Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When I was 32...

Happy Hallowe'en. My knitted ghosts are waving to you.

Tony the Painter has been and gone (having decorated very satisfactorily, though he no longer addresses me by name, mine own or anyone else's) and the study is nice and fresh. All the stuff from the study, however, is still in what was my Mum's bedroom, because T the P was able to come earlier than he'd expected and we hadn't at that point ordered the new carpet. It'll be a week or two before it arrives so we can't reinstate things.

I have, however, found a folder full of letters that I wrote to my best school and university friend when the children were small. For a long time after she moved to London, which was when we were 22, we wrote every week but eventually children and being too busy took over our lives so we phoned instead, and now we mainly keep in touch by email.

We used to return each other's letters since they were a record of our lives, and I've been rereading mine.

Here's an extract from one written in May 1983, when Daughter 1 was three and a half and Daughter 2 was nearly 2.

I've been looking after a friend's 15-month-old son for the last couple of mornings and have been astonished to find that, as his mother predicted, he is no bother. I mean NO bother. He doesn't talk yet, which makes a nice change from the constant chattering of our two - he's actually completely silent. You restrain him from emptying the sideboard or sticking his head down the loo or throwing things down the stairwell - and he just looks mildly surprised AND STOPS!!! Does he cast himself on the floor and scream for ten minutes? No. Does he embark on long explanations as to why he should actually be allowed to do whatever it was? No. He just wanders slowly off and does something else. He doesn't try to get out of the pushchair; he doesn't kick me in the teeth when I try to change his nappy. He doesn't demand a second biscuit. He doesn't run around screaming with excitement. I'm definitely ordering one like that next time. It's a whole new world.

Yes, dear daughters. I appear to be describing your behaviour (at times). Actually, I don't remember you behaving like this at all. Time is a great healer... . You were lovely most of the time, I'm sure.

I suspect that I thought that the small boy in question, N, was possibly slightly dim or if nothing else, a touch unenterprising. However, I can report that when he grew up he got a first class honours degree in linguistics from a prestigious English university followed by a master's from a well-respected American university, became a stockbroker, did another master's in some environmental topic which I forget and is now married and living in California doing environmental things. And is very handsome, witty and sporty.

Grandson, also 15 months, does speak, though you couldn't claim that his vocabulary is extensive. His most recent word, strangely, is "na", which appears to mean "light". Having read the above letter, I don't think I'll worry about it.


Oh dear, all good wishes to any Americans reading this. I hope that you and your loved ones aren't affected by the big storm. Keep safe!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Crunching leaves

All of a sudden, the trees are looking autumnal. Yesterday Mr Life, Daughter 1, Son-in-Law 1, Grandson and I went for a walk along the River Tyne in Haddington. The air was chilly but lovely, with that autumnal smell of - well, decay, I suppose, but somehow redolent of childhood games and woodsmoke and new beginnings.
Daughter 2 texted me while we were walking. I wish she could have been with us.
It seems wrong that we're on to a whole new season that my mother will never know. Of course, she had 90 autumns, so there's not a lot to complain about except... that she would have enjoyed the bright leaves and the sunshine (though not the chill in the air) and deary me, life is too short. This is my 63rd autumn and I wonder sometimes (in my cheerful way) how many more I'll see.
And will I live long enough to be able to master properly my current piano piece, an extract from "Swan Lake"? It's not looking like it at the moment. Separate hands, fine. Together... not so much. That rattling noise you hear is Tchaikovsky turning in his grave.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Since our (slightly dyslexic) Daughter 2 is no longer around every day (though she does phone every day) I follow her on Twitter.

Her last three tweets:

I'm proud to be followed by the Lead Sheet Association. Gosh, I'm cool (and also have insightful views on lead sheeting).


Why, given that about 50% of all architects are dyslexic, would the Architects’ Journal use a spelling test to check we are not bots?


Surely a test where you have to pick an appropriate line weight for an external wall - or select the most expensive brick - would be better?
Love you, sweetie. Miss you.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


One of the main ambitions of Grandson's life is to get handfuls of cat and squeeze them. "Pussy!" he says enthusiastically. "Mia! Mia!" he chortles.

Sirius and Cassie are not fans of Grandson. They never liked him from the start, when he had an occasional tendency to be Very Noisy. Their attitude mellowed slightly once he got bigger and more reliably cheerful, while still not able to move around. Now their opinion of him has deteriorated once again. They don't like the way he crawls very fast. (What is he? A very solid and unfurry kitten?) They disapprove of him standing and reaching across the sofa towards them. (Don't let him touch me!) They don't like his peals of laughter. (Most undignified.)

Cassie tends to disappear under the table when he's in the dining room, where the furry ones normally spend their time. Sirius is slightly braver, but shrinks back on the sofa, disapproval in his every whisker. He looks reproachfully at us. (Why do you keep bringing that thing into our house?)

Little do they know that in February or March, Volume 2 will be joining us. Poor cats. Now they know what it's like to be a mouse.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Improving the shining hour

Now, Thimbleanna and Molly Bawn: are you sitting down? Are you sure? Maybe you should hold on tightly to the arms of the chair. Because - I've started knitting! See below: I've done four rows. Well, it's a start.
A while ago, I acquired this book which gives patterns for lots of knitted blocks ranging from so-easy-that-a-baby-could-do-them to slightly-harder to slightly-harder-again. I've started with one of the easy-peasy examples and plan to graduate to the ones for which I'll have to stick out my tongue and frown. I'm going to knit enough to make a patchwork blanket. (Possibly for a doll, if I find it all a bit tedious.) I really have no desire to knit socks or a jumper but I thought that even I might manage a few squares.
I did knit a bit before the children were born. I knitted Mr Life a hat, a cardigan and a waistcoat, with V shapes at the front and everything. But I was never particularly keen. I never got to the point when I could do it without concentrating.
I also used to sew things: I made loose covers for a couple of chairs, lots of curtains and cushion covers, even a patchwork cushion cover in the log cabin pattern with plastic templates to cut out paper shapes. But I can't now quite imagine that I did some of this. I feel deskilled by the passing of the years.
When Anna came to visit, she very kindly brought me a cutting board, a cutting wheel and some lovely material to start me on patchwork. And I will start, Anna (and Molly). Life has just been a bit full of event recently, what with weddings and funerals and rearrangements of the house and visitors and holidays. Not to say Grandson. I need a period of calm and a flat surface and a clear head: none of these is in plentiful supply at the moment.
Especially this particular moment. Tony the Painter arrives tomorrow (I hope) to redecorate our study. This is the smallest of our rooms, which normally contains a LOT of stuff: archives of various sorts, household documents, photograph albums and so on, not to say three desks, a chest of drawers and a bureau. This has now all been moved into what was my mother's bedroom and WE WON'T BE ABLE TO FIND ANYTHING TILL IT'S ALL BACK AGAIN. ARGH.
And we really need to go through it and be ruthless. Do I need to keep every programme of every school concert that the children appeared in? The not-so-nice school photos? All the children's drawings? Every postcard they ever wrote? All the newspapers that ever reported on a momentous event? (I thought they would be interesting to look at when I was old. And so they might be, if I did. But do the offspring want to deal with them when I'm dead?)
And I probably need to admit that though I might polish up one or two languages, it's over-optimistic to hope that I'll really get fluent in Spanish, German, Gaelic, Japanese, Swedish and modern Greek as well as French and Latin. Yes, I have notes, books and / or tapes and dictionaries for all of these languages. Perhaps I have to face the fact that I'll only ever have a smattering of most of these.
And now I must go and practise the piano - now there's another of my unrealistic ambitions!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Roman underpants and all that

While we were in the Carlisle area we had to go and admire Hadrian's Wall. It was built for 73 miles across the top bit of England to discourage attack from the north. There it is in the middle distance. I think the farmer whose field it borders may have tidied it up; but for something begun in about 122 AD, it's not in bad shape. The bit at the front is part of what remains of Birdoswald Fort.
Obviously the Wall used to be considerably bigger, but over the past 2000ish years people have helped themselves to lumps of it  - from the top, understandably - so now the highest part we saw was about Mr-Life-size, which is 6 feet 1 and a half. At some points, however, it's evidently still 10 feet tall. Even that wouldn't have deterred a determined ancient Scot from scrambling over and marauding so it must have been a lot higher originally. (Speaking for myself and probably my wimpish ancestors, I would be easily discouraged from marauding, especially in the cold and mud. But it was a lovely day when we were there.)
Then we went to Vindolanda, a Roman fort and its associated village near the Wall. It was astonishingly extensive. Above is a bath house with space underneath the floor for hot air to keep the Roman extremities warm. The effect is somewhat lessened by all the rainwater lying in the once-hot part, but you have to imagine floors, walls, and naked Romans sitting about reading their books and reaching for their soap. One has to hope that they'd invented bookstands by then.
If you're ever nearby, it's well worth a visit. Steeped in ghostly presences as we were, it wasn't hard to imagine the place crowded with chaps in togas and their wives and children. (I don't think soldiers wore togas, actually, more those kilt things - chilly in the wind.) There's a really excellent museum too, with lots of artefacts. Maybe the most impressive display was a huge case case filled with shelves upon shelves of shoes. The leather was preserved by lying for centuries in mud without any air to allow it to rot. Somehow it's very easy to imagine those long-ago people when you see their shoes just sitting there as if waiting for their owners to come back.
The other really fascinating objects excavated are slivers of wood on which people wrote - all sorts of things, mainly in letters. These tablets, once read, were thrown away; and again the mud preserved them. There is, for example, an invitation from one woman to another to her birthday party - the earliest example of a woman's handwriting. And a chap writing to someone to ask him to send some underpants. So that's what they wore under their kilts.
Where will our blogs be in 2000 years? Preserved for the astonished future? I doubt it. Vanished into the air... .

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dalston Hall 2

The room at Dalston Hall was well-mirrored. There was the one on the bedhead. Personally I think it was to reflect the apparitions (or do ghosts not have reflections? or am I thinking about zombies?). There was one over the desk. And then there was this one. All were intricately carved, well-dusted and, I should imagine, expensive.

And the bath: I occasionally watch house-buying programmes and people who appear on these programmes often want roll-top baths. Now, I'm old enough to remember these in the 50s, when people prided themselves on getting rid of them. I admit that they look quite interesting, maybe especially in a turret bathroom, but I've always thought of them as not very practical. I'm now able to report that I was right.

Where, crucially, do you balance your book while you wash? As I suspected, you try to sit it on the round edge of the bath but it teeters and then falls to the floor. (Or into the water, though in my case, it was the floor.) After the first night I was forced to have a bookless bath; and I can tell you that lying regarding one's stomach is not so relaxing as getting on with the biography of Gertrude Jekyll, which is what I wanted to be doing. It may depend on your stomach, of course. Possibly you can regard yours with complacency.

Arguably more important (though it's debatable) - where do you put the soap? You have to swap it from hand to hand while washing your more distant bits, and then drop in on to the bath mat. Or in the water, I suppose.

It was very strange being the only guests (apart from the girl we saw on the first morning). It felt a bit like staying at Northanger Abbey. Mr Life and I would sail down the massive staircase, our footsteps ringing (well, ok, padding on the carpets). We would enter the empty dining room and like magic, someone would come and take our order. (Surveillance cameras?) We would eat. Someone else would come and enquire if everything was all right. It was, very much so. We would depart. We did bring slightly dressier clothes to wear for dinner, but it didn't seem worth putting them on just to impress each other, so we didn't.

On the last night, the owner had "Fawlty Towers" on in the bar, where we were ushered before dinner. He stood watching it and laughing. I ventured to suggest that his hotel wasn't at all like this. "Oh, you'd be surprised," he chuckled. "Some of the guests we get... ."

I did wonder if we're going to be on some candid camera show but if so, we're unlikely to see it so will never know.

It's a lovely hotel, though. I recommend it. And now I know what it would be like to live in a private manor house, with staff. One could easily get used to it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dalston Hall

We've been away for a long weekend. Son, Daughter-in-Law and our neighbours combined to look after the cats. Since we didn't have long without Grandson duties, we didn't go far - just to Carlisle in Cumbria, over the border into England. Or, to be more accurate, we were just outside Carlisle, in Dalston. We picked, more or less randomly, Dalston Hall Hotel to stay in. Here it is above and below.
It was spectacularly lovely. It dates from the 1500s (with lots of later additions) and used to be a private manor house belonging to the Dalston family. The area was very turbulent in the past, fought over between the English and the Scots.
Now, however, it seems the picture of rural calm.
 It would be a great place for a wedding...
... and we enjoyed processing up these very grand stairs...
 ... and along to our room.
Room 4: the bed (and cuddly tiger*). That bedhead was not comfy to lean back on.
The inglenook fireplace.
The bathroom (in a turret).
The view from the window.
On the desk by the window, there was a folder with information about the hotel, including about its seemingly rather numerous ghosts. Apparently room 4 is the most copiously haunted. Spectral ladies come out from the right-hand inglenook and tug the bedclothes off. Dogs whine at the door. Strange noises are heard.
No, we didn't see or hear any ghosts. And we would greatly recommend the hotel. The food was wonderful. Strangely, we appeared to be the only guests... - well, apart from a young foreign girl who approached us as we were going down to breakfast and said that she believed that we were in room 4, the haunted one.
Now, how did she know that? And why did we never see her again...? Wooooooo.
To be continued.
(If you'd like to see more of Dalston Hall, you might like to look at this YouTube clip from the programme "Britain's Most Haunted": I'm quite glad that I didn't know about all this before we went... not that I believe in ghosts. Though I would have to say that in the middle of the night, with Mr Life sleeping peacefully beside me in the very dark darkness that you get in the country, and with the strange creaking noises that you get in an old house... I did slightly wonder... .)

* Very true, Daughter 1. It does appear to be a cheetah or leopard or something, not a tiger. I was too busy looking for ghosts to examine it in enough detail.

Friday, October 12, 2012


It's been such a lovely October, necessitating the sunhat for the small person. Doesn't he wear it with panache?

Today, however, it's POURING.

On the way down the lane to buy the newspaper, I wore my welly boots. Half way down, I felt a stone in one of the boots. So I stopped, removed the boot and shook out the stone as I balanced on one leg. And as I did so, I thought to myself: this isn't going to work. I'm going to wobble and put my socked foot down in the wet.

And that's what I did.

I often find myself doing (minor) silly things that I know are silly but do all the same. For example, if I go into a dark room to find something, I sometimes don't bother to put the light on. And I think: that's silly - I'm going to fall over something or stub my toe. And then I do. And it's not as if switching on the light is a lot of trouble.

Is it just me? Or do other people do the same sort of thing? I must be more sensible as age encroaches. This is the way broken hips happen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

All things nice

Look at these roses! Friends brought them a week past Saturday and they're still beautiful. Well done, Marks and Spencer.
The weather continues autumnally lovely. Soon I must rescue some of these plants and bring them into the house. The ones on the step are mainly fuchsias that I would have repotted earlier in the year but spent all my spare time visiting Mum in hospital so it never got done. But I'll have lots of time next year. (Possibly.)
If you forced a cat to sleep in a shoebox, it would be thought cruel. (Daughter 2 bought some boots at the weekend.)
Similarly, people would frown on forcing a baby to crawl through the legs of a table. He likes it, though.
See - he's fine. And he's wearing such a manly cardigan.
Though he is a bit of a menace... .
He's added his stolen booty to the stones that he plays with in his bowls. He's a very busy chap.
And today, Daughter 1 had her 20-week scan. Volume 2's a girl! I restrained myself from scooping up lots of pink things at the supermarket afterwards, but these bootees somehow jumped into the trolley. A girl! Boy babies are very nice indeed but it's lovely to have a daughter. Can't wait to see her now... .

Monday, October 08, 2012

Sunshine in October

We've had four days of glorious autumn sunshine: balmy air, blue skies, soft breezes. Grandson's other grandparents were up for the weekend, as was Daughter 2, and on Saturday we went for a walk along the shore at Cramond.

The sea was an innocent blue. Oystercatchers lazed on the shore.

Surely winter can't be round the corner?

Home again, Grandson enjoyed playing with some polished stones and Miss Oswald's brass bowl. Miss Oswald was a very jolly 90-year-old neighbour of ours. She died some years ago but when she was a little girl, she and her three sisters were invited with the other children in their village to a children's party at the Big House. When they left, the children were each given a present and this bowl was hers (and much later she gave it to me ... longish story). I thought it was an odd Christmas gift for a child but in fact Grandson likes clanging the stones into it. And out again. And in again.

On Sunday, Daughter 2, Mr Life and I walked in the Botanics. We admired the autumm leaves - so orange and red and yellow! ...

... the gentians - so blue! ...

... and the autumn crocuses - so purple!

Cassie also had a pleasant weekend.

Friday, October 05, 2012


How do men manage without handbags? Here are the contents of mine. Do I really need all this? I suppose that those who use an electronic diary don't perhaps carry two diaries, as I do at this time of year: the flowery one is this year's and the red one is for writing in details of exciting parties to which I've been invited next year. (No - not so far.)

And men put wallets in their pockets so don't need what I would call a purse - the black thing at the top left. Mr Life copes with not carrying a cheque book because he never writes cheques - and come to think of it, I hardly ever do either apart from to the window cleaner or, rarely, someone to whom I'm sending money. So maybe I don't need to carry it around because I write these cheques while I'm at home.

But obviously I need the little packet of tissues and, occasionally when out, the specs. Then there's the little black shopping bag - useful and not heavy. And the wee notebook. Maybe I could ditch that, since I have a few sticky pad leaves stuck to the inside of my diary for random and temporary pieces of information. But I'm a notebooky sort of person. Moving to the right, there's my old-lady bus pass and my driving licence. I don't really have to carry the latter, I suppose. I seldom break the laws of the road or at any rate not to such an extent that I would be conveyed directly to gaol. (I hope.)

The red thing to the right is a Swiss Army card, with lots of tiny tools which I never use (but might one day, who knows? If I take it out of my bag, I'm sure to do something that requires tweezers to undo.) Below that, there's a stash of old receipts, which I do clear out from time to time and won't put back, and below that, a thing from Sainsbury entitling me to £2-something off my next shop. Left of that, the green thing is my National Trust card, in a little container of cards that I don't need very often, and the black leather thing above, which contains cards I use a lot. Then, to the left, there's my (unsmart, but fine) phone, a comb, a pen (very unusual for me to have one rather than twenty-seven, including red ones which I now never need). And lastly, a very useful folding pair of scissors and a lip salve. It's strawberry flavoured, which gives me the illusion of eating something if I'm out, about and hungry. It also makes me smell as if I've been eating cheap sweeties, but nothing's perfect.

I sometimes also fit in a paperback book.

My handbag is actually quite small. It's black fabric and cost £7 from Marks and Spencer's. I bought it one day as a standby when my regular handbag's strap had broken but it's lasted several years. It's probably not the height of chic. I dread to think of the amount of stuff I'd carry about if I had one of those huge designer portmanteaux into which you could fit a medium-sized baby.

And you? Minimal, kitchen sink or something in between?

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The return of Tony

A few weeks ago, water starting dripping through the study ceiling. We got roofers to replace some missing slates, which solved the problem, but there's now wallpaper hanging elegantly down from above our desks. We decided that we might as well redecorate the whole room and, having considered doing it ourselves, decided we wouldn't. There's so much stuff in the study that the thought of having it sitting round a spare bedroom while the job is being done slowly just didn't appeal.

Time to call Tony the Painter.

Long-time bloggy friends may remember him from a couple of years ago. He's a very nice Irish chap with a wonderful accent and good taste in radio programmes. He's also very slightly... how can I put this? - individual - when it comes to telephone calls.

I phoned him up, mentioned that he'd worked for us before and described the job. "What's your name?" he asked.

Since he'd consistently called me Mrs MacDonald (which isn't my name) I didn't know if there was a lot of point in telling him my actual name, but I did.

"Ah right," he said. "You live in Stocktonhall."

There isn't a Stocktonhall in Edinburgh but there is an area not far from us with a name that somewhat resembles this, so I agreed.

We fixed a time for him to come and look at the job. "That's grand, then," he said. "I'll see you then, Mrs Brown."

Nope. Nothing like my name. Though my maiden name was Smith.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Normal service

I'm not going to say much about the preceding discussion except that, like Molly, I felt very sad for Mary/Megan; and I didn't mean to make her feel upset. Also like Molly, I wish she had a blog since she writes so well. (And thank you, Mary/Megan, for the very nice things you said about my blog.) And now, back to posts about walks and Grandson. On Monday, we took some things to a charity shop in Stockbridge and then walked along to the Water of Leith to the Dean Village. Above, you see where we left the road...
... and below, the view standing in the same place but looking in the other direction. Very different.
Here's our friend the heron (or possibly his friend). Sorry about the horrible photo. This was me testing out the zoom on my phone camera. (Not very good.) Again, he's yards from that crossroads.
Along the river a bit, there's this display of the Dean Village as it was in a drawing of 1693. Those fields between it and the Castle in the background are now built over by the New Town (begun in 1780-something). I tend to prefer fields. On the other hand, I also like flushing toilets, central heating and washing machines so don't really want to live in 1693, thanks.
Mr Life obligingly poses in the Dean Village.
Above, you can see the backs of some New Town houses up the hill. They have less fancy stone on the backs than on the fronts. That's quite characteristic of Edinburgh, which is proverbially described as "fur coat and nae knickers" - ie looks posh on the outside (like a woman with a fur coat but no undergarments).
Then today we had Grandson again. He's very partial to climbing the stairs.
He's also very fond of the car keys, especially the button on them that locks and unlocks the car. This works even through the front door - you can hear the muffled click-click. Try explaining that to the insurance company when the car is stolen... . I think we need to put these keys somewhere less accessible to him before we find that he's posted both sets down the back of  a sofa or somewhere else known only to him. Since at the moment his vocabulary consists mainly of Mum, Da-da, Ga-ga, pussy, num-num, bye-bye, hello and such like, it might be a while before he told us where they were.