Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Work work work and a birthday

Life is going through one of those periods when I hurtle from day to day with never a spare moment, just trying to get through all that needs to be done each day before falling into bed and getting up for the next one.

Last weekend I took Friday off work (which isn’t as good as it sounds, because Friday is the day I have most of my preparation time at work so it made the rest of the week rather packed with activity) and Daughter 2, my mother and I went down to my brother’s 60th birthday party.

The catlets helped Daughter 2 to pack. Can you see me in one of the pictures on her wall? Bottom row, middle picture, turquoise shirt.

My brother lives in Epsom, south of London, so it’s quite a long trip for my 85-year-old mum. It was nice, but rather tiring (we spent most of Saturday preparing food, socialised all evening and then did dishes till 10 to 2 am on Sunday morning). It was good to see my brother and sister-in-law and nephew and niece – both lovely young people. My niece graduated from Cambridge in the summer and my nephew has just started there and seemed very enthusiastic about his course, which is good because although clever, he's a bit disorganised and we're not all that convinced that he'll get round to doing as much work as he should. He definitely seems to be doing a bit of partying, judging by glimpses I've had of his Facebook page.
How wonderful to be starting university: the best time of one’s life, or at least one of the best.

However, I'm quite looking forward to being 60, personally, because I will quite possibly retire then. How blissful it would be to have some time to oneself.
Edited to add (re some comments) - ok, I'll be more specific. I'm the shortish, darkish person in the turquoise shirt between the lady in the hat (my sister-in-law) and the tall man (my husband).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Berberis and books

Ages ago, Thimbleanna tagged me and two others have done so since. Apologies for not responding earlier. Never have a minute to think. Here’s the Thimbleanna one.

Hardcover or paperback, and why? Hardcover. They’re easier to balance on the edge of the bath.

If I were to own a book shop , I would call it…. . I don’t think I want to own a bookshop. I wouldn’t want people fingering my nice books and having free reads of them on the quiet.

My favourite quote from a book (mention the title) is… Goodness me, I have lots and lots of favourite quotes. But, one I like very much is from “Glittering Prizes” the television series of play from years ago by Frederic Raphael. He has one of his characters say, “I’d like a small house in the country, with a big garden surrounded by large, barbed wire dogs.” Sometimes I feel a bit like that. I'm really quite sociable but after a day teaching and dealing with people’s problems I occasionally just want a bit of peace.

The author (alive or deceased) I would love to have lunch with would be… Oh, nobody. I would be frightened that they would be a disappointment; or, come to that, that I would.

If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except for the SASsurvival guide, it would be… It would have to be a Jane Austen. Probably “Sense and Sensibility”, but any of them. There is no author so soothing. Except maybe Garrison Keillor – his Lake Wobegon stories, not his novels.

I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that… held up a heavy book in bed at just the right angle for when I’m lying on my side (which I have to do – bad back).

The smell of an old book reminds me of… my childhood, I suppose. New books were a rarity then. Most that I read were from the library or my parents’ shelves.

The most overestimated book of all times is… This is a bit of a big question! I’d say “Ulysses” if I’d ever got past the first few pages. “White Teeth” didn’t impress me much; nor did anything by E M Forster and I’m not too keen on D H Lawrence either.

I hate it when a book … is sad. I used to be able to read sad books but now I only want to read reasonably happy ones. Which cuts out a lot of literature, especially since I’m not keen on explicit sex scenes or violence either. This is a really feeble answer, isn't it? Actually, what I really hate is when a book falls in the bath.

If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be… oh, possibly Elizabeth Bennet from “Pride and Prejudice”. I would have the disadvantage of marrying Mr Darcy, who is frankly a bit of a pompous bore, but on the other hand he’s rich, he’s probably away a lot and he has Pemberley and its lovely gardens (at least, I’d make sure they were lovely). No housework. No work, come to that. Bliss...

If anyone would like to be tagged, please consider it done, but may I suggest Loth of The Gym Isn't Working, K of Square One and anyone doing the NaBlowhatever who's a bit short of inspiration today?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sleeping cats

Having had a week of frantic activity (lots of visitors, far too much work etc) I haven't time to post because I'm too busy trying to catch up with all you daily bloggers. But here are some puss pictures. As you see, the catlets don't really go in for frantic activity. Above, Cassie is catching forty winks with Daughter 2 last Sunday afternoon.

Here she is trying out her new igloo bed. I was worried that she and her brother might be a bit chilly in the kitchen at night so bought them one of these each to keep the draughts out.

These are their previous beds. We tried putting them beside the dining room radiator in the evening. The catlets liked this.

After a while, it became too warm for them to share a bed.

Eventually, Sirius had to cool down a bit more. Doesn't look comfortable to me, but he seemed happy.
I think I want to be a cat. You know that moment when you're going off to work, all harassed and exhausted, and they sit watching you go? And you can just see them thinking... why don't you just stay here with us and have a nap?
Don't cats ask good questions?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


This was a Roman shop we passed one day. I just love the way that words don't necessarily translate just as one might think: I assume that the owners were hoping to give a classy impression, but somehow a shop called "Expensive!" (or "E!" for short) doesn't really tempt me inside.

There was another shop called "Jolly Jolly Jolly" - again, this misses the sophisticated air that I imagine was intended.

I am so tired! so busy! and so sorry that I haven't been blogvisiting the last few days. And all you NaBlowhateveritis people will have been writing reams, all good stuff no doubt. I shall return.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Flying pigs

To continue from my previous post: I didn't invent the notion of being killed by a falling pig. This did happen to someone, or at least I feel it did. Some French or Italian writer: Baudelaire or Dante or someone. Or possibly a Pole. Someone European, anyway. The pig was in an upstairs room and jumped out of the window. Splat.

I thought I could easily find out who it was by Googling "died when pig fell on head" or words to that effect, but alas, I only got references to works of fiction, eg "A Happy Vacancy" by Stephen Dobyns, about a falling pig crushing a distinguished poet in Boston.

I'm sure I didn't make the European version up. I'm sure I was told about it years ago by someone authoritative, like a lecturer at my university. But maybe it's an urban myth. Anyway, I always thought it was an unfortunately ridiculous way to go. The Pantheon roof would be more dignified.

Can anyone help me about the pig story?

Meanwhile I must go and have my bath: it's midnight 34. Isn't that a lovely lily above, though? Not to say a splendid cat below?

Friday, November 09, 2007

The cat-free Pantheon

I know you just want pictures of cats, but I want to post about the Pantheon, so bear with me.

We went twice. It is really astonishing – amazing – to stand in a complete building that was constructed 2000 years ago. It makes one realise that all the other buildings in Rome that are now in ruins didn’t really fall down by themselves; they were taken down by later builders. Recycling, I suppose. In the Pantheon’s case, having been built as a temple for all the gods, it was then taken over as a church in the 6th century, which presumably preserved it.

From the outside it looks quite unimpressive: a big round building made of chewed-looking bricks, grimy after a couple of millennia of exposure to smoky city life. It once had marble on the outside, but this was pinched; some time ago, I imagine. At the front, there’s rather incongruous-looking but very large portico, which hides the rest of the building. But once you go inside – you just stand there, open-mouthed, you and another thousand or so tourists. A thousand people say “Wow!” in forty different languages as they gaze around and above.
The Pantheon is HUGE. I mean COLOSSAL. It’s 142 feet (43.3 metres) in diameter and the same 142 feet to the top of its enormous dome. The dome is made of concrete, with recessed panels in circles, decreasing in size towards the top. These panels are very decorative but also reduce the weight of the dome, which means that it doesn’t collapse. I have to confess that, being a person who likes to consider all eventualities, I did wonder whether it was a good idea to spend such a long time under a huge, ancient, very heavy concrete dome. After all, it has to fall down some time. But then, what a way to go! “My mother died in the great Pantheon disaster.” Beats saying, “My mother died when a pig fell on her head”, doesn’t it?
The Pantheon still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the history of architecture. And it was built – did I mention this? 2000 years ago. 2000 years! What were British people building 2000 years ago? Quite. (Well, Stonehenge, possibly. But it’s a bit rough and ready compared to the Pantheon.)
The whole building is lit by a big hole at the top of the dome – the oculus – which is 30 feet (9 metres) across. This means, of course, that when it rains, water comes in (much like in our hall) but the floor is slightly convex so that it flows towards the outside walls, where there are drains. Unlike our hall.

How on earth did anyone that long ago design and build something so enormous, so intricately calculated, so durable? It’s also very beautiful. It’s lined with marble of various colours – I think there’s been some restoration, but this just means that you can really imagine being there as an Ancient Roman worshipping in this enormous space.
Well, thanks for reading this far. I realise that you’ve probably all been to Rome and seen it for yourselves, but if not – go. It’s big. It’s free. You need to see it. Twice.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


It's all very well to pontificate about ancient civilisations. But I get the feeling from comments that what people really want are pictures of cats. So here are some rather blurry ones from the day of Fifi's visit. (The cats aren't usually allowed in this room, which is kept cat-free for Daughter 1 and her beloved, who are allergic.)

This was a special treat for them. Honestly, O allergic ones. They've not been allowed in since.

You can't see Cassie in this picture, can you?
We saw only two cats in Rome, by the way and they both looked well-fed.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Fifi, Daughter 2 and Rome

I’ve just read Fifi’s account of her trip to us. It’s so rare - and delightful - for someone to recognise one’s perfection. However, should you go to her latest post (and why wouldn’t you? Sirius and Cassie have starring roles (in an Australian blog; how strange is that?)) please realise that her kind words show mainly what a lovely person she is and that she was suffering from jetlag at the time of writing. I mean, we are of course very nice. But I don’t want to raise the hopes of any other blogger who might one day meet us. We may have the odd flaw.

Fifi is extremely nice and also very self-deprecating. We spoke a couple of times on the phone before she actually struggled her way through Scotland’s transport system to reach us, and she said several times on the phone that she looked a wreck because of her busy schedule – at one point she said she looked 75. So I was expecting Germaine Greer. Ha! She looks about 30: honey tan, blonde curls, lovely smile, clear eyes – despite having had very little sleep for the past month.

I really felt as if she was a friend – isn’t it amazing how the world of blogging brings people together?

Of course, I love her for appreciating my lovely Daughter 2, who was the only one of our offspring who was at home at the time. Fifi mentions Eastern Europe, referring to the time when Daughter 2, as an architecture student, spent two periods of several months with friends in Slovakia building a community centre for an extremely deprived community of Roma people. There were only four of the students on the first visit, and they raised the money here and then bought the materials and built the house with their own hands. We were very worried when she said she was going to do this because we feared for her safety among 500 unemployed people who were living in unbelievable squalor – 5 showers and 5 toilets among them all, no running water in the houses, which were made of found materials - and so on. And we were worried about her out in the freezing Slovak winter, heaving building materials around. But they learnt the language, made friends with the people, built the building and the next year went back with other friends and extended it.

Anyway: Rome. In four days, we saw: Rome from an open-topped bus (not really recommended because the traffic is terrible on the busworthy roads); then, on foot, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore; the Forum; the Colosseum; the ruins on the Palatine Hill; the Vatican; St Peter’s Basilica; the Sistine Chapel; St Peter’s Square; the Castel Sant’ Angelo; the Trevi Fountain (red); the Capitoline Museum; the Spanish Steps; the Pantheon; the Museum of Rome; the Pantheon again; the Piazza Navona; the Trevi Fountain (normal).

As far as the traffic is concerned: in our experience, the British are more law-abiding – and quieter – drivers than some of our Continental cousins. This was certainly true in Rome, when people seemed to feel the constant need to express their desire for forward motion by hooting. And the parking! Cars were double parked, parked on corners, parked on pedestrian crossings – generally abandoned randomly as if a nearby volcano had shown signs of exploding and the owners had made a dash for safety. Here's a Roman car park, with a Roman keeping a place for his friend. Look at the interesting parking to our right of him.

Central Rome is very pretty, especially from a distance or with your eyes half-closed. Many of the buildings are high and painted orange or yellow, just like in paintings of Italy by Canaletto. Close up, some of them could do with repainting, and Rome has a terrible graffiti problem, but the general impression is slightly scruffily golden. And the skyline is liberally sprinkled with domes and spires and a clutter of interesting rooflines.

You might look down an alleyway and see a fountain.

Sometimes the buildings have obviously been constructed on the remains of something much older – not quite so ancient Romans appear to have come along, thought oh well, that chunk’s been standing a good fifteen hundred years; we’ll just add a bit . And this seems to have worked. And you do literally come round a corner to find a hole in the ground with a lump of 2000-year-old pillar just lying there, apparently just discovered and abandoned. (“See what I’ve found, Marco.” “Not another piece of temple? Botheration, that means we need to put this road along a bit.”)

The Forum was absolutely fascinating. When I was little, I was given a book called “The Story of Rome” by Mary MacGregor. (I’ve just looked at it, and it says “With love from Granny and Grandpa, Christmas 1958 – so I was eight.) I devoured this book – it has beautiful illustrations, probably very inaccurate. To counteract this enthusiasm, I then studied Latin in the senior school for six years with the world’s most boring teacher. (Well, I really looked out of the window for six years and passed notes to my best friend. But some Latin sank into my head all the same.) So the idea of actually going to the Forum, the Capitoline Hill, the Palatine Hill and so on was thrilling. Imagine standing in the Forum where Mark Antony entered with the body of Julius Caesar!

Most of the Forum is gone, of course – plundered, I assume, by later generations in search of building materials. But there are still lots of bits of wall, slabs of carved stone, half pillars, parts of temples and a huge triumphal arch. It’s not a great leap of the imagination to blot out the hordes of tourists taking pictures and to feel oneself surrounded by senators flicking by in togas, slaves carrying things on their heads and the atmosphere of confidence that comes from knowing you belong to an empire which dominates the known world.

We have Roman remains in Britain too, but they’re nicely presented, with a ticket booth to claim entrance money, smooth green turf between the remnants of wall and a gift shop and cafĂ© on the way out. In contrast, you can just wander into the Forum and it’s a bit like an abandoned building site – everything just lies around on weedy or bare earth with a few bits of rusty scaffolding holding up the most obviously dangerous bits of ancientness. It looks as if various committees have from time to time decided to gather some similar artifacts together, so you find a little pillar collection here, a few fragments of cornice and an arrangement of carved fonts there. But mainly it just lies about and you think, wow, Tarquinius Superbus may have walked along this bit or sacrificed to a god in that temple.

I have to admit, though, that I did sometimes feel that a few nice stretches of velvety sward would have made the place look a bit tidier.
More another time.

Interim post: for my son-in-law

By request from my son-in-law, here are various catlet pictures

of Cassie (front) and Sirius (behind)

getting up close to a convector heater

on a chilly morning.

They're looking a bit stern, but they're not really.
Tomorrow: Rome!