Friday, December 29, 2006

What happened at Christmas

I got a new digital camera for Christmas so here are some moderately seasonal photos.

We had all the family around for Christmas Day – Daughter 1 and her husband came over from their house; my husband, Daughter 2 and Son were here anyway; and my mother came for dinner along with my brother (my only sibling), his wife and my lovely nephew and niece; also my aunt. That’s just about my whole family. I only have one more aunt; no cousins. My husband is an only child and his parents died some years ago, though he does have an uncle and some cousins.

The missing member was of course my father, who’s still in hospital because he can’t walk – or at least, can’t get up by himself, though is allowed to use a walking frame occasionally with assistance. He’s also pretty confused. This didn’t stop us feeling very guilty that he wasn’t with us. Apart from this, we had a lovely day except that my mother wasn’t at all well. She had a bad cough and was unusually quiet.

Because my mum’s house has more spare rooms than ours, my brother and family (who live in the south of England) are staying with her, though they all eat with us. On Boxing Day, my sister-in-law came down in the morning to find my mother lying on the kitchen floor, semi-conscious. My sister-in-law and brother phoned for a doctor and for me. The doctor did various tests and decided that she’d just fainted, so we got her into bed, but during the course of the day, Mum passed out several more times, was very feverish and at times delirious, and, in brief, we ended up calling an ambulance and she was taken into hospital.

This was the third time since September that our son has accompanied a grandparent in an ambulance to the Accident and Emergency Department of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and I have gone behind the ambulance in my car. It’s actually the fourth time this year that I’ve done this – the first time, my mum was in the ambulance with my dad when he fainted when out to dinner, while the next two occasions were when my dad fractured a bone in his pelvis and then broke his hip.

So currently my dad is in the Royal Victoria Hospital, about 15 minutes’ drive north of our house and until this morning my mum was in the Royal Infirmary, about 30 minutes’ drive south. A lot of hospital visiting has been going on. We also heard today that my dad is having a small operation about now, to clear out an infected sinus on his behind.

Mum isn’t too bad. They think that all the fainting was due to low blood pressure combined with a high fever – though she normally has high blood pressure. Mercifully, there are plenty of us around at the moment to look after her. But I dread to think what would have happened if she’d been lying on the kitchen floor at 9 am on term-time morning. I always phone her during the day from work as well as in the evening if I’m not seeing her, but she could have lain there for hours.

My husband and I have been feeling for a while that she shouldn’t be living on her own. So we’ve offered to move in with her and I think she’ll accept. I’m feeling very low about this, since we love being at home with beloved Daughter 2, who is just perfect, like the ideal sister I never had, and lovely Son, who is also the best boy in the world, and cheery and cuddly. (We also adore Daughter 1, but she has her own house now.) But what can we do? I don’t think Mum would want to live in our house, though this is just about possible to manage now that Daughter 1 has left home. Our bedroom is downstairs, and there’s also a downstairs bathroom, so my husband and I could move into Daughter 1’s vacated bedroom, leaving our room for Mum. But I think she’d prefer to be in her own house, with her own things.

Sigh. Poor Mum, poor Dad. They’re 84 and a half and nearly 87, so have done well to live independently so far. But it’s so sad to see them frail and wobbly. It seems no time since they were strong and capable. Tempus fugit, folks. Gather ye rosebuds and that sort of thing.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Happy Christmas

I went up town this morning at 9 am to finish my Christmas shopping. I was up yesterday at 9 am also, and the previous Saturday, both times staying up till 2.30 pm, at which time I had to go and pick up my mum to take her to visit my dad. I am not an enthusiastic shopper.

Today, however, I was finished by 10 am. I bought three boxes of chocolates, three long rolls of wrapping paper, two orchids in glass pots, a hyacinth in bloom, a bunch of bananas, a lemon, a litre of milk, some sunflower oil spread, and a lettuce. No partridges or pear trees, but it was quite tricky not to bash the whippy orchid stems, smash the glass pots, squash the hyacinths or drop anything. While I was in the queue for the food items, balancing the delicate items with difficulty, a lady marched to the head of the queue and took her purchases to an assistant, while the law-abiding queuers just gazed at her and each other and sighed Britishly. Why did none of us say anything?

I then staggered to the bus stop and along came a man talking on a mobile phone. He had one carrier bag and was saying as he passed me, “So that’s the way to do Christmas shopping.”

Do share your secret with me, sir.

Then along came another chap, in his running gear, loping athletically along. Why choose Edinburgh’s main shopping street, two days before Christmas, for a running track? Granted, he was on the non-shop side of the road – the side where there are gardens a bit further along from where we were, and where he was presumably headed. But still. Why wasn’t he laden with shopping?

Ho hum. But still, it’s Christmas. The picture at the top isn’t of our tree, since my little camera has given up the ghost, and I didn’t take the one below either, but it’s Edinburgh, looking as it does. (I'm sorry the pictures are so tiny.I don't know why they are.)

I haven’t wrapped anything yet, but the fridge is full of food, the house is clean and decorated and my brother and his family, who live in the south of England, have reached my mum’s house safely. I feel very lucky. Happy Christmas to you all and God bless us every one!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

An ideal gift

Our son bought his girlfriend a gun the other day. For her rather difficult flatmate. Not a real gun. One that shoots little foam discs a few feet across the room. He then covered the label on the packet that contained the gun with this replacement one.

This is a joke, please understand. No flatmate will be injured, even in her feelings. The flatmate in question will never see this label, or even the gun, since it’s going as a Christmas present to the girlfriend’s home, which isn’t in Edinburgh.

This is the full, unfolded version. If it's too small to read, you can click it to enlarge it.
He’s also got her some more romantic gifts, you’ll be relieved to hear.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Thoughts on a Sunday

I’d like to be able to post nice Christmassy pictures of our tree in the sitting room, which is now dripping with decorations – I believe in overkill, not subtlety, for Christmas trees (and they have to be real ones). However, my little digital camera has died. Sob. My husband pointed out hopefully that there’s a much better camera currently “hidden” on top of the wardrobe - but no, Husband. Kind of you to mention this, but you can’t have your present early.

So instead this is one of several photos I had already taken of my orchid, none of which is very good because the flash causes a shadow on the wall, making the photo look out of focus. Annoying, but the orchid is spectacular, which pleases me because this is its second year. (Pause for Australian bloggers to tell me that orchids grow like weeds in their gardens...)

However, the house is now half festively decorated and by the time this evening is out, it will be fully so. The cards and Christmas letters are all written and posted and I even did quite a lot of present shopping yesterday. It’s really hard to feel particularly celebratory, however, with my dad in the state he’s in, which includes

a) unable to get to his feet
b) extremely confused and
c) either sad or very irascible.

Though he had his good points too, he was always irascible and at times very unreasonable but it’s so pathetic and so odd to hear and see him as he is. He was formerly very competent, intelligent and energetic and now he’s in his pyjamas, unable to rise from a chair and no longer does his daily cryptic crossword or Sudoko or reads anything but the paper. And he’s always been very authoritative and imperious and he still is, but is now talking nonsense quite a lot of the time.

The other day he was telling my mum and me about a funeral he’d been at earlier (he hadn’t) and how he’d had to run up and downstairs all day collecting his things from the room where they keep the sports equipment (he hasn’t run for years and all his things are in his bedside cabinet). Then he was fulminating, as he so often does, about the poor organisation in the hospital.

“They’ve had no cornflakes for two weeks,” he fumed. “I suggested that they should order some more, but they said no, it was complicated and it would take several weeks to get any.”

“Oh dear,” I said. “What did you have for breakfast, then?”

“Cornflakes,” he snorted indignantly.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

But then, Daughter 2 sang with her choir in a lovely carol concert last night, which lifted the spirits. Afterwards she was chatting to a fellow choir member, who had been phoned at work by someone claiming to be returning the call of a chap called Bentley Slopp.

Daughter 2’s friend assured the caller that there was no one called Bentley Slopp in their organisation. They discussed the mystery for a few moments before the friend’s gaze fell on his colleague on the other side of the room… Ben Hislop.

Right then, I’m off to do things with holly.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Christmas Elf

I’ve been writing Christmas cards and letters, and now I must go and mark students’ work, so I really don’t have time to blog. However, it’s maybe about time I started joining in with the Christmas spirit, so – let me introduce you – briefly – to the Christmas Elf. He lives in our house at this time of year.

Every day in December, he brings little chocolate presents to the children who live here. He leaves a little note – usually a short poem, often with a little drawing - in the relevantly numbered box in this extremely bashed and scruffy Advent chimney. The note holds a clue as to the whereabouts of the chocolate. I - sorry, the Elf - bought and filled this chimney for the first time about twenty years ago.

The children still with us are now 22 and 25 and they still enjoy finding the little presents. Or to put in another way, they strongly feel that the presents should still be left. "Insist" might not be too strong a word. After all, we wouldn’t want the Elf to feel redundant, would we?

Beware, o young parents, of starting these traditions…

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Busy blog


Huge quantities of marking at the moment; plus visiting my Dad in hospital. My week goes:

Sunday: take my Mum to church; visit my Dad in afternoon; have Mum and Daughter 1 and SIL to meal in evening with rest of family and then marking/preparation.

I work full-time during the week but in the evenings:

Monday: marking/preparation
Tuesday: teach evening class and then marking/preparation
Wednesday: sing in choir and then… as above
Thursday: take Mum to visit Dad and then…
Friday: take Mum to visit Dad.

On Saturday mornings, I always take Mum out for a little expedition, and then we visit Dad in the afternoon.

And I do spend some time with my dear husband and lovely offspring. And I dust, and so on. Iron. Cook. That kind of thing.

Doesn’t leave much time for writing Christmas cards and letters. As for shopping… and blogging…

So I’m behind with my blog-reading/commenting.

However, on a brighter note, I’ve won a competition! No talent required – it was a prize draw - a blog prize draw. Kirsty from Two Lime Leaves - - made some lovely Christmas decorations and I’ve got one! What fun.

And – even better – Daughter 1 has got a new job – which she needs. She’s a trainee archivist, and when her previous job came to an end (it was a fixed-term one) some weeks ago, there were no archive posts to apply for. She’s been temping as a secretary, but this job sounds very suitable. It’s only till May, but still, it’s fine for now.

So there. I feel cheerier than of late. And we’ve had no frost to speak of yet so there are still flowers – like this fuchsia – blooming in the garden.

Our students have been doing assessments – textual analysis. One was of a poem in which oystercatchers fuss round rocks, crying “Weep! Weep!”

Oystercatchers are birds, by the way (not sure if they have non-British cousins, and I don’t know whether they actually eat oysters. Certainly not exclusively). Our students hadn’t, on the whole, heard of them.

The most interesting guess by a student was that oystercatchers are like clams, and they run around the beach, catching oysters.

Running clams… hmm. And indeed, oysters pelting away across the sand…

Saturday, December 02, 2006

More apple sauce cake talk

By popular demand – well, four of you asked – here is the recipe:

My sister-in-law, Steffi, is American and she gave me this recipe many years ago. Her mother is of Irish and her father of Greek descent, so I don’t know whether the recipe is authentically American, but anyway, this is why it exists in terms of cups and spoonfuls. We Brits don’t do those. We do ounces and pounds if we’re over 30ish; otherwise grams. Britain is now officially metric so I have trouble with grams when I’ve written down on a shopping list the ingredients I need to make some tried and tested recipe. I know that a kilogram is a little over two pounds, so I stand in the supermarket going, “I need six ounces of desiccated coconut and this packet is 325 grams, so…”.

Some of the cake ingredients (eg plain flour, icing sugar) may be called something different in America. Steffi sometimes has to translate American recipes for me (she and my brother live near London, so she’s bilingual). If anyone needs me to, I can ask her the American terms. But I feel you can work out the ounce thing. If I can do grams, you can do ounces.

Anyway, I long ago bought baking cups to make this recipe, but translated the butter into ounces because who would want to cram butter into a cup and then have to wash it when you can just cut what used to be an 8 ounce packet of butter in half? Of course, a packet is now slightly more than 8 ounces because it’s some number of grams instead (I suppose 250ish) but you know – cooking’s an art, not a science.

You might know my artistic cooking from previous posts if you’ve read them.

Similarly, this recipe originally had half a cup of nuts (unspecified) in it, but I myself put sultanas instead, since we prefer this. On the other hand, Son’s girlfriend doesn’t like dried fruit, so he makes it without. Even when he’s making it for her flatmate…

Steffi’s apple sauce cake


4 ounces butter
Half cup each of caster sugar and soft brown sugar
1 and three quarter cups plain flour (ie without rising agent)
I cup sultanas or half cups nuts or whatever. Or neither. Or both.
Half teaspoon salt (but I never actually put this in)
I teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
I teaspoon cinnamon
Half teaspoon ground cloves
2 eggs
I cup apple sauce, bought or made yourself. (I usually just use bought stuff and don’t bother about the amount. Just a jar of whatever size comes to hand.)


Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, and cream again. Fold in flour and other dry ingredients and add fruit/nuts.

Bake in two sandwich tins for half an hour at 150 degrees.



3 cups icing sugar
9 ounces cream cheese
Dash cinnamon if you like it
Dash brandy if you like it, but then you may have to add a bit more icing sugar, depending on how generous your dash is.


Cream all together, getting very sticky in the process.

Put two cakes together with icing in the middle and on the top. If you really like getting thoroughly sticky, you can, of course, cut each cake in half horizontally and then put the icing in four smaller layers.

Make sure icing is spreadable but quite firm. If it’s too sloshy then when you put the cake together the icing will gradually flow out the sides. I speak from experience.

I've just made two Christmas cakes, one for my mum and one for us. They're in the oven now. This is the sum total of my Christmas preparations. It's a start.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The tale of a cake

A 22-year old lad I know had some time free at home this afternoon and decided to make a cake for his girlfriend’s flatmate. This flatmate – let’s call her A. – can be a bit of a trial – she hogs the washing machine, uses other people’s butter and such like. However, A. had done this lad a favour and, being a well-brought up boy, he wanted to show his appreciation.

So he made a cake. It was his favourite kind – apple sauce cake. It rose beautifully; it was, he felt, the best cake he had ever made. He iced it with cream cheese icing; it looked delicious.

His girlfriend came to dinner with us. After the meal, he looked at the beautiful cake and wondered if it was maybe too good for the - generally rather awkward - flatmate.


The cake tasted very nice indeed.

Well, he can make another one tomorrow

Friday, November 24, 2006

A few random blog thoughts

I hope Thanksgiving Day went well for any American who reads this. I wonder if you ever wish it was in – I don’t know, maybe April - so as to space out the turkey holidays a bit? Why is it at this time of year, anyway?

A couple of months ago, Daughter 1, who knows about things (including, probably, why Thanksgiving is when it is) installed a visit counter for my blog. Then, cruelly, she abandoned us for married life in her own house. So – not being technologically very advanced – I didn’t realise till some weeks later that one can click on all sorts of lists and get fascinating details about where people are who visit one's blog.

I’m sure everyone else knows all this already, so I apologise for being boring. But I’m amazed every week by various things. One is the numbers of countries from where people visit. Abu Dhabi kept popping up for a few weeks, though clearly the Abu Dhabian got bored since there’s been no sign of him/her recently. Someone from Geneva features quite often, and an Amsterdamer also seems to keep an eye on me. A couple of German blog-readers. And a Canadian or two. There are also various people, who I assume are the nice people with whom I exchange comments, in places in America, Australia and New Zealand. Somehow (why?) it seems odder that there’s an occasional visitor from nearer home, for example in Salford and Norfolk.

Hello, all you mysterious people.

Mind you, last week was a bit of a bumper visit-week, while the figures are a bit down this time. (If I were a BBC programme, I’d be getting axed.) And there are always some people who, according to the little lists, visit for 0 seconds. How does that work? I can understand someone clicking on the “Next blog” button, finding me and thinking “I don’t think so” – but how does anyone do that in 0 seconds?

It’s jolly fun, though, and all for free. To be picky, I could do with a bigger world map on the screen. My geography of the Antipodes is terrible and I keep meaning to get an atlas and look up those places mentioned on the “Location” list; the blobs on the map must cover several hundred square miles.

It’s the weekend. Thank goodness.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

How full is your glass?

The last few days have featured a lot of lashing rain and battering winds. Our college is built round a courtyard and if you’re in the corridor on one side of this courtyard on such days, you can hear the wind moaning in a really “Wooo!” sort of way.

Yesterday I was walking along this way to my class in the late afternoon. I glanced out at the uninviting weather as the sky darkened, the rain poured and the wind howled. I was thinking thoughts of Florida, or Australia, or possibly my bed.

A lovely cheery student called Abdul, who wasn’t born in Scotland, passed me, beamed, and said in his lilting accent, “The wind is singing a beautiful song.”

And, in a way, it was.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sedum "Autumn Joy"

You know how men hate to ask directions? Well, some men, anyway. One particular man not too far away from me at this moment.

I think I may have found a clue as to why this is.

I was walking along this evening when a car pulled up and the (male) driver asked for directions.

“It’s not far,” I said. “Just take the first right and then the first left.”

“Right and then right,” he said.

“No, right and then left.”

“Right,” he said, and got back in his car. Then he drove off and turned left.

Women are from Venus and men are from… well, it probably varies.

PS - My husband isn't like this at all. He always has a map of everywhere, and if by any chance we do get a little lost and I am (eventually) allowed to ask directions, he's very good at following them. (This is just in case he reads this. Though it's true.)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A post about my boy

Our son, a 22-year-old medical student, is a cheerful and uncomplaining sort of chap.

A few days ago, I bought some English muffins – which are flat, round rolls – bits of bread, basically, baked in flat lumps. I didn’t have any myself, but the next day I vaguely noticed our son wandering through from the kitchen eating one of them, spread liberally with strawberry jam (or, in American, jelly).

The next day, again in the kitchen, he suddenly said, “Oh!” I looked enquiringly at him and he held the packet of muffins towards me. I looked first at the sell-by date, since in my experience, young people lack my generation’s relaxed attitude to these things (if bread, cheese and other non-salmonella-carrying foodstuffs aren’t actually mouldy, then they’re fine. If, however, there are green fluffy bits on them, then cut these off and proceed as before).

“These are cheese and black pepper muffins,” he said. “I thought they tasted a bit funny with jam.” He considered. “They were ok. Just funny.”

You can see how his upbringing has given him a discerning palate.

This reminded us of the time he’d made himself a cheese and mango chutney sandwich to take to university for lunch. When he began to eat it, he discovered that it was actually a cheese and ginger preserve sandwich. “I ate it anyway,” he said stoically. “I was hungry and it was food.”

This is the spirit that made Britain great.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


I have been so busy! Lots and lots of marking, because I’ve been giving my classes lots and lots of writing to do. Very foolish of me. Must stop doing this.
As well as working full-time, I teach an evening class on a Tuesday and sing in a choir on a Wednesday. And visiting my dad in hospital rather deals with the rest of the evenings and weekends.

Dad's broken hip is mending but he has cancer which has now spread to his bones, his lungs and his liver. He doesn’t seem to be in particular pain, but he’s not really able to walk and is very fed up and predicting his imminent demise – with, it has to be admitted, some justification. So it’s all very sad. Remind me not to get any older.

On Saturday mornings, I usually take my mum out for a little expedition, but last week this didn’t happen. Instead my husband and I escaped to the Botanic Gardens for a walk. It was bliss: lots of autumn colours and a mild day with sweet, fresh air. I could feel tension draining out of the soles of my feet.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

More Barcelona photos

Somewhat out of sequence, here are some more Barcelona photos of Gaudi architecture. It’s very photographable, even with my little digital camera.

Here’s Park Guell, which was intended to be a sort of self-contained estate of houses with a market place and parkland. However, it didn’t catch on and only a few houses were built, one of which was the janitor’s, by the gate. Gaudi himself lived in another house in the park – that was before he moved on to the cathedral site, to dedicate the rest of his life to that. For some reason I don’t seem to have taken any pictures of the actual houses – which are designed according to the gingerbread house style of architecture - but I made up for it by overdosing on the broken tile mosaics which are used liberally as decoration elsewhere. These were done not by Gaudi himself but by Someone Else, whose name, regrettably, I forget.

The site is now a sort of park (only not featuring much in the way of vegetation) which is much frequented by tourists, and possibly also locals for all I know. You go in the gate and are confronted by the above steps. At the top is what looks like a Roman temple – this was supposed to be the market-place. You can see that there are people on the top, which was intended as the estate's assembly place. Near the foot of the steps is the famous – well, it looks like a lizard to me, but evidently it’s a dragon. That lady isn't me, by the way.
If you go inside the market-place and look upward, you can see all these mosaic bosses.

This mosaic is one of many pictures I took of...

... the famous wiggly-waggly seats on top of the market-place, which are covered in more broken tilework. I’ll spare you the whole collection of photos but it’s rather pretty. I can see that one could happily while away large portions of one’s life breaking up plates and sticking them back together again.
On a different site, there’s Gaudi’s La Pedrera – the Stone Quarry. He built this as two blocks of flats with independent entrance ways. The design was very innovative, evidently. It has two big courtyards – of very non-standard shapes - so that all of the flats have windows to the outside and also into these spaces, which act as light wells. It would have been much better to have been in Barcelona with Daughter 2, who is a junior architect, because she would have pointed out all the clever features, but even without her, it was very interesting. The public are allowed into one flat – every single wall is curved – and into the attics, which were designed for drying clothes (and for keeping the apartments warm in winter and cool in summer, and which, again, have very clever architecture – something to do with how they’re supported); and also on to the roof, where the chimneys and the air vents and so on are very Alice-in-Wonderlandlike in appearance. There’s also a touch of the controversial newish Scottish Parliament building about some of the windows, we felt – the architect of this was a Catalan also.
Ah well, that was the holiday. Now back to the marking (or grading, as I’m told it’s called in America).

Friday, November 03, 2006

Maybe I should stick to gardening

One of the things that students have to do for Higher English is to write a reflective essay.

"Try to write an arresting first sentence in your essay," I said. "Catch my attention from the beginning."

First essay in the pile; first sentence:

"I don't know whether the first time I tried cocaine or the night I lost my virginity was the bigger anti-climax."

Yes, well, maybe I need to word my lessons more carefully.

This is a contoneaster, by the way.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Three seasons in the garden

Rather tired, having taught an evening class, so thought I'd just display three pictures of the garden this year: spring,
and autumn. All lovely seasons in their way. There hasn't been any frost yet so all the summer bedding is bravely flowering on; though with the reduced light, the blooms aren't so profuse.

Tonight, however, it's quite chilly for the first time. The clocks went back at the weekend so that it's still light in the mornings but dark soon after work.

How impossible to imagine that it's spring - nearly summer - in Australia and New Zealand.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Acting and the art of cookery

Isn't my Christmas cactus pretty?

I’ve been married for 32 years and 9 months, and during that time I’ve done a lot of cooking. I say this in my defence, not wishing you to believe, as you read the following, that I’m a complete idiot.

However, I do occasionally fail to give my entire attention to my cooking. My mind is, I like to think, on higher things from time to time, and the result has been, once or twice, that I’ve missed out a vital ingredient. There was the time, for example, when I made cheese soufflé without the cheese. Or at least, I put the dish in the oven and, while clearing up, came across the grated cheese in its bowl. So I fished the soufflé out of the cooker and stirred in the cheese. It was fine.

As a variation on this theme, I once made a cheese soufflé without the egg yolks. This was when my mother-in-law was living with us. She had terminal cancer and had become unable to live by herself – she was a widow – so of course we had her to stay with us. My husband is an only child. I liked my mother-in-law but she was quite a formidable lady who didn’t suffer fools particularly enthusiastically, and though she was always very nice to me, I was always faintly worried that I wasn’t quite what she had in mind for her only son. She had been a teacher of cooking and sewing. She was a fantastic cook as well as making all her clothes, curtains and cushion covers and reupholstering her furniture. However, she wasn’t a reader. Though I could cook all right and make curtains that stayed up, I wasn’t hugely skilled or interested in those areas compared to my interest in reading and the arts.

When ill, she had very little appetite and so I thought to tempt her with a soufflé. On this occasion I didn’t come across the bowl with the yolks till too late. I have to report that yolkless soufflés rise very well. But they’re a little lacking in substance. I dare say they’d be very popular with size 0 filmstars, though I imagine that the really slender people would insist on the cheese being omitted as well. (I can do that too, as I’ve said.) Of course, I would have to make a dud soufflé for my MIL, the supercook. But she was very good about it.

We always have my parents (and now also Daughter 1 and her husband) to a meal on a Sunday. A short time ago I was musing about dessert and decided that, to accompany the raspberries and cream that I’d already bought for tomorrow, I’d make brownies. SIL is very skinny and needs calories, and Son is energetic and lean. Because cooking is boring, I was listening to a tape of Garrison Keillor telling one of his tales of Lake Wobegon – heartwarming tales of people to whom slightly sad (but funny) things happen, but it all turns out right in the end. This story was about Bob Anderson, who goes to New York to be a dancer, and for whom show business turns out to be a difficult and unprofitable business.

This made me think about a conversation that Daughter 2 and I had the other day. We’d been to the theatre, and I later said something about the strange life of an actor – its peripatetic nature and its uncertainty.

Daughter 2, correctly inferring the subtext of this (“Why on earth does your boyfriend want to be an actor? Why can’t you marry some nice lawyer or doctor?”) looked lovingly at me and made the following little speech:

“Oh, Mum. You need to realise that everyone’s not like you. You wouldn’t like to be an actor, but then you wouldn’t like to be a fire fighter or a mountaineer or a politician either. If everyone was like you, the world would be a far better place. But there wouldn’t be any fire fighters.”

Well, there was considerable daughterly bias in this assessment, but that last bit’s certainly true, and of course she’s right in many respects. But it’s just that I want her life to be safe and easy and perfect! And she understands this. She’s so lovely.

And as I considered all these things, I spooned the brownie mixture into the prepared, lined tin, thinking to myself, but only very very vaguely, that it seemed a bit… not quite right. I popped it into the oven, ran water into the mixing bowl and – only then – looked over the ingredients. I’d missed out the sugar.

Sugarless brownies would be a lot healthier, I’m sure, but would they cook properly?

I took the baking tray out again, scraped the mixture with considerable difficulty off the baking paper and into a fresh bowl, added the sugar, cut more paper to fit the tin and put it back in to cook. It’ll be fine. Cooking’s an art, not a science. Luckily.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Sagrada Familia

Well, once again the plane didn’t fall into the sea and we survived. I do hate flying, though. I hate the way that the plane seems hardly off the ground before you’re looking down on tiny dolls’ houses, giving you no chance to say: actually, I’ve changed my mind; can we go back? I really really don’t like the bumpy bits of turbulence. I always have to fix my eyes on one of the cabin crew to watch for signs of anxiety on his or her face - as long as the coffee-pouring continues, I feel somewhat reassured. But the descent is the worst bit. The part where the sound of the engines changes – clearly because one of them’s failed, if not fallen off; the bit where the pilot applies the brakes and it’s just a matter of time before we go into a spin; and the time when we’re zooming dangerously near the ground and the pilot’s teasing us, making us brace ourselves for that horrible crump as we hit the runway.

Anyway: Barcelona. It was amazing, at least to me, who hadn’t had time to read up on it before we went. Our reason for going was mainly to see the Gaudi architecture, which I knew about, vaguely. I’d seen pictures of strange, tiled buildings, and kind of realised that the cathedral that Gaudi had started to build was still not finished and was still being worked on. But I had no idea exactly how much it wasn’t finished. And visiting this on Tuesday – the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia (expiatory temple of the sacred family) - was a real highlight of the trip – in fact one of the highlights of my life. Maybe that’s putting it a bit strongly; though one has to bear in mind that my life hasn’t been all that exciting… .

Unlike my expectations - which were that there would be a plasterer or two patting the last tile into place - the whole cathedral is a huge, enormous, gigantic building site. Which sounds bad but which is actually fantastically exhilarating. Because you’ll never be on such a huge, grand, ambitious building site again. It’s as if you were transported back 800 years to the building of some mediaeval cathedral – Worcester or Lincoln, maybe – and could watch the workmen tapping out the carving at the top of the pillars high above your head.

Huge, soaring pillars, an enormous roof, beautiful stained glass - and meanwhile chaps down on the floor mixing moulds for leaf and tree trunk shapes, or standing around drinking cups of coffee or consulting plans or sweeping up messy bits. And birds flying in and out.
I’ve visited lots of very old cathedrals and thought – wow, what must this have been like to build? And now you can see what it must have been like – give or take modern scaffolding and cranes and cement mixers and protective headgear and – presumably – fewer unfortunates plunging to their deaths. But in essence it’s the same – men (yes, they were all men, at least when we were there) plodding on with their work and – very very gradually - achieving something astonishing. Gaudi died in 1926 when he was knocked down by a tram, but he was 76 at this stage and must have known that he’d never see his cathedral finished. Work then came to a halt and didn’t start again till 1952; but that was a while ago now, and it’s still only about a quarter built, I’d say. It’s hard to imagine that it’ll ever be finished – for one thing, they need to knock down a whole lot of the surrounding buildings to make the cathedral into the cross shape that’s planned. And the cost of it – completely unimaginable. And we live in a much more unbelieving age than that of Gaudi, so how many people still want to expiate anything in honour of the sacred family? I’ve no idea. And yet it goes on.
The temptation in the end – for some future government in some future Spain - will surely be to leave it as it then is, which even now is very impressive, with its strange spires which look like iced decorations on a slightly melted fairy castle cake complete with fancy spoons on the top, and its pillars which look like trees, and its various carvings and tiled bosses and its stairs which curl like apple peel cut off in one piece.
Was Gaudi right to devote – as he did – the last part of his life entirely to this project? I’d have to say yes. It was completely mad, but what do most of us leave behind when we die? Not a lot. A few memories with a few grandchildren for a few decades. Which is fine – it wouldn’t do if we all built cathedrals, and I’d personally rather have grandchildren. But… well, if you’ve not been to Barcelona, let me urge you to go, despite the possibility of the engines falling off your plane.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

City break

My husband and I are off tomorrow morning to Barcelona, returning on Friday. I'm very anxious about this, since not only does it involve going on one of these flying machine things, but also I'm leaving with the "children" the burden of looking after my mum and taking her every afternoon to visit my dad in hospital. Dad got his hip pinned together on Monday and is still not making much progress. But this little holiday was booked ages ago, my husband is looking forward to it and my mum is urging us to go. So we're going, barring additional crises. But - sigh.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Autumn Watch

“Autumn Watch” is a nature programme which has been on recently. It’s hosted by Bill Oddie, a bearded, rather excitable chap who’s very keen on wildlife in general and birds in particular.

I saw a few minutes of it the other night. He was interviewing the rather taciturn warden of a bird sanctuary.

Bill Oddie: How many geese do you have here at the moment?

Warden (looking out over acres of goose-covered marshland): Oh, ten thousand, I reckon.

Bill Oddie: How do you estimate the number?

(Pause. Warden looks at him.)

Warden: Count the legs and divide by two.


Scene: kitchen table, evening meal

(Explanatory note: our children get on very well indeed and have a very jolly relationship. For example, Daughter 2 and Son frequently address each other as “Smelly” - in an purely affectionate way, you understand.)

Me:… and did you know that your dad reads my blog?

Son (surprised): You’ve got a blog? What do you write about?

Daughter 2 (patting his hand): Oh, you, I expect.

Son (cheerfully): Hmm, yes, I’ve always felt there should be a website devoted to me.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


I. My husband mentioned the other day that he reads my blog. Hello, dear. He knew I had one, because Daughter 1 and I discuss blogs, and he found it, I assume, by Googling something he thought would be in it. No idea how long he’s been reading it, though. (I could ask him, of course. Not really sure why I didn't.) Just as well I didn’t say anything rude about him! (not that there’s anything rude to say, of course).

2. I sometimes wish I’d chosen a less bland name for the blog. Occasionally, I can’t remember which of the less striking blog names on my Favourites list belongs to which more memorable writer. Names like Lainey’s “The Fat Party is O-V-E-R” or of course “The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl” are much harder to forget. I chose my name with no thought at all, on a whim.

3. I like seeing what other bloggers look like, but I myself hide behind a picture of mecanopsis. This is partly because it’s a really lovely photo – rather more so than one of me would be – but mainly for the sake of anonymity, in case of the remote possibility that one of my students should chance upon the blog. Being a teacher is quite enough of a public performance without that. I do occasionally wonder what I would do if I met Shauna or Lainey in the streets of Edinburgh, as isn’t impossible. I would be pretty sure to recognise them. Would I say hello? I’d certainly think about it but would probably still be getting round to it as they disappeared into the distance.

4. My name isn’t really Isabelle, of course. Or at least, it’s not my first name.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Another day at the hospital

Let’s start on a positive note. Isn't this coleus lovely? There it is, sitting on my lawn last Saturday, beautifully crimson, with one autumnally symbolic leaf fallen on the grass in front of it – not that I noticed it at the time. I just love the amazingly diverse colours and shapes of leaves.

However, my father – who got out of hospital yesterday afternoon despite his slightly cracked right hip– fell down in the bathroom at 5 this morning and broke his left hip. He really hated being in hospital last week and complained constantly, so when the combined forces of my husband, Daughter 2 and myself were unable to lift him off the bathroom floor this morning because it was too painful for him, he said that he was definitely not going to any hospital, that we couldn’t make him, that he would refuse to go in an ambulance… .

However, when the ambulance came, he fortunately co-operated, and all the time in Accident and Emergency he kept up this – for him, frankly unusual - attitude. I was so sorry for him, though. He was the dux of his school (top prizewinner); he was in Bomb Disposal during the war and won the George Medal – very prestigious; he was a top chap in industry during his working career as well as being a strong, tireless sort of man. And there he was on a trolley, a shrunken, deaf old chap in absorbent underpants. Oh dear.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Reasons to be cheerful

Goodness me, waiting for pictures to load on to my blog is like watching someone give birth. Come on, Blogger, just one more little push - you can do it. And the green worm thing painfully squeezes the photo out - Done!

Look at this petunia that Daughter 1 and SIL bought me months ago. Wouldn't that just gladden your heart? Nearly October and it's still shouting pinkly "Look at me!"

A few weeks ago I bought some bulbs and this morning I thought that it was about time I planted them. I'd forgotten that among these were two autumn crocuses, which I've never bought before because the leaves are enormous later in the year. However, I succumbed this year. When I opened the brown paper bag that the bulbs were in, one of the autumn crocuses looked like this.

But the other looked like this.

The poor thing had decided that it was time to flower and had just gone ahead, in its net prison, in the dark. And it was lovely! - actually pale pink, though it doesn't show up on my photo.

Isn't nature wonderful? I've now planted it in the garden.