never played after that because I couldn’t play it. I never played tennis because I didn’t want to play it. I just didn’t like table tennis. I thought it was boring. Snooker was fine but I was really bad at it. And I was scared playing rugby.

Yup, makes you want to get out there and play, doesn't it?

(Mind you, that's how I feel about most sports too.)

No, no! Not for cats!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Calling Molly Bawn - elementary my dear?

Well, Sherlock aka Molly Holmes-Bawn, you were right. (Are you a witch? Do you have second sight?) I didn’t publicise this till they were safely back home with Scruffy TheEmptyNestChild, but the very very nice people who came to cat-sit our catlets while we were in Wales were Thimbleanna (that's her on the right, bending at the knees because she's taller and generally more elegant than I am) and Mr Thimbleanna - TheManoftheHouse! I really don’t understand how Molly guessed – she can’t possibly know all the blogs I read and it could have been anyone. She’s psychic. Must be something to do with being Irish.

Anyway, how lucky are our catlets? Cat-sitters all the way from the American Mid-West! And how lucky are we? Anna and Mr Anna are LOVELY.

Isn’t the blog world wonderful? You put out a plea for domestic assistance and you get a volunteer. By return. (Now, would anyone care to pop round and do my ironing? Or my marking?)

It does seem deeply extraordinary to some of my real-life friends that we should hand over our house and pets to strangers and equally so that these strangers were prepared to come and stay – but in fact, the Lives and the Annas knew far more about each other than our family has ever known about the people with whom we’ve house-swapped on previous holidays. Like the many fans of her blog, I’ve seen Anna’s house (selected views) and some wedding photos of her son and some of the things she’s cooked and lots of the things she’s sewed and knitted. And I’ve read lots about what she thinks about it all. In fact, as I often ponder, we know far more about the day-to-day doings and musings of our blog-friends than we do about the daily lives of most of our actual friends. So I felt immediately we met that we were friends – and I’ve found this with the two other bloggy people I’ve met too – we meet with so much shared knowledge and – well, it's intimacy, really.

Still you want to know what she’s like, don’t you? Well, she and TMotH are just delightful. But you knew that, if you’re a reader of hers. They’re kind and sweet and funny. They couldn’t have been more helpful and friendly – the perfect house guests. They arrived on the Friday afternoon and even after 30 hours without much sleep, still managed to have dinner with us and chat away with apparent ease. They were so appreciative of everything; let me put on record, however, that we felt that the whole debt was on our side. Especially as Scotland did not rally itself and put on its best weather for our visitors. Rain. Snow (not in Edinburgh, but where they went, up north.) We cringed from Wales every time we saw a weather forecast. But I'll let her tell you all about it.

And look what Anna left for us! I couldn’t believe it! I’d seen this quilt on her blog ( but never imagined that it was for us. Look at the pretty material!

Look at the lovely combinations of colours! Don't they go well with our sitting room?

Look at the sweet embroidery!

Look at the little bees!

And flowers. And plant pots because I like gardening. So pretty! And cosy! I just love it – the colours are so much what I’d have chosen.

I feel that I should send her one of the cats as a thank you.

Or possibly one of the children.
Ah yes, the cats. Did they pine for us? Did they look anxiously for our return, refuse food, have problems sleeping in our absence?

Ahem. It seems not. Sirius apparently really likes helping with knitting and Cassie is quite prepared to accept her food whoever serves it up.

A huge thank-you to Thimbleanna and TMotH and love from us all. Hope Scruffy has forgiven you for leaving him with his big brother and sister-in-law. Keep in touch!

Now, our next holiday is probably next Easter…. Form an orderly queue now, folks – you don’t have to bring a quilt.
(By the way, my Jane Austen post attracted no more than the usual number of readers. So what on earth happened last Wednesday? 120 extra readers who took one look and never returned. Solve that one for me, Molly Bawn.)
PS one hour later - having noticed that I'd called Mrs Gaskell's book "Cranston" (a friend's surname) instead of "Cranford" in my previous post, I changed it, and then shortly afterwards got 90 extra hits. Wouldn't Mrs G be astonished if she knew?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Jane Austen in the bath

I normally get an average of about 40 people a day looking at my blog. Last Wednesday I got 160! I was astonished. Had the world suddenly recognised my genius?

Then I examined what I'd said on Wednesday - had I inadvertently used a rude word that rude people had Googled and thus got my blog?

No, not that I could see. But I did mention Mrs Gaskell and "Cranford". I can only assume that this must have been it: these were students hoping for some pithy facts to put in their essays. How disappointing for them: they got photos of a cottage and some gardens and some holidaying Lives.

So this is by way of an experiment - to see if it happens again. Sorry, students of the world - I can't claim that this is literary criticism, but:

"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen is one of my favourite books. It never fails to soothe. I read it in the bath when life's not going right.

How many hits will this get?