Sunday, August 30, 2009

Birthday boy

1985, son aged 1.
2009, son aged 25, somewhat unshaven and all grown up, with girlfriend at family lunch.

Daughter 2 cutting cake.

Three offspring. How I love them.
Where do they go, where do they go, the years, and can I have them back, please?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Wee, sleekit, cowerin', timorous beastie

I went to a book launch yesterday; not a common experience for me. The book, called “Addressing the Bard”, is an anthology to celebrate the 250th birthday of Robert Burns. Twelve of Scotland’s best-known poets were asked to write a poem inspired by one of his poems.

The launch was held in the National Trust headquarters in Charlotte Square in the elegant and leafy New Town. (“New” as in built between 1792 and 1820.) I was given the invitation to this event because I’m in charge of our Higher English programme; however, when I got there it was clear that the majority of those attending were bigwigs. I was very conscious of the smallness of my wig, but stood around leaning on an antique sideboardy thing (I have a bad back) talking to a nice lady who’s the head of something important as we drank our wine or juice and waited for something to happen. After a while, though, I had to go and sit down on a chair at the side of the room. I can’t stand for more than a few minutes (though I can walk perfectly well). Chaps in suits stood in front of me, with their backs to me, so I had ample time to admire the intricate plasterwork on the ceiling.
Then there were two speeches, but since the chaps in suits didn’t move, I just had to listen without being able to see the speakers. There was a bit of a gap between them so that I had a good view, side on, of an oldish lady who looked a bit familiar. Scotland is a small country – 5 million people – and Edinburgh is a small city – half a million. Though half a million sounds like quite a lot, I’m likely to come across a much smaller number than that: teachers, people who go to bookshops or walk in the Botanic Gardens, students at the college and so on. So by the time I’ve got to my age, 59, many people I see look vaguely familiar - if rather older than I feel they used to look.

Then I realised that she was Liz Lochhead, one of the poets. I did once see her at a poetry reading in the days when she looked like this

rather than this. (She's shrunk, clearly.) And of course I’ve seen photos of her since. Still, I was surprised to see her looking as if she was in her 60s. But then, as I later reflected, she’s older than I am, so…

Since my view was so limited, I studied her. It’s not often that I get a chance to really stare at a poet. She was about two yards in front of me but she was looking forward at the speakers while I was looking at her sideways. She was wearing jeans, a fawn baggy blouse and silver trainers. (It was the silver trainers which first caught my attention.) She occasionally tugged the blouse down over her bottom; it’s nice to know that even poets worry about their bottoms. Throughout the speeches, she was obviously listening carefully because she smiled and nodded and at one point, when a speaker complimented his assistant for liaising so well with the poets, she murmured, “Hear, hear.” Neither speaker mentioned her, which I thought they should have since she’s arguably Scotland’s premier living poet (and playwright) and as far as I could see – though of course that wasn’t far - she was the only one of the twelve poets present, apart from one who read his poem, invisibly to me, after the speeches. But she just continued to nod and smile. I thought she looked like a really nice person.

Liz Lochhead’s poem is inspired by Burns’s “To a Mouse”. I have no idea if this poem is well-known outside Scotland, but it’s very famous here. Burns was a ploughman (at one point) and one day he ploughed up a mouse’s nest by mistake. The poem addresses the mouse and apologises to it.

Her poem starts:

It’s me. The eponymous “the moose”.

We’re having eleven people to lunch tomorrow – all family – to celebrate our boy’s 25th birthday, and I’ve been making food so I must now go and tidy the kitchen.

Daughter 2 has just emailed me from her bedroom a few yards away. “Watch this. It’s cool.”

It certainly is.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I found this in my tidyings of archives the other day.

When I was a girl we had a white cat called Dido. I was in my mid-teens when I did some scraperboard* sketches of her, and many years later, when my daughters were very small, they found these in a drawer and added their cat pictures in the spaces between mine.

I don't think they're particularly proud of their pictures now,... but they make me smile.

(* Scraperboard, Thimbleanna, is card covered with white chalky stuff with a black layer on top. You scrape off black bits with a sharp point to make a picture. This is not a particularly distinguished example of the art!)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Writing to the future

One of the reasons that I value writing so highly is that it’s the only thing we leave behind us when we die that conveys, very directly, quite a lot about our personalities. I suppose that composers and architects and painters might also feel that their art reveals who they really are, but I don’t think it’s the same. Handel’s “Messiah” is all sorts of wonderful things but it doesn’t tell us what Handel liked for breakfast, how much he enjoyed going for a walk or how funny he was.

Of course we can lie with words; give a false impression of ourselves. But as I’ve discovered by meeting various bloggy people, a lot of our real selves comes through in our words.

A few months before my father died, which was two years ago, he gave me a letter written by his father to his mother, in what seems to have been the very early stages of their relationship. Though she lived in Edinburgh, my grandmother seems to have been visiting Glasgow when they met; my grandfather was living in Glasgow at that time though doesn't seem to know it well. I think he was brought up in Edinburgh too.

I never knew this paternal grandfather, who died five months before I was born. There only a few photos of him and these are mainly of a white-haired old chap in snaps of family groups. But Dad also gave me this photo of Grandpa S as a young man. How old is he? 25, maybe? Much the same age he was when he wrote the letter and much the same age as our son. He also looks a bit like our son, I think.

The letter was written in 1905, when Grandpa S was 25 and the future Granny S was 19 and a half. My mother says that he was a quiet man. He was some sort of engineer, I think – he worked for Scottish Motor Transport at some point – and he played the violin. Indeed he made a violin which we still have. I played it when I was a girl and then Daughter 1 did also. What else did he like? What were his thoughts, fears, ambitions? I don’t know. But here’s the letter.

24th September 1905
30 Dunchattan St

Dear Isa,

I was very sorry for not being able to see you last Wednesday evening as promised, but of course it could not be helped as I went away in the morning. I tried to see you on Tuesday evening on your way home, but I must have missed you somehow. I spent Saturday afternoon with my Uncle and Aunt in Cathcart, and in the evening one of my cousins took me along to Langside, which is not very far from Cathcart. We found Kildonnan Ter, after a few hours searching for it, and after a few dozen people had told me that there was no such place in Langside. Annie had not arrived home when we called, so we waited for her, and in the interval of waiting my cousin (Miss Grey) made the discovery that she had worked in the same workroom with Annie Mackendrick in Kirkcaldy, and I also think that Tom had worked in the same place too. You should have heard them after that as they brought up old mutual acquaintances, and asked each other if they remembered this one and the next one. Annie had arrived by this time, and after a bit of supper my cousin and I left with an invitation to come again. I was at church this forenoon, and I suppose will be there tonight again but it is not very nice going to a strange church yourself. I had intended asking Annie if she was free to go to church or for a walk today, but I could not get a chance to ask her, and I felt shy before all the rest. It is Glasgow holiday tomorrow, but of course I do not get it, Annie and Mr Boyd both have it. I hope you will have a nice holiday next week and that you will enjoy your visit to Glasgow. I do not know if your programme for the weekend is all made up, but if it is not, I shall be pleased to meet you any time during the weekend and although I cannot guarantee myself as a guide in Glasgow, still, I have no doubt we could find someplace to go to. I hope you are none the worse of your walk on Review night and that Mrs Thomson did not think you were too late. Hoping you are well, also Mrs Thomson and the bairns. I am Yours Very Sincerely

James S

Clearly he was quite shy and wasn’t at all sure that she would want to see him at the weekend. It then took them another four years to get married, perhaps because she was younger than he was. According to my mother, my Granny S was a fairly lively and determined person who came from quite a poor family and so she was able to escape poverty by marrying a man with a good job. She was a pretty lady (and I think he’s quite handsome). She must have kept the letter all her life so presumably she was very happy to receive it.

Though they married in 1909, their three children weren’t born till 1920, 1922 and 1925. I wonder what that story is?

When my father gave me the letter there was no such thing as Google Street View. But now there is, and it shows that Dunchattan Street, where Grandpa S wrote his letter, still exists but now consists of blocks of modern flats. There does in fact seem to be no Kildonnan Terrace, which possibly explains why he had such trouble finding it, but there is a Kildonan Drive. Kildonan Drive is a red sandstone tenement block, the sort found a lot in Glasgow – they’re rather nice. It fascinates me that I can find this out, sitting at my computer in Edinburgh.

You can see Kildonan itself, on the island of Arran, in my previous entry.

That’s all I have of Grandpa S; the only piece of his handwriting. A whole life lived and if you’ve been reading this, you know nearly as much about him as I do. He died when he was 70.

And this is one reason why I write. Why I blog. To leave something behind. If I ever get round to printing my blog and putting it in a folder, and if my children ever get round to procreating, this might be my way of communicating with future generations.

(Waves hand.)

Monday, August 17, 2009


So we took our boy his cake. We saw the flat where he’s living in Glasgow.

Then we all went to the Kelvingrove Museum in the pouring rain and saw lots of creepy heads hanging in mid-air

and Homer

and some Scottish paintings including this one of Kildonan on the island of Arran (it would look very nice on my sitting room wall) and then we came home.

And it was a nice day but afterwards we were very sad. And are still sad. But will just have to get used to it.

It must be easier to be a cat having a relaxing nap in a supermarket bag.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Today is the last day but one of my summer holidays. “Only the seven weeks, then?” Daughter 2 says cheekily. “Shame.”

Well, yes. But it’s still a bit …hmmm. I don’t mind work; I really don’t. Especially once it gets started. But the beginning of the year, when all the students are new and I’m trying to be terribly entertaining and interesting and informative and at the same time not too alarming – when the classes are a bit nervous and so am I, and there aren’t enough seats or even enough rooms (the dreaded “pool room” situation when the class is in a different room each week) – well, it’s all a bit exhausting.

Sitting in the garden, having coffee with friends, reading a book – even tidying out the archives – these are all less demanding.

However, I’ve made the most of this last week, having various social gatherings and meeting yet another lovely blogger, this time Adelaide from Adelaide who’s performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. My daughters, my bloggy friend Loth and my non-bloggy friend Morag all went with me on Tuesday to hear her and it was very beguiling experience, though hard to describe. Adelaide, or Tracy (who’s a librarian, or a vegetarian librarian as she rhymingly told us) narrated an amusingly surreal little story about the head librarian who… well, the title of the show – “She’s not just quiet… she’s dead” kind of give you a clue as to what happens. And there were little side-tales and comments about life and – well, death and the hereafter. Very good indeed, should you happen to be in Edinburgh with 45 minutes to fill at 7.35 in the evening.

Then she came to our house for a cup of tea this morning. I was quite nervous because she writes brilliantly and not at all like me. She doesn’t write about trivial drivel or post pictures of her garden or her cats – or pictures of anything, I don’t think – and she’s recently published a novel and she’s much younger than me and I thought she might be a bit alarming. But she wasn’t. She was very nice indeed.

I’ve now met five people through blogging: Fifi, Loth, Thimbleanna, Rachel and Tracy. (No! six! How could I forget Rosemary Riveter? Though technically I'd met her before, when she was four and chatting to Daughter 1 at a nursery school party. But then twenty-eight years elapsed.) And they’ve all been lovely in their own ways. And in each case, there’s been that easy sort of half-friendship before we met: knowledge about each other and confidence that we’re interested in reading and writing about our own and other people’s lives.

Then in the afternoon I sat in the garden and read a book and slightly mourned the fact that next week I shall be stuck in college all day.

The garden will bloom unseen. The cats will come to the back door and it’ll be locked; they’ll have to go round to the front of the house and use the catflap in the kitchen door.

So I just sat there in my little domain and looked at the flowers and smelt the heavenly perfume of these lilies and listened to the birdsong and the thump and crash of the digging machines excavating the garden of the people up the road who’re having an extension built.

And sometimes I lay on the grass, which was a bit damp and smelt wonderfully of earthy vegetation, and I watched ants negotiating grass blades, and cats chasing the little hoverfly chappies that are all over the place at the moment, and I mourned my imminent lost freedom.

And the cats sympathised.

I think.

Now I must go and ice the cake I've just baked because Mr Life and I are going to Glasgow tomorrow to see our son, who’s now working there but who has a day off tomorrow. And you can’t go and see your son without taking a cake.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Nettles and a rude picture

To continue my ill-informed-gardener posting, here's a 2006 picture of my yellow nettles, which I now think are called lamium. Do click to enlarge, should you actually care one way or the other. I rooted most of them out but they're making a return. Garden thugs, I fear, though pretty.

I've decided the white and yellow Marguerites are Shasta daisies - thank you for confirming this, Persiflage. I don't know why Shasta should have a capital, but it seems to have*. Marguerites - well, it's a girl's name, so I kind of feel a capital is in order; but then do I write about Daisies?
*My brother has just emailed me to say:
A lot of daisies which are drought resistant grow naturally in California including Shasta daisies, which I think are probably named after Mount Shasta, a rather spectacular volcanic mountain in the north of the state. Many of the Californian hills are so thickly covered in flowers in the spring that they look blue or orange from a distance. The orange ones are Californian poppies.Shasta daisies have a rather pungent smell that attracts flies, or at least Californian flies.

He's my big brother. He knows stuff. He also used to live in California.

Coreopsis, I think. Also rampant, though they lull you into a false sense of security by just sitting there for a few years. Mine will be turning up in Devon shortly, at the rate they're spreading. Australia may not be safe. Watch where you put your garden chair.

Yesterday I decided to tidy out the drawers of the chest in the study in which I keep sentimental archives. My filing system consists of putting things on the top layer in the drawers and shutting them. I hoped that some of them might have lost their sentimental value and I might be able to throw things out and thus allow myself to add further things and still get the drawers shut. I didn't, however, expect that this would be the case. It wasn't.

For example, above you will see a card made for Mr Life by Daughter 1 when she was little. It shows Mr Life sitting up in bed (these are bedside chests to either side of him) on Father's Day. The back of the card shows him on his bike, waving rather camply, possibly because he has only one leg.

Inside she has written:

My Dad

He is nice,

He is fun.

I like him very much.

He is keen on steam trains.

He likes tennants lager.

But he doesn't smoke.

He's tall and thin.

He's a lot taller than mummy.

He is allergic to citrus fruits of all kinds.

He has sugar or sweetner in his coffee.

He loves breakfast in bed.

He's very nice and picks me up sometimes.

I love him.

Well, I can't throw that away, can I? Especially since it tells us all about his drinking (this is a once-a-month habit, let me reassure you) and the fact that he used to be thin.

Then there's this. Inside it says

My Mother's Day wish

Dear Mummy,

My Mother's Day wish is for you to have a hole day in bed with your meals brot up to you and (Daughter 1) and (Son) and I to give you love and care when ever you wontied it. And your bedclouthes made of silk.

Love from (Daughter 2)

Not sure I ever got the silk bedclouthes, but still - aaaahhh. And the spelling's a bit wonky but look at those apostrophes!

And then this one, from the Son. Aahh again. (He used to call me Mim sometimes.)

M is for Mummy

I is for I love you

M is for, more than a lot, tons

Love from (Son)

The whole drawerful consists of this sort of thing that I can't possibly part with. So when I die, the poor offspring will have to decide what to do with it. Sorry, offspring.

Then there was the day when little Son said to me, "Mummy, I've drawn a rude picture."

I hastened, horrified, to see what he'd depicted.

Not that bad, really.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Boring post follows, with apologies

This is going to be a very boring post unless you happen to be me, since I'm the only person who really takes a close interest in my little garden. Apologies. I just wanted to look at how it was over four years - 2006-2009 - at about the same time. The only way I could think of doing this was posting four end-of-July photos, one from each year and all taken from about the same place. 2006 was when I started taking digital photos.

Above you see it in 2006. Lilac hedge far too big; yellow-and-white marguerites in foreground looking healthy, though in the process of being swamped by those yellow nettles.

In 2007, hedge has been cut down a lot. Marguerites are looking a bit less advanced, but still. promising. I had massacred the yellow nettles (though in 2009 they're beginning to fight back).

2008 - I must have foolishly planted these yellow flowers - what are they? coreopsis? rudbeckia? can't remember - to form a pleasing contrast to the marguerites.

2009. Big yellow flowers are now choking the marguerites. You can't see it from here but I had removed large amounts of b.y.fs further along, last year, and they've more or less grown back already. It's strange - I've had some for years and they've only recently started to take over. And look at the lilac hedge: getting much too big again. But when we cut it down, we lose the blossom.
I don't particularly like the destructive bit of gardening. I like planting things and doing a little gentle weeding.
I feel I should now write something more interesting in case anyone has actually read this, so here's what I thought was a rather telling little quote from "The Jane Austen Book Club" by Karen Joy Fowler, a well-written pleasant nonsense which I read and enjoyed on holiday: "Sylvia thought how all parents wanted an impossible life for their children - happy beginning, happy middle, happy ending. No plot of any kind. What uninteresting people would result if parents got their way."
I suppose it's true. And it's a bit comforting. Maybe it applies to gardening too.
Edited to add: Thimbleanna's comment made me ask myself what those white/yellow daisy flowers really are. The BBC gardening website seems to say that the white (swamped) ones which I know as marguerites are ox-eye daisies or possibly Shasta daisies; the invasive yellow ones do seem to be coreopsis; and it denies knowledge of the yellow nettley ones, known to me as yellow nettles. Come on, Kerri; come to my aid with your botanical wisdom. I do know the names of quite a lot of flowers but these ones are so common that one hardly needs the names - pointing usually does it.

Thursday, August 06, 2009


In defiance of Thimbleanna, who says “And when you start talking about the weather, you’ve run out of things to say and it’s time to sign off”, I’m going to write about… the weather. In case you’ve never been to Scotland and are planning to make a summer trip, you might like to know what sort of clothes to pack. So for example…

Last week I was passing the Botanic Gardens, one of my favourite places in the world, and decided to pop in for a walk. It was starting to rain a bit – just a smirr in the wind - but a little rain doesn’t bother me and anyway I had an umbrella in my handbag. So off I set. The nice thing about the Botanics in the wet is that you usually get it to yourself and can fantasise that you’re a Very Rich Person and that this is your domain.

On this occasion, however, a tour bus had disgorged some Japanese tourists and they were going round grimly, trying to enjoy themselves. With some difficulty, because it began to absolutely POUR. It was STOTTING off the ground, and if you don’t know what that means, click on the picture below and you’ll see.

My little umbrella did keep my head dry. And my shoulders. But from the elbows down, I was drookit – drenched. I sploshed cheerfully around, enjoying the empty paths and the deserted benches and lawns and discovering that my “showerproof” jacket was nothing of the sort. Soon the paths became raging torrents through which I had to wade. As I’ve discovered before, there comes a point in wetness when saturation point is reached and you might as well enjoy sloshing and squelching and splashing because you’re going to slosh and squelch and splash whether you like it or not.
You can easily see why Scotland is so green. Here's the rockery.

Standing on a rockery path, I looked over the city to our lovely hill, Arthur Seat, which was enveloped in an atmospheric - but I should imagine somewhat damp - cloud. It seemed to be coming our way. I retreated.
Of course I was going home to put on dry clothes, not like the unfortunate tourists who were getting back on a bus and proceeding to another sodden part of Scotland. Ah, the joys of travel.

Today, by contrast, it’s warm and sunny. The temperature is around 73 Fahrenheit / 23 Celsius, which is just perfect for sitting in the shade. It’s not so good for cutting the lawn, although I’ve just done this because I am a Good Person. But as for the weeding that I had planned to do – too hot. My goodness has its limits. This is what the garden looks like today. I don’t want to leave it and go back to work in eleven days.

The other reason I can’t weed the back garden is that I need to be able to hear the doorbell because I’m waiting in for a chap to come and tell us that our dishwasher, whose catch has broken so that it won’t stay shut, is now discontinued and he can’t get us a new catch so that we have to buy a new dishwasher. He hasn’t said this yet because he hasn’t arrived – he’s now 15 minutes late. I could of course weed the front garden because I would see him coming. But it’s too hot. Even the cats seek out the shade in the sitooterie.

Ah, he’s just phoned. “What day was I supposed to come and see you?” That inspires confidence, doesn't it? “And where exactly do you live?”

Time for a cup of tea, I think.
And now you know what clothes to pack for a holiday in Scotland. Don't you? Ok Anna, I'll sign off now.
(PS. He came! He mended! O me of little faith!)

Monday, August 03, 2009

A senior quarter of an hour

I had a list of minor tasks to accomplish this morning and got on quite well with most of them.

Did the dishes
Made the grouting in the bathroom look really quite good with Domestos Spray Bleach and a bit of scrubbing
Wrote some emails
Patted the cats
Put some washing out
Wrote a letter to Mr Life’s cousin, whose email doesn’t seem to be working
Looked out the receipt for the large oak frame which I was about to go into town to exchange
And various other fiddling-about things.

Then I set out up town to exchange this very frame, which has been sitting in the hall since I bought it on Thursday in mistake for the birch frame that Daughter 2 actually needs for the hotel she’s working on.

Distracted only by Cassie Cat - who tried to escape into the part of the house we don’t leave her in when we’re out, for fear that she should tightrope-walk along the top banister rail and fall to her death, alone - I left the house to exchange the frame. As I got to the bottom of the lane beside our house I saw a bus in the distance. I broke into a half-hearted trot and then decided that I wouldn’t bother running because another bus would be along in a short while. However, the bus driver saw me and obligingly pulled into the bus stop. He then waited while I sprinted – or to put another way, galumphed – the thirty yards or so to the bus, with the passengers looking interestedly on. I bought the ticket and sat down, warmed by his good intentions and also by having run for the bus.

And then I realised that I hadn’t actually brought the frame with me.

Are you, fair reader, the kind of person who would have got off at the next stop under the bemused gaze of this driver and about thirty-five Edinburgh citizens? No, me neither. So I went on up town and had a nice cappuccino in a bookshop before walking home. I hope that the walk offset the cappuccino.

I did remember to post the letter to Mr Life’s cousin. So not a totally wasted trip, then.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Of cars and children

Seven years ago, when I was much nearer fifty than sixty and my youthful forties were quite a recent memory, we bought a Ford Mondeo. With three children still in full-time education we weren’t flush with cash, so it was 2 years old, not brand new. But it went quite well and has served us as a family car ever since.

We do also have a smaller car, cheaper to insure for the “children” to drive - currently the red Peugeot that you see behind the Mondeo.

But this week the Mondeo, which seemed fairly healthy, sat its MOT (the annual test to prove that cars are safe to drive) – and it failed.

The garage estimated that it would cost £750 plus tax at 15% to fix it up enough to pass.

The Mondeo is worth about £500 for insurance purposes. But unfortunately no one stole it yesterday.

So that was that. This morning we drove it to a scrap yard. The scrap yard lady handed us £80, we handed her the paperwork, she gave us a Certificate of Destruction and we left. Feeling like traitors.

Cue violins, preferably playing the Dead March from Saul (Da, da-di-da, da da da da da da da).

Seven years ago our children were nearly 18, just 21 and nearly 23. Son was about to go to university, just a few weeks away from meeting the love of his life but at this point still our boy entirely. Daughter 2 had finished the third year of her first degree and was still going out with the brilliant but rather strange young man who was going to decide that though he would always love her, he wanted to look around him for a new romance (at which point we wanted to throw rotten fruit at him). Daughter 1 was – is this right? one gets confused - about to go to the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford to do her first Master’s degree while her husband-to-be tried to decide what he wanted to do with his life.

These seem like happy days from the rosy distance of 2009, though I suppose they must have had their worries (eg the rather strange young man, who I never thought was right for her). Now two of our beloved offspring have left home and the third, our lovely lovely Daughter 2, has just had her offer to buy a flat accepted and will soon follow her sister and brother out of the nest as an independent person.

Ah well. We don't really need two cars any more and at least Mr Life and I aren’t headed for the scrap yard ourselves quite yet. But we will miss Daughter 2, as we miss all of them, so much. Fortunately we do still have the cats.