Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Guest post by Grandson N

I must say - that Granny person turns up at our house a lot. She seems to like me. Mind you, everyone seems to like me. Which is handy. So I smile at them all. Look, I'm growing my hair back at last.

Granny and I went out for a walk. It was rather cold and windy so I had a hat and a hood on. Granny wanted me to keep my hands under the blankets but I wasn't having any of that.

Mummy says we'll have to get me some gloves. She knits very well, so maybe she'll knit me some. I don't guarantee not to suck them, though. I like sucking my hands. They did get a bit cold and my nose got slightly red, but I kept smiling.

Granny pointed out that the houses in this street have a good view of the hill. She says that she would like to have a view of a hill from her house.

She crossed the road to get a better picture.

My interest in hills is a bit limited so I took a brief nap. You can see that Granny tucked my hands inside the blanket while my attention was diverted.

(She wonders if it's cheating to get me to guest-post her final NaBloPoMo piece but since she missed out a couple at the beginning before it occurred to her to take part in it, she reckons that it doesn't really matter.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Some roads not taken

(I know some people might have scanned these photos in rather than taking new photos of them lying on the carpet. But I'm ashamed to say that I've never mastered the scanner and Mr Life is busy watching "Grand Designs". Above, you see my mum as a girl.)

After the First World War, my maternal grandparents were going to go to Australia. There were very few jobs available in my grandfather's trade - he was a printer. My mother was a baby. They had booked their passage, made various arrangements - and then my grandfather's mother, who was a widow, begged them not to go. Though she'd had lots of children, several had died in infancy, one son had been killed in the war and the two others were unmarried. Therefore my mother was her only grandchild. So my grandfather said that if he could find a job in Edinburgh, they'd stay. And he did. If he hadn't, I certainly wouldn't exist.

Some years later, they moved to a new house. My mother met a girl at school who suggested that Mum should go with her to Guides at a church about a mile away from the house - which was not the nearest church. So this happened, and my mother became very friendly with a girl named Jean, and a long time later - after World War 2 - my mother and Jean's brother got married. If my mum hadn't had this conversation with the girl at school - who wasn't a particular friend - my parents would probably never have met.
Jean was my (latterly confused) aunt and her brother was my dad.

Mum and Dad on their wedding day.

Why did my father's parents live near this church? Well, when they lived previously in a flat in town, my other aunt fell and broke her arm. My grandfather, her father, decided that swimming would strengthen the arm, so they moved down beside the sea, where there was a swimming pool on the promenade. If my aunt hadn't broken her arm... .

During the war, my dad was in bomb disposal. If a bomb had gone off while he was defusing it - and it might well have done so, especially the new one that no one knew how to defuse - well... . He defused it successfully and was awarded the George Medal. Glad you didn't have shaky hands, Dad.

Meanwhile, again before their marriage, Mum was working in London, during the Blitz. I wouldn't be sitting here nearly at the end of NaBloPoMo if a bomb had landed on her.

Years later, my parents put in offers for various houses which they didn't get. Then they bought one in which they were to live for over 30 years, including my growing-up time. The one they bought, unlike those they'd hoped to buy, was in that same area near the sea. So we continued going to the same church. Some years later, Mr Life's parents started attending it also. They didn't live near this church at all, but in the small town adjoining this seaside district. An acquaintance had recommended our minister.

So if my parents had been successful in their bid for an earlier house or if Mr Life's parents hadn't had that conversation with their acquaintance.... none of our children would exist.

And if Daughter 1's Latin teacher hadn't suggested that she apply for the specific Oxford college that she, the Latin teacher, had attended, Daughter 1 wouldn't have met Son-in-Law 1 on the first day there, and then where would Grandson be?


And all of our lives are governed by these twists and turns: roads taken or not taken.

Monday, November 28, 2011

History 2

As I was crossing the road today I was musing vaguely about “A Pageant of History” and its English-centricity. (Why do I only ever muse vaguely, since I retired, I wonder? I really must start using the brain again one of these days.)

What I was musing about was whether Wales or Northern Ireland got much of a mention in this book. And the answer is: Wales got two whole pages (out of 348) and Northern Ireland got – none. And you can maybe see that the two pictures in the chapter on Llewelyn ap Gruffydd are: 1) the creation of the (English) Prince of Wales in 1911 - the future King Edward VIII (though the authors didn't actually mention him by name, since he didn't turn out to be a great British success story) and 2) the emblem of the Prince of Wales. Neither of these seem the Welshest possible illustrations that could have been chosen.

The rest of the world did get occasional mentions via explorers or poets, while Some Famous Dwarfs got four pages.

The book was written somewhat before the age of political correctness. The last paragraph of the "Dwarfs" chapter reads: “Meanwhile a perfectly proportioned midget is worth far more than his weight in gold to the showman today. For modern audiences are just as fascinated by these intriguing little people as were the kings and queens of old.” Can you believe that this was written in 1958?

As for the chapter on David Livingstone, “The man who opened up the dark continent”…

It's so interesting how attitudes change. And no doubt in 2060, people will be laughing and cringing at our way of looking at the world.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


This was one of my favourite books when I was a child. I think I got it when I was about nine, as a Christmas present. It was published in 1958 (and I was born in 1950). It has the grand title "A Pageant of History" and it's mainly - though not entirely - about English history. I read it and reread it - you can see how it's falling apart. It never struck me as odd that I, as a Scottish child, was reading about "History" as if England were the most important country in the world.

Reading it now, I can see that it very much presents a picture of Britain... well, England really... as a splendid place which had just won a war, had a new young Queen and was going to march with dignity into the second half of the century.

The introductory chapter is called "From Victoria to Elizabeth". The final paragraph ends: "When Queen Elizabeth mounted the throne in 1952, it was felt and hoped that... a new Elizabethan age would dawn, matching the first Elizabethan age for glory of achievement. ... Nothing is achieved without struggle and hard work.... Let us be worthy of that challenge."

I'm not sure that I have been, really.
Then we go right back to "England before the Norman Conquest" and trot through the centuries, reign by reign. However, every now and then there are chapters about a wide variety of other people or events: Julius Caesar ("financed by his friend, the very wealthy millionaire, Crassus"); St Paul; the Marbles Championship held every Good Friday outside the Greyhound Hotel, Tinsley Green; Alfred Nobel; Captain James Cook ("the brilliant explorer and navigator, who always remained simple and unassuming" - good to know); pottery and china; Vasco da Gama... .

We learn that Shakespeare would wait on his parents at table at lunch time "and when they were finished he would start. He would always address his father as sir".

I can't remember ever reading this... fact... anywhere else.

Scotland does get a tiny look-in with Mary Queen of Scots. Indeed, her chapter finishes: "In the end, however, Mary did triumph over Elizabeth for when the English Queen died, she was succeeded by James, the son of Mary and the ill-fated Darnley... ." (A satisfactory thought for a young Scot.) The writer then ruins it by waffling to a close: "Mary ... is an eternal mystery whose solution has been sought by a great many writers of all nationalities and will, in the future, be investigated by many more."

The whole book ends with the Second World War, predictably from England's point of view, though America does get a wee bit of credit in the final paragraph: "So Britain had once more saved Europe by holding, alone and unaided, the last bastion of freedom till the time arrived when Russia and the United States marched forward with their saving power."

Oh, it's easy to mock. But there's a lot of good stuff too: it's a broad sweep of mainly factual history and because I read it so much I knew the order of the kings and queens, their main conflicts and achievements and disasters, and also acquired some basic knowledge about Hadrian's Wall, Edith Cavell, Dante Alighieri, Raffles of Singapore, Father Damien, Mary Slessor, David Livingstone, Albert Schweitzer, the British Army, how we got our parliament, the Duke of Wellington ("His once weakly frame had waxed tough and wiry") ... and more .

So - thank you, Gareth Browning (who wrote about a third of the 80-ish chapters), Rowland W Purton (almost as many), Edward Boyd (quite a few) and the others who contributed one or two. I don't know who you were and you might have got the odd thing wrong and we can giggle a bit at you now, but I loved your book at the time and find it quite an interesting historical document now - though not entirely in the way you may have intended.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


This is my left-hand desk drawer. It contains a very random selection of items - some more or less useful, such as the staple remover, the treasury tags and many things for holding bundles of handouts together (all of which I used to use daily when I was a teacher and now... not so much).

(Edited to add... those things were bought by me, not pinched from college, I'd like to make clear. On the other hand, I don't know why I didn't just give them to someone at work. Am I ever going to use most of them?)

A lot of the contents, however, are not useful at all and have ended up in the drawer because... who knows? They were tidied there at some point and I've never moved them. For example, this little book that I made for my children when they were small.

It's about Santa coming to visit the house that we lived in then. I made it very late one night to fit in the Advent chimney, which had little boxes for the mother to fill and the children to open every day of Advent (which seemed a good idea at the time of buying it...).

Here's a postcard of a 1937 design by Ben Nicholson, printed on cotton, which I got at an exhibition at York many years ago. I just liked the cheerful animals. I still do.

A cat brooch made by Aileen Paterson, the writer and illustrator of the Maisie Cat books (well-known in Scotland). I bought it at a craft fair long before the Maisie books were published. Clearly I liked black cats even then.

This used to be a key fob of Mr Life's but it broke. I couldn't bear to throw it away since it's a picture of Daughters 1 and 2.

Who knows why I have these photos in the drawer? - me aged about 20, my dad in middle age and Daughter 2 a few years ago.

The hospital bracelet from Daughter 1's baby wrist.

The children at a birthday tea.

The children and ET in Florida Disney. Or possibly Eurodisney?

Perhaps I should throw some of this away. But not yet.

Friday, November 25, 2011

What we did

What I did today: made lots of cups of tea and coffee and various meals; did lots of dishes; edited the church magazine, toning down one or two of the less tactful articles, spreading it out to cover the right number of pages and inserting lots of pictures; took my mum to the hairdresser and then to her (as yet unsold) flat; did some cleaning.

What Mr Life did at lunchtime: took photos of chaps in Princes Street who either had LOTS of balloons or who were dressed up as sparkly birds.

Each to his/her own.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Happy Thanksgiving, Americans.

I went to Daughter 1's house today and took Grandson for a walk so that she could wield the vacuum cleaner in peace. I'd forgotten the way that babies look around when outside: his little head swivels and his eyes go from side to side, building up a picture (presumably) of the world. Then after a while, he went to sleep. It was a windy day so he was well wrapped up. I continued walking, admiring his perfect little face as he concentrated on sleeping.

I wandered along the road and, after a while, into an industrial estate that I hadn't known was there. It has a rather fine view over a golf course and on to Arthur's Seat, the biggest of the hills within Edinburgh. I would really like to have a view like this from my house (cf post about the tile a couple of days ago). You'd think that people would pay quite a lot for such an outlook.

This is what has the benefit of that view. Good bit of town planning there...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Haydn might agree

At choir tonight, we sight-read the next movement of Haydn's St Cecilia's Mass. It wasn't wonderful.

"Don't breathe between In excelsis and Deo," urged our conductor. "I know it's a long phrase, but the Deo is quite short. You won't die if you don't take a breath till afterwards."

Then, as he so often does, he continued in a murmur (and with a smile). I could just hear him: "Frankly, I'd rather you did die. It's all about the music."

I love him. I mean, I don't love him. But I love him as a conductor.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


This may seem to you as if it should be accompanied by the sound of the bottom of a barrel being scraped, but take comfort - only nine more days of daily November posts to go... . Today's post is about my button collection. Or at least, the ones that live in the blue bottle. I have other buttons but they're all everyday ones, suitable for sewing on to shirts, and they live in my sewing box. The ones in this post are what I consider to be my more interesting buttons.

Now, you may spot that there are a lot of little red lions among them. The lions aren't actually buttons, but - well - plastic lions. I may well have the world's largest collection of these. My dad used to have lunch every day in his company's management dining room, which served fine food and alcoholic drinks, including one drink which had a little lion attached to the bottle - to the seal, maybe? I think the drink may have been gin. (I wonder if they were offered cigars as well? And doesn't it sound like a different world?)

Anyway, my dad used to bring home the lions for me and I still have them. And since one doesn't really have an obvious place to keep lions, they live with my fancy buttons.

When I was a little girl in the Fifties we didn't have many toys (cue violins) and I used to play sometimes with my mum's buttons, which she kept in a rather strange, thick, blue plastic bottle. I have no idea where she got this bottle. Years ago she was going to get rid of it and I claimed it.

I thought that my children would play with buttons too. But they had lots of exciting toys. And anyway, Daughter 1 was - well, she claims that she was never actually a button phobic. But she didn't like them and really is still not very keen on them. (Strange!) I even bought some extra buttons such as those above,

to make my collection interesting for her, before I realised this.

Here's the bottle. It's really solid, weighty 1940s (maybe?) plastic.

Look at these beautiful mother-of-pearl ones - probably wrested from some unfortunate shellfish (sorry, shellfish). But lovely - though not if you rub them together, when they make a fingernails-on-blackboard sound.

Somehow I don't see Grandson as a potential button aficionado. But you never know.

Monday, November 21, 2011


This tile hangs on our bathroom wall. I'm very fond of it. This is partly perhaps because I would like to live in a house with those elements: a geranium (got one), a cat (got two) and an uninterrupted view of hills (alas, no). And sunshine (we get that sometimes - or perhaps it's the moon). I quite like the spotty curtains as well. Don't you think life would be so nice and simple if you lived in that house among the hills?

We bought this tile over thirty-two years ago. I know this because I was very pregnant with Daughter 1 at the time and so it was one of our last outings as a childless couple. I think I was very aware of this fact, but like most prospective parents had no understanding at all how totally and permanently our lives were about to change. But this is another reason why I'm fond of the tile - I associate it with the joy of young motherhood.

Also I just like the look of it. We bought it at Traquair (pronounced tra-kwayr to rhyme with prayer) House, which is in the Border country, some way south of Edinburgh. The house's origins date back to 1109, though most of the current building is only about four hundred years old. It was once a hunting lodge for the kings and queens of Scotland. There's a story that the gates at the top of the main avenue, installed in 1738, were closed after a visit from Bonnie Prince Charlie (the grandson of the deposed Stuart king, James VII and II), with the vow that they would never be reopened until a Stuart king was back on the throne of Scotland. Thus they remain shut.

Anyway, in summer 1979 Mr Life and I had a happy day at Traquair and visited various craft workshops in the grounds, at one of which I bought the tile. I have no idea who made it - presumably I knew at the time - and have never seen anything quite like it.

Jane kindly told me who wrote the book I was asking about the other day (it was "The Gauntlet" by Ronald Welsh). I suppose it's a bit unlikely that the maker of the tile is reading this - but if he or she is...

Sunday, November 20, 2011


At about 10.15 this morning, Son and his future wife appeared at the door. "Didn't you get my text?" he said. "I texted you when we left Perth to say we were coming." And so he had, but I hadn't been in the same room as my phone. So it was a surprise - a nice one.

He's growing a beard for Movember. "Are you not just supposed to grow a moustache?" I asked.

"Well, yes, but that would look silly," he said.

Actually, he did shave it off ten days ago or something because he had to go to the GP practice where he'd worked some months ago and thought that he might be teased. But it's doing quite well again.

Grandson didn't seem to notice any difference. Son thinks he'll shave it off quite soon.

As you can tell, I have nothing tremendously significant to say, but this isn't allowed to stop one during NaBloPoMo, is it?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Red dungarees

So what were the highlights of today? I went and collected Daughter 1 and Grandson, arriving when the lad still had on his pyjamas. Big boy pyjamas with a jacket and trousers! - with pictures of moose on them. Very stylish.

The three of us walked up the road (well, the boy was in his pushchair) to the Christmas fair at the school which our children and I all attended. I mused that when I was a pupil there, it never once occurred to me that I might one day be in the school hall with my grandson in my arms. It would have been unimaginable ever to be that old. Daughter 1 felt the same about being there with her son.

We returned home. When we first came to our current house, 21 years ago, this road, which is on our way home, felt more or less untouched by the last hundred and fiftyish years. It doesn't really lead anywhere apart from to the very large houses set back from the road. You could more or less imagine Jane Austen (had she ever visited Edinburgh) strolling up here to visit one of her friends. Then they built some modern flats in the grounds of the big house to the right and now there are great building works happening in the grounds to the left. Which seems a pity.

We bought Grandson some red dungarees at the fair. They're a bit big for him at the moment but he's growing fast. Hard to remember that only just over four months ago, we'd never met him.

Time passes; things change; children grow up; people grow old.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Mr Life prepares for fun

You might remember that a few weeks ago Mr Life decided in the middle of his evening meal to put in his resignation at work the following day. And did. And is therefore retiring at the end of January to spend more time with his mother-in-law. (Possibly this wasn't quite his motivation but it's likely to work out that way.)

I think this decision had been simmering for a while, but it came as a surprise to me, at any rate.

Now he's been sent, one day a week for four weeks, to a preparation-for-retirement course, starting yesterday. They had various chats in the morning and then in the afternoon they went to the Scottish National Gallery. He had a lovely time. Next week they get a tour of the Central Library. The following week they go to the recently restored Chambers Street Museum and finallly they go for a guided tour of the High Street.

Was it tactless of me to enquire when they're having an afternoon preparing to tidy out the garage, blitz the study, trawl price comparison websites to find out the best deals for changing the electricity provider...?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I remember reading...

When I was a little girl, people didn't have nearly as many possessions as we have now, and that included books. I loved reading and I had books which I read and reread, but a lot of them were by Enid Blyton. I enjoyed them, but even then I think I understood that they weren't particularly original. I liked the familiarity with the same situations, the predictability of the characters; but I wasn't particularly inspired by them. Mallory Towers, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven - they were pretty formulaic and that was fine. They were soothing. But they didn't fire the imagination.

The ones that I remember really loving included "Five Children and It" and others by E Nesbit, "The Cuckoo Clock" by Mrs Molesworth and "Thimble Summer" by Elizabeth Enright. They all described worlds totally unfamiliar to me: the past (with a sarcastic magic creature); the past (with a magic cuckoo clock); or America (where rain was longed for and there were exotic and never- explained things such as Kewpie dolls and slickers).

And then there was perhaps my favourite: Philippa Pearce's "Tom's Midnight Garden. That's Philippa Pearce in the picture, and till I typed the previous paragraph it had never occurred to me that Tom's situation in it is rather like Griselda's in "The Cuckoo Clock".

I did own the Nesbit, Molesworth and Enright books but I got "Tom's Midnight Garden" out of the library. As I grew older, I always remembered the title and the story (of the clock that strikes 13 in the middle of the night, which Tom goes to investigate, discovering a garden which existed in the past and a little girl who played in that garden) but I didn't remember who wrote it. It was long before the days of the internet, which makes such things easy to discover. But I found it in a shop when I was in my late teens, bought it and loved it just as much as I had when I was a child.

But there was another library book that I also really enjoyed as a child and would like to reread. I've never come across it again or spoken to anyone who remembers it. I don't recall the title but it was about a boy who - I don't remember how - is transported back into the past and finds himself in a mediaeval castle, under siege. The plot is lost to me but I remember various scenes, as I imagined them, of this boy among strangers who think he's one of them, and how bewildered he is by this.

Does this ring a bell with anyone?

"Tom's Midnight Garden" is recognised as a classic, I now realise. It may be that if I reread the castle book, I'd think it was piffle. Possibly my critical faculties weren't that good when I was nine. For example, I don't think I considered that a twentieth century boy would have some difficulty understanding the English of the mediaeval inhabitants of the castle. But I'd still like to read it again. So if anyone recognises the description, do let me know.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

School and other studying occasions

Nothing of any interest happened today until the evening, when I went to choir and we attempted to learn Kyrie II from Haydn's "Mass for St Cecilia". This is fiendishly hard but potentially lovely. It wasn't lovely as we sang it tonight but our rendering of it did improve slightly.

So instead of recounting how I made cups of tea and went to the supermarket, I thought I'd blog about Miss H, my primary 5 class teacher. We were 9 years old. There were three new girls in the class and I was assigned to look after one of them - W. Miss H was just giving an introductory spiel when W whispered a question to me. I think it was, "When's lunch?" Whatever it was, I whispered a reply and Miss H heard. She got me to stand up, asked me my name and then said, "I can see you're going to be a troublemaker."

And for the rest of the year, I was convinced that she thought I was indeed a troublemaker. Which I wasn't. I'm not saying that I was a saint, but my sins were discreet and never noticed.

I realised long ago that, in fact, Miss H probably never gave her assessment of me another thought after that moment. I don't suppose that she did really think I was a troublemaker even as she said it. And yet, 52 years later, I can remember the room, and where I was sitting, and where W sat at the desk to my left, and the exact tone of Miss H's rather posh English voice.

Now, I'm not claiming that my childhood was completely warped by this experience. I wasn't even terribly traumatised that year, though I was wary of Miss H because of what she'd said (and, I assumed, what she thought of me). But it was a lesson to me that a teacher can do a lot of damage by an unconsidered remark. She was actually rather good fun (if a bit sarcastic) most of the time.

I imagine that most people have such experiences; and I just hope that I don't feature in a similar role in any of my pupils' or students' memories.

It was a year ago exactly that our darling Daughter 2 went to live in London. This has been very much not the best year of my life - though lovely Grandson does bring a warm glow.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A guest post from Sirius and Cassie

Now then - we're cats. So, as you'll realise, we're energetic, loyal, unselfish... the list of our virtues is endless but we're too modest to detail them further. And all we ask in return for all these fine qualities is that we're allowed to have a quiet life.

A bit of sofa time, that's what we like. Well, a lot of sofa time. Preferably on, or beside, the legs of someone who's watching television - usually Mr Life. We're cool with television as long as it's not too loud.


Recently, a Noisy Thing has entered our lives. To be fair - and we are careful to be scrupulously fair (we're cats) - the Thing is not always noisy. Sometimes it just sits there; sometimes it goes "Ah, gah, bah"; often it gets carried around and simply looks about the room. But sometimes it goes "WAAAAAAA!!!!!"

And everybody leaps to attention and gives it what it wants.

Now, we may be partly to blame. We have, admittedly, trained our servants to jump to our commands. But we are furry, handsome, purry, quiet. (We do attack the furniture at times: those fine claws of ours require to be kept razor sharp.)

Anyway, this is a formal warning. We do not approve of the Noisy Thing. We're not going as far as saying that someone has to go - either it or us. We're reasonable cats. But we won't stand for our peace being disturbed. Think on this, O servants.

(At least the Thing doesn't seem to be able to move about and chase us. Thank goodness. Just imagine what life would be like if it could.)