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.